2021, a year that initially began as 2020 ended, with the cinemas still closed amid a continuing lockdown that kept us at home. New releases were being brought to us through the streaming services, but it was wonderful to see the cinemas finally reopen in May. That feeling of being back in the cinema, watching films where they are meant to be seen, there’s honestly nothing like it. Given that the year saw the release of many films that were pushed back, there were lots of films for cinephiles to enjoy, and so let’s have a look and see what was the best films that 2021 had to offer.
Whenever I compile these end-of-year lists, the aim is always to include films that are listed as 2021 releases on IMDB. Yet, as will probably be the case till the end of time, some films had very staggered release dates. Consequently, there are some films appearing on this list that came out in 2020, but they weren’t available to UK audiences until 2021. Hence, this makes them available for this year’s list. Also, as much as I would want to, I’ve not seen every film that was released this year, so apologies if your favourite is not on here, as I may not have seen it. On the flip side to that, some films featured here that are listed as 2021 releases on IMDB, haven’t yet made their way to UK cinemas. However, as I was able to see some of these at London Film Festival this year, this means they are eligible for inclusion here.
Additionally, as I say every year, the grades I give the films do not determine the rankings of these films. A film that gets a perfect grade is not guaranteed to be my favourite film of the year. Lists like these are always a chance for the person compiling them to be as biased as they want to be. These are the films that, for me personally, defined 2021 as a strong year for film.
Before I get into the main list, I must give a shout out to some honourable mentions. These films are excellent that you should definitely check out, but they just didn’t quite make the list:
The Power of the Dog [review]. 12 years after her last film, Jane Campion returns to the director’s chair for an enthralling Western that focuses less on the cowboys and the shootouts, and more on the tense relationship between two brothers on a 1925 Montana ranch.
Encanto [review] The first, and not the last, film on this list that has the involvement of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Disney celebrated their landmark 60th animated feature film in some style, with a beautifully animated film that depicted a heartfelt story to prove the House of Mouse still has the magic touch.
Spencer [review]. Princess Diana’s story is one that is all too well known. A tragic figure in British history, Pablo Larrain’s unconventional biopic zeroes in on a time when Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles had grown cold. There’s a lot of creative liberties in terms of the story, but it all comes together thanks to an astonishing, transformative Kristen Stewart performance as Diana.
A Quiet Place Part II [review]. The first film that I saw in cinemas when they reopened. John Krasinski returned to the director’s chair to bring us a sequel to one of the most unique horror films of recent years. Recapturing that tension that of the first film was always going to be a tough ask, but Krasinski pulled it off, delivering a sequel that proved to be a worthy follow up to the original, with an incredible performance from Millicent Simmonds.
Spider-Man: No Way Home [review]. Since the pandemic began, there’s arguably not been a film that had quite the level of hype going into it as the concluding chapter to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man trilogy. Where previous Spider-Man sequels failed, this threequel webbed all of its plot threads tremendously well and delivered an extremely satisfying film that should change the MCU as we know it.
Honourable mentions honoured. Now, since we had so many films this year, let’s dive into the top 15…
15. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
It had been a long time coming, but at long last this year, the MCU made a film that was led by an Asian superhero, alongside a predominantly Asian led cast. A landmark moment, and thanks to the outstanding stunt work, the film brought a unique visual style to the action scenes that are unlike anything that previous MCU films had brought to the table. Thanks to the brilliant performance of Simu Liu in the titular role, a new hero was born. Plus, in Tony Leung’s Wenwu, you have one of the best MCU villains in years.
14. tick, tick… BOOM!
As time goes by and we hit the later years in life, we begin to feel the pressure of wanting to leave our mark on the world. Taking the truly tragic story of Jonathan Larson and his struggles to craft the missing pieces of the puzzle for a play he’s writing doesn’t sound like the most invigorating combo in concept. But when you have a career-best performance from Andrew Garfield, and the usual catchiness of the songs that Lin-Manuel Miranda pens, and you have an extremely emotionally impactful combination that is beautifully directed by Miranda.
13. In the Heights
Continuing on the subject of Lin-Manuel Miranda, after being delayed by a year due to the pandemic, this Jon. M Chu-directed adaptation of Miranda’s 2005 musical was the much-needed blast of sun-soaked joy that we needed after many months of cinemas being shut. Filled to the brim with a plethora of memorable songs, all of which had a unique visual style to them. The film’s screenplay packed some important changes that made it extremely topical for the political landscape of 2021. In a year that saw a number of musicals, this is the best of them all and further proof that 2021 was the year of Lin-Manuel Miranda supremacy.
review coming soon
In this beautiful semi-autobiographical film, director Kenneth Branagh tells the story about centres on a young boy growing up in the centre of Belfast just as the Troubles were beginning in Northern Ireland. Given that background, it seems unlikely that there’d be much room for humour, but Branagh works it so wonderfully well into his script, and gets awards-worthy performances out of every member of the main cast, especially Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe.
11. Raya and the Last Dragon
In all of the 58 Disney films that preceded this one, they’d never given audiences a heroine of South-Eastern Asian origin. As was the case with Shang-Chi, the film was a ground-breaking moment for representation that had been a long time coming. A lot of lore is packed into the story, but it married that up with an extremely exciting adventure. Plus, in Raya, you have yet another fearless and badass warrior princess that gives young girls a positive role model, and Awkwfinha as the voice of a dragon. One of Disney’s best films in years.
Now for the top 10…
10. No Time to Die
Being one of the first films to be affected by the pandemic, and being hit with a number of subsequent delays on top of that, it was starting to feel like we’d never get to see Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond. But thankfully this Autumn, it was finally released to the world, and it was worth the wait. The film had the extremely difficult task of tying all the loose ends from all of Craig’s previous Bond films, and managing the enormous expectations of the fans beforehand. Thankfully, while it wasn’t all plain sailing, it was mission accomplished with a compelling story that gave one of the best actors to play Bond a memorable final bow, and the send-off he deserved.
9. The Last Duel
Credit where credit is due for Ridley Scott. The veteran director is, at the age of 84, is still producing incredible pieces of cinema. He’s got a history with swords and sandals epic. However, what sets this apart from his previous films in this genre is that this is a medieval epic, with a modern, and very important message. Presenting its story in three distinct acts from a different person’s point of view, the first two acts are compelling and well written. However, it’s not until the third act, that the film truly soars, thanks to the award-worthy performance of Jodie Comer. This is, along with another film in this list, one of the most important films of the Post #MeToo Era of Hollywood, that absolutely did not deserve to be a box office bomb.
8. Sound of Metal
Losing one of your senses would undoubtedly be an extremely traumatic time in your life, especially if one of those senses was integral to your job as a drummer in a band. This is the devastating position that Ruben finds himself in, and must adapt to the changing circumstances of his life. With stunning sound work, the film puts you in Ruben’s (an extraordinary Riz Ahmed) position, and examines how his life will forever be changed by this painful diagnosis. An extraordinary directorial debut from Darius Marder that shines a deserved spotlight on deaf communities across the world.
7. King Richard
Serena and Venus Williams. Two names who need no introduction, as they have established themselves as two of the greatest athletes to have ever lived. What you probably don’t know, is the story of their father, Richard Williams, and the impact he had in shaping their early careers. The parents of any budding young superstar athletes undoubtedly have to work tirelessly to help their children achieve their dreams, and this uplifting family drama takes us on that journey. The film is packed with incredible performances, including an arguably career-best performance from Will Smith as Richard. He’s very ably supported by star-making turns from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the young Venus and Serena respectively, likewise for Aunjanue Ellis as their mother Brandi.
6. The Harder They Fall
The Western genre is one that has so often been dominated by white lead characters. Meanwhile, for any black characters in these films, they are too often reduced to bit-part roles that don’t give them a chance to shine. However, as the words “These. People. Existed.” flash up on the screen at the start of this slick and stylish Western, it is a timely reminder that these people have stories of their own that deserve to be told. Enter Jeymes Samuel, with his feature film directorial debut that puts these characters front and centre.
Looking at what Samuel brings to the table in terms of his cast and the action scenes, it almost defies belief that this is his feature film debut. His passion for the genre comes through with every frame, and with the super talented cast he has at his disposal, it all meshes together tremendously well. An enthralling and much-needed revitalisation of the Western genre.
5. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Technology has very much become a crucial aspect of modern life. From computers to mobile phones, it seems every so often we’re bathing our eyes in the blue light of some fanciful gadget. Films have often tackled the seemingly probable eventuality of a robot apocalypse, but what if when said robot uprising begins, humanity’s last hope is in the form of a hilarious, but extremely dysfunctional family? The answer is the latest hilarious film from those animated wizards at Sony Pictures Animation.
Filled to the brim with funny commentary about how dependent we are on our gadgets, the film’s animation brilliantly combines 2D and 3D styles of animation. The voice performances are all first-class, and the film has, hands down, THE best scene involving Furbies that will ever be seen in any film, ever.
4. The Suicide Squad
It’s fair to say that DC’s first attempt to bring their collection of super villains and mould them into a team of heroes didn’t get the reception and adulation that DC would have wanted. So what do you do to make a second attempt at this crop of characters work? Well, you bring in the guy who turned an obscure collection of Marvel anti-heroes into box office gold, and apply that to DC’s equivalent collection of characters.
While the film retains some characters from the 2016 film, it’s very much a soft reboot than a direct sequel. James Gunn brings his unique sense of humour to the story, and this new iteration expertly combines previous fan favourites, such as Harley Quinn, with exciting new recruits like a walking, talking humanoid shark, and a character who’s fond of rats. On paper, it sounds ridiculous but under Gunn’s direction, the end result is glorious and gory comic book movie mayhem.
Now, when it came to the top 3, putting these three films in some kind of order was extremely tough. At one point this year, I had all three of these at #1, and they all would be thoroughly deserving of that spot. If I could have them as a three-way tie for #1, I would. But as they must be ranked, we go on with…
3. Judas and the Black Messiah
The Civil Rights Movement in the US has seen a number of highly charismatic and influential leaders take a stand and leave their mark on history. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali are all important figures whose story has been told throughout history. Yet there’s one important figure whose name has seldom been told, but who really should be held in the same breath as these aforementioned historical figures: Fred Hampton Jr.
The story and film’s message have only become more important and relevant in recent years since events in 2020 forced the world to have an urgent conversation about race relations in the US. LaKeith Stanfield’s leading performance as the FBI informant is incredible. However, it is Daniel Kaluuya’s transformative, Oscar-winning, supporting turn as Hampton himself that cements this biographical historical drama as one of the most important films of the year.
2. Promising Young Woman
Every so often there is a film that holds up a mirror to our society, that demands us to have a conversation about a particular topic. It’s the power of a truly great film. Not only do they generate a discussion, but they stay with you even after the credits have rolled. This was most definitely applicable for this enthralling directorial debut from Emerald Fennell.
Forced to drop out of med school, following a tragic incident involving her best friend, Cassie goes out at night pretending to be drunk, to catch in the act, would be sexual predators who would take advantage of a drunken woman. The film grips with you with the opening act, and only escalates when circumstances present Cassie with an opportunity to take revenge against the person who inflicted all that pain on her years ago. Fennell expertly juxtaposes bright and colourful romantic comedy moments, with the more dark and brutal revenge mission, all while getting a career-best performance from Carey Mulligan.
And so my favourite film of 2021 is
For two years running, this was my most anticipated film of the year, and it absolutely delivered on those lofty expectations. Denis Villeneuve has cemented himself as one of, if not, my favourite directors working today. He has consistently delivered incredible films every time, and it was clear from interviews in the build-up to the film’s release just how much of an impact Frank Herbert’s iconic novel had on him growing up. It was said to be an unfilmable book, but Villeneuve absolutely proved everybody wrong.
Right from the off, the film immediately pulls the audience into the world of Arrakis and Dune. Villeneuve brings the visual majesty that he brought to his previous sci-fi works, and with a packed ensemble cast tells an utterly enthralling story, or at least the first part of it. The scope of the novel meant that Villeneuve was able to take his time, and it pays off. Dune very much stands on its own as an enthralling piece of sci-fi storytelling, and it was made for the big screen. Experiencing films like this was an experience that was sorely missed in 2020, and so to get the opportunity to experience this on the biggest screen possible was absolutely special. Plus, the great news is that we’ve Part Two still to come.
And that brings the curtain down on my list of the best that film had to offer in 2021. Thank you for reading, especially if you read all the way through! Let’s hope that it won’t be long before the cinemas reopen and we can witness more films on the big screen. What were your favourite films of 2021? Let me know in the comments below or you can find me on the following platforms: Twitter, Facebook or Letterbox’d.
For my picks for my most anticipated films of 2022, please click here.