THE 20 BEST FILMS OF CANNES 2021

cannes 2021

After a year-long hiatus, the Cannes Film Festival came back against all odds. With head judge Spike Lee, a range of long-anticipated premieres which included Wes Anderson’s delayed The French Dispatch and new features from Florida Project’s Sean Baker and Raw’s Julia Ducournau. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which forced last year’s festival to be cancelled for the first time since World War II, the line-up promised to be the strongest in years. And despite the fact not everyone could make it to the red carpet (Lea Seydoux, who had four films in the festival, had to cancel her appearance after testing positive for Covid), the event mostly ran smoothly.

Below are 20 of the best, weirdest, and most praised films of 2021’s Cannes Film Festival…

After Yang

This film takes place in a future where it’s normal to have a virtual big brother and an adopted Chinese brother, as the world is now a race-blind android-accepting society with a new species called techno-sapiens. But when a robot starts to malfunction, Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner Smith (Queen & Slim) must fix this surrogate sibling.

After Yang is an unexpected sophomore from Columbus (2017) director Kogonada, examining relationships and melancholia. Described as a combination between Her (2013) and Pinocchio, it’s a thought-making exploration of how we connect with people and technology.


Titane

The surprise winner of this year’s Palme d’Or was Julia Ducorneau’s follow-up to her cannibal drama Raw (2016), making her only the second woman to win in the history of the film festival, who delivered one of the wildest films of recent years.

Titane, which is only Ducournau’s second feature, tells the story of a young female killer who has sex with cars after surviving a childhood crash that left her with a metal plate in her head. With bone-crunching fights and skin-splitting transformations, Titane’s been compared to David Cronenberg’s signature brand of body-horror.
Sexy, violent, and often horrific, the film hasn’t secured a UK release yet but there’s no denying it’ll be one to watch.


The Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg returns with the follow-up to her semi-autobiographical film The Souvenir (2019). It picks up almost immediately where the first left off, as film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) tries to process the death of her destructive lover (Mank’s Tom Burke).

Hogg’s been lauded as one of the most creative British filmmakers of the last 30 years, and The Souvenir Part II adds depth and distance to her meta self-reflection as it follows Julie through the fraught process of making her graduation film. This film just happens to be a tragic story of a young girl’s relationship with an older heroic addict.

It’s scheduled to be released in the UK on 5 November 2021.


Stillwater

Matt Damon was moved to tears after the new Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) film he stars in received a standing ovation. In it, the Academy Award winner plays a stoic Oklahoma construction work who must fiercely fight to free his daughter (Abigail Breslin) who, with clear Amanda Knox comparisons, has been imprisoned in France for a murder she didn’t commit.

While Stillwater has been met with mixed reviews, many praised how it deals with how Americans are viewed on a global scale. It also deals with the recent socio-political climate in France. Mixing a character drama, romance, and thriller, many have struggled with how it uses racism against minorities to propel a story about white heroics.

With a reliably solid performance from Matt Damon, it’s also been compared to Taken (2008) and Prisoners (2013), Stillwater is released in the UK on 6 August 2021.


Nitram

Despite early concerns it was glorifying a recent slice of Australian history, Nitram has earned heavy praise from critics. Nitram (‘Martin’ backwards) received a seven-minute standard ovation for its depiction of the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history: the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.

Directed by Australian Justin Kurzel, it stars Caleb Landry Jones (who received the Cannes Film Festival Award for ‘Best Actor’ for his performance) as the perpetrator, Matin Bryant. After 35 people were killed, Aussie gun laws were radically overhauled.

Choosing not to show the violence and death, Nitram is a sensitive portrayal of the bizarre world of a man who was inspired by the Dunblane massacre and his own stranger than fiction life. It will be released in cinemas and on Australian streaming service Stan in 2021. There’s no current UK release day.


Drive My Car

Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, Drive My Car is a brooding drama about a grieving stage actor and director who finds solace in a young woman he hires as a driver following the death of his wife. The drama is a mosaic of stories about relationships, love, and human connections. People are complicated, and Drive My Car wants its audience to know it’s impossible to understand everything about the people we know.

Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) and screenwriter Takamasa Oe won ‘Best Screenplay’ at Cannes, becoming the first Japanese person to win the prize. Drive My Car doesn’t have a UK release date yet.


The French Dispatch

Described as a love letter to journalists, The French Dispatch follows several stories set in 19th-century France. Starring Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, Elisabeth Moss, and more, it received a nine-minute standing ovation during its Cannes premiere. In it, Murray plays a devout editor of a weekly culture magazine to a gang of expatriate writers who must package their final collection of stories.

Delivering his signature visuals, zany characters and vignettes, The French Dispatch won’t disappoint fans of Wes Anderson. Despite the original 2020 release date, The French Dispatch is due to be released in US cinemas in October 2022. A UK release date is yet to be confirmed.


Annette

Annette was probably the most talked-about film of Cannes 2021, even before the stars flew into town. The avant-garde rock opera, directed by Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and co-written pop duo Sparks, is a captivating musical that’s been referred to as an arthouse A Star is Born (2018).

Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a billionaire comedian who delivers terrible stand up in a dressing gown and slippers. Marion Cotillard is his opera diva girlfriend, who the world believes is too good for him. Henry and Ann marry and have a child, a wooden puppet called Annette.

A mix of outlandish humour, kitsch celebrity satire and crude humour, Annette isn’t going to be for everyone, but people certainly took notice! It’s set to hit cinemas across the UK and Ireland on 3 September 2021.


Benedetta

A melodrama about attractive nuns having an affair in a 17th-century convent, written, and directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall), might sound like a Hollywood parody, but Cannes was shocked by the new film from the mind of Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995).

Adapted from a book by Judith C Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, it tells the story of Benedetta Carlini (Viginie Efira), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who’s convinced as a child she can communicate with the Virgin Mary. Not enough to get her into the Theatine Convent in the city of Pescia, The Abbess (Charlotte Rampling) wants a dowery.

Expect erotic visions of Jesus, explicit sex scenes, naked women, and stigmata. This ‘nun-ploitation’ flick hasn’t been universally loved, with some calling it torrid and offensive, but for others it was a masterclass in erotic thrillers and certainly shook Cannes. Mubi has brought the UK rights, so keep your eyes open for the upcoming release of this controversial film.


Bergman Island

This is a tripled layered meta-romance about a filmmaker (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps) who moves to Sweden with her partner (Tim Roth). Set on the same remote skerry in the Baltic Sea during 1961, Bergman Island is a calm love story about loss and artistic reclamation.

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, this took influence from her 15-year relationship with director Olivier Assaya. In the film-within-a-film, she pitches to her love, the female lead Amy (Stoker’s Mia Wasikowska) mopes around trying to revive the attention of her former partner, Joseph (Mia Hansen-Løve’s regular star Anders Danielsen Lie).

Slow and romantic, Bergman Island is half a love story and half an ode to the beautiful environment Bergman secluded himself to while working on his cinematic masterpieces. Although no release date has been released, Mubi have picked up the UK and Ireland rights.


Red Rocket

Sean Baker follows up The Florida Project (2017) with Red Rocket, an American pastoral film about a washed-up Los Angeles porn star. Mickey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his Texas stomping ground to a soundtrack of cheesy 2000 hits, and his force to move back in with his ex-wife and her mother.

Another deep dive into America’s forgotten communities, he’s forced to go back to his old life as a weed dealer. Crushingly sad yet heart-warmingly, few working directors understand the marginalised modern America like Sean Baker.

Simon Rex, a comedian who previously worked in the adult industry, has been applauded for his performance. A24 quickly picked up the film rights after a five-minute standing ovation at the festival.


Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s makes his 11-year return to Cannes after winning the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) with Memoria (which won the Jury Prize). Tilda Swinton plays a stand-in for the director, who’s about to embark on a taxi excursion through the Colombian jungle, despite being anorchidologist plagued by a strange condition that makes it sound like a wrecking ball is smashing loudly against a steel drum in the distance. Swinton delivers her dialogue in a carefully articulate Spanish, hunting for a cure for her tinnitus-type ailment.

Based on Weerasethakul’s own hearing issues, Memoria is an assault on the senses. Describe as a slow meander through life, Swinton’s Jessica treks the jungle for answers, running away from the noises inside her head.


A Hero

Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) entered the awards consideration with his vivacious and assured A Hero. It tells the story of Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who is in prison for a debt that he couldn’t pay. During a two-day leave, an act of kindness provides Rahim with an opportunity to convince his creditor to withdraw the complaint.

Rahim discovers that freedom is a messy and tangled web of deceit. With Shakespearean tragicomedy undertone and a dark tragic conclusion, could A Hero be this year’s Parasite? Lauded as one of Farhadi’s best work, it deals with social media, relationships, and the current socio-climate in Iran.

A Hero will be released in France at the end of the year, and Amazon has brought the US rights. No current UK date has been released.


Belle

Described as one of the ambitious films to date by Japanese animator Mamoru Hosoda (Mira), he’s described Belle as “the one I’ve been waiting to make.” Belle alternates between a quiet little town where the insecure teenage heroine lives and an exciting, wildly virtual universe where people go to escape the real world.

Built around teenage neurosis, this anime deals with grief, abandonment, and escapism. Described as Beauty and the Beast meets online bullying, this modern anime fairy tale delivers contrasting layers of animation. Belle brought together a crew of renowned character designers (including Jim Kim, who worked on both Moana and Frozen), British architect Eric Wong, and veteran animators from Cartoon Saloon (Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers).

A fantastic introduction to the world of anime, Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle, will have a UK cinema release date in early 2022.


The Worst Person in the World

Hailed by many critics as the best film of the festival, possibly the year, The Worst Person in the World will restore your faith in rom-coms. Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Thelma, Oslo, August 31st), and his long-time screenwriter Eskil Vogt, take a left turn with this relationship comedy which has touches of David Nicholls and Nora Ephron.

An exploration of millennial relationships and whims, Julie’s has spent her twenties in an amused contempt. She switches studies and passions, jumps between romances and phases. At 30, she finally settles on a man a decade older and learns settling for something also comes with its problems.

Beautifully performed by Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World has been praised for side-stepping any judgemental comments on the flakiness of youth. It’s easy to see this tale of flaky bohemians being remade by Hollywood, with a Lily James type playing the lead. Although no UK release date has been announced, the film has been brought by Mubi.


Vortex

Gaspar Noe almost died, got sober, and made Vortex. This was announced after he posted an alarming Instagram image captioned ‘Brain hemorrhage- Day 11,’ on the day Vortex premiered at the film festival. Turns out this was an old image, but the effect of that moment inspired his recent, more understated film.

Compared to Amour (2012), Vortex is a two-hander about a long-married couple (Dario Argento, Francoise LeBrun) in their eighties. Shot in split-screen, it follows the nameless couple potter around their Parisian apartment doing their daily routine; he’s trying to finish his book on cinema and drams, while she’s wandering around slipping into a near-silent dementia.

Noe (Climax) usually brings a shockingly hedonistic visual feast, but this quiet yet grubby tale of morality is no less gripping. Picturehouse acquired Vortex, although no release date has been given.


Between Two Worlds

The non-fiction book that inspired Between Two Worlds resulted from nearly six months of undercover reporting by Florence Aubenas. The respected journalist wanted to understand how the huge community of non-contract workers have managed during the recent economic crisis.

Juliette Binoche’s Marianne poses as a cash-strapped divorcée who needs work. She’s bounced between the job centre and a cleaning school before getting a job scrubbing toilets on a ferry, where she forms a tight bond with her co-workers whilst secretly collecting notes on their experiences.

Between Two Worlds has been celebrated as an arthouse pleaser, celebrating the bond between women and highlight the social inequalities within France. Lighter than Sorry We Missed You (2019), Between Two Worlds isn’t scared to talk about the difficult things without compromising on comedy.


Mothering Sunday

In Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, based on Graham Swift’s novella of the same name, Josh O’Connor (The Crown) plays upper-class Paul Sheringham, who becomes embroiled in a passionate affair with Jane (Shirley’s Odessa Young), the maid of a neighbouring couple (Olivia Colman, Colin Firth).

Set in 1924, the sensuality and frontal nudity of Mothering Sunday set tongues wagging. Sure to be a hit with the Bridgerton crowd with its sex positivity and frenzies coupling. Praised as being one of the sexiest heterosexual period dramas in years, Mothering Sunday is only elevated by the performance of some of Britain’s finest acting talent.

There’s currently no UK release date for Mothering Sunday, but with a cast like this expect an announcement soon!


Blue Bayou

The harsh loopholes in US immigration legislation, which often means people are deported over paperwork errors, builds Blue Bayou’s narrative. Actor-writer-director Justin Chon (Gook) plays Antonio, a man who moved to the US from Korea aged three. He now lives in New Orleans with his wife, Kathy (The Danish Girl’s Alicia Vikander) and her seven-year-old daughter, with their own baby on the way, and the money he’s pulling in as a tattoo artist won’t be enough to support them all.

Heartfelt and tear-jerking, Blue Bayou is a timely story about the fear and indecency that comes with being an immigrant in America. Set against the beautiful backdrop of Louisiana, Blue Bayou has been compared to Minari (2020), dealing with the nuances of the American dream to those not born in the country.

Focus Features is slated to release Blue Bayou in the US on 17 September 2021. It’s expected to hit the UK at the end of 2021.


Flag Day

Sean Penn is back with Flag Day, his sixth feature as a director in 30 years. For some, it’s his best; for others, it’s a heavy-handed piece of American classicism. But the drama earned a four-minute standing ovation after its Cannes premiere, yet some report that people fell asleep during the evening screening.

Based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir, the film tells the story of the relationship between Sean Penn’s John Vogel and his daughter Jennifer (played by his real-life daughter Dylan Penn). John’s charismatic but incredibly messed, having spent years in prison for bank robbery and was known as one of the most notorious counterfeiters in US history.

Also starring John Brolin and Vikings actress Katheryn Winnick, Flag Day sees Jennifer willing to find her way back to her destructive father and repair their conflicted relationship. Flag Day will be released in the UK in August.

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