It’s the most wonderful time of the year and that means one thing – 2021 top 20 lists are upon us. This has been a landmark year in film as the industry attempted to pick itself up and dust itself off following worldwide lockdown. The streaming vs cinema debate became omnipresent, with high-profile movies and A-list lawsuits paving the way through a very interesting time in Hollywood’s history. Whichever your preferred method for watching new movies, whether from the safety of your sofa or in front of the big screen, 2021 had an abundance of releases which ranged from masterful to forgetful, from polarising to unifying and from humorous to Jared Leto’s Super Mario impression.
Notable events include the end of an era in the 007 universe, fans attempting to out-spoil each other in the build-up to No Way Home, and the outstanding comic book movie of the year so far belonging to *checks notes* the DCEU. If they continue to compete with the MCU at this level, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott may implode.
As we approach 2022 and attempt to contain our excitement at the prospect of another Fantastic Beasts movie, the team at FilmHounds has worked tirelessly to condense the quality of 2021; to filter out the Space Jam and Venom sequels so you don’t have to. From over 100 high-ranking movies, we crunched the numbers to provide you with the definitive top 20 list of the year. These include award-winning critical favourites, topical musicals, foreign language films and even a spot for Nicolas Cage who is enjoying another career peak. They comprise some of the must-see movies released in the UK this year, and we hope you enjoy reading about what made them so special to us.
19. Petite Maman
17. The French Dispatch
16. The Father
15. Sound of Metal
14. Another Round
11. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
10. No Time To Die
Being part of one of the world’s longest running film series, each new entry to the James Bond franchise comes with a great amount of expectation and anticipation. The hype surrounding No Time to Die was all that and more thanks to a near two-year delay due to pre-production issues and a worldwide pandemic. Did it live up to those lofty expectations in the end? Absolutely.
Thanks to a Skyfall-esque approach of bringing in all the quintessential Bond elements, Cary Joji Fukunaga made Daniel Craig’s swan song as 007 something enjoyably familiar but with enough pathos to make it an unexpectedly emotional finale to this set of Bond stories.
Drawing influence from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in particular, No Time to Die sees Bond happily retired and touring the world with his love, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), but when it seems even she can’t be trusted, Bond disappears into exile, with only the threat of Rami Malek’s uber-terrorist bringing him back into the fray.
Safin may not quite measure up to the Blofelds or the Silvas that have come before, but there is the sense that he was never meant to. With his scarred visage, cold demeanour and plans capable of destroying the world’s populace, Safin represents the kind of threat Bond is destined to fight against for the rest of his life on screen, even if Daniel Craig won’t be the one throwing the punches.
For many, No Time to Die was the first film seen in cinemas following the pandemic. With its bold, poignant storyline, big set-pieces and a slow-burn classic opening title song by Billie Eilish, it’s hard to imagine a better film to welcome audiences back to the silver screen.
Words: Scott Zissou Walkinshaw
It feels like another lifetime ago that Chloé Zhao won both Best Director and Best Picture for her road drama Nomadland, but shockingly, it was only back in April. Time is a weird thing, particularly while one is living amid a pandemic. Since lockdowns first began back in March 2020, many of us had to change the way we connected and communicated with both loved ones and new faces. A Zoom call may be the best thing for the moment, but it will never replace the sense of meeting a like-minded spirit out on your journey through life, be it at a party, in the workplace, or a run-in with a kind-hearted stranger out on the road.
The way people connect is at the heart of Zhaos’ Nomadland as we follow Frances McDormand’s Fern as she sets about what is on the surface quite an isolated lifestyle, packing up in her van and hitting the road, travelling across the United States in the wake of her husband. But while she may be living alone in that van, Fern is anything but alone on the road, as she meets individuals who have likewise chosen the Nomadic lifestyle, away from many of the distractions of modern life and pulling together as a collective when anyone is in need, or simply fancies a chat by an open fire.
Nomadland is a beautiful expression of the kind of connections we can take for granted, and ones many of us have likely learned not to in the wake of the pandemic. With gorgeous vistas, emotionally raw performances and a striking sense of empathy, Zhao’s multiple award-winning film is exactly the tonic we needed this year. See you down the road.
Words: Andrew Gaudion
Julia Ducournau stormed onto the scene back in 2016 with her feature debut Raw, making audiences throw up in their seats whilst critics praised the film for its provocative take on a coming-of-age story. How on Earth could Ducournau follow up on that? By making an equally wild and gruesome film that touches on themes of gender whilst exploring an unexpectedly caring relationship at the heart of the narrative.
To dive too deeply into the synopsis of Titane would only ruin some of the devilishly exciting twists and turns that lie ahead, but what people find shocking in the film comes from the stark differences between the first and second half of the story. Ducournau presents a relentless first half that doesn’t hold back on the violence and body horror, setting up some truly out-there conflicts and character arcs – it’s guaranteed to elicit some vocal audience responses. The second half, however, really digs into the central two characters and their estranged but increasingly heart-warming relationship. The stark contrast from Titane’s grisly opening makes the character focused drama stand out, but so too does the incredible performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon – with Rousselle delivering a hell of a feature debut and Lindon a career best.
The real star however is Ducournau, who presents us with another assuredly twisted vision that proves Raw wasn’t beginner’s luck. Every production element comes together, from the camera work to the lighting and sound design. Ducournau cements herself as an exciting new filmmaker that isn’t afraid to tackle challenging topics in an uncompromising way. Titane isn’t just a crazy thrill ride but one of the year’s most unique and moving films that everyone should experience – if you can stomach it.
Words: Gavin Spoors
7. Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King made an impression during this year’s extended Oscar season with the exceptional drama, Judas and the Black Messiah. Packed with incredible performances, the plot follows the events surrounding the assassination of Fred Hamption – a once up and coming voice in the Black Panther party – and the role the FBI played in an attempt to both control and gather as much information as possible about the civil rights leader.
The film’s leads, Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, don’t step a foot out of place as the conflicting duo at the centre of the story, earning them not just awards nominations across the board but bagging Kaluuya his first Oscar in the role of Hampton. Separately, the two actors give extraordinary dimension to their roles but together, they are a serious force to be reckoned with.
Having taken inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and striking a similar tone to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, King underpins the narrative with a palpable undercurrent, creating a striking atmosphere that infects the audience with just as much paranoia as the characters on screen. Styled as a modern day noir, a combination of cohesive storytelling and brilliant cinematography lead to a contemporary take on the genre and more importantly, a look back at a moment in history that deserves to be told.
Looking back at 2021, Judas and the Black Messiah is easily one of the best movies of the year, even with it only managing an online release here in the UK. Now that it’s available on a wider range of platforms, this is certainly one to catch up with before 2022 comes rolling around.
Words: Ian Morton
6. The Green Knight
Following a slew of lockdown related pushbacks, this year finally saw the release of David Lowery’s long-awaited, The Green Knight. Adapted from a 14th Century Arthurian poem, the film stars Dev Patel as the iconic knight Sir Gawain. We meet Lowrey’s Gawain in his youth, before his time as a valent knight of the round table, as an inexperienced and foolish youngster who yearns to tell stories of his gallant and noble endeavours.
During the King and Queen’s Christmas Day feast, the opportunity for his first adventure comes knocking. The Green Knight, a giant, woodland monster, seeks an opponent in what he outlines as a ‘Christmas game’: any knight able to land a blow on him will win his green axe; however, on precisely a year to the day, they must pilgrimage to Green Chapel and receive an equal blow in return. So naturally, Gawain jumps at the opportunity and accepts the challenge willingly; he strikes his winning blow and then stews for a year, waiting for his destiny to unfold.
We follow Gawain on a lyrical, charming, crafty, and surprisingly sexy quest to the Green Chapel through the land of giants, spirits and magic. Lowery treats us to a warm depth of symbolic meaning, classical story-telling and enriching thematic questions. Enchantingly shot by Andrew Droz Palermo, with glorious supporting performances from Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris and Kate Dickie, who play a delightful array of impish foes and mysterious friends, The Green Knight is an unmissable piece of film-making, unlike anything else to hit cinemas this year.
Words: Leoni Horton
5. In The Heights
Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s broadway hit, In the Heights, is a timely story of a bodega owner, Usnavi (played to perfection by Anthony Ramos), who has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic or staying in Washington Heights, New York.
The story is simplistic, which allows all the actors to explode onto the screen in performances that all feel personal to the actors involved. With Anthony Ramos as the lead, the movie has charm and charisma running throughout but Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera and everybody else are all superb.
The film also boasts an excellent amount of catchy songs written by Miranda himself and breath-taking sequences with fantastic choreography – the song “96,000” is certainly a highlight in the film. Every single song uses perfect choreography and visuals to match the mood and atmosphere that the music is trying to convey.
In the Heights clocks in little over two hours and twenty minutes, which is fairly lengthy for a musical, yet the pacing never drags and Chu always keeps you invested in the story and these characters. Fairly early on in the first act of the film, he makes you latch onto these characters and care for them and their problems, so when the movie is building to its emotional climax, it does become a bit of a tearjerker and is an emotional gun punch. Jon M. Chu hasn’t just made one of the best musicals of the year, he’s made one of the best musicals of all time.
Words: Charlie McGivern
4. Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennel directs this kind of funny, kind of disturbing, kind of a bit too close to home examination of sexism in the modern age.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan) lives a somewhat troubled life after the death of her friend. She goes to bars, pretends to be drunk, and then enacts her own breed of punishment on the men who feign helping her, before attempting to take advantage.
The character of Cassie is named after Cassandra, a Greek Goddess who had the gift of prophecy, but unfortunately, she was also cursed to have no-one believe her. This pleading for belief and faith in what we say is apt, and familiar to women everywhere who have had various traumas minimised and discredited in favour of male voices. Cassie places herself at incredible risk to insert the men around her in their very own fables, bringing home various elements of feminist theory in technicolour detail. She forces both the men in the story and the audience to listen, with comedic actors we recognise as friends taking brisk turns from helper to predator.
Promising Young Women is a sharp, bright, and cutting debut feature from Fennell, with Carey Mulligan perfectly cast as the demure but determined Cassie. We have seen films on this subject before, but while many of them act to empower the women at the centre of their story, none of them do it quite like this one.
Words: Erika Bean
3. The Suicide Squad
What a difference the word ‘the’ makes! Back in 2016, Suicide Squad was one of the worst films of the year but jump forward five years and the very original and differently titled The Suicide Squad is one of the best of the year. It’s not quite a full-on sequel, nor is it a reboot. There are a few returning characters, like everyone’s favourite Harley Quinn and the ones you’d completely forgotten about like Captain Boomerang, but director James Gunn gets everything just right to create an absolute blast of a film.
Gunn puts his style all over the film as it’s violent, funny and wildly unpredictable. There’s so much fun to be had, whether that’s seeing a giant talking shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone ripping people apart and eating them or Idris Elba’s Bloodsport shooting bad guys in the face. The Suicide Squad is full of energy and creativity, and as Gunn once again proves he can take some of the least well-known superheroes out there such as Polka-Dot Man and bring them to the big screen. All the characters in the film are great and get just the right amount of screen time, making it a thoroughly entertaining film.
The Suicide Squad is a riotously fun movie that’s filled to the brim with jokes, blood and mayhem. It’s a film that feels like a comic book has jumped out of the pages and onto the big screen as the execution is flawless. Gunn shows us how a Suicide Squad film should be done, getting the tone spot on, creating one of the year’s best films.
Words: Jed Wagman
2. The Mitchells Vs The Machines
Sony Animation may not be the powerhouse that Disney, Pixar or even DreamWorks are, but they are taking a solid crack at becoming one. Following the mega success – and awards – that befell superhero romp Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the minds behind that came forth with The Mitchells vs the Machines. The Netflix release shocked audiences with daring animation style, mixing 2D and 3D animation techniques, fast paced comedy and a tremendous amount of heart and soul.
Following the titular family, outdoors man dad Rick (Danny McBride), pre-school teacher and optimist Linda (Maya Rudolph), filmmaker freshman Katie (Abbi Jacobson) and dino-obsessed kid Aaron (director Mike Rianda), as they attempt to bond on a road trip to drop Katie to college when robots take over the Earth.
The voices of the family are perfectly pitched, not least McBride’s awkward but loving father and his strained relationship with his daughter. Eric Andre, Fred Armisen and SNL alumni Beck Bennett round out a voice cast but the true stand out is Olivia Colman as PAL, the ruthless and angry virtual assistant confined to a small phone.
The film’s humour feels like it’s going a hundred miles an hour, visual gags including YouTube clips and cut-aways, physical comedy and pop-culture references, and yet, the real humour comes from the way in which the absurdity of the situation is handled by the family. There’s humour for every type of person, and it’s impossible to resist having your funny bone tickled by the jokes about dogs licking people’s mouths.
Mike Rianda, however, doesn’t forget to ramp up the action or to include character in action. A central showdown in a shopping mall, including an army of appliances and Furbies is both gut bustingly funny and breakneck in it’s stakes. It’s the attention to keeping our focus on this family unit and how their differing opinions, and personalities actually make them a stronger unit.
Co-writing with Jeff Rowe, Rianda’s screenplay is not wanting for brilliant lines of dialogue, including a recurring joke about bad gifts from Rick, but when the emotion kicks in, it’s utterly moving. The film is a look at the way people drift apart, and Rick and Katie’s differing interests and lives have allowed them to drift apart. It’s here that the film goes from a fun romp to a moving exploration of parent-child relationships.
Without going overboard, The Mitchells vs the Machines hits you emotionally with a conversation about the ways in which parents protect their children from the realities of life, and how no matter how upsetting a situation is, a child’s love for their parent is greatest cure of all.
If this is the style of animation that Sony are opting for with their features, then Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks better watch out, we might have even more classics on the way. But, should we expect less from the producing prowess of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller?
Words: Paul Klein
ow on earth did we get here? Dune literally had everything working against it. It can be considered a remake of an old film the 1980s, made by divisive filmmaker David Lynch, which underperformed and didn’t leave a lingering memory of accomplishment.Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film was also an attempt to revive Blade Runner, a long dead 1980s franchise that also wasn’t very popular at the time.Subsequently the film in question underperformed at the box office. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a beloved science fiction novel that was famously labelled unadaptable due to its rich depth and lore – anything under ten hours would seemingly fail to do the source material justice.
Yet Dune not only managed to sell really well at the box office (making a very respectable $300 Million worldwide on a budget of $165 Million), it was a characteristically brilliant film from Denis Villeneuve – the man who will surely become Warner Bros. new in-house sci-fi auteur after the departure of the great Christopher Nolan – and will assuredly be remembered as not only the film of 2021 but one of the best science fiction films of all time. And the best part? There’s more to come.
Dune is destined to be the starting point for a new and brilliant franchise that has endless possibilities. Due to the nature of it being a science fiction story, many would be forgiven for making it out to be the new Star Wars, but with its rich and deep lore, its powerful factions made up of houses and tribes and its almost medieval attitude to weaponry and armour, Dune is more on track to be this generation’s answer to The Lord of the Rings or maybe even the new Game Of Thrones. In fact, the film ends a lot like The Fellowship of the Ring, with its satisfying conclusion of events making it very obvious that more is on the way. After all, as Zendaya’s Chani says “This is only the beginning”.
In Dune, Denis Villeneuve teaches all of his fellow contemporary filmmakers how to perfectly craft a film. It’s shocking to note that Disney’s Jungle Cruise cost $35 Million more to make than Dune. It’s unknown whether that’s mostly due to Dwayne Johnson’s pay cheque but it still shows what can be done when you have people who have such talent and care for the craft working on your production. Comparing these two films is like comparing night and day. Dune’s scope covers a whole galaxy, throughout the film you can feel the magnitude of this universe. The immense size of the sand worms alone is a climactic feat that can only be truly experienced on the biggest of screens. Jungle Cruise takes place throughout the entirety of the Amazon rainforest, but it still feels like it was all filmed on a sound stage in Los Angeles or Sydney. Denis Villeneuve and his immensely talented cast and crew worked together to make an entire liveable, breathable universe with a fraction of the money Disney spent on a cheap swashbuckler that no one’s going to remember in five years.
Much attention will be given to Kristen Stewart or Olivia Colman for that coveted best actress Academy Award, but Rebecca Ferguson is the one who truly deserves it. Her Lady Jessica is a kind and caring mother but also someone who’s no stranger to death and murder and will take severe action whenever she deems it necessary. All of that is told through simple looks and expressions she gives in her career best performance, but due to the fact that this is a science fiction blockbuster, Ferguson probably won’t even get a look in at upcoming award ceremonies.
This is not to say that Rebecca Ferguson is the only good performance in Dune, far from it. You can’t go a single moment in this film without watching an actor give one of the best performances of their careers. Timothee Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, Jason Mamoa, Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgard, among many others, all should be immensely proud of what they have achieved with their interpretations of Frank Herbert’s classic characters.
Denis Villeneuve has yet to make a truly bad film; his track record has been beyond impressive. He’s given us some of the best thrillers and science fiction epics of the 2010s. Now, with the Dune franchise underneath his already diamond encrusted belt, his filmography will undoubtedly go straight from being simply impressive to absolutely downright legendary. Make sure you remember this, 2021 is a year where history was made.
Words: Freddie Deighton
This list originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine December issue – voting cut off was first week of December and covers Dec 20 – Dec 21