Our Best Undistributed Films list recognizes the new films were viewed—at festivals, or elsewhere—in 2021 but did not come out in theaters in the U.S. for a full theatrical run. All of the below films had no announced U.S. distribution at press time—though do keep an eye on Film Comment for future coverage.
For the best films that received a theatrical run in the U.S. this year, here’s the Best Released Films of 2021 list.
And don’t miss our roundup of this year’s individual ballots.
Peruse the poll results of yesteryear.
In a recent interview, the prolific Claire Simon described her fascination with filming moments that are “disappearing all the time, always changing, and never coming back.” She evokes that sense of ephemerality in I Want to Talk About Duras, an exquisitely attentive dramatization of a transcribed 1982 conversation between Yann Andréa (Swann Arlaud), a longtime companion of Marguerite Duras, and Marie Claire journalist Michèle Manceaux (Emmanuelle Devos). They aren’t meeting for an article; Andréa simply hopes to talk about his affair, especially its fraught power dynamics, with an impartial third party. As the camera hovers around the pair, Simon creates a trance-like rhythm from the subtleties of their exchange, choreographing a riveting inquiry into the possibilities of perception as shaped by all-consuming desire. With a remarkable alertness in her eyes, Devos, as Manceaux, listens closely. As she considers Andréa and Duras’s intimacy, she masterfully balances critical distance and emotional sensitivity, as does Simon in her impressionistic interpretation of the conversation.—Chloe Lizotte
Minimal in form yet precisely attentive to states of modern unrest, Ted Fendt’s 16mm-shot feature follows three thirtysomething women who visit each other in Berlin and then Vienna over an indeterminate period of time. Daniela deals with insomnia; Mia and Natascha suffer from the stresses of securing “wage labor,” finishing a thesis, the transience of their living situations, and perhaps some other unspoken traumas. With every image and sound drawn directly from the immediate environment—the film is stripped of a soundtrack, narration, or a legible narrative arc—Outside Noise renders its characters’ liminal sway between exhaustion and restlessness with oddball intimacy. In barely 60 minutes, Fendt (along with leads Daniela Zahlner and Mia Sellmann, who also collaborated on the script) insinuates something thoroughly honest and charming about being awake in the world, even when there’s no particular reason to get out of bed.—Tyler Wilson
In Kyoshi Sugita’s FIDMarseille-winning feature, a young woman (Chika Araki) moves into a new apartment and discovers a small wind instrument belonging to the prior tenant. Less a plot device than an object of symbolic intrigue, the recorder appears as one of a series of minor but charged developments in the life of the film’s wayward protagonist, who, following an undisclosed tragedy, takes a job at a café but is otherwise content idling away her time writing letters, having tea with friends and family, and hanging around the local arts scene. Adapted from a tanka by Naoko Higashi, the film assumes a poetic form built around static frames, spartan dramaturgy, and elliptical editing rhythms that suggest a state of alienation and urban ennui left otherwise unexpressed in the demure dialogue and unassuming character interactions. With quiet directorial command and a shrewd economy of gestures, Sugita illustrates the profound impact of life’s most subtle shifts.—Jordan Cronk
Alice Diop’s We cleverly unfolds as a structuralist essay, taking viewers from the northern banlieues of Paris through its center onto southern peripheries along the RER B train route. When this mixed commuter/rail-rapid transit line was constructed in the 1970s, it changed society by bringing the people who lived in Paris’s far-flung suburbs into close contact with the city’s cultural hub. Narratively, We does the same. The bulk of this psychogeographic tour comprises tender observational scenes that touch on multiple modern crises, sociopolitical context stretching back centuries, and intimate personal histories. Its critique of the French multicultural project (“unité and fraternité”) powerfully constitutes an alternative collective vision. Diop organically inserts her father’s home videos and personal recollections alongside a sequence focusing on her sister, N’deye Sighane Diop, a traveling nurse whose care for her patients stands in for the relational glue that holds society together. A rousing dialogue with the writer Pierre Bergounioux on the marginalization of France’s immigrant and rural inhabitants from cultural power underlines the concerns at the heart of Diop’s filmography.—Abby Sun
As the documenting of national history increasingly risks being outlawed in Russia, Sergei Loznitsa’s ongoing project of exploring the Soviet past becomes ever more urgent. One of two archive films he premiered in 2021 (along with Mr. Landsbergis, showing Lithuania’s path to independence from the USSR), Babi Yar. Context examines the background and the aftermath of the notorious World War II massacre of September 1941 in which nearly 34,000 Jews in Kiev were killed by the German army. Commissioned by Kiev’s Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the film draws on a range of sources, including footage shot by German officers, to depict the massacre as the starting point of the Holocaust, and perhaps even its testing ground. Citing a contemporaneous text by novelist Vasily Grossman about Ukraine’s eradication of its Jewish population, Loznitsa’s film constitutes a lucid, chilling j’accuse, challenging the myth of Ukrainian innocence in these events.—Jonathan Romney
Following up on her IFFR Tiger award–winning documentary Present.Perfect., Shengze Zhu’s slow-bleed portrait of her hometown, Wuhan, as it has evolved physically and socially over the past five years, unfurls a series of static long takes captured at a stately theatrical remove. Opening with time-lapsed CCTV footage surveilling a hauntingly depopulated intersection at the height of the city’s COVID-19 lockdown, the film proceeds, in reverse chronological order, to offer up one cosmically remote view after another of a riverside community in perpetual upheaval from natural and man-made cataclysms alike. At four delicately placed moments, fictive, handwritten letters, based on real-life accounts of loss suffered during the pandemic, appear on screen. These texts materialize the silent voices of the people of Wuhan as a colophon to Zhu’s politically charged landscape painting.—Edo Choi
In Salomé Jashi’s staggering documentary, the awe-inspiring majesty of nature collides with humanity’s incessant impulse to bend it to selfish whims. The film intricately examines the elements caught in the mammoth wake of a centuries-old tree’s snail crawl through Georgia, by land and sea, to its ultimate resting place in the lavish estate of the country’s immensely wealthy former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Capturing the workers tasked with moving the tree, onlookers in the small communities in its path, and the infrastructure and nature destroyed by its transit, Jashi creates a fittingly languorous portrait of the toll of such an avaricious endeavor. With its rigorous observational approach, Taming the Garden skirts the many pitfalls of message-driven environmentalist documentaries by strictly focusing on the lumbering, tragic grandeur on display.—Jordan Raup
Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s expansive Afrofuturist musical is unconcerned with the white gaze. Their anti-narrative sonic manifesto offers a portal into a world where community is the only real currency. The film tells the story of an intersex hacker Neptune, and coltan miner Matalusa, who find one another in cyberspace as they join a collective of young hackers. As the group’s shared bond strengthens, so does their understanding of love as the key to a brighter tomorrow. In the dazzling cybernetic world lovingly built by the co-directors, light and dark are balanced: the pain of living amid the wreckage of colonialisms past and present is beautifully juxtaposed with the hope of dreaming. The result of the filmmakers’ intense care and ambitious scope is an awe-inspiring film that captures the true nature of what Black cinema is and can be: films that bend all conventions and expectations.—Maya S. Cade
In Hong Kong, sometime before the Chinese government’s total crackdown, Anke, a 60-year-old widow from a small town in Germany’s Black Forest, hopes to rendezvous with her expat son. It’s the first time she’s been abroad, and it’s liberating for her to wander alone in a strange city. The Hong Kong we see through her eyes is nothing like the glamorized metropolis of Wong Kar Wai’s movies or gangster dramas. The streets are crowded, but people are never rude or unkind. It’s the time of the Umbrella demonstrations, and Anke sometimes catches sight of them just around a corner. Shot on celluloid, the film’s images have a richness of detail and a sense of already belonging to the past. However brief, Anke’s trip is freeing for her. Perhaps she’s aware, as we certainly are, that the Hong Kong she is visiting will soon be gone forever.—Amy Taubin
Proust originally wanted to title the volumes of In Search of Lost Time after the parts of a cathedral, perhaps the same parts pictured in a book the protagonist leafs through in Ricky D’Ambrose’s second feature. Precise and economical, The Cathedral’s mise en scène is hardly Proustian; it’s the film’s excavation of memory that, by bridging the autobiographical, the sociological, and the universal, invites the comparison. D’Ambrose charts the first two decades of a boy’s life on Long Island, starting in the mid-’80s. Epoch and milieu are portrayed with loving attention to textures, and the vicissitudes of family evoke the pain of lived experience. And since U.S. history is everyone’s history (“Ich bin ein Berliner,” said JFK, when really it should have been, “Wir sind alle Amerikaner”), the archival footage of Bush Jr.’s reelection campaign and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina—and even the fleeting allusion to 9/11—are sure to trigger surges of remembrance in anyone who lived through those years, regardless of where.—Giovanni Marchini Camia
At first glance, The Sacred Spirit may look like an Unidentified Film Object, but some of the peculiar features of this slow-burning adventure film will be recognizable to cinephiles. For instance, the sinister and absurdist thriller plot, which sees a naïve UFOlogist (played by the nonprofessional actor Nacho Fernández) entrapped in a whirlwind of cruelty, evokes a Spanish dimension of the Coen brothers’ multiverse, while the kitsch mannerisms that abound in the film’s baroque tableaux vivants wouldn’t be out of place in a Harmony Korine joint. And then there’s the mingling of a Buñuel-esque fixation on faith with Aki Kaurismäki’s tragicomic cosmology. Director Chema García Ibarra avoids the dark depths of postmodern pastiche with the striking familiarity and tenderness of his approach to characters and locations, resulting in a sweet, irreverent celebration of proletarian life in his birthplace of Elche.—Manu Yáñez-Murillo