Cannes 2021 Finale: My 10 Favorite Films from the Summer Festival
by Alex Billington
July 21, 2021
What are the best films out of this year's Cannes Film Festival? Which ones should you be taking an interest in? What films should be a priority for you to see? After 12 days at the 74th Cannes Film Festival, after 30 screenings, it's time to present my 2021 list of my Top 10 Favorite Films. This was my 11th year back to this festival, and I love being there in the middle of the buzz, seeing films all day every day non-stop. These ten listed below are the ones that connected with me emotionally or intellectually, and I hope you'll consider watching a few when they arrive in your neighborhood. They are worth the wait. Even after cancelling the fest last year due to the pandemic, there were many impressive films in Cannes this year. I'm glad I could be there and catch up with cinema again. This is my final recap of Cannes 2021 - don't miss any of these below.
I already wrote a final editorial about the experience of returning to film festivals after a year of everything being cancelled (or moved online). My focus is always on the films, that's what I go to these festivals for, and I try to watch as much as I can just to see anything that's playing. There were a number of films with great reviews that I missed this year: Evolution (dir. Kornél Mundruczó), Vortex (dir. Gasper Noe), Emergency Declaration (dir. Han Jae-Rim), Belle (dir. Mamoru Hosoda), Mothering Sunday (dir. Eva Husson), Where is Anne Frank? (dir. Ari Folman), Stillwater (dir. Tom McCarthy), Lamb (dir. Valdimar Jóhansson), and Great Freedom (dir. Sebastian Meise). It's always impossible to see EVERY film screening at a festival, and the schedule this year was even more chaotic to navigate than expected. So many overlapping screenings or times when there was only 10 minutes between screenings. But I'm so happy I could see as many films as I did! And I am glad I could watch so many top notch films, the kind that will stick with me well beyond 2021.
I won't delay any further with my Top 10 films of Cannes 2021, as these are the films that I loved the most, or left the greatest impact on me, and they all deserve to gain recognition outside of France. My favorites:
Val - Directed by Ting Poo & Leo Scott
Val forever. This is one of my favorite documentaries of the year so far, and it has been growing on me ever since I saw it at the beginning of the festival. A wonderfully candid journey through the life of an actor. It's so rich and so full of love, and so profoundly honest. That honesty is exactly why it's so hard to forget - he cuts through all the bullshit to tell you a story about the good and bad sides of a successful life. Jack Kilmer narrating as his father Val Kilmer makes it even more beautiful - a brilliant decision. It's not just a biopic, it's about the truth of living a life. What that means, of course, is personal to Val and everything he went through, but it is exactly what they explore in this film. What does the truth mean, how do you figure yourself out when you're acting all the time as a job? And what do you make of an entire life when looking back on all of it. I just adore how personal and yet inviting this doc is, how warm-hearted and humble it is.
After Yang - Directed by Kogonada
This is the best artificial intelligence sci-fi film since Ex Machina. Absolutely gorgeous, meticulously crafted subtle sci-fi brilliance. I've been thinking about it non-stop since watching, and I can't wait to revisit it again and dig into it more. Kogonada's take on Ghost in the Shell (at least I think?) set in a future where families get androids to be siblings for their kids. The kind of film that I really must view again before I can start to piece it together and understand all of what's going on. Colin Farrell is extraordinary as always, really the highlight in the film though the entire cast is on point (especially Justin H. Min as Yang). This is already destined for the Criterion Collection. One of these films that is going to be dissected and analyzed for years. The details in every frame, the depth in the storytelling, while remaining so slick and minimal. Kogonada is such a masterful filmmaker. I have a feeling this will be heralded as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.
The Worst Person in the World - Directed by Joachim Trier
Joachim Trier's latest film is one of the few grand slams of Cannes 2021 for me. Instantly joins the ranks of Blue is the Warmest Color and 500 Days of Summer as another favorite relationship film festival premiere. The final moments are odd (so be it), but that's my only complaint. Everything else about this film is perfect - and I mean that. This is remarkably complex, wise, insightful, beautiful filmmaking. There's one iconic scene in particular that I won't stop thinking about all year (you'll know the one). Renate Reinsve as Julie is transcendent in her role, taking us on a intricate journey through the life of a young woman who's trying to figure herself out. I still don't like the English title for this, because none of the people in it are anywhere near being "the worst person in the world." But I guess it is meant to dig into the idea of what we think of ourselves, and how hard it is to overcome that and become the person you really, truly are. Do not miss this.
Titane - Directed by Julia Ducournau
Titane fuckinggggggggggg rulessssssssssss!!!! Absolute metal. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! File this one under "you have never seen anything like this" - wickedly original, jaw-drop cinema that you will never be able to forget. It's not at all what you're expecting, it's not at all what anyone is expecting. Which is the best kind of film to enjoy at a festival like Cannes. An extremely brutal, audacious, vivacious take on shitty fathers. Which is the simplest description for it that does not come anywhere near properly capturing everything going on in it. Julia Ducournau deserves the Palme d'Or for this one, hands down, no question. A prodigiously wild and crazy and punk and vibrant and ambitious film. Ducournau slaps us with a fuck-off story involving firemen, car fucking, murders, titanium plates, lonely fathers, and more. Stop reading what I'm saying here and just go experience this film without any idea what you're about to see. Go into this cold, have an absolute blast.
Annette - Directed by Leos Carax
A go-for-broke all out epic rock opera that's about, well, abusive men and exploitation in the entertainment industry. Endlessly witty, crazy creative, totally ridiculous with a puppet baby and other wacky moments. The audacity is off the charts and it's simultaneously mocking the art of live performance and making us swoon over excessively garish musical numbers. Adam Driver is extraordinary, as always, in musical form. He is such an amazing actor and gives astoundingly deep performances time and time again. There's some exceptional Sparks Brothers musical scenes involving songs about the paparazzi, child birth, cunnilingus, and police interrogations. I have to admit, I was in awe of how masterfully they crafted kinda cheesy-kinda catchy songs about such strange moments. Leos Carax knows how to make one hell of an original musical, that's for damn sure. I haven't forgotten about this even after 30 other films; I might need to get the album.
Hit the Road - Directed by Panah Panahi
This is one I didn't even know about until a few colleagues were raving about it, and I am so glad I was able to catch it. This is the kind of discovery that Cannes is all about – launching a filmmaker's career, playing his first film and giving it a chance to shine on the Croisette, something that will be remembered as he goes on to make masterpieces in the years to come. Beloved Iranian director Jafar Panahi's son Panah Panahi makes his own feature directorial debut with this film – an excellent family road trip dramedy with a cute dog and a hilarious kid that you'll want to be best friends with. A breathtaking introduction to a whole new generation of Iranian filmmaker. This is worth watching just for the few going-to-be-talked-about-for-years wide shots near the end. Two of them are jaw-drop extraordinary. Hit the Road is the kind of first feature that will be referenced in 20 years as "were you there for that one?" when he eventually wins the Palme d'Or.
Bergman Island - Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
I just love the way Mia Hansen-Løve tells her stories in her films. And how she brings such lightness and appreciation for life to sometimes complex and melancholic stories. I love thinking about them and letting them remain on my mind as I process them and continue on with my own life… What can I learn from her stories? Bergman Island is one of those films that becomes more complex the more I think about it, dissect it, and discuss it with my friends. Each conservation I have about it, the more rich and layered it becomes. Maybe it's a story about this? Maybe it's a story about that? Maybe it's both of these ideas and more. Vicky Krieps is the highlight here, starring as a struggling screenwriter that might just an analog for Mia Hansen-Løve herself. It's another light & breezy walk-and-talk film that's less about Bergman (other than playfully mocking all the obsession with him) and really about the many loves one can have in their life. Along with the drifting, fluidity of romance & life. There is much more hiding on this island than just a story about love.
A Hero - Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Another extraordinary film from the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, his best work since A Separation. I felt this story in my bones. You do something good, and everyone doubts it. Yet everyone else gets away with lies and hate. And no matter how hard you try, you will never convince anyone you're a good person if they don't witness it with their own eyes and can validate every last detail. If anything, this film bothers me so much because it's such an accurate and tragic depiction of just how unjust and ridiculous our world is. It may be set in Iran, but it's a universal story. And seeing it play out this way really disturbed me. But that is what compelling filmmaking is all about – stirring something up inside of us. The best part of Farhadi's A Hero is Amir Jadidi starring as Rahim, whose performance is so nuanced and impeccable that it's impossible not to feel the frustration and pain broiling deep inside of him, despite his innocuous smile.
The Summit of the Gods - Directed by Patrick Imbert
This is my instant all-time favorite from Cannes 2021. It's a very personal pick, and I know my connection to it may not carry over with others, but that's how it always is with cinema anyway. This film includes four of my favorite things in the whole world: mountains (and specifically the Himalayas), Japan, Nepal, as well as photography. Which is heaven to me. The Summit of the Gods (originally known as Le Sommet des Dieux in French) is one of the best mountain climbing movies I have EVER seen. I cannot wait to watch this again. I cannot wait to promote it and support it and talk about how much I love it. Everything about this film - from the exhilarating score by Amin Bouhafa to the awe-inspiring backdrops to the technical details & climbing accuracy to the story about trying to figure out why people keep climbing. All of it blew me away. I wasn't expecting to be this moved but wow. It's perfection. The film is directed by Patrick Imbert, who I realized only after watching is the same director behind the adorable The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales animated film.
Benedetta - Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Verhoeven reigns!! Benedetta is a full-on MOVIE movie, with a real dense story, not just a trashy film about lesbian nuns. I was swept away and happy to go along for the journey into the past into this convent. That's what impressed me so much – there's an entrancing and gripping epic story in this movie that is about some rebellious women learning to take on the authoritative assholes that run the church. They even cause an uprising in their little town! Ohhh hell yes! She is the chosen Nun, and oh yes she also f!&cks. The film also features the the most badass Jésus to ever grace the big screen - played by Jonathan Couzinié. But the real star is Virginie Efira, who commands all with her powerful performance as Benedetta. It's ravishing! Thrilling! The score is sweeping! Their passion is intense! Verhoeven has still got it. Honestly not at all what I was expecting from this, but still entirely entertaining to watch. Trust in Verhoeven and he shall deliver.
A few other films from the festival I want to mention even though they weren't my favorite. First things first, I didn't hate Memoria like I was expecting to, and the more I talk about it with other critics, the more I appreciate the film and everything going on in it. Many critics think it's the best film of the festival by a mile, but it was obvious they'd totally love it before they even saw it. That kind of exaggerated praise is hyperbolic, but it's still a worthwhile film to dig into and discuss. I am a big fan of Jacques Audiard's films (and have seen many of them in Cannes in years past) but I wasn't that moved by Paris 13th District (aka Les Olympiades) - his latest B&W film about Parisian youth navigating the turbulence of modern romance & sexuality. It's very good, with a rad score by Rone, but not my favorite of the festival this year. Finally - the African uprising sci-fi musical Neptune Frost is the most original, ambitious, ahead-of-its-time creation at Cannes this year and I hope it eventually becomes a cult hit. I'm pretty sure it will. It's totally radical magic.
And that's it for Cannes 2021, wrapping up our coverage of the festival. Julia Ducournau's Titane won the Palme d'Or - find the full list of 2021 awards winners here. My coverage wraps up with this list of favorites and collection of trailers from the fest. I'm very much looking forward to returning to Cannes next year, it's one of my favorite fests and I always enjoy returning to get introduced to the latest that cinema has to offer.