Still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the film industry nervously reared its head from hibernation in 2021, testing the waters to see if it was safe to come out. As studios began to arise from their slumber and edge out towards the hopeful new dawn of a post-covid era, many did so tentatively, reserving their most significant films until cinemas around the world were open and the virus was dormant.
Anxiously edging away from the direct-to-streaming method of releasing films during the pandemic, many studios took precautions, moving the release dates of major blockbusters to the very periphery of 2021 to give them abundant time to plan for potential further disruption. Whilst the likes of Black Widow, Fast and Furious 9 and Suicide Squad graced our screens in the summer, the likes of West Side Story, Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix: Resurrections are still to make an appearance.
Acting as a defiant reminder of the damaging effects of the coronavirus on the film industry, the likes of A Quiet Place: Part II, Dune and No Time to Die were finally released for audiences to enjoy, albeit years after their announcement. Hopefully, such delays are mere echoes of a difficult milestone now crossed, with the industry stabilising after one of its most testing times in its celebrated history.
As the industry returned to normal, so too did the festival circuit, with the Cannes Film Festival returning following its cancellation in 2020, with the likes of festivals in Berlin, Venice, London and Toronto following suit. Gifting audiences a predictably diverse set of films from around the world, such festivals have showcased stories that reflect the tumultuous, hopeful and affectionate sentiment of contemporary life on earth.
Let’s take a look back at 50 of the most important and compelling films from an extraordinary year of cinema.
Far Out’s 50 best films of 2021:
50. The Green Knight (David Lowery)
From David Lowery, the same filmmaker behind the likes of powerful indie dramas such as A Ghost Story and The Old Man and the Gun, comes the epic medieval tale of The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel.
Following the brave knight Gawain on his sprawling journey, David Lowery re-creates an ethereal fairytale and iconic moral lesson as he takes the classic tale to contemporary heights, utilising subtle CGI and staggering cinematography. Though a little self-indulgent, The Green Knight has enough meat on its bones to create a wondrous tale of Arthurian legend that remains magical and intriguing long after its runtime.
49. In Front of Your Face (Hong Sangsoo)
Very few filmmakers have mastered the art of cinematic drama as beautifully as Hong Sangsoo. After producing one of the best films of last year in the form of The Woman Who Ran, the South Korean auteur has hit the ground running this year as well.
His latest film, In Front of Your Face, follows the life of a former actress who returns to Seoul in order to live with her sister in a high-rise building even though she has never stayed in one before. Through the use of Hong Sangsoo’s trademark domestic realism, the director weaves yet another compelling human drama.
48. Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy)
An extraordinary achievement in documentary filmmaking, Gunda, is a meditative experience that looks into the daily lives of several animals on a farm, namely a large pig called Gunda and her many children.
Shot in gorgeous monochrome, this visual non-narrative documentary is a remarkable look inside the lives of an entirely different species of consciousness. As well as a compelling, spiritual journey, Gunda is also a rousing call for a plant-based diet with actor and vegetarian activist Joaquin Phoenix acting as an executive producer on the independent feature film from the Russian filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy.
47. The Alpinist (Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen)
Ever since Free Solo popularised the sport of climbing with the release of the documentary in 2018, many similar climbing films have been released detailing the risk of the sport, with none being better than Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s The Alpinist.
Detailing the life of its subject, Marc-André Leclerc in great detail, we become closely accustomed to the personality, morals and aspirations of this young climber, making each of his adventures nervously tantalising. Scaling ice walls and mountains with no ropes or safety equipment, Leclerc’s journey is truly inspirational, with directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen capturing his journey with technical and emotional proficiency.
46. Boiling Point (Philip Barantini)
A hidden gem of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point presents a painfully accurate portrayal of the stress and sweat in a restaurant kitchen on one of the busiest days of the year.
Featuring Stephen Graham, Jason Flemyng and Vinette Robinson, the film radiates second-hand trauma as the chef’s dash from pan to pan to try and keep up with their demanding schedule. Shot in a single take, the film is a dizzying piece of theatre, depicting an unfolding car crash you simply cannot take your eyes off. Led by the fury of Graham’s sharp, venomous tongue, Boiling Point becomes a tense, often hilarious, watch.
45. Cryptozoo (Dash Shaw)
One of the finest animated films of the year, Cryptozoo is the directorial effort of graphic novelist Dash Shaw whose artistic works have been celebrated and applauded. Shaw returned to the director’s chair this year to make this enigmatic animated masterpiece that resists any restrictive categorisations.
Crpytozoo revolves around a heterotopic enclosure where zookeepers take care of mythical creatures that are endangered. However, things start unravelling when two lovers mistakenly stumble into this strange space. Shaw’s hallucinogenic art style contributes towards a truly bizarre cinematic experience.
44. Never Gonna Snow Again (Małgorzata Szumowska, Michał Englert)
A strange comedy, drama from Polish filmmakers, Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, Never Gonna Snow Again is a highly enjoyable fairytale that tells the story of a mysterious masseur who visits a dysfunctional community.
The presence of Zhenia (Alec Utgoff) results in a surreal fate for the peculiar town, with the man becoming a strange guru-like figure in the community. One of the most surprising farcical comedies of 2021, Never Gonna Snow Again suffuses consistent humour into its rich story that comments on the nature and behaviours of the strangest corners of suburbia. It’s a wondrous journey.
43. Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
Belonging to that strange realm of uncomfortable comedy, Shiva Baby is a fantastic chronicle of the modern Jewish experience which is told through the story of a struggling bisexual Jewish college student. Over the course of a highly anxiety-inducing shiva, Seligman constructs a claustrophobic exploration of the dilemmas of a directionless young woman.
Rightly compared to a horror film, this is Seligman’s debut feature which is enough evidence that the young filmmaker is on her way to achieving greater things in the world of cinema. For her directorial vision and brilliant screenplay, Shiva Baby picked up multiple awards at film festivals around the world.
42. Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus (Dalibor Barić)
An unusually beautiful modern gem, this surrealist noir by Croatian filmmaker Dalibor Barić is another animated masterpiece that has made it onto this year’s top 50. Following in the footsteps of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Barić has created a unique blend of nostalgia and futurism.
The film tells the story of an ambiguous revolution through the use of various aesthetic frameworks, ranging from found footage to rotoscoping methods. It is a visual delight that paints a picture of a politically charged macrocosm that you can’t quite put your finger on.
41. The Reason I Jump (Jerry Rothwell)
Jerry Rothwell’s latest documentary is based on the bestselling book about Naoki Higashida, a nonverbal autistic individual from Japan who managed to find a way to transcribe his experiences into a coherent collection even though this has been disputed by scientists.
After a 2018 stage adaptation, this new documentary chronicles the lives of people living with Higashida’s condition from all over the world. A very serious and inspiring work by Rothwell, The Reason I Jump might just be one of the best visual translations of a real human experience.
40. Souad (Ayten Amin)
Ayten Amin’s award-winning Egyptian drama, Souad, is a sharp coming-of-age drama following the lives of three young girls in the modern age of social media, telling a story of teenage hardship that too often goes unheard.
Entangled by tragedy, the lives of Souad (Bassant Ahmed), Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) and Wessam (Hagar Mahmoud) become complicated by the clash of their social media digital selves and their religious beliefs. It’s a poignant, contemporary coming of age tale that offers a genuinely compelling argument as to the place of such social media platforms in today’s enigmatic world.
39. What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze)
A co-production between Germany and Georgia, What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? is a fascinating new drama by Alexandre Koberidze. Through the use of magical realism, the film tells the story of a pharmacist and a footballer who had made plans to go on a date.
However, everything is disrupted when they wake up to find that both of them have transformed into someone else. The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin, What Do We See When We Look At the Sky? is one of the more interestingly bizarre films of the year.
38. Sabaya (Hogir Hirori)
In a year where the documentary genre shined, the powerful, small-scale tale of Sabaya stood out as one of the most inspiring stories of the year, outlining a group of people who frequently venture into the dangerous camp, Al-Hol, in Syria to save women being held hostage by ISIS.
Often an intense viewing experience, Sabaya details an extraordinary human effort of selflessness, with the group having saved 206 young girls from the clutches of the Islamic State. Giving an unrivalled insight into the horrors and fears of such a situation, Sabaya is a piece of truly noble filmmaking, with Hogir Hirori creating a film that is, at its heart, a human story of salvation and justice.
37. Annette (Leos Carax)
Surely one of the most perplexing films of 2021, Annette co-stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and follows a bizarre story about two famous performers and their extraordinary newborn child.
From Leos Carax, the same mind behind Holy Motors and The Lovers on the Bridge with Juliette Binoche, Annette is a familiar surreal affair from the director that often sweeps you up in its own spellbinding excitement. Taking you on a journey that deconstructs the art of performance as the difficulties of parenthood, Annette constantly pulls the rug from under your feet to leave you in a perpetual state of compelling surprise.
36. Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim)
One of the most peculiar documentaries of 2021, Some Kind of Heaven exists in a liminal space between reality and documentary, well reflecting the fantasy of its real-life subjects living in the biggest retirement home in the world.
A disorientating piece of cinema, director Lance Oppenheim creates an ethereal space through some dreamlike cinematography that captures the vast Florida retirement home in dazzling saturated colour. Ignorance as bliss is a concept that sits at the very heart of this fascinating documentary, detailing a place where a safe reality has been constructed far away from the existence of humanity. Can this really be a good thing?
35. Zola (Janicza Bravo)
The only film ever to be based on a series of Tweets, Zola, from Janicza Bravo is a frenetic, idiosyncratic piece of cinema that well defines the modern landscape of social media fame and fortune.
An intoxicating ride, Janicza Bravo suffocates the viewer with visuals as she tells the story of a stripper who ends up on a wild trip around Florida with a newfound ‘friend’. Led by Taylour Paige, the film co-stars Riley Keough, Nasir Rahim and Nicholas Braun of Succession fame and keeps up an electric pace as it cooks up a cauldron of excitement, thrills, drama and neon lights.
34. The Souvenir: Part II (Joanna Hogg)
The extraordinary follow-up to Joanna Hogg’s 2019 semi-autobiographical project about her own journey through film school, The Souvenir: Part II is a worthy successor to the brilliance of the first film.
With Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne, Ariane Labed, Jaygann Ayeh, Charlie Heaton and Richard Ayoade, Hogg crafts a compelling coming of age piece about the aftermath of a damaging relationship. A rich, rewarding piece of filmmaking, Hogg’s writing feels like a cathartic experience as she recalls the hardships of her youth to create a fabulous confessional and self-portrait of one’s own life.
33. A Hero (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi is often cited as the worthy successor who is continuing the spirit of the Iranian New Wave through his modern masterpieces such as A Separation. He has graced 2021 with yet another brilliant work, A Hero, which is about a prisoner who gets out on a two-day leave but unexpected changes complicate his journey to redemption.
This project was highly anticipated by fans of Iranian cinema everywhere and Farhadi hasn’t disappointed. Just like his other films, A Hero is a moving portrayal of the human condition and it even managed to win the Grand Prix at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival.
32. Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalovsky)
A dark and tragic story of a real-life massacre, Andrey Konchalovskiy creates a gripping historical drama that refuses to shy away from the brutality of its subject matter, creating an influential modern classic in its own right.
Depicting the Novocherkassk massacre in 1962 in which many rebellious industrial workers were killed, and many more injured, Andrei Konchalovsky accurately recalls the turmoil and fear of the mid-century Soviet Union. Fueled with anger and rage, Dear Comrades! informs the viewer of post-war atrocity that should be common knowledge, and does so with an honest, analytical eye.
31. I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader)
Maria Schrader generated a lot of buzz when her latest sci-fi romcom premiered earlier this year. I’m Your Man revolves around an archaeologist who falls in love with a robot, a noteworthy addition to the rapidly growing discourse about the post-human condition and the changing definitions of love.
The filmmaker wanted to play around with the divisions between male perception and female perception, resulting in a fresh and original take on an extremely mainstream genre. I’m Your Man is a delightful creation by Schrader which has already started getting her accolades.
30. The Sparks Brothers (Edgar Wright)
In this expansive report on the lives of the Sparks brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright creates a compelling scrapbook of ideas and exhibitions that perfectly illustrate the eternal charm of Sparks.
With a whole host of famous faces reigned in to comment on their experience of the band, including Jason Schwartzman, Mike Myers, Mark Gatiss, Flea and Todd Rundgren, Wright creates a comprehensive biography of the bands’ legacy. Enjoying a breakthrough year with their script work for Annette by Leos Carax, the influence of Sparks on the contemporary film industry may just be beginning.
29. Compartment No. 6 (Juho Kuosmanen)
Winner of the celebrated Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival 2021, Compartment No. 6, from director Juho Kuosmanen, is an emotionally wrought drama taking place in the claustrophobic confines of a train.
Weaving their way around the arctic circle on an atmospheric train, two strangers Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) and Laura (Seidi Haarla) meet in compartment No. 6 and begin to discuss their lives and hopes for the future. Based on the novel by Rosa Liksom, the book is wonderfully adapted by Andris Feldmanis and Juho Kuosmanen who craft delicate dialogue in this powerful character study and exploration of love, fate and regret.
28. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai Ming-liang barely needs any introduction since almost all fans of world cinema are familiar with his invaluable contributions to the Taiwanese New Wave in the form of masterpieces such as Rebels of the Neon God and Vive L’Amour which explore the urban isolation imposed by modernity.
Days is his latest continuation of that great thesis, revolving around two lonely men who find comfort in each other’s company while being lost in an urban labyrinth. Tsai Ming-liang has proven that he still has what it takes to be a great filmmaker by making one of the best LGBTQ+ gems of the year.
27. State Funeral (Sergei Loznitsa)
A mesmerising glimpse into a strange and momentous moment of history, State Funeral depicts the eerie final rites of Joseph Stalin, one of the Soviet Union’s most ruthless and infamous leaders.
Told entirely through archive footage, State Funeral feels like a window into a strange otherworld where the cult of Stalin’s personality is laid to bear and the spectacle of his grand exit put on exhibition. As masses of civilians flock to the dictator’s funeral along with thousands of troops and generals, director Sergey Loznitsa momentarily resurrects the power and fear of Joseph Stalin’s evil regime.
26. The Father (Florian Zeller)
A harrowing journey of personal decay, The Father is led by an Oscar-winning performance from the great Anthony Hopkins, elevating this otherwise simple film into something quite extraordinary.
Helmed by the French writer and playwright, Florian Zeller, who wrote the original award-winning play that shares its name with the film, The Father recreates this simplistic theatrical feel whilst ingeniously toying with the simplicity of cinema. Co-starring Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss and Imogen Poots, Zeller’s film is a remarkable portrayal of a cracking mind and the fragile soul underneath.
25. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)
With a familiar cast of famous faces including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio Del Toro, Saoirse Ronan and Léa Seydoux, Wes Anderson supplies audiences with another cinematic feast for the senses.
This vibrant treat follows the fictional publication of ‘The French Dispatch’, with the film playing out as if the reader of the newspaper is flicking through its many articles, from the travel section to politics to food. A vignette of concepts, stories and ideas, Anderson plays with each section as if a boy in a sandbox, utilising unique filmmaking techniques to bring each one to life. The very best of the bunch? Owen Wilson’s short ode to the joys of cycling.
24. Azor (Andreas Fontana)
A brilliant debut by Andreas Fontana who has generated waves in the world of contemporary cinema with this opus, Azor is a slow thriller which is set in Argentina during the ’80s. Addressing issues of colonialism, a dystopian surveillance state and corrupt institutions, Azor is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.
Very sophisticated in its treatment of the subject matter at its core, Fontana’s film explores the conspiratorial nature of the reality that the ultra-elite of society are often familiar with. Maybe not as accomplished as some of the other entries on this list but it definitely one of the best cinematic experiences of 2021.
23. Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez)
Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez has managed to make one of the moving dramatic works of the year and it is definitely worth a watch. Identifying Features follows the tragic journey of a mother looking for her son after he moved to the United States.
A harrowing document of a mother’s pain, Valadez creates a fascinating commentary on the abysmal immigration policies of the US and their impact on real human lives. After winning big at Sundance, Identifying Features went on to be applauded at other major festival venues.
22. Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the master of modern Japanese cinema, has returned to the scene with a strangely enigmatic anti-thriller with Wife of a Spy. It provides absurd but majestic glimpses into the life of a woman in Japan during the Second World War whose husband is up to shady activities.
Instead of succumbing to the excesses of the war genre, Kurosawa focuses on the psyche of this central female figure. All the violence and the mass destruction is lingering on the peripheries of the frame, threatening to engulf the audience with constant reminders about what happened.
21. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)
Released in early 2021 for the UK and many other parts of Europe, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal showed audiences just why it was so worthy of its Academy Award in Best Sound, showing off a soundscape the likes of which cinema has never seen before.
A heartbreaking story at its core, Sound of Metal tracks the life of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer whose life is thrown into turmoil when he begins to lose his hearing. Robbed of an Academy Award himself, Riz Ahmed is truly outstanding in the lead role, managing to translate the pain, hardship and mental toll of such a major change to one’s life and future prospects.
20. Dune (Denis Villeneuve)
Having to wait long enough following multiple delays due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction epic, Dune, was finally released in Autumn 2021 to glorious reviews from both fans and critics.
Achieving in the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel where David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky had not, Villeneuve delivers an accurate impression of the book that feels faithful and not exhaustive. With the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Issac, Javier Bardem and Rebecca Ferguson, Villeneuve helped to craft not just one of the finest films of the year, but one of the most culturally pertinent too.
19. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen)
The very first solo venture of Joel Coen without his brother, Ethan, is a triumphant success, adapting Shakespeare’s iconic tale of love, deceit and greed with grace, style and truly baffling cinematography.
Captured in hardy monochrome, Joel Coen recreates the space and feel of a classic theatrical performance, with the likes of Denzil Washington, Frances McDormand and Brendan Gleeson being his wise, experienced thespians. Changing little from the original source material without significantly updating the text, Coen does deliver audiences one of the most staggeringly realised impressions of Macbeth’s Witches ever put to film.
18. Red Rocket (Sean Baker)
A director that well defines the mood of contemporary life, Sean Baker has helped to sculpt the modern American independent film with the likes of The Florida Project and Tangerine, a film that he captured entirely on his iPhone.
Reaching beyond the heights that its name suggests, Red Rocket is yet another deserved entry into the filmography of Sean Baker, showing a side to the sex industry that is rarely explored in modern society, let alone cinema. The film follows Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up porn star who returns to his Texas hometown only to discover that his presence is not welcome. Settling raw emotions with his mother, wife and new girlfriend, Sean Baker sculpts yet another modern moral masterpiece.
17. Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King)
It was about time that a popular film was made about Fred Hampton, the Black Panther revolutionary who was systematically murdered by the police at the young age of 21. The endlessly talented Daniel Kaluuya has stepped up to play this incredibly important role.
Shaka King’s film focuses on Hampton’s tragic end, detailing how he was betrayed and killed and what that meant for the Black community during a time of civil unrest. Given everything that has been going on with the Black Lives Matter protests, Judas and the Black Messiah is a timely addition to the conversation.
16. Titane (Julia Ducournau)
The Palme d’Or winner at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Julia Ducournau’s Titane is a provocative piece of body horror filmmaking that operates on multiple plains of recognised genre.
Led by a spellbinding performance from Agathe Rousselle in her debut feature film role, Titane follows a young woman who, after having a car accident in her youth, now has a deranged obsession with metal. Such a fantastical tale is entwined with one of familial yearning as the woman claims to be the long-lost son of a desperate father in a strange, violent study into gender and sexuality.
15. Limbo (Ben Sharrock)
Ben Sharrock’s hilarious comedy-drama Limbo is set on an imaginary remote island in Scotland, revolving around four refugees who want to seek asylum but have to undergo cultural classes. An alternative insight into the refugee condition, Limbo asks greater questions about national barriers and individual identities.
“It started out with a strong personal desire to make a film that, broadly speaking, would touch on the subject of the ‘refugee crisis’ by focusing on the individual human experience of a Syrian asylum seeker,” Sharrock explained. He insisted that he did not want to sensationalise the subject matter and he has done just that, conducting a tender treatment of a delicate issue.
14. Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)
From Todd Haynes, one of America’s most influential filmmakers, responsible for the likes of Poison, Safe, Far From Heaven and Carol comes a documentary about one of the most revered bands of the 20th century.
Creating a brand new sound that would forever change the world of music, Todd Haynes does well to exemplify the compelling rise of the band as they were gradually absorbed into mainstream popular culture through the emerging avant-garde attitudes of individuals such as Andy Warhol. Featuring a range of unseen footage, fascinating interviews and much more, Haynes creates an enthralling portrait of the iconic band.
13. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Netflix has had a big year but it has probably not offered anything better in 2021 than the much-awaited return of one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern era – Jane Campion. The Power of the Dog has been the perfect film to mark Campion’s emergence from a long hiatus.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a wealthy ranch owner who enters into a weirdly hostile relationship with his brother’s wife (Kirsten Dunst) which transforms the entire film into a quasi-horror experience. After its theatrical release, The Power of the Dog became available for viewing on Netflix and bolstered its 2021 lineup.
12. After Love (Aleem Khan)
A captivating journey about finding purpose in the wake of tragedy, After Love from Aleem Khan is a film about the transcending power of love to reach beyond nationalities, cultures and creeds.
Shying away from looking into the joys of love during a relationship, Khan instead focuses on the carcass that is left after a discovery of devastation. Masterfully examining the intimate tussle between two battling identities of self, After Love is led by a powerhouse performance from Joanna Scanlan who commands the screen often by herself in this intimate portrayal of lost love and heartbreak.
11. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
A masterpiece for the modern era, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round begins with the sentence, “What is youth? A dream. What is love? The content of the dream,” from the Danish theologist Søren Kierkegaard, perfectly setting up the film’s imminent musings.
A stirring call for personal revolution, Vinterberg’s film is a many-faceted beast, being a dramatic comedy that picks apart the fragility of mental health and the danger of nostalgia. It’s a heart-aching piece of cinema that ultimately celebrates the joys of life despite the emotional, tender underbellies that each and every one of us possesses, no matter how hard we try to repress such emotions.
10. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma)
A petite, spellbinding French fairytale clocking in at just over 70 minutes, Céline Sciamma continues her incredible run of form following Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Starring twins Gabrielle and Josephine Sanz, the film follows the daughter of a woman who has recently lost her mother who ventures into a nearby forest and visits past versions of her relatives. Capturing a moment of memory suspended in time, Petite Maman is much like a Studio Ghibli tale of magic, wonder, love, loss and passing. As if a warming bedtime story, Céline Sciamma transports audiences to another world with her ethereal examination of friends and family.
9. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
One of the most innovative documentaries of the year, Flee is an animated chronicle of the life of a refugee who opens up about his difficult past to his husband before their marriage. Not a single technical deployment is wasted in Flee, even the use of shifting animations being supplemented by explorations of identity.
Labelled as an “instant classic” when it first came out, Flee is an unusually intense experience that transports the viewer into a world where moral ambiguity defines the landscape. For its brilliant explorations, Flee picked up the coveted award for Best Documentary at Sundance.
8. Farewell Amor (Ekwa Msangi)
A feature-length work on the experiences of Angolan immigrants, Farewell Amor is a powerful film by Ekwa Msangi which tells the story of an immigrant living in the US who meets his wife and daughter after living away from each other for 17 long years.
One of the best debut features in recent years, Farewell Amor probes at the concept of immigration and tells the same story from different perspectives to reach a version of truth that is metamodern. For this fantastic film, Msangi was cited as a filmmaker to watch out for.
7. Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili)
Another breathtaking debut, Beginning is a Georgian-French co-production that is set in a very dormant provincial town. Violent extremists launch attacks on a Jehovah’s Witness group whose religious leader’s wife experiences extreme disillusionment with the state of her life.
The film shows how easy it is for your world to fall apart even if you live away from the dynamic modern world. The pandemic hampered the distribution plans of Beginning but it managed to grab the attention of the world when it started winning major prizes at significant stops in the festival circuit.
6. Summer of Soul (Questlove)
Celebrating one of the most iconic moments of music in the 20th century, musician Questlove from The Roots takes audiences on an odyssey of discovery to bathe in the joys of the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder.
The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 celebrated black history, culture, fashion and, of course, music, with this documentary exploring every single facet of the event’s influence. Staged in the same year as the iconic Woodstock, Questlove’s incredible film gives validation and affirmation to the Harlem Cultural Festival that arguably held far more political and social gravity than its much-publicised counterpart.
5. Mr. Bachmann and his Class (Maria Speth)
One of the greatest documentaries produced in recent years, Mr. Bachmann and his Class records the efforts of an old elementary school teacher who tries his best to prepare young foreigners for the sociocultural elements of growing up and living in Germany.
In a world where we are very quick to dismiss the unfamiliar Other, Mr. Bachmann shows us that anything is possible with patience and dedication. Over the course of three and a half hours, the documentary delineates what properly educating the future generation looks like.
4. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
Truly one of the defining films of modern American filmmaking, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a delicate piece of filmmaking that manages to access the true heart of the American spirit and deliver a heartbreaking blow.
Led by a tremendous performance from Frances McDormand who perfectly fits in with Zhao’s naturalistic film style, Nomadland follows the aimless life of a woman in her sixties who loses everything from the Great Recession. A pensive delight that breaks down the true freedom of the American psyche, Chloé Zhao paints a beautiful picture of contemporary life on the edges of the nation and fills it with truly loveable individuals.
3. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The mere mention of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is enough to make film fans go crazy, especially when they start remembering his masterpieces such as Tropical Malady. However, the news of his collaboration with Tilda Swinton ensured that this new project was anticipated by a wider audience.
Swinton stars as an expatriate who sells flowers to make a living in Medellín and decides to visit her sick sister but a strange occurrence changes everything. Memoria is yet another example of how Weerasethakul has been developing his own cinematic poetics through lyrical imagery.
2. Quo vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić)
Taking on the heavy subject matter of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, director Jasmila Žbanić handles this incredible war drama with stunning control, with Jasna Đuričić leading the film with her emotionally rife starring performance.
A younger generation will be forgiven for not being aware of the Srebrenica massacre, particularly as history lessons often unusually glaze over such important contemporary war crimes. Jasmila Žbanić manages to boil the subject down to a universal story of human suffering and moral torment, retelling the past as if it were a lesson that should be researched and learned from. Analysing the horrors of civil war and the political structures that have the ability to turn neighbour on neighbour, Quo vadis, Aida? is a staggeringly powerful piece of filmmaking.
1. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Although many fascinating films were produced over the course of 2021, none of them have surpassed what Ryusuke Hamaguchi managed to achieve in Drive My Car. The director of Happy Hour has made the best film of the year with a slow burn that manages to paint a nuanced and subtle portrait of the entire human spectrum.
Drive My Car is based on a Haruki Murakami short story but it is much better than the source material, providing insights into the life of a theatre director who stages multilingual productions to amplify his thesis about the fundamental isolation in human beings. After the death of his unfaithful wife, he connects with her old lover and finds comfort in the silent car rides to work.