With the box office open again after a year of hibernation, the best movies of 2021 are a wildly eclectic bunch. Our list of this year's finest – chosen by Total Film – includes provocative indies, searing drama, wacky animation, and foreign-language favorites alongside blockbuster standouts.
We should note the Total Film team is UK-based, and therefore the below list of the best movies of 2021 is formed of releases that reached cinemas and streaming services across 2021 in the UK rather than the US. That means the likes of Oscar-winner Nomadland and Promising Young Woman make the cut (released in April) while Guillermo Del Toro's much-hyped Nightmare Alley does not (it's a January 2022 release over here). There are also movies we have yet to collectively see – including The Matrix Resurrections and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Once we have a measure of these we will add them, if they are deserving a place.
With the parameters set, these are the best films released over the last year – did your pick make our list?
This bawdy, heart-warming coming-of-age tale about a gutsy US teen torn between her Deaf family and her musical dreams was a certified crowd-pleaser. As a ‘Child Of Deaf Adults,’ Ruby (Emilia Jones) pinballs between high school and the failing family fishing business which needs her to deal with the hearing world. Director Sian Heder put some welcome blue-collar grit into her adaptation of cozy French hit La Famille Belier, showing how ‘bullshit quotas’ and rapacious fish dealers threaten the family livelihood. The movie scored big with its fond, hilarious portrait of Ruby’s sweary, sex-mad family, whose theatrical sign language is a joy to watch. CODA was Jones’ movie (her voice the only clue that she’s Aled Jones’ daughter), her performance propelled by Ruby’s sweet, stubborn energy, and soulful tunes.
24. The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch is a lovingly crafted nod to old-school journalism; a film split into multiple sections, each following a distinct set of characters, mimicking the structure of a magazine. The French Dispatch is, you see, a fictional magazine produced in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Wes Anderson's direction was assured throughout each separate, distinguished story, and each has the whimsy expected of the auteur. There's also the astonishing cast list, featuring more recognizable Hollywood names than a Met gala guest list.
Royal watchers have been spoilt recently. First, The Crown brought Diana into our homes, then Pablo Larraín’s told a tight story about Diana set over three days in 1991. Kristen Stewart is sensational as the empathetic princess, in this portrait that sensitively explores her inner turmoil. She simply dissolves into Diana. Opposite her, Timothy Spall’s snooping equerry makes for an excellent foil, while Larraín works wonders depicting the enormous behind-the-scenes operation of looking after the royal family. From corgis to costumes, Spencer will make you feel as if you’re tucking into turkey with the Windsors – for better and worse.
22. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home brought together villains from throughout the web-slinger's cinematic history for a movie that's referential almost to a fault. Tom Holland's Spidey grounds the whole affair, and when those famous faces show up, there's no denying that the conclusion to the Homecoming trilogy has scenes that are on par with the dizzying heights of Captain America wielding Thor's hammer in Avengers: Endgame. Fan-service is the name of the game, and if you're a webhead, No Way Home was a celebration of the hero's past and present.
- Read more: Our review of Spider-Man: No Way Home
21. Shiva Baby
Emma Seligman’s writer/director debut is the most stressful comedy of the year. In fact, it plays, at times, almost like a horror movie, complete with suffocating claustrophobia, amplified foreboding and an assaultive staccato score of keys and strings. Set at a shiva (a period of mourning following a funeral, in the Jewish tradition) in one house, the hurly-burly is inescapable, and though every cringe-com scenario is magnified, it all feels painfully authentic. Rachel Sennott’s performance as the rudderless Danielle, caught in a squall, invites us in, and there’s something of The Graduate’s Ben Braddock in her predicament, with Seligman bringing a fresh perspective to events as they snowball. Enjoy, if that’s the word.
20. Petite Maman
“After writing the first draft, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a time-travel movie’,” said French auteur Céline Sciamma, and like her, you might not have realized it at first, for instead of flux capacitors and the like, we had two little girls becoming friends as they built a treehouse together. They look uncannily alike (sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz excel) and it transpires that they are in fact mother and daughter, bridging space, time, and emotional divisions in a short (72 minutes!), modestly scaled film that deals with the big themes of love and loss. This portrait of two little ladies saw Sciamma, as ever, on fire.
19. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
“It was our goal to provide audiences with a modern retelling of this superhero origin story,” said Simu Liu, the breakout star of Marvel’s most exhilarating 2021 movie. As the titular trained assassin, pulled back into his old life when his father (Tony Leung) comes calling, Liu helped steer director Destin Daniel Cretton’s take on a dated ’70s comic strip into something vital. Out went questionable racial stereotypes. In came a perfect blend of mayhem and mysticism – with that bus fight one of the year’s best set-pieces. Oh, and Ben Kingsley’s return as Iron Man 3 thesp Trevor Slattery was a treat.
The lurid days of the Video Nasty were revisited in Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature, a richly imagined slice of psychological chiller that saw Niamh Algar’s prim censor drawn into the world of the slashers she evaluates in her search for her missing sister. Drawing on a range of influences (Argento, Hammer, the director’s earlier short Nasty), Censor provided a clinical critique of that era’s tabloid hysteria and an unsettling dissection of an unravelling mind. The result was both a nostalgic delight for bloodthirsty cineastes and a striking calling card for a director who could be spotted making a Hitchcockian cameo in one of her recreations.
17. The Most Beautiful Boy In The World
The only 2021 doc (in a strong year) to crack Total Film’s best movies of 2021 took viewers into the private world of Björn Andrésen. Five decades on, he’s still known as the angelic-looking object of desire Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s 1961 film Death in Venice. Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s sensitive doc explored how that overwhelming experience led to depression in Andrésen’s later life. Comprehensive but never sensationalist, even if it felt uncomfortable to sit in on his original screen test. Andrésen remains a compelling onscreen figure, captured mournfully by stunning cinematography.
16. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion returned to film after 12 years with a self-penned story of a ’20s Montana ranch owner (Jesse Plemons) marrying a widow (Kirsten Dunst) and the emotional fallout that ensues. A simple enough set-up, but like the shadows lurking in the mountains that loom over the homestead, darkness lies in wait. Much of that came from a career-best Benedict Cumberbatch’s bullying alpha cowpoke Phil and the simmering tension that haunted each beautiful frame, but the ultimate power play was as brutal and clinical as the gelding of a horse. Toxic masculinity indeed. Expect Kodi Smit-McPhee to be on the awards circuit.
- Read more: The Total Film review of The Power of the Dog
The cinematography might have been black-and-white but little else was in Rebecca Hall’s thought-provoking period piece, an adaptation of Nella Larson’s
1929 novella that offered a powerful insight into an underexplored corner of
the African-American experience. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga were perfectly matched in this story of two women living radically different lives – one as a doctor’s respectable spouse, the other as a wife "passing" as white under her unsuspecting husband’s nose. How one’s subterfuge jars the other’s sense of self-identity made for compelling drama in a film that confirmed Hall as a director to watch.
- Read more: The Total Film review of Passing
14. No Time To Die
Daniel Craig’s much-delayed swansong as 007 (thanks, Covid) finally hit cinemas amid much secrecy – and with good reason. The most radical Bond film in decades saw James battle a baddie (Rami Malek) with a very topical weapon, a Black woman assume the famous Bond agent number, a shocking death, and a canon-challenging legacy. Daring? Yes. Divisive? Yes. It may not have pleased all fans, but No Time To Die delivered on a big promise: an event Bond film that had everyone talking. “"t was a chance to wrap up all the loose ends and finish what I’d started 15 years ago," Craig said of his bow out. Mission accomplished.
- Read more: Our picks for the next James Bond
13. First Cow
Kelly Reichardt has never seen Star Wars ("I remember standing in line as a kid... and then I fell asleep") but you’d wager she’s seen plenty of westerns; it takes an intimate knowledge to so rewrite the genre. Discarding six-shooters, white macho heroes and foundational myths, Reichardt instead spun a quiet tale of male friendship set in the verdant Pacific Northwest in the 1820s, as Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) pilfer milk from a landowner’s prized cow to make biscuits. First Cow proved a hushed, unhurried delight: "It’s about the difference between showing an audience something and letting an audience see something," she said.
12. Another Round
This year’s Bafta and Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Thomas Vinterberg’s uplifting tale of four teachers who decide to experiment with daytime drinking was the perfect (gin and) tonic in the pandemic era. "A celebration of alcohol [that evolved into] a story about life... how difficult it is and how precious it is," noted Vinterberg – an observation that became painfully real when he lost his daughter in a car accident weeks before shooting. Mads Mikkelsen excelled as Martin, whose midlife malaise is shaken by this boozy plan, leading to a dance-driven finale that is surely the best routine of the year outside of Strictly. A genuine palate cleanser.
11. Quo Vadis, Aida?
Shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar where it lost out to the crowd-pleasing Danish entry Another Round, this hard-hitting Bosnia-Herzegovina drama is set during the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, when more than 8,000 Muslims were ordered dead by General Ratko Mladic. Our eyes and ears are Aida (a terrific Jasna Ðjuricic), a translator working in a UN encampment in the ‘safe zone’, trying to protect her own family and thousands more as Mladic and his men descend with bread and chocolate to camouflage their true plans.
As written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić (Grbavica), this responsible, harrowing film is made bearable by its constant beating human heart. "Many films that I see which deal with war, even anti-war films, take pleasure from the spectacle of war," said Žbanić to Eurimages of the film’s feminist perspective. "As a woman, I can’t find anything enjoyable about war. It is a banal platform for sociopaths, and people blinded by power. All human values are neglected and only the strong survive. As a feminist, I despise these structures."
10. Bo Burnham: Inside
Film or comedy special? Shot in a loft-like room during lockdown, this kaleidoscopic chronicle of mental disintegration blurred boundaries between mediums as surely as it blended fact and fiction. If more Total Film writers had considered it a movie given it did, after all, possess a narrative, then it would have placed even higher. Because one thing’s for certain: it’s a masterpiece, as no less a comedic talent than Steve Martin excitedly told Total Film while promoting his own TV series Only Murders In The Building.
Flitting between catchy electro-pop numbers boasting acrobatically rhyming lyrics, sock puppets discussing geopolitics, scalpel-sharp observations of social and digital isolation, bleak existential musings and more, much more – all presented in a whirling, whizzing display of visual and audio pyrotechnics – Inside is the most impressive work yet by the former YouTube sensation who previously wrote and directed Eighth Grade. Burnham’s anxiety is our great gift.
- Read more: The best Netflix comedies to watch right now
9. The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
"I basically combined the thing I love the most in the world - my crazy family - and the thing I loved the most when I was a kid - killer robots," said director Mike Rianda. In telling the story of a cross-country college drop-off marred by an AI uprising, Rianda never put a foot wrong. The best animated film of the year was produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also oversaw Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and it boasted as much heart, art, and humor as the webslinging gamechanger. The hilarious The Mitchells Vs. The Machines was also unexpectedly heartfelt, and the animation was both unashamedly cartoony and richly textured.
Deciding to leave filmmaking behind for a teaching career, director Lee Isaac Chung spent the few summer months he had left before school started trying to write "the most personal script I could think of". Turning back to his own roots, Chung’s heartfelt drama painted a delicate portrait of a Korean family struggling to farm a dusty patch of ’80s Arkansas – finding the bigness of small things in a powerfully simple story that echoed the best of John Steinbeck. Youn Yuh-jung rightfully won an Oscar while Chung and Steven Yeun narrowly missed out, but it was little Alan Kim who really brightened up the 2021 awards circuit.
7. The Nest
"There are so few films... that are really good and complicated that have women
in the lead," said Carrie Coon. This was one of them. True, Jude Law was on top form, all irresistible charm and smarm as aspirational-slash-delusional commodities broker Rory. Anne Reid dropped a devastating cameo. And don’t get us started on that poor, monumentally metaphoric horse. But this was Coon’s movie. Her portrayal of displaced, slowly imploding Alison made you feel every joy, every frustration, every chain-smoked ciggy. And her nuances are next-level: take the moment when, as husband Rory waffles on, her BS detector oh-so-quietly pings.
Read more: Jude Law, Carrie Coons on making The Nest
6. The Father
If sentiment had had its way, the 2021 Academy Awards would have ended with the late Chadwick Boseman being crowned best actor for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As desired as that outcome might have been, though, it was impossible to deny how deserving of the Academy honor Anthony Hopkins was for his titanic, heartbreaking turn in The Father.
A mere 16 minutes of screen time in The Silence Of The Lambs was enough to win Sir Anthony his first Oscar in 1992. Yet he made up for it in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own 2012 stage play, a devastating portrait of an old man’s descent into dementia that rarely took the camera away from his craggily tortured features. Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss, and Olivias Williams and Colman all made significant contributions to a film that made us experience by proxy its central character’s wavering hold on reality, in one subtly shifting apartment location. In the end, though, it was all about Hopkins: a giant of an actor arguably delivering his definitive performance.
5. Promising Young Woman
As showrunner on Killing Eve season 2 and the author of deliciously dark novel Monsters, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the ferocious and feminist content of Emerald Fennell’s searing film debut. Following one traumatised woman (Carey Mulligan, astonishing) on a personal crusade against toxic masculinity as she turns the tables on date rapists and nightclub predators, Promising Young Woman was wickedly funny, horrifying and sorrowful in equal measure. And did we mention the banging soundtrack?
Uncompromising and uncomfortable (the stag-do scene is harrowing), it netted Fennell numerous awards including three Oscar nods (winning Best Original Screenplay) and helped to open up conversations about consent. “Part of the challenge is making it not feel like medicine,” Fennell said of nailing the creative tightrope of an ‘issues’ movie. "It’s making it feel like something you’d want to go and see on date night, and then discuss it afterward." We certainly did. And we added Paris Hilton’s 'Stars Are Blind' to our playlists...
- Read more: The Total Film review of Promising Young Woman
4. Sound of Metal
The most immersive auditory experience of the year, Sound of Metal couldn’t not win the Best Sound Oscar (it also picked up Best Film Editing). The film followed punk drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, who learned drums and ASL for the role) on a journey into Deaf culture, as he suddenly loses his hearing. Taking up residence in a home for Deaf addicts - overseen by sage mentor Joe (Paul Raci, rightfully Oscar-nommed) - Ruben slowly begins to find a peace that had been missing from his tightly wound lifestyle.
Director Darius Marder and sound designer Nicolas Becker put your ears right alongside Ruben’s for much of his experience, and in cinemas the film played with open (fixed) captions. "This film wasn’t just made for hearing people," Marder told Total Film. "It was made for both hearing and Deaf people, with the understanding that it’s two different experiences. But that’s the whole idea of a cross-cultural experience: we all come from different perspectives, and we all see and experience things differently." Sound of Metal proved to be an experience both intense and profound.
- Read more: The Total Film review of Sound of Metal
In 2017, Chloé Zhao made a masterpiece in The Rider, a poignant tale of a rodeo rider who suffers a near-fatal head injury. The film starred a cast of non-actors playing versions of themselves – a step beyond docudrama into the territory of 'fictive documentary'.
With Nomadland, Zhao repeated much the same trick, only this time she plonked self- effacing movie star Frances McDormand in the middle of the non-actors playing themselves. She also caught the zeitgeist with its tale of America’s new nomads, the sixty- and seventysomethings who lost everything in the 2008 crash and searched for seasonal work while living out of campervans.
At once capturing a hardscrabble existence and a sense of freedom beneath the arching stars, Nomadland won the Golden Lion at Venice and traversed a road paved with gongs that led all the way to the Oscars, where it bagged Best Film, Director, and Actress. "A once-in-a-lifetime journey," is how Zhao described it in her acceptance speech, and Nomadland is a rare film that can change the way you view your own life.
- Flashback! Nomadland wins Best Picture at the Oscars
2. The Green Knight
David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & The Gun) was attracted to the anonymous 14th-century poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight because it offered the chance to make a movie about “a knight on a horse going on a journey... something that I could do simply on a relatively low budget”. But the film he fashioned was perplexing, visually audacious and wildly imaginative.
The story is indeed simple: a knight all in green presents himself at the court of Arthur and Guinevere and offers anyone the chance to take a free shot at him, though whatever damage is inflicted will be returned in 12 months’ time. Dissolute Gawain (Dev Patel) spies a chance of glory and lops off the knight’s head, only for the stranger to gather it up and exit. A year later Gawain must saddle up and ride to a distant chapel to meet his fate...
Deconstructing the hero’s journey as Gawain undergoes a series of strange encounters while traversing stunning landscapes, Lowery offered a singular vision. Everyone from Monty Python to John Boorman has done Arthurian legend. But has anyone done it so well?
Much like House Atreides after their arrival on Arrakis, the odds were stacked against Dune. Here was science fiction’s Lord of the Rings – an 'unfilmable' novel that defeated legendary filmmakers David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. First there were doubts that the audience for a cerebral $165m sci-fi blockbuster existed. Later, the discourse surrounding cinema vs. streaming became even more deafening than Hans Zimmer’s sublime, enamel-rattling score. All the while, the money men played chicken with a hoped-for Part Two, unwilling to commit to a concluding chapter until the first film proved itself.
That’s water deep, deep under the desert sands now. Dune was a once-in-a-generation sci-fi opus. An unmatched exercise in world-building, it was a film that fully transported audiences to a distant, feudal future. Greenscreen and newfangled virtual production techniques were snubbed. Instead, Dune would film for real, on mammoth sets, and in the deserts of Wadi Rum and Abu Dhabi, so you could practically feel the spice beneath your fingernails.
It was a film of blockbuster spectacle, but arthouse sensibility and soul, wrestling with profound, pertinent themes (colonialism, ecological exploitation) amid the slack-jawed sights of colossal sandworms and city-sized spaceships. For Denis Villeneuve, "Dune is about the triumph of the human spirit," and he found an absurdly starry A-list cast capable of rising to this challenge, hinging on Timothée Chalamet, who brought precocious wisdom and adept physicality to conflicted saviour Paul Atreides.
The scale of Team Dune’s achievement can’t be overstated. LOTR is an apt comparison; this was a similarly definitive adaptation of an unassailable literary classic, the wordy interiority of Herbert’s prose replaced with an equally poetic visual sensibility. A common criticism – it only tells half the story – is a moot point now that Part Two looms. And beyond that, an adaptation of sequel novel Dune Messiah, if all goes to plan. “Dreams are messages from the deep,” a voice booms in the film’s arresting opening frames. After reading Dune at the age of 14, it took Villeneuve 40 years to realise his dreams. The wait was worth it.
Those are Total Film's picks for the best movies of 2021. Agree or disagree? Let us know on social media. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way soon.