The 20 best films of 2021

Unmissable movies from film’s big comeback year

After a sluggish start to 2021 (thanks COVID), the film industry found new life this year. First, we were finally allowed back into cinemas – initially with slashed capacities, later with fewer restrictions. Then a deluge of lockdown-delayed summer blockbusters (Dune, Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II) arrived. Perhaps the biggest boost was No Time To Die’s long-awaited release – packing out multiplexes for the first time since the pandemic hit, and giving the box office a mighty biff around the chops. Was it worth the wait? We’ll leave that one up to you.

If you didn’t manage to stop by your local Odeon for a martini with 007, you probably caught something good on Netflix instead. A long list of creepy horrors, tense thrillers, wholesome romcoms and swashbuckling action titles bolstered a landmark 12 months for streaming on more platforms than ever.

Of course, it doesn’t matter where you watch your movies, just that you do. So read on to find out the 20 best of 2021. How many have you seen?

Alex Flood, Commissioning Editor (Film + TV)

Words: Elizabeth Aubrey, Paul Bradshaw, Rhian Daly, Alex Flood, Ella Kemp, Nick Levine, Hannah Mylrea, Olly Richards, Thomas Smith and Andrew Trendell.

20. ‘A Quiet Place Part II’

20. ‘A Quiet Place Part II’

Director: John Krasinski

It’s a tough gig to follow a film that was both a sleeper hit and a high-concept surprise. A large part of the success of A Quiet Place was the novelty of the premise: aliens have invaded earth and the only way to stay safe is to never make a sound. How do you do it all over again when the novelty is gone? John Krasinski did it by leaning hard into emotion in the sequel. The first film was about a father trying to keep his family safe. The second is a film about his children learning to cope without him. Teen actors Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds give astonishing performances and Krasinski creates plenty of heart-thumping set pieces to match the first film.

Best moment: The opening scene depicting the day the aliens arrived gives Krasinski a chance to show how confident he now is as both a horror and action director. OR

Like this? Try this: Bird Box, Live Die Repeat

19. ‘Oasis Knebworth 1996’

19. ‘Oasis Knebworth 1996’

Director: Jake Scott

The unofficial sequel to 2016’s Supersonic, the beloved documentary that charted the Gallagher brothers’ rise, picks up where that film left off, delving into the story behind two of Britain’s biggest rock concerts. The Knebworth gigs are told from both the band’s perspective and that of the fans who made the pilgrimage to Hertfordshire: Scott fills the space with cheesy, but wholesome dramatic reconstructions of the scramble for tickets, or toasting the conga of Oasis fans making their way to the shows. The footage of the gig is phenomenal, although Liam’s absence from the film – Noel dominates the voiceover – leaves a curious taste. This is one for the faithful and less so the sceptics. But, then again, there were so many of them, it needn’t matter too much.

Best moment: The ticket-buying sequence – which flits between dramatic reconstruction and archive footage – captures the giddiness of trying to bag a place at a milestone gig or festival. TS

Like this? Try this: Dig!, Oasis: Supersonic

18. ‘Censor’

18. ‘Censor’

Director: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s hard to believe that Censor is Prano Bailey-Bond’s first movie. It arrives with such a certain vision and such a clear, well-built idea that it promises very good things to come from her. Her debut is set in the 1980s, when the country was terrified by ‘Video Nasties’, particularly gruesome horror films that politicians and the tabloid press believed would inspire ordinary people to become bloodthirsty murderers. Enid (Niamh Algar) is a censor, in charge of watching films and deciding if they’re fit for public viewing. One day she sees a film that reminds her very much of the events that led to her sister’s disappearance. The film follows Enid as she tries to find her sister and her life becomes a horror movie she can’t switch off. Bailey-Bond keeps the surprises coming and never lets the dread dissipate.

Best moment: As the movie heads towards its nerve-jangling conclusion, Enid’s grip on reality slackens. She heads into the woods, with no idea what’s real and what’s not, and all hell breaks loose. OR

Like this? Try this: Saint Maud, Hereditary

17. ‘Free Guy’

17. ‘Free Guy’

Director: Shawn Levy

Free Guy is a rare beast: a flashy blockbuster that’s so much better than you expect. In part, that’s because Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as Guy, a smiling everyman who realises that his days feel the same because he’s a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. But, in her first major movie outing, Killing Eves Jodie Comer shines just as bright in a nifty dual role that plays to her strengths. Inside the game, she’s a gun-wielding badass who tells Guy to “level up” and improve his ranking if he wants to hang with her. Outside of the game, in real life, she’s an indie programmer who needs Guy’s help to prove that a douchebag publisher (Taika Waititi) ripped her off. Free Guy never dives deep into Guy’s psychology like The Truman Show, a film with a similar existential premise, but it has an infectious daffy charm all of its own. It’s the film to watch next time you need a big-hearted pick-me-up.

Best moment: Free Guy has a host of superstar cameos, but Channing Tatum is especially hilarious as a dance-happy avatar called Revenjamin Buttons. NL

Like this? Try this: Ready Player One, The Truman Show

16. ‘Last Night In Soho’

16. ‘Last Night In Soho’

Director: Edgar Wright

If at any point during the pandemic, you walked down Frith Street at 10pm on a Friday night, you’ll have experienced a real Soho-set horror film. Edgar Wright’s latest, Last Night In Soho, has less swearing and not everything is covered in vomit, but it’s definitely more enjoyable than al fresco drinking a la COVID. At the centre of the action is Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer from the sticks who dreams of studying in London but soon regrets it when she does. Overwhelmed by city life and shunned by the more confident students, she retreats to a bedsit at the top of an old townhouse. Falling asleep one evening, she discovers a portal back to the 1960s, where the tragic adventures of hopeful singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) play out in real time. This is when things start to turn nasty – and director Edgar Wright picks the perfect moment to splatter gore across his film’s stylishly put-together pop-art canvas.

Best moment: Post-Cilla Black cameo (!), Sandie and sleazy Jack (Matt Smith) zip through a thrilling rundown of ’60s dance moves. AF

Like this? Try this: The Babadook, Black Swan

15. ‘Promising Young Woman’

15. ‘Promising Young Woman’

Director: Emerald Fennell

It didn’t matter when Promising Young Woman was released, it would have sadly always been relevant. Emerald Fennell’s directorial feature debut follows Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) as she seeks revenge for her best friend Nina, who killed herself after being raped by a uni classmate. Along the way, it eviscerates modern society’s tendency to blame women for their trauma at the hands of men, as their attackers go on to flourish unchanged. Sharp, darkly funny and powerful, this is no easy potshot at rape culture, but an intelligent and electrifying dive into the many different factors that allow it to thrive (including women’s own internalised misogyny). To top it off, Mulligan puts in a career-best turn – portraying Cassie’s soul-ravaging rage with exquisite intensity, and switching between sociopathic levels of calm to bursts of pure ferocity.

Best moment: The very end when, sure that Cassie has failed to score the ultimate revenge she was searching for, a series of scheduled texts show she was one step ahead the whole time. RD

Like this? Try this: The Villainess, Kill Bill: Vol. 1

14. ‘Spencer’

14. ‘Spencer’

Director: Pablo Larraín

If you thought we didn’t need another screen depiction of Princess Diana, think again. A scintillating Kristen Stewart captures her familiar coltish mannerisms and skittish charisma, but this brilliantly inventive film never feels like an avant-garde episode of The Crown. Set during the Royal Family’s 1991 Christmas break, it offers a surreal and sometimes shocking vision of a stifled yet undeniably charming young woman whose marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) is in tatters. It’s sometimes a tough watch – director Pablo Larraín doesn’t shy away from showing Diana’s debilitating eating disorder or her propensity to self-harm – but Spencer’s thrilling intensity never waivers. In this respect, Stewart and Larraín are helped immeasurably by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight’s empathetic script and Jonny Greenwood’s magnificent score, which elegantly shadows the Princess’ changing moods. The ending is both exhilarating and steeped in pathos because we know the grim fate that will befall our flawed heroine eventually.

Best moment: An incredibly tender scene between Diana and her sympathetic dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) feels both leftfield and authentic to who Diana was as a person. NL

Like this? Try this: Jackie, Phantom Thread

13. ‘Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry’

13. ‘Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry’

Director: R. J. Cutler

If you think that we’re in an age of fluffy, inoffensive artist-approved music documentaries, The World’s A Little Blurry offered a painful counter. Weighty in subject matter, it showed the plight of a rising artist becoming accustomed to fame, complete with know-it-all label execs, crappy lovers and the gruelling depictions of life on the road. If there’s any solace to take, seeing how strong the bond is with her producer and elder brother Finneas, and both of her parents, is a true highlight. In the wrong hands, this could have been an exploitative mess, but Cutler handled the experience sensitively and provided a crucial time capsule for a generational star’s ascension.

Best moment: In a backstage scrum, Eilish’s jaw drops when she hears that her debut album garnered a perfect five out of five from NME. Ours did the same, Billie. TS

Like this? Try this: Miss Americana, Letter To You

12. ‘The Green Knight’

12. ‘The Green Knight’

Director: David Lowery

A gnarly green ogre challenges a royal slacker to a duel and tricks him into signing his own death warrant. The original 14th century fable is just as simple as David Lowery’s adaptation, and just as complex – covering the recklessness of youth, the futility of life and the intransigence of the natural world in one beautifully bonkers Christmas carol. Dev Patel gives the performance of his career in a coming-of-dark-age fable that balances horror, comedy and spiritual reverence in a dream-like medieval slasher with a deeply poetic heart. It’s not quite the solemn arthouse drama it looks like, but still miles from most other movies about evil headless knight-demons. David Lowery’s literary masterpiece finds its own way – part old-school fantasy epic, part religious meditation, all earth and blood and with some of the best cinematography we’ve seen this year.

Best moment: The titular knight’s big entrance, gatecrashing Christmas dinner on horseback and giving us a close-up of Ralph Ineson’s stunning look – all tangled roots and mossy bark. PB

Like this? Try this: A Ghost Story, Midsommar

11. ‘The French Dispatch’

11. ‘The French Dispatch’

Director: Wes Anderson

A Wes Anderson movie at its best is essentially a vacation for your eyeballs – stylish, star-studded and filled with dry-humoured, arty escapism. The French Dispatch couldn’t do much more to tick every Wes Anderson box, featuring Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Henry Winkler, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park and Owen Wilson getting into some wonderfully wacky scrapes while gathering some pretty out-there stories for a fictional magazine edited by Bill Murray. If only journalism was even half as exotic or delightful as this. Sigh…

Best moment: Every second Jeffrey Wright is on screen as food journalist turned super-sleuth Roebuck Wright. When’s the spin-off coming out? AT

Like this? Try this: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

10. ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

10. ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Marvel’s latest blockbuster introduces us to Shaun (Simu Liu), a parking valet and karaoke enthusiast with martial arts superpowers. Trained by his father as a child assassin, he eventually ran away from home, reinvented himself and settled in San Francisco (where else?). His adult adventures are stuffed with slapstick fight scenes – and make for an enjoyable origin story. He’s also the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first ever Asian lead. And after a decade of the same faces popping up during Phases one, two and three, this feels fresh and exciting. Elsewhere, Destin Daniel Cretton’s dynamic direction injects the superhero genre with humour and compassion, thanks largely to Awkwafina’s movie-stealing performance as Shaun’s wise-cracking pal Katy. Together, they prove themselves to be future stars of the MCU.

Best moment: Shaun’s bus battle against a bloke with a machete for an arm. Slickly choreographed and making full use of the entire lower deck, it’s a belter. HM

Like this? Try this: Thor: Ragnarok, Shazam!

9. ‘No Time To Die’

9. ‘No Time To Die’

Director: Cary Fukunaga

It took a while, but at least it was worth the wait. Going through two different directors and four postponed release dates, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 became the film that saved cinema in 2021. Finally released in October, Bond 25 saw UK audiences filling seats in record numbers again (the highest in almost a decade). Shaking up the whole franchise while raising a glass to its long legacy, the series closer felt like one big exploding bridge between the past and the future – a James Bond without the misogyny but twice the car-mounted machine guns. Pushing painfully real emotions through a gloriously cartoon spy plot, Cary Fukunaga’s beautifully staged action set pieces made the 60-year-old franchise feel young again, giving Craig a series-best send-off – and his replacement a seriously tough act to follow.

Best moment: Who knew all it took to give 007 his single greatest car chase was a toddler in the back seat? Léa Seydoux frantically tries to keep little five-year-old Matilde calm as Bond rams Land Rovers off the road in a drizzly Norwegian forest. PB

Like this? Try this: Spectre, Beasts Of No Nation

8. ‘The Sparks Brothers’

8. ‘The Sparks Brothers’

Director: Edgar Wright

An utterly joyful portrayal of the lives and careers of brothers Ron and Russell Mael – aka art-pop trailblazers Sparks – this is a must-see for anyone who likes documentaries, music or even just the underappreciated act of smiling. You’ll be aware of their seismic hit ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, but this film lovingly tells the story of Sparks’ mythical misadventures, their unspeakable influence across all realms of pop, and their constant reinvention without ever playing by the rules. You could just let talking heads like Beck, Jack Antonoff, Giorgio Moroder, Mike Myers, Adam Buxton, Jonathan Ross and members of New Order, Franz Ferdinand, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sex Pistols tell you how much they matter, or you could let this movie be your gateway into a lifelong love affair with a band like no other.

Best moment: The big finale, perfectly soundtracked by futuristic space-banger ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’. AT

Like this? Try this: Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death And Supermarkets

7. ‘Shiva Baby’

7. ‘Shiva Baby’

Director: Emma Seligman

A strong contender for the most stressful film of the last 10 years, Emma Seligman’s directorial debut bottles all the anxieties of being a young woman, Jewish, overly reliant on your parents and, er, staying in the same room as your sugar daddy and his new wife and baby. We follow Danielle (the brilliant Rachel Sennott) as she’s forced to attend a ‘shiva’ (Jewish funeral) with her overbearing family. Her quiet unravelling is the stuff of horror films – while Seligman stuffs the script with sharp and intelligent writing that makes for wickedly funny moments at every turn. Every stereotype about smothering yet cynical Jewish relatives is tuned to perfection here, though a subplot involving Danielle’s overachieving ex-girlfriend Maya (Booksmart standout Molly Gordon) provides a well-timed side-dish to the main course. Get ready to enter a horribly relatable 21st century nightmare.

Best moment: When Danielle piles her plate high with food in a moment of severe anxiety, looks at it, takes a bite of a bagel (lox and cream cheese, naturally) and leaves the rest. EK

Like this? Try this: Uncut Gems, Crossing Delancey

6. ‘Summer Of Soul’

6. ‘Summer Of Soul’

Director: Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson

While Woodstock dominated headlines around the world, a revolution was taking place – very loudly – in Harlem, New York. Producer, artist and now filmmaker Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson makes his directorial debut with this unmissable music documentary about 1969’s criminally overlooked Harlem Cultural Festival. Digging into the vaults, he unearths more than 40 hours of electrifying footage and, after cleaning up said footage, crafts it into Summer Of Soul – a celebration of Black culture featuring unseen sets from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, Gladys Knight, Hugh Masekela, The 5th Dimension and many more. It’s not just a collection of mindblowing music moments though. Fitted in around the performances is Questlove’s investigation into why Harlem was denied the spotlight its hippy competitor enjoyed. Galvanising, maddening and utterly euphoric throughout.

Best moment: The 5th Dimension might not be the starriest name on the bill, but their sunny performance of ‘Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In’ is bursting with light and joy. EK

Like this? Try this: Amazing Grace, American Utopia

5. ‘Nomadland’

5. ‘Nomadland’

Director: Chloé Zhao

This old-fashioned road movie follows Fern – a widower who is cast into the cold when the local plant upon which her livelihood rests is closed. Masterfully played by Frances McDormand, she packs up her belongings in a camper van and leaves Nevada for dust before hooking up with a group of fellow nomads. Fern then spends the rest of the movie travelling around in search of work and new friendships.

Zhao’s unconventional narrative and love for vast panoramas are both standouts here, as is her observational direction when taking us delicately into the fascinating world of America’s forgotten wanderers. She deservedly won Best Director at this year’s Oscars – the first woman of colour to do so – and you can’t help thinking she’ll be back at the podium again very soon.

Best moment: Fern telling her friend’s daughter: “I’m houseless, not homeless, they’re not the same thing” – a punch in the face for neighbourhood gossips everywhere. EA

Like this? Try this: Into The Wild, Nomad: In The Footsteps Of Bruce Chatwin

4. ‘Minari’

4. ‘Minari’

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

This touching Oscar winner is told largely through the eyes of seven-year-old David (played by breakout child star Alan Kim) who watches his Korean dad Jacob (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) pursue the ‘American Dream’. In this case, owning a farm where he can grow Korean vegetables. His mother Monica (Yeri Han) doesn’t share her husband’s dream and when the family move into a downtrodden mobile home, her resentment is palpable (“it just gets worse and worse” she tells her husband). Arguments ensue between the pair but are alleviated when her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yun-jung) arrives to support. The film is a quiet exploration of the immigrant experience in America, especially when difficulties on the farm arise. But more than that, it’s a greater exploration of family and the sacrifices we make for one other. Star performances from Kim and Youn are joyous to watch, as are scenes following the family’s quest to make their new life work, no matter how much adversity is thrown their way.

Best moment: When the Minari plant, against all the odds, is in full bloom near the lake at the film’s close – a pregnant pause that’s full of meaning. EA

Like this? Try this: First Cow, The Farewell

3. ‘Palm Springs’

3. ‘Palm Springs’

Director: Max Barbakow

The time loop concept might be an age-old device in Hollywood, but Andy Samberg (who plays Nyles) and Cristin Milioti (Sarah) breathed new life into the format with this likable sci-fi romcom. As two strangers at a wedding who inadvertently become forced to relive the same day over and over again, they explore life, love and what’s truly important in both.

Given its cast – which also includes J.K. Simmons as Roy, a man seeking vengeance on Nyles for trapping him in the time loop – it’s no surprise that Palm Springs comes packed with laugh-out-loud moments. Yet it also gave us a poignant portrait of Nyles and Sarah’s relationship – and made viewers think about their own emotional priorities. How much are you willing to sacrifice to find that special bond with someone?

Best moment: When Nyles and Sarah finally embrace their reality of being stuck in a time loop and burst into a roadside bar to perform a choreographed dance routine for the bemused locals. RD

Like this? Try this: Groundhog Day, The Map Of Tiny Perfect Things

2. ‘Dune’

2. ‘Dune’

Director: Denis Villeneuve

There are big films, and then there’s Dune. Denis Villeneuve’s space epic is frighteningly sparse – only focusing on a small cast of characters, actively pulling the camera away from any crowd scenes – but it’s hard to think of many other movies that have ever felt quite as vast in scale and scope. Adapting Frank Herbert’s sci-fi opus into an IMAX-sized art house Star Wars adventure, Villeneuve takes the first half of the book and turns a few hundred pages of royal politics, moody mysticism and wormy scene-setting into something magical. Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson are all fantastic, the story soars and the action rocks, but it’s really all about how it looks and sounds – a masterclass in refined, artful world-building that crashes through cinema screens and stereo speakers like a sandstorm.

Best moment: In a film crowded with spectacle (The worm! The dragonfly ships! The corridor fight!) it’s the Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis that most widens the eyes – a scene laden with so much grandeur that it almost makes you want to stand up and salute. PB

Like this? Try this: Tenet, Blade Runner 2049

1. ‘Sound Of Metal’

1. ‘Sound Of Metal’

Director: Darius Marder

It’s been clear for years that Riz Ahmed is one of the greatest actors of his generation, but he needed a lead role that would show the whole world what he can do. It came with this fairly low-key, incredibly moving film, in which he plays Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band who suddenly loses his hearing. Darius Marder, directing his first movie, puts the viewer inside Ruben’s head, recreating the way a deaf person experiences sound. Ruben’s journey from fear and fury about his life changing forever, to realising that change can be embraced, is by turns heartrending and uplifting. Much of Ahmed’s performance is played in silence, but it’s always clear exactly how he’s feeling. His Oscar nomination for this was his first, but it surely won’t be his last.

Best moment: When Ruben realises his hearing has gone and Nicolas Becker’s sound design helps us ‘hear’ the world as he does: faint abstract noises and the rhythm of blood rushing around his panicked body. OR

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*All films released in the UK during 2021