What to Watch

25 Best Films of 2021

As another cinematic year draws to a close, our writers choose their favourite films, from miraculous musicals to subversive westerns

2021 was the year that cinema bounced back. After a period of uncertainty in which nobody seemed quite sure what the future of movie-going would look like, audiences returned to the theatres, proving that – despite the dominance of streaming – big screen viewing is a singular experience that we humans crave. With that in mind, it's been a strange yet exciting year for cinema; one that felt scattered and unpredictable, but undoubtably life-affirming in its ability to deliver small miracles and explosive masterpieces from all over the globe – both at home and in theatres.

To compile this list of 2021's best features, our regular contributors voted for their ten favourite films of the year (according to UK theatrical release dates alone): the higher up an individual's list a film appeared, the more points it was worth (between 1 and 10), with the total number of points deciding the final order here. You can also see which films each contributor voted for with our list of individual ballots.

Contributors: Tom Barnard, Jack Blackwell, Ben Flanagan, Steph Green, Ella Kemp, Jordan King, Emily Maskell, Lilia Pavin-Franks, Rafaela Sales Ross, Alistair Ryder, Adam Solomons, Fedor Tot

 

=25. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Rude, irreverent, juvenile, stupid… and yet searingly clever, cinematically inventive, boundary-pushing and insightful at the same time, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is one of the year’s most unique movies, and one that has rightfully divided audiences and critics. After all, what other film opens with an explicit sex tape and then proceeds to become an intellectual dissection of all the cultural forces that condition how we respond to said sex tape? Since the pandemic started, most films have chosen to ignore how coronavirus has changed our reality, but here all of the protagonists are masked and maintain social distancing, and the burning topics – culture wars, misinformation, the emotive polarisation of society – burn bright and true throughout. All that, and Bad Luck Banging still finds time to step back and provide a bird’s-eye view of the panopticon of ideological forces shaping us thanks to a kaleidoscopic middle section. Fedor Tot

 

=25. In the Heights

2021 was the year that the movie musical bounced back, with everything from the weird (Annette) to the wonderful (West Side Story) to the misguided (Dear Evan Hansen). But for my money, the year's best and most euphoric cinematic experience was In the Heights, a life-affirming explosion of colour that put years of tepid, uninspired movie musicals to shame. Helmed by Step Up's Jon M. Chu, and starring a packed-out cast of very beautiful, very talented human beings, it was the perfect movie to reignite movie-going after a year in and out of lockdown: a cinematic street carnival that actively dared you not to tap your feet. Contrary to the notion that musicals are best dealt in long takes, In the Heights finds a rhythm of its own through fast-cutting and clever edits, highlighting the fast pace of life in New York's largely hispanic Washington Heights. And was there any shot this year quite so joyful as the one that dipped beneath a pool only to emerge, crane-like, to reveal hundreds of dancers splashing in the water in unison? Tom Barnard

 

24. Zola

Possibly the most purely entertaining film of the year, Zola did the impossible and actually turned a Twitter thread into a raucously enjoyable and effortlessly stylish movie. Mixing a properly dark and thrilling crime saga with massive laughs, and packing the entire adventure into less than 90 minutes, Janicza Bravo proved herself as one of the brightest rising star auteurs, mixing fantastical stylings with the hyper-reality of the social media world to capture the bizarreness of the modern world as few films have. Ably supported by great cinematography from Ari Wegner (who also shot Jane Campion’s masterful Power of the Dog) and one of the year’s best scores from Mica Levi, Bravo builds her world with flair and confidence. It’s an intoxicating atmosphere, completed by a series of great performances, particularly from Colman Domingo as a charmingly terrifying pimp in one of 2021’s greatest bits of screen acting. Jack Blackwell

 

23. Another Round

Danish filmmaker and provocateur Thomas Vinterberg walks a brilliant tightrope between deprecation and celebration with his latest film and in the process creates something more interesting than either. Another Round is a semi-love letter to alcohol that, unlike so many films dealing with the subject of inebriation, acknowledges our modern obsession with drinking with a refreshingly even hand. With a career-best Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher stuck in a rut who turns to an experimental theory that means he's always a little bit drunk, it ends with one of the great cinematic climaxes of recent times, sending you away on a massive high just when it seemed like sobriety might be the big takeaway – a life-affirming nudge to go out, sink a couple of beers (or ten), and see where the night takes you. From time to time. Tom Barnard

 

22. Titane

Behold the risk-taking, conversation-starting, monstrous world of Julia Ducournau. One only needs to look at the track titles on Jim Williams’ intoxicating original score – “Car Fuck,” “Beach Puke,” “Belly Oil,” etc. – to get an idea of Titane's viscerality. It’s a cinematic experience that leaves your nerves shredded and the metallic aftertaste of blood on your tongue. Yes, numerous faintings and walk-outs were reported in its early festival screenings, but don’t let that cloud what Titane is: a genuinely moving and inventively told story of trauma, redemption and eroticism. Rightfully deserving of the Palme d’Or it took home earlier this year, its unashamed weirdness and unapologetic approach to storytelling is a welcome breath of fume-choked air. Steph Green

 

21. Summer of Soul

Between ground-shaking appearances in Summer of Soul and the stellar new restoration of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Mahalia Jackson might be the most memorable performer of the year. The Queen of Gospel appears in Summer of Soul as an old legend; it’s easy to see why. Questlove’s directorial debut appeared early in 2021, but Summer of Soul is certainly good enough to earn its place on end-of-year lists. It’s a timely exposure to a euphoric moment in Harlem culture – and a community festival which went forgotten for far too long. Performers like Stevie Wonder are still around and, memorably, able to jog the collective memory. Lin-Manuel Miranda also appears, though it’s not especially clear why. That’s a momentary lapse in an otherwise laser-focused documentary about “Black Woodstock,” where revolution was a presumption and the music was probably even better. Adam Solomons

 

20. Old

Life moves pretty fast in M. Night Shyamalan's speed-through comedy Old. A Twilight Zone tale about a group of people stuck on a beach that causes rapid ageing, the director dishes out elemental, stripped-back sequences that prey on the fears we have around losing our senses, by playing with cinema’s two tools: sight and sound. Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps bring a refined actorly heft to proceedings, while the casting of squeaky-voiced Thomasin McKenzie as their not-pubescent-for-long daughter is a practical masterstroke. As ever, Shyamalan achieves effect through people, not product. Across the length of a single shot, characters age, deform, die before your eyes, time and life condensing into pure movement and gesture. Even as the frame of narrative that drapes these scenes stretches incredulity, it is impossible not to be moved by Old's ability to paint family life in a few brush strokes; to capture the essence of cinema's mythic power over us all. Ben Flanagan

 

19. Undine

Undine belongs in those early mornings where coffee is made mid-dreaming, life fluctuating between the real and the chimeric. German director Christian Petzold reunites Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, the leading duo of his 2018 drama Transit, to take on the tale of the titular creature, a mythological water nymph whose lovers are doomed to death if ever unfaithful. In this modern retelling, Undine is a historian who – after one of the most charming meet-cutes in recent cinema – falls madly for a young diver, the two embarking on one of those archetypal romances that are condemned to become the ashes of their own intense burning. As longing turns into dangerous withdrawal, myth and reality blend into a spellbinding fable, the result as impossibly entrancing as a mermaid’s serenade. Rafaela Sales Ross

 

18. First Cow

Power of the Dog might’ve stolen the limelight as far as animal-named revisionist westerns go, but First Cow left an indelible mark on 2021 cinema, too. Kelly Reichardt’s opus (at this point in her career, anyway) is an unapologetically soft retelling of old western myth. John Magaro and Orion Lee shine as “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu, a pair of unlikely pioneers in frontier economics – and crime. Reichardt weaponises realism and, at times, the aesthetics of slow cinema in order to paint a different sort of picture of a cinematically familiar setting. And what a picture it is. Though First Cow was nominated for the Golden Bear back in March 2020, it got a belated UK release via MUBI in the spring of this year. That meant its slow garnering of excitement was as gradual as some of Reichardt’s direction. That’s just how she’d want it. Adam Solomons

 

17. Nomadland

This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner landed in UK cinemas on May 17 – the day cinemas reopened after the long, dark winter of 2020-2021. There could be few more apt choices for that return – a film that basks and lingers in the possibilities of the world’s wide-open spaces, tantalisingly out of reach for so long in lockdown, the balm for the soul so many of us were seeking. Of course, there’s more to Nomadland than that. Its cast of non-professional road-weary travellers who cross paths with Frances McDormand’s searching protagonist gave the film a core of authenticity around which to rest its hopeful, quiet optimism. McDormand herself was low-key, reigned in, seeming entirely comfortable in these surroundings in a brilliant performance. At time of writing, we are once again facing an uncertain future, but Chloe Zhao’s masterwork reminds us of the dreamlike, escapist possibilities of cinema in a way that no amount of big-budget, CGI spectacle – Eternals included – can match. Fedor Tot

 

16. The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Coming out at the tail end of the third UK lockdown, The Mitchells vs. the Machines was the perfect blast of hilarious family entertainment to push audiences through to the re-opening of cinemas. Beautifully animated and bursting with vibrant energy, it’s an irresistible ride through the end of the world that also makes some genuinely insightful points about the ways in which technology can both divide a family and bring it together. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have proven themselves as masterful producers, parlaying their Lego Movie and Jump Street success into helping bring to life some of the best recent animated movies. This is another major feather in their cap, not to mention a triumph for Sony Animation. On the evidence of Mitchells, and with the Spider-Verse sequel on the way next year, they could soon be a Pixar-level name to beat. Jack Blackwell

 

15. Minari

Heartwarming, poignant and unapologetically human, Minari came to us at a time when we needed it most this year. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical tale of a Korean-American family in search of their very own American Dream spawned a star in Alan Kim and opened the eyes of many to cinematic veteran Youn Yuh-jung, who picked up Best Supporting Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards. Set during Reagan-era America, Steven Yeun’s patriarch Jacob relocates his family from California to Arkansas in the hope that farming Korean crops and selling them to the growing immigrant community in the US will lead to a prosperous life. But as the mirage of America’s riches starts to wane, marital tension, growing pains, the reality of rural living, and the hard fact that assimilation isn’t so black and white, come to light. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is careful, considered and one of the most moving films in years. Lilia Pavin-Franks

14. C'mon C'mon

There is softness and patience in all of Mike Mills’ films, which never imposes on those lucky enough to see them. C’mon C’mon is the filmmaker’s warmest invitation yet, a greyscale portrait of unexpected companionship and raw, non-judgemental love between an uncle and his nephew but also this filmmaker and the whole world. Joaquin Phoenix plays harried radio journalist Johnny with an unwavering tenderness that never turns saccharine. It’s a movie about listening to children, taking care of adults, trusting in the tiny observations you make and feel about the world that keep
giving you hope. Woody Norman lights up the screen as nine-year-old Jesse, while Gaby Hoffmann telegraphs the exhaustion and resilience of motherhood with heart-stopping subtlety. Add to that some of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s most elegant work and a wonderfully melancholy score from Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and it makes for a quiet masterpiece. Ella Kemp

 

13. Pig

The premise of Pig – Nicolas Cage plays an Oregonian truffle hunter whose beloved pig is kidnapped in a brutal attack, leaving him to navigate the underworld of Portland’s haute cuisine to find his porcine pal – feels ripe for something parodic, something “Crazy Cage” worthy. The beauty of Michael Sarnoski’s debut feature is that it really couldn’t be farther from that expectation if it tried. Instead of the madcap revenge odyssey many anticipated, Sarnoski instead offers up possibly the most moving film of 2021. A gorgeous, poetic exploration of grief, Pig sees Cage dial back on his more eclectic acting instincts to instead offer a masterclass in subtlety, nuance, and internalisation as a man haunted by loss yet motivated by love rather than hate. With a tremendous Alex Wolff in tow, we're taken on a sensorily stirring, lyrically written, and beautifully shot emotional journey that moves as much as it subverts. Jordan King

 

12. The French Dispatch

Even those who cannot relax into the cotton candy worlds of Wes Anderson should cherish his relentless ambition to poke and prod at the bigger picture of humanity. Indeed, the director's latest folly may live on as one of his defining statements. The three stories that make up the bulk of The French Dispatch – which, along with interludes, give the film the shape of the New Yorker-like magazine around which it is set – drag us deeper into that quagmire of tradition vs. modernity. Freedom, imprisonment, family, fatherhood – all of these notions hang loose for the audience to pluck, if they're able to reach past the spiky comedy. From Benicio del Toro's murderous artist, to Timothee Chalamet's parody of May 1968 emotion, to Jeffrey Wright's James Baldwin riff, farcical setups are delivered by actors who know just how to imbibe the elegance of Anderson's dialogue. Ben Flanagan

 

11. Bo Burnham: Inside

Every few years Bo Burnham resurfaces from a prolonged public absence to grace us with another piece of timely, innovative work. Inside arrived as a cinematic “comedy” special that both defined and defied the title of a pandemic project. Made by Burnham entirely alone over the course of 2020’s lockdown, the film documents the psychological deterioration of a man and his existential pondering in isolation. Editing as he goes and stumbling as he sets up equipment for the next shot, Burnham’s one-man show is laden with crass satire and raw, exposing emotion. Between guitar-plucked melodies fit for Phoebe Bridgers, Burnham explores socio-political stances with a sock puppet and spirals into a manic frenzy to the deranged energy of “Bezos I” as he hypes up the billionaire media proprietor. This time capsule of the pandemic is truly a masterpiece, where a track like “Look Who’s Inside Again” hits too close to home in the best possible way. Emily Maskell

 

10. The Card Counter

Paul Schrader is continuing to make some of his most vital work during this late period of his career. Following First Reformed’s blistering criticism of capitalism and organised religion in the face of a climate apocalypse, here he sets his sights on the War on Terror, and finds his latest “God’s Lonely Man” archetype in the form of Oscar Isaac’s William Tell. Tell is a former soldier who has spent time in military prison for his participation in human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib, now opting to stay under the radar as he adjusts back to civilian life. Although a companion piece to his prior film in depicting helplessness in the face of American corporate and political interests, the conflicted morality of the central character study makes for something far thornier than the soapboxing a lesser filmmaker could find themselves succumbing to if given the same material. Alistair Ryder

 

9. Drive My Car

A loose adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, the slow burning character drama follows a theatre actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) contending with his grief when hired to direct an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, the play he was starring in as his wife passed away. In a year dominated by insufferable online discourse about the necessity of sex scenes and extended runtimes, Drive My Car felt like a tonic; a film where the complexities of Yūsuke’s former relationship are teased out through sex scenes in an extended epilogue, their revelations haunting the film for the remainder of its three-hour duration. Hamaguchi approaches the material like a thriller, every new development complicating our reading on these characters and making for one of the most rewarding films made about closure in the face of tragedy. Alistair Ryder

 

8. Limbo

Ben Sharrock’s offbeat comedy-drama on the refugee experience is a stunning, ruminative portrait. Situated on a fictional remote Scottish island, Sharrock’s lens is trained on a group of young men who exist in a stranded purgatory awaiting the fate of their asylum requests. The heart-rendering film finds its focus on Omar (the fantastic Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian musician, with his Grandfather’s oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument) under his arm and a long road ahead. Limbo shoulders a tone equal parts heartbreaking and humorous, where tragic phone calls to his mother in the island’s lone phone box appear beside a distinct, deadpan tone that infuses this narrative with comedic quirk. Sharrock’s poignant observations are embedded amid truly exceptional cinematography of this hopeless, rugged no man’s land, where grey clouds blanket brewing frustrations, while his contemplation of characters in a perpetual state of statelessness is quietly sobering and truly original. Emily Maskell

 

7. The Green Knight

There’s something half-lidded and languid about David Lowery’s tripped-out adaptation of The Green Knight, in which Dev Patel’s Gawain embarks on an Odyssean journey to prove his courage as part of a Christmas game with a gnarled, tree-like knight. Taking much-analysed Arthurian lore and seeping us in his own esoteric vision, Lowery explores how death is an unknowable axe above all our heads – a senseless shadow that can invariably take us out at any moment. It’s a real feat: the epic made modest, the lofty made internal, with Patel centering this tricky outlook with equal amounts of stoicism and vulnerability. It looks and sounds impossibly beautiful, too; Daniel Hart’s psychoactive score, punctuated by eerie Middle English incantations, is the best of the year. Ultimately about the flimsy nature of honour, The Green Knight is as luscious as it is confounding. Don’t lose your head. Steph Green

 

6. Spencer

Over the last decade, there’s been a ridiculous glut of Diana-based content, from the disastrous Naomi Watts-starring biopic to the absurd stage musical to Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki sharing princess duties on The Crown. Pablo Larrain’s Spencer entered a crowded field and instantly proved itself the definitive take, from its ghostly psychodrama of a story to Kristen Stewart’s mesmerising performance all adding up to a beguiling and unforgettable experience. It’s tricksy and moving and eerie, Larrain’s melodramatic tendencies proving a perfect fit for the often broad writing of Steven Knight. Spencer is also a sublime technical showcase with astounding cinematography and costume work that’s in turn bolstered by one of the best scores in Jonny Greenwood’s career. The end result is dreamlike, but grounded by Diana’s hugely touching relationship with her sons, humanising this icon of British culture in a way that more strait-laced biographies have failed to do. Jack Blackwell

 

5. West Side Story

There’s an irritating trend in some musical films – perhaps to mask the fact that the actors have been cast for their fame, rather than dancing prowess – to frenetically cut musical numbers instead of holding on a wide shot, prohibiting us from truly drinking in the choreography. Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story does no such thing. What’s more, it draws out untapped potential from an already beloved story and situates it in something realer and grittier. It fixes the lack of diversity in the original, sure, but this is so much more than a moral re-dressing; it fizzles, it sparkles, it claps, it clicks. Mike Faist’s performance as Riff, played like a hungry child with steely eyes, cut-glass cheekbones and a sharper tongue, is a star-making performance of intergalactic proportions – matched only by Ariana DeBose’s Anita, the film’s emotional core. Whether it’s the adrenaline shot he gives to the staging of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” or the dutiful space given to the Puerto Rican characters and their language, Spielberg has achieved something miraculous. Steph Green

 

4. Annette

Peter Jackson once said “the most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself” and, with Annette, French director Leos Carax has reached ultimate honesty – for himself, for his work and for the mesmerisingly bonkers nature of the Sparks brothers, Russell and Ron Mael. Written by the iconic pop duo, this grandiose opera extravaganza is a cinematic sui generis so deliriously unhinged it veers into a quasi-pact. And it is precisely this unguarded commitment between audience and creator that allows for the suspension of reality required to surrender to Annette’s greatest gag: the titular character is a wooden puppet, a lifeless living thing onto which the pair of protagonists (Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) can project their darkest, most corrupted fears and desires. Searingly tangible without ever compromising its ludicrous fantasy, Annette is one for the ages. Rafaela Sales Ross

 

3. Dune

The way the ornithopters caress Arrakis’ alien expanse in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is stunning. In the grander designs of the Quebecois filmmaker’s passion-fuelled adaptation of Frank Herbert’s long considered “unfilmable” opus, their existence may be missed – the sheer density of dazzling stars (an ensemble for the ages), big ideas, and even bigger spectacle on offer here in what some are dubbing “Space Game of Thrones” is a lot to process. But these dragonfly-like vehicles – posing fusion of impeccable craftsmanship and sublime inspiration that’s awe-inspiring – actually sum up the first part of Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic perfectly. Dune is at once a meticulously well-oiled behemoth – a technically precise, incredibly refined piece of cinematic engineering that dazzles the senses and blows the mind for 150 minutes straight – and a product of love and pure imagination that makes transcendent realities of our wildest dreams. Jordan King

 

2. The Power of the Dog

The maestro of sensual cinema, Jane Campion, returns to the big screen with The Power of the Dog, her first feature film in twelve years. This subversive, homoerotic western stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a cold and domineering rancher tethered to his past mentor and idol Bronco Henry, whose life is interrupted by the arrival of his brother’s (Jesse Plemmons) new wife and her teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In classic Campion style, The Power of the Dog is wonderfully tactile, with the director doing what she does best and imbuing sensuality into every polished saddle, cowhide and handkerchief. Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee craft a relationship that teeters between boundaries of power, intimacy and obsession, utilising the power of subtlety when it comes to queer longing and desire to the most mesmerising effect. There weren’t many things to rave about in 2021, but Campion’s incendiary return to cinema was one of the few saving graces. Lilia Pavin-Franks

 

1. Petite Maman

Small films are so often misunderstood as being slight. If they are short, telling stories about children, offering a seemingly modest view of the world, we can tend to wrongly assume this means they’ll be forgettable. But Céline Sciamma is obviously too much of a genius to stand for that. Petite Maman is pure magic: it is a love letter to family members we’ve both lost and misunderstood, an open-hearted ode to the friends we wish we had, a celebration of all the things that make little girls just so incredible. It is a film that takes unbelievable care of its audience, too: Sciamma cares so deeply about what you think, about how you will feel and understand her film, that you can almost sense a hand on your shoulder, a whisper in your ear promising that it will all be alright. This empathetic, unexpected and utterly overwhelming trip to the woods is nothing short of a miracle. Ella Kemp

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Reviews

Sharp Stick review – Lena Dunham coming-of-ager leans on lowbrow hijinks

The Girls creator's second film as writer-director is oddly impersonal, devoid of the smart observations that made her famous

Living review – miraculous remake of a Japanese masterpiece

Bill Nighy gives one of his greatest performances in this beautiful and emotionally ripe redo of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic Ikiru

Amulet review – Romola Garai’s elegant slow-burn horror

Sickly, beautiful, though somewhat slight, this debut feature from the actor-turned-director works familiar tropes in an effective way

Parallel Mothers review – uneven but compelling melodrama of birth and death

Pedro Almodóvar's latest feels minor in comparison to his best works, but it's still often irresistibly soapy and colourful