What are the best movies of 2021? The year mirrored the previous one — while we enjoyed the outdoors for the first few months in 2020, that was true of 2021's last three months. (And now with the coronavirus' Omicron variant causing a ruckus, who knows what 2022 is going to be like.) As a result, once again, I was able to watch just one of the titles below at the cinemas. (One more was released in theatres across India, though it wasn't available in the state where I live — again due to COVID-19.) Everything else I watched on the TV, though they are split down two paths. Some would never release in Indian cinemas. And others got pushed to streaming while theatres remained shut.
Interestingly, several patterns emerge in my picks below. A few movies revolve around violence, as they grapple with atrocities of the past. Others are about examining facets of masculinity and patriarchy, and how they negatively affect both men and women. A couple are about motherhood — and a couple others tackle how today's generation feels about older lofty ideals. But despite the similarities, my favourite films of 2021 are scattered across age groups, genders, ethnicities, and religions. They come from all kinds of places and directors, hailing from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Japan, India, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, the UK/Chile, and the US.
With that, here are the 10 best movies of 2021 — according to me. I would love to hear about your favourites in the comments below. Or come find me @akhil_arora on Twitter.
10. A three-way tie
This is going to sound like a cop-out (I have to admit it slightly is), but I've struggled for days to pick a movie for this slot. That's because there are several movies that I saw this year that I love almost equally. And unable to separate them and choose a winner, I have decided that I'm just going to declare a three-way tie. It's the most stress-free option — and in a year that took such a toll on us and those around us, I deserve a way out.
One of them is Flee, an animated documentary that is at times reminiscent of Waltz with Bashir. It tells an epic tale of a gay Muslim man who lives in Denmark, recounting to his best friend (and director Jonas Poher Rasmussen) how he escaped Afghanistan, after it was destroyed by the Americans and Soviets. Flee stretches through a torrid Moscow after the fall of communism, surviving with Mexican soap operas and Bollywood trump cards, and a gay bar in Sweden that's one of this year's most heart-warming moments. There is so much life in every corner of this story.
Another is Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a triptych of stories from Ryusuke Hamaguchi, each better than the one before it. In one, a woman realises that she knows the man her best friend met and had a wonderful time with. It's a tale tinged with longing and jealousy — and with a choose-your-own-adventure style end. The second is about a woman obsessed with a professor and author, and features one of the most erotic on-screen moments in 2021 sans any display of nudity. The third, just all around brilliant, is a tale of double mistaken identity — and turns a little meta with its actors' analogy.
With Parallel Mothers, the celebrated Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar delivers the most political film of his career. With the veteran Penélope Cruz and the up-and-coming Milena Smit as two mothers who gave birth on the same day, Almodóvar turns a highly predictable and somewhat-melodramatic plot into a profound exploration of motherhood and the pain it entails. The film is also macabre (the spectre of Spanish Civil War hangs over it) and claustrophobic (long compression lenses make it feel like there's no space between the actors and the background).
Watch Flee on Apple TV (in Denmark)
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy on digital (in the US) in January 2022
Watch Parallel Mothers on Apple TV (in Italy)
8. Sardar Udham / Dear Comrades!
Anger courses through the veins of these examinations of the horrors inflicted on peaceful protestors — while Sardar Udham director Shoojit Sircar traces the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in northern India through the eyes of the titular freedom fighter (Vicky Kaushal), Dear Comrades! director Andrei Konchalovsky offers a look at its 1962 Novocherkassk massacre in western Russia via a patriotic party member (Julia Vysotskaya). If one is an understated character study and the pursuit for setting the record straight, the other is an exposé of blind faith and the truth you don't wish to see.
But there are also striking similarities. Like all great period dramas, they are speaking to present-day dangers in the countries they come from. Both dramatise and sketch out their central atrocities, though they do so while respecting their different viewpoints. Sardar Udham's heart-wrenching final act finds its protagonist using a hand cart as a makeshift stretcher, making countless trips to find and save the injured. The Dear Comrades! lead runs into the machinery of the government she loved — and witnesses the apathy firsthand. Can't get blood off the streets? Have a party and pour a new layer of asphalt.
Sardar Udham's punishing runtime and a mishandled subplot with a white woman prevents it from going higher up the list. Dear Comrades! is tighter and better handled, though its counterpart benefits from the epic scope and non-linear structure.
Watch Sardar Udham on Amazon Prime Video
Watch Dear Comrades! on Hulu (in the US)
7. The Power of the Dog
Happy to work in the long-format space (with two seasons for Top of the Lake) and bide her time, New Zealand's Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion returned to the big screen after 12 years by taking her talents to …Netflix. (Is no one else in Hollywood ready to bankroll auteurs as much as the world's biggest streaming service?) The television can't contain the breadth and beauty of The Power of the Dog, which is gorgeous to look at (shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner) and pulls you into its world from the first frame. It's a big ol' Western that evokes the best of ‘50s Hollywood (the genre's golden age).
But Campion's slow-burn script has the heart of a modern-day storyteller. Drawn from Thomas Savage's 1967 eponymous novel, The Power of the Dog is at once a raw skewering of patriarchy — and its associated facets and how it manifests: power, cruelty, jealousy, manipulation, sexual inhibition, and mockery of anything feminine.
Campion is helped by some of the best performances of the year. Heart-breaking from the unclassifiable Kirsten Dunst who plays a widow to a kind rancher (Jesse Plemons, also really good), strong supporting work from Kodi Smit-McPhee as the effeminate son of the widow, and masterly from Benedict Cumberbatch as the rancher's cruel brother who terrorises the household, pushing the widow off a cliff, spiking his brother's happiness at every turn, and lashing at the boy at every turn. (Two of these actors — Dunst and Plemons — weren't even Campion's first choice.)
Watch The Power of the Dog on Netflix
“I've already seen this story, as recently as The Crown season 4, why do I need another tale about Princess Diana?” If that's the reaction that sprung to your mind, rest assured that Spencer is nothing like the Netflix series. Yes, it does offer a (blistering) critique of the British royal family, but all of it is presented through one person's deteriorating mindset. Spencer director Pablo Larraín lasers in on Diana's (Kristen Stewart) horrid time at the Sandringham estate during the 1991 Christmas, delivering a haunting portrait that's more psychological horror than drama at times.
With her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) on the rocks, Diana is getting an icy reception from the British royal family. Spencer shows how she felt constrained from all corners, be it the royal family tradition of weighing guests pre- and post-Christmas (Diana was bulimic) or the curtains in her room that she's repeatedly told to draw because paparazzi. Her bulimia is also contrasted with the lavish courses prepared for the royals — who are barely seen here. Instead, Diana keeps seeing the ghost of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was abandoned like her (and beheaded by her husband Henry VIII).
Spencer is greatly helped by the fact that Stewart is terrific and disappears into the role. (So much of the movie is close-ups of her face after all.) You really start to think you're looking at Princess Diana herself.
Watch Spencer on Apple TV (in the US)
5. The Disciple
There are countless movies about artists striving for and achieving excellence despite hardships and ordeals, but only a handful where the protagonist realises that they may not be destined for excellence no matter how hard they strive. The Disciple, Chaitanya Tamhane's masterful follow-up to the National Award-winning Court, is about classically trained singer Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) who has dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. Or so he believes anyway. But the acclaim and command he craves seems to be forever out of his reach — and Sharad can't bring himself to accept that.
On a deeper level, The Disciple seems to be Tamhane expressing his own deeper worries and insecurities. The 34-year-old director is one of India's contemporary greats, but local recognition — despite international film festival awards and Alfonso Cuarón as executive producer here — alludes him in a masala-obsessed Bollywood-dominated society. Along the way, The Disciple offers a painful dissection of idolism and the bitterness it can cause and expands on how modernisation and commodification of music can exacerbate the generational gap.
Some of the best moments in The Disciple are when its Hindu classical (background) music, that lends an ethereal feel to the film, is juxtaposed with the learnings of a mystical guru and a solitary bike ride through the dimly-lit streets of Mumbai at night.
Watch The Disciple on Netflix
4. There Is No Evil
The first chapter of this four-part anthology movie has such a frightening emotional rug-pull moment that it helps going completely blind into There Is No Evil. It goes against the existence of my profession a bit, but I advise you to pause reading and just go watch the movie. It's early into the second entry that you start to realise the common thematic connection between the four tales: capital punishment in Iran, and the country's two-year military conscription for all males. It explores where a society, whose people follow orders without questioning, ends up — and has lessons for fragile democracies like ours.
There Is No Evil writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof — banned from leaving his country due to the criticisms he offers through celluloid, as is his film that was shot in secret and smuggled out — scatters his four stories across Iranian society. From single to married, from the capital Tehran to the countryside. They also unfold in myriad ways: the first shows a depressing daily routine, the second a miniature thriller, the third a ticking family-secret bomb, and the fourth a generational tale. And they are shot (lensed by Ashkan Ashkani) and scored differently (by Amir Molookpour) too.
But at its core, There Is No Evil boils down to one thing: men who find themselves in impossible situations, staring at a deceptively simple yet unthinkable choice. Rasoulof shows how their “work” eats away at them — and what it says about the inescapable world they find themselves in.
Watch There Is No Evil on Apple TV (in the US)
3. The Green Knight
Always one to re-examine myths from a new perspective, this adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” finds writer-director-editor David Lowery looking at legends that formed around medieval knights. In this case, it's King Arthur's useless immature nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) who — stands to inherit the kingdom since Arthur has no heir — aspires for greatness but is too lazy and privileged to do anything about it.
That changes when Gawain accepts the Green Knight's challenge: land a blow on him and win his axe, but accept a blow in return a year from then at the Green Chapel. But when the Green Knight gets up and carries his decapitated head away, Gawain realises that joining his uncle's famed Round Table is going to take more. A year on, Gawain reluctantly sets out to see the Green Knight — and what follows is at times a surreal, strange, and spooky adventure.
The Green Knight is masterful on various accounts. Patel is brilliant in the lead role. Every frame (shot by Andrew Droz Palermo) is exquisite and gorgeous to behold. Lowery offers an incisive takedown of fragile masculinity (see how Gawain crumbles in front of a Lady). And the film's terrific last 15 minutes not only upend the tale — but contribute to one of the best climactic sequences this year.
Watch The Green Knight on Amazon Prime Video
2. Petite Maman
French writer-director Céline Sciamma's follow-up to her brilliant historical queer romantic drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire — my favourite movie last year — is only 72 minutes long, but Sciamma packs more life and emotions into it than other directors manage in movies three times as long. Petite Maman is technically a lo-fi sci-fi fantasy film but Sciamma never lets you feel that, as her focus rests entirely on the themes: grief, motherhood, loneliness, and companionship.
After eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) loses her grandmother, she moves into her mother's childhood home while the parents empty it out. Nelly wants to know more about her mother's childhood, but that is cut short after she abruptly leaves one night. Venturing outside to discover the tent her mother made as a kid, Nelly runs into another eight-year-old Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who has much in common with her mother.
Sciamma frames Nelly's journey in the plainest of manners — and the film never loses sight of what it's about. Petite Maman isn't about what-ifs, and it doesn't get bogged down with plot mechanics. The two girls (they are twins) are so natural and expressive that I wondered what Sciamma told them of the film's concept — and what was running through the minds as they filmed their scenes.
Once again, Petite Maman is proof that Sciamma is one of the most evocative filmmakers working today. Keep an eye on what she does next.
Petite Maman coming to Mubi February 18, 2022
1. Quo Vadis, Aida?
When an independent India tried to peacefully bring together dozens of religious and ethnic identities under one banner in 1947, one of the roadmaps it looked to was Yugoslavia — that had done something similar following World War I. But that experiment failed dramatically in the ‘90s, and as the state broke apart into smaller pieces, it resulted in some of the ugliest war crimes since World War II. Part of that was the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Quo Vadis, Aida? trains its lens on that event, through the viewpoint of a United Nations translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić) who is trying to protect her family — while helping thousands of refugees stuck outside a UN camp. But as the Ratko Mladić-led Bosnian Serb forces stream roll into town, and the UN and NATO shirk their responsibilities and cave in to their demands, Quo Vadis, Aida? writer-director Jasmila Žbanić lays out the makings of a genocide.
It's an absolutely harrowing story — one that Quo Vadis, Aida? depicts in an unflinching and nuanced manner, and is delivered with multiple inevitable gut-punches at the end. More importantly, Quo Vadis, Aida? serves as a reminder of the apathy and evil that humanity is capable of. And it hits even harder given the slippery slope we are on.
Watch Quo Vadis, Aida? on Hulu or Apple TV (in the US)