The best of 2021: Our films of the year

“This can’t last. This misery can’t last.” A strange epitaph to begin an end of year list, perhaps, but these words – spoken by the aptly-named Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter – neatly summarise a year that for many of us has at once seemed interminable and all too transitory. Another Christmas in the trenches, indeed.

If nothing else, 2021 was a year of paradoxes. In the US, glimmers of hope as Donald Trump was finally routed were tempered by the Capitol attack of 6 January, as well as the continuing spectre of his repugnant legacy. In the UK, signs that the Covid pandemic was finally being brought to heel have been met with the Omicron variant and a buffoonish government in free fall, mired in sleaze and self-interest.

But what of cinema? From a personal perspective, August this year marked the first time since the start of the pandemic that this writer finally dared to venture back into the dream palace. The last film I saw in the cinema pre-pandemic was Leigh Whannell’s outstanding reimagining of The Invisible Man. What better way to return, then, than another horror reimagining, this time from Nia DaCosta and her new version of Candyman (joint 20 on our list), with all its visions of unseen threats and social and political upheaval?

Amidst all the social and political contradictions of our benighted times, cinema, too, is a place of paradox. An intensely personal experience, we experience it collectively. The rise of online streaming may have reshaped this paradigm, yet it endures still, capturing the zeitgeist with new films and TV, shared collectively, if remotely. Even if we must again retire from the big screen, we will sustain our love of film through each other.

This list reflects that love, and that collective sustenance that cinema continues to bring us. Despite the challenges, our top 20 is as diverse and exciting as ever, spanning the arthouse, genre cinema and Hollywood tentpoles. It is deeply gratifying, too, that our number one spot is taken by Céline Sciamma’s wondrous Petite Maman, a film about connecting with ourselves and our loved ones across seemingly impassable chasms of time and space. That such a tender film can assert itself amidst the cacophony of existential crises is profoundly encouraging.

N.B. As ever, only entries that had their world premiere this year were eligible for our FOTY list.

10. Azor (dir. Andreas Fontana)

In the world of Azor, the signs of upheaval are everywhere in the margins. Armed police and militia patrol the streets and shepherd citizens through checkpoints. Colleagues, friends and relatives routinely disappear. In most political thrillers, the random disappearance of loved ones would be chilling enough but in Azor, it is in the uncanny way they are spoken of after the fact that is most revealing. The missing at once being chilling spectres, verbal spaces where people used to be, spoken of only in hushed terms. Yet, paradoxically, the disappearances themselves are treated as entirely normal; a simple part of the state machinery and the cost of doing business – the normality itself is a sure sign of the current reality’s victory over its subjects. Read the full review. Christopher Machell

9. Summer of Soul (dir. Questlove)

By no means simply a concert doc, Questlove’s layered editing of the source material, contemporary talking-head interviews and library footage for a real depth of context is extremely well handled. As The Chambers Brothers get into it on stage, the music drops in volume just enough for images and recollections of JFK, MLK and RFK to be told. Stage managing as well as conducting all members of the band and film with real skill, the director stitches all levels of this complex material together, whilst ensuring that the pace and tempo of the underlying/overlying performance continue to a steady beat. Read the full review. Matthew Anderson

8. Pig (dir. Michael Sarnoski)

Brooding and contemplative, this is perhaps the quietest that Cage has ever been. It’s a haunting, captivating performance, each encounter on his quest to find his pig layering pathos upon tension. Violence hangs in the air of every scene, yet with the exception of a couple of eruptions, it remains resolutely out of frame. Rob’s tangle of long hair and a knotty beard ironically recall Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged mercenary Joe in You Were Never Really Here but he is shorn of that character’s capacity to mete out violent retribution on others. Rob is like the anti-John Wick: just as relentlessly single-minded but with his pain turned inwards, not out. Read the full review. CM

7. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)

A perfect Christmas movie, The Green Knight tells the tale of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) and an awkward Yuletide game that involves beheading and sends the knight on a perilous quest. David Lowery provides a visionary spectacle that totally captures the barmy logic of its medieval source text. Along the way Alice Vikander, Barry Keoghan and Joel Edgerton show up with scene-stealing turns. This is a witty, surreal box of delights. John Bleasdale

6. Flee (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

Anecdotes and key events of a happy childhood and home life in Kabul are bright and striking but turn to darker, more subdued shades as external events threaten his family. Years spent in Moscow are similarly bleak as the struggle to survive, to stay together, went on interminably against a corrupt, brutal police force and government. Library footage of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, political assemblies and addresses by former President Mohammad Najibullah are woven seamlessly into the film’s fabric. They provide a broader context but by no means dominate; the narrative’s primary focus is Amin’s family and their experience. Read the full review. MA

5. Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Among the four-quadrant, brightly-lit Black Widows, dragons and kaiju that dominate this year’s biggest screens, it’s easy to forget that blockbusters can be for adults, too. Last year, Tenet was going to save event cinema, and Bond’s Walter PPK is still smoking after Craig’s final shot as 007. But it’s Dune, in its assured bombast, belief in the patience of its audience (at two and a half hours, this Part One covers around half of Herbert’s first novel), and truly epic scale that is the first major Hollywood tentpole to offer some reassurance that big ‘E’ Event cinema is not going anywhere. Read the full review. CM

4. Drive My Car (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

The strange space between the professional and personal is constantly conflating amidst dialogue-heavy scenes framed so simply and meticulously that their pure cinema is vital. Never is this clearer than in the way that Yûsuke rehearses his lines of dialogue to a tape (for a role he has allegedly forsworn), while Misaki drives his battered old red Saab in silence. The effect is to reveal how much of our public-facing lives are performative, driven by inner emotions which may also be their own performances. But in performing our roles, and in stripping ourselves of affective displays of feeling, Hamaguchi suggests that if we can’t fully get over the knots of our pain, perhaps we can find our way through them. Read the full review. CM

3. Annette (dir. Leos Carax)

Carax has always had a superb feel for the use of music – see Denis Lavant dancing down a Paris street to the sound of David Bowie in Mauvais Sang – but here he excels himself. It doesn’t hurt that the music is provided by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, also known as Sparks, who with this and Edgar Wright’s documentary are having a hell of a 2021. The tunes are incredibly strong and have a catchiness that gives an immediate déjà vu recognisability […] Driver gives an astonishing performance as a man whose entitlement and rage make him unfit for the love he feels. It is a rich and deeply unflattering portrait that matches Marriage Story in its intensity and confirms Driver – if any more confirmation was needed – as the most versatile and powerful American actor working today. Read the full review. JB

2. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

After appearing in John Maclean’s excellent 2015 film Slow West, Kodi Smit-McPhee again appears completely at ease as a young man ill-at-ease in this frontier setting. A being out of time and place, much is hidden behind his dark eyes and awkward demeanour. Striking visual metaphors may be as blunt as stakes in the hard ground, as brutal as rusty, bloodied blades or as free-flowing and poetic as waterways and the wind through tall blades of grass, but Campion’s direction is measured, patient and captivating. We frequently ask what is happening, where is this leading, how can this ever-souring situation be resolved? Rest assured that you are in safe hands with a filmmaker who has once again achieved something quite extraordinary. Read the full review. MA

1. Petite Maman (dir. Céline Sciamma)

A rich, autumnal gem of a film, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman effortlessly blends reality with fairytale, past with the present, to explore notions of loss, grief and acceptance. At just 72 minutes, it is short and sweet, but yet another exquisitely made, deeply moving feature from the French writer-director. Read the full review. MA

Honourable mentions

11. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)

12. Compartment No. 6 (dir. Juho Kuosmanen)

13. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (dir. Ana Katz)

14. The Last Duel (dir. Ridley Scott)

15. Playground (dir. Laura Wandel)

16. Titane (dir. Julie Ducournau)

17. Mad God (dir. Phil Tippett)

18. Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

19. Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín)

20. Nightmare Alley (dir. Guillermo del Toro)