The 10 best movies of 2021 so far – in order

Our film correspondent on Nomadland, A Quiet Place Part II and a few overlooked gems

You could argue that this the first best-of list we have published that really reflects the altered realities of a postpandemic universe. The half-yearly top 10 from last June was dominated by awards-hungry features that opened before the shutters came down. Those films, mostly released into cinemas, were still bossing the territory when it came to compiling our end-of-year list. It was ever thus. The distributors like to get their prestige titles out before elderly awards voters have time to forget their existence.

Cinemas have recently reopened in these territories. But films that emerged on streaming services, often exclusively, now make up the majority of this list. Indeed, just one of these titles is not yet available to watch in the home. Who, a year and a half ago, would have guessed that such a shift would have kicked in? We can’t yet say if distribution patterns will revert, but, as HR Haldeman said during Watergate: “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s hard to get it back in.”

Anyway, the quality has not declined. There is still a buzzy variety of diversions for all tastes. Three films from directors born in the Soviet Union (as it then still was). Make of that what you will.

10 Promising Young Woman

Directed by Emerald Fennell
When Fennell's feminist thriller, a hit at Sundance in 2020, arrived to stream it triggered more objections from those who felt it pedalled its revenge too softly than from those aggrieved at hostility to its male characters. No matter. There was always going to be controversy of some sort. We got a messy, imaginative black comedy that ingeniously exploited the anti-logic of Jacobean revenger tragedy. Read Donald Clarke's full review here


9 A Quiet Place Part II

Directed by John Krasinski
Yes, the film that remained poignantly on the side of buses during the long first lockdown. When A Quiet Place Part II finally opened – in cinemas, no less! – it proved to be everything a sequel should be. There were no dramatic tweaks on the formula, but the tension was, if anything, greater than before. Cillian Murphy proved a welcome addition to the team. Read Donald Clarke's full review here

8 Black Bear

Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
We had our share of meta-entertainments this year. Levine's unusual comedy (or is it?) stars Aubrey Plaza as a screenwriter visiting friends at a remote property by a lake. We later learn that we have been watching part of a film shoot. The curious screenplay juggles conscious cliche and acerbic commentary. Always a strong comic, Plaza achieves hitherto unscaled heights. Deserved more attention. Read Tara Brady's full review here

7 I Blame Society

Directed by Gillian Wallace Horvat
Made for loose change, jam jars and bottle tops, Horvat's cheeky Hollywood satire got a bit lost in the online crush, but it deserves to be treasured for its endlessly inventive take on an industry gone bad. Horvat plays a version of herself who devises a "mock" documentary about a "theoretical" murder that turns a little too real. All the right people end up getting killed. Listen for the best last line of the year. Read Donald Clarke's full review here

6 The 8th

Directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, Maeve O'Boyle
A documentary on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, legalising abortion, which was always going to be pushing at an open door with certain audiences, but the three directors entertained not a jot of laziness in their rigorous examination of the contemporaneous issues and the complicated, sometimes sordid historical background. A gripping tale told with passion and fairness. Read Donald Clarke's full review here

5 State Funeral

Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
Loznitsa, a brilliant Belarusian, can fairly claim to be among the most powerful and versatile film-makers of the age. He follows up the surreal A Gentle Creature and the searing Donbass with a disciplined documentary, compiled from archive footage, examining the day Stalin died. There is weeping in the streets. Across a vast area of land, Russians tune into radio broadcasts. A bewitching, dispassionate record of an extraordinary event. Read Tara Brady's full review here

4 Nomadland

Directed by Chloé Zhao
By the time Zhao's tale of contemporary nomads landed there was already a backlash – some wanted footnotes on Amazon's employment practices – but nothing could stop this beautiful film's march to the best-picture Oscar. Caught the era's sombre mood almost too well. Frances McDormand became only the second person to trouser three best-actress Oscars. Read Donald Clarke's full review here

3 Sound of Metal

Directed by Darius Marder
Debuted at Toronto way back in the olden, virus-free era that was September 2019. The reviews were strong but not spectacular. In the intervening period Riz Ahmed's performance as a drummer dealing with hearing loss won over the world. A singular drama that made imaginative (and Oscar-winning) use of sound design. Read Tara Brady's full review here

2 Dear Comrades!

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Konchalovsky's long, extraordinary career – yes, he directed Tango & Cash during his Hollywood spell – reached another glorious chapter with this monochrome study of the shooting of demonstrating Soviet workers in Novocherkassk during the Khrushchev era. Julia Vysotskaya's performance as a war veteran cruelly confronted with state betrayal is as strong as any this year. Seek out. Read Donald Clarke's full review here

1 Gunda

Directed by Viktor Kossakovsky
Lovingly rendered, quietly angry film about a few months in the life of a charming Norwegian pig and her busy, squealing piglets. The denouement is all the more poignant for it coming in less violent fashion than audiences may have feared. That ending is painfully sad, and it goes on and on and on. Many will spend the time pondering the morality of our cruel dominion over the beasts. Best supporting actor goes to the one-legged chicken. Read Donald Clarke's full review here