Can't-Miss Cinema

The 10 best movies of 2021 made the most of a changing film landscape

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights
Photo by Macall Polay
Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in The Tender Bar
Photo by Claire Folger
Sly Stone in Summer of Soul
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Emilia Jones in CODA
Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
Demi Singleton, Will Smith, and Saniyya Sidney in King Richard
Photo by Chiabella James
Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass in Language Lessons
Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in C'mon, C'mon
Photo courtesy of A24
Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill, and Judi Dench in Belfast
Photo by Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Ariana Debose and David Alvarez in West Side Story
Photo by Niko Tavernise
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos
Photo by Glen Wilson
Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace in In the Heights
Photo by Macall Polay

Even more than in 2020, the act of watching a movie changed immensely in 2021. While a lot films returned to actual theaters, streaming at home has become the preferred method for many viewers, especially when it comes to non-blockbuster type movies. While I will continue to argue that watching movies on a big screen is crucial in experiencing the impact of the best the year had to offer, the following 10 films can be enjoyed no matter where you watch them. (My list of the year's 10 worst movies is here.) 

10) The Tender Bar
Tye Sheridan starred in the worst movie of the year, but thankfully he's also in one of the best. Directed by George Clooney and featuring Ben Affleck's second great supporting role of the year, the film contains some keenly observed storytelling that lets multiple characters shine even when they’re not the focus of attention. With fantastic acting across the board, the film is funny and heartwarming, but it rises above your typical feel-good kind of film.

9) Summer of Soul
The best documentary of the year (subtitled …or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) accomplishes everything a great documentary should. It shines a light on an undercovered event, the so-called "Black Woodstock" in 1969. It's an immersive history lesson of what Black music looked like at the time, and how those artists and others were responding to the issues of the day. Director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson brings life to the 50-year-old footage, giving viewers a front row seat to some of the best musical acts of all time.

On one hand, CODA is your typical coming-of-age film, following a young woman who overcomes doubts to find her passion in life. But it becomes special by having her be the only hearing person in an all-deaf family, and by having the family played by Deaf actors. Writer/director Sian Heder does a great job of demonstrating the isolation that each member of the family feels even as they are an admirable unit overall. Only the most hardened soul won't shed a tear or ten as the film comes to its emotional close.

7) King Richard
The big difference between Reinaldo Marcus Green's first film of the year (Joe Bell, one of the year's worst) and his second, King Richard, is the star. Will Smith is highly charismatic as Richard Williams, father of future tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, even when he's being ornery and inflexible. The underdog story is played to near-perfection, with great tennis scenes and a story that brings out the best in all of the actors, including a fantastic Aunjanue Willis.

6) Language Lessons
Language Lessons could have just been a light, COVID-era time capsule, with the story being told almost entirely on Zoom. But director/co-writer/star Natalie Morales and co-star/co-writer Mark Duplass turn it into something much deeper and affecting, achieving big levels of emotion that wouldn’t seem possible with two actors who are never in the same room together. Alternately funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, it's a small film that beats many bigger ones in both style and substance.

5) C'mon, C'mon
Joaquin Phoenix shows off his range yet again in Mike Mills' affecting black-and-white film about a radio journalist who connects with his nephew and his soul over the course of a few days. Containing none of the intensity that Phoenix showed in Joker, the film is a beautiful human story, as well as a great tour of distinct parts of the United States. Phoenix, Gabby Hoffman, and newcomer Woody Norman are all great in a film with zero flashiness.

4) Belfast
The highly autobiographical film from writer/director Kenneth Branagh represents a high point for the filmmaker. Set in Northern Ireland just as a period known as "The Troubles" started, the film hinges on the closeness of the family at the center of the story, and Branagh and the actors do an extraordinary job of depicting that intimacy. It's a brilliantly told story about a time that only those who were there know well, with several Oscar-level performances.

3) West Side Story
There are many ways Steven Spielberg's update of West Side Story could have gone wrong, but he and writer Tony Kushner have updated the story in all the right ways. Changing the order and perspective of some of the songs provided newfound depth, and Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski conjure a number of instantly iconic shots. Bold choices, including not using subtitles for any of the Spanish spoken in the film, cement the film as just as good, if not - gasp! - better than the original.

2) Being the Ricardos
Another classic is brought to new life in Aaron Sorkin's film about behind-the-scenes drama on the set of the 1950s show I Love Lucy. Sorkin blends the inherent comedy of the sitcom seamlessly with the drama of the story, making for an ultra-compelling finished product. Some may take issue with stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem not looking exactly like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but their performances - as well of those of the supporting cast - wipe away any superficial qualms.

1) In the Heights
There were many movie musicals released in 2021, but In the Heights stands at the top of that list and the year as a whole. Director Jon M. Chu and his team achieve such a sense of place in the film that you can’t help but feel as if you’re a part of the community yourself. They also change the story and songs in significant and important ways that somehow make it even more impactful than the production that won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It is a joyous and moving celebration of life, love, and community, and it's the best movie of the year.