The Best Films of 2021

Top 10 of the Year

1. The French DispatchWes Anderson
2. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
3. The Tragedy of MacbethJoel Coen
4. DuneDenis Villeneuve
5. The Underground RailroadBarry Jenkins
6. The Card CounterPaul Schrader
7. C’mon C’monMike Mills
8. Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del Toro
9. SpencerPablo Larraín
10. The Power of the DogJane Campion

Best Film

The French Dispatch. Some call it Wes Anderson’s most ‘Wes Anderson’ film, as if that were a negative thing. It’s not – Anderson is one of the greatest working directors, unrelenting with his cinematic vision and frequently rubbing up against accusations that his style is too stilted and unnatural. The French Dispatch isn’t going to convince anyone otherwise, though it would be tough to argue that he has anything less than a thorough understanding of film’s full potential. This is his tribute to storytellers, or more specifically those journalists who pick up on odd stories in small towns, and with his anthological structure he constructs a dazzling formal cinematic statement, alternating between black-and-white and colour much like the magazine his characters produce. With a keen comedic sensibility and astounding visual flair, The French Dispatch will go down as one of Anderson’s finest works.

The French Dispatch reads like a magazine, segmented into articles which paint a quirky picture of a small French town.

Most Underrated

The Tragedy of Macbeth. As one of the greatest displays of mise-en-scène in a year full of beautiful films, it is clear this is a huge miss on behalf of the critical consensus, sitting outside 2021’s top 25 films on the TSPDT 21st century list. It is a bold new direction for Joel Coen who has already spanned so many genres – neo-noirs, westerns, comedies, crime films, and yet this is the first to dig so deeply into the influences of older European directors like Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman. The deftness and intelligence of the script goes without saying, though obviously the credit for this must go more to Shakespeare than Coen. It is in the visual direction where he takes this classical narrative to transcendent heights, creating a claustrophobic world of shadows, fog, and barren landscapes that reflect the same decrepit darkness residing within Lord and Lady Macbeth.

The low angle, the framing of the beams, the wraithlike figures, the greyscale photography – this is an incredibly strong shot from The Tragedy of Macbeth, but that there are so many more like it in this film speaks to the all-consuming beauty of Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation..

Most Overrated

Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi draws on a Haruki Murakami short story to craft a three-hour epic drama based in Japan’s contemporary theatre industry, additionally using the works of playwrights Chekhov and Beckett as springboards into examinations of grief and companionship. This is currently sitting at #1 of 2021 on the TSPDT list, and I might be closer to #30. It is a very fine film, slow and meditative in its pacing and backed up by a strong script, but from a direction standpoint there is far less going on here than a number of other films that I have ahead of it. Hamaguchi is evidently a good filmmaker, but Drive My Car doesn’t push its cinematic style or form enough to earn its #1 spot.

I can count on one hand the number of inspired shots in Drive My Car, and this is one of them – a moment of shared understanding between its two central characters.

Best Directorial Debut

Passing. Rebecca Hall makes the leap from acting to directing with a complex examination of racial prejudice and identities in 1920s New York. She carries a bit of Paweł Pawlikowski’s style in her blocking of actors on the edges of her frames and her choice to shoot in black-and-white, but it is especially in her use of shallow focus to obscure our perception of this hazy world that she dedicates the film to a specific aesthetic and follows through on it to the end.

Already we can see an artist following in the footsteps of Paweł Pawlikowski, carefully composing these black-and-white shots that push actors right to the edges of the frame.

Gem to Spotlight

The Hand of God. Paolo Sorrentino made one of the best films of the year in 2013 with The Great Beauty which feels very much like a Federico Fellini tribute, and he draws the connection even closer with this semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story set in 80s Italy. There is a theological sense of destiny woven through its narrative parallels of Italian folklore, sporting legends, and cinema culture, and he binds it all together some exquisite visual artistry.

Italy’s mysticism and sporting history intermingle in The Hand of God, pervading Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical film with an abundance of metaphors.

Best Male Performance

Oscar Isaac is one of the most consistently great actors currently working, but the performance he gives in The Card Counter is an achievement that is only second to his career-best work in Inside Llewyn Davis. He is morose and austere, gazing out at the world from beneath heavy lids with an unblinking focus, making him perfectly suited to Paul Schrader’s deeply self-reflective character study of regret, self-discipline, and atonement.

Timothée Chalamet proves he can lead blockbusters as much as he can indie dramas with Dune, and he carries the archetypal character of Paul Atreides with great emotional weight. So too does Dev Patel accomplish something similar in The Green Knight with his grand medieval quest, subverting conventions of the hero’s quest facing up to the consequences of his own rashness.

This is a very different role from Oscar Isaac’s breakthrough in Inside Llewyn Davis, but the character of William Tell in The Card Counter draws on his talent for quiet, weary introspection.

If Joaquin Phoenix‘s contorted performance in Joker was expressionism, then his role as the awkward uncle Johnny in C’mon C’mon is pure realism – a very purposeful shift on his part that shows off his range, proving he can play sweet and wholesome just as well as he does dark and intense.

Bradley Cooper is the perfect showman and con artist in Nightmare Alley as Stanton Carlisle, but he also knows when to turn it down, making for a particularly haunting delivery of his final line. Benedict Cumberbatch claims a mention for The Power of the Dog, playing against type as gruff, menacing rancher Phil, and then gradually peeling back the layers to his vulnerability. Lastly, Joel Edgerton is given the role of the villainous slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad, and still finds a surprising nuance in his backstory.

A huge leap forward in Dev Patel’s career, undergoing a subversive mythical journey towards his own inevitable doom.

Best Female Performance

Kristen Stewart takes the number one spot of the year, and it isn’t terribly close. Before Spencer it was a common misconception that she is a poor actress, but she proves all the doubters wrong in her portrayal of Princess Diana, playing the doomed royal not as how history has recorded her, but as a subjective rendering of her own unstable psychology. I previously underrated Rebecca Ferguson in Dune, but a recent re-watch proved that she rivals Timothee Chalamet with the best performance of the film. She is there every step of the way as Lady Jessica, carrying the burden of her son’s arc as the unsung hero.

Frances McDormand wields a skilful control over the weighty and loquacious material of The Tragedy of Macbeth, returning to her theatrical roots and proving Lady Macbeth to be an incredibly natural fit for her. Last of all, Thuso Mbedu pulls off a great feat of endurance in carrying Barry Jenkins’ epic series The Underground Railroad, carrying its heavy emotional stakes through its most punishing moments.

There may never be a film so uniquely suited to Kristen Stewart’s talents as this stifled, subjective portrait of Princess Diana.

Best Cinematography: The French Dispatch

1. The French DispatchRobert Yeoman
2. The Tragedy of MacbethBruno Delbonnel
3. The Underground RailroadJames Laxton
4. The Green KnightAndrew Droz Palermo
5. Nightmare AlleyDan Lausten
6. DuneGreig Fraser
7. West Side StoryJanusz Kaminsi
8. The Power of the DogAri Wegner
9. PassingEduard Grau
10. SpencerClaire Mathon
11. The Hand of GodDaria D’Antonio
12. BelfastHaris Zambarloukos
Deep focus and perfect blocking in The French Dispatch. There is not a single thing in the frame that Wes Anderson hasn’t carefully selected and placed there himself.

Best Editing: Dune

1. DuneJoe Walker
2. C’mon C’monJennifer Vecchiarello
3. Last Night in SohoPaul Machliss
4. The French DispatchAndrew Weisblum
5. The Underground RailroadJoi McMillon
6. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
7. After YangKoganada
8. West Side StoryMichael Kahn, Sarah Broshar
The editing achievements of Dune are many – the discontinuity when the “voice” is used, the montages of visions, and the spectacular action editing stand among them.

Best Screenplay: The Card Counter

1. The Card CounterPaul Schrader
2. DuneJon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth
3. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
4. The French DispatchWes Anderson
5. C’mon C’monMike Mills
6. BelfastKenneth Branagh
7. The Worst Person in the WorldEskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
8. A HeroAsghar Farhadi
9. The Power of the DogJane Campion
This is a Paul Schrader screenplay through and through with the troubled antihero, voiceover, and search for redemption.

Best Music Scores

1. DuneHans Zimmer
2. SpencerJonny Greenwood
3. The Underground RailroadNicholas Britell
4. The French DispatchAlexandre Desplat
5. The Power of the DogJonny Greenwood
6. The Green KnightDaniel Hart
8. PassingDevonte Hynes
9. Nightmare AlleyNathan Johnson
10. C’mon C’monAaron and Bryce Dessner
Hans Zimmer invented entirely new instruments for this score, creating a sound that is both familiar in its orchestrations and entirely foreign in its timbre and modality.

Year Breakdown

After a disappointing down year, the film industry came roaring back in 2021 with many postponed films finally getting their release. The French Dispatch is notable among these – had it been released according to its original schedule, 2020 might have been able to lay claim to at least a single masterpiece. No Time to Die also made headlines as the first major film to have its release date pushed back, going for the complete opposite strategy as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and it was clearly the smarter decision in terms of profitmaking.

Spider-Man: No Way Home tops the box office, grossing a staggering $1.8 billion and bringing a jolt of life back to cinemas during the COVID-19 pandemic. No Time to Die, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals are also deservedly up there, but Dune is the defining blockbuster of the year where artistic quality and popularity collide. It is Denis Villeneuve’s highest grossing film yet, and further sets him up as an auteur for a generation.

Julia Ducournau wins the Palme d’Or with her body horror Titane, paying homage to David Cronenberg.

Julia Ducournau becomes the second female director after Jane Campion to win the Palme d’Or, disturbing audiences at Cannes Film Festival with her vehicular body horror Titane, while over at the Academy some truly strange choices are made awarding Best Picture to CODA – easily the weakest winner in a long time. It was clearly the sentimental pick and has solid representation of the deaf community, but there is absolutely no visual artistry behind it and much of the writing is as flat as anything you would find on the Hallmark channel.

Streaming services were the saving grace of 2020, and they remain strong here. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first time Apple TV Plus has produced a film of this quality, and Amazon Prime Video has continued to get behind bold visionary auteurs with The Green Knight and The Underground Railroad. Netflix is also in the game, picking up Rebecca Hall’s stunning debut Passing and bringing back Jane Campion after her 12-year break with The Power of the Dog. Adam McKay also concludes his freak-out trilogy (The Big Short, Vice) on Netflix with Don’t Look Up – the weakest of the three but still worthy of praise for its editing and performances.

You don’t find quality television like The Underground Railroad very often – as far as I’m concerned this is a cinematic epic which stands among the best long-form films.

During this early period of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend emerged of films calling back to theatrical and musical roots. We have three great classical auteurs working in the realm of Shakespearean tragedy (The Tragedy of Macbeth, West Side Story, House of Gucci), and the works of playwrights Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett play significant roles in Drive My Car. When it comes to musicals, we have West Side Story, Cyrano, Annette, and Tick, Tick… Boom!. This trend is largely led by familiar auteurs like Steven Spielberg, Joe Wright, and Leos Carax dipping their toe in the genre, and Lin-Manuel Miranda joins them with his directorial debut.

Lastly, black-and-white cinematography has had a resurgence of late, but with The Tragedy of Macbeth, C’mon C’mon, Passing, sections of The French Dispatch, and Belfast, 2021 proves to be a particularly significant year here. I would hesitate to put the influence solely down to Roma from 2018, but its impact is certainly at least felt in the rise of memory pieces based on directors’ childhoods, with both Belfast and The Hand of God explicitly crediting Alfonso Cuaron’s recent masterpiece.

C’mon C’mon features elegant black-and-white photography in its endless flow of naturalistic montages.

Year Archives

A HeroAsghar FarhadiHR
After YangKoganadaHR
AnnetteLeos CaraxR
A Quiet Place Part IIJohn KrasinskiR
Barb and Star Go to Vista del MarJosh GreenbaumR
BelfastKenneth BranaghHR
BenedettaPaul VerhoevenR
BenedictionTerence DaviesR
Bergman IslandMia Hansen-LøveR
Blue BayouJustin ChonR
C’mon C’monMike MillsHR/MS
CyranoJoe WrightR
Don’t Look UpAdam McKayR
Drive My CarRyusuke HamaguchiR
DuneDenis VilleneuveMS
EternalsChloé ZhaoR
House of GucciRidley ScottR
Judas and the Black MessiahShaka KingR
LambValdimar JóhannssonR
Last Night in SohoEdgar WrightHR
Licorice PizzaPaul Thomas AndersonR/HR
MemoriaApichatpong WeerasethakulHR
Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del ToroHR/MS
No Sudden MoveSteven SoderberghR
No Time to DieCary Joji FukunagaR
Parallel MothersPedro AlmodóvarR/HR
PassingRebecca HallHR
Petite MamanCéline SciammaR
PigMichael SarnoskiR
Red RocketSean BakerR
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsDestin Daniel CrettonR
SpencerPablo LarraínHR/MS
Squid GameHwang Dong-hyukR
The Card CounterPaul SchraderMS
The DigSimon StoneR
The Eyes of Tammy FayeMichael ShowalterR
The French DispatchWes AndersonMP
The Green KnightDavid LoweryMS/MP
The Hand of GodPaolo SorrentinoHR
The Last DuelRidley ScottR
The Lost DaughterMaggie GyllenhaalR
The Power of the DogJane CampionHR
The Souvenir Part IIJoanna HoggR/HR
The Suicide SquadJames GunnR
The Tragedy of MacbethJoel CoenMS
The Underground RailroadBarry JenkinsMS
The Worst Person in the WorldJoachim TrierHR
Tick, Tick… Boom!Lin-Manuel MirandaR
TitaneJulia DucournauR
West Side StorySteven SpielbergHR
Wheel of Fortune and FantasyRyusuke HamaguchiR
Guillermo del Toro is one of our great modern day expressionists, and there are sequences from Nightmare Alley which feel directly inspired by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.


FleeJonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee follows in the lineage of animated documentaries typified by 2008’s Waltz with Bashir, considering the blurred line between history and memory.

12 thoughts on “The Best Films of 2021”

  1. Awesome work with this page format, looks great and I like all the different sections.

    I haven’t seen Coda to be fair but Titane feels like last year’s overrated film (it was good though) .

    Last Night I watched Boiling Point (2021) which is a film you may enjoy, its a very intense one-take film set in a high-class British restaurant, makes good use of close-ups and uses realism to its advantage.


    1. Thanks Harry! I found Titane to be a little bit of a mess but I still admired it enough for its style. I will be interested to see where that and CODA end up on the TSPDT list update, and may come back here to revise that section if anything is drastically different.

      Boiling Point sounds really fascinating and ambitious, I’ve heard a few people recommend it now so I will have to check it out. There are a few other 2021 films I haven’t caught yet since they haven’t been made available here yet – After Yang, Petite Maman, Vortex, Evolution, and A Hero are all on my list.


  2. With all due respect, Jonny Greenwood has been at the height of his musical powers for about 30 years now, though I wouldn’t argue with someone who wanted to tell me that should be lowered to 27 (1995) or 25 (1997).


    1. Fair point, I was speaking more in reference to his film scoring though and he hasn’t quite had a year like 2021 before with three films like that. At most he has usually only had two films in one year before. He’s more prolific in the film industry than ever with that depth.


  3. Hello there! I am a frequenter of TheCinemaArchives and am very happy to have found your blog because of it. Great work with the entire website!

    The work on this 2021 page in particular is quite impressive, and I am happy to say that we agree on essntially all of the years top films (8 of our top 10 are in common and ordered similarly).

    Have you had the chance to see Kogonada’s, “After Yang” yet? Seeing your praise for “Columbus” leads me to believe you have not gotten to it yet, but to my eye it is the only major film (in english) of 2021 missing here. Though not up to the absurd level of his debut (a MP), it is a wonderful film. Keep up the great work! I will continue to visit for yor thoughtful reviews of both modern films and classics.


    1. Hi Jeff A, glad to see you over here and thanks for the kind comment! Hopefully I can build this site out to something as ambitious as The Cinema Archives one day. I have not seen After Yang yet though it does come out in Australia today, so I’m hoping to get to it very soon, along with Petite Maman next week. There are a couple of others I’m still keeping an eye out for like Vortex and A Hero. I think I will be updating this page as I go so do hang around 😊


      1. Well you are off to a great start! tCA is a staggering achievement in archiving and the analysis is strong, despite it often being quite sparse or focused on pointing out only what is objectively measureable. I personally prefer reading the in-depth analysis provided by the single film reviews here. Like I said, keep up the good work and I am sure the website will continue to grow!


  4. Ahh, I just caught the tail end of your comment above which states that you haven’t been able to catch “After Yang” yet. You even covered a few of the other non-english films missing from the page as well. My apologies and ignore the question, but please post a review when you get the chance to see it! Cheers.


    1. It is a great Kirsten Dunst performance, my only problem is how much her screen time drops off by the last act of the film. Cumberbatch definitely benefits by being more consistently present from start to end.


      1. But screen time should’nd affect a performance’s quality. Right?
        What about Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now? He has about 10 minutes of screen time.


      2. I think there’s a few factors that come into play, including how much meat is on the bone for them to chew on, and I think she’s denied a bit of the opportunity in the writing to develop the character through to the end as consistently as Cumberbatch. I think the ability to pick quality projects is another one. Robert Duvall’s role is small in Apocalypse Now but it is an impactful part in one of the greatest films of all time. I wouldn’t pay it as much mind (or any really) if it was an equivalent ten minutes in a film of lesser quality. As for Kirsten Dunst, I think she’s sort of on the border of being worth a mention – I wouldn’t complain if I saw her mentioned among year’s best. I would like to watch it again and see if I feel any different on a second viewing.


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