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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

The 20 Best Movies Of 2021

A collage of 2021 movie posters

2021 was the year to properly make a return to cinemas, whether that was for some postponed blockbusters or getting to check out some award-winning indies finally, while also enjoying film festivals virtually. As a result, putting together a top 20 list felt slightly more rewarding this year in terms of how I discovered films or just by sheer quality of them. In consideration for the list were exactly 100 movies from 2021, as well as 26 from 2020 that were battling it out for a special mention below, all reviewed on the site (you can click on the title to find the review for each of these, FYI).

Once again, plenty of films were of course left to be seen later, often due to inaccessible screenings/screeners such as for many Disney titles ('Shang-Chi', 'Eternals', 'Encanto', 'The Last Duel', 'West Side Story' etc.) or poorly communicated award contenders ('The Power Of The Dog', 'The Hand Of God', 'Red Rocket', 'Mass' etc.), therefore making them only contend for a special mention next year. Silver lining is that maybe it left room for a couple smaller titles to get a spotlight, however. Anyway, here are some special mentions and favourite films of the year (key word again is ''favourite'', that is always a good reminder).

Special Mentions

Best 2020 Catch-ups

Best Bang For Your Buck

Critical Disagreement

Chaos Walking (4.5/10 and 21% on Rotten Tomatoes)

Promising First Narrative Features

Lamb | Dýrið (dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson)

Passing (dir. Rebecca Hall)

Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)

Violet (dir. Justine Bateman)

And now... here are the 20 best films of 2021


Slowly evolving from grounded science fiction to drama territory where it ultimately lands in, Michael Pierce's Encounter features an excellent leading performance from Riz Ahmed who has amazing chemistry with child actors Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada. You might also want to check it out with the best possible sound system available.

Shirtless, wounded Riz Ahmed in a public bathroom
Amazon Studios


Colourful and highly entertaining time for the whole family that has an impressive jokes-per-minute ratio. Features a stellar voice cast and rewatches can also be rewarding as each frame has so much thought put into them (look out for the production design!).

The Mitchells family looking up at the sky

18. COMPARTMENT NO.6 | Hytti nro 6

Purposefully somewhat timeless and intimate train movie charms you with close quarters camera work and solid acting from Yuriy Borisov and Seidi Haarla. Do you have your ticket and luggage already?

Seidi Haarla looking out a train window, Yuriy Borisov lurking behind her
B-Plan Distribution


Nifty little psychological thriller Here Before transports you to tense and twisty landscapes of Northern Ireland. Filmmaker Stacey Gregg's debut oozes the right kind of mix of dread, melancholy and immorality that the script and musical score enhance.

Andrea Riseborough eating corn
Rooks Nest


Well, what can you say about this one that hasn't been said already; it swept the Oscars after all. Very much like with her previous film 'The Rider', Chloe Zhao removes all the distractions so you're just on the road with the characters. It's a rare experience, cherish it.

Frances McDormand with a cigarette, leaning on a car
Searchlight Pictures


If you're looking for something short and tight, you might want to look into Censor as it happens to be perfectly limited to 80 minutes. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch's score invites you in with haunting notes and the ending will leave a mark on you.

Niamh Algar walking in a hallway
Magnolia Pictures


Isabelle Fuhrman gives one of the best performances of the year as Alex, a college rower who's intoxicated with a new physical challenge turned into an obsession. This gripping sports drama also keeps up the pace with tight editing from director-writer Lauren Hadaway and Nathan Nugent, only letting you breathe when they finally want you to.

Isabelle Fuhrman sitting on a rowing machine
IFC Films

13. OXYGEN | Oxygène

Perhaps the perfect type of movie to be made in 2021—or 2020 for that matter—Oxygen is mainly about one character and one distanced voice in a single location. It knows when it needs to open up with visual effects and different rhythm in editing in order to serve the necessary twist.

Mélanie Laurent in a futuristic pod


Not a straightforward biopic and it's so much better because of it. An intense and stylish character piece which happens to feature a stunning performance from Kristen Stewart, as well as storytelling through production design and costumes.

Kristen Stewart behind a pool table

11. ALONERS | 혼자 사는 사람들

Combines a few things mentioned earlier with previously listed films; it's a thoughtful character study, scaled down just to essentials (this is a low-budget, low-stakes film) and leaning heavily on the central performance. Understanding of character is so clear in fact that it surely will lead director-writer Hong Seong-eun to bigger things.

Gong Seung-yeon lying down in bed


A wonderful group of actors led by Mads Mikkelsen and the funny yet tragic script from director Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm invite you to be part of their group for a few nights out. May feature the year's best ending that will make your heart soar.

Mads Mikkelsen sitting on a park bench
Atlantic Film

9. MINARI | 미나리

Key word with Lee Isaac Chung's Minari is ''specificity''. There's some sprinkled in to the family dynamics, remote Arkansas location, in the spaces between lines and decor of the family home. Not a big story per se, but it is meaningful for every single member of that family.

The family from 'Minari' standing in high grass

8. TITANE | Titane

Describing the film simply as shocking or brazen would be just tenth of the truth because you might miss the incredible filmmaking; makeup with its prosthetics and blood effects, raving camera work and two outstanding actors in Agathe Rousselle (in her feature debut!) and Vincent Lindon. Julia Ducournau's vision however could be the year's most creative and that comes across both in her script and what gets shown on the screen.

Agathe Rousselle in a neon-lit warehouse


Another instance where it's just easier to combine two things mentioned earlier rather than try to write about other things. Another duo of great performers in Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman translate the text in a touching manner while the production design and editing put into the world of the main character. It's an extraordinary adaptation of Florian Zeller's own stage play.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins sitting in a living room
Atlantic Film

6. PIG

Even though Nicolas Cage has been part of a couple interesting projects in the last few years, it was still a spectacular surprise that one would crack my top ten, considering the odd premise of it all. Filmmaker Michael Sarnoski doesn't always take you to the most obvious place and Cage builds up great chemistry with Alex Wolff.

Nicolas Cage with a truffle pig


I couldn't even tell you if a musical has/would've made my top ten before so prolific songwriter and musical theatre extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda's first time in a director's chair for tick, tick...BOOM! can be regarded as an anomaly. The songs aren't just rocking but they're lyrically interesting and raw enough so you buy into Andrew Garfield and company singing them. There's also enough drama to justify backstories and fallouts.

Andrew Garfield by a piano

4. THE DAUGHTER | La hija

It's really not a true end-of-the-year top 10 without a movie that barely anyone has seen, even myself had it not been for the luxury of virtual film festivals. This gorgeously photographed and scored Spanish thriller has the exactly right beats for its respective genre, with yet another ending that just leaves a lasting impression.

Irene Virgüez behind a snowy car window


An anomaly for unexpected reasons, Denis Villeneuve's epic adaptation of Dune is really the only blockbuster crashing the party this year. Much of that is because it's the type of blockbuster that we aren't getting anymore; the focus is on the craft of filmmaking (production design, VFX, cinematography, costumes, you name it), world-building is done visually rather than through exposition and it has enough thematic weight, whether that's environmentalism, colonialism or political wars.

Timothée Chalamet kneeling with a dagger in his hand
Warner Bros. Pictures


Almost a complete opposite to the idea of blockbusters, Darius Marder's Sound Of Metal is an immersion to one person's worldview and their sense of themselves. This is channelled strikingly, yet again, by Riz Ahmed as a metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing. It's an interesting character journey for him that tackles vulnerability, addiction and a challenge to find a new voice and language to express yourself.

Riz Ahmed crossing fingers
Cinema Mondo


Okay, so there's a shortcut to compete for a number one slot in any given year, albeit a risky one, which is to blend genres in your film in order to achieve something ever-changing. Director-writer-actor Emerald Fennell does just that in her feature debut here, mixing ingredients of rom-coms and revenge thrillers to create something that is definitely going for it and your patience with it will vary depending on your own taste. Carey Mulligan also has both those genres down precisely in her outing as Cassie, costumes and sets play around with pastels while darker shades lie in the nightlife and Fennell's script isn't afraid to take wilder swings to keep things vibrant. It's a hard one to get out of your mind, which is something to appreciate.

Carey Mulligan standing in the middle of a road with a crowbar

You can find these films and everything else on this Letterboxd list.
See you in 2022.
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