Best Malayalam Films Of 2021

A superhero movie, a pro-choice drama, a violent slug-fest with compelling politics and a confounding maze we’re still lost inside, Malayalam cinema this year was a glorious place that offered a bit of everything for every kind of viewer.

After last year’s disappointing no-show, the industry fired back with vengeance to give us a mix of celebrated big films and glorious small films. Call it the culmination of films that should have been released earlier and films made specially for this period, we seldom get a year with so many unmissables. Will we ever get another year like this at the movies? Aarkariyam?

Here are the best 16 films arranged in alphabetical order:

1. Aarkkariyam

Another director handling this covid-time mystery would have loved to scream from the rooftop about the cleverness of its very dark detour. But Aarkkariyam is shockingly understated, just like Biju Menon in the film. Even great Malayalam films give you a feeling of déjà vu of having watched a film that’s at least reasonably similar to a world cinema classic. But there’s none of that in this year’s most original mystery.

2. Churuli

This confounding maze is one you find yourself getting back to, like that strip of sudoku you’ve been solving for years. Churuli builds a utopia where laws are pointless, turning even the gentlest man into a monster. Stunningly shot with the year’s most disturbing score, Lijo Jose Pellishery remains our most fascinating filmmaker.

3. Drishyam 2

Jeethu Joseph is a superior writer when he enters the Drishyam universe and you feel this the second the sequel begins. It is not even close to the film we expected from the underwhelming trailer, with an almost philosophical approach to what’s going on in Georgekutty’s mind. A criminal who committed a crime on the same night as the family has even completed his sentence. But for George, the punishment will never end, giving us a complex study about the mind’s decay, good intentions notwithstanding.

4. #Home

If Sunny presented us with the conflict of facing isolation, Rojin’s new movie, #Home forced us to deal with the opposite kind of demon—family. But the year’s most relatable movie gave us images that were right out of our lives and a father in Oliver Twist we’ve all not loved enough. A credit to this film is how we’ve all become unanimously patient when it comes to dealing with parents’ doubts about a particular feature on WhatsApp or to help them set-up a GPay account. In a strange way, it’s the only “message movie” that can actually bring about a quick change in our lives.

5. Jan E Man

Arguably the most important film of this year was also the year’s funniest. This LJP-meets-Rafi Mecartin comedy became the kind of organic success story a film like Ramjirao Speaking must have been all those years ago. Every viewer became the film’s champion and laughter returned to theatres after years of silence. The fact that the film’s still holding strong despite the entry or exit of several Goliaths, makes Jan E Man the David of 2021.

6. Joji

Dileesh Pothan and Shyam Pushkaran reinterpreted Macbeth for the millionth time to give us a film that felt like it was one in a million. It replaced the kingdom with a rubber estate in Kottayam but the film is a study in Malayali minimalism, even when it deals with Shakespearean excesses. It gave us the year’s most puzzling character in Lady Macbeth (Unnimaya Prasad) and the most clever use of a Covid facemask as a mask for a dangerous mind to hide behind. Joji’s score is also easily the year’s best.

7. Kala

If LJP is our most fascinating, Rohith VS is perhaps the most baffling. Each of films comes from a brain that looks at the world and cinema differently, and with Kala, he’s created poetry out of violence. “Who is civilised?” asks this gem, giving us a moody masterpiece where the “hero” turns into the villain and vice versa. The shot of a man reclaiming his rightful throne (it’s a toilet seat) is among the most striking visuals, just like that shot of a cactus tearing into Tovino’s back.

8. Malik

Fahadh Faasil’s second tragedy of the year reinterprets Godfather in interesting ways but it lasts for so long in our heads because it is a character study of a man who lost everything in his efforts to help his community. The mood is always somber and it’s rarely treated as a story of triumph. It’s impossible to remain an observer here because Malik expects us to be an executioner, constantly asking us to decide if Allika is a nallavar or a kettavar.

9. Madhuram

Among the year’s sweetest films also brought to us a solid love story between Sabu (Joju George) and Chitra (Shruti Ramachandran), where food is so much more than just flavour. It’s also a mood piece that needed the sweetness because it is set in the waiting room of a government hospital. Deep introspective conversations between strangers are commonplace in Madhuram but one can never complain because that’s where these characters are mentally. Indrans proved yet again how he’s got a direct line to our heartstrings with an ability to make us cry at will.

10. Minnal Murali

Whoever thought that we would be talking about a love story a week after the release of our first ever superhero movie. But that was always the plan with Minnal Murali, a film that’s so well written that the superpowers are simply an embellishment for a deeply moving emotional drama. Guru Somasundaram delivered one of the year’s best performances and Tovino will always remain the first image that comes to mind as a Malayali superhero thanks to a film that has the powers to make every adult feel like a child again.

11. Nayattu

Problematic politics aside, Nayattu is a daunting thriller with a pace and mood that’s impossible to escape. You feel trapped in the weight of a system that has the power to swallow everything in its path. The spectacularly well-made movie is also an example of how every complex topic can be packaged accessibly without alienating the very people this film should speak directly to.

12. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam

Perhaps just a first step, but 2021 was the year a larger audience discovered the masterful works of Don Palathara. This single-shot film dealt with heavy topics in what’s a loaded situation. But it’s a film that marries form with content in a way that’s as original as it is evocative. Add to this “Everything Is Cinema” and it’s further proof of how far ahead the industry is when it comes to dealing with Covid as the new reality.

13. Sara’s

The film could simply have been titled “Sara”, but it needed the apostrophe and the ‘s’ because it’s a film about her choices and her dreams, as much as it is about her. This pro-choice drama opened up conversations on a topic most mainstream movies actively avoid, choosing instead to address this with sincerity and maturity. The climax, with a movie theatre replacing the images we associate with a delivery room, was an absolute delight, making Jude Anthany a surprisingly nuanced feminist filmmaker.

14. Sunny

This quarantine drama took us to a mental space a lot of us found ourselves trapped in at some point during the last years. It is particularly disturbing in the beginning when we’re forced to battle our own inner demons just like Sunny has to. But it also evolves into a cathartic movie as this inner confrontation eventually leads to clarity. We cry, we laugh, we pause but most importantly, we also grieve. Sunny created the impact of clouds passing held together by an excellent Jayasuriya.

15. Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam

Senna Hedge’s little classic is an absolute delight and the most-rewatchable comedy of the year. We’ve never seen any of these actors before but we quickly become their biggest fans in what’s the year’s biggest discovery. For a state that rarely sets films in Kasargod, this discovery is also cultural which will hopefully lead to a revolution with equally compelling stories and equally compelling characters.

16. The Great Indian Kitchen

The year began with arguably the best film of the year. Jeo Baby used a series of overhead shots and repetition to trap us inside an inescapable routine with the full weight of patriarchy pushing down on us. It is suffocating and painful with little hope for the weak. Which is why Nimisha’s nameless character becomes a stand-in for the many women we see on a daily basis, except that they might not get the moment of revolution she gets in the end. Instead of dialogue, it’s the film’s sounds as well as the images that do all the talking in a film that redefined the term “kitchen-sink” as a genre.

Special mention: Kaanekkaane, Thirike

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"Vishal Menon: Vishal dropped out of law school to focus on his fondness for film, particularly mainstream Indian cinema. He is a film critic, previously with The Hindu after a stint at Deccan Chronicle and Reuters News. If you thought the book was better than the movie, don’t tell Vishal.."
  
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