The best films of 2021 marshalled all of the techniques of cinema to tell their stories in ways that could only be achieved within the medium of film. The Father mastered editing and production design, using shifting sets and cannily changing cast members – much faster than was possible in the stage version – to mirror the unsettled experience of the titular character. After Love and Spencer broke with literal reality, allowing metaphoric avalanches and soup-drenched pearls into the frame to convey their characters’ experiences (the crumbling of a marriage-long illusion in After Love, and Diana grappling with an eating disorder in Spencer). C’mon C’mon used intradiegetic voiceover to great emotive effect, transforming radio journalist Johnny’s (Joaquin Phoenix) habit of recording moments from his day from affectation to a touching promise that ties uncle and nephew.

Unsurprisingly, sound was the tool most crucial to Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. After a fairly quiet Amazon Prime release in April, Sound of Metal was triumphantly released on the big screen on May 17 – the day English cinemas reopened following their third round of Covid closures. It’s a film that absolutely demands to be seen in the cinema, where its impeccably judged sound design can play at full power.

Sound Of Metal

Courtesy of: Vertigo Releasing

The film opens with metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) mid-gig, employing the immersive first-person soundscape that recurs throughout the runtime. This is no gimmick – it’s an effective means of building empathy with Ruben as he loses his hearing, and of conveying one version of an experience all too rarely represented in fiction. Yet, Marder drives beyond building empathy and turns the film’s sound design into an ingenious storytelling tool by strategically switching between different aural perspectives, a far less common technique in cinema than switching the visual point of view. Sound of Metal manifests Ruben’s fading hearing through muffled dialogue and ringing sounds, which prompt a panicked trip to the pharmacy. During a subsequent hearing test, a sudden switch from the doctor’s perspective to that of Ruben, who must listen to the conversation through headphones, reveals to the viewer just how rapidly his hearing has deteriorated.

This scene also contains a fun and very restrained Easter Egg; a delightfully underplayed Spinal Tap reference that nods wittily to Ruben’s profession and musical predilections.

Aural contrasts also play a part in building character. The morning after the gig that opens the film, we glimpse Ruben calmly and quietly preparing breakfast for himself and his bandmate/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). They share a near-wordless dance to ‘This Love’ by The Commodores, in which gestures and mannerism, rather than dialogue, elucidate their relationship. But as Ruben’s deafness sets in, so does panic. His demeanour changes rapidly: calm is replaced by frenzy and freneticism, and vocal reticence with a breathless barrage as he attempts a phone conversation with his sponsor. Through the finely-tuned physicality of his performance, Riz Ahmed conveys Ruben’s worsening state of mind.

Fittingly, for a film concerned with both the presence and absence of noise, Sound of Metal is crammed with superlative moments of silent storytelling. It’s refreshingly free of verbal exposition. As well as gifting the actors with ample opportunity for fine, detailed performance, this strategy allows Sound of Metal to explore other forms of communication. After Ruben checks into a rehab facility for non-hearing people, lip-reading, adaptive technologies and American Sign Language all bring texture to the film’s depiction of the Deaf community led by Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci). This segment is awash with revelatory and generous performances by Deaf actors, including Lauren Ridloff and Chelsea Lee. Yet, Marder doesn’t lose sight of Ruben’s experience, which remains the film’s primary arc. He may be a veteran of addiction, but he’s a novice in the world of the Deaf. This is powerfully conveyed by Daniël Bouquet’s cinematography. In group scenes, a shallow depth of field puts only Ruben in focus, visually marking his isolation from those around him. The blurred world behind him is characterised by cheerful, rapid ASL exchanges that he can’t access.

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Courtesy of: Vertigo Releasing

This level of intent and meaning behind technical and creative decisions is characteristic of Sound of Metal’s attention to detail. Marder is fascinated by systems of representation and community; as well as portraying modes of communication among the Deaf characters, the film is populated with the symbols and aesthetic of metal music and with the fan groups that surround Lou and Ruben’s band. Similarly, patient, varied cinematography and detailed makeup and costuming combine to gradually reveal Ruben’s tattoos throughout the film. These are part of a backstory that’s subtly laid as Sound of Metal builds a multi-sensory, embodied experience of character. Marder’s film is an impressive reminder of cinema’s power to create understanding, empathy and identification with the experiences of another human being – surely the raison d’être of all art forms.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 10…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!