Exclaim!'s 17 Best Films of 2021
Published Dec 07, 202110. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.