In a year of recovery, we could all be forgiven for wanting some movies to be better than they are. White elephants and feet of clay were in abundance as studios pushed franchises to shock the box office back to life. But it turned out that other movies than Eternals and Dune were released in 2021. Superior films could come in strange packages: witness Annette, by French director Leos Carax but scored by the California-born Sparks, purveyed by American behemoth Amazon, and starring Adam Driver alongside Marion Cotillard. Why settle for less than a handcrafted, operatically bizarre work like this, perversely original at every step?

Annette epitomised a couple of tendencies in moviegoing circa 2021: how a strong film could fade quickly from view, and how each movie-lover could give an entirely different account of the year. Maybe 2021 was all about ping-ponging between comfort-food ‘universes’ (the Fast & Furious outing F9, box office-leading Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and known quantities made slightly less familiar (No Time to Die, The Many Saints of Newark). Or maybe 2021 was actually a year of prickly angst and chaos: the Florida road-trip of Zola, a hot mess of sexual dread and toxic racial dynamics; the libidinal anxieties of scandalising Jewish microportrait Shiva Baby; the Texas hinterlands hustle of Red Rocket; the through-the-looking-glass funny-sad nightmares of The Scary of Sixty-First and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair; or the depth charges of the heartsick Nella Larsen adaptation Passing and the Thanksgiving feast of regret The Humans.

Zola (2020)

Or was 2021 most notable for its bumper crop of razor-sharp documentaries that cut to the quick? The roster runs deep: Sam Pollard’s sober picture of a persecution MLK/FBI; Robert Greene’s summa of re-enactment nonfiction, Procession, on survivors of paedophile priests; Penny Lane’s brilliant essay on high-low culture, Listening to Kenny G; Todd Haynes’s multidisciplinary chronicle The Velvet Underground; Theo Anthony’s race-and-surveillance brainstorm session All Light, Everywhere; Jamila Wignot’s elegant biography of dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, Ailey; and Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s virtuosically reflexive The Viewing Booth. Honourable mention goes to two forward-looking ripped-from-the-headlines entries, Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath and Lucy Walker’s Bring Your Own Brigade; the unself-conscious Kilmer curio Val; and the year’s top-grossing doc, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

Or then again, maybe a year of trauma and post-trauma demanded warped wormholes such as The Green Knight’s medieval hash dream or – perhaps the year’s most bonkers studio release – M. Night Shyamalan’s feature-length Twilight Zone episode Old.

Some of the same messy magic could be found in the year’s stand-out horror, ranging from Malignant to the Venom sequel, rattling brainpans with their excess, as did The Harder They Fall in another genre, the bloody horse opera. But whereas each of these films had their fortnights in the social media sun, it wasn’t so for Dash Shaw’s hallucinogenic animated menagerie Cryptozoo or Abel Ferrara’s dream-flight Siberia (though when it comes to old men dreaming beautifully, let’s not forget Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho and the well-scaled gunslinger nostalgia piece Old Henry).

The Inheritance (2020)

I haven’t scratched the surface of adventures in perception such as Sky Hopinka’s Malni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore or Ephraim Asili’s letter to-and-from 1960s/70s Afro radicalism, The Inheritance, both of which suggested an experimental film ecosystem that awakened the mind more than the loudest blockbuster boom. And I’ve steered away here from some grand old auteurs partly to avoid habitual critical grooves.

Yet truth be told, certain filmmakers did not find the world waiting to greet them with open arms. Wes Anderson’s luxuriant The French Dispatch, featuring some of the densest and funniest and loveliest sequences in any movie this year, was treated like a nuisance. Steven Soderbergh’s Detroit thriller No Sudden Move felt like a casualty of its streaming release (always a dicey diagnosis, but perhaps also the problem for Shaka King’s determinedly ambivalent Judas and the Black Messiah). One also might have expected more play for The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s medieval anatomy of a rape, landing as a resonant, ice-cold look at might-makes-right justice that’s scant comfort for the victim. And was Joel Coen’s solo debut, The Tragedy of Macbeth, destined for shrugs despite its exquisite sfumato-style expressionism?

All of which captures but a fraction of the year’s offerings (and, caveat lector, omits unscreened titles from Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and Lana Wachowski). But in a year of trauma, and post-trauma, when movies could gesture at but not solve the world’s problems, it’s worth concluding with a few more films that gave joy. That could mean the twitchy camp of Spencer, or the comedy of panic in the agency satire The Beta Test, or the musical genius in Questlove’s Summer of Soul – one of the year’s top directorial debuts, alongside Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. As the year ends, here’s to promising starts.

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