In 1972 in the pages of Sight & 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 comparatively rosy. 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…

See all the individual ballots: The best films of 2021 – all the votes

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

The best films of 2021

50. Quo Vadis, Aida?

Jasmila Žbanić, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020)

Žbanić’s Oscar-nominated drama views the unfolding horror of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide through the eyes of local teacher Aida.

We said: “Although the film has moments of stillness and delicately skirts pathos – a baby is born within the UN compound under undesirable circumstances but Žbanić avoids piling on the sentiment – it becomes all about Aida in motion, rushing from office to office attempting to locate the logic in a situation that has little of it for her to work with. For much of the story the focus is on Aida’s face, behind which maternal courage is corralling an escalating fury.” (Tim Hayes, S&S March)

Where to see it: On Netflix

49. Cry Macho

Clint Eastwood, US

Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo in Cry Macho (2021)
Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo in Cry Macho (2021)
© Courtesy of Warner Bros

Ninety-one-year-old Clint stars as a washed-up rodeo star sent across the Texas border to retrieve a teenage boy from his abusive mother.

We said: “It’s hard to ignore the affection aired here for Mexico and Mexicans, country folk versus tycoons, for bonding with animals and sleeping outdoors, not to mention a disdain for xenophobia and scepticism about macho positioning and capitalist investments. In short, one might wonder if Eastwood, one-time mayor of Carmel, California, is joining the ever-expanding ranks of anti-Trump Republicans yearning for a more civilised country (in this case, Mexico).” (Jonathan Rosenbaum, S&S December)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

48. After Love

Aleem Khan, UK

After Love (2020)

Love and loss surface on both sides of the English Channel in Khan’s feature debut, a sympathetic portrait of a widow left reeling by discovery of her husband’s secret life.

We said: “Khan’s debut feature scrutinises bereavement as a mental health disorder, diving into not just the sorrow but the derangement of grief. As newly widowed Mary, Joanna Scanlan offers a portrait of a woman whose cracked heart wins our sympathy, and whose increasingly stealthy behaviour commands our attention as she infiltrates another woman’s life. In Scanlan’s features we see grief and humiliation twisted into possessiveness, vengefulness and misplaced compassion.” (Pamela Hutchinson, S&S June)

Where to see it: On BFI Player and on Blu-ray

47. The Hand of God

Paolo Sorrentino, Italy

The Hand of God (2021)

Sorrentino’s most autobiographical film to date reflects on the director’s teenage years in Naples in the late 1980s via an alter ego.

We say: The hand of Sorrentino here may not be that of the flashy showman of The Great Beauty (2013) but his detour into memoir is all the better for it. This film mostly avoids the overstatement of many of his previous ones. That said, Naples and its outlandish residents and traditions are raucously brought to life but Sorrentino makes time for tenderness; when tragedy strikes, the film’s focus on family and laughter packs an added punch. (Isabel Stevens)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas now and on Netflix from 15 December

46. Friends and Strangers

James Vaughan, Australia

Friends and Strangers (2021)

Vaughan’s wry Australia-set comedy is as aimless and meandering as its protagonist Ray, a videographer who bumps from one awkward encounter to the next.

We say: Watching Friends and Strangers as an English winter approaches is almost masochistic, such is the welcoming warmth of the Australian sun. The conversations that Ray has throughout the film are considerably cooler, however. Vaughan shows a great eye for detail and for timing (he edited the film as well as writing and directing it), interspersing the interactions Ray has with friends and strangers with little details and asides that would fall into mumblecore territory in weaker hands. (Thomas Flew)

Where to see it: On Mubi

45. Limbo

Ben Sharrock, UK

Limbo (2020)

Sharrock’s delicious culture-clash comedy finds the wit as well as the heartache in the tale of four migrants who are exiled to a damp and dreary Scottish island.

We said: “Visually clever, and by turns witty and moving, Limbo is a reminder, at a moment when empathy often feels in short supply, that the real boats crossing to the UK are carrying real people. People with families, hobbies, traditions, and songs. It’s a reminder, without ever being piteous, that when we watch television news or footage framed by social media feeds that we’re only seeing a partial story.” (Rebecca Harrison, S&S Summer)

Where to see it: On Mubi

44. Belle

Hosoda Mamoru, Japan

Belle (2021)

Hosoda’s anime update of Beauty and the Beast for the digital era explores shy school student Suzu’s adventures in a virtual world.

We say: With films such as Mirai (2018), Hosoda had already proved himself a dexterous and sensitive architect of a child’s point of view. This Cocteau-inspired tale is just as nuanced a character study but even more visually bombastic. Awkward teenager Suzu finds solace in a cyber realm, brought to life with dizzying CGI, which Hosoda sketches her ‘real’ world by hand. The film was a true product of lockdown, with Hosoda collaborating virtually with animators across the world. (Isabel Stevens)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas in early 2022

43. Undine

Christian Petzold, Germany

Undine (2020)

Petzold updates the Undine myth with vigour and humour, reuniting his Transit stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski as fated lovers – a diver and a water nymph – in Berlin. 

We said: “Petzold doesn’t ask us to rationalise the film’s incidents, but teasingly invites us to accept the drama as being situated between realism and fairytale, in a zone of narrative logic akin to dream. It’s no accident that at different points Christoph and Undine doze off in broad daylight; and Petzold has claimed the eminently oneiric Vertigo as one of the film’s inspirations.” (Jonathan Romney, S&S April)

Where to see it: On Mubi

42. Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman, US

Shiva Baby (2020)

A young Jewish woman’s secret life unravels during a shiva, in Seligman’s frantically funny feature debut, a modern New York farce with a surprising emotional punch. 

We said: “Seligman’s decision to let the ensuing disaster unspool entirely within the confines of the shiva is a brilliant device for weaving together all the emotional and narrative tensions in play, and then winding each wire to an almost unbearable breaking-point. As writer, she studs her intricately constructed screenplay with hilarious absurdity and scalpel-sharp one-liners; as director, she frames the mayhem expertly, with one eye always on the bigger picture.” (Lisa Mullen, S&S Summer)

Where to see it: On Mubi

41. The Tsugua Diaries

Maureen Fazendeiro & Miguel Gomes, Portugal

The Tsugua Diaries (2021)

Fazendeiro and Gomes’s playful puzzle finds creative inspiration in Covid complications, creating a languorous yet comic slice of faux-documentary quarantine life.

We said: “In the absence of an appreciable narrative, the intention seems to be of luxuriating in the sensuality of 16mm by capturing textures and the play of sunlight as the trio build a butterfly house in an orchard, or the vivid colours that bathe the garden at night. Then The Tsugua Diaries switches gears, from fiction to (pretend) documentary, becoming a film about its own making.” (Giovanni Marchini Camia, S&S online)

Where to see it: Awaiting UK distribution

40. Playground

Laura Wandel, Belgium

Playground (2021)

The cruelty of the playground is meted out on a young brother and sister in Wandel’s immersive debut. 

We said: “Playground’s French title Un Monde (A World) suggests that a school is a self-enclosed universe with its own laws, customs and abuses, set apart from the adult realm; but also that it is a microcosm of the horrors and injustices outside. Playground is a triumph in terms of focus and concision – a mere 72 minutes — with the action rigorously restricted to the school premises and the camera always held exactly at child’s-eye height.” (Jonathan Romney, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas in 2022

39. Beginning

Déa Kulumbegashvili, Georgia

Beginning (2020)

Kulumbegashvili’s compelling first feature focusses elliptically on Yana, a mother and wife in a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose sacrifices have brought no solace. 

We said: “Beginning what, exactly? The mesmerising debut feature by Georgian director Déa Kulumbegashvili never makes it clear – indeed, refuses to make anything too clear. What is certain is that Beginning is the work of a very singular, independently minded director. It is a slow, contained, reserved film – yet it contains moments that are startling, even shocking.” (Jonathan Romney, S&S May)

Where to see it: On Mubi

38. Compartment No. 6

Juho Kuosmanen, Finland

Compartment No. 6 (2021)

Kuosmanen’s second feature journeys into the cold of 90s Russia for a witty and boozy ‘road’ movie, which squeezes miner Vadim into a cramped train carriage with student Laura.

We said: “Kuosmanen has created a rich emotional journey and a witty, comic road movie, if a film set on a train can be called such. The humour is rooted in Yuriy Borisov and Seidi Haarla’s note-perfect performances; Vadim and Laura are a couple you care about and who care about each other because of, rather than despite, their irreconcilable differences.” (John Bleasdale, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 1 April 2022

37. Red Rocket

Sean Baker, US

Red Rocket (2021)

Baker follows washed-up pornstar Mikey back to his dead-end Texan hometown.

We said: “Despite its casual rhythm there is something tight and sad at the heart of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket. On the surface it’s similar to Baker’s last two films in also being a contradictory mix of joyful and despairing: exuberant lo-fi filmmaking delivering caustic social observation. But in Mikey, the energetically delusional, manipulative yet affable low-grade sociopath around which it revolves, Baker has created a different sort of hometown hero to the struggling but stout-hearted women he’s portrayed before.” (Jessica Kiang, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas in 2022

36. Judas and the Black Messiah

Shaka King, US

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

King’s excoriating drama of the FBI’s assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton gives us twin tragic figures in Daniel Kaluuya’s charismatic leader and LaKeith Stanfield’s squirrelly informer.

We said: “King and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lean into the story’s noirish currents: the camera glides along wintry Chicago streets cloaked in grey-blue shadows, and wisps of smoke swirl around shifty, shallow-focused faces. King directs with a refreshingly flinty sense of moral clarity, evident right from the film’s opening montage.” (Devika Girish, S&S April) 

Where to see it: On Sky Cinema and on Blu-ray

35. Sound of Metal

Darius Marder, US

Ahmed as Ruben in Sound of Metal (2019)

Riz Ahmed’s tightly wound drummer learns to live with deafness in Marder’s accomplished drama, a film that soars above its issue format.

We said: “The cast all flesh out characters that feel like people whose lives are broader than the film can contain. But the standout element is Ahmed’s magnificent performance; he plays Ruben as a man as tightly stretched as the skin of his snare drum. His deafness sends him through a range of emotions, akin to the stages of grief. With this film, Ahmed cements his status as one of the most exciting British actors currently working.” (John Bleasdale, S&S March) 

Where to see it: On Amazon Prime Video and on Blu-ray

34. Minari

Lee Isaac Chung, US

Minari (2020)

Chung draws on his Korean family history in this Sundance Grand Prize winner, creating a tender drama of a migrant family in search of the American Dream.

We said: “Minari is rich in emotion and narrative surprises, with superb performances. As a family drama that confounds the usual portrayal of how immigrants are defined or maligned by society at large, Minari’s subdued, poignant drama expresses a rare honesty about that experience, and brings to the fore what many families have been unable to say to each other, or to us all.” (Violet Lucca, S&S April)

Where to see it: On Sky Cinema and on Blu-ray

33. The Card Counter

Paul Schrader, US

Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish as William Tell and La Linda
Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish as William Tell and La Linda
© Courtesy of Focus Features

Oscar Isaac is a professional gambler seeking redemption for past sins in Schrader’s cerebral and philosophical drama.

We said: “What truly makes the film is its paced, tempered restraint and reserve, with only occasional discreet flashes of the satire that you might expect in depictions of the gambling scene. The film is a triumph for Isaac, whose calm, elegant inwardness, hinting at deep, heavily secured reservoirs of anguish and self-loathing, registers tautly as the character’s wry scepticism about the world, and absolute hard-won reliance on the self.” (Jonathan Romney, S&S December) 

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

32. Benediction

Terence Davies, UK

Benediction (2021)

Following his biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Davies returns with another richly imagined life of a poet – this time Siegfried Sassoon.

We say: In the year he merrily joined Instagram, Davies also delivered this searing account of Sassoon’s life as pacifist, poet and gay man during WWI and its long aftermath. Slipping elegantly between the years, Benediction boasts a formal poise and level of moment-by-moment invention that looked matchless this year. By turns savagely funny and sad, it memorialises a doubly lost generation who survived the war for a lifetime of hiding their love away. (Sam Wigley)

Where to see it: UK release date yet to be announced

31. ear for eye

debbie tucker green, UK

ear for eye (2021)

tucker green adapts her own play for the screen, creating a theatrical, three-part exploration of institutional racism and its intergenerational effects.

We said: “It’s tucker green’s characteristically sharp, telegraphic, near-elliptical dialogue that pulls you in at first. ear for eye is a hugely refreshing and exciting feature. It’s bold, abstract, poetic, powerfully contemporary, while emphasising chronic injustices. It never sags or dwells on sentimentality or explication. tucker green has marked herself out as one of our most extraordinary visionary artists, and we can only hope that she’ll direct many more films to come.” (Naomi Obeng, S&S November)

Where to see it: On BBC iPlayer

30. Hit the Road

Panah Panahi, Iran

Hit the Road (2021)

Humour and heartbreak are packed into an oddball Iranian family’s SUV in Panah Panahi’s assured debut.

We said: “Criticism of Iran’s authoritarian regime and the psychological toll it takes on ordinary people is implicit in every stage of the journey but achieved with the lightest of touches. For ultimately, as with much of the enduring work of Panah’s father Jafar, this is a story both culturally specific and able to evoke universal experiences that connect beyond borders. To achieve something of comparable stature with a first film bodes well for – one hopes – Panah Panahi’s long, rewarding, unrestricted career.” (Leigh Singer, S&S online) 

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 17 June 2022

29. Pig

Michael Sarnoski, US

Pig (2021)

Michael Sarnoski’s feature debut hides a foodie fable within revenge thriller packaging, as Nicolas Cage’s quietly intense truffle hunter sniffs out his missing pig’s whereabouts.

We said: “Cage’s glowering sotto voce delivery, in a cranky late-period Clint Eastwood register, shows that minimalism can be as much an excess as its opposite. Cage puts his more overt eccentricity into visual presentation, depicting Rob as a bedraggled hobo-prophet who never changes his sackcloth-like clothes nor washes off the caked blood, a walking hygiene infraction amid Portland’s pristine tablecloths.” (Jonathan Romney, S&S October)

Where to see it: On BFI Player and other streaming services

28. The Father

Florian Zeller, France/UK

The Father (2020)

Anthony Hopkins is at his Oscar-winning best as a confused and paranoid man with dementia in Florian Zeller’s disquieting debut film. 

We said: “Zeller’s assured, elegantly nightmarish film of his 2012 play stretches the conceit of the unreliable narrator to a desolate vanishing point. Using a role modified for the screen with Hopkins in mind, this direct adaptation offers an arresting showcase for the veteran’s skillset – a formidable portrayal of an unmoored mind that’s arguably the actor’s finest performance since The Remains of the Day in 1993.” (Matthew Taylor, S&S Summer)

Where to see it: On BFI Player and other streaming services

27. Benedetta

Paul Verhoeven, France

Benedetta (2021)

Verhoeven is back in the habit of erotic melodrama for this tale of fleshly pleasures, based on the real-life exploits of a 17th-century lesbian nun.

We said: “The camera captures a relatively clean 17th century; even when the young women take a bonding sit on the commode it makes for an attractive orange and teal tableaux. The candlelit sex scenes recall early 90s erotic thrillers and when a comet colours the sky a lurid purple it smacks of the Vegas neon of Showgirls. Anne Dudley’s music shifts between authentic period instruments and chorales and a lusher score.” (John Bleasdale, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 25 March 2022

26. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Radu Jude, Romania

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc, 2021)

Jude’s latest and looniest creative broadside against the indecencies of his nation.

We said: “School teacher Emi is landed in a very public scandal after a sex tape she’s in goes viral. Her husband uploaded it to the internet against her will, but she’s the one who bears the brunt of the condemnation. But as she walks around a Covid-era Bucharest, we hear a foul-mouthed citizenry cursing each other out on the smallest of pretexts, in a state of perpetual misanthropic angst – the inevitable breakdown in social fabric of a land ruled over with brazen contempt.” (Carmen Gray, S&S December) 

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

25. Zola

Janicza Bravo, US

Zola (2020)

Bravo’s funny, heartbreaking and eye-opening adaptation of a legendary Twitter thread transcends its social media origins.

We said: “Twitter may have its fair share of trolls, but it can also elevate and empower talented voices who might not otherwise have been heard. Zola is one of these – and director and co-writer Bravo has stayed true to A’ziah King’s brutally frank, pithy delivery to bring her story to life. It’s a riveting saga of strippers, sisterhood, betrayal and black comedy, and with pace, humour and performances all delivering, it’s easy to go with the ride.” (Anna Smith, S&S online) 

Where to see it: On Amazon Prime Video

24. Azor

Andreas Fontana, Switzerland/Argentina

Azor (2021)

Fontana brings shades of Graham Greene, Conrad and more to this suave thriller set in the sinister heights of the 1980s Buenos Aires elite.

We said: “Considering how glamorous the locations are, and how many are outdoors, writer-director Fontana does a wonderful job of keeping the atmosphere menacing and claustrophobic. He and his writing partner Mariano Llinás have concocted here a portrait of the Argentinian junta’s milieu that draws on a rich history of archetypes from Cortés to Macbeth. Azor, we’re told, in this context means ‘be quiet’ and/or ‘careful what you say’, so you’ll never hear about ‘the horror’.” (Nick James, S&S November) 

Where to see it: On Mubi

23. The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson, US

The French Dispatch (2021)

Wes Anderson’s much mythologised, obsessively symmetrical style washes over every frame of this dense, five-part anthology, which features a typically star-studded cast.

We said: “It’s a valentine both to the New Yorker magazine – especially trailblazing midcentury cosmopolitan contributors such as A.J. Liebling, Mavis Gallant and James Baldwin – and to the cinema and culture of his adopted homeland France, the entire film set in the fantasy town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. So then: iconoclastic American expats trying to conjure up and relay a wider world with uncompromising style. La République de Wes, c’est lui.” (Leigh Singer, S&S November) 

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

22. Nomadland

Chloé Zhao, US

Nomadland (2020)

Zhao’s triple Oscar-winner follows Frances McDormand’s van-dwelling nomad Fern from one chance encounter to the next, through the mythical landscapes of the American interior.

We said: “The third feature from Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, 2015, The Rider, 2017) captures the allure of backcountry wandering without the bohemian artifice; the struggles of impoverished drifters without the poverty porn. There’s a curious, restless quality to the film and its dynamic camera, which often trails Fern from behind as she seemingly forges ahead into new territory.

Through the lens of cinematographer Joshua James Richards, nature is otherworldly. Fern communes with enormous, abstract rock formations doused in violet sunset; lush redwoods that feel like remnants of the prehistoric age. The effect is practically Malickian, though Zhao’s strain of spirituality is rooted in a more grounded, empathetic understanding of human nature and its coping mechanisms.” (Beatrice Loayza, S&S March)

Where to see it: On Disney+

21. The Lost Daughter

Maggie Gyllenhaal, US

The Lost Daughter (2021)

Writer-director Gyllenhaal’s debut marks the actor as a filmmaking talent worth watching, in the tale of a university professor on holiday who is forced to confront troubling memories of her life as a young mother

We said: “Gyllenhaal won Best Screenplay at Venice Film Festival for her directorial debut, a bold adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel. It has cast a terrific Olivia Colman as a university professor vacationing on a Greek island and ruminating on her choices as a mother of two daughters. In the flashbacks – treated so extensively as to be more of an episodic narrative alongside Colman’s thread – Jessie Buckley plays the character’s younger self. Both display an eminently human prickliness that only makes their shredded creation that much more sympathetic.” (Nicolas Rapold, S&S November)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 17 December and on Netflix from 31 December

20. Il buco

Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy

Il Buco (2021)
Antonio Lanza as ‘Shepherd’ in Il Buco (2021)
© Courtesy of New Wave Films

Frammartino’s simple but beautiful docu-drama descends beneath the earth of Calabria.

We said: “The film depicts a 1961 expedition by a troupe of Piedmontese speleologists who travel to rural Calabria to chart a previously unmapped cave. Using their descent as the structural framework for his narrative, Frammartino follows his group of actor-speleologists into the hole, portraying their methodical journey under the earth from a mid-distance, with the specifics of dialogue barely audible and only natural light to illuminate the environment around them. Frammartino and his cinematographer, Renato Berta, revel in the inky abyss. Initially, light leaks into the frame from overhead but soon the cave walls are thrown into relief when a head torch is shone against them or a piece of burning paper is thrown over the precipice to gauge the depth of the next shaft. As such, the compositions feel alive, with different areas of the screen appearing and disappearing as a head turns.” (Ben Nicholson, S&S online)

Where to see it: UK release date yet to be announced

19. Flee

Jonas Peter Rasmussen, Denmark

Flee (2021)
Flee (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s intimate animated feature looks back on the personal experiences of Amin, a gay man living in Copenhagen who was forced to flee Afghanistan as a child.

We said: “The decision to tell Amin’s tale through animation recalls Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), although unlike Folman’s grim depiction of war crimes, Flee has moments of great joy. An exhilarating sequence of young Amin dashing through the streets of Kabul to A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’, with a whirl of energy and flight that recalls the kinetic animation of the band’s music video, is quite wondrous. The devastating ending of Waltz with Bashir uses real archive footage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Flee, too, uses real life footage, often news reports that add context to Amin’s plight. The final image, though, ends the film on a deserved, overwhelmingly moving note of optimism.” (Alex Davidson, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 11 February 2022

18. Censor

Prano Bailey-Bond, UK

Niamh Algar in BFI Film Fund supported Censor © 2021. All rights reserved.

Splicing cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary, Bailey-Bond’s razor-sharp debut sees the cynical gore of 1980s horror movies seeping into the real world.

We said: “Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) has the shadowy world of genre movies looked so starkly beautiful. Censor is so much more than the sum of its parts, and yet each of its distinct elements is its own consummate achievement. Paulina Rzeszowska, who worked previously on Rose Glass’s British indie horror Saint Maud (2019), delivers a production design that’s stylishly lugubrious, with pointed 1980s detail. Annika Summerson’s cinematography carries over the screening room’s claustrophobia into richly chiaroscuro’d urban corners and home interiors. The editor Mark Towns – again, previously of Saint Maud – elides Enid’s hallucinations and routine to dizzying effect. Then there’s the foreboding music by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (who also composed the score for Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, 2019) that perfectly seals off Enid’s world.” (Ela Bittencourt, S&S Summer)

Where to see it: On Mubi

17. First Cow

Kelly Reichardt, US

First Cow (2019)

Reichardt gives us a deliciously quiet vision of the pioneer American melting pot with this playful, poignant fable of a couple of furtive, milk-rustling cake-bakers in 1820s Oregon.

We said: “First Cow has the down-at-heel period authenticity of, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller married to the poignancy of Sam Peckinpah’s westerns, and it’s couched in an always playful anti-macho mood of laconic going-with-the-flow while subverting the cliches of westerns. Its use of detail – the paraphernalia of pioneer existence – is exquisite. Its visual approach emphasises warm colours amidst organic mulch. It knows how to amuse with empathy, even throwing in a couple of really dumb children’s jokes of a kind I’m fond of, but which I won’t spoil by telling here. Nothing is made too great a fuss of except by belligerent and vengeful souls in a place where the law is really the Chief Factor, the Factor’s men and the odd military officer.” (Nick James, S&S June)

Where to see it: On Mubi

16. The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier, Norway

The Worst Person in the World (2021)

Trier’s quarter-life crisis romcom won many admirers at this year’s Cannes and London film festivals.

We said: “Despite its fiddly structure – 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue – at heart Joachim Trier’s new film is a romcom, and one of the best of its kind. Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a 29-year-old woman at the crossroads of her life, or the spaghetti junction, given that she has more options than a Netflix menu. Will she be a doctor or a photographer? Work in a bookshop or become a writer? Does she settle down with comic-book writer Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) or have an affair with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum)? From her embarrassment of choices we get a sharp, hilarious, clever and romantic depiction of that moment of delicious suspense before life properly begins. Of course, beneath that gnaws away the worry that her life already is, in fact, getting away.” (John Bleasdale, S&S September)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 25 March 2022

15. Spencer

Pablo Larraín, UK/Germany/Chile

Spencer (2021)

Kristen Stewart’s fragile portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, a royal on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is the crowning achievement of Pablo Larraín’s chilling and restrained biopic.

We said: “Chilean director Larraín brings an outsider’s eye to a peculiar institution, while Kristen Stewart gives a portrait of a woman coming to pieces that is intimate and at times touching. Her breathy English accent sometimes veers towards impersonation, but Stewart captures Diana’s fragility and her yearning to escape the strictures of the family she’s found herself in.

Claire Mathon’s cinematography captures the watercolours of a British winter: pallid sunlight, frosty fields and the lush interiors which, despite their beauty, manage to look as cold as Diana and the boys repeatedly complain they are. Jonny Greenwood provides a string chamber music score that riffs on Schubert even as it tilts frantically, following Diana’s loosening grip on reality.” (John Bleasdale, S&S December)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

14. Dune

Denis Villeneuve, US

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (2021)
© Courtesy of Warner Bros

Villeneuve adapts Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic with state-of-the art special effects and an original take on the story. And now we patiently await Part Two…

We said: “One pitfall into which the 1984 film fell headlong, but Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, have shrewdly avoided, is excessive fidelity to the original. The present film does justice to its source – or at least, it does as far as it goes. Inevitably, given that Herbert’s is a long and complex novel, several episodes are compressed or omitted, but never to the detriment of the narrative flow. The key storyline isn’t distorted or simplified, and neither are the main characters; there are no casting missteps such as Lynch made. Instead, Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) tellingly brings out the steely determination developing behind Paul’s initial diffidence. No weak links in the impeccably chosen supporting cast, either.” (Philip Kemp, S&S November) 

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

13. The Velvet Underground

Todd Haynes, US

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Eschewing music doc conventions, Haynes creates a rock documentary as vibrant as its subject, with interviews and archive material rubbing up against stylistic inventiveness.

We said: “A considered portrait of a rock band that met with much bemusement when it sprang from the 1960s New York art scene, but went on to pop-cultural veneration by subsequent generations. It’s the journey from avant-garde laughing stock to canonical status that gives Haynes’s film a greater sense of purpose than the familiar music-doc logging of line-ups, albums and creative differences. 

Declining to wheel in music critics or today’s pop sensations to expound on the band’s ongoing influence, the film does the expository stuff pretty well, covering the behind-the-music give and take of animosity between the main movers. Meanwhile, Haynes deals with the shortage of ‘professionally’ shot coverage of the Velvets in rehearsal or performance by delivering what’s essentially a hyperactive collage of endlessly shifting cool-as-fuck moments.” (Trevor Johnston, S&S November)

Where to see it: On Apple TV+

12. The Green Knight

David Lowery, US/Canada

The Green Knight (2021)

The 14th-century poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ becomes a less-than-heroic quest starring Dev Patel.

We said: “We’re a long way from the grandstanding speeches and showy sword-and-sorcery of Game of Thrones (2011-19). Our hero Gawain (he’s not even a Sir in this version until late in the action) is hesitant and beset by doubts (“I’m not ready yet” is one of the first things we hear him say); prior to his quest he spends his time in scruffy, boozy surroundings with his low-caste lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). All of which, of course, makes him more human and likeable than the preux chevalier of the original poem. Lowery leads his flawed protagonist through a dark landscape – much of it atmospherically shot in Co. Wicklow in Ireland by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo – where Christianity and mystical paganism hold equal sway, and the supernatural is never far off.” (Philip Kemp, S&S December)

Where to see it: On Amazon Prime Video

11. Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Sweden

Bergman Island (2020)

Hansen-Løve looks at a filmmaking couple’s creative processes through a glass darkly when they visit the famous island home of Ingmar Bergman.

We said: “Vicky Krieps turns the tables on her dynamic with Daniel Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread (2019): this time, she seems to be the tortured artist and Tony (Tim Roth) her down-to-earth anchor. But Hansen-Løve touches on a more sombre view of the creative process when Chris takes a peek into her partner’s notebook, finding sketches of women in sexually submissive positions and the outline of what looks to be a spiritual remake of Bergman’s psychosexual freakout Persona (1966). Could Tony in fact be the tortured artist? Is making art about using big words and big concepts to dig deep into the darkest reaches of the human soul? Has Chris been doing it all wrong? Hansen-Løve does not answer these questions directly, preferring to remain in the grey area most of us are dwelling in.” (Elena Lazic, S&S online)

Where to see it: UK release date yet to be announced

10. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Japan

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

Hamaguchi presents a triptych of awkward encounters in the muted tones of middle-class Japan – yarns of connection and coincidence in the conditional tense.

We said: “‘Excuse me, can you go back the same way?’ The taxi turns around. This is the first manoeuvre in a film whose English title anticipates its narrative twists. Except this isn’t the same way, this isn’t quite repetition. The film is slippery with such divergences. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy continues the director’s interest in doublings, coincidences and duplicity that has earned him comparisons with Rivette and Rohmer since his debut melodrama, Passion, in 2008.

Hamaguchi’s method of improvisatory workshopping (sometimes with non-professional actors, often working in pairs) facilitates taut, even tortured, exchanges. He often has actors read scripts aloud, with no inflection, until ‘something happens’ (he struggles to explain quite what). Something happens that feels real, has a certain weight or thickness – and that is when he starts filming.” (Becca Voelcker, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 11 February 2022

9. Annette

Leos Carax, France

Annette (2021)

Opening this year’s bumper edition of Cannes with a bang, Carax’s melodramatic, shapeshifting musical sang up a storm of love, lust and lamentation. 

We said: “The soundtrack for Carax’s Holy Motors included ‘How Are You Getting Home?’ by Sparks, the duo made up of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who would later send Carax a treatment idea for a musical, along with some 20 demos, which eventually became Annette. The kinship between band and director is hardly surprising: both are pop pioneers in their respective idioms who revel in mixing high sophistication with oddball, often puerile humour.

What it has engendered is a script with dialogue composed of lyrics replete with dorky rhymes – though in large part delivered in recitative à la Jacques Demy – and very likely the only musical ever to contain not just one but two scenes of cunnilingus. In the first, the couple alternately sing “We love each other so much!” until they climax in unison with the song, while the second occasions a masterpiece of a match cut from the ecstasy of orgasm to that of childbirth (“Breathe in! Breathe out! Push, push!” sings a chorus of doctors and nurses).” (Giovanni Marchini Camia, S&S September)

Where to see it: On Mubi

8. Summer of Soul

Ahmir Khalib Thompson, US

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Thompson (a.k.a. Questlove) creates a resounding time capsule of the late 1960s, using rediscovered footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to present a procession of Black musical legends.

We said: “As Summer of Soul unfolds, the fact that it took so long for the footage to see the light of day feels increasingly puzzling. Not only is the material stunning on its musical merits alone, but it thrums with history, with the political and cultural currents of Black life in the 1960s. Questlove excavates these themes deftly through talking-head interviews with attendees, critics and the artists themselves, some of whom encounter the footage for the first time.

Some of the most joyous shots in Summer of Soul are those of the crowd, which paint a picture of all that coalesced around the festival. Rows and rows of afros bob to the music, little girls and boys can be seen perched atop their parents’ shoulders, vendors hawk food and drink on the sidelines and the Black Panthers patrol the venue, providing security in lieu of a reluctant police. In the years in which the footage languished in obscurity, Summer of Soul lived on in the dreams of its attendees, some of whom vividly recall the smell of “Afro Sheen and chicken” and the feeling of being a part of something generation-defining. With Summer of Soul, Questlove gives solidity to their memories, ensuring their due place in the annals of American history.” (Devika Girish, S&S September)

Where to see it: On Disney+

7. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Alexandre Koberidze, Georgia

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (2021)

Absurdist vignettes are combined with a tragi-comic love story in Koberidze’s second feature, a Georgian romance with Kafkaesque quirks.

We said: “On the eve of a World Cup, a timid young pharmacist, Lisa (played alternatively by Irina Chelidze and Ani Karseladze), and an equally shy league-soccer player, Giorgi (Giorgi Amroladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili), fall in love, after two fortuitous encounters. But when Lisa gets bewitched by the ‘evil eye’, her looks are entirely altered by the next morning – with the same fate befalling her lover – and the two miss each other on their first date. Both also lose their talents (Lisa for medicine, Giorgi for soccer) so that Lisa winds up working at an ice-cream parlour; Giorgi finds a similarly lacklustre job. Koberidze astutely keeps the couple’s misfortunes in a minor key, turning tragedy into the stuff of absurdist fables: Kafka and Hrabal but also Orhan Pamuk (of My Name Is Red) certainly come to mind.

The scripted scenes offer a mix of quietly astonishing moments, which capture the town’s uniqueness and convey a sense of wonder. Some of them are humorous, such as a purportedly missed encounter between two dogs that ‘agreed’ to watch a soccer match together. Others are visual interludes, or refrains, such as a soccer-ball bobbing down the stream, a little girl muscling through a violin piece, or the dancing of light and wind against gauzy curtains. To say that Koberidze aspires to be a poet of the cinema might sound cloying, but he certainly thinks in variations, rhythms and echoes, rather than dramatic arches or characters.” (Ela Bittencourt, S&S online)

Where to see it: UK release date yet to be announced

6. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion, UK/US/New Zealand

The Power of the Dog (2021)
© Courtesy of Netflix/See-Saw Films

Campion’s first film in over a decade is typically perceptive about the myriad effects of toxic masculinity, as channeled through Benedict Cumberbatch’s rancher Phil.

We said: “Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) rides herd over a thriving cattle ranch with his stolid brother George (Jesse Plemons), sharing the well-appointed lodge-like house left behind by their city-bound parents. When George takes a liking to a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst, played with aching brittleness), who runs a small hotel, Phil feels their tight-knit fraternity threatened. He directs his cruel ire toward Rose and the boy he dubs “Miss Nancy”: her willowy, bookish son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, winning in his ungainly awkwardness and resembling a young Martin Landau).

But as Phil childishly acts out about his brother actually growing up, he’s also slowly self-destructing in his own fashion. With a suggestiveness more direct than earlier forays into the mythic West, the film orchestrates another kind of archetype in Phil: a man desperately trying to tamp down his sexuality by putting up a rough front to all around him. Cumberbatch summons Lee Marvin’s brash magnetic voice in creating a cowboy who’s know-it-all yet deeply confused, as he idolises an old friend, Bronco Henry, who was so perfect and manly it hurts. Campion dots the film with earthy close-ups or hard edits (blood droplets on wheat, cattle castration); actual human touch is used sparingly and powerfully. Where it all ends up feels at once cathartic and surprising, a denouement readable as lurid poetic justice and profound tragedy (our ears somehow pricked along the way by the odd high horns in Jonny Greenwood’s score).” (Nicolas Rapold, S&S December)

Where to see it: On Netflix

5. Titane

Julia Ducournau, France

Titane (2021)

Julia Docournau’s second feature crashed into the Cannes competition like a ten-ton truck, a motor-minded explosion of oily eroticism with a still-beating heart of emotional tenderness under its bonnet.

We said: “After the hit cannibal horror Raw (2016), expectations were high for Ducournau’s follow up. In Titane, she has met and surpassed them. The film looks and sounds gorgeous, with Ruben Impens’s day-glo cinematography giving way at times to something more naturalistic, and Jim Williams’s score accompanying the fervid action with its own fever dream rhythms, alternating between techno and something more operatic.

Extreme French cinema has become a genre in itself but can all too often have the effect of a faulty smoke alarm: it might wake you up with a jerk but for no real reason. Titane in contrast has an abundance to say: about gender, sexuality, family, human relationships and fetishisation. It’ll shake you, and something is definitely on fire.” (John Bleasdale, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 31 December

4. Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand

Memoria (2021)

Tilda Swinton wanders the streets of Bogota while striving to understand the strange noise repeatedly sounding in her head, in the Thai master’s latest enigmatic revelation of ambiguous mental states.

We said: “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gift for exquisite empathy remains fully intact in his first feature to be shot outside Thailand and include a major star. Towering over the rest of the Cannes competition in terms of ambition and singularity, Memoria sends a wraithlike Tilda Swinton on a hypnotic wander through Bogotá, the disparate impressions she collects along the way repeatedly interrupted by a metallic thud that echoes inside her skull: one indeterminate sound within an entire filigree soundscape that at once steers the narrative and highlights cinema’s oft-untapped sonic potential.

The motivation for Jessica’s actions are just as unexplained, which seem less guided by any intentionality than by an insatiable urge to roam. She walks the streets of Bogotá, looks at images of fungi-plagued flowers in a library, passes by an impromptu jazz concert at the university. She visits her sister at the hospital, befriends a French archaeologist named Agnès carrying out excavations in a tunnel and has a sound technician named Hernán try to replicate the thud inside her head; the database he uses consists of cinema sound effects. Her sister fears that a curse might have caused her illness, Agnès talks of an old skull found in the tunnel whose cranium was once pierced to release spirits; and no one seems to have heard of an Hernán when Jessica tries to visit him again at the sound studio.” (James Lattimer, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 14 January 2022

3. Drive My Car

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Japan

Drive My Car (2021)

Murakami Haruki’s short story of a driver growing closer to her passenger is adapted by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke into an understated and precise reflection on language, emotion and loss.

We said: “Much of this latest film takes place in the car of the title – a red Saab, to be precise. Precision is key for Hamaguchi’s tragicomedies of manners and for the Murakami Haruki short story on which this film is based. The film adheres closely to Murakami’s text, though it makes its own detours. (In Murakami’s story the Saab is yellow; Hamaguchi’s red substitute looks exquisite against the snow in the film’s closing scenes, shot in Japan’s northernmost region Hokkaido.)

A theatre actor, Mr Kafuku, loses his wife, whom he secretly knows was unfaithful to him. Much of the film is concerned with how Mr Kafuku spends his days, rehearsing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a multilingual cast of actors at a theatre in Hiroshima. Role play and performance fascinate Hamaguchi, as evidenced in Happy Hour and, more recently, Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021). Drive My Car contains many extended takes in which actors workshop lines and scenarios through improvisation. Language is key here – be it Japanese, with its nuances of politeness and elliptical implication, or body languages and facial expressions.” (Becca Voelcker, S&S December)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas

2. Petite maman

Céline Sciamma, France

Petite maman (2021)

Sciamma’s miniature forest fairy tale perfectly conjures the mysteries of a mother-daughter bond shaded by grief.

We said: “An extremely small and exactly perfect film, Céline Sciamma’s Petite maman might at first appear dwarfed by her last title, Portrait of a Lady of Fire. But come closer – and this is a film that beckons like a forest path – and there is much that is similar. There’s the luminosity of the filmmaking – an introvert radiance made extrovert by the unshakable assurance of Claire Mathon’s camerawork and Sciamma’s own directorial certitude. And there are the stories, one about romantic love, the other about a mother-daughter bond, but both about the beautiful tragedy of love, even when fully reciprocated: that you can never truly know anyone, however much you care for them. Portrait, more epic though it was, hinged on the tiny revelation of a finger marking a significant place in a book, and Petite maman may yet turn out to be the page 28 in the ongoing novel of Sciamma’s career.

In addition to all its other bright, polished pleasures, Sciamma’s film embodies a scintillatingly simple solution to the conundrum of filmmaking under lockdown conditions: if circumstances dictate that the scale becomes smaller, zoom in. Petite maman is a tiny suspended moment within time, magnified at high resolution until the microscopic becomes momentous, and the mystery of a child’s love for her mother becomes the mystery of all love.” (Jessica Kiang, S&S December)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas now and on Mubi from 18 February 2022

1. The Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg, UK

The Souvenir Part II (2021)

And the winner is… The Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg and Honor Swinton Byrne reflect on winning the S&S 2021 poll, and on the long and satisfying journey of making the Souvenir films

Read the interview

Hogg spotlights Julie’s burgeoning career in the film industry and a string of casual relationships in this beautifully sophisticated semi-autobiographical sequel.

We said: “How do you follow a film like The Souvenir (2019)? Joanna Hogg’s unsparing portrait of the relationship between a student filmmaker, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) and an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke), who ends up dying from a heroin overdose, was loaded with metatextual emotion by virtue of being naked autobiography. Hogg recycled personal mementos, using photographs of the view from her own apartment window in 1980s Knightsbridge to show Julie’s view of the same and bringing her own gold-framed bed onto the set for Julie to sleep in. These tactile details blurred the line between truth and art, a line further blurred with playful sophistication in this transfixing sequel.

If Part I was about Julie losing herself in romance, Part II is about Julie finding herself in grief, as she attempts to process what happened with Anthony through the making of her thesis film, itself as transparently autobiographical as The Souvenir is for Hogg. The making of the film-within-the-film gives rise to excruciating moments that show its creator’s lacerating self-awareness and lack of vanity. Harris Dickinson shows up to play ‘Anthony’ (opposite Ariane Labed’s ‘Julie’), wincing with the pained confusion of a well-meaning actor confronted with a director who has not given him a solid character. As he questions the material, the sense is that he is also questioning whether Julie really knew Anthony. The film expresses the awkward and vulnerable truth that creating something out of raw emotion means total exposure to collaborators, not all of whom will be on side.” (Sophie Monks Kaufman, S&S online)

Where to see it: In UK cinemas from 4 February 2022

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