Best Films of 2021

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Last year, we felt lucky to have such a varied end-of-year poll because cinema was arriving at us from such different avenues to normal, if it was arriving at all. This year, it’s a wonder we were able to fit anything into a top 5, given the absolute wealth of great cinema unleashed across the past 12 months. In that spirit, it was a crowded race to the top. We ended up with a 3-way tie between one modern musical and two dramas from the same director. To end up with something neater, we gave the double-header from the undefeated filmmaker of the year our number one spot.

What’s so endearing about this double-bill is that, despite being recognisably the work of the same filmmaker, they are quite different. One is an epic with larger-than-life themes and iconography that has been a shocking crossover hit; the other is, by its very nature, small-scale, minor, attuned to detail, and has yet to find a release in the UK. At least one of them, if not both, appeared on the majority of the ballots from this year’s poll. Without further ado, we give you our number one film of 2021: the double-bill of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car.

Best Films of 2021

  1. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy/Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  2. Annette (Leos Carax)
  3. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  4. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
  5. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)

Films with multiple votes:

5 votes: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn; Petite Maman; What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?; Titane; The Card Counter

4 votes: Bergman Island; Dune

3 votes: The Souvenir Part II; The Power of the Dog; Old; Benedetta

2 votes: Zack Snyder’s Justice League; A Hero; earthearthearth; Quo Vadis, Aida?; The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet; Zeros and Ones; Worlds; Get Back; Bad Trip; Landscapes of Resistance; The Girl and the Spider; Benediction; Come Here; France

The Ballots

Ben Flanagan

  1. Annette (Carax)
  2. The Tsugua Diaries (Fazendeiro, Gomes)
  3. The Girl and the Spider (Zürchers)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. Benediction (Davies)
  6. The Scary of Sixty-First (Nekrasova)
  7. Come Here (Anocha)
  8. France (Dumont)
  9. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy/Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  10. West Side Story (Spielberg)

HM: Friends and Strangers (Vaughn), Zeros and Ones (Ferrara), Parallel Mothers (Almodóvar), Bloodsuckers (Radlmaier), Old (Shyamalan), The Velvet Underground (Haynes)

Tom Atkinson

  1. West Side Story (Spielberg)/Worlds (Goes)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Cry Macho (Eastwood)
  4. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  5. The History of the Atlanta Falcons (Bois)/Get Back (Jackson)/Labyrinth of Cinema (Obayashi)
  6. Rock Bottom Riser (Silva)
  7. The Night House (Bruckner)
  8. Sarpatta Parambarai (Ranjith)
  9. Shared Resources (Lord)
  10. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

Roughly ranked. Double-billed West Side Story and Worlds as the past and future of cinema, perfection and innovation of a form. Triple-billed History of the Atlanta Falcons, Get Back and Labyrinth of Cinema as a trilogy of living history.

Honourable mentions for Beginning, The Card Counter, Come Here, Drive My Car, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, Friends and Strangers, Monster Hunter, Naomi Osaka, Old, Procession, Quo Vadis, Aida?, Slow Machine, Tsugua Diaries, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It has indeed been a plentiful year for cinema!

Special mention goes to Srećan Put, Maximilien Luc Proctor’s feature that CYZ helped premiere with Screen25 in November. Level-headed editorial conscience tells me it should appear outside of the list, as it was made by a friend and indeed feels like a film for watching with friends. Nevertheless: it deserves to be here. Srećan Put forever.

The worst film I saw this year was Promising Young Woman, the absolute peak of the pre-chewed exploitation that had a little moment in 2021 with Censor and The Suicide Squad (both also horrible movies).

Tribute must be paid here to a Letterboxd user whose real name I only know as Nwoye, but is better known in film circles as cleansing my soul of addiction. A trailblazer for what decentralised film writing can look like, Nwoye sadly passed away in September. He left behind a remarkable body of work, all of which has been preserved by Letterboxd. I implore all serious cinephiles to seek out his writing; let it move you, infuriate you, change you. I hope he has found peace in the great beyond.

Kirsty Asher

  1. Benedetta (Verhoeven)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  4. Annette (Carax)
  5. Rebel Dykes (Shanahan)
  6. Cryptozoo (Shaw)
  7. Pig (Sarnoski)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. Landscapes of Resistance (Popivoda)
  10. PS Burn This Letter Please (Tiexiera, Seligman)

Cathy Brennan

  1. Purple Sea (Alzakout, Abdulwahed)
  2. One in a Thousand (Navas)
  3. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Katz)
  4. The First Death of Joana (Oliveira)
  5. Titane (Ducournau)
  6. I Never Cry (Domalewski)
  7. Landscapes of Resistance (Popivoda)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  10. Belle (Hosoda)

Joseph Owen

  1. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Annette (Carax)
  4. The Fam (Baillif)
  5. Social Hygene (Côté)
  6. Ancient Soul (Gurrea)
  7. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  8. Vortex (Noé)
  9. The Sacred Spirit (Ibarra)
  10. Brotherhood (Montagner)

Alonso Aguilar

  1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  2. earthearthearth (Saïto)
  3. Zeros and Ones (Ferrara)
  4. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  5. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  6. Qué será del verano (Ceroi)
  7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  8. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Schoenbrun)
  9. Come Here (Anocha)
  10. Al Amparo del Cielo (Acosta)

Anna Devereux

  • The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  • Annette (Carax)
  • The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  • Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  • West Side Story (Spielberg)
  • Zola (Bravo)
  • Jack’s Ride (Nobre)
  • No Time to Die (Fukunaga)
  • Midnight Mass (Flanagan)
  • Get Back (Jackson)

Rose Dymock

  1. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  2. The Lost Daughter (Gyllenhaal)
  3. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Thompson)
  4. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  5. Pleasure (Thyberg)
  6. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  7. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Petri, Lindström)
  8. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  9. Mr Bachmann and His Class (Speth)
  10. Beginning (Kulumbegashvili)

Paul Farrell

  1. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  3. Worlds (Goes)
  4. Old (Shyamalan)
  5. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  6. Annette (Carax)
  7. Bad Trip (Sakurai)
  8. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  9. Zeros and Ones (Ferrara)
  10. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Snyder)

Digby Houghton

  1. The Hand of God (Sorrentino)
  2. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  3. Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time (Horvát)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. A Hero (Farhadi)
  6. Nitram (Kurzel)
  7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  8. Annette (Carax)
  9. Titane (Ducournau)
  10. Dune (Villeneuve)

Ellisha Izumi

  1. The Father (Zeller)
  2. Bad Trip (Sakurai)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Snyder)
  5. Old (Shyamalan)
  6. The Voyeurs (Mohan)
  7. Dune (Villeneuve)
  8. Envy | Contrapoints (Wynn)
  9. Shiva Baby (Seligman)
  10. alterations (Chamberlain)

Amos Levin

  1. Old (Shyamalan)
  2. The Girl and the Spider (Zürchers)
  3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  4. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  5. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  6. Terranova (Estrella, Perez)
  7. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  8. History of Ha (Diaz)
  9. I Comete: A Corsican Summer (Tagnati)
  10. Short Vacation (Kwon, Seo)

Apologies for the heavy bias towards Berlinale and IFFR, but halfway through the year my brain made the sad and sudden decision to become mostly unmoved by the moving image. Still, lots of surprises this year have left me feeling optimistic. I’m thinking especially of the debut and sophomore filmmakers who populate my top 10: Alexander Koberidze, Jessica Beshir, Alejandro Emmanuel Alonso Estrella, Lisanda López Fabé, Kwon Min-pyo, Han Sol-seo, Pascal Tagnati, Ramon and Silvan Zürcher, hope to see more of you soon.

Ioanna Micha

  1. Otava (Bregar)
  2. Roots (Gathorne)
  3. The Fourfold (Telengut)
  4. North Pole (Apcevska)
  5. My Grandmother is an Egg (Chang)
  6. Judas and the Black Messiah (King)
  7. Metempsychosis (Hariharan)
  8. Vagalumes (Bittencourt)
  9. Annette (Carax)
  10. The Terrarium (Kim)

Sam Moore

  1. Titane (Ducournau)
  2. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Coen)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  6. Dune (Villeneuve)
  7. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  8. Annette (Carax)
  9. Spencer (Larraín)/Benediction (Davies)
  10. The French Dispatch (Anderson)

There’s always the assumption that anthology films are going to be a little more “slight” than a traditional narrative, and that’ll be doubly true when people think about the “style over substance” critique that often gets levelled at Anderson. For better or worse, The French Dispatch is probably the Most Wes Anderson any film has been in his career. At once vast in scale – moving through time, cinematic forms, and a vast cast of characters – and intimate in its focus on the French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun. It’s a world that’s a joy to spend time in, even if its imperfect in its execution; and Jeffery Wright’s inspired-by-James-Baldwin performance is something that I could watch forever.

Biopics are always a bit of a tough sell; the “Oscar Bait” label gets thrown around a lot, and often the films feel a little rote and formulaic. But 2021 had an interesting moment where filmmakers rebelled against the traditions and conventions of “the biopic” as a genre. One of those films is Terence Davies’ Benediction (which in many ways shares this spot), and the other is Spencer. Both films take a deeply subjective look at the life and times of their characters, offering something strange and visually compelling, rather than a greatest hits compilation of the life of a historic figures. From the ghostly interludes of Spencer, to the ways in which Benediction feels like a Derek Jarman film; it feels like cheating to have these two films share a slot, but in so many ways, they belong together.

Like Holy Motors before it, Annette is a kind of maximalist, self-aware cinema that feels incredibly unique. Somewhere between opera, showbiz satire, and Brechtian drama, Carax’s strange, ambling musical goes in all kinds of directions. From the masterful opening sequence ‘So May We Start’ (one of the best individual scenes of the year) on to the magical coup of the film’s final number, Annette captures so much of what’s strange about cinema, and musicals – something that needs to be seen to be believed.

On the other end of the movie musical spectrum is Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. By taking the original show and updating it – politically and artistically – he’s able to breathe fresh life into a film that many people might have questioned the need for. From the spectacle to the romance, Spielberg captures everything that makes West Side Story so endlessly worth revisiting. Arianna DeBoise’s Anita is one of the discoveries of the year, in a charismatic, explosive performance that steals the show. More big-budget, spectacle-driven films should aim to look as vivid, and fluidly shot as the dance sequences here.

Speaking of spectacle, and all of the wonder – narratively, visually, musically – available to a genre that’s become formulaic, grey, and Disney-fied, this adaptation of the first half (ish) of Dune is an absolute marvel to behold. At once an action movie and not – all of the combat and explosions happen before a final act of wandering across Arrakis – intergalactic intrigue and religious themes come together in fascinating ways. Villeneuve takes the challenges of filming Dune and leans into them; from visualising the (possible) future(s) that Paul is plagued with, to giving the behemoth narratives of the film plenty of room to breathe, the first part of Dune is something that I would have happily watched for another hour.

Gothic, ominous, capturing the dying days of the frontier and the men that populate it, Campion’s queer western is filled with tension and dread in a way that’s unique to a film like this that leaves so much unsaid, rather than unseen. The tension between who you are and who you present yourself as is front and centre here, in the best performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career, and a wonderful supporting cast. About the oases and sanctuaries people try to find for themselves in violent, unforgiving landscapes, and the burden and violence that comes from silencing yourself.

Memoria: slow cinema, but with jump scares feels like the kind of thing built in a lab for me. The jumps are wonderful because, like in horror, it creates not just a fear of the unknown, but a desperate need to know more about it, a need mirrored by the journey of Tilda Swinton’s Jessica Holland. She searches for the source of these phantom noises, and finds so much more. A journey through time, space, and what might lie beyond, Memoria confronts the limits of experience, and of existence.

The productions within Drive My Car, directed – and sometimes led on stage – by Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima, in one of the performances of the year) are Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya. These feel like the artistic touchstones for Drive My Car, which takes on so many of the themes that appear in the work of Beckett and Chekhov, both of whom ask how we can go on, if at all. The gulf between the controlled rehearsal of the stage, and the terrifying instants in which the real world can change, Hamaguchi’s film takes all of the detail of how we live, and how we remember what we’ve left behind. There’s a scene in Drive My Car where, outside in beautiful weather, two women rehearse a scene from Vanya. In its simplicity, detail, and empathy, its a breathtaking moment.

Spare, dark, and mystical, Joel Coen’s Macbeth is one of the most surprising film adaptations of Shakespeare in years, maybe ever. Daring to lean into theatrically with its minimalist sets – somewhere between brutalist architecture and the long shadows of German expressionism – it takes the strange contrivances of Macbeth’s narrative, and makes them believable. From the ways in which it brings forests to castles, to Kathryn Hunter’s miraculous, shapeshifting performance as the three witches, it makes Macbeth at once theatrical and cinematic. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand offer a quiet, lived-in tragedy from Lord and Lady Macbeth, giving the film a new approach to a theme of parents and children that runs through so much of Shakespeare’s work. Unlike anything else of its kind.

And then there’s Titane, which is unlike anything else, period. Oversimplified upon release as an exercise in shock value and body horror excess, the film is a fascinating diptych on bodies and families. Brutally violent, darkly hilarious, before shifting gears towards something tender and intimate, a meditation on trans identity, found families, and what it means to love unconditionally. I can’t stop thinking of writing about it, and I’ve wanted to see it again since the lights came up after the LFF press screening – full of an audience that laughed, squirmed, looked away; the most viscerally I’ve ever seen a crowd respond to a film – I saw it at for the first time in October.

Patrick Preziosi

  1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  2. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  3. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  5. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  6. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  7. France (Dumont)
  8. Wife of a Spy (Kurosawa)
  9. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  10. Dune (Villeneuve)

MLP

6 features:

  1. The French Dispatch (Anderson)
  2. Ste. Anne (Vermette)
  3. Srećan Put (Proctor)
  4. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  5. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Koberidze)
  6. How to with John Wilson season 2 (Wilson)

6 shorts:

  1. Merapi (Szlam)
  2. Erde im Mund (Rosinska)
  3. Configurations (Edmonds)
  4. earthearthearth (Saïto)
  5. Liberty: an ephemeral statute (Arthur)
  6. Notes, Imprints (On Love): Part I (Cuesta)

Fedor Tot

  1. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Jude)
  2. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  3. Annette (Carax)
  4. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Žbanić)
  5. Wild Indian (Corbine Jr.)
  6. Martin Eden (Marcello)
  7. A Hero (Farhadi)
  8. Raging Fire (Chan)
  9. Wrong Turn (Nelson)
  10. Benedetta (Verhoeven)

Alistair Ryder

  1. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi)
  2. Red Rocket (Baker)
  3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  4. West Side Story (Spielberg)
  5. The Card Counter (Schrader)
  6. Titane (Ducournau)
  7. Benedetta (Verhoeven)
  8. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  9. Memoria (Apichatpong)
  10. Ahed’s Knee (Lapid)

Orla Smith

  1. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Žbanić)
  2. Hope (Sødahl)/The Worst Person in the World (Trier)
  3. Charlatan (Holland)
  4. I’m Your Man (Schrader)
  5. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  6. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  7. True Mothers (Kawase)
  8. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  9. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi)
  10. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Katz)

Laura Venning

  1. The Souvenir Part II (Hogg)
  2. The Power of the Dog (Campion)
  3. The Green Knight (Lowery)
  4. Petite Maman (Sciamma)
  5. Another Round (Vinterberg)
  6. The Nest (Durkin)
  7. Bergman Island (Hansen-Løve)
  8. Benediction (Davies)
  9. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (Janisse)
  10. Titane (Ducournau)