It's safe to say there were considerably more films for cinephiles to dig their teeth into this year. Long delayed works finally emerged and brought with them audiences (October was one of the biggest months for cinemas), whilst indie gems and festival hits all crammed their way into cinemas and on to streaming platforms. But what were the best that 2021 had to offer?
In a rich year (particularly bulging with releases thanks to a year and a half of cinema closures, reopenings and closures) there were films that came close to be included in my top ten. Cruella was a surprising delight given the origins of the character it is following. Ridley Scott’s spectacular The Last Duel will hopefully find the audience it deserves on Disney Plus. Knocking is the best film you’ve probably not heard of. And whilst Tick, tick… BOOM! will hopefully land nominations at next year’s award ceremonies, The Father was the deserved surprise win for Best Actors at the 2021 Oscars.
A few films sadly missed this viewer, often due to an unforgiving Autumn release schedule as cinema played catch-up. This list may well have included the likes of Titane, West Side Story, In the Heights, Petite Maman, Drive My Car or C’Mon C’Mon but can't be included because sadly I haven't seen them yet!
The ten films that stood out for me in 2021 were:
Impressively winning best actor, director and film at this year’s Oscars, Nomadland is an affecting drama that follows a woman in her sixties who embarks on a journey across the American West as a modern-day nomad. From McDormand’s affecting lead, to cinematography that revels in the beauty of the landscape around her, this is a quiet work that impressively captures the moment America finds itself in.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
9. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi is better than it has any right to be. The 25th cinematic instalment in the never-ending MCU franchise, where you expect to see the strain of formula and reputation, you instead get a terrific comic book origin story, with some fabulous turns and a compelling mythology. If the film peaks during the terrific San Francisco bus fight, it’s fine because it fits into a comfortable groove that takes audiences on a fun ride.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
8. Promising Young Woman
Perhaps the angriest film of the year (along with Candyman), Promising Young Woman will be necessarily uncomfortable viewing for some. With a barnstorming turn from Carey Mulligan and an inventive script by Emerald Fennell, this is a painful exploration of the misogyny of our modern world and should be seen by as many people as possible.
Promising Young Woman is currently streaming on Now.
7. Another Round
Mads Mikkelsen is one of the great actors of his generation. And with Another Round he gives, perhaps, his best turn to date. Following a group of friends as they embark upon an unconventional experiment, this is a work that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking and manages to transcend from devastation to bliss in its final moments in a way that makes it one of the year’s greatest dramas.
Another Round is currently streaming on Now.
6. Palm Springs
On paper a cute modern twist on the Groundhog Day formula, through its infinite time loop set-up Palm Springs manages to capture the experience of the last few years better than most. Andy Samberg dials things back but still charms audiences, whilst giving room from for stand out turns from Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons.
Palm Springs is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
5. The Green Knight
A spectacular medieval epic, The Green Knight is an ambitious, visually stunning work that is as challenging as it is compelling. Dev Patel confirms his star status, whilst effective support comes from Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton and Barry Keoghan. And any film with a scene-stealing talking fox is absolutely worth your time.
The Green Knight is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
4. Summer of Soul
Chronicling the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul has the best soundtrack of the year with some smash-hit inclusions of the era. Questlove effortlessly cuts together toe-tapping archive footage whilst splicing in star-studded interviews and historical context, all to paint a terrific picture of one of the great music events most people won’t have heard of.
Summer of Soul is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
Pig shouldn’t work as well as it does. When you hear the basic synopsis - a truffle hunter, played by Nicholas Cage, tracking down his stolen pig - you expect some straight-to-streaming, John-Wick-esque affair. And instead what you get is a poignant, soulful exploration of love and the act of cooking for someone else, with one of the finest turns of Cage’s eclectic career. This is 2021 cinema at its most beautiful.
Pig is currently available to rent from Google Play, Apple TV and YouTube.
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi tome is cinema of scope and scale the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time. From a star-studded cast giving career-best turns, to Hans Zimmer’s transcendent musical score and Greig Fraser’s camera capturing the spectacular vistas of the film’s settings, Dune is a remarkable achievement that makes perhaps the best argument for the continued existence of cinemas.
Dune is currently available to rent from Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Sky Store.
1. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
This is a plucky animation that came out straight to Netflix and stole this viewer’s heart. Mixing 3D and 2D animation styles, there’s an anarchic quality to The Mitchells vs. the Machines, that’s matched by a whip-smart script and an ensemble of voice actors that immediately craft beloved characters. And it is these characters and their journey that make this the film of 2021 for me. Plus this is the only film of the year to have a giant furby rampaging through a mall.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is currently streaming on Netflix.