Writing in this space 12 months ago, towards the end of a lockdown year, I mused anxiously on the immediate past and uncertain future of art cinema. At that time, it felt legitimate to wonder whether, when the world found its new normal, film as art – rather than spectacle or commerce – would still have a place in the world. It remains a legitimate question now that Bond, Dune, even a Venom sequel are supposed, according to prevailing reports, to embody the return to health of an entire artform.

We may now have emerged into a world in which art cinema will find itself mattering (or allowed to matter) in the big picture even less than before Covid. That would be a bitter irony, give that 2021 was as rich in variety and discovery as any year I can remember. Berlin, Venice and a bullishly back-in-business Cannes pulled out all the stops with a vast array of high-quality work, much of which powerfully hit a nerve – whether artistically, politically or just in terms of sheer energy.

Titane (2021)

Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner Titane didn’t strike a chord for everyone, but it is clearly an important film. That is partly because it is the first Cannes winner by a female director since Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) – a success followed by the Golden Lion in Venice for Audrey Diwan’s abortion story Happening, which especially resonated in the wake of regressive new laws in Texas. But Titane also stands out as an assertively strange, category-jamming work, as unexpected a Cannes winner as it is an Oscar contender.

Agitation, political or aesthetic, was very much in the air: in Radu Jude’s Berlin-winning provocation Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn; in Nadav Lapid’s kinetically angry Ahed’s Knee; and in three fiction films from the former Soviet Union, Petrov’s Flu (Kirill Serebrennikov) Reflection (Valentyn Vasyanovych) and the contentious but dazzling Captain Volkonogov Escaped (Natasha Merkulova and Alexei Chupov), with its Stalin-era KGB man as a hero in search of redemption.

Aggression wasn’t all: this was a strong year for the virtues of contemplation and sobriety, even in the case of Gaspar Noé, the director of Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009), whose most shocking move yet was to calmly confront the realities of old age and death in his austere, moving Vortex.

Other films gazed into the mysteries of being, inventively renewing an age-old art cinema tradition: among them, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco. Shot partly in the underground darkness of a cavern network, Il buco achieved the rare feat of making you reconsider the shape of the world we inhabit, not in a grandiose Malickian way, but on a very approachable, tactile, human scale: deep watching, in every sense.

Memoria (2021)

It was a strong year for big names – Campion, Sorrentino, Almodóvar – while Joanna Hogg raised her profile significantly with The Souvenir Part II, a film that reasserted the possibility (often forgotten or denied) that Britain too can produce genuine art films. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke asserted his claim to full-blown maestro status with two superb new works, the triptych Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and an expansive, novelistic drama about life, loss and theatre, Drive My Car.

There was also a cornucopia from newcomers and up-and-comers, whatever level of visibility they may aspire to – among them, The Pink Cloud (Iuli Gerbase, Brazil), Landscapes of Resistance (Marta Popivoda, Serbia), Azor (Andreas Fontana, Switzerland), Carajita (Silvina Schnicer and Ulises Porra, Dominican Republic/Argentina), Rehana (Abdullah Mohammad Saad, Bangladesh), Pilgrims (Laurynas Bareiša, Lithuania), Playground (Laura Wandel, Belgium), What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze, Georgia), Natural Light (Dénes Nagy, Hungary), the unsettlingly strange Taste (Lê Bao, Vietnam) and, brokering a dialogue between Black Lives Matter and the Godard legacy, The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili, US).

Some of these films will thrive beyond the festival circuit, some already have done so; but others, and the people who made them, will require support and cultivation. The streaming economy, now more powerful than anyone could have imagined, will provide a sustaining home for some, but there are films that absolutely need the special conditions of theatrical projection, and the presence of a live audience, to really flourish – as witness the textured symphonies of sound, light and shadow of Memoria and Il buco. When we talk about the big-screen experience, it doesn’t just mean Eternals, but the vast, unpredictable palette of intangibles that art cinema’s most innovative talents invent afresh every time.

The best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The 50 best films of 2021

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema

By Isabel Stevens

The best films of 2021: the year in cinema