The 12 Best Films of 2021
From Oscar-worthy revisionist westerns to spice-war space operas, 2021 treated the big screen to a heap of stellar flicks. These are the very best.
December 22, 2021
When all else fails, escape into cinema: that's the movie-lover's mantra. There's nothing quite like staring at the silver screen in a cavernous theatre, soaking in its shimmering sights with nothing else but darkness around you and communing with the artform as it flickers by at 24 frames per second.
And, that's a truth that remained intact in 2021, even with temporary pandemic-induced cinema closures once again part of our reality for another year. As anyone who yearned to watch a film somewhere other than their own couch knows — to revel in the escape that only these celluloid dreams bring, too — absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder.
Whether picture palaces near you were up and running or affected by lockdowns, they still screened a wealth of fantastic movies in 2021. They showed terrible ones as well, but that always comes with the territory. We watched and reviewed them all each week no matter what, exceptional and terrible alike, and somehow managed to whittle all the standout flicks down to this: our picks for the year's 12 absolute best movies.
2021 might've been another swirl of chaos in general, but movie magic always delivers.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
Don't call it a comeback: Jane Campion's films have been absent from cinemas for 12 years but, due to miniseries Top of the Lake, she hasn't been biding her time in that gap. And don't call it simply returning to familiar territory, even if the New Zealand director's new movie features an ivory-tinkling woman caught between cruel and sensitive men, as her Cannes Palme d'Or-winner The Piano did three decades ago. Campion isn't rallying after a dip, just as she isn't repeating herself. She's never helmed anything less than stellar, and she's immensely capable of unearthing rich new pastures in well-ploughed terrain. With The Power of the Dog, Campion is at the height of her skills trotting into her latest mesmerising musing on strength, desire and isolation — this time via a venomous western that's as perilously bewitching as its mountainous backdrop.
That setting is Montana, circa 1925. Campion's homeland stands in for America nearly a century ago, making a magnificent sight — with cinematographer Ari Wegner (Zola, True History of the Kelly Gang) perceptively spying danger in its craggy peaks and dusty plains even before the film introduces Rose and Peter Gordon (On Becoming a God in Central Florida's Kirsten Dunst and 2067's Kodi Smit-McPhee). When the widowed innkeeper and her teenage son serve rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank (Spider-Man: No Way Home's Benedict Cumberbatch a career-best, awards-worthy, downright phenomenal turn, plus Antlers' Jesse Plemons) during a cattle-run stop, the encounter seesaws from callousness to kindness, a dynamic that continues after Rose marries George and decamps to the Burbank mansion against that stunning backdrop. Brutal to the lanky, lisping Peter from the outset, Phil responds to the nuptials with malice. He isn't fond of change, and won't accommodate anything that fails his bristling definition of masculinity and power, either.
Read our full review.
Gone are the days when every image that flickered across the screen did so within an almost square-shaped frame. So, when a director today fits their visuals into a much tighter space than the now-expansive norm, it's an intentional choice. They're not just nodding to the past, even if their film takes place in times gone by. With First Cow, for instance, Kelly Reichardt unfurls a story set in 19th-century America, but she's also honing her audience's focus. The Certain Women filmmaker wants those guiding their eyeballs towards this exquisite movie to truly survey everything that it peers at, to see its central characters — chef Otis 'Cookie' Figowitz (John Magaro, Overlord) and Chinese entrepreneur King-Lu (Orion Lee, Zack Snyder's Justice League) — and to realise that neither are ever afforded such attention by the others in their fictional midst.
There's much to take in throughout this magnificently told tale, which heads to Oregon as most of Reichardt's movies have. In its own quiet, closely observed, deeply affectionate and warm-hearted fashion, First Cow is a heist movie, although the filmmaker's gentle and insightful spin on the usually slick and twist-filled genre bucks every convention there is. It first meets Cookie as he's searching for food, and meets King-Lu when Cookie helps him evade a group of Russians. The seeds of friendship are sown and, when the duo next crosses paths, they spend an alcohol-addled night sharing their respective ideas for the future. Those ambitious visions get a helping hand after the Chief Factor (Toby Jones, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom) ships in the region's highly coveted first cow, with Cookie and King-Lu secretly milking the animal in the dark of night, then using the stolen liquid to make highly sought-after — and highly profitable — oily cakes.
Read our full review.
A Star Is Born has already graced the titles of four different films, and Licorice Pizza isn't one of them. Paul Thomas Anderson's ninth feature, and his loosest since Boogie Nights — his lightest since ever, too — does boast a memorable Bradley Cooper performance, though. That said, this 70s- and San Fernando Valley-set delight isn't quite about seeking fame, then navigating its joys and pitfalls, although child actors and Hollywood's ups and downs all figure into the narrative. Licorice Pizza definitely births two new on-screen talents, however, both putting in two of 2021's best performances and two of the finest-ever movie debuts. That's evident from the film's very first sublimely grainy 35-millimetre-shot moments, as Alana Haim of Haim (who PTA has directed several music videos for) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, a PTA regular) do little more than chat, stroll and charm.
The radiant Haim plays Alana Kane, a Valley dweller of 25 or 28 (her story changes) working as a photographer's assistant, which brings her to a Tarzana high school on yearbook picture day. Enter the smoothly assured Hoffman as 15-year-old Gary Valentine, who is instantly smitten and tries to wrangle a date. From there, Licorice Pizza charts the pair's friendship as it circles and swirls, and as they often sprint towards each other — chronicling everything else going on in the San Fernando Valley, where PTA himself grew up, too. The result is a shaggy slice-of-life film that Anderson has penned partly based on stories shared by Gary Goetzman, an ex-child talent turned frequent producer of Tom Hanks movies. Spanning everything from waterbed sales to high-tension truck drives — and child-acting stardom, gasoline shortages and mayoral campaigns as well — Anderson lets Licorice Pizza saunter along leisurely like it's just stepped out of the 70s itself, and coats it in that anything-can-happen vibe that only comes with youth.
Read our full review.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Promising Young Woman would've made an excellent episode or season of Veronica Mars. That's meant as the highest compliment to both the bubblegum-hued take on the rape-revenge genre and the cult-status private detective series. Writer/director Emerald Fennell clearly isn't blind to the parallels between the two, even casting Veronica Mars stars Max Greenfield (New Girl) and Chris Lowell (GLOW) in her feature debut. Don't go thinking the Killing Eve season two showrunner and The Crown actor is simply following in other footsteps, though. At every moment, the brilliant and blistering Promising Young Woman vibrates with too much anger, energy and insight to merely be a copycat of something else. It's a film made with the savviest of choices, and provocative and downright fearless ones as well, in everything from its soundtrack to its weaponised pastel, peppy and popping Instagram-friendly imagery.
Played by Carey Mulligan, and drawing upon her near-peerless ability to express complex internalised turmoil, Cassie Thomas is inebriated and alone at a nightclub when she's introduced. Three men discuss women over beverages by the bar, and notice Cassie while talking, with one commenting, "they put themselves in danger, girls like that". No woman brings sexual assault upon themselves, with this whole intelligent and astute revenge-thriller rebuffing the bro-ish bar guy's early observation in every way possible, and meting out punishment to those who think similarly. Cassie won't stand for such attitudes and, as she embarks upon a vigilante quest, the movie takes her to bold places. Boasting a relentlessness that mirrors the persistence of grief and pain after trauma, Promising Young Woman never lets its protagonist's rage subside, proving furious from start to finish — and sharing that feeling even in the film's most overt setups and obvious scenes (which are also some of its most entertaining) is a foregone conclusion.
Read our full review.
Dreamy and dazzling from its first moments, rock opera Annette bursts onto the screen with a question: "so may we start?". "Please do", fans of Holy Motors director Leos Carax should think to themselves, and devotees of Ron and Russell Mael as well — and yes the later, aka art-pop duo Sparks, are clearly having a moment in 2021 (see: The Sparks Brothers below). All three appear on-screen in Annette's opening, joined by Adam Driver (Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker), Marion Cotillard (We'll End Up Together) and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory). In a glorious, song-fuelled, sing-and-walk scene, no one is playing a character yet, but they're all still playing a part. They're setting the vibe in a sensational way, and the tune is pure Sparks, with the pair both composing the movie's music and writing the feature itself with Carax. The tone bubbles with the duo's avant-garde sensibilities, too, and the whole song echoes with the promise of remarkable things to come.
Nine years ago, Carax gave the world a once-in-a-lifetime gem. Annette is a different film to Holy Motors, obviously, but it gleams just as brightly and with the same beguiling, inimitable, all-encompassing allure. There's an ethereal, otherworldly quality to Carax's work — of heightening reality to truly understand how people feel and act, and of experimenting with artforms to interrogate them — and that sensation seeps through every second of his gleefully melodramatic musical, which deservedly won him the Cannes Film Festival's Best Director award. Everything about Annette has been turned up several notches on every setting, from its lush and lavish imagery to its cascade of toe-tapping, sung-through tunes that keep propelling the narrative forward. Every detail of that story has been amplified, too, as this tragic fairy tale follows standup comedian Henry McHenry (Driver), opera star Ann Defrasnoux's (Cotillard), their mismatched but passionate and all-consuming love, and their titular daughter — with the latter played by a marionette.
Read our full review.
It's terrifying to contemplate something so gut-wrenchingly abominable as the bodies-in-barrels murders, which director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant depicted in 2011's Snowtown, and to face the fact that people rather than evil were behind them. Nitram courts and provokes the same response. Exploring the events preceding the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were murdered and 23 others wounded in Tasmania in 1996, it focuses on something equally as ghastly, and similarly refuses to see the perpetrator as just a monster or a Hollywood horror movie-style foe. It too is difficult, distressing, disquieting and disturbing, understandably. In their third collaboration — with 2019's blazing True History of the Kelly Gang in the middle — Kurzel and Grant create another tricky masterpiece, in fact.
That Nitram is about a person is one key reason for its brilliance. The film's core off-screen duo don't excuse their protagonist. They don't justify the unjustifiable, explain it, exploit it or provide neat answers to a near-unfathomable crime. Rather, they're careful in depicting the lone gunman responsible for Australia's worst single-shooter mass killing, right down to refusing to name him. In an exacting movie in every way possible, they also benefit from exceptional performances by Caleb Landry Jones (Finch) as the film's namesake, Judy Davis (Mystery Road) as his wearied mother, Anthony LaPaglia (Below) as his father and Essie Davis (The Justice of Bunny King) as his lottery heiress friend.
Read our full review.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
Sometimes, a performance just flat-out shakes and startles you — in a good way, that is. In her 2021 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress-winning role, Norwegian actor Renate Reinsve (Phoenix) turns in that type of complex, layered, no-holds-barred and relatable portrayal. She's magnificent, and thoroughly deserves all of the shiny trophies sent her way. She plays Julie, a young Oslo resident who doesn't ever earn The Worst Person in the World's title, but nonetheless pinballs through the mess of her millennial life. Across 12 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, almost everything about the character's existence changes within the mere four years that the movie focuses on: dreams, goals, studies, careers, loved ones, boyfriends (including Bergman Island's Anders Danielsen Lie), apartments, friends and her perception of herself.
That aforementioned moniker stems from a comment that Julie spits her own way, actually, because she's often aware of her own chaos. Writer/director Joachim Trier (Thelma) is just as cognisant of how romantic dramedies like this tend to turn out, which both feeds and enables Reinsve's astonishing performance — because this isn't the usual cliche-riddled affair. Every rise and fall that comes Julie's way transcends tropes to contemplate what growing up, being an adult and forging a life is really like, including at both the sunniest and the most heartbreaking extremes. As a character study, The Worst Person in the World is a masterpiece. As a snapshot of an age and life stage, it's just as canny, insightful and excellent.
Read our full review.
Eye roll-inducingly terrible bumper stickers be damned; no one honks if they're horny in Titane. Revving when aroused is more this petrol-doused body-horror film's style, spanning characters both flesh and chrome. When she's seen writhing in fishnets atop a flame-adorned vintage Cadillac, the stony-gazed Alexia (debutant Agathe Rousselle) is working. She's titillating a Fast and Furious-style car crowd with her sexed-up display, but the car model still seems to hum with every gyration. After wrapping up, murdering a grab-happy fan with the metal chopstick keeping her hair up and then showering off the gooey, gory evidence, she's soon purring rhythmically inside that gleaming vehicle. Yes, in a plot detail that spilled the instant Titane premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d'Or, this is the French car sex flick.
How does someone fornicate with an automobile? In her sophomore effort after the also-phenomenal teen cannibal film Raw, writer/director Julia Ducournau isn't too interested in those specifics. Instead, she's more concerned with shrewdly linking mechanophilia with agency and control, particularly over one's feelings and body. Her narrative starts its drive in Alexia's childhood, then speeds forward to her time as a fugitive posing as a fire chief's (Vincent Lindon, At War) long-missing son — and proves not just the French car sex film, nor merely a car sex movie about a woman partly forged from titanium (and with a penchant for piercing her way through those who block her road), but a ferocious and unflinching thriller that's also beautiful, tender and compassionate. If Ducournau had made her script out of metal, she'd be moulding it in its molten form. If her feature was a car instead, it'd be that libidinous, fire-emblazoned Cadillac, which arrives with a bang, lures Alexia in and then lets loose.
Read our full review.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS
"All I do now is dick around" is an exquisite song lyric and, in Sparks' 2006 single 'Dick Around', it's sung with the operatic enthusiasm it demands. It's also a line that resounds with both humour and truth when uttered by Russell Mael, who, with elder brother Ron, has been crafting art-pop ditties as irreverent and melodic as this wonderful track since 1969. Sparks haven't been dicking around over that lengthy period. They currently have 25 albums to their name, and they've taken on almost every genre of music there is in their highly acerbic fashion. That said, their tunes are clearly the biggest labour of love possible, especially as the enigmatic duo has always lingered outside the mainstream. They're the band that all your favourite bands, actors and comedians can't get enough of, but they're hardly a household name — and yet, decade after decade, the Maels have kept playing around to make the smart, hilarious and offbeat songs they obviously personally adore.
Everyone else should love Sparks' idiosyncratic earworms as well — and, even for those who've never heard of the band before, that's the outcome after watching The Sparks Brothers. Edgar Wright, one of the group's unabashed super fans, has turned his overflowing affection into an exceptional documentary. It's the Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho director's first factual effort, and it's even more charming and delightful than the films he's best known for. That said, it'd be hard to mess up a movie about Sparks, purely given how much material there is to work with. Russell and Ron, the former sporting shaggier hair and the latter donning a pencil-thin moustache rather than the Charlie Chaplin-style top lip he's brandished for much of his career, are also heavenly interviewees. That's the thing about these now-septuagenarian siblings, every Sparks tune they've ever blasted out into the world, and this comprehensive yet always accessible film that's instantly one of 2021's best: they're all joyously, fabulously, eccentrically fun to an infectious and buoyant degree.
Read our full review.
THE LOST DAUGHTER
Watching Olivia Colman play a complicated woman is like staring at the ocean: it's never the same twice, it couldn't be more unpredictable, and all that surface texture bobs, floats, swells, gleams and glides atop leagues of unseen complexity. It's fitting, then, that The Lost Daughter tasks The Favourite Oscar-winner with glaring at the sea, and doing so both intently and often. A necessity of the narrative, as penned on the page by My Brilliant Friend's Elena Ferrante and adapted for the screen by actor-turned-filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal, it's a touch that washes through the movie with extra force due to its star. Colman plays literature professor Leda, who fills much of her time peering at the water as she summers on a Greek island — and getting caught up in the lives of Nina (Dakota Johnson, The Nowhere Inn) and her frequently screaming toddler. While both gazing at the waves and taking in the onshore domestic dramas, Leda sees her own ebbs, flows, thorns and flaws reflected back.
The idea that bringing life into the world isn't the existence-defining triumph of femininity it's sugar-coated as doesn't simply sit at the heart of Ferrante's novel and Gyllenhaal's debut stint behind the lens; from the instant that Colman is seen collapsing on the pebble-strewn shoreline in the picture's opening, it laps over The Lost Daughter's every moment. As seen in its present-day storyline and its flashbacks to the past (with I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Jessie Buckley as Leda), its protagonist is a woman haunted by everything having kids has brought, as well as guilt-stricken by all that's followed — and this bold and affecting movie confronts that rocky truth. For any director, this is audacious and intricate terrain, but Gyllenhaal proves as exceptional and daring a filmmaker as she is a performer.
Read our full review.
BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN
Banging is the certainly word for it; when Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn begins, it's with high school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu, Beyond the Hills) and her camera-wielding husband Eugen (first-timer Stefan Steel) having loud, enthusiastic, pink wig-wearing sex — and filming it. Romanian writer/ director Radu Jude (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians) shows the explicit three-minute snippet of footage as others will see it, because others will indeed see it: the students at Emi's school, their parents and her fellow teachers among them. All genitalia and thrusting and lustful talk (and shouted queries through the door from whoever is looking after the couple's child), this graphic opening also makes a firm statement. So many people within the film's frames will take issue with it as vocally as Emi and her partner are enjoying themselves — and they're unmistakably enjoying themselves — but Jude definitely isn't one of them.
What follows is a razor-sharp satire of a world that's so indifferent to so much, but so unaccepting of carnality. The film wields that notion as a weapon, all as Emi and Bucharest's other residents also navigate the pandemic. In the cinema verite-style first section, Emi rushes around the city on foot, learning of the sex tape backlash while surrounded by everyday hostilities and vulgarities. Next, Jude unleashes scathing and playful cine-essay snippets about Romania's past, the planet's present, human behaviour, and how porn is used as both a scapegoat and anaesthetic. Then, Emi is interrogated by parents and teachers, their judgement and hypocrisy on full display — in the climax to an already brilliant, biting and bleakly hilarious achievement.
Read our full review.
A spice-war space opera about feuding houses on far-flung planets, Dune has long been a pop-culture building block. Before Frank Herbert's 1965 novel was adapted into a wrongly reviled David Lynch-directed film — a gloriously 80s epic led by Kyle MacLachlan and laced with surreal touches — it unmistakably inspired Star Wars, and also cast a shadow over Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Game of Thrones has since taken cues from it. The Riddick franchise owes it a debt, too. The list goes on and, thanks to the new version bringing its sandy deserts to cinemas, will only keep growing. As he did with Blade Runner 2049, writer/director Denis Villeneuve has once again grasped something already enormously influential, peered at it with astute eyes and built it anew — and created an instant sci-fi classic.
This time, Villeneuve isn't asking viewers to ponder whether androids dream of electric sheep, but if humanity can ever overcome one of our worst urges and all that it brings. With an exceptional cast that spans Timothée Chalamet (The French Dispatch), Oscar Isaac (The Card Counter), Rebecca Ferguson (Reminiscence), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Josh Brolin (Avengers: Endgame), Javier Bardem (Everybody Knows), Zendaya (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and more, Dune tells of birthrights, prophesied messiahs, secret sisterhood sects that underpin the galaxy and phallic-looking giant sandworms, and of the primal lust for power that's as old as time — and, in Herbert's story, echoes well into the future's future. Its unpacking of dominance and command piles on colonial oppression, authoritarianism, greed, ecological calamity and religious fervour, like it is building a sandcastle out of power's nastiest ramifications. And, amid that weightiness — plus those spectacularly shot visuals and Hans Zimmer's throbbing score — it's also a tale of a moody teen with mind-control abilities struggling with what's expected versus what's right.
Read our full review.
These are our 12 favourite films of 2021 — but the year was filled with plenty of other excellent movies. We've also put together lists of the best films hardly anyone saw this year, the best straight-to-streaming movies and the other standouts from 2021 that you should catch up on over summer. Don't say you don't have anything to watch.
Published on December 22, 2021 by Sarah Ward