The 40 best films of 2021 - Part I, with trailers
Our film critic, Mark Walsh, reveals his picks for the top movies of 2021.
In Part I, he counts down from 40 to 21. You can find Part II here.
40. The Last Duel
Ridley Scott may have been convinced that millennials and their mobile phones were responsible for his film’s box office failure, but a congested marketplace caused by Bond and others may also have had something to do with it. But the reunion of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as writers and actors offers much, and Jodie Comer once again shows her immense talent in this historical epic.
39. In the Heights
He’s become best known for Hamilton, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous Broadway musical made it to the screen this year. The songs may not be quite as memorable as its successor but they’re still very catchy, and the choreography and sun-drenched cinematography of the characters from Upper Manhattan looking to improve themselves is well-suited to the big screen.
38. The Harder They Fall
The only thing that’s revolutionary here, if we’re being completely honest, is the casting, but this Western cast predominantly with black actors is blisteringly entertaining. Jeymes Samuel (brother of singer Seal) allows plenty of grandstanding from a strong ensemble that features standout performances from the likes of Idris Elba and Regina King.
James Wan is no stranger to horror, having been involved in the creation of the Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises. Here, he’s trying to mix it up a little, with a film that starts out as a detective thriller with some gothic interludes, before a spectacular plot reveal sets up a jaw-dropping final act that should leave even hardened horror cynics with a smile on their face.
36. Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson finally gets her turn in the spotlight after a decade of often thankless supporting roles in the Avengers ensemble. Despite a long history for the character, there’s still plenty we don’t know about her and Cate Shortland’s entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe attempts to fill in some blanks, while setting up Florence Pugh for the next iteration of these superheroes.
35. King Richard
It’s difficult to know how genuine this portrayal of the father of Venus and Serena Williams is, their roles as executive producers notwithstanding, but as a piece of entertainment King Richard is hard to fault, and Will Smith’s genial, slightly shambling turn as the girls’ father driven to find them a coach to exploit their potential will be hard to beat in awards season.
34. Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza’s name on a project is a sure sign that we’re in for a dark, off-kilter treat. You might know her as Parks and Recreation’s April, but the star of Safety Not Guaranteed and Ingrid Goes West is perfectly cast in this mysterious two-part film where truth seems to be a rare commodity and where nothing is what it first seems.
33. No Time to Die
Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond was the film which got everyone back in the cinema – it’s the third biggest film of all time in this country now – but while Casino Royale remains the gold standard in his Bond catalogue, this is a fitting finale for the best 007 we’ve had since Sean Connery first put on the tux and sipped martinis.
32. Palm Springs
Who knew that Groundhog Day would spawn a genre? But this is one of the best examples so far, Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti perfectly capturing the nihilism of being trapped in a repeating day at a family wedding while developing an enjoyable chemistry in this sort-of sci-fi comedy.
31. The French Dispatch
Can you have too much of a good thing? I left Wes Anderson’s latest, inspired by his love of the New Yorker magazine, feeling a tiny bit exhausted and, while it’s certainly got everything that makes his films so compelling, spreading its content out over three stories and a prologue means that you get a concentrated dose of Anderson.
30. Mothering Sunday
Eva Husson’s romantic drama spans several time periods, from its main story unfolding on the titular date in 1924 to a contemporary cameo from Glenda Jackson, but retains a leisurely pace that allows it to luxuriate in small details. Olivia Colman and Colin Firth offer their usual excellent work in small supporting roles.
29. Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires
A pre-pandemic film that finally made its way onto release this year, this British stop-motion comedy action horror is a world away from Wallace and Gromit, packed full of detail and over-the-top humour as it parodies the excesses of Eighties action movies. Jennifer Saunders and Paul Whitehouse offer their vocal talents.
It really feels as if Pixar can do no wrong, and they’ve turned out yet another winner in this mermaid-like tale of young sea monsters having an adventure on land, set in the Italian Riviera in the late Fifties. It also takes inspiration from some great Italian filmmakers and throws some opera into the mix in its score as well.
27. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
There’s probably a very specific audience for this film, fortysomethings like myself who have supremely fond memories of the 1984 original, but also for the range of other inspirations here from The Goonies to Stranger Things. That audience will love the blend of familiar and fresh offered up by Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman.
26. Free Guy
This really shouldn’t work as well as it does, tiptoeing along the line of cynical money-making machine with some attempts at crowd-pleasing use of other Disney properties, but this videogame-based comedy is carried by the dual, versatile talents of Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, while Taika Waititi chews scenery as the baddie.
25. The Mitchells vs The Machines
It’s been another great year for animation with this Netflix entry a blast of energy featuring a family on the run when the world is taken over by robots, and a delightfully stroppy turn from Olivia Colman as the phone-based AI that serves as the film’s main villain.
24. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Spider-Man: No Way Home came just before press deadlines, so for now this origin story for the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains its best film of the year. It’s as good at portraying genuine warmth and family relationships as it is capturing the kinetic martial arts action, and features a surprising return for one previous character.
23. Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s feature film debut as both writer and director is sharp, funny and accomplished, with Rachel Sennott as a bisexual Jewish woman who discovers after a chance encounter at a funeral that the man she relies on is actually married. Seligman creates a satisfying blend of abrasive drama and dark humour.
22. Sound of Metal
Viewers of Strictly have been enchanted by the dancing journey of deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis, but earlier in the year this Oscar contender from Darius Marder explored the onset of deafness with an empathy not captured as effectively on screen before. Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke are excellent as the couple coming to terms with his hearing loss.
21. The Sparks Brothers
As well as being one of Britain’s hippest directors, Edgar Wright is a supreme music lover, and channels that passion into a documentary about one of the most enduring
and influential bands of the last half-century, in what’s been an excellent cinematic year for brothers Ron and Russell Mael, best known for This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.
Look out for Part II, counting down to Mark’s top film of 2021, coming soon.