This list is compiled by the Guardian film team, with all films released in the US during 2021 in contention. Check in every weekday to see our next picks, and please share your own favourite films of 2021 in the comments below.
The First Wave
Overwhelmingly emotional documentary shot inside a New York hospital at the start of the Covid pandemic, a remarkable film that feels like it could become a time capsule. Read the full review.
Extraordinary film that follows a team of volunteers as they infiltrate the dangerous al-Hawl camp in Syria to liberate Yazidi women trafficked as sex slaves. Read the full review.
Michael Keaton excels as the lawyer tasked with allocating funds for those who lost someone during the terrorist attacks in 2001, a story brought to the screen with sensitivity and care. Read the full review.
Last Night in Soho
Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith star in Edgar Wright’s horror-thriller that takes a trip to the sleazy heart of London’s past and toxic 60s glitz. Read the full review.
The eerie last rites of Stalin’s Soviet Union are enacted as massed mourners hail the dictator’s flower-clad body in a film that gives long-lost footage, assembled by In the Fog director Sergei Loznitsa, a new and unnerving lease of life. Read the full review.
Writer-director Emma Seligman’s debut about a young woman running into her sugar daddy at a family event is an amusing, transparently personal piece, a black comedy festival of excruciating embarrassment. Read the full review.
Written and directed by Thumbsucker’s Mike Mills, this coming-of-age heartwarmer, shot in classy monochrome and starring Joaquin Phoenix, oozes prestige as it tackles weighty themes. Read the full review.
The Reason I Jump
This documentary inspired by the bestselling book of the same title is an empathic study of nonverbal autism that takes us into the world of young neurodivergent people across the world. Read the full review.
Director Michel Franco leaves no room for sympathy or redemption in this violent, cynical thriller, a brutally unforgiving attack on Mexico’s super-rich that delivers a vivid warning against the consequences of inequality. Read the full review.
A familiar revenge thriller setup with Nicolas Cage hunting for a stolen animal turns into something quieter and stranger with an unusually restrained performance from its outsize star. Read the full review.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard brim with nervous energy in this bizarre musical collaboration between Leos Carax and the Sparks brothers, which kicked off this year’s Cannes film festival. Read the full review.
A woman working as a film censor in the 80s is shocked to discover a horror movie that recreates a traumatic incident from her childhood in Prano Bailey-Bond’s disturbing descent into video nastiness. Read the full review.
Never Gonna Snow Again
A mysterious masseur visits a dysfunctional gated community in this absorbing fairytale from Polish film-maker Małgorzata Szumowska, resulting in a rich brew of strangeness in an unsettling vision of suburbia. Read the full review.
Swedish auteur Roy Andersson’s mesmerising odyssey to the heart of existence is a masterpiece of the human condition, ranging from the evils of war to the redemptive power of love. Read the full review.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’ documentary about the celebrated art rockers, with insights from former members and friends, takes its job seriously and gets under the band’s skin. Read the full review.
House of Gucci
I Care a Lot
Rosamund Pike is exquisitely nasty in J Blakeson’s toxic thriller, playing a black-hearted con artist who drains the bank accounts of well-off elderly patients after gaining legal guardianship of them. Read the full review.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand hit top form in Joel Coen’s austere, noirish reimagining of Shakespeare’s Scottish bloodbath. Read the full review.
Rose Plays Julie
Robert Greene’s extraordinary documentary follows the stories of six men abused as children by Catholic priests in Kansas City with remarkable care and creativity. Read the full review.
tick, tick … BOOM!
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heartfelt tribute to Broadway features Andrew Garfield as Rent composer Jonathan Larson, in his early years, in a sugar rush of showbiz highs and lows. Read the full review.
The World to Come
Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby play two wives who fall in love amid the grinding exhaustion and violence of pioneer life in a tale of secret passions in frontier-era America. Read the full review.
The Killing of Two Lovers
A humiliating marital breakdown triggers a riveting portrait of male rage in Robert Machoian’s thought-provoking thriller, starring Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi. Read the full review.
The Worst Person in the World
Joachim Trier’s captivating and witty study of a young Oslo woman struggling with who she is, and who she should be with, featured a fantastic breakout performance from Renate Reinsve, who was rightly rewarded with the best actress prize at Cannes. Read the full review
Mia Hansen-Løve’s ruminative drama, stars Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as a film-maker couple who visit Fårö, the Swedish island where Ingmar Bergman famously lived and worked.
First-time director Fernanda Valadez conjures up a vision of real evil in her story of the horror and heartbreak faced by migrants into the US in Mexico’s borderlands. Read the full review.
Rebecca Hall’s directing debut is a stylish and subtle study of racial identity, starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as friends who are both “passing” for what they are not, in an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Read the full review.
A Cop Movie
Arresting Mexican docudrama from Alonso Ruizpalacios that starts off as an addictive cop show, breaks the fourth wall and then rebuilds it in a film bristling with ideas. Read the full review.
Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine and The Florida Project is a vivid study of a washed-up porn star, another lo-fi comedy about lives at the margin of US society. Read the full review.
Heart-rending portrait of refugees stranded in Scotland that announces Ben Sharrock as a master of atmospheric film-making, in a stirring drama about a Syrian migrant. Read the full review.
Summer of Soul
Questlove’s magnificent documentary of the forgotten 1969 Harlem cultural festival gives moving context to rediscovered footage of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone et al. Read the full review.
Getting Away With Murder(s)
David Nicholas Wilkinson’s epic investigation into the Nazis who escaped a postwar reckoning is a powerful call for Holocaust justice and lays out the difficulty of prosecuting a technocratic atrocity. Read the full review.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Through the eyes of a translator moving between the different ethnic factions, director Jasmila Žbanić musters real tragic power and clear-eyed compassion revisiting the Srebrenica massacre 25 years on. Read the full review.
No Time to Die
The French Dispatch
Wes Anderson’s ode to print journalism has amazing visuals, lots of laughs and an A-list cast – including Bill Murray – making it a real treat. Read the full review.
The Souvenir Part II
Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical study of a young film-maker is less detached, more emotionally engaging, as we enter Julie’s world for a second time in a superb sequel. Read the full review.
Excruciating drama deals with a school shooting’s aftermath as two sets of parents meet up years after the devastating tragedy, in a difficult and impeccably acted film about forgiveness and blame. Read the full review.
West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s thrilling remake of Stephen Sondheim’s Romeo & Juliet-inspired musical delivered smart, subtle updates as well as a pitch perfect cast of diverse actors singing and dancing memorable songs back into the multiplex. Read the full review.
Kenneth Branagh’s euphoric eulogy to his home city stars Jamie Dornan and Judi Dench in a scintillating Troubles-era coming-of-age tale in which nightmarishness meets nostalgia. Read the full review.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s accomplished directing debut makes humid, sensual cinema of Elena Ferrante’s psychodrama of a novel, and boasts a superb central performance from Olivia Colman. Read more.
Unnervingly subtle drama from Andreas Fontana, about a Swiss private banker visiting clients in Argentina during the period of the military junta and “disappearances”. Read more.
Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play makes the leap to film with ease. A masterly drama that is an extraordinarily well- acted, uncomfortably intimate look at a family at Thanksgiving. Read more.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s funniest and most relaxed film yet, a romance about a teenage boy wooing an older woman starring two extraordinary newcomers and stuffed with fabulously hammy A-list cameos. Read more.
Denis Villeneuve’s awe-inspiring take on the sci-fi classic starring Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac and Zendaya has been given room to breathe, creating a colossal spectacle and an epic triumph. Read more.
Thrilling documentary made with a blend of animation and archive footage tells an immensely powerful tale of a gay Afghan survivor, a remarkable story with heart and audacity. Read more
Drive My Car
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi reaches a new grandeur with this engrossing adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story about a theatre director grappling with Chekhov and his wife’s infidelity. Read more.
A spellbinding ghost story from Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Céline Sciamma. A girl meets her mother as a child in the woods in a moving tale of memory, friendship and family. Read more.
The Green Knight
Dev Patel rides high in the director David Lowery’s sublimely beautiful quest, which conjures up visual wonders and metaphysical mysteries from the anonymously authored 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Read more.