Exclaim!'s 17 Best Films of 2021

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 7, 2021

After a year of cancellations and theatre closures, filmgoers and studios hoped that 2021 would be a return to some form of normalcy. While the beginning of the year continued the trend of films being sent to streaming services, theatres eventually opened across the world and studios finally released some of the most-anticipated movies of the last couple years.

It seemed possible that this year's films would only be a selection of studio backlogs and mediocre films created under strict health and safety protocols. But thankfully, it seems filmmakers around the world used the lockdowns as a time to harness their burgeoning creativity. As a result, we were treated to personal heartfelt stories, creative and ethereal storytelling, and arthouse oddities. 

Given the convoluted timetables of award shows and film festivals, some movies that came out in 2021 were left off our list (for instance, Nomadland was our top movie of 2020, despite not getting a wide release until February 2021). Regardless, there were a lot of beautiful, creative, and thought-provoking movies to choose from.

See Exclaim!'s full list of the best films of 2021 below.

17. Pig
Directed by Michael Sarnoski

In one of the more confounding films of the year, Nicolas Cage blesses us with potentially the best performance of his career. Michael Sarnoski's Pig isn't the violent John Wick-esque vehicle many assumed. Instead, it's a dark, meditative slow burn of a film about grief and trauma that gives Cage a chance to shine in a way we haven't seen in years. Pig will make you laugh and cry, and maybe even give you a newfound respect for Cage as an actor.
Rachel Ho

16. Zola
Directed by Janicza Bravo

The stranger-than-fiction strip trip that inspired Aziah "Zola" King's 148-tweet viral thread in 2015 is adapted in this suitably outrageous film about how a weekend in Florida gradually escalates to include sex work, human trafficking and gunfire. Frequently funny, sometimes deeply disturbing and always totally gripping, the pulpy story is presented as high art thanks in part to the fashionably grainy film quality, à la the Safdie brothers.
Alex Hudson

15. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy
Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers brings us this tour de force of a documentary chronicling the onset and permutations of the opioid crisis within the Kainai Nation in Stand Off, AB. By focusing specifically on how healthcare workers are mobilizing to protect members of the community, Tailfeathers paints an at-once deeply personal and razing portrait of an ineffective federal government. The film shows a community moving through grief as it mends itself, calling viewers to action by teaching the workings of empathy and the importance of bearing witness.
Alisha Mughal

14. The French Dispatch
Directed by Wes Anderson

Delivered in episodic chapters, Wes Anderson's most Wes Anderson-ish film to date captures the fictional French town of Ennui in charming, aesthetic-driven totality. Led by a roster of Anderson regulars — Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, etc. — the director achieves a complete artistic vision, blending character nuances, colourways, decoration and quirk with a heavy, uninhibited hand. The universe-building in The French Dispatch is unparalleled in the auteur's catalogue, and he does this while doling out storylines at rapid-fire pace. Each segment could easily be fleshed out into its own feature-length film, which makes for an exhilarating viewing experience — a wholesome antidote to the attention-deficit Instagram age.
Allie Gregory

13. The Green Knight
Directed by David Lowery

Many viewers were expecting an action flick — as the name might imply — but what they got was an unpredictable medieval escapade with a lot of eerie twists. The ambient pacing perfectly suits the incredible scenery and bizarre plot. If you've ever wondered what it would be like if Terrence Malick and John Sayles teamed up for an Arthurian fantasy film, this is probably as close as we'll ever get.
Tobias Jeg

12. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by Joel Coen

Joel Coen's surrealist neo-noir adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is led by the powerhouse performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Both command the language of the Bard in a manner befitting their reputations, as well as the legacies of Lord and Lady Macbeth. While the play is over 400 years old and countless versions have been made (and will continue to be made), Coen's distinctive style, Washington's physicality and swagger, and McDormand's haunting elegance all help to make the old new again.
Rachel Ho

11. Bo Burnham: Inside
Directed by Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham's comedy special might be the definitive piece of pandemic viewing, despite arriving admittedly late in the game, as its release coincided with soaring vaccination rates across the continent. Still, it offered intense catharsis, serving up an unpolished portrait of the ways mental illness manifests in isolation. Even considering the piece was filmed inside a pool house — not exactly relatable lockdown circumstances for most — Burham's special still feels honest; while delivering biting comedy and deadpan devastation in equal measure, he ponders the significance of aging, the insidiousness of the internet and the dystopia that is late-stage capitalism. With all its pervasiveness, genre-bending and focused production, it's not hard to imagine this work folded alongside the past two years' unprecedented events in history books to come. 
Allie Gregory

Click "Next" to continue reading.10. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Directed by Mike Rianda

This year, Pixar was beaten at its own game by The Mitchells vs. the Machines — a loveable sci-fi comedy that's funny, heart-wrenching and just a little darker than you might expect of an animated family flick. With a prominent queer character, a chaotic visual style and techno-dystopian themes about the A.I. singularity, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a refreshingly modern take on feature-length animation.
Alex Hudson

9. Spencer
Directed by Pablo Larraín

Spencer, which dramatizes a few days in the life of Princess Diana, isn't your typical biopic. It's a fascinating portrait, taking a specific moment in her life in order to present a character in psychological torment. Kristen Stewart, in her best performance yet, perfectly captures the myriad emotions Diana goes through, resulting in a film full of terror. Set during Christmas, it isn't a joyous affair, the façade of the fairytale cracking as a woman desperately seeks freedom. 
Sara Clements

8. Fear Street Trilogy
Directed by Leigh Janiak

There is nothing to dislike about the Fear Street movies. Turning the teen slasher on its head by showing how important young people are to the fabric of society, these films show an unbound respect for its young female leads, giving all the characters in the three films their emotional heft and the camp its delicious bite. Lived in and fleshed out, the characters run screaming through a compelling plot that will have you wishing for more, even as the credits to the final film roll to Oasis's "Live Forever." Endlessly watchable, the Fear Street Trilogy is this year's best blood-soaked highlight.  
Alisha Mughal

7. The Power of the Dog
Directed by Jane Campion

The harsh beauty of nature is reflected in the brutality of The Power of the Dog's main character, the cruel Phil Burbank. Featuring a career-best performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, who totally nails the American accent and completely embodies the character, he torments practically everyone close to him: his more buttoned-down brother George (Jesse Plemons), his sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and Rose's meek son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But when he forms a connection with Peter, Phil shows a softness that plays out in unexpected, fascinating ways. The nuanced character study is matched by the gorgeous cinematography, in which New Zealand perfectly stands in for the American West.
Alex Hudson

6. Belfast
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh's Belfast is a beautifully crafted love letter to his childhood in Belfast. The 1969 violence of the Troubles feels more palpable and heartbreaking because of the unique perspective of the supremely talented nine-year-old Buddy, played phenomenally by Jude Hill. Written and directed by Branagh, it's a pure-hearted film told through a black-and-white lens and captures the innocence of a child with warmth and humour. Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds anchor the movie and encapsulate a loving Irish family. It's a feel-good film you can't resist falling in love with.
Marriska Fernandes

5. Flee
Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

In Flee, we learn of the harrowing tale of a young man's escape from Afghanistan, as he eventually finds refuge in Denmark. The story itself would have been good fodder for a narrative feature film — but instead, Rasmussen chooses to tell Amin's story through an animated documentary, using Amin's own voiceover. Flee is a film of many contradictions. The illustrations are at once gorgeous and haunting. Amin's story itself is incredibly specific and unique, but its impact is universal. The filmmaking is gripping and suspenseful, yet soft and heartfelt. Rasmussen guides audiences through an emotional journey with great poignancy and artistry, leaving an impression that lingers well after the film fades to black.
Rachel Ho

4. Titane
Directed by ​Julia Ducournau

Julia Ducournau's sophomore feature-length film, Titane, was one of the most intriguing and unique films released this year, earning the Palme d'or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Its story morphs from a surreal body-horror fever-dream about a female serial killer with a love (and lust) for cars into a story about two people who struggle to embrace and love one another unconditionally, in spite of their insecurities and failures. Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon's performances carry the film that ponders the self-destructive nature of failing to meet others' expectations, and the love that can occur when people are embraced regardless of their differences.  
Paul Dika

3. Shiva Baby
Directed by Emma Seligman

A sugar baby attends a shiva (a Jewish mourning ritual) where she is confronted by her ex, runs into her sugar daddy and his family, and faces intense scrutiny from her entire family. It sounds a bit like the premise for a dark comedy — but writer-director Emma Seligman ramps up the tension to a sweaty-palmed crescendo, and composer Ariel Marx pushes the anxiety over the top with dissonant horror movie screeches. The film had its festival premiere in 2020 followed by a wide release this spring — and the lingering sense of unease has been stuck in our heads ever since.
Alex Hudson

2. Dune
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Widely considered an unadaptable story, Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi epic has received another cinematic treatment. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve opted to film only the first half of the first novel in the series, setting the stage for the larger story to unfold in later films. After many delays, audiences were finally treated to the beginning of the saga with an incredible experience. With an all-star cast led by Timothée Chalamet, Villeneuve realizes Herbert's inter-planetary political space opera in a way no one had previously. The spice-y sands of Arrakis and steely coldness of House Harkonnen are finally given their proper dues on the big screen. And while Dune: Part One merely scratches the surface, it has captured the imagination of audiences and built anticipation for Part Two and beyond.
Rachel Ho

1. Summer of Soul
Directed by Questlove

As Woodstock took August 1969 by storm, there was another music festival happening that was equally pivotal to music history — and, more importantly, to the history of Black Americans. The Harlem Cultural Festival, or "Black Woodstock," ran from June to August 1969 in Manhattan's Harlem neighbourhood. Artists like Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone brought together this community at a time of political unrest, providing relief and an opportunity to celebrate Harlem's rich culture. The festival was largely forgotten, but Questlove's directorial debut brings it back into the public consciousness. The audience gets to see many performers and attendees watch the footage and relive their memories of the festival in a powerful and emotional way. For these participants, Summer of Soul validates that this event really happened, emphasizing its historical importance and proving music's ability to heal.
Sara Clements

Latest Coverage