The 40 best films of 2021 - Part II, with trailers
Our film critic, Mark Walsh, continues his countdown of the finest movies of 2021. You can find Part I here.
20. Ear for Eye
In the continued blurring of cinema and online releases, debbie tucker green’s searing adaptation of her own play debuted at the London Film Festival, on screens around the country and on BBC television on the same day. It’s an insistent call to action over the continued challenges presented by racial injustice in society.
19. The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão
Cambridge Film Festival audiences might remember this Brazilian film screening two years ago, but the pandemic meant that it only received a full release earlier this year. Two sisters living in Rio De Janeiro are set on different paths by their domineering father as they both try to escape their downtrodden lives.
18. The Father
Another adaptation from a stage play, Florian Zeller recruited Christopher Hampton to help adapt his own study of a man suffering from dementia, played to award-winning effect by Anthony Hopkins. A strong supporting cast including Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams make this another devastating insight into the effects of dementia on the sufferer and their family.
Pablo Larraín previously gave us his outsider’s perspective on the wife of JFK with Natalie Portman in Jackie, and now he turns his attention to the Royal Family with a look at the last Christmas that Charles and Diana were together. Kristen Stewart captures the essence of a princess, with the film looking upward from her perspective as an outsider struggling with the demands of
16. The Lost Daughter
Olivia Colman said when she accepted her Oscar for The Favourite that she did not expect to stand on that stage again; however, a third nomination in four years remains a strong possibility for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nuanced examination of a woman forced into confronting traumas from her past while on a Greek holiday.
Andreas Fantana creates an icy cold conspiracy thriller that slips under your skin so subtly, you barely even realise you’ve gone from barbed conversations between Swiss bankers and their Argentine hosts in Eighties Argentina, to a Hearts of Darkness climax in the South American jungle. Every glance and every sentence seems to carry with it risk and apprehension.
14. The Story of Film: A New Generation
Mark Cousins is a film scholar who’s become an expert at making compelling documentaries examining the most profound and affecting films in cinema history. Here he updates his seminal 20th century series with a look at the best films of the 21st century, and gives cinephiles a shopping list of delights to start hunting down for their watchlists.
Disney animations have survived the transition to CGI and this sixtieth film from the House of Mouse bears comparison with any of its predecessors. The girl who is the only member of her family not to be granted special powers by an enchanted candle may be their only hope, with more great songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda to help tell the tale.
A British film that puts a rather different spin on the story of asylum seekers, Ben Sharrock’s deadpan drama follows a group of refugees holed up on a Scottish island while their application is considered. Banned from paid work, they’re given instruction on how to fill their time while they try to work through their own personal demons.
11. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
A remarkable documentary that mixes reminiscences with footage from a 1969 music festival in Harlem. Held in the same summer as Woodstock, hopefully this will help history to find a better footing for the concert series, with performances unseen in fifty years from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and The 5th Dimension.
10. C’Mon C’Mon
It screams arthouse from practically the first frame (studio A24 has become a magnet for strong independent cinema), but this black and white study of an uncle forced into a babysitting roadtrip for his unfamiliar nephew has two frank, honest performances from Joaquin Phoenix and newcomer Woody Newman as they grapple with family issues.
9. tick, tick… BOOM!
He’s proven that he can master the West End and Broadway stages, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda seems equally adept behind the camera. Andrew Garfield adds “incredible singing voice” to his CV as he portrays Rent creator Jonathan Larson in this adaptation of Larson’s own musical, as Larson looks to emulate the success of his hero Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford).
Almost every horror franchise has undergone some form of belated, self-referential sequel or reboot over the last couple of decades, but Nia DaCosta’s update of Clive Barker’s hook-handed killer who responds to being summoned is not only more chilling than the original, but also adds intriguing layers to the overall mythology.
A match made in some sort of twisted, surrealist heaven, eccentric art rockers Sparks teamed up with Holy Motors director Denis Lavant to make a fantasy rock opera where stand-up comic Adam Driver and soprano fiancée Marion Cotillard become parents to a wooden marionette. It’s never less than ludicrous or spectacular, but it’s exactly what you’d hope for from everyone concerned.
Even a director as great as David Lynch struggled to make sense of Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi novel, so credit to Arrival director Denis Villeneuve for making at least one part of an epic blockbuster. Unbeatable for sheer scale or big ideas, it’s going to be a tough wait for two years for the second half.
5. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Jasmila Žbanić’s tale of a UN translator and former schoolteacher trying to save her family from the Srebrenica massacre is a masterpiece of modern apathy and bureaucracy giving way to tragedy. If there is an inevitability to the fates of many of the characters, it in no way diminishes the film’s anger or frustration as it depicts the unfolding genocide.
4. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion returns with a slow-burn post-Western thriller that unites Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst in a battle of wills. Campion gets top-drawer performances from all of her cast, which also includes Jesse Plemons and Kodi-Smit McPhee, and makes the most of the widescreen vistas of her native New Zealand which stand in for the Montana countryside.
3. The Green Knight
David Lowery is one of the most distinctive voices in American cinema right now, on a run of films which includes Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story and The Old Man and the Gun. He’s outdone all of them with his version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, following Dev Patel on a fated quest with striking imagery that lingers long after the credits.
2. Petite Maman
In a year which has seen almost every blockbuster clocking in upwards of two and a half hours, Celine Sciamma does more than all of them in less than half the time. An indelible study into processing grief and forming friendships, Sciamma coaxes two touching performances from sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz that absolutely sell the film’s high, yet simple, concept.
Chloe Zhao might have ended the year in disappointment with a middling reaction to her Marvel epic Eternals, but that shouldn’t detract from the power and poetry of her examination of the nomadic life of those caught in the economic downturn in the American Midwest. Actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn blend seamlessly with the real-life caravan dwellers, as Zhao became only the second woman to win both BAFTA and Oscars for best director.