It’s funny how differently people can experience the same thing. When 2021 ended, thousands of people swarmed the internet as they celebrated the end to yet another quote-unquote “horrible year.” “Good riddance 2021!” some online commentators quipped. “Thank God that’s over with,” others remarked. My favorite comment had to be one person saying that 2021 was “2020 Part 2.” Geez, tell me you hated a year without telling me you hated a year.
And you know, as bad as 2021 was, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was as awful as everybody was saying it was. Don’t get me wrong: it was still insufferable, with various morons still pushing conspiracy theories about masks, COVID-19, the vaccine, the 2020 election, and everything else in between. But when you compare it alongside how arduous, painful, and mind-boggingly stupid the past five years have been, 2021 felt relatively… normal? At least when compared to the likes of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and of course, the accursed year of 2020.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that compared to the last decade, 2021 felt like a step in the right direction, if ever so slightly. And the biggest step of improvement we’ve seen this past year was easily with the movies. While 2020 saw many movie releases get canceled, rescheduled, or removed from theaters left and right, 2021 saw a steady release of fantastic movies throughout the whole year, including many that were originally supposed to come out in 2020.
That’s why for the first time on this website, I won’t be doing a top 10, a top 15, or even a top 20 list for the year. For one time and one time only, I will be ranking my Top 21 Movies of 2021.
I’m expanding my best-of list this year from 10 movies to 21 for a few reasons. One is because, as you might remember, I obviously didn’t do a top 10 list last year, so doubling my list this year only seemed fair given how many more movies came out in 2021. Another reason is that as I started building out my list, I noticed that a lot of my favorite movies were getting knocked out of my top 10, and I still wanted to recognize them in some way.
But more to the point, I just feel like 2021 deserved the extra love. It had the difficult task of rebounding from the trash year we got in 2020, and even with big box-office successes in No Time To Die and F9, the film industry still hasn’t quite recovered financially from 2020. Nevertheless, these filmmakers, actors, and artists have given us great films to admire over the past year, and I want to give them their fair due despite the challenging time we’re living through.
Few disclaimers to go through as per usual. First of all, this list is obviously my opinion, and some of the opinions I have will frustrate you. I know critics have said The Power Of The Dog and The Green Knight were mesmerizing cinematic masterpieces that deserve to be lavishly praised until the end of time, but I’m sorry to say that both of those movies sucked and neither one will be appearing on my list.
Simultaneously, despite how many more movies I’ve seen this past year, many still slipped past my radar. You won’t find Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story here, especially since it had the gall to come out during the same month as Spider-Man: No Way Home. You will also not find Belfast on this list either despite the amazing things I’ve heard about it. Perhaps most disappointingly is the fact that I didn’t get to see Licorice Pizza before the year ended, and that’s especially ironic given how many Paul Thomas Anderson films I’ve brushed up on this year, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood.
And lastly, this will also be the first of my best-of list that will not have any honorable mentions, mostly because it’s 21 FREAKING MOVIES. There doesn’t need to be any honorable mentions this year. All of these movies were amazing.
Okay, enough with the intro. Time to hop into my favorite 21 films of 2021, starting with…
21. House Of Gucci
A sleek, sexy, and stylish account of the Gucci family and the wealth and power that drives them to do horrible things. Ridley Scott directs a stunning all-star cast in this thrilling crime-drama including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino, and who my girlfriend calls Adam “Daddy” Driver himself. The standout performances belong to Jared Leto, who disappears into the biggest Italian idiot alive in Paulo Gucci, and Lady Gaga, whose ice-cold demeanor gives her an edge so chilling that she could be mistaken for a mob boss. As someone who couldn’t give two rips about the Gucci brand name and family, House Of Gucci kept me engaged and interested in a way that few films have this year. That alone is an accomplishment in of itself. Three and a half stars.
A lively and joyous celebration of family, love, and Latin America. This Walt Disney fantasy tells the story of the Madrigals, an incredible family endowed with supernatural abilities and a sentient home they affectionately refer to as their “Encanto.” But when their abilities and their home begin to collapse, the Madrigals need to rely on their powerless granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) to save them. This endearing little delight warms both heart and soul, bursting with personality and a deep appreciation of Colombian culture. Disney’s animation is as lush and beautiful as ever, and Mirabel is an endearing little underdog that’s easy to love and root for. Like its main hero, Encanto shows how powerful we can be, even in the moments where we feel powerless. Three and a half stars.
A stunning, spectacular showstopper of a film that leaves just as much an impact as its real-life singer did. Jennifer Hudson commands the screen as Aretha Franklin in this rousing biopic about her life. First-time director Liesl Tommy tells a provocative story about Aretha and how she changed the course of the music industry forever. But the movie isn’t just about her hit singles and chart-breaking records: Respect also shows the darker, more grim sides of Aretha’s life that she had to persevere through. And Hudson gives one of the best performances of her career, shining with as much life and vibrancy as she did in her Oscar-winning role in Dreamgirls. A powerful testament to the Queen of Soul and the millions that she inspired. Three and a half stars.
18. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
There’s absolutely no reason why Zack Snyder’s Justice League should work as well as it does, let alone even exist in the first place. Yet despite studio interference from Warner Bros. and the general stigma surrounding remakes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a comprehensive and fully realized vision of these characters that comic book fans have come to love. This four-hour epic brings weight to these character’s arcs and decisions, and every moment the film builds up to feels earned and intentional. Yeah the movie does feel a little bloated, but I’d rather a longer, denser narrative that fully believes in itself rather than a shorter, more diminished experience for everybody. If Warner Bros. has any sense, they’ll announce a sequel as soon as possible. Three and a half stars.
Pixar knocks it out of the park yet again with this sweet and sincere little gem of a movie that shows people to not be afraid of what makes them different. Director Enrico Casarosa pulls from his childhood experiences to tell a literal fish-out-of-water story about a pair of sea monsters trying to fit in to a small town on the edge of the Riviera. The animation is colorful, vibrant, and beautiful, feeing like a luscious blend of Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid’s art styles. Dan Romer’s blissful soundtrack shines with serenity, with its melodies moving you to the tunes of its sweet strings and accordions. A beautiful and simple little story that serves as a heartfelt love letter to Italian culture and childhood. Three and a half stars.
16. Don’t Look Up
A biting satire on the current state of politics and how all of the division can do nothing but harm us. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as a pair of astronomers that sound the alarm on a comet hurdling toward the Earth. But instead of unifying the public to divert the comet’s trajectory, America’s leaders instead trivialize the threat and pretend it doesn’t even exist. Writer-director Adam McKay uses the comet as an allegory for climate change, but the metaphor is so flexible that it can apply to several issues, including COVID-19. The all-star cast is equally impressive, with Leonardo DiCaprio in particular shining during a rant akin to Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. A highly critical look at our nation’s political discourse that feels less and less like fiction the more it goes on. Three and a half stars.
15. Nightmare Alley
An eerie, captivating, and unsettling psychological thriller that dives deeply into the lust and greed that drives men to commit heinous, sinful acts. Bradley Cooper stars as an ambitious carnie who wants to take his act across the world. But as he gets involved more and more with the wrong people, his life turns into a downward spiral that spins out of control. Guillermo Del Toro crafts a brilliant and ingenious world fueled by tricks, deceptions, and theatricality. The production design by Tamara Deverell is mesmerizing, and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is straight-up hypnotic with its expansive, wide photography. But it’s Del Toro’s vision that makes Nightmare Alley sizzle with its own intrigue and implication. An atmospheric neo-noir drama that reveals the monsters that live in men. Three and a half stars.
14. The Suicide Squad
A wicked, wacky, and wildly entertaining redemption for both The Suicide Squad and James Gunn. In this standalone sequel to the 2016 supervillain film, The Suicide Squad follows Amanda Waller as she assembles a new crew of misfit villains for a dangerous mission, including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian). This violent, over-the-top action flick subverts your expectations at every imaginable turn, with unique, funny, and endearing characters stealing your heart in between all of the hot-blooded action. Newcomer Daniela Melchior in particular shines as the pure-hearted thief Ratcatcher, and casting Sylvester Stallone as the talking King Shark was a stroke of pure genius. The Suicide Squad is James Gunn and DC at their best. Four stars.
13. Raya And The Last Dragon
An imaginative and awe-inspiring animated fantasy that moves and flows with the feel of a live-action epic. Chronicling the legend of five clans from the ancient land of Kumandra, the film follows a warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) on their quest to banish the evil Druun spirits and save their home. The animation is Disney at its best, with characters’ lightning-quick action and reflexes driving the plot forward with vigor and enthusiasm. The caliber of the voice cast is equally talented, with Kelly Marie Tran shining the most as a young adventurer torn between her grief, guilt, and her desire to trust others. An exciting, funny, and heartfelt adventure that shows that it’s never too late to do the right thing. Four stars.
12. No Time To Die
A bold deconstruction of the James Bond mythos that portrays him not as a generic action hero, but as a tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence and self-ruinous choices. Daniel Craig plays Bond one last time in his rawest and most human portrayal yet, showing who the man behind the license to kill is when he isn’t 007. Director Cary Joji Fukanaga makes every action sequence feel fast-paced and impactful, raising the stakes and the tension every minute that passes. Yet the most incredible thing about No Time To Die is how it shows Bond reacting to a world shifting and changing all around him. It’s funny how the movie is called No Time To Die, because by the time the end credits rolled, all we can think about is how James Bond lived. Four stars.
11. Summer Of Soul
An electrifying musical experience that breathes with its own heartbeat and life. In his feature-length directorial debut, Questlove assembles never-before-seen archival footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and masterfully restores it with a crisp and clear picture quality that makes you feel like you were really there, with featured artists including Sly Stone, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. But it isn’t just a simple concert film: Questlove contextualizes a lot of the concert-going experiences through the lens of racial unrest in the late ’60s. For many, the Harlem Cultural Festival wasn’t just a musical event: it was a powerful statement for freedom, civil rights, and equality, one that The Summer Of Soul embodies proudly. Four stars.
10. In The Heights
A vibrant, colorful, and beautiful love letter to immigrants, Puerto Rico, and America itself. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu team up to bring Lin-Manuel’s musical debut to the big screen, and it’s bursting with so much soul and energy that at times it makes your heart stop. The music is infectious upon first listen, with the actors singing and rapping with such articulation that it rivals the intricate lyricism of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very own Hamilton. The film is lined with an impressive all-star cast, with Anthony Ramos in particular shining in the lead as Usnavi. But the cultural statement the film makes is the most powerful, telling audiences to not be ashamed of where you come from, who you are, and what dreams you are pursuing. You’ll fall in love with In The Heights so much that you’ll never want to leave. Four stars.
9. The Mitchells V.S. The Machines
One of the most inventive, funny, charismatic, and heartfelt animated films of the year, and it isn’t even by Disney or Pixar. Sony Pictures knocks it out of the park yet again with this witty and wacky science-fiction comedy about a dysfunctional family fighting a robotic takeover. Developed by the same creative team behind Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells V.S. The Machines’ animation style is razor-sharp with stunning watercolor quality, flawlessly replicating a visual aesthetic similar to a children’s storybook. But the animation is only half of the puzzle. The other half lies in writer-director duo Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, who craft an incredibly sweet and sincere story about family, fatherhood, and following your dreams. The Mitchells V.S. The Machines is an animated smash hit that pops with its own style, pizzazz and personality. Four stars.
8. King Richard
A wonderful and moving tribute to the biggest legends in tennis history and the family that rooted for them all the way there. Will Smith stars as Venus and Serena Williams’ father in this dramatic retelling of their journey to becoming tennis champions. I initially thought it was weird that a movie about Venus and Serena would focus on their father rather than themselves. But to my surprise, the movie isn’t about Venus, Serena, or Richard — it’s about the Williams family and how their love and dedication to each other propelled their daughters to unimaginable success. Everyone was amazing in this picture, from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena to Aunjanue Ellis as their mother. But Will Smith steals the show in one of his most passionate performances to date — maybe even his best ever. The best family drama of the year that hits you right in the feels and in the heart. Four stars.
7. The Last Duel
A gritty, bleak, and violent recount of a rivalry between two knights and the woman caught up in the middle of it all. In one of his best historical epics since Gladiator, Ridley Scott directs an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck as he tells a true story about two men’s cold-blooded conflict that eventually leads into one of the last duels in human history. Ridley Scott guides his viewers through the plot’s many perspectives, masterfully building up the stakes so you understand where every character is coming from. But the real surprise is newcomer Jodie Comer, who delivers a performance so firm and immovable that she steals the spotlight from the film’s bigger stars. A layered and intricate narrative that keeps its viewers engaged until it arrives at its pulse-pounding, heart-racing conclusion. Four stars.
6. Judas And The Black Messiah
A hard, harrowing, and haunting portrayal of black America and the man who tried to lead his people to liberation. Daniel Kaluuya plays Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in his final years leading up to his eventual betrayal by FBI informant Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), who infiltrated the Black Panthers to gain Fred Hampton’s trust. Director Shaka King crafts a compelling, mesmerizing thriller from the pages of the Lucas Brothers’ intricate screenplay, eerily recounting the events of late 1960s Chicago and the racial and political divisions that laid deep within. But it’s Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield who steal the show, with Stanfield playing a tortured, conflicted character torn between two different worlds while Kaluyya embodies the fierce revolutionary fighting for his future. An intense and layered narrative that leaves you feeling hollow, yet hopeful by the end. Four stars.
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Yeah, the marketing was horrible, the trailers were released way too late into the year, and this film was plagued with more leaks than the R.M.S. Titanic. Still, despite all of its promotional pitfalls, Spider-Man: No Way Home lives up to every single impossible expectation fans had for it. Tom Holland is the best that he’s ever been as Spider-Man, offering a gripping, mature, and emotional performance in a role filled with depth and complexion. Spider-Man’s all-star villains also make a triumphant return, with Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin being the most chilling and unnerving out of all of them. Trading the jokes and the quippy one-liners for compelling human drama, No Way Home is the most realized version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man to date. A beautiful and heartfelt celebration of Spider-Man’s cinematic legacy. Four stars.
4. Tick, Tick… BOOM!
A heartfelt love letter to Jonathan Larson and the amazing legacy that he left behind. Andrew Garfield plays the Tony Award-winning playwright long before “Rent” became the Broadway hit that it is known as today. In his feature directorial debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda make an impact as he flawlessly replicates Larson’s style in this emotional and hard-hitting rock musical about the life of a struggling artist aspiring to be more. All of the songs in this smash hit were posthumously written by Larson himself, giving the movie a layer of authenticity that few films possess. Garfield especially shines in arguably one of his best performances ever, portraying a musician filled with love and passion even as everything crumbles all around him. In a world full of derivative, soulless musicals, Tick, Tick… BOOM! explodes with its own personality and life. The last melody will leave you in tears. Four stars.
The grandest, rawest, most epic cinematic event of the year. Based on Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction saga, Dune tells a galactic story about warring factions fighting over the desert planet of Arrakis, which carries the most valuable asset in the universe: the spice. Director Denis Villenueve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) creates an engrossing and absorbing experience that immerses you in a way no other film has to date. This is a film that makes you feel the harsh sun beating down on you, the dry desert air as it parches your mouth, the heat from explosions radiating off of your body. The cinematography, the editing, the music, the visual effects: even the sound design helps create a flawless experience unmatched in its presentation. But the characters and the setting are just as fleshed out as the rest of the production is, weaving a dense and complex narrative that guides you through every twist and turn. The best blockbuster we’ve seen this decade, and we haven’t even gotten to the sequel yet. Four stars.
A deeply personal and profound dedication to cinema and the powerful emotions that they make us feel. Using camcorder footage recorded by Val Kilmer and stored away in his personal achives for several years, Val stunningly captures Val Kilmer’s entire life from his early childhood to his later years long after his blockbuster career. The film feels surprisingly vulnerable, showing sensitive and intimate moments from Val’s life that are very hard to show on camera. But that’s the life that Val and directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo wanted to show — not the celebrity in front of the movie cameras and red carpets, but rather the father, husband, and son resting at home watching as his life passes him by. On the surface level, Val is a simple film about the life and career of the star behind Top Gun, The Doors, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Heat, Tombstone, and many more. But on a much deeper level, Val is about loving unconditionally, sharing our stories passionately, and expressing our truths fearlessly. A brilliant, brilliant little gem of a picture that you owe yourself to experience at least once. Four stars.
And finally, my number one movie of the year. A lot of people are not going to understand my favorite film of 2021. A lot of people are going to be shocked. A lot of people are going to be surprised. A lot of people are going to be very, very confused. Quite honestly, there will be many people who will strongly disagree not just with this title placing at the top of my list, but this title placing on my list at all. All I can say is that this is hands-down the best experience I had at the movies this year and it isn’t even particularly close. And that is…
Where do I even begin with this one? After taking a five-year hiatus, Bo Burnham returns to comedy in this feature-length project that he wrote, shot, directed, performed, and edited while we were in the middle of one of the most unprecedented events in human history. The film is brilliant in Bo Burnham’s traditionally dark comedic style, breaking down complex issues into clever and witty lyrics that remain poignant and thoughtful, yet equally self-deprecating and entertaining. My favorite of his songs are “How The World Works” where he debunks social misconceptions with the help of a sock puppet, “All Eyes On Me” where he portrays mental illness in a heart-wrenching symphony of sorrow, and “Welcome To The Internet” which portrays the internet like a millennial supervillain that aims to take over every intimate, personal, and chaotic moment out of your whole life. The visuals are equally striking, with Bo playing with color and lighting in a unique way that makes each sequence pop with its own stylistic appeal. I especially liked the visual sequences of “FaceTime With My Mom” and “White Woman’s Instagram,” both of which mimic the shapes of a smartphone and Instagram posts.
But these elements alone make Inside merely an amusing experience. What makes it special is its emotional complexity, looking at deeper issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicide and how the pandemic worsened the symptoms that were already there. More than any other film released last year, Bo Burnham’s Inside made me feel seen, heard, and validated for the emotions that I experienced in 2020. Fear. Frustration. Loss. Loneliness. Regret. The soft-spoken sympathy that Bo Burnham provides here is quietly empowering — a sort of silent solidarity that reminds us all that it is okay to not feel okay.
Inside moved me and changed me in ways no other film has — not just from this past year, but from the past several years. It broke through my writer’s block, inspired me to stay creative, and encouraged me to keep doing what I love just because it makes me happy. I really can’t understate how significant of an accomplishment that is. I’ve never experienced something as deep and powerful as Inside before, and I doubt I will experience anything like it ever again. Thank you, Bo Burnham, for bringing us this mesmerizing masterpiece. You’ve given us all something to believe in. Four stars.
Thank you to all of the amazing filmmakers, actors, and studios that brought us these amazing movies in 2021. Here’s to 2022 and hoping that we continue to look toward the future.
– David Dunn