My Favourite Films of 2021

So, there was plenty of context (both global and personal) to kick off my 2020 list and 2021 was effectively a continuation of that year, the second year of our global pandemic and the first entire year I’ve been based back in New Zealand. This was both good for helping to steadily increase the number of films I saw at a cinema, but also bad in terms of the range of available options (though honestly looking at world cinema distribution, it could also be a lot worse if I lived in some other countries, so I should count my considerable blessings).

I continue to keep pretty comprehensive lists of the films I watch (going back to the late-1990s, and particularly thoroughly since I started this site in 2013). I’ve discussed these in each of my favourite film round-ups over the however many years I’ve been writing these, because where there are lists there are STATS. Therefore, it makes sense for me to post visual depictions of these stats, so here are some graphs…

Film Stats - Place Seen 2013-2021

First up, let’s look at where I’ve been watching films, home (whether mine or someone else’s, whether with friends/partner or without, but a private location) or the cinema (into which latter category I’m including galleries or any communal venue for watching). As you can see I was doing so well in improving my films seen in cinemas up to 2019, and I attribute a lot of that in recent years to attending Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, but also just a real attempt to get out of the house via various cinema memberships. After 2020 it will probably be a while before I can build that back up to the same level (maybe it will never be possible, or at least not until I get back to Europe), but this year was certainly better than 2020, what with not having any extended lockdowns or moving halfway around the world. We did actually have a few weeks’ lockdown back in August, but luckily the local film festival was unaffected (things would look different had I been living in Auckland).

Film Stats - Directors Gender 2013-2021

Next up is my statistics around the director’s gender. Sadly I still don’t have enough films by transgender or gender non-conforming/non-binary directors to include that as a stat (I’ve seen a handful this year), so we’re going to continue to break it down against fairly essentialist lines. Well, things have dropped off since I started making a proper effort in 2015, and that one year I went all out to even things up (2017) — even if that year mostly meant just not watching films by white guys. These past couple of years my focus on getting through Criterion releases — as well as more generally an attempt to improve on classic cinema (i.e. Hollywood) — has meant things have trended downwards in that regard. 40% of the films I saw in 2021 were directed by women, the lowest by percentage since 2018 (39%).

Film Stats - Directors Ethnicity 2013-2021

My final graph deals with the director’s ethnicity. As with all of these stats, this is all a fairly sledgehammer approach to tracking such things. Films, more than most art forms, are communal undertakings and these stats make no attempt to account for writers, producers, cinematographers, actors or other creatives involved. And my delineation of ‘white’ vs ‘person of colour’ is probably open to further caveats were I to get into it in any detail, so let’s just take this as a rough estimate. Last year I did well (and that may be down to watching more things at home or on streaming vs what gets distributed in cinemas), but the 37% of films I saw directed by people of colour is the lowest since 2016 (26%). I guess my stated intention to watch more Japanese movies didn’t really materialise significantly. Let’s try to do better in 2022.

I have all kinds of ways of doing my best of lists but over at Letterboxd I list all the 2021 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2021 production date), and that list will constantly be changing and being updated as I see more 2021 films in future years, and ranked according to my changing whims and such.

However, the list below is my favourite new films that I saw in 2021. These may be festival films, they may be ones that had an official cinematic release, they may be slightly older films that have just dropped on a streaming service (like Netflix or Mubi). There may even be some that I could have seen in previous years but just didn’t catch up with until now, though I’ve tried as much as possible to ensure that these are just films that were “officially” “released” here in NZ in some form in 2021, but as we all know, the multiplicity of platforms and sites makes that hard to verify.

30 Las mil y una (One in a Thousand, 2020)

Las mil y una (2020)This Argentine drama has an elegance that belies its rough setting. I remember really liking this film, even if it rather fades in my memory now, having been a little while since I saw it. [Online: Mubi]

29 Night Raiders

Night Raiders (2021)A Canadian co-production with Aotearoa New Zealand, this deals with sensitive issues of indigenous rights and a troubled history under colonialism, but viewed through a lense of sci-fi dystopian drama, which has its generic drawbacks but turns out to be pretty captivating, with some excellent central performances. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently released online]

28 Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds)

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has never really missed yet for me. If this is one of his weaker efforts, it’s still better than most other cinema out there, and deals with a young woman trying to get an abortion in the African country. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

27 Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)It is fair to say my expectations for this film were not high. I’m not a huge fan of Chloë Grace Moretz, the film is self-consciously B-movie and shlocky in style (with the budget to match), and it has a wartime setting. But I really enjoyed it! Some films, however low their budget or constrained their settings, just work cinematically and this worked for me. [Cinema]

26 Shiva Baby (2020)

Shiva Baby (2020)I think this came out most other places last year, but it took until the NZIFF for it to screen here, and it’s an emotionally tortuous family film which also manages to be, somehow, comedic. Makes me worry for the young people, though. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

25 Aline (2020)

Aline (2020)I like to put divisive films in lists, or ones that you may not be familiar with, because a lot of my tastes still tend towards the arthouse/familiar/overrated. I imagine most people will hate this biopic-a-clef which fictionalises the life of Celine Dion. I’m certainly not a fan of her music, but she’s a fascinating presence, and this self-indulgent rendering of her life is just weird, not least when the director/writer/star plays her as a child. [Cinema: French Film Festival]

24 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)My list of favourites doesn’t include the Hong Sang-soo film I saw this year at the festival, but it does include this film from a few year’s back (getting a belated online release) made by his former producer. A finely judged and acted South Korean film about middle-aged aimlessness. [Online: Mubi]

23 A Night of Knowing Nothing

A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021)This sort-of-documentary is impossible to sum up. It looks like footage recorded through layers of time and gauze, a hazy recollection of a collective national shame that recalls poetic films by Chris Marker or Ruth Beckermann perhaps, but its appeal is not really something I can capture. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

22 Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka (2021)

My favourite film last year was Garrett Bradley’s Time and this is her portrait of the famous Japanese-American tennis player. She can be a cagy, diffident subject, but the film captures all of this beautifully I think, even if, technically, it’s a three-part episodic TV series. [Online: Netflix]

21 O Marinheiro dos Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains)

O Marinheiro das Montanhas (aka Algérien par accident) (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021)Another documentary I have difficult summing up, another poetic take on family history, nostalgia and encountering the Other via travel. None of us are really doing much travel these past few years, so cinema remains the best way to do this. Here a Brazilian filmmaker goes back to his roots in Algeria. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

20 Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)Bosnia in the 1990s was not a happy place to be, and boy does this film put that across, following the titular character of Aida as she tries to help her nation and its people. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

19 Minari (2020)

Minari (2020)This is a solid film, a good film which presents an interesting perspective on immigration and work. I perhaps have overrated it thanks to its awards attention and also the presence of Steven Yeun, but I can’t deny I liked its simple, gentle rhythms. [Cinema]

18 Pleasure

Pleasure (2021)There’s something here that reminds me of the Danish film Holiday a few years back. It also divided audiences with its story of women precariously positioned within a patriarchal society, but it’s not quite as bleak or as judgemental as you fear it might be given its setting. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

17 The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground (2021)I remain a big fan of Todd Haynes, and of the 1960s New York art band The Velvet Underground.  Haynes picks into each of the band’s members and gives time to the less familiar aspects, like their sonic indebtedness to drone, or the interpersonal dramas. It’s not quite as straightforward as the simple title suggests, and Haynes finds plenty of ways to mess with the structure. [Online: Apple TV+]

16 Memoria

Memoria (2021)Is my high rating for this film a sign of my falling for the cinematic Ponzi scheme of slow cinema? Maybe this film actually is boring and I’m ascribing something more to it, and yet I do really like slow cinema and have loved the works of its Thai director in the past (though I still really resist a few of his films). [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

15 The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter (2021)First off, I actually watched this film in 2022, but before I compiled this list and it was released on 31 December, and what can I say? I was on holiday, not unlike Olivia Colman’s character. I was about to say “title character” but it feels like that could apply to loads of people in this film, most of whom are lost. It’s been a great critical success, and who’s to say if I’m not just succumbing to that, but I think it really works as a drama, a slow burn with a sharp if enigmatic payoff. [Online: Netflix]

14 Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class)

Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr Bachmann and His Class, 2021)I’ve still yet to see Frederick Wiseman’s last film (2020’s Town Hall) but he’s getting very old and in the meantime there’s this German film about a handful of teachers and students (including the one in the title), carefully shot and edited with the space to allow them all to become fully realised. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

13 Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)I’m a sucker for a multi-strand or portmanteau film and while Wes Anderson’s latest didn’t quite make my list, here’s an Iranian film that couldn’t be different in tone, but also has a number of stories linked by a central theme. That theme is the death penalty, so this gets pretty dark. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

12 Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)My music listening during the pandemic — perhaps because of the times, perhaps because I’m getting older — has tended towards the nostalgic so this film is a tonic. It’s about a 1969 series of concerts in Harlem, and while it is contextualised with interviews and narration, it also extensively features a lot of really great music. [Cinema]

11 Dune: Part One

Dune (2021)This, like most big screen blockbusters this year, is very long and undoubtedly ponderous. But in eschewing the comic book mould of fights and explosions, this makes a real impact in a rather diminished mainstream. It’s my favourite of Denis Villeneuve’s films and it lingers in my mind; I want to watch it again. It’s a sonic experience as much as anything else. [Cinema]

10 Gagarine (2020)

Gagarine (2020)Housing estates have never seemed as beautiful and as otherwordly strange as in this French film. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

9 Annette

Annette (2021) 2Even taking into account some of my choices, this may be the most divisive film this past year. Some of it is genuinely infuriating, some of it is boring; Leos Carax is not a director to give audiences what they want. Earlier in the year I caught up with the band Sparks via Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers and this musical is written by them. It is messy and sprawling, but when it works it really does come together, and I’ve had trouble getting its opening number out of my head ever since. [Cinema]

8 Ich war zuhause, aber (I Was at Home, But…, 2019)

Ich war zuhause, aber (2019)I expected to love this film given I’ve loved director Angela Schanelec’s previous films. It picks up on her previous film, the mysterious The Dreamed Path, by extending the strange dreamlike logic which can make it a little difficult to find your bearings within. I should probably watch this again though. [Blu-ray but also released online to Mubi]

7 Titane

Titane (2021)Another strange, divisive film, which like the director’s previous film Raw uses a gory horror film setup to explore the issue of familial love. Not, as they say, for the faint of heart, but also propulsively cinematic. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival, subsequently given a cinema release]

6 Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road)

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)A lot of Iranian cinema since those early days of Dariush Mehrjui and Abbas Kiarostami has been about road trips and families with kids. But there’s a peculiar sensitivity that Iranian directors have brought to this topic, and this one from the son of the great Jafar Panahi also interrogates the matter of borders and young people’s future. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

5 First Cow (2019)

First Cow (2019)My best of list from last year confidently predicted this would get a high ranking when it finally got a release, and then it finally did. It’s slow, sure, and it ends badly for our protagonists (though it’s fair to say that everyone from that period of American history is dead now too), but there’s a real tenderness to it. [Cinema]

4 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy)

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)This isn’t even my favourite Ryusuke Hamaguchi film that was released in 2021 and it deserves plaudits and praise, but it’s been eclipsed (rightly so) by his other film. This is a three-part series of short stories and all of them have their own arc and strongly drawn characters. [Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

3 Petite maman

Petite maman (2021)This is about a young girl dealing her mother’s response to the death of her mother (the young girl’s grandmother). It’s a gentle film, and a concise one. Not much happens plotwise, but it’s deep and intense all the same. [Cinema]

2 The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (2021)Unlike the film above, this one is heavy with symbolism and allegory, but like Petite maman it runs deep with emotion like the creases in the land that dominates its protagonists. My favourite Jane Campion since the last one she made for the big screen. [Cinema]

1 Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car)

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)So far it’s just had a film festival release in NZ, and its three-hour running time probably makes a proper release difficult, but it deserves to be seen. It has a deeply literary bent (the same director’s other film this year was a series of short stories), but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively talky. Sure, it’s about an actor putting on a production of Uncle Vanya, but a lot of the best scenes happen nearly in silence. One of the leads is a young woman who barely has a line of dialogue, and it ends with the silent (if only because signed) rendition of a scene from the play, as emotional a scene as the one that ended my 2019 favourite[Cinema: NZ International Film Festival]

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