The 20 Best Movies of 2021
Welcome to your ultimate winter watchlist
It’s been a surprisingly rich year for movies considering that we as a nation (and the film industry specifically) have struggled against the dire limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a flurry of top-flight films hitting the big screen late in the year, our critics have seen them all and are now here with their picks for best of the best since 01/01/21. Did your faves make the list? How many have you seen? How many do you plan to watch over Christmas vacation? Rev up your streaming platforms, buy tickets if you feel safe doing so, and make your plan to catch our picks for the Top 20 Movies of 2021.
Being the Ricardos
In West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly talky biopic, Nicole Kidman is terrific as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as her faithless husband with some ’splainin’ to do during one crisis-filled week backstage on the 1950s I Love Lucy show.
Watch it: Being the Ricardos, in theaters and Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime Video
Kenneth Branagh’s semiautobiographical masterpiece about a sensitive kid (Jude Hill) playing war with a wooden sword and a trash-can-lid shield as grownup Protestants and Catholics battle in the streets for real. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are radiant as the hero’s warmly waggish grandparents. It evokes a time and place through a child’s eyes, and makes you feel part of the torn town and the unbreakable family.
Watch it: Belfast, in theaters
Charming, shambolic bachelor radio journalist Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) takes his 8-year-old nephew (uncutesy child actor Woody Norman) on the road, as he interviews (real) kids about the future. Their bond grows, as does Johnny, like Hugh Grant in About a Boy, only better. An intergenerational classic.
Watch it: C’mon C’mon, in theaters
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The irresistible coming-of-age tale of a CODA, a Child Of Deaf Adults (Emilia Jones) and rising star of her school glee club. Her irascibly devoted, hearing-impaired mom (Marlee Matlin) can’t hear her sing, but she (and we) can feel the good vibrations.
Watch it: CODA, on Apple TV+
In a whirligig of a musical, Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, an increasingly towering figure in Hollywood, plays the classic hero. He lends his vocal gifts to a tongue-tied friend who’s wooing a beauty (who’s the object of Cyrano’s unconfessed affection). This Cyrano’s nose is fine, but he fears his height is a love buzzkill. Dinklage’s real-life wife, Erica Schmidt, wrote the script.
Watch it: Cyrano, in theaters
Jim Broadbent plays a retired guy who pulls off the only heist in the history of London’s National Gallery, stealing a duke’s priceless portrait to force the government to fund elder care. Helen Mirren dazzles as his dowdy, doting (yet appalled) wife. (True story!)
Watch it: The Duke, in extremely limited theaters in December, opening nationally in March 2022
In an utterly spectacular epic, a Luke Skywalker-ish youngster (Timothée Chalamet) joins with a freedom fighter (Javier Bardem) to battle a sandworm-infested desert planet’s cruel ruler Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård).
Watch it: Dune, in theaters
The Harder They Fall
Like a faster-paced Tarantino romp, this Black Western is a historical hoot and a holler, featuring actual 19th-century characters played by some of the best actors in the business, including Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba and Regina King.
Watch it: The Harder They Fall, on Netflix
Both Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis are champions as the L.A. parents who coached their kids Venus and Serena Williams to the pinnacle of the all-white tennis world.
Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) returns to his Boogie Nights home turf, the San Fernando Valley, for a nostalgic charmer about a self-confident teenage boy (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son Cooper Hoffman) in the polyester 1970s.
Watch it: Licorice Pizza, in theaters
The Lost Daughter
In the deeply moving directing debut of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, a professor (Olivia Colman, 47) meets a young mom (Dakota Johnson) on a Greek vacation, stirring up her own mixed feelings about motherhood. Ed Harris, 71, excels as her would-be midlife sweetheart.
Watch it: The Lost Daughter, in theaters and Netflix Dec. 31
In Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous, hardboiled remake of the 1947 noir classic, a drifter (Bradley Cooper) meets a carnival barker (Willem Dafoe), a fortune-teller (Toni Collette), a magician out of tricks (David Strathairn) and one scary psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett).
Watch it: Nightmare Alley, in theaters Dec. 17
Two single moms, one middle-aged, one young (Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit), give birth the same day in the same hospital, and find their lives entwined in a Pedro Almodóvar movie — only it’s not a comic romp but a tale involving the dark legacy of Franco’s brutish Spanish Civil War.
Watch it: Parallel Mothers, in extremely limited theaters Dec. 24, wide release in 2022
Actress Rebecca Hall directs a sharp, emotional adaptation of the 1929 classic about two old Harlem friends who reconnect, a Black doctor’s wife (Tessa Thompson) and a bottle-blonde (Ruth Negga) passing as white. Stellar performances and Hall’s blinding intelligence make this a stunning, sensitive directorial debut.
Watch it: Passing, on Netflix
The Power of the Dog
In 1925 Montana, two bachelor rancher brothers find their lives transformed and their souls revealed. Director Jane Campion soars at 67 with her first film in 13 years. Was there ever a more haunting Western?
Watch it: The Power of the Dog, on Netflix
Kristen Stewart is good as Princess Di in this stylish, fictionalized account of her Christmas from hell with the royal family, but Timothy Spall outdoes her as her royal controller — he radiates infinitely well-bred menace.
Watch it: Spencer, in theaters and Redbox on demand
Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Cinema’s archaeological find of the year is Questlove’s documentary boasting long-forgotten footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the Woodstock-size event where 300,000 watched superstar acts including Nina Simone, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, the 5th Dimension, the Staples Singers, and Stevie Wonder the year they quit calling him “Little Stevie.” Winning Sundance’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, it’s as riveting as The Beatles: Get Back.
Watch it: Summer of Soul, on Hulu
The Tender Bar
George Clooney, 60, directs a heartstring-fiddling adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir about a boy (Tye Sheridan) who grows up absent a father in a Long Island bar full of surrogate dads, including his doting bartender uncle (Ben Affleck), his instructor in “the male sciences.”
Watch it: The Tender Bar, in theaters and Jan. 7 on Amazon Prime
The Tragedy of Macbeth
In Joel Coen’s fresh take on a bloodthirsty couple usually portrayed in youth, Frances McDormand notes that she and Denzel Washington play Shakespeare’s lady of direst cruelty and the throne-heisting Thane as “an older couple at the end of their ambition rather than at the beginning.”
Watch it: The Tragedy of Macbeth, in theaters Dec. 25 and Jan. 14 on Apple TV+
West Side Story
The greatest American playwright, Tony Kushner, and the greatest film director, Steven Spielberg, adapt the great New York musical by the great Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (in turn adapting the Bard).
Watch it: West Side Story, in theaters
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.