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2021 Critics Poll: The Best Films and Performances, According to 187 Critics from Around the World

187 critics from around the world voted in this year's survey, and one film topped several of the major categories by a landslide.

Best Movies of 2021: Critics Pick Year's Best Films & Performances

“The French Dispatch,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Drive My Car,” “Passing,” “Licorice Pizza”

Last year, IndieWire’s annual critics survey was a squeaker, with two equally beloved films vying neck-and-neck for the top spot. In 2021, though, the final result has been anything but a photo finish. With 187 critics and journalists voting on the best films and performances in this year’s survey, Jane Campion’s Western character study “The Power of the Dog” was the landslide victor, winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Performance (for Benedict Cumberbatch), and Best Cinematography. It’s the second time in the history of this poll, and the second year in a row following “Nomadland,” that a film directed by a woman topped the list, and it also topped IndieWire’s own staff list of the The Best Movies of 2021. Staffers from IndieWire, Variety, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly voted, as well as freelance and staff writers for newspapers, websites, radio, and TV from across Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia — as well as all over the U.S. and Canada. However, all participants were required to vote only for films that received theatrical, streaming, or VOD releases in the U.S. over the past calendar year.

If “The Power of the Dog” was the clear winner, the wealth was spread equitably to many other captivating films. Most of the other titles in the Top 10 appear in other categories too. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s immersive, moving character study about art and connection, “Drive My Car,” placed at No. 2 on the overall list and then again in second for Best Director, at No. 9 on Best Performance, for emotionally exhausted theater director Hidetoshi Nishijima, and at No. 1 for both Best International Film and Best Screenplay — the prize that it also won at the Cannes Film Festival this July. While “The Power of the Dog” appeared on 93 ballots (26 of those at No. 1), the Murakami adaptation landed on 62 (with 13 at No. 1).

That these two films topped the critics survey bolsters the argument in favor of festivals’ enduring power, even amid the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic. “The Power of the Dog” premiered at Venice in early September, and Campion won the Silver Lion for Best Director there. “Drive My Car” bowed at Cannes. Since then, they’ve taken very different paths: “The Power of the Dog” dropped December 1 on Netflix, after a two-week limited theatrical run, while “Drive My Car” opened November 24 in just two New York City theaters (Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center). It’s since expanded to 24 locations around the country, with more to come.

Other films in the Top 10 were well represented in other categories, too: the No. 3 film, “Licorice Pizza,” placed on Best Director (No. 5) for Paul Thomas Anderson, plus Alana Haim for Best Performance (No. 5), and Best Screenplay (No. 2); “The Worst Person in the World” (No. 4 on the Best Film list) ended up at No. 2 on the Best International Film list, No. 9 for Best Screenplay, and No. 3 in Best Performance for Renate Reinsve; the No. 5 film, “Memoria,” placed at No. 3 for Best Director (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), No. 7 in Best Cinematography, and No. 3 in Best International Film; and of the remaining Top 10, “Flee” also placed at No. 1 for Best Documentary, as well as No. 4 for Best International Film. A full list of the Top 50 films will be published later this week.

“Drive My Car”

For the second time, this survey presented a gender-neutral Best Performance category. Benedict Cumberbatch placed first for his portrayal of a brashly unlikable, performatively macho cowboy hiding a secret in “The Power of the Dog.” Kristen Stewart’s deeply subjective inhabiting of a paranoia-rattled Princess Diana in “Spencer” came in at No. 2. It’s an intriguing development that both films feature characters who blow up conflicts in their own personal lives out of proportion, building particular worries until they’re much bigger challenges than they may objectively be. Our burnout-addled moment found an expression in them.

Pivoting from explorations of peculiar headspaces in narrative features to non-fiction, the Best Documentary category proved one of the most fruitful, as it usually does. Diverse in form as well as in subject matter, these docs span from Peter Jackson’s nine-hour excavation of the Fab Four’s last meaningful collaboration in “The Beatles: Get Back” to the “drama therapy”-fueled reenactments of Robert Greene’s “Procession,” to the experimental, poetry-filled rethink of Helen Keller’s life that was John Gianvito’s “Her Socialist Smile.” You simply won’t find more boundary-breaking filmmaking this year (and in many years) than in non-fiction. The Best Documentary category also offers some of the best treats for your ears: Beyond “Get Back,” three music documentaries made the Top 10: “Summer of Soul,” “The Velvet Underground,” and “The Sparks Brothers.”

2021 was an exceptional year for filmmaking by any standard, but as always, we ended the survey by asking about the year to come. And there’s a lot to be excited about: Terence Davies’ biographical take on Siegfried Sassoon, “Benediction,” topped the Best Films Opening in 2022 list. Look for that 2021 TIFF premiere to be released by Roadside Attractions in the months ahead.

This is the time of year when people have a chance to slow down and catch up on the good stuff in film, TV, and music. And on the lists below, you’ll really find a lot of the good stuff. Happy viewing.

Best Film

“The Power of the Dog”

Netflix

1. “The Power of the Dog”
2. “Drive My Car”
3. “Licorice Pizza”
4. “The Worst Person in the World”
5. “Memoria”
6. “The French Dispatch”
7. “Flee”
8. “Petite Maman”
9. “Passing”
10. “C’mon C’mon”

Best Director

Jane Campion with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst

Netflix

1. Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”
2. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car”
3. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Memoria”
4. Denis Villeneuve, “Dune”
5. Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”
6. Wes Anderson, “The French Dispatch”
7. David Lowery, “The Green Knight”
8. Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story”
9. Pablo Larrain, “Spencer”
10. Celine Sciamma, “Petite Maman”

Best Performance

"The Power of the Dog"

Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”

Netflix

1. Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”
2. Kristen Stewart, “Spencer”
3. Renate Reinsve, “The Worst Person in the World”
4. Nicolas Cage, “Pig”
5. Alana Haim, “Licorice Pizza”
6. Olivia Colman, “The Lost Daughter”
7. Tessa Thompson, “Passing”
8. Peter Dinklage, “Cyrano”
9. Hidetoshi Nishijima, “Drive My Car”
10. Will Smith, “King Richard”

Best Documentary

"Flee"

“Flee”

Neon

1. “Flee”
2. “Summer of Soul”
3. “Procession”
4. “The Velvet Underground”
5. “The Rescue”
6. “The Beatles: Get Back”
7. “Her Socialist Smile”
8. “All Light Everywhere”
9. “The Sparks Brothers”
10. TIE: “Val”/”Attica”

Best Cinematography

THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): ARI WEGNER (DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY), JANE CAMPION (DIRECTOR,PRODUCER) in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

DP Ari Wegner and Jane Campion filming “The Power of the Dog”

KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX

1. “The Power of the Dog”
2. “Dune”
3. “Spencer”
4. “The Green Knight”
5. “West Side Story”
6. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
7. “Memoria”
8. “Passing”
9. “The French Dispatch”
10. “Belfast”

Best Screenplay

“Drive My Car”

1. “Drive My Car”
2. “Licorice Pizza”
3. “The French Dispatch”
4. “The Power of the Dog”
5. “A Hero”
6. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
7. “The Lost Daughter”
8. “Pig”
9. “The Worst Person in the World”
10. “Bergman Island”

Best International Film

“Drive My Car”

NEON

1. “Drive My Car”
2. “The Worst Person in the World”
3. “Memoria”
4. “Flee”
5. “Titane”
6. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
7. “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”
8. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
9. “Petite Maman”
10. “A Hero”

Best First Feature

“The Lost Daughter”

1. “The Lost Daughter”
2. “Passing”
3. “Pig”
4. “Shiva Baby”
5. “Summer of Soul”
6. “El Planeta”
7. “Test Pattern”
8. “Beginning”
9. “Tick Tick Boom”
10. “Identifying Features”

Best Films Opening in 2022

“Benediction”

Roadside Attractions

1. “Benediction”
2. “Hit the Road”
3. “Happening”
4. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”
5. TIE: “On the Count of Three”/”In Front of Your Face”

Click to the next page to see a list of critics who voted.

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