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Benedict Cumberbatch in a cowboy hat in a Wild West setting with scrub and sandy hills
Photograph: Netflix

2021 movie review: the 20 best films of the year

The finest film offerings of the past 12 months

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Contributor
Andy Kryza
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Kristen Stewart playing Lady Di, Daniel Craig bowing out as 007 in a flurry of stupidly epic set pieces, Jane Campion delivering a gold-standard western and Spielberg reminding us how great he can be with a kinetic new take on West Side Story... truly the movie gods spoiled us this year, and lord knows we deserved it after the year we’ve all had.

There were new releases from Paul Thomas Anderson, two Chloé Zhao films and a superhero flick that introduced polka dots as a superpower, instantly empowering mild-mannered haberdashers everywhere. 

With opportunities ahead to catch up on the films you might have missed, here are Time Out’s picks of the very best of the year to you help prioritise. By way of small print: as long as a film was in cinemas somewhere in the world between January and December, it qualifies for the list. 

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  • Film
  • Comedy

What a joy Paul Thomas Anderson’s freewheeling film turned out to be. It cartwheels around the San Fernando Valley armed with all the local knowledge you’d expect (PTA, of course, grew up there), a cast of maverick characters – real (Bradley Cooper’s deranged movie exec Jon Peters) and otherwise (Sean Penn’s William Holden-like Hollywood warhorse, Jack Holden) – and a script loaded with zingers. Best of all were its two leads, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman, who brought all the warmth and soul needed to tie it all touchingly together.

  • Film
  • Drama

A van-dweller who drives across the US badlands and shits in a bucket is not normally what Best Picture winners are made of. But with a commanding Frances McDormand at the wheel, support from a cast of real-life nomads and indie superstar Chloé Zhao behind the camera, Nomadland was a naturalist drama that got right under the skin of late capitalist America and its disenfranchised outsiders. Shot through with moments of transcendent beauty, it was a blast of defiance against a broken system.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Anthony Hopkins was a deserving Best Actor winner for his lead role in a dementia drama with a twist. But major props, too, to director Florian Zeller. He retools his own stage play to explores the debilitating condition from the inside out, using cinematic techniques to pull the rug out from under us and turn a benign domestic space into one of uncertainty and anxiety. It was as close as a movie can come to putting you in the shoes of a dementia sufferer. 

The Power of the Dog
Photograph: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX � 2021

4. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion hadn’t made a movie since Bright Star nearly 15 years ago. As Twitter might have put it: ‘Da fuk, #Camps?!’ Her subversive western showed what we’ve all been missing: superlative control of mood, glorious widescreen vistas and a smuggled-in subtext that uses the traditional trappings of the western to strip down alpha masculinity to its faulty parts. Plus, it had Benedict Cumberbath waddling around in chaps like a giant saddle-sore duckling. Yeee-haw! 

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  • Film
  • Documentaries

While Peter Jackson toiled in the Beatles bunker, human metronome Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson was kicking it with Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Nina Simone and Gladys Knight. Summer of Soul doesn’t so much open a vault of unseen footage from 1969’s groundbreaking Harlem Cultural Festival as land you right into the middle of the crowd. The result is an all-time great music doc that will leave you shaken, righteously angry and blissfully grooving in equal measure. 

Quo Vadis, Aida? 
Photograph: Curzon

6. Quo Vadis, Aida? 

Old horrors came back to haunting life in this dramatisation of the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian muslims by Serbian forces in 1995. Cool-headed but fulled by righteous rage, Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić inserts her camera into the muddle, confusion and fear as UN troops form a tissue-like barrier between the civilians inside and vulpine militia leader Ratko Mladić circling outside the camp gates. Jasna Đuričić’s translator Aida is our disbelieving guide through the political impotence and moral weakness. Truly unforgettable stuff.

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Denis Villeneuve triumphs where David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky failed, turning the monster sci-fi literary epic into something bathed in grandeur but also coherent and topical. Okay, it’s only the first half of that thing and it does drop an Empire Strikes Back ending on us, but the visual heft, the aural overload of its booming sound design and an outsized Hans Zimmer score – not to mention its meaty cast – all made Dune one of the cinema experiences of 2021.

  • Film
  • Drama

Kristen Stewart is surely Oscars bound for her depiction of an isolated Princess Diana in a Christmas movie with precisely zero festive vibes. The ghostly, chilly depiction of a huge Sandringham estate as the royal family gathers in late December morphs from gilded cage into outright prison as her curtains are sewn up and courtiers try to keep her straitjacketed by protocol. But in a performance of controlled frenzy, Stewart’s over-it royal takes back control. 

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Daniel Craig handed in his Walther PPK, tux, martini glass, Heinkenen bottle, keys to the Aston etc in fine style in a much-delayed 007 outing that still managed to outdeliver and exceed all expectations. Is it perfect? Well, no. Rami Malek’s villain is wafer thin and the ending clearly isn’t for everyone, but No Time to Die was gutsy enough to make big story calls and got nearly all of them right. The locations and action sequences were right on the money too. After the wobbles of Spectre, the franchise is in a great place for whoever takes on the mantle.

  • Film
  • Musical

Didn’t think we needed another West Side Story? Us neither, but Steven Spielberg proves us wrong with a new version that came at just the right moment to pay its own kind of homage to the landmark talents of Steven Sondheim. The late, great giant of musical theatre’s lyrics cascade from the mouths of its terrific cast like they were penned yesterday, while Spielberg and his writer Tony Kusner inject the old material with a new vibrancy and more than a note of social commentary.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Lee Isaac Chung farms his own childhood material and finds the soil seriously rich in this delightful story of an Korean-American family coping with culture shock in ‘80s Arkansas. Youn Yuh-jung won the Oscar and a tonne of fans (just check out her awards speeches) as the family’s no-nonsense granny, but the whole cast soars. 

  • Film
  • Drama

Possibly the year’s gentlest film and maybe its most affecting too, Céline Sciamma’s mood piece spins a chance meeting of two young girls in a local French woods into a delicate ode to childhood, memory, grief and family. 

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  • Film
  • Drama

Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s rep is growing bigger and this stellar mash-up of Murakami and Chekhov shows why. Theatre director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) exorcises his demons with the help of a young chauffeur in a slowburn study of art, performance and loss that rings with emotional truth.

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The Mitchells vs the Machines
Image: Netflix

15. The Mitchells vs the Machines

It’s a Netflix-y phenomenon that a film you’d never heard of yesterday can become your new favourite movie today. Meet The Mitchells vs the Machines, a giddy road-trip apocalypse animation (yep, one of those) that plays like Terminator 2: Judgment Day sat on a whoopie cushion. 

Sound of Metal
  • Film
  • Drama

Riz Ahmed’s drummer Ruben makes peace with his deafness in a sparkling feature debut from American filmmaker Darius Marder. Ahmed is great in the role – all coiled fury at his seismic loss – as is Olivia Cooke as his suffering partner, but Paul Raci steals the show as the mentor who coaxes Ruben back to a meaningful life.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Someone kidnaps Nicolas Cage’s pig in a movie that is very much not the porksploitation revenge thriller you initially think. Cage is flat-out great as an ex-chef who has swapped Michelen stars for a life of meaning, only to have it interrupted by a criminal underworld. Think Orpheus meets Ratatouille

  • Film
  • Drama

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is a stunning investigation of race, sexuality and identity in Jazz Age Harlem. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are immaculate as two women of colour trying, in radically different ways, to fit into a society riddled with bias and pitfalls, while Hall marks herself out as a filmmaker to watch.   

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

Featuring the winceworthy-iest moments of the year and some of its most touching, the latest from Raw’s Julia Ducournau was ultra-violent but stealthily sweet with it. With its preoccupations with muscle cars and surrogate families, it’s definitely Dominic Toretto’s favourite film of the year.

  • Film
  • Family and kids

Don’t let West Side Story steal all the thunder from another buzz of a Nueva York musical, this time adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash. The tunes are infectious and the dancing energised in a Latinx carnival that we’ll all be revisiting for many summers to come. 

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