It’s not a knock against 2020 to say 2021 was the year movies returned — though, really, as horrible as 2020 was, it deserves the knocking. But with the vast majority of Hollywood tentpoles delayed a year ago, the last 12 months have brought us a fuller, more eclectic slate of movies both big and small to celebrate as the year’s best.
From awe-inducing actioners (Dune, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Shang-Chi) to potent dramas (The Power of the Dog, The Tragedy of Macbeth) to everything in between, here are our picks for the 25 best movies of 2021 — and the 5 worst. — by Ethan Alter, Marcus Errico, Chrissy Le
Nguyen and Kevin Polowy
THE 25 BEST
25. A Quiet Place Part II
Picking up right after the blockbuster original — and taking on new meaning in a world gripped by pandemic — John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic sequel was the standout in a year full of quality horror films (also see The Night House, Titane, Malignant and Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, among many others). Serving as a showcase for deaf actress Millicent Simmonds and filled with monsters both human and extraterrestrial, the film ratchets up the tension, delivers plenty of jump scares and expands the Quiet Place universe for the inevitable sequel and spinoffs. — Marcus Errico
24. 8-Bit Christmas
We’re still not sure why Warner Bros. seemingly buried 8-Bit Christmas on HBO Max; we didn’t see any advertising for this one, did you? But it’s a holy shame because for the second year in a row (following the 2020 gem Happiest Season), we could have a potential contemporary Christmas classic here that we haven’t seen the likes of since 2003’s Elf. Clearly designed like A Christmas Story for '80s babies, the yuletide comedy is told in flashbacks as a dad (Neil Patrick Harris) recounts his action-packed adventures in attempting to score a Nintendo for Christmas. It’s whip-smart, super funny and deeply poignant, and well worth seeking out this holiday season on HBO Max, even if they don’t want you to know about it. — Kevin Polowy
23. Drive My Car
Don’t let the three-hour runtime — that’s only 30 minutes longer than No Way Home, for the record — deter you from riding shotgun in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s justly-acclaimed character study of a Japanese dramatist (Hidetoshi Nihijima) and the young driver (Tōko Miura) he befriends. The film’s expansive canvas is balanced by Hamaguchi’s careful attention to his characters’ inner lives as they reveal more and more of themselves to each other and the audience. And Drive My Car isn’t the director’s only 2021 cinematic home run: Seek out his anthology feature, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, for three exquisitely written short stories. — Ethan Alter
22. King Richard
We’ll admit it: We were a bit skeptical hearing that a biopic focused on the Williams family was serving up more on father Richard than his two superstar daughters Venus and Serena. But indeed, there was a true-life fairy tale just waiting to be told about the unbelievable story of how Will Smith’s Richard willed his girls from the blocks of Compton to global tennis domination with a meticulously crafted (if sometimes faulty and just plain stubborn) game plan. Smith is a surefire Oscar frontrunner for his rugged and resolute performance in a powerful and emotional film that brings some nice edge to the enjoyable but often cheesy or at least predictable world of inspirational sports movies. This one is aces all around. — K.P.
21. The Green Knight
David Lowery’s impressionistic take on the Arthurian legend became the arthouse equivalent of a summer blockbuster, thanks in large part to Dev Patel’s commanding star turn. Setting off on a quest to fulfill his half of a potentially lethal bargain, Patel’s Sir Gawain traverses a medieval landscape where the magical and mundane exist side by side. While not as singularly strange as John Boorman’s 1981 cult classic, Excalibur, Lowery’s surreal touches make The Green Knight much more than your typical period adventure. — E.A.
20. Judas and the Black Messiah
We live in a post-"Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya" world, and that’s a beautiful thing. The actor earned a very deserving Best Supporting Actor Academy Award earlier this year for his powerhouse performance as slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. But Kaluuya’s excellent performance is hardly the only reason to watch Shaka King’s potent, tragic, infuriating tale of how the FBI conspired to murder Hampton while he slept with the help of a petty thief informant (LaKeith Stanfield, also Oscar-nominated for his performance). One small joy found compiling this list was that we could still include Judas on this year’s list even though it seems like it came out eons ago; it was actually February, thus still eligible for the COVID-altered 2021 Oscars ceremony. But this is one of those films that would make the cut any year. — K.P.
19. Tick, Tick… Boom!
Leave it to Broadway’s own Lin-Manuel Miranda to pull off the ultimate musical theater tribute ... in the middle of a pandemic no less. Midway through his directorial debut, the Hamilton mastermind stages a showstopping all-star Broadway number that never fails to bring the house down. But that’s far from the only reason to give Tick, Tick… Boom! a standing ovation: The film also features a career-best performance by Andrew Garfield as late playwright Jonathan Larson, great songs sung by a great ensemble and a loving tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim. — E.A.
With nods to Italian films and Japanese animation, Pixar succeeds again with this magical coming-of-age tale about the summer adventures of a young boy (er… sea monster from a hidden realm) and his newly found friends. The lessons learned in Luca are familiar: growing up with overprotective parents, leaving your childhood behind to welcome that awkward stage of adolescence, the importance of strong friendships to get you through dark moments, celebrating differences, accepting who you really are and finding your place in the world, but done in such an affecting and charmingly heartfelt way here. In yet another uncertain pandemic year, Luca was the perfect little summer gift sparking pure joy for both kids and adults alike. — Chrissy Le Nguyen
17. Don’t Look Up
Writer-director Adam McKay appears to have fully transitioned from helming dumb-smart broad comedies (Anchorman, Step Brothers) to claws-out sharp-witted social satires (The Big Short, Vice). He delivers his best film yet with Don’t Look Up, a star-studded, seething, topical and hilarious yet also undeniably depressing comedy about a pair of astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) bewildered to find the country cares more about a major celebrity breakup than their warnings that a planet-killing asteroid is racing toward Earth. With shades of both Dr. Strangelove and Idiocracy, the film was clearly written as a commentary on climate change indifference, but it’s shocking (and also really sad) how much of it now also feels like a riff on our coronavirus reaction, complete with DiCaprio’s alternate world Dr. Fauci. — K.P.
Much of the early attention surrounding Stillwater focused on Matt Damon’s look and performance as a Trump-supporting Oklahoma “roughneck” who looks like a walking MAGA meme. And Damon does indeed deliver a great, transformative performance again as a fish out of water in France trying to find evidence to free his imprisoned daughter (Abigail Breslin), one that ranks among his career best. But the film as a whole is fantastic, sweet at points like Tom McCarthy’s past work like The Station Agent and The Visitor, and alternately as thrilling as his Oscar-winning Spotlight. It’s seemingly fallen out of the Oscar conversation after its midsummer release, but it’s not one to miss. — K.P.
15. West Side Story
While it may not have rumbled at the box office (you’ll notice a theme here among musicals included), Steven Spielberg’s update of the Broadway staple is guaranteed to have a long shelf life. A spirited companion piece to its 1961 predecessor, Spielberg’s version of West Side Story is a strong showcase for numerous new stars-in-the-making — including Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist and Rachel Zegler — and makes thoughtful tweaks to the original book and music that meet the audience where it is today. There’s a place for this film in the canon of modern movie musical favorites. — E.A.
14. Being the Ricardos
The same year his legal drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 was generating Oscar love, renowned wordsmith-turned-also director Aaron Sorkin was already cranking on his next true-life tale, which also happens to be his funniest film to date. It helps that at the center of his story is American comedy legend Lucille Ball (the triumphantly cast Nicole Kidman), even if Sorkin will point out Kidman is playing Lucille Ball, not Lucy Ricardo. In focusing on a tumultuous, career-threatening week in the lives of Ball and husband Desi Arnaz on the set of I Love Lucy, Sorkin, Kidman and company bring us a gloriously intimate portrayal of the real Lucille Ball, especially, in all her acerbic wit and undeterred strength. — K.P.
13. Raya and the Last Dragon
There is a lot to love about Disney’s early-2021 animated adventure, which kicked off a heckuva year for the animation giants (see also Luca and Encanto). One, the barrier-breaking film is the studio’s first to introduce a Southeast Asian heroine, the eponymous warrior Raya, voiced by Star Wars alum Kelly Marie Tran. Two, the film might be the most action-stuffed Disney Animation entry to date, playing like an Indiana Jones adventure for families. And three, joining Tran’s Raya as the titular dragon is Awkwafina, who brings laughs by the case load in a hilarious voice performance. Four — and we can keep going — it’s absolutely visually stunning, with gorgeous, almost hyper real animation. — K.P.
Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s 2016 portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, was artfully crafted but awfully cold, in part due to the fact that much of it took place immediately post-JFK assassination. There’s much more warmth and even some levity to be found in his latest biopic Spencer, even if it centers around one of the most tragic figures of our lifetime, Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart), during a particular trying Christmas weekend at the Queen’s royal estate (if Stewart had Happiest Season in 2020, you could call this one Unhappiest Season). But the biggest reason to see Spencer is Stewart, who delivers a soulful, transcendent career-best performance as Di that should very likely land her an Academy Award. — K.P.
11. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Something special this way comes: Joel Coen’s dreamlike adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play is arguably the year’s most artfully-crafted film, incorporating sumptuous visual techniques from German Expressionist masters like F.W. Murnau and such silent cinema pioneers as Carl Dreyer. But the powerhouse cast ensures that what’s happening in the frame is just as entrancing as the frames themselves. Denzel Washington delivers one of the finest performances in his remarkable career as the doomed Macbeth, speaking Shakespeare’s speech with an unforced naturalism that makes the language sing. — E.A.
10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
As Marvel's first big-budget, big-screen Asian superhero movie, the release of Shang-Chi was a big deal for our family, so it was the first (and so far only) movie we've gone to see inside an actual movie theater — and it did not disappoint. With stunning martial arts sequences, a fantastical setting and strong family themes, Shang-Chi satisfies both die-hard Marvel fans and a more general, casual movie-viewing audience. The memorable bus fight scene at the top of the movie is especially thrilling to watch and really showcases breakout star Simu Liu’s prowess as an action leading man. In a world filled with Iron Man, Captain America and Spider-Man, it’s wonderful that we now have Shang-Chi. When my nephews and even my daughter are asked what they want to be for Halloween, there's now a superhero who looks like them they can choose from, and for that I am immensely proud and grateful. — C.N.
It was a heckuva year for documentaries (beyond what’s on this list, also check out The First Wave, The Rescue, Us Kids, Julia, Tina, Val and Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain), but none was as powerful as Stanley Nelson’s definitive account of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, a tragic, abhorrent stain on American history. Often categorized as a riot or hostage situation, Nelson peels the layers off to reveal why the prisoners revolted — the shocking manner in which they were systemically executed by corrections officers and state troopers, many blatantly racist. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, one of the most distressing and visceral documentaries ever made — and it’s an absolute must-watch. — K.P.
8. Licorice Pizza
After the heady delights of The Master and Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson aims directly for the heart with Licorice Pizza and hits a bullseye. Even if you’re conflicted about the not-insubstantial age gap that separates Alana Haim’s directionless twentysomething from Cooper Hoffman’s precocious teenager, the film focuses less on romantic love than it does on that intense connection that accompanies finding another person that grooves on your wavelength. The film’s incredibly immersive evocation of the mid-‘70s San Fernando Valley is pretty groovy as well. — E.A.
7. Spider-Man: No Way Home
There was no way Tom Holland’s third standalone Spidey adventure could possibly live up to the months of hype, not to mention the incessant rumors over who would (and wouldn’t) appear, right? Wrong. (Stop reading here if you’re spoiler-sensitive.) From its frenetic (and really funny) first act through its villain-reunion middle to its absolutely stunning last third, No Way Home overdelivers in ways few could have imagined. Here we thought Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire might pop in for a minute, not an entire act full of emotion, meta comedy and much-needed Spidey-on-Spidey therapy, making Garfield’s impassioned denials all the more “amazing.” It’s an epic ride that manages to be both incredibly fun and deeply bittersweet, a rare type of triumph for not just superhero movies, but a film of any stripe. — K.P.
6. In the Heights
While not the blockbuster it deserved to be — and dinged by critics for its lack of Afro-Latinx representation — Jon M. Chu’s exuberant adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway debut nonetheless injected a jolt of joy into theaters with its tuneful, vibrant look at a sweltering summer in New York’s Washington Heights. Need an escape from the pandemic blues? Just watch Anthony Ramos and the impressive ensemble sing and dance their way through show-stoppers like “96,000,” “Blackout,” “Carnaval del Barrio” and the title number. — M.E.
5. Summer of Soul
The best music festival of 1969 took place in New York — but not on Max Yasgur’s storied upstate farm. One hundred miles to the south, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival delivered soul-shaking, earth-quaking performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension and a trippy, transcendent Sly and the Family Stone — and then was promptly forgotten by mainstream music fans. Enter Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who got his hands on hours of original video footage of the Black Woodstock and transformed it into the year’s best movie documentary, a joyous celebration guaranteed to get your feet tapping and mouth smiling. — M.E.
4. Nightmare Alley
The first hour of Guillermo del Toro’s carnival-colored noir may be a slow burn, but that’s because the Oscar-winning Shape of Water director is methodically laying the track for a thrilling roller coaster ride into the depths of madness and despair. Although there are no traditional movie monsters in Nightmare Alley, the film is filled with deliciously monstrous behavior committed by and against Bradley Cooper’s ambitious carny, whose aspirations inevitably land him in scalding hot water. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett is perfectly chill as one of the iciest femme fatales in recent memory. — E.A.
After becoming the biggest story of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in January, Sian Heder’s deliriously warm crowdpleaser — a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier — didn’t quite rock the zeitgeist when premiering on Apple TV+ over the summer (such is the reality of our new fragmented streaming experience). But thankfully it’s starting to get its flowers as awards season begins. The comedic drama, which follows a hearing choir star daughter (breakout star Emilia Jones) of deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) in a New England fishing community, is charming, heartwarming and hilarious, and right up there with Ted Lasso in Top 2 reasons to get Apple TV+. — K.P.
Not since Peter Jackson triumphantly unleashed The Lord of the Rings 20 years ago has a filmmaker so brilliantly brought a seemingly unfilmable fantasy novel to the big screen. Denis Villeneuve’s breathtaking opus transports viewers to a fully realized eye-popping galaxy far, far away, populated by the starry likes of Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista and a scene-heisting Jason Momoa. From the cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s score, Dune delivers for fans of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel in every imaginable way — and almost makes us forget the 1984 David Lynch misfire. Our only complaint: Having to wait until 2023 for the sequel. — M.E.
1. The Power of the Dog
There’s good reason Jane Campion’s gorgeously filmed, quietly simmering Western is an early favorite to be the big winner come Oscars night. The drama, set in 1925 Montana and following the fraught relationship between rancher brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons), the latter’s new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is the New Zealand director’s best work since 1993’s The Piano, and as perfectly cast (and acted) a film as you’ll find all year. An enrapturing and biting yarn about masculinity and repression, it also manages to save its best moments for last — begging to be re-watched after its stinger of a climax. — K.P
THE 5 WORST
5. Thunder Force
Thunder Force is not one of those movies you want to be bad — unlike, say, Mel Gibson playing Angry Santa Claus in something called Fatman (*actual movie). It’s got two of the most likable, magnetic stars in Hollywood in Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, real-life best friends finally getting to make a movie together under the direction of McCarthy’s equally as affable husband Ben Falcone. So it pains us to report that their superhero team-up was far from super, greenlit by Netflix as the streamer attempts to deliver new original movies every week yet it feels like it was given the action budget akin to a Disney Channel Spy Kids knock-off. — K.P.
4. Space Jam: A New Legacy
The original Space Jam was always a dubious "classic," one that was revered by the generation of young moviegoers who grew up with it and reviled by everyone else. In contrast, it's hard to imagine this overstuffed, underbaked revival inspiring any kind of nostalgia amongst any age group. LeBron James does his best to put his game face on while leading Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes to victory on the court, but the movie's gags simply aren't funny enough to distract from its non-existent story and patience-testing basketball play. That's all for the Space Jam franchise, folks. — E.A.
3. Chaos Walking
Tom Holland has the unfortunate distinction of headlining 2021's biggest movie ... and also one of the year's biggest flops. That's not to imply that your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man or his co-star, Star Wars's own Daisy Ridley, are the sole reasons for Chaos Walking's failure to launch. The Doug Liman-directed film went through multiple rounds of rewrites, reshoots and re-edits during its torturous four-year production process, and that wear and tear is all too obvious in the finished product. It doesn't help that the central conceit of Patrick Ness's YA trilogy — which takes place on a distant planet where people can hear each other's thoughts — doesn't translate particularly well to the screen. If we could hear Holland and Ridley's thoughts while making the movie, they'd probably be along the lines of, "Get me outta here!" — E.A.
2. Prisoners of the Ghostland
We ride or die with Nicolas Cage, we’ll get that right out of the way. We also understand why subversive Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono has a devout cult following, including Cage himself. But Sono seemingly accomplished the impossible with this bonkers-in-bad-way genre mashup about a criminal given a chance to redeem himself when he’s sent on a rescue mission: He rendered a Nic Cage movie unwatchable. At least it had those testicle detonators. — K.P.
1. Dear Evan Hansen
Dear Evan Hansen felt destined to fail from the beginning — or at least once it began getting endlessly dragged on social media for having its now-28-year-old Broadway star Ben Platt reprise his role of a high school senior who responds to a classmate’s suicide in a most curious fashion in the overtly earnest, occasionally off-putting film version from director Stephen Chbosky (who we should mentioned also directed one of the century’s best high school movies in The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Celebrated co-stars Julianne Moore and Amy Adams couldn’t mitigate the damage, either, and Hansen ultimately got the panning it deserved. To be fair, pound-for-pound it’s probably not the worst movie of the entire year (thankfully we didn’t see everything), but it’s undoubtedly the biggest turkey. — K.P.