Whether you saw them in cinemas or on your laptops, this has been a standout year for film. These are our picks for the 40 best movies of 2021.
(Note: The following picks were limited to films released in Singapore in theaters, streaming, VOD or on Blu-ray within this calendar year.)
Set in 2003, Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot’s film follows three mercenaries extracting a drug lord out of Guinea-Bissau are forced to hide in the mystical region of Saloum, Senegal. Part crime thriller, part horror fantasy and part spaghetti Western – Saloum is a genre-hopping tale made with considerable style and imagination. Packing a huge amount of action and information into just 80 minutes, this compact film keeps its story and character pistons firing all through the mayhem. Saloum never pauses long enough for you to catch your breath, delivering a kinetic West African gem.
Raw and intimate, this documentary captures the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan. Set during the city’s initial lockdown, Hao Wu and Weixi Chen’s journalistic film remarkably captures all the panic and pragmatism greeting a disaster before its entire global impact had been gauged. 76 Days is unvarnished and experiential, plunging viewers in the midst of the chaos and confusion as medical professionals and deal with grief, fatigue and terrified patients amidst a relentless onslaught of emergencies.
Based on a stranger-than-fiction viral Twitter thread, Zola follows a Detroit waitress who strikes up a new friendship with a customer who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale. Zola is a freewheeling joyride through the seamy side of stripping that balances the thrill of voyeurism with the dangerous reality of social media.
Elizabeth Lo’s sharp-eyed study of Istanbul strays is both the ultimate love letter to dogs and a multifaceted moral inquiry into humanity. This near-wordless documentary follows the lives of three different dogs – fiercely independent Zeytin, friendly and nurturing Nazar, and shy puppy Karta. The strays’ disparate lives intersect when they each form intimate bonds with a group of young Syrian refugees with whom they share the streets. Through it all, Stray is an enchanting and artful film that shines a spotlight on what it means to be an outcast in a teeming metropolis.
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, a gambler and former serviceman who sets out to reform a young man named Cirk who seeks revenge on a mutual enemy from their past. Gaining backing from a mysterious financier, Tell takes Cirk with him on the road, going from casino to casino until the unlikely trio set their sights on winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. But keeping Cirk on the straight-and-narrow proves impossible. Paul Schrader’s latest film is a spellbinding meditation on sin and salvation as seen through the eyes of a gambler who counts cards to both escape and confront his torturous past.
Promising Young Woman is a provocative, venomous and wildly thrilling revenge story taking an unflinching look at rape culture. In what is possibly the strongest performance of her career, Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, an avenging angel who goes to local clubs pretending to be blackout drunk, only to brutally turn the tables on any would-be sexual assaulters. She’s working out a vendetta against a patriarchal society that has broken her, but Promising Young Woman deftly toys with our sympathies by pushing Cassie’s tactics into uncomfortably nasty territory.
Based on the best-selling book by Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump is an immersive cinematic exploration of neurodiversity through the experiences of five remarkable non-speaking autistic teens from around the world. This inventive and sensuous documentary invites viewers into the psychological isolation and overwhelming sensory awareness felt by people at various points on the spectrum. Lyrical and beautiful, the experimental film nimbly translates the ASD perspective using visual and sonic language – evoking autism through poetic, impressionistic detail.
It girls, grieving high-schoolers and cyber dragons collide in Mamoru Hosoda’s anime skew on Beauty and the Beast. The story follows Suzu, a 17-year-old living in a rural village. For years, she has been unable to process the death of her mother and growing distant from her well-meaning father. One day, she enters “U,” a virtual world where she becomes a famous singer called Belle. She soon meets with a mysterious dragon and embarks on a journey of adventures, challenges and love, in their quest of becoming who they truly are. This beautifully observed, dazzlingly animated sci-fi fairy tale about our online-offline double lives is Hosoda’s finest film since 2012’s Wolf Children.
Harry Macqueen’s latest film is an exquisite and beautifully understated portrait of love and mortality that tells the deeply human story of terminal decline from a heartbreaking perspective. Set in the rustic beauty of the English countryside, the film stars Stanley Tucci as Tusker and Colin Firth as Sam – a gay couple who take a road trip in their old camper van to visit friends, family and places from their past after Tusker is diagnosed with dementia. Led by impeccable performances, this modest and moving drama of devotion and impending loss is a touching tale.
Based on the one-act Tony Award-winning play, The Humans focuses on three generations of a family who gather at an apartment in lower Manhattan to celebrate Thanksgiving. Featuring a sublime ensemble, Stephen Karam’s film is a remarkably insightful and powerful portrait of the human condition that’s built upon a pervasive atmosphere of existential dread. Food is eaten, secrets are revealed, menacing eerie noises are heard and familial tensions rise to the surface. But despite its seeming lack of overt drama, The Humans’ observance of an average family’s psychological and emotional dynamics is the most terrifying cinematic experience of 2021.
This animated comedy about an ordinary family trying to survive a robot uprising is a giddily thrilling all-ages adventure filled with a barrage of clever jokes that come at you a mile a minute. Directed by Mike Rianda and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Mitchells vs. The Machines lives up to the latter duo’s standards in Into The Spiderverse and LEGO Batman. Irreverent humour, genuine emotion and an inventive visual style bolster this uproarious and immensely fun film that focuses on a father-daughter relationship amidst a madcap sci-fi story.
Based on Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel and directed by Ramin Bahrani, The White Tiger is a darkly satirical and energetic thriller about servitude and class division in modern India. The film follows a poor villager who uses his cunning to climb the social ladder, even as he is caught between his humble roots and his employer’s blinding wealth. Led by great performances from Priyanka Chopra and Adarsh Gourav, The White Tiger observes corruption on all levels with its cynical rags-to-riches tale of innocence lost and shameful self-betterment.
Terrorizers follows various disillusioned youths in Taipei, whose stories intertwine via a violent slashing incident. Director Wi Ding Ho does a great job of crafting a queasily dark drama that unravels the underlying causes of crime – ranging from societal malaise and toxic online activity to bullying and parental neglect. Terrorizers is a powerful commentary on the proliferation of violence and misogyny through entertainment, but it’s also a humanist film about how people choose different ways to seek out love, cope with emotional trauma, and deal with rejection.
David Lowery’s visionary reimagining of this Arthurian legend is spellbinding, seductive and sumptuous. Based on the epic 14th century Welsh poem, the story follows Sir Gawain, an untested and insecure knight of the Round Table who recklessly confronts The Green Knight. Now Gawain must embark upon a journey to the Green Chapel to face the deadly consequences – contending with ghosts, giants, thieves and schemers along the way. Led by career-best work from Dev Patel and the breathtaking artistic sensibilities of director David Lowery, this film eschews typical chivalric adventure in favour of a hypnotically mournful and magic realist rumination on masculinity, temptation, heroism, and religion. Read our full review.
Saint Maud is the first great horror of 2021. Rose Clarke’s directorial debut follows Maud, a newly devout hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving her dying patient’s soul – but sinister forces, and her own sinful past, threaten to put an end to her holy calling. Walking the fine line between religious fervor and madness, Saint Maud is a dread-laden and unsettling film that folds psychological terror, spiritual warfare and sexual repression into a character study of faith vs mental illness. Artful filmmaking and dynamic performances will keep viewers gripped.
A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped. It’s a bizarre premise that’s fit only for Nicolas Cage, who delivers an affectingly raw performance that subverts all expectations. This isn’t a riff on John Wick and his dog, director Michael Sarnoski instead crafts a character study about the increasingly fragile connections we make as human beings and the isolationist tendencies that can infect our lives after experiencing harrowing grief. A rustic, heartbreaking, funny and poetic film.
Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw is a flashy, traumatic body horror explosion that is just as gnarly as her cannibalistic first film. Titane flows between two characters, Alexia and Vincent, two dreadful, lonely souls who have experienced tragedies in different ways. Alexia is a narcissistic serial killer who slashes anyone with her hair needle, whereas Vincent is a firefighter and father who lost his son. They need each other to live and to die, their needs carnal and vicious. Bathed in macabre and uncomfortable imagery, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival is extreme – violent, erotic and pitiless. But it’s also triumphantly tender and sweet.
This excellent Iranian film follows Rahim, a man in prison because of a debt he was unable to repay. During a two-day leave, he tries to convince his creditor to withdraw his complaint against the payment of part of the sum – but things don’t go as planned. Asghar Farhadi’s latest is a superb and soulful morality play that blurs the line of innocence and guilt in a fraught drama about the true weight of a good deed. A Hero ultimately delivers a nuanced examination of justice – and the many shades of injustice that surround it.
The Rescue is a non-fiction film that focuses on the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. Free Solo filmmakers Elizabeth Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin shoot this documentary like a thriller, combining both actual footage shot during the rescue with recreations featuring the actual divers, blending the footage together seamlessly to create a wholly cinematic experience. The Rescue is a breathtaking and nail-biting chronicle of a true impossible mission that united the world.
On one incredible night in 1964, four icons of sports, music, and activism gathered to celebrate one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. When underdog Cassius Clay (soon to be called Muhammad Ali) defeats heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Clay memorialized the event with three of his friends – Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. Adapted from Kemp Powers’ play, Regina King’s formidable directorial debut is a vivid, reflective chamber piece that’s powered by amazing performances and filled with powerful meditations of race, responsibility and revolution.
Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first English-language feature is as entrancing and wonderfully perplexing as any of his previous pictures. The film follows a Scottish woman named Jessica who has been unable to sleep after hearing a loud ‘bang’ at daybreak. Soon, she begins experiencing a mysterious sensory syndrome while traversing the jungles of Colombia. Beautiful and mesmeric, Memoria weaves a liminal soundspace through its languid long takes and tranquil natural settings. This is a deeply contemplative and meditative film of connection and spiritual isolation.
This highly unconventional, elliptical and experimental biopic of Princess Diana is very different from The Crown season four. Spencer reins in its tight focus to a three-day Christmas weekend at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham estate in the early ‘90s, when the sham of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles had become unendurable. Billed as “a fable from a true tragedy,” this is a speculative character study, featuring an inspired performance from Kristen Stewart. Director Pablo Larraín crafts an intimate historical fantasia, a claustrophobic psychological thriller about a woman struggling to remain sane within a rigid power structure she can’t escape.
Led by an intoxicating, powerhouse performance from Mads Mikkelsen – Danish film Another Round is a midlife-crisis movie that’s filled with ebullience, sorrow, humor and love. Thomas Vinterberg’s story follows four high school teachers who test out a wild theory by psychologist Finn Skårderund, who wrote that humans should maintain an alcohol level of 0.5%. Thus, they get drunk every day to see how it affects their social and professional lives. This is a cathartic exploration of disaffection, friendship and how merriment and melancholy can go hand in hand.
Filmed in the starkly beautiful open spaces of rural Utah, The Killing of Two Lovers follows David, a man desperately trying to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife, Nikki. Although they both agree to see other people, David struggles to grapple with his wife’s new relationship. Driven by a viscerally raw performance from Clayne Crawford, director Robert Machoian crafts a hauntingly personal portrait of masculinity, adulthood and a collapsing marriage. Small and sparse in scale yet painful in its emotional potency, this film is an intensely personal domestic drama.
Shaka King’s historical film is a powerhouse political thriller featuring incredible performances from Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal, a career thief turned FBI informant who infiltrated BPP’s inner circle. This is a scalding account of oppression and revolution, coercion and betrayal – never once holding back on it’s incendiary, electrifying depiction of Hampton, alongside O’Neal’s vivid inner turmoil. A riveting tale of moral conflict and an urgent indictment of America’s systemic history of racism.
Experiential cinema in its purest form, Gunda chronicles the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens, and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy. Using stark, transcendent black and white cinematography and the farm’s ambient soundtrack, director Victor Kossakowsky invites the audience to slow down and experience life as his subjects do, taking in their world with a magical patience and an otherworldly perspective. Gunda asks us to meditate on the mystery of animal consciousness, and reckon with the role humanity plays in it. A thoroughly pictorial experience.
A quietly tender and warmly graceful story about roots, Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves to a tiny Arkansas farm in search of the American Dream. Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged Ozarks, the family home is upended with the arrival of their foul-mouthed, fiercely loving grandmother (a spiky performance by Youn Yuh-jung). Backed by terrific acting, thoughtful writing and striking rural backdrops – Lee Isaac Chung’s minor-key, gentle films unfolds like a series of sparkling recollections that feel universal in their specificity.
Introducing, Selma Blair is a deeply intimate and raw portrait of the actress after she is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and makes a valiant, risky effort to try to slow the progression of her disease. This is a remarkably moving portrait of a woman forced to reevaluate her relationships and her sense of self in the face of a chronic illness that leaves her sometimes unable to speak or control her movements. Director Rachel Fleit does an exceptional job at capturing everything with a compassionate lens, offering an unvarnished look at Selma Blair’s experiences in a way that will educate many on the effects of MS.
Directed by Jayro Bustamante, La Llorona blends together the terror of both myth and reality in a modern retelling of the genocide against the Mayan community in Guatemala. The film centers around retired general Enrique who faces trial for massacres decades ago. As a horde of angry protestors threatens to invade his opulent home, the women of the house weigh their responsibility to shield the senile old man against the ugly truths behind being publicly revealed and the frightening sense that a wrathful supernatural entity is targeting them for his atrocities.
Jane Campion returns with this masterfully tense, psychologically complex and beautifully poetic Western family drama. Set on a booming Montana ranch in 1925, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as coarse and rugged rancher Phil Burbank. When his ruminative brother George brings home a new wife and her son, Phil revels in tormenting and mocking them. Eventually though, Phil appears to take the boy under his wing. Is this gesture a softening of Phil’s heart, or a cruel ploy? This is an exquisitely crafted film with unhurried rhythms that continually shift as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, jealousy and resentment surface.
Blurring traditional boundaries of documentary with mixed graphic design – Flee follows the true story of Amin Nawabi, a man grappling with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Recounted through animation to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Amin tells the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan to his new home of Denmark for the first time. Flee is a remarkably humanizing and complex film, crafting a probing and powerful memoir that explores the lingering psychic damage of war.
Olivia Colman turns in a phenomenal performance as Leda Caruso, a woman who finds herself becoming obsessed with another woman and her daughter while on summer holiday, prompting memories of her own early motherhood to come back and unravel her. Based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter is a haunting psychological drama about sexuality, female relationships, motherhood and women’s struggle to carve a professional space outside it. In her directorial debut, Maggie Gyllenhal crafts an unflinching character study built on self-ascribed transgression and buried shame that will leave viewers shaken.
In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival. Despite being filmed, the footage of this historic event sat in a basement for 50 years, until Questlove uncovered it to craft his feature documentary debut. Headlined by Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Nina Simone, and a host of acclaimed Black artists at the time – Summer of Soul is a concert film that infuses politics, music, fashion, history and religion. Besides the astonishing performances, this is a deep expedition into the cultural landscape in which the Harlem Cultural Festival occurred.
Alexander Nanau’s riveting portrait of political corruption is one of the best journalism documentaries you’ll ever see. Following the aftermath of the 2015 fire that killed 64 people at a Bucharest nightclub, the mysterious death of a pharmaceutical CEO, and the resignation of a health minister (seemingly unrelated events), an intrepid team of reporters digs to expose an massive scandal and cover-up. Collective plays like a propulsive, real-time investigative thriller, exploring the fallout of a tragedy and the courage of those tirelessly working to uncover the truth.
The feature directorial debut of writer/director Emma Seligman is an absurdly funny comedy about a snarky bisexual named Danielle who runs into her sugar daddy at a Jewish funeral attended by her family and ex-girlfriend. Shiva Baby is a witty and pithy affair, making good use of its claustrophobic single setting for highly uncomfortable humour and well choreographed suspense. Seligman tightly orchestrates this sarcastic and lively film with loving cultural specificity and nuance, working her satirical muscles to elevate every escalating complication.
A girl finds out that her best friend is dating her ex, which makes her wonder if she’s still in love with him. A directionless woman in her 30s half-heartedly tries to seduce her old college professor, at the request of her young lover. A middle-aged woman attends her high school reunion in the hopes of rekindling an old flame, but finds an unexpected connection instead. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s latest effort is a charmingly bittersweet anthology film, tying together a triptych of beautifully humane, quietly poetic and wildly unpredictable stories about love and coincidence.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is the harrowing true story of a United Nations translator frantically trying to save her family during the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide. It is far and away one of the the best films of 2021, but it’s not an easy watch. This is an absolutely devastating first-person retelling of unimaginable atrocity, that (truthfully) depicts the indifference, incompetence and impotence of the U.N. as culpable in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic frames Quo Vadis, Aida? like an intense thriller that unpacks the human cost of horrifying cruelty and tragedy.
Rocks is a gritty yet giddy coming-of-age story that follows Nigerian-British teen Shola Omotoso. One day she’s living a normal life, hanging out with friends in secondary school. And the next, she’s forced to become the sole breadwinner and caretaker of her younger brother after her mother abandons them. Faultlessly authentic and exuberantly naturalistic (thanks to improvised dialogue from its amazing cast of non-professional actors), Rocks is both a radiant celebration of youth and friendship, as well as a painful drama about what happens when deprivation forces kids to grow up before they’re ready.
Yusuke Kafuku, a stage actor and director is happily married to Oto, a screenwriter. However, Oto suddenly dies after leaving behind a secret. Two years later, Kafuku, still unable to fully cope with the loss of his wife, receives an offer to direct a play at a theatre festival and drives to Hiroshima with his car. There, he meets Misaki, a reticent woman assigned to become his chauffeur, As they spend time together, Kafuku confronts the mystery of his wife that quietly haunts him. Drive My Car is a graceful, aching film that stretches into an enchanting, novelistic journey about mourning, shared solitude, the nature of acting and catharsis through art.
Led by astounding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, Florian Zeller’s screen adaptation of his own play is a quietly gripping masterpiece about the wages of aging. Hopkins plays Anthony, an 80-year-old man who defiantly lives alone, rejecting the carers that his daughter Anne (Colman) introduces. But as Anthony loses his grip on his mind, becoming lost in the ebb and flow of his memory and identity, the full tragedy of his mental deterioration becomes clear. This bracing, slippery chamber drama of senility is a tough but essential watch.