The best movies of 2021 … that you didn’t see

Guardian writers pick their favourite hidden gems from the year including a jumpy supernatural thriller and a tender queer romance

Wild Indian

Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) may smoke cigarettes and wear a tough-guy leather jacket, but his face betrays the soft, doughy features of a pre-teen boy. Alternately neglected and beaten by his father, he’s an emotionally inarticulate knot of coiled rage. Cruelty is learned behaviour. The idea, that those who experience trauma are destined to repeat the cycle, is at the centre of the sinewy debut feature from Indigenous American writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. In the film, Makwa, a young Ojibwe boy living on a reservation in Wisconsin, commits a violent crime and escapes the consequences. When we revisit him as an adult, this time portrayed with icy detachment by a transfixing Michael Greyeyes, he’s reinvented himself. Living in Los Angeles, with an office job and a blond wife, he’s attempted to scrub himself of the culture he grew up around. But generational trauma leaves a stain. Simran Hans

The Disciple

Despite significant critical praise during the 2020 festival circuit and executive producer Alfonso Cuarón’s stamp, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple was just another drop in Netflix’s content tsunami this year, and failed to get the attention it deserved. There’s some art-reflecting-life here, as it depicts the struggle between art and commerce, and how absolute dedication to one’s craft can lead to a life of sacrifice and frustration. Though this may sound like a downer, the journey is absolutely mesmerizing. Much of that is thanks to the specific art our young lead (Aditya Modak) is trying to master: a very demanding form of Hindustani classical music. The best scenes are of Modak’s frequent hazy nighttime motorcycle rides through Mumbai, listening to tapes of an ascetic master under tanpura drones. The Disciple ultimately confronts movie cliches of hard work and triumph versus the victory of self-preservation, with an unpredictable, volcanic ending. Jordan Hoffman

Anne at 13,000 Feet

Deragh Campbell is a magnetic force playing a character who tends to push people in the other direction. Her Anne is a woman in crisis in Canadian film-maker Kazik Radwanski’s humble but exhilarating portrait, which has already drawn deserved comparisons to Cassavetes and the Dardennes’ for its unadorned, realist and undeniably affectionate approach to the kind of person who is often intentionally ignored. In loose and humble vignettes, Anne tries keeping turbulent emotions in check while holding a job at a daycare, entertaining a new boyfriend and being present for her friend’s wedding. She’s also training for a skydiving excursion that delivers a not-so-subtle but still moving metaphor for the character’s state of mind. She’s flapping through life like a bird spiralling out, propelled in circles by the competing urges to hide in a corner and finally be seen. Meanwhile, Radwanski keeps the camera at a suffocating distance from his brilliant collaborator’s face, as if to make it impossible for us to look away. Radheyan Simonpillai


Few films have captured the shifting tides of sexual abuse’s aftermath as thoroughly, and singed me as deeply, as Groomed. The Discovery+ documentary proceeds in two registers: certainty, in accounting the methodical process of grooming, and eddying ambiguity, in film-maker Gwen van de Pas’s understanding of her memories as a 12-year-old in a sexual relationship with her 20-something swim coach. In one of the most searing scenes I have ever witnessed, Van de Pas returns to her childhood bedroom in Holland in search of his letters to her. The stew of emotions – fear that the contents will confuse her, desperation for evidence – is palpable and devastating. Even more so are the real-time rationalizations of her groomed psyche when she, to her adult horror, finds the graphically sexual letters. Not every part of Groomed works, but the film’s revelatory vulnerability illustrates how self-undermining confusion is the long and deliberate tail of abuse, not a personal failure to see clearly or a repudiation of what happened. Adrian Horton

Riders of Justice

There was only room for one great, Mads Mikkelsen-led, Danish movie this year: the Oscar-winning Another Round. Which is a shame, because there were two of them. Riders of Justice could easily be mistaken for a Taken-style revenge thriller at first glance; in fact it’s a deconstruction of the whole genre – a dazzlingly smart mix of screwball comedy, therapeutic drama, metaphysical enquiry and, yes, violent action. Mikkelsen plays a grizzled Afghanistan vet whose wife is killed in a train crash, leaving him to raise their teenage daughter (badly, he’s an emotional black hole). Things become interesting when he meets a trio of dysfunctional tech geeks (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro), who believe the crash was not an accident. That’s just the set-up. Wayward, unpredictable and often hilarious, it’s one of those stories that seems to be all over the place but somehow comes together beautifully – like a vintage Coen brothers caper. Oh, and it’s a Christmas movie. Steve Rose

The World to Come

Mona Fastvold came to feature directing via acting and screenwriting (with her partner Brady Corbet), before making her feature debut The Sleepwalker. Her second feature, the gorgeously literary romance The World to Come, displays her confident, compelling style. The film is based on a Jim Shepard short story, and the scene is set in the ravishing landscapes and inhospitable climate of mid-19th-century rural New York. Farmer’s wife, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and her new neighbour Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) who become instant friends, and then more cautiously lovers. The doomed-love scenario may feel a little familiar, but there’s a freshness about this film, which feels alive to the “astonishment and joy” that the romantic leads discover so suddenly. Waterston and Kirby are excellent at skirting the maudlin to something more meaningful in this clandestine affair. Credit too, should go to Daniel Blumberg’s arresting score and the invigorating imagery created by Andre Chemetoff’s photography. Pamela Hutchinson

The Witches of the Orient

A table of kindly Japanese grandmothers exchanging pleasantries over lunch in the present turns out to have been preternaturally talented athletes who galvanized a country half a century earlier. In the 1950s and 60s a team of textile factory workers strung together a stunning 258-game winning streak – including a world championship and Olympic gold – while sparking a craze in volleyball manga and anime in Japan and beyond.

Julien Faraut’s documentary The Witches of the Orient conjures an intoxicating brew of archival sports footage and that vintage anime, with electronic music underscoring the repetitive, mesmerizing quality of both factory work and relentless drills by a near-fanatical coach. The film culminates with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a display of reemergence for Japan after the horrors of war and the first to include volleyball. It’s a marvelous, inspirational tale of resilience, hard work and determination, told by the athletes themselves with an assist from Faraut’s deft editing, anime-inspired touches and fantastic music choices. Lisa Wong Macabasco

The Last Duel

In a year of hand-wringing “but what does this mean for Hollywood?” flops, not many films crashed, burned and then totally disappeared with as much of a stink as Ridley Scott’s starry $100m epic The Last Duel. Audiences stayed away en masse (it stumbled to just $30m worldwide) and its Oscar chances dramatically crumbled (Disney hasn’t even bothered with a campaign) but there’s something far smarter and more subversive than one would expect here, something that should have had everyone talking on release rather than the stinging silence it instead inspired. There’s been a slowly increasing number of more recent period films that have nobly tried to attach a more contemporary lens to stories traditionally told in binary, male-skewed terms but few, if any, have managed to do this quite as effectively. It’s the grim tale of Marguerite de Carrouges (a standout Jodie Comer), a woman labelled a liar for accusing a French squire (an odious Adam Driver) of rape and through shifting perspectives, we see that not only is she telling the truth but that every man around her, including grotesque husband (a vile Matt Damon), is using her for something.

The film acts as a knowing corrective not only to how history has written Marguerite’s story (an accusatory question mark has been attached to her telling of sexual assault for centuries) but also to a genre of films that has unfailingly valorised men and diminished women (no film in 2021 has been as fully committed to such a depressing “men are trash” worldview). It’s fascinatingly dour yet utterly believable. Benjamin Lee

Identifying Features

The Mexican cinema scene is not entirely dominated by alpha males like Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The year’s most criminally underseen film was the haunting Mexican drama Identifying Features from first-time feature director Fernanda Valadez and her co-producer, co-writer and co-editor Astrid Rondero. It’s about a middle-aged woman from central Mexico who sets out on a journey to find out what happened to the teenage son who left home to try getting into the US: it’s developed from their 2013 short 400 Bags, and inspired by the horrific 2011 San Fernando massacre in which hundreds of desperate people were kidnapped by drug cartels from passenger buses in the borderlands. The movie has heartbreak and a vision of real evil: it is something like social-realist folk horror, though it unapologetically invokes the image of Satan with an absolute seriousness which sets it apart from the horror genre. It is a cry for help and a cry of rage: deeply engaged cinema. Peter Bradshaw

Acasa My Home

There’s clearly a ton of underseen documentaries out there, of all shapes and sizes, but my attention was drawn to this Romanian documentary, which in a strange way is a companion piece to the amazing 2019 film Collective. It’s a beautifully shot and tremendously moving film about a Roma family living wild outside Bucharest, who are then forced into the city to ensure the kids get an education – it encapsulates the pros and cons of the super-emotive topic of off grid living and the limits of state control. The kicker? The apparently heartless government types pushing the family off their land are the same administration as the good guys in Collective. Andrew Pulver

The Night House

Not content with directing one of the year’s best films in Passing, Rebecca Hall also quietly gave one of the year’s least celebrated great performances in this intelligent, surprising variation on assorted haunted-house formulae – which came and went with little fanfare in cinemas in August, 18 months after its well-received Sundance debut. Admittedly, David Bruckner’s film (a considerable step up from his accomplished but less distinctive woodland nerve-rattler The Ritual) suffered from a certain lack of novelty in one respect, being the latest in a recent run of horror films in which grief is the real bogeyman. But rarely has the idea been explored and performed with the wounded conviction and complexity that Hall brings to it, as a widowed teacher who can’t quite let go of her husband’s presence in the gorgeous lake house he built her – perhaps because he hasn’t let go of it either. Guy Lodge


Tsai Ming-liang isn’t rushing for anyone. In his first feature since 2013, the Taiwanese master continues to advance the cause of ‘slow cinema,’ in which static takes stretch on for minutes at a time and allow viewers to sink into a state of meditative relaxation. A well-off middle-aged man (Tsai’s careerlong muse Lee Kang-sheng) and a making-do millennial (Anong Houngheuangsy, a miraculous discovery) independently go about their daily lives, their paths intersecting in an encounter of hushed, powerful intimacy before diverging once again. With so much time to process, we see the most minute gestures as too significant to be ignored, and bigger displays of emotion – like the full-body nuru massage briefly uniting these two lonely souls – as stunning spectacles of connection. Like the cinematic equivalent of soothing ambient music, Tsai’s work can bypass the brain’s instinct to busy itself with analysis and tap into a deeper well of sensation and experience. Charles Bramesco


Simran Hans, Jordan Hoffman, Radheyan Simonpillai, Adrian Horton, Steve Rose, Pamela Hutchinson, Lisa Wong Macabasco, Benjamin Lee, Peter Bradshaw , Andrew Pulver, Guy Lodge and Charles Bramesco

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