Marina Ashioti, Charles Bramesco, David Jenkins, Hannah Strong, Adam Woodward


Laurène Boglio

The 30 best films of 2021

Our annual countdown of the year’s finest silver screen offerings. How many have you seen?

Another difficult year draws to a close – but at least we’ve had plenty of great movies to see us through these past 12 months. Here are 30 of our favourites, featuring the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, Paul Schrader, Jane Campion, Céline Sciamma and more. As always, we’ve only included titles released in the UK and US between January 2021 and January 2022. Let us know your personal favourites by tweeting us @LWLies.

30. Azor

Private banking mechanisms in the 1970s is the backdrop to this ultra-subtle drama in which a Swiss banker heads to Latin America in search of his missing – and possibly corrupt – partner. Andreas Fontana’s debut feature remains cool under pressure while its habitually cautious lead character delves deeper down a rabbit hole that may actually have no end. David Jenkins

Read the LWLies review

29. Shiva Baby

This Big Fat Jewish Funeral is just too good to be Emma Seligman’s debut feature. Rachel Sennott commands every frame as Danielle, a Jewish bisexual college student who awkwardly navigates a family friend’s shiva with her overbearing parents. When she unexpectedly runs into her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend amongst forced pleasantries, what ensues is an anxiety-laced claustrophobic nightmare. It’s an intoxicating indie gem bursting at the seams with razor-sharp pacing, edge-of-your-seat suspense and spot-on comedic timing. Marina Ashioti

Read the LWLies review

28. The Velvet Underground

Q: When is a music documentary more than a music documentary? A: When it’s the inside story of arguably the most influential avant-garde art scene of the 20th century. In the reliable hands of director Todd Haynes, the titular rock group’s legacy is laid bare along with that of many of their era-defining contemporaries, including Jonas Mekas, Mary Woronov and Andy Warhol. Insightful, richly rewarding, and a fine companion piece to Haynes’ early films Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. Adam Woodward

Read the LWLies review

27. The Last Duel

While the premise of Ridley Scott’s medieval drama gave some cause for concern, the result was something quite different. Jodie Comer is the best she’s ever been as Marguerite de Carrouges, a naive noblewoman who undergoes a traumatic assault at the hands of her husband’s rival, Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver). The Rashomon-style three-act structure shows this from three separate points of view, but Scott makes it clear that Marguerite’s version is the truth, and her struggle to find justice is as harrowing as it is for contemporary women. Bonus: Ben Affleck’s unhinged but delightful performance as local overlord, Count Pierre d’Alençon. Hannah Strong

Read the LWLies review

26. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Joel Coen going solo to stage one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most-performed plays doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense on paper – until you clock the star names sitting atop the bill. Denzel Washington – a little bulkier than usual; beard flecked with white – is imperious as the Thane of Cawdor, while Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth for the ages. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a bold reimagining that marks an exciting new chapter for this great American filmmaker. The king is dead. Long live the king. AW

In UK cinemas 26 December, 2021

25. Pig

Never count Nicolas Cage out. While he’s become somewhat infamous for his bouts of on-screen ‘Cage Rage’ in recent years, occasionally he turns in a performance as good as any he gave during his ’90s heyday; Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is testament to that. An outstanding debut about a truffle hunter living in the Oregon wilderness whose beloved pig is abducted, the film defies all expectations to become a lyrical, quietly devastating story of loss and redemption. HS

Read the LWLies review

24. Sound of Metal

As someone who suffers from mild tinnitus from years of drumming in bands and listening to live music without ample ear protection, it’s safe to say this understated drama from first-time director Darius Marder, about a stickman who temporarily loses his hearing, struck a chord. Riz Ahmed is exceptional as Ruben, a young man battling addiction alongside his sudden deafness, and veteran supporting actor Paul Raci is equally compelling as the alcohol counsellor who uses ASL to teach Ruben the deeper meaning of human communication. AW

Read the LWLies review

23. It Must Be Heaven

Having grown weary of the Israeli occupation, director Elia Suleiman’s alter ego ES leaves his home in Palestine and sets out on a wryly humorous world tour in search of funding for his next film. Tatiesque sight gags pair marvellously with his broad yet pointed lampooning of national cultures, such as an American grocery store where soccer moms tote AK-47s. Casually scathing and unfailingly funny (of the ha-ha variety!), it’s also a crucial political document. Charles Bramesco

Read the LWLies review

22. Limbo

Many films have attempted to capture the refugee experience, but none as inventively – or humorously – as Ben Sharrock’s debut feature Limbo. Per the title, it concerns a young Syrian musician named Omar (Amir El-Masry) who winds up on a remote Scottish island after seeking asylum. As Omar awaits his fate, Sharrock takes several gentle but precise digs at British bureaucracy and the cultural xenophobia that lies at the root of our national identity. Aki Kaurismäki eat your heart out. AW

Read the LWLies review

21. The Green Knight

A Christmas Eve encounter with a mysterious tree-man sends Dev Patel’s aimless young knight on the quest of a lifetime in David Lowery’s stunning fantasy drama. The director has proven a rare ability to turn his hand to a variety of genres, but the ambitious scale of The Green Knight solidifies it as one of Lowery’s best efforts to date. Add in some lush scenery, a compelling turn from Patel, and musings on what makes a man, and you’ve got a mythical adventure for the ages. HS

Read the LWLies review

20. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

A Bucharest schoolteacher’s sex tape leak ignites a powder keg of controversy in Radu Jude’s splendidly obscene satire of a Romania gripped by reactionaries. With stoic hilarity, her defiance reaffirms that in a society of repression, fucking is the last thing that poses a real threat to the status quo. (It should perhaps be mentioned that the film opens with a lengthy, enthusiastic prologue of unsimulated intercourse.) CB

Read the LWLies review

19. ear for eye

Electrifying from its opening frame to its last, debbie tucker green’s second feature as director channels her theatrical roots more openly while fully embracing the possibilities of the camera. Tackling racism and oppression in all its guises, its piece de resistance is a miniature two-hander at the mid-point in which semantic power plays are levelled against an inquisitive student by her truth-twisting professor. DJ

Read the LWLies review

18. Rose Plays Julie

The vital Irish filmmaking duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor return with this icy, morally duplicitous thriller in which a young orphaned woman attempts to attain clarity about her parentage, and ends up discovering some exceptionally shady shit. This is, in many ways, a rape-revenge movie turned inside-out and back-to-front, with its carefully calibrated bursts of violence and a shock ending that sticks in the craw. DJ

Read the LWLies review

17. Censor

Taking a sharp knife to the throat of Thatcherism and the social conservatism that prevailed in Britain during the 1980s, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor successfully skewers the fusty practice of film censorship while simultaneously raising the pulse with its postmodern tale of emotional trauma and casual workplace sexism. One of this year’s outstanding debut features, anchored by a stunning central performance by rising star Niamh Algar. Expect big things from both in the near future. AW

Read the LWLies review

16. C’mon C’mon

When it comes to emotional portraits of families undergoing periods of turbulence, nobody does it better than Mike Mills. His fourth feature, shot in black-and-white, is dedicated to his own child, and focuses on the relationship that develops between Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) when the pair are unexpectedly brought together due to a family crisis. While Phoenix delivers one of his best performances in years, it’s 11-year-old Norman who steals the show, as the wise-beyond-his-years kid who gives his uncle pause for thought. HS

Read the LWLies review

15. The Power of the Dog

Shock horror! Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a good performance in a movie. Well, a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day… Probably helped that Jane Campion was behind the tiller for this moody, painstakingly wrought psychological western adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Come for the precision-tooled takedown of male egos and entitlement, stay for some of the most gorgeous and atmospheric cinematography this year. MA

Read the LWLies review

14. The Lost Daughter

The smart money says Olivia Colman is set for another full sweep this awards season – but it’s Jessie Buckley who quietly steals the show in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first stint in the director’s chair. Adaptation from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter sees Buckley/Colman play a woman reckoning with the consequences of her decisions; the former in flashback and the latter in the present day while on holiday in Europe. This beautifully composed character study is proof that life is no beach – especially when you’re a young mother. AW

Read the LWLies review

13. Days

The year’s most sensual film by a country mile, Tsai Ming-liang’s near-wordless study of a man (Lee Kang-sheng) who has a bit of a stiff neck, so goes to seek a male masseuse and ends up in an erotic clinch. This is another of the director’s slow cinema spectacles, where the duration of the shots combined with the immersiveness of the performances coalesce into something sublime and moving. DJ

Read our first-look review

12. Petite Maman

For many filmmakers, this feels like it could’ve been a dashed-off quickie between “proper” projects – a barely-70 minute mood piece in which a pre-teen girl goes through a time warp and interacts with her mother when she was that age. But not for Céline Sciamma, as this is one of her finest films to date, a whispered meditation on nostalgia, childhood and a fear of growing old. Some referred to it as a “live-action My Neighbour Totoro”, and they’re not far off to be honest. MA

Read the LWLies review

11. Memoria

We may not really understand what it was like to experience the “trip” of 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968, but Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has upped sticks to Columbia with Tilda Swinton in tow, and his new film Memoria attempts to replicate that feeling of pure spiritual transcendence. Have a quadruple espresso before you go to see it, but definitely go and see it in the cinema. DJ

In UK cinemas 14 January, 2022

10. Dune

Denis Villeneuve won’t settle for anything less than the mantle of the next great adventure franchise in his gargantuan adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novels. Chosen one Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet in irrefutable proof that he’s one of the last true movie stars, must bring peace to a galaxy at war while avoiding the giant sand worms that want to gobble him up – a mission whisking him through one marvel of production design after the next. DJ

Read the LWLies review

9. Annette

Returning to the big screen in predictably singular style, Leos Carax gifted us a musical extravaganza care of his collaboration with musical duo Sparks. Adam Driver delivers a performance for the ages as bad boy comedian Henry McHenry, who must raise his gifted daughter Annette while hiding a deep, dark secret. Of course it’s a divisive film (we wouldn’t expect anything less from Carax and Sparks) but undeniably one of the most inventive and absurd things you’re likely to see this year. HS

Read the LWLies review

8. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

The sheer power that radiates from the screen while watching Questlove’s Summer of Soul is enough to power an outdoor music festival in Harlem. This electrifying concert movie pieces together from footage of 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which was – criminally – rejected by all outlets at the time, and contains bone-rattling sets from Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, The Staples Singers and – as the grand finale – Nina Simone, who sasses the whole park into paroxysms of joy.  DJ

Read the LWLies review

7. Minari

This elegiac deconstruction of the modern family also draws in piercing insights on the realities of living and working as a Korean expat in America. Steven Yeun excels as the patriarch who just wants to start a successful farm in Kansas, and while the elements are often against him, his soulful drive towards happiness helps to pull him and the fam through. Kid performance of the year. DJ

Read the LWLies review

6. The Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg turns inward twice over in this sequel to her autobiographical 2019 film, as her on-screen avatar sets out to make what essentially amounts to the first Souvenir. But Hogg tones down the metafictional jiggery-pokery to focus on the maturation of a budding woman and artist, sampling sexual partners and figuring out how to run a set with the same waning uncertainty. With a stunner of a final shot, it’s the ideal amendment to the millennium’s greatest movie franchise. CB

In UK cinemas 21 January, 2022

5. The Card Counter

Continuing his return to form which started with First Reformed, Paul Schrader teams up with Oscar Isaac for this haunting portrait of an ex-soldier who leaves prison and turns to gambling only to discover he can’t quite shake his dark past. It’s an austere, meticulous rendering of a very bad man – something Schrader specialises in – with one of Isaac’s finest acting turns to date, ruminating on notions of guilt, revenge, and whether or not there’s any such thing as absolution. HS

Read the LWLies review

4. Parallel Mothers

Pedro Almodóvar revisits one of his career’s foundational themes with a recently developed air of the elegiac in this paean to motherhood, in all its existential profundity. Penélope Cruz gives one of the year’s finest performances as a woman ready to raise a child on her own, only to find the pregnant teen she met in the hospital drifting back into her life. Their poetic, soul-deep connection teases out fresh insights on the insecurities and neuroses inherent to moulding another human being. CB

In UK cinemas 28 January, 2022

3. Drive My Car

A thrilling three-hour journey into the mind of a depressive theatre director whose wife suddenly dies before she can reveal a secret about her life. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name, this is the film that confirms writer/director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi is the world-class talent we all thought he was when seeing 2015’s epic Happy Hour. DJ

Read the LWLies review

2. Licorice Pizza

Two young not-quite-lovers – he’s a 15-year-old actor/entrepreneur, she’s in her mid-twenties and not sure what to do – come of age separately and together in ’70s SoCal. Paul Thomas Anderson charts their unusual yet intimate bond through a series of comic episodes as astute about these kids’ dumb, beautiful behaviour as their transformative time and place, a moment of oil shortages, strip-mall sushi, and legalised pinball. CB

In UK cinemas 7 January, 2022

1. Titane

Julia Ducournau’s second feature sees a young sociopath with interesting erotic tendencies go on the lam, where she forms a curious bond with a grieving firefighter – but Titane is so much more than its logline. An audacious story of love, loss and the desire to be accepted by another human being, Ducournau takes the absurd and makes it tender, creating an unconventional family out of the gore and gasoline that made headlines when she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. HS

In UK cinemas 31 December, 2021

Published 20 Dec 2021

Tags: Annette Azor Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn Censor C’mon C’mon Days Drive My Car Dune ear for eye It Must Be Heaven Licorice Pizza Limbo Memoria Minari Parallel Mothers Pig Rose Plays Julie Shiva Baby Sound of Metal Summer of Soul The Card Counter The Green Knight The Last Duel The Lost Daughter The Power of the Dog The Souvenir Part II The Tragedy of Macbeth The Velvet Underground Titane

Suggested For You

The 25 Best TV Shows of 2021

By Emma Fraser

From Squid Game to Succession, we count down our favourite small screen offerings from a bumper year.

The 30 best films of 2020

By Little White Lies

Our favourite new releases from this year, featuring Spike Lee, Chloé Zhao, Josephine Decker and more.

The 10 best film soundtracks of 2021

By Thomas Hobbs

From Mica Levi’s crashing, trap-infused Zola score to Emile Mosseri’s delicate piano work on Minari.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.