Best of the Year: Top 20 Films of 2021

Counting down the top 20 films of 2021, from Julia Ducournau's Titane and Florian Zeller's The Father, to Ridley Scott's The Last Duel and Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog.

Though 2021 in cinema was another year disrupted by pandemic-related restrictions and skittish studios shifting release dates or tossing out their films on streaming, there was still a number of great films released from various different sources. With the likes of Jane Campion, Celine Sciamma, Thomas Vinterberg and Ridley Scott returning with powerful new work and the likes of Emma Seligman, Aleem Khan, Prano Bailey-Bond and Ben Sharrock emerging as names to look out for, it was a varied and fascinating year in cinema.

As ever, this countdown of the year’s best films is based on 2021 UK release dates so the likes of Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley weren’t considered.

Without further ado, the top 20 films of 2021…

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Jon Watts, USA

Though its multiverse set-up is a little too contrived, the third film in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man series uses its central conceit to dip into the character’s cinematic history to thrilling – and sometimes moving – effect.

19. After Love

Aleem Khan, UK

Aleem Khan’s deeply empathetic, heartfelt debut feature is a painful exploration of grief and betrayal with the excellent Joanna Scanlon subtly navigating a host of complex emotions as a recent widow discovering her husband led a double life.

18. Censor

Prano Bailey-Bond, UK

Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut contrasts some richly macabre horror visuals with the drab greys of Thatcher’s Britain as a series of video nasties cause a film censor’s psyche to begin to unravel. Niamh Algar charts this descent into madness with a committed, layered performance.

17. Petite Maman

Celine Sciamma, France

Celine Sciamma’s latest may be small in scale (and runtime) but this quiet little wonder gently – almost casually – deals with profound ruminations on life, death, and motherhood as a young girl strikes up an impossible friendship in the wake of her grandmother’s death.

16. Another Round

Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark

Four boring, middle-aged teachers – including Mads Mikkelsen – decide to test a scientist’s theory that maintaining a certain level of intoxication improves performance. Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg captures the euphoric highs and crushing lows of booze in a film that is at once bleak, hilarious, tragic and life-affirming.

15. Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman, USA

Emma Seligman’s stressful, uncomfortable and outrageously entertaining black comedy centres on Rachel Sennott’s college student, who is thrust into a series of horrific social interactions as her parents, relatives, ex-girlfriend and sugar daddy all convene for a family shiva.

14. The Night House

David Bruckner, USA

Rebecca Hall delivers one of the year’s most overlooked performances a grief-stricken widow who begins to unravel in David Bruckner’s chilling horror that finds the balance between ghost train-style shocks and scares and atmospheric, dread-soaked psychological horror.

13. The Last Duel

Ridley Scott, USA/UK

The first of two Ridley Scott films to arrive in 2021, this tale of sexual assault in medieval France uses the Rashomon approach of depicting a crime from varying perspectives, skewering the cruelty and vanity of the men who squabble over their hurt pride while a woman’s life hangs in the balance.

12. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion, UK/Australia/Canada/New Zealand

Jane Campion’s first film in over a decade, this beautifully crafted Western is a slow-burn exploration of masculinity that doesn’t fully come into view and reveal the full weight of its narrative until the very end. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as a loathsome cowboy but Kodi Smit-McPhee is the real stand-out as his effeminate nemesis-come-protégé.

11. King Richard

Marcus Reinaldo Green, USA

As Richard Williams, the determined but deeply flawed father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena, Will Smith delivers a towering movie star performance that enlivens Marcus Reinaldo Green’s compelling sports biopic.

10. Nomadland

Chloe Zhao, USA

Through stunning cinematography and a stellar turn from Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, Zhao’s poignant tale of life on the margins captures the beauty of a community helping each other survive in the face of great personal, economic and natural adversity.

9. Limbo

Ben Sharrock, UK

The story of a group of refugees stranded on a remote Scottish island awaiting asylum sounds like the stuff of heart-rending drama but Ben Sharrock infuses his film with empathy and humanity, finding humour and poignancy in the bleak, transient lives of the men on this island.

8. Sweat

Magnus von Horn, Poland/Sweden

Rather than ridicule or judgement, this gripping Polish drama approaches the life of a social media influencer with compassion and sympathy, following fitness guru Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik) as she struggles to balance her online adoration with the loneliness and drudgery of her offline life.

7. Riders of Justice

Anders Thomas Jensen, Denmark/Sweden/Finland

When a tragic accident kickstarts a plot that sets a stoic soldier (Mads Mikkelsen) and a group of middle-aged math nerds on a collision course with the criminal underworld, this Danish revenge thriller proves to be a violent, witty and complex look at the futility of searching for meaning in a random, chaotic world.

6. The Nest

Sean Durkin, UK/Canada

This tense story of a family relocating from New York City to a manor house in England is so foreboding that it feels poised to turn into a haunted house horror at any moment. It never does; instead the horrors lurking in the haze of this dusty old house are marital strife and late ‘80s capitalism, as greed, entitlement and resentment slowly eat away at this family.

5. tick, tick…Boom!

Lin Manuel Miranda, USA

Lin Manuel Miranda’s ambitious musical is a fresh, frenetic telling of the life and career of Rent playwright Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), charting his toil to get a play produced in the ‘90s. The film beautifully captures both the joy, pain, thrill and sacrifice of art as Larson pursues greatness despite the pressure to settle for an ordinary life.

4. Zola

Janicza Bravo, USA

Based on an infamous twitter thread, Janicza Bravo’s joy ride of sex, sleaze and social media is an absolute blast. Perfectly capturing the story’s online origins, Bravo nails the snappy, snarky tone of Twitter while notification pings permeate the sound design and DMs pop up on screen. What’s startling is how the throwaway thrills of scrolling a series of tweets can become something far more chilling when its rendered on screen.

3. The Father

Florian Zeller, UK/France/USA

With a stellar, Oscar-winning turn from Anthony Hopkins at its centre, Florian Zeller’s devastating portrayal of dementia puts the viewer in its protagonist’s shoes. Deliberately disorienting, with actors, sets and time frames all shifting and swapping, the film becomes a frightening, confusing and at times unbearably sad experience.

2. Minari

Lee Isaac Chung, USA

A moving portrait of family and an exploration of the American dream, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung revisits his roots, telling the story of his Korean-American family’s early days in the US. Living and working on a farm in Arkansas, the film portrays a variety of sharply observed relationships with warmth and humanity – most compelling of all is young David (Alan Kim) and his grandma (Oscar winner Yuh-jung Youn) – making this personal tale a sentimental crowd-pleaser.

1. Titane

Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium

It’s rare that a film comes along that is so genuinely surprising from scene to scene that it’s impossible to know where it’s going at any given moment. Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to her cannibal horror Raw defies description, such as it is, at times, absurd, tender, repulsive, moving, funny, thrilling, disgusting and engrossing. Through visceral body horror, startling violence and surreal sex, the film is insightful on themes of gender, masculinity, parenthood and trauma, all lent humanity by two exceptionally committed performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon. In another difficult year for cinema, this is an experience that reminds why the communal experience of the big screen is so important.

Honourable Mentions

Some of the films that just missed out on this list include Tom McCarthy’s gripping thriller Stillwater; Judas and the Black Messiah, which featured an Oscar-winning turn from Daniel Kaluuya; Darius Marder’s powerful debut Sound of Metal; Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana biopic Spencer; Harry McQueen’s moving drama Supernova; Ben Wheatley’s assault on the senses In The Earth; Stephen Spielberg’s expertly crafted musical West Side Story; and James Wan’s delightfully demented horror Malignant.