The 10 best films of 2021

This was the year we returned to the cinemas (after almost a year away), traveled to film festivals (if we were really, really lucky), and luckily we were shown a dazzling array of the world’s best cinematic offerings. While by no means the only major films of 2021, these were my top ten favorites. They are refreshing reminders of how transformative, transporting and enlightening the art form can be – especially when viewed in the dark, finally away from the couch.

Photo from IFC Films / Everett Collection.

This year saw many films about the pain and fire of creation, but few were as delicate and convincingly executed as Mia Hansen-Løves graceful mood piece. Vicky Krieps, awake and glowing, plays Chris, a filmmaker struggling with an idea for a new film. Maybe she’s Hansen-Lion herself, or maybe she’s just another in this excellent filmmaker’s cast of carefully drawn protagonists.

How many metal layers include Bergman Island is a question the film begins to ask itself when Chris’ idea becomes manifest, a story within the story. Mia Wasikowska sensitively embodies Chris’ fictional construction, wandering in the same windy Swedish paradise where Chris has found himself. Bergman Island whispers with melancholy, rattles with gentle humor. At first glance, the film seems like a tiny little tease. But there is a sneaky depth here, a murmur of hidden significance creeping out of every old floorboard. Bergman Island will make you want to do something; to hug a loved one like you have not seen them in ages (maybe you have not); and jumping on a boat on its way to the Baltic Sea with a notebook in hand.

Photograph by Eric Zachanowich / A24 / Everett Collection.

David Lowery is a filmmaker who thinks a lot about death. As we all do, probably. Instead of running away from the enormous turmoil of finitude, Lowery, in his fascinating patchwork collection of films, has taken a direct course toward them, creating amazing and frightening visions of life and its end. With The Green Knight, Lowery takes the age-old legend of Sir Gawain and digs into its sharpest implications. As Developer Patel‘s abrupt young knight marches towards his probable doom, Lowery’s film conjures up an intoxicating atmosphere of fear and wonder.

Despite its brutal, desolate imagination – or perhaps somehow because of it –The Green Knight maintains a steadfast humanism that reflects our own messy, irrational selves. Considering death is confusing; its inevitability can make most of our earthly worries seem terribly petty. But there is, as Lowery finds it, something quite magnificent and noble in our smallness. It might even make sense if we were to stop and take stock of the varied and miraculous alienation – all the earthly magic – we have encountered on our own journeys towards the impending unknown.

Photo from Bleecker Street Media / Everett Collection.

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