The 10 best films of 2021: From vital queer history to camp melodrama and lesbian nun erotica
It’s been yet another difficult year as the world continued to weather the storm of a pandemic, but through it all, film helped keep us sane.
From big blockbusters to indie darlings, film has the power to transport us to different places and times. It also has the ability to give us a glimpse into the lives of people who are marginalised and whose stories remain on the periphery.
The best films of 2021 managed to do that and more – which was no small feat in a year when cinemas were sometimes closed due to the ongoing pandemic.
We take a look back at some of the best, biggest, most magical films of the year – from the ones that put queerness front and centre to those that proved camp is an art form.
It was essentially a given that Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín, would blow us all away – and it did just that.
The film is decidedly unlike any other project focused on the life of Princess Diana. It’s a fantastical delve into the inner turmoil experienced by a woman teetering on the brink of a major life change. It’s a remarkable, beautiful film that’s anchored by Kristen Stewart’s mesmerising performance.
There’s also a heartfelt queer subplot with Sally Hawkins’ character Maggie that LGBT+ audiences loved. – Patrick Kelleher
2. House of Gucci
House of Gucci took camp to new heights this year largely thanks to a spectacular, utterly over the top performance from Lady Gaga.
The film sees the singer and all-round gay icon playing Patrizia Reggiani, a real-life Italian socialite who married into the Gucci family and was later convicted of hiring an assassin to kill her husband Maurizio.
Critics were divided by House of Gucci. Some loved the general air of silliness and camp, while others were confused by the tone. Meanwhile, the film quickly amassed a huge queer following, with gays everywhere falling head over heels in love with Lady Gaga once again. – Patrick Kelleher
3. Fear Street
A trilogy of young adult horror films, released weekly on Netflix, doesn’t exactly scream quality – but the Fear Street trilogy surpassed all expectations when it dropped this summer. Frankly, all three films are better than they have any right to be, thanks to excellent performances from its young cast and a genuinely ambitious approach from director Leigh Janiak and the films’ screenwriting team. The decision to set each instalment in a different decade (with the third part going back centuries) lets Fear Street play with horror tropes in brilliant and often-unexpected ways, and putting a queer couple at the story’s heart only added to the appeal. – Reiss Smith
4. Single All The Way
Single All The Way, the queer Netflix Christmas film starring Ugly Betty‘s Michael Urie and newcomer Philemon Chambers, won’t win any awards for originality – but it’s still a joyous, festive delight.
The film follows Peter (Urie), a gay man who has had one too many failed relationships, as he returns home for the Christmas season with his best friend Nick (Chambers). Nick is also single, but so is local hunk James (Luke Macfarlane), which puts Peter in an impossible bind – which oppressively attractive man should he date?
A queer Christmas rom-com felt long overdue when Single All The Way finally arrived on Netflix in December. It has all the trappings of your typical Christmas film – and it’s everything we needed and more. It gave queer film fans a spring in their step right when they needed it the most, as COVID reared its head yet again with a comeback nobody asked for. director Leigh Janiak and the films’ screenwriting team. – Patrick Kelleher
5. Tick, Tick… Boom!
While these days Andrew Garfield might be best-known for wearing skintight lycra and shooting sticky white webs, Tick, Tick… Boom! saw the star dust off his acting chops as musical playwright Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of his own autobiographical musical. Exploring Larson’s life in the run-up to him writing the generation-defining and history-making Rent, set against a backdrop of a New York City ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an exploration of love and friendship when the queer community needed it most, packed full of heart, whimsical numbers and a musical score you’ll return to again and again. Could’ve done with a bit more Mj Rodriguez, though. – Ryan Butcher
6. West Side Story
We didn’t know we needed a revival of West Side Story before we saw Steven Speilberg’s take on this classic – but we’re so glad this majestic, vibrant film exists.
Most musical fans will know the general storyline of West Side Story by now. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, it tells the story of two feuding gangs in mid-1950s New York City. At its core, the musical deals with rising tensions between disenfranchised, working-class white men and the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in New York City.
Spielberg’s version of West Side Story has been given a refresh to more closely mirror the times we’re living in today – the revised script by Angels in America writer Tony Kushner is more alive to the nuances of race in 2021.
Queer film fans were overjoyed by the decision to make Anybodys, an aspiring member of the Jets, canonically trans in the new version. We were also thrilled to see queer actor Ariana DeBose stealing hearts and winning praise for her tender performance as Anita. – Patrick Kelleher
Benedetta quickly became a global talking point when it premiered at the 2021 Canes Film Festival in July. The biographical film tells the story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century nun who has an affair with another nun in an Italian convent.
In theory, it sounds ridiculous – but Benedetta ended up winning the hearts of critics and fans alike. It has won praise for its powerful exploration of faith and sexual desire.
Its success is at least partly down to the fact that it’s based in fact. Benedetta is loosely based on the 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C Brown. Benedetta managed to resurrect a largely forgotten queer story and bring it to the masses once more. – Patrick Kelleher
Marvel’s Eternals didn’t get quite the reception the studio was likely expecting when it was finally released in November to lukewarm reviews – surely a disappointment given Oscar winning director Chloé Zhao was at the helm.
Still, that doesn’t mean Eternals is a bad film – and there’s no denying it was a big win for queer representation on screen.
It won praise for introducing Marvel’s first openly gay superhero Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry. It marked a significant leap forward for the studio, which had faced relentless criticism in recent years over its reluctance to feature queer characters. – Patrick Kelleher
9. The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s searing, powerful western The Power of the Dog is a thing of exceptional beauty – so it’s not hard to see why it’s already become the mainstay of awards season.
One of The Power of the Dog‘s biggest achievements is its fascinating and sometimes unsettling exploration of sexuality and power dynamics. The film tells the story of ranch-owning brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons). When George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she goes to live on the ranch – which leads to some challenges for her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil relentlessly mocks him for his effeminacy and makes cruel, barbed comments about Peter’s perceived sexuality.
Ultimately it’s the relationship between Phil and Peter that makes The Power of the Dog so compelling. Never has one cigarette given rise to as much sexual tension as it does in this tour-de-force. – Patrick Kelleher
10. The United States vs Billie Holiday
Singer Andra Day made her acting debut in this powerful Billie Holiday biopic, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious and Monster’s Ball). Though reviews were mixed, Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and was nominated for an Oscar. Her performance captured the legendary jazz singer and activist’s troubled but indefatigable spirit, while the script, for its flaws, focuses on an important part of her legacy. – Reiss Smith
More: lgbt film