The Best Films of 2021

Top 10 of the Year

1. The French DispatchWes Anderson
2. The Tragedy of MacbethJoel Coen
3. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
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
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

Best Film

The French Dispatch. Some are calling it Wes Anderson’s most ‘Wes Anderson’ film, as if that were a negative thing. It’s not – Anderson is one of the boldest 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 demonstrates anything less than a thorough understanding of cinema’s full potential here. 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 magazines his characters produce. With a keen comedic sensibility and astounding visual flair, The French Dispatch will undoubtedly go down as one of Anderson’s finest works.

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 expressionistic 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 that resides within Lord and Lady Macbeth.

Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro)

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 #25. 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.

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.

Passing (Rebecca Hall)

Gem to Spotlight

The Green Knight. Its release on Amazon Prime came right before awards season kicked off, but it is a major artistic breakthrough for David Lowery. It calls back to Arthurian legend in adapting the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it thankfully doesn’t compromise its fantasy with attempts to ground it in historical realism. It doesn’t waste time trying to explain itself, but rather compels us to engage with it on a symbolic, mythological level, basking in its marvellously creative production design and otherworldly cinematography. The closing twenty minutes of this film may just be the best of any in recent years.

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 rivals 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, and is 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 carries the archetypal character of Paul Atreides with great emotional weight, as does Dev Patel in The Green Knight with his grand medieval quest, facing up to the consequences of his own rashness. 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. 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. Benedict Cumberbatch claims a mention for The Power of the Dog, playing against type as Phil, a gruff, menacing rancher, then peeling back the layers to his vulnerability. Lastly, Denzel Washington deserves a nod for The Tragedy of Macbeth, delivering a take on the titular Shakespeare character with great verbal dexterity and aplomb.

Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)

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. Cate Blanchett is a perfectly ice-cold femme fatale in Nightmare Alley, and Frances McDormand wields a skilful control over the weighty and loquacious material of The Tragedy of Macbeth. It is very much a return to her theatrical roots, and Lady Macbeth is an incredibly natural fit for her. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are paired here for their equally excellent performances in Passing, playing a pair of old friends set on very different paths in life. Very gradually, both crack under external and internal pressures around their identities, and the two actresses movingly uncover their characters’ compelling complexities. Lastly, Thuso Mbedu pulls off a great feat in carrying The Underground Railroad through its heaviest, most punishing moments, and keeping that stamina up throughout the entire series.

Kristen Stewart in Spencer (Pablo Larraín)

Trends and Notables

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 making a profit. Ridley Scott makes a big mark in having both House of Gucci and The Last Duel come out this year as well, the latter of which was rescheduled from 2020.

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 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.

The Green Knight (David Lowery)

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 freakout 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.

2021 showcases the first crop of films produced in the difficult era of COVID with reduced cast sizes and closed-off sets. Maybe this is the reason so many harken back to theatrical roots, or perhaps it is just coincidence, but either way it was a big year there. 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, where productions of Uncle Vanya and Waiting for Godot are featured. When it comes to musicals, we have West Side Story, Tick, Tick… Boom!, Cyrano, and Annette.

Annette (Leos Carax)

Black-and-white cinematography has had a resurgence of late, but with The Tragedy of Macbeth, C’mon C’mon, Passing, Belfast, large sections of The French Dispatch, and the ‘Vision in Darkness and Light’ cut of Nightmare Alley, 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 Cuarón’s recent masterpiece.

Lastly, Jonny Greenwood is at the height of his musical powers, composing three very different scores for Licorice Pizza, The Power of the Dog, and Spencer. His work on the last two are particularly impressive, with Spencer standing tall as a landmark of his illustrious career. Hans Zimmer contributes his extraordinary talents to No Time to Die and Dune, the latter of which would not be the same film without his epic score. Nicholas Britell is also very active in this space in composing for Don’t Look Up, though as always it is his collaboration with Barry Jenkins that is especially remarkable – the music for The Underground Railroad stands proudly alongside Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the best film scores in recent history.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Best Cinematography

TitleCinematographer
1. The Tragedy of MacbethBruno Delbonnel
2. The Underground RailroadJames Laxton
3. The French DispatchRobert Yeoman
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
The Underground Railroad (Barry Jenkins)

Best Editing

TitleEditor
1. C’mon C’monJennifer Vecchiarello
2. DuneJoe Walker
3. Last Night in SohoPaul Machliss
4. The French DispatchAndrew Weisblum
5. The Underground RailroadJoi McMillon
6. Licorice PizzaAndy Jurgensen
7. The Green KnightDavid Lowery
Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright)

Best Music Scores

TitleComposer
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
7. Parallel MothersAlberto Iglesias
8. PassingDevonte Hynes
Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almódovar)

2021 Archives

TitleDirectorGrade
After YangKoganadaHR
AnnetteLeos CaraxR
A Quiet Place Part IIJohn KrasinskiR
Barb and Star Go to Vista del MarJosh GreenbaumR
Being the RicardosAaron SorkinR
BelfastKenneth BranaghHR
BenedettaPaul VerhoevenR
BenedictionTerence DaviesR
Bergman IslandMia Hansen-LøveR
Blue BayouJustin ChonR
C’mon C’monMike MillsMS
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
King RichardReinaldo Marcus GreenR
LambValdimar JóhannssonR
Last Night in SohoEdgar WrightHR
Licorice PizzaPaul Thomas AndersonHR
MemoriaApichatpong WeerasethakulR/HR
Nightmare AlleyGuillermo del ToroHR/MS
NitramJustin KurzelR
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 HoggHR
The Suicide SquadJames GunnR
The Tragedy of MacbethJoel CoenMP
The Underground RailroadBarry JenkinsMS
The Worst Person in the WorldJoachim TrierHR
Tick, Tick… Boom!Lin-Manuel MirandaR
TitaneJulia DucournauR
West Side StorySteven SpielbergHR
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen)

Documentaries

FleeJonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)

The Best Films of 2020

Top 10 of the Year

1. I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie Kaufman
2. NomadlandChloé Zhao
3. MankDavid Fincher
4. Small AxeSteve McQueen
5. Promising Young WomanEmerald Fennell
6. MinariLee Isaac Chung
7. Pieces of a WomanKornél Mundruczó
8. The FatherFlorian Zeller
9. TenetChristopher Nolan
10. WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

Best Film

I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There are not many years in movie history that lack a clear masterpiece (as defined by being top 1-3 of the year quality). The last one before 2020 was 1987 (topped by Full Metal Jacket), and before that 1935 (Bride of Frankenstein wins the year there). Fortunately, this is not a result of untalented contemporary filmmakers, but rather of many movies originally slated for 2020 being pushed to 2021 due to the pandemic. None of this should undercut Charlie Kaufman’s achievement in I’m Thinking of Ending Things though. It is his most visually audacious work yet and a formally experimental play on traditional horror conventions, eroding all sense of time and character identities. All of this builds towards a surreal psychological drama meditating on ageing, isolation, and lost potential. Cryptic, elusive, and intensely moving in unexpected ways – not many screenwriters-turned-directors explore the cinematic potential of their intelligent scripts as well as Kaufman does here.

Most Underrated

Pieces of a Woman. The Father is another one that is currently missing from the TSPDT 21st Century list, but Pieces of a Woman also has a disappointing 66 Metacritic score and thus deserves the slot here. The camerawork belongs among the best of the year, and not just in that astounding 22-minute long take of the heartbreaking home birth near the start of the film. The script is driven by powerfully emotional melodrama, but it is also so formally sound in the abundance of metaphors (the bridge, the apple seeds) and grounded in an incredibly strong performance from Vanessa Kirby.

Most Overrated

Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This is a film that winds up at #3 of 2020 on TSPDT, but doesn’t find a spot in my top 10 here. It is a fantastic piece of social realist cinema about a pregnant teenager travelling to New York to find a Planned Parenthood clinic, and the struggles around that. There is also a scene in it that displays the talents of young actress Sidney Flanagan, whose facial expressions tell an entire story that words alone could never express. Eliza Hittman makes the smart decision to hang on her face for five whole minutes here, but besides this the film’s artistic achievement is relatively modest compared to the films ahead of it on my list.

Best Directorial Debut

Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell comes out firing with this captivating and acerbic revenge thriller. It took me a couple of viewings to put it in my top 10, but I’m there now – it is a complex balance of conflicting tones possessing a powerful narrative drive, and her use of pastel colours and symmetrical compositions reveals a director with an already developed style.

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

Gem to Spotlight

Small Axe. Many arguments have been had all across the internet on whether to classify this as a miniseries or several distinct films. There isn’t much arguing against its cinematic power as a whole though, and with a director like Steve McQueen at the helm it easily transcends every other piece of television from 2020. The strength of this anthology is the gorgeous Lover’s Rock instalment, but even in the weakest there is plenty to appreciate. Small Axe is McQueen’s ode to the West Indian communities living in London in the 1960s to 80s, making small acts of revolution, reform, and celebration that each build on each other to reveal the slow, spinning wheel of progress across decades.

Small Axe: Lover’s Rock (Steve McQueen)

Best Male Performance

Gary Oldman comes out on top with one of the best performances of his career in Mank. It isn’t easy handling such a wordy script of double entendres and witticisms, but he takes charge of this character study, delivering allegorical monologues with drunken confidence and theatricality. Behind him, Anthony Hopkins earns a spot in becoming a vessel for our heartbreaking, disorientating journey into the mind of a dementia patient in The Father. John Boyega also commands another character study in Red, White and Blue, an instalment of Small Axe about Leroy Logan, a founding member of the Black Police Association in the UK who attempted to reform the police from within its own ranks.

Best Female Performance

As mentioned above, Vanessa Kirby’s performance in Pieces of a Woman is simply gut-wrenching, and she exerts such fine control over both the subtler moments of depression and the passionate outbursts of a distraught mother. Frances McDormand’s understated work in Nomadland is masterfully subtle, as is Jessie Buckley in the ever-shifting persona of the “Young Woman” in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. This list isn’t complete without mentioning Carey Mulligan either. She is wry, intelligent, funny, and heartbreaking in Promising Young Woman – a mess of emotions she sorts through effortlessly.

Vanessa Kirby from Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó)

A disappointing down year for cinema, for reasons already mentioned. No masterpieces, and disappointing depth in quality. Fortunately, I was able to round out my top 10 without dipping into those films worth a simple ‘Recommend’. The upside of Hollywood’s postponing of many blockbuster films is the increased spotlight on smaller arthouse films, including one gorgeous indie animation in Wolfwalkers.

In terms of great established auteurs, we have new films from David Fincher, Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, and Christopher Nolan to carry us over. Five of these were distributed on streaming services, and praise must be given to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+ for picking up such bold auteurs, as well providing a viewing alternative while cinemas were closed.

Nolan is the outlier here. His decision to stick by releasing Tenet in cinemas during the COVID pandemic was disastrous in terms of box office, and its divisiveness certainly didn’t help. It is no doubt a flawed film with a lot of heavy exposition, though its artistic ambition in its action choreography and reverse photography is admirable.

Nomadland is the well-deserved Best Picture Winner at the Oscars this year, and Soul marks one of Pixar’s greatest achievements in animation as well. In spite of the state of the industry, there is clearly still plenty of great cinema to appreciate in 2020.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

2020 Archives

TitleDirectorGrade
Another RoundThomas VinterbergR
AntebellumGerard Bush, Christopher Renz R
CutiesMaïmouna DoucouréR
Da 5 BloodsSpike LeeR
I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsCharlie KaufmanMS
KajillionaireMiranda JulyR
MankDavid FincherMS
MinariLee Isaac ChungHR
Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysEliza HittmanR
NomadlandChloé ZhaoMS
On the RocksSofia CoppolaR
Palm SpringsMax BarbakowR
Pieces of a WomanKornél MundruczóHR
Promising Young WomanEmerald FennellHR
RelicNatalie Erika JamesR
Shiva BabyEmma SeligmanR
Small AxeSteve McQueenHR/MS
SoulPete DocterR
TenetChristopher NolanHR
The Devil All the TimeAntonio CamposR
The FatherFlorian ZellerHR
The Invisible ManLeigh WhannellR
The NestSean DurkinR
The Queen’s GambitScott FrankR
UndineChristian PetzoldR
UnorthodoxMaria SchraderR
WolfwalkersTomm Moore, Ross StewartR/HR

Documentaries

Dick Johnson is DeadKirsten Johnson

Short Films

If Anything Happens I Love YouWill McCormack, Michael Govier
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)