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 films, from astonishing arthouse visions to blockbusting franchises, now crowding back on to our screens.
Into our best of the year list we crammed 50 such titles, from raucous comedies to innovative animations, life-affirming documentaries to introspective art films. Our challenge to you: how many have you seen? And as if that wasn’t enough, nine special features round up the year in specialist cinemas.
Elsewhere in a packed issue, we speak to directors featured in our poll: Paolo Sorrentino, Julia Ducournau, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Joanna Hogg. And those films that were released just too late to make it into our list are represented by Paul Thomas Anderson, who describes his new film Licorice Pizza as a “not coming of age movie”, and Guillermo del Toro, who leads us into the hellish carnival that is Nightmare Alley.
Our other polls round up the top 10 TV series, film books and disc releases in 2021. Plus, we pay tribute to the filmmakers who died this year, preview the most exciting coming attractions of 2022 and review all the latest releases.
The 50 best films of the year, what we thought of them, and where to see them. Introduction by Isabel Stevens.
+ The year in…
…archive cinema, by Pamela Hutchinson.
…British cinema, by Philip Concannon.
…animation, by Alex Dudok de Wit.
…art cinema, by Jonathan Romney.
…documentary, by Ben Nicholson.
…East Asian cinema, by Tony Rayns.
…experimental cinema, by Michael Pattison.
…queer cinema, by Alex Davidson.
…US film, by Nicolas Rapold.
+ Titane: Julia Ducournau interviewed
Ducournau became the second woman to win the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes; she speaks to Alex Davidson about working with newcomer Agathe Rousselle and veteran Vincent Lindon, and the limitations of gender.
+ Memoria: Apichatpong Weerasethakul interviewed
Tony Rayns speaks to the Thai director about his first film shot outside his homeland, a mysterious and beguiling audio odyssey starring Tilda Swinton.
+ Joanna Hogg: the art life
As Joanna Hogg’s follow-up to her 2019 Sight and Sound film of the year The Souvenir proves her a worthy winner once again, the director talks about recreating life as art and doing justice to her youthful aesthetic ambitions. By Pamela Hutchinson.
From It’s a Sin to Mare of Easttown to Squid Game, dramas that resonated with a widespread sense of anxiety, confinement and grief made a strong showing in this year’s poll. Then again, so did shows like Succession and The White Lotus that turned the spotlight on the sins of the rich. By Lisa Kerrigan.
+ Books of the year
+ Discs of the year
Once upon a time in Hollywood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a screwball romance set in early 70s Los Angeles. Here he talks about embracing constraints, keeping it loose and what the kids are up to. By Kent Jones.
To Naples with Love
The Hand of God marks a change of direction for Italian maximalist Paolo Sorrentino: his first autobiographical film and his first set in his home city. Here he talks about Maradona, exploring Naples, and the hands we are dealt. By Lee Marshall.
+ Paolo Sorrentino’s five essential Neapolitan films
Circus of horrors
After The Shape of Water won the Best Picture Oscar, Guillermo del Toro could make any film he wanted: he chose to adapt a cult novel of 1946, a portrait of the hellish world of the carnival – or the hellish carnival of the world. By Andrew Male.
Obituaries and tributes to those who died in 2021, including:
Melvin Van Peebles
21 August 1932 – 21 September 2021. By Alex Ramon
17 September 1931 – 8 February 2021. By David Thompson.
15 October 1944 – 5 October 2021. By Philip Kemp.
8 May 1926 – 3 August 2021. By Christina Newland.
2 June 1935 – 18 April 2021. Joanna Johnston, speaking to Patrick Fahy.
4 August 1942 – 7 February 2021. By Rym Ouartsi.
From the archive: “My thoughts about the New Wave are not uplifting”
To mark a major BFI Southbank season focusing on François Truffaut this
winter, we resurrect a far-reaching interview in which the French New Wave
stalwart looks back on his career after 20 years in the spotlight. Interview by Don Allen.
Following a painful two years for the film world, the clouds might be clearing. The next year should provide, in person and via streaming, some stunning new efforts from both established and up-and-coming filmmakers. By Guy Lodge.
Christmas gift recommendations from the Sight and Sound team
In production: Scala Club Cinema
New films about the Scala cinema and by Bong Joon Ho, Carol Morley and Derek Cianfrance. By Thomas Flew.
News: Held to account
A new documentary has collected vital testimony on Nazism and the Holocaust, recounted by its German and Austrian perpetrators and bystanders. By Thomas Flew.
In conversation: Maggie Gyllenhaal
The acclaimed actor turned director offers a vision of motherhood rarely seen on screen with her first film, The Lost Daughter. Interview by Simran Hans.
Stage: The Shark is Broken
Ian Shaw, son of the Jaws actor Robert, has put on a West End play with plenty of bite. By Philip Concannon.
Rising star: Mya Bollaers
25-year-old newcomer Bollaers gained critical acclaim for her portrayal of a transgender teenager in Lola and the Sea. By Sam Judd.
Dream Palaces: the Homayoun
Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of A Separation, The Salesman and the forthcoming A Hero, talks about his old local cinema in Isfahan and the joy of hanging around in the lobby. Interview by Philip Concannon.
Report: Derek Jarman: new exhibitions show how timely his art and activism still is
Two exhibitions and a film season spotlight other important aspects of the filmmaker’s driving imagination: his artwork, activism and love of nature. By Ben Walters.
The long take
Pay tribute to stars not just through celluloid, but by visiting carvings of rock and steel. By Pamela Hutchinson.
Richard Lester’s 1960s travels extend beyond the Fab Four to the dark side of flower power. By Phuong Le.
The director’s chair
“It is the complexity of an outer life, as opposed to an inner one, that inspires my filmmaking.” By Mark Cousins.
Off the shelf
A master swordsman and the original street fighter, Sonny Chiba should be honoured. By Jonathan Ross.
Mark your calendars and load up the canon: a big year is upon us. By Mike Williams.
Rediscovery: Simone Barbès ou la Vertu
The director Marie-Claude Treilhou’s first feature, revolving around the staff and clients of a Parisian porn theatre, cuts at an angle across the customary categories of film and life. By Elena Lazic.
Archive TV: Morecambe and Wise at ITV
Although it is their hugely successful stint at the BBC that sticks in the public memory, Eric and Ernie spent more of their career on commercial television. A new box-set gives an overview of their time there. By Robert Hanks.
Lost and found: The Lost Language of Cranes
Nigel Finch’s 1991 adaptation of David Leavitt’s novel, about a father and son’s dual coming out, is a sensitive, insightful and (almost) lost classic of gay British drama. By Alex Ramon.
Created to lend shape to Peter Tscherkassky’s cut-and-shuffle filmworks, Dirk Schaefer’s soundtracks turn out to have compelling qualities of their own. By Matilda Munro.
The horror underlying colonialism is put under the spotlight in a time-bending, history-warping vampire film that’s now on show in a south London gallery. By Ben Nicholson.
This month in… 1958
Here we look back at our Winter issue in 1958, the year which saw (arguably) the first French New Wave cinema release, Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge.
Endings: The Purple Rose of Cairo
Woody Allen’s rapturous 1985 film, an exploration of the limits of our cinematic dreams, closes with Mia Farrow’s Cecilia taking refuge from her dead-end future by watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. By Philip Concannon.
- The Tragedy of Macbeth reviewed by Nicolas Rapold.
- The Electrical Life of Louis Wain reviewed by Philip Kemp.
- Lamb reviewed by Anne Billson.
- Lola and the Sea reviewed by Elena Lazic.
- C’mon C’mon reviewed by Ben Nicholson.
- Encounter reviewed by Carmen Gray.
- Titane reviewed by John Bleasdale.
- Cow reviewed by Jessica Kiang.
- Memoria reviewed by James Lattimer.
- You Will Die at Twenty reviewed by Jonathan Romney.
- Memory Box reviewed by Katherine McLaughlin.
- Belfast reviewed by Trevor Johnston.
- There is No Evil reviewed by Kambole Campbell.
- The Lost Daughter reviewed by Pamela Hutchinson.
- A Hero reviewed by Guy Lodge.
- The Summit of the Gods reviewed by Ian Wang.
- Hope reviewed by Nikki Baughan.
- Eternals reviewed by Guy Lodge.
- The Hand of God reviewed by Anton Bitel.
- The Story of Film: A New Generation reviewed by Philip Kemp.
- Friends and Strangers reviewed by Carmen Gray.
- Curse of the Chippendales reviewed by Rebecca Harrison.
- Hellbound reviewed by Trevor Johnston.
- The Wheel of Time reviewed by Kim Newman.
- Colin in Black and White reviewed by Leila Latif.
- Dopesick reviewed by Anton Bitel.
- The Shrink Next Door reviewed by Kate Stables.
DVD & Blu-ray
- Short Sharp Shock 2 reviewed by Kim Newman.
- Ingmar Bergman Volume 2 reviewed by Kate Stables.
- Out of the Blue reviewed by Trevor Johnston.
- Sailor Suit and Machine Gun reviewed by Josh Slater-Williams.
- Naked reviewed by Philip Kemp.
- The Love of Jeanne Ney reviewed by Pamela Hutchinson.
- Filibus reviewed by Michael Atkinson.
- MacArthur reviewed Trevor Johnston.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion – Collector’s Edition reviewed by Kambole Campbell.
- Early Universal Vol. 2 reviewed by Bryony Dixon.
- David Fincher: Mind Games reviewed by Nicolas Rapold.
- Ten Skies reviewed by Adam Nayman.
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