Yes, believe it or not, 2021 is almost over. The pandemic again affected how we watched and experienced films this year, but when all is said and done, entertainment still gave us wonderful escapes. Movies to love this year came in all types, from awards contenders to big-budget action spectacles. As of the publication date of this article, here are our favorites, in no particular order.
Writer-director Kenneth Branagh‘s child’s-eye-view of 1969 Ireland is intensely personal, emotional, and affecting. Branagh’s directorial choices in presenting the story just add another level of substance. The cast is wonderful, from parents Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan to grandparents Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, with newcomer Jude Hill being an adorable find. There are unforgettable moments here, both sad and joyful, but when the film ends, you’re just left with hope. Definitely one of the year’s best.
Belfast is now in theaters.
Will Smith gives one of the best performances of his career as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams. Those two tennis legends produced this film, choosing to highlight their father’s place in their story. He’s presented in a truly human way, flawed but also with a fierce need to see his daughters reach their potential. There is also a good supporting cast here, and the script has a good sense of what needs to be dramatized for maximum impact. A crowd-pleasing experience.
King Richard is now in theaters.
The Power of the Dog
A Western about toxic masculinity and sexuality…directed by a woman…starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, this film already had a lot going for it. The excellent story with the knockout ending simply cemented its place on this list. The beautiful cinematography helped as well. Add in the supporting cast of Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee and it’s easy to see that director Jane Campion created something special. This is a challenging watch but a rewarding one.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel’s ground-breaking Asian superhero origin story was a blockbuster that delighted us all this year. Stunning action sequences and beautiful design are only the start. The story itself wisely understands the personal stakes of heroism and villainy, and the film leaves you wanting more of this world and these characters. And actors like Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung as well. Truly an achievement of big-budget filmmaking.
Judas and the Black Messiah
I know that technically, this film qualified for awards last year, but its wide release wasn’t until this year, and it’s too good to ignore. Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton is a performance to treasure. He won that Oscar for a reason. The script makes something vital out of history, and we watch enthralled as Hampton becomes had of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers until his untimely murder by the FBI. Powerful and intense.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max.
Disney Animation really hit it out of the park this year, so it was extremely difficult to choose between this film and Raya and the Last Dragon for this list. The way Mirabel is such a relatable character gives Encanto the edge. This story makes the trite notion of “believing in yourself” something deeply emotional. Plus, the animation is beautiful to look at and the music hums along in a well-integrated way with the plot. Get ready to hug your family even tighter after seeing this one.
Encanto is now in theaters.
Director Denis Villeneuve was the right filmmaker to bring Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel to the big screen. His command over visuals is almost unparalleled, and that’s exactly what was required here. Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, and Rebecca Ferguson are just part of the large, talented cast assembled to begin telling the story of a noble family and the effort to control the rarest resource in the universe. Yes, I said “begin” because this is only part 1. We’re ready for part 2.
Dune is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
This is another film that benefited from a wide release this year after awards attention. It is a low-key drama but it builds tremendous emotion as a Korean father, played wonderfully by Steven Yeun, moves his family from the west coast to Arkansas to become a farmer in the 1980s. The dramatic tension is well-modulated throughout, and you very much root for the farm to succeed. Yuh-Jung Youn’s grandmother is a treat, and her performance is deservedly award-worthy. This one enriches you as a viewer.
Minari is streaming through Direct TV and Showtime on demand.
Who would’ve thought that a video game action-comedy could turn out to be quite this entertaining? Lead actor Ryan Reynolds clearly understands the assignment here, the cameos are great, and best of all, this sneakily turns into an unexpected romance. There is simply an overall cleverness here that is such a pleasant surprise. Even total non-gamers like me will have a good time. This one is just a fun ride.
Free Guy is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
If we could give out an award for the most improved film, it’s this one. The Joss Whedon-directed original version of Justice League simply pales in comparison to this very long but much more cohesive vision. This film is a step up in every visual way, like the effects. (Steppenwolf looks so much better!) But the story also benefits from the extra time to breathe. After seeing this, it’s understandable that fans want Warner Brothers to continue with Snyder‘s plans for the DCEU.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is streaming on HBO Max.