The best films of 2021: the year in cinema

Though the year began dismally, with audiences confined to digital viewing at home, the film world has recovered much of its excitement – not just because cinemas have reopened and festivals have started up, but because of the sheer numbers of astonishing arthouse visions now crowding back on to our screens. But are these films getting the attention they deserve?

Petite maman (2021)

In 1972 in the pages of Sight and Sound, Stanley Kubrick, talking to S&S editor Penelope Houston and critic Philip Strick, came up with a shrewd definition of art. “A work of art must make life more enjoyable or endurable,” Kubrick said, citing Samuel Johnson; but above all, in Kubrick’s mind, “a work of art is always exhilarating.”

Exhilaration has been in short supply over the last 18 months. It’s hard for a film to put a fire in your belly and your mind when the world is burning and you’re watching said film in quarters where you have spent far too much time, rather than escaping to a cinema and being overwhelmed or, to use Susan Sontag’s apt word, “kidnapped”. 

Yes, the year in film started grimly, with cinemas shuttered, against a backdrop of spiralling Covid cases and deaths, as well as a sense of the UK as a nation culturally isolated as the final throes of Brexit severed remaining ties to the EU. Looking back to those bleak months, the outlook for cinema now seems somewhat rosier. Thanks to the arrival of vaccines, what was formerly known as real life is returning, albeit slowly. The fog of lockdown has lifted. We’ve been able to step off the endless streaming conveyor-belt. Projectors are whirring again. Festivals have jolted back to life. Most importantly, more and more conversations about films are happening in person. Although what threat the new Omicron variant and a rise in cases poses to all this is currently unclear.   

Michelangelo Frammartino's Il Buco

Some of us will have had intense moments of big-screen rapture as cinemas reopened this year: for this writer, it was seeing a burning piece of paper waft down a deep dark cave in Michelangelo Frammartino’s speleological wonder Il buco (in NFT1 at the London Film Festival) that truly brought home the sense of exhilaration I’d been missing. Such a contemplative spectacle demands full immersion and a sense of communion. The votes of the 111 critics who contributed to our poll, which can be found in full here along with their comments, will be the results of similar moments of awe. 

Since cinemas reopened in the UK in May, films have gradually begun to feel like an occasion again. Yet so far this has exclusively been with big-star, big-budget Hollywood productions, even looking beyond comic book universes: A Quiet Place II, F9, Free Guy, Dune, Bond. In October, there was cause for celebration: UK box-office takings were up, not just on the disaster that was 2020 (836 per cent), but 7 per cent up on 2019 and 4 per cent up on 2018. A certain popular British spy is largely responsible for that; but if Bond paves the way for audiences to return to cinemas for more adventurous and frankly better films to be enjoyed big, so be it.

Summer of Soul: the one non-blockbuster film release that did win a large audience in cinemas

Yet it’s been a long time since an intelligent arthouse movie captured a wider audience’s attention and dominated the cultural conversation or even just broke out. Parasite at the start of 2020 feels a long time ago – although Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland had a quiet “water cooler moment” after its Oscars haul earlier in the year. Mostly though films are released, only to be promptly buried online. Reviews or word of mouth recommendations have little time to take hold before a film slips from focus; endlessly available but with no spark to illuminate it, it fades into the digital abyss. Questlove’s joyous portrait of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival Summer of Soul was one exception – it was the talk of the town in July and August – but that had Disney’s muscle behind it. And yet, there are little acts of resistance from the independent sector: the novel release strategy for Memoria in the US (drip-feeding its screenings one theatre at a time) is both a sly marketing ploy and a tantalising experiment. 

As audiences returned to cinema, the absence of festivals, or at least in-person festivals that positioned films as events, was acutely felt, and their importance as part of a vital wider supportive ecosystem for smaller films with little to no marketing muscle was clear. Spring and summer releases such as Limbo, After Love, Shiva Baby, The Nest, The Green Knight, Censor, Beginning, Zola – with the exception of The Nest and The Green Knight, all by emerging filmmakers – would, I suspect, have benefited from the ripple effect of multiple festival appearances. 

Looking over the films gathered in our poll, the ability of festivals to bring a broader selection of risk-happy films to wider attention is stark. In a year when festivals fired up again, from Cannes in July onwards, foreign-language films are far more prominent in our list – six of the top ten films compared to just one last year. And there is some heartening news regarding the future of  foreign-language fare: a recent survey found that young people are almost four times more likely than older viewers to watch TV shows with subtitles.   

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021)Courtesy of Netflix

I’m writing this at a key moment, with many of the heralded films in this poll – some made during the pandemic but most having been in hibernation for a year or more – about to be released into cinemas. The auteur as an attraction is definitely back: Jane Campion with her menacing anti-Western The Power of the Dog, Céline Sciamma’s delicate child fantasy Petite Maman, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (which curiously doesn’t chart here, perhaps in part because of a lack of UK screenings), Paolo Sorrentino’s tragicomedy The Hand of God, and don’t forget provocateur-in-chief Paul Verhoeven’s nun romp Benedetta. Accompanying them are newer but just as artful voices: notable among them are Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, with both Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (new to the UK, that is – these are his 10th and 11th films but his first UK releases), and Julia Ducournau with her second feature Titane – a wild ride that ideally should be experienced in a packed cinema. 

What’s striking (and familiar from previous years) is how in stark comparison to the films doing gangbusters in cinemas and VOD platforms and capturing the cultural discourse – and at a time when intellectual property is at the centre of the streaming wars – so many of the films in our top 50 list are not based on existing IP but are original visions, many of them distinctly personal and introspective: The Souvenir Part II, Petite Maman, Bergman Island, The Hand of God, Flee, After Love– all see filmmakers plundering their own lives to mould into art. This was a year, too, when female directors triumphed, snagging Oscars and top prizes at major festivals – but also brought their own stories to screens with noticeably more frequency than in previous years.

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Even though The Souvenir won in 2019, there could not be a film better fitted to crown our poll than its sequel: not just a film about filmmaking, but a film about a filmmaker doggedly pursuing her own personal artistic vision. The Souvenir Part II has an exhilarating climax that revels self-consciously in the spectacle of fantasy (as do a number of films in our list, interestingly) and seems to have been made with Kubrick’s comments in mind. It also shows, as Jonathan Romney points out in his reflection on arthouse filmmaking in our current issue, that “Britain too can produce genuine art films”. The Souvenir Part II is also, as Hogg discusses in the issue, an example of an arthouse director building her own universe – just like the Marvels and Villeneuves of this world. 

“As a frank depiction of grief, The Souvenir Part II will resonate with many” writes Pamela Hutchinson in her incisive interview with Hogg in our Winter issue. It was far from the only film to premiere this year that did: Drive My Car, Annette, Belle, Titane, After Love, Pig, The Hand of God all concern themselves with grief. Many others meanwhile have characters experiencing a sense of loss or being adrift in the world — from video censor Enid grappling with her sister’s mysterious disappearance in Censor to Tilda Swinton’s character’s auditory hallucinations in Memoria. 

Certainly it’s notable that many of the top films in our list are less politically engaged than in our 2020 poll (when Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology and Garrett Bradley’s prison epidemic documentary Time dominated). A preference for aesthetic, experiential cinema prevails instead – and yet in the broader list a number of films do confront pressing political  issues – two films about refugees in particular loom large: Ben Sharrock’s debut Limbo and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee.

Thanks to shifting release dates and a desire not to overlook any good films that may not end up getting substantial releases, our poll includes not just films that have already been released in UK cinemas but any that have premiered this year. As always, however, there is the caveat that not all 2021 releases could be seen in time (having seen them since voting, I suspect Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley would have ranked highly). Hopefully, this collection of films becomes more than just a list – a guide to films to rescue from the content churn, a beacon for bravura, bold and original visions in which you too may find moments of exhilaration. 

Sight and Sound: the Winter 2021-22 issue

We count down the 50 best films of 2021. How many have you seen? Also inside: the best TV, books and discs of the year; interviews with Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, Joanna Hogg and Paolo Sorrentino

Find out more

Our 2021 polls