2021 was a vast improvement, as a whole, for the film industry compared to 2020. I haven’t been able to watch all the ones I’ve wanted to see, but here’s my list for the best movies I have seen this year.
I’m obviously a bit late on this list. Not only did my personal life get in the way, but I genuinely wanted to try and catch up on a bunch of the movies I missed before I officially made my list. Sadly, I didn’t, and it’s unfortunate since I really wanted to see some of these movies. But, life goes on, and I do know that I’ll be watching these films eventually, and definitely sooner rather than later. Let’s continue with this list. Of course, it should be said this is my list, so you may not see some of your favorites on here. Also, to clarify, some of the movies I haven’t seen include Dune (and I still want to see this one badly), Free Guy, The Power of the Dog, and No Time to Die. It sucks since I have a good feeling some of these would’ve ended up in my best films list. Then again, life goes on, and I’m sure, as mentioned, I’ll catch them soon enough.
15. The White Tiger
This is one of those sneakily good films that has somewhat flown under the radar. Releasing exclusively on Netflix in January, I managed to catch this one after reading about and was intrigued by the concept. I’m glad I ended up doing so, because I really enjoyed the story and the performances from these characters. Ultimately, you see it because of the leading man, Balram Halwai, played by Adarsh Gourav. It’s an incredibly engaging tale from start to finish about a man who comes out of his misfortunes and rises to the top by working hard, but also making some questionable and devastating decisions. It’s occasionally ruthless, but comedic as well. It was an eye-opening experience since based on how the story is constructed, I can imagine there are many people who can relate to his struggle, even if I couldn’t. I highly recommend seeing The White Tiger if you haven’t.
14. Judas and the Black Messiah
It goes without saying the love, support, and recognition this film received not only from everyone who has seen it, but from the Academy and other award shows as well. Judas and the Black Messiah was nominated for six Oscars, most notably Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for both Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal, with the former walking away with the award, unsurprisingly. The acting is simply phenomenal from everyone involved, and although Kaluuya did end up winning, I believe my favorite performance was Stanfield’s. He leaves you on the edge of your seat due to the role he plays in the movie and how he’s always on the brink of blowing his cover as an FBI informant infiltrating the Black Panther Party. It touches on a very interesting and important story in history I believe every person should know about, and it does it with respect. For some, it’s also a timely watch considering the current events happening in the world today. It’s a riveting and intense watch throughout, and I’m sure you’ll find yourself entertained.
13. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Truthfully, I was one of the many who believed this cut was widely unnecessary and, in many ways, was only taking production costs away from other potential projects in the works within the DCEU. I also haven’t been the biggest fan of DCEU’s current film slate, with some exceptions, of course, but I think the majority of the Snyder-verse has been a huge misfire. I do love Man of Steel, but Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is awful, and Joss Whedon taking over Justice League didn’t do the film any favors. I did watch this cut though, and I did enjoy it quite a bit. I still don’t buy that this footage was around this whole time, it just wasn’t used. We all know there were various reshoots in order to make this happen. The runtime was a bit long as well, and it’s kind of bothersome Snyder needs this much time in order to tell a competent story. I wish the aspect ratio was different also, but it doesn’t bother me all too much. Despite all of this, I liked it a lot. Snyder was able to redeem Ray Fisher’s Cyborg’s underutilization in the theatrical cut by digging a bit more into his story and actually developing his character further. The same can be said about Ezra Miller’s the Flash, who has a bunch of cool moments and overall, feels a bit more important to the entire film as a whole. I believe the biggest difference is Steppenwolf, who was one of the worst villains I’ve ever seen in the theatrical cut, having no real purpose and a horrible design. He’s given plenty more to work with here and is actually a bit more menacing, while also looking much better. It’s unfortunate we probably won’t be getting this version of Darkseid in the DCEU, at least not anytime soon, even though he was barely in the movie and the CGI is a bit wonky. There’s definitely potential for this iteration of the Justice League, I feel. It’s sad since it was probably made for nothing and, up until now, there are no plans to continue this iteration. Let’s see what happens in the future, but at least Snyder wasn’t entirely wrong about his vision being the one he always planned.
12. A Quiet Place Part II
John Krasinki has been proving himself to be a very talented actor the last couple of years with his turn as Jack Ryan in the Amazon series. But, not only did he star in A Quiet Place and be great in it, he also directed it, along with Part II. The first one is sort of lightning in a bottle, considering no one expected it to work as well as it did. It was always going to be hard for a sequel to live up to the standards the first film set, but sure enough, it did in more ways than one. I’m not saying it’s as good as the first one, because it isn’t, nor does it feel as original, but it still works and it’s still an incredibly entertaining watch. It picks up right where the last one left off and it doesn’t take long for the stakes to feel huge and for the entire film to pick up the pace and never really slow down. I loved how the creatures feel even more dangerous and brutal in the sequel even with their weakness already being known. Cillian Murphy is fantastic, as expected, and really fills the holes Krasinki leaves in many aspects. The standout is definitely Millicent Simmonds returning as Regan, Evelyn’s deaf daughter. Being the one who figures out how to make the creatures vulnerable, she’s given plenty more to do in Part II and takes full advantage of all her opportunities. The framework for this series to continue has been set, and I’m hoping there’s more coming.
11. No Sudden Move
I love how Steven Soderbergh is constantly looking to reinvent himself and the way he makes films. For example, he shot the entirety of High Flying Bird with an iPhone 8, and with No Sudden Move, he used a wide-eyed lens, and in many scenes, you can see it when some areas and characters look a bit distorted based on the angle. It sort of looks like a fish-eye shot, which is very creative and adds quite a lot to some scenes. The way it’s directed and shot is one of the many reasons why I loved watching this movie. Soderbergh has always been talented and has always been crafty and creative when telling certain stories and bringing the best performances out of the cast, and this is on display once again in No Sudden Move. It doesn’t take long for this movie to get going, and the story and tone really captivates you. The cast is simply phenomenal across the board, with the standouts being Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro, but even every other cast member stills feels important to specific parts of the plot. I also love seeing Brendan Frasier finally appearing in movies again. This one seems to be a bit overlooked this year, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed since it is Soderbergh after all, and he continues to expand his impressive filmography.
10. The Suicide Squad
There was a time where I thought James Gunn may never make movies again, but thank God that didn’t happen. He’s had a very unique career, to say the least, but really made a name for himself with the spectacular Guardians of the Galaxy. The sequel is a lot of fun too and with the third on the way, Gunn seems to be busy for the next few years. It’s safe to say 2021 was a great year for him as well, especially since he was able to bring justice to the Suicide Squad since the 2016 David Ayer version is a complete and utter disaster. The Suicide Squad was a damn good time and it really did almost everything right by these characters, or at least the ones Gunn decided to include in the movie. It seems he didn’t have many restrictions are much studio interference, and it shows since it’s absolutely bonkers from start to finish. The R rating really benefits it tremendously since he’s able to tell the story he wants without the feeling of being too intense or brutal with the action sequences or story-telling. I will say Ayer’s version did have interesting and likable characters, but this one not only capitalizes on that, it also takes it to the next level. Add in killer action sequences, a steady and smooth-flowing story, and the fact that it has an actual heart, and you have a worthwhile superhero movie. Some of my favorite characters were Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, John Cena’s Peacemaker, Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2, and David Dastmalchian’s Polka-dot Man. Even Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is redeemed. I have to show love for Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark as well, who’s absolutely hilarious. I hope this isn’t the last we see of some of these characters, and I’m looking forward to the Peacemaker series.
This film feels a bit more personal to me because of all the Latino representation in it. I feel I identify quite a bit with it for a number of reasons. Although I’m not Colombian, my wife is, and I’m Hispanic. I’ve also been to Colombia twice now and seeing this movie put the culture on display was an incredibly satisfying watch for me. From the music, to the animated design of the characters, to locations you see in the movie, it’s a very vibrant and beautiful watch from beginning to end. I do wish there was more Colombian slang, although when I re-watched it in Spanish, it was much more apparent, so that made me glad. For all Latinos everywhere, this is one of the most important watches of the year since it tells a very important and vital message about acceptance for simply being who you are, regardless of what everyone else is like. The cast is incredibly diverse as well, which is great to see since there aren’t many other performers who would be able to bring these characters to life without having these Latino roots in them. I have to give a shout out to Stephanie Beatriz, who absolutely steals the show as Maribel Madrigal, and, in many ways, is the heart and soul of this entire film. It’s one of the best animated features of the year and another fantastic addition to Disney’s extensive catalog.
8. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
The Mitchells vs. the Machines released on Netflix earlier on in the year I remember seeing the trailer for it when it was still titled Connected back in 2020 and being intrigued by it because of its art style. It reminded me of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse quite a bit and with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller involved as producers, it made sense. Once it released, the buzz for it on social media was massive, and some even called it one of the best films of the year. Sure enough, I ended up watching it and was not disappointed in the slightest. At its core, it’s family-centered story about a father and daughter who have their differences and disagreements, but go on a journey and discover more and more about themselves along the way. It helps the mother is involved as the voice of reason, and the rest of the family, the brother and the dog, bring it all together. The voice cast of the Mitchells family is fantastic, including Abbi Jacobson as Katie, Danny McBride as Rick, Maya Rudolph as Linda, and Mike Rianda as Aaron. You watch it because of its charm and the family values it conveys, but the chaos happening in the movie’s world definitely helps since it’s basically an all-out war against an out-of-control AI system (Olivia Colman as PAL is equally menacing and humorous) and a bunch of robots. Some of the action sequences are top notch and expertly animated, along with all the special effects in the rest of the film. It’s one of the most memorable watches of 2021 and moving forward, I may watch it at least once a year.
7. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
I was excited for Shang-Chi not only because it was a new MCU film, but also because it’s a brand-new character being introduced to this universe. Of course, it’s always a risk introducing a new character very few people know about since it limits the chances of it being successful. But, Marvel Studios is at a point where it can release close to anything and both the hardcore fans and casual audience will go and see it. I believe this remains true with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings because it’s phenomenal. Not only are we finally getting an Asian-American superhero in the MCU, but in Shang-Chi, we get the “Master of Kung Fu.” This only means the action sequences have to be spectacular, right? Well, in this movie, they most definitely are. It doesn’t take long for the film to get going and once the bus fight scene between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist goes down, it only continues to roll. I loved the world-building in this movie, especially when it dug a bit deeper into his and his families back story. Simu Liu is able to bring a ton to this character in terms of depth. He’s charismatic and often times witty, but can really turn it on when it comes to the dramatic and deeper tones the film is trying to convey. His dynamic with his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a.k.a. the real Mandarin, is very compelling and moving as well. The rest of the cast really rounds it out, especially Awkwafina’s comedic timing, as well as Michelle Yeoh Ying Nan, Meng’er Zhang as Xu Xialing, and even Ben Kingsley redeems himself when he returns as Trevor Slattery. What I loved the most about the film is it told its own story without always reminding the audience it’s still part of the greater interconnected stories in the MCU. There are instances, especially in the final act, where you see it’s apparent, but it never feels forced and is always focused on developing its own characters and their story arcs. The future of the MCU is more exciting with Shang-Chi in it.
With awards season on the horizon, and even before that, CODA was getting plenty of love from basically everyone who saw it. It came out in January of 2021, and that’s usually the month where there aren’t many great films being released, at least in theaters. This released on Apple TV+ and I’ve always been interested in it because of its concept. I have a profound respect for deaf actors because of the emotion they’re able to convey and the range they have as actors who can’t even vocally speak. It’s very impressive to see the cast in this film use sign language and, as a viewer, still feel moved by everything going on. I absolutely loved this movie from beginning to end and it’s one that has stayed in my mind since seeing it. Like other movies on this list, CODA is about family, only this family isn’t your typical, ordinary family. Of course, they have their issues like most families do, but only the daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones), is the one who isn’t deaf, and she practically carries the load of communicating for them and taking on a big importance in their affairs, both professional and personal. The three members of her deaf family are her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and Leo (Daniel Durant). Each and every one of them deliver an outstanding performance in these portrayals, making their characters believable and, at times, somewhat relatable. The one who steals the show is Jones, though. Despite her family’s issues, she still has hopes and dreams, and her passion is singing. Seeing how that story comes to fruition with the help of her choir teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is both touching and memorable. I have to mention that Derbez is possibly the best he’s ever been in this movie and also one of my favorite characters. The audition scene is one scene that’ll linger on my mind for some time.
5. West Side Story
I know, it’s a bit strange that I consider myself a massive film buff, but I’ve never seen the original West Side Story film. I mean, I’ve seen bits and pieces of it, listened to some of the songs, and I know how much of an iconic film it is. Even my parents are huge fans of it and were around when it first released and grew in popularity. It’s been around for close to 70 years and it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest musical of all time, so it’s no surprise director Steven Spielberg wanted to create his own spin on it. He masterfully creates his own version that, not only honors the original with similar story elements and musical numbers, but also adds his own twists in there that help it stand apart. It’s one original fans of the classic will still enjoy, but it’s also a story that stands the test of time, meaning even a new audience can watch it and be entertained, regardless of the time period it’s set in. I, for one, was absolutely floored by it in terms of the acting (Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ariana DeBose as Anita and Mike Faist as Riff being standouts), the music, and the gorgeous cinematography and direction. The ending hit me really hard and I wasn’t really expecting it to go that way. Then again, being how it’s inspired William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, it isn’t surprising at all. It’s also my own fault since this story has been around for much, much longer than I have, so I can’t cry about spoilers either. West Side Story is still a classic and it’s the kind of film that inspires me to continue writing about why I love movies so much.
4. King Richard
I’ve been a huge fan of Will Smith for as long as I can remember. I mean, he isn’t always in the best films, but recently, he’s been dedicated to being involved in higher quality movies, with some better roles as Genie in Aladdin and Bad Boys for Life. Most recently, and what may be his best role in the last decade, he was in King Richard as the father, Richard Williams, of tennis icons, Venus and Serena Williams. This may be the most heartfelt and feel-good film of 2021 because I absolutely loved the message it sent and how loved learning about their story even more. You don’t have to be a fan of tennis to know who Venus and Serena are, since they’re widely regarded as two of the best female tennis players of all time. But, I’m sure like most people, I knew very little of their upbringing and how they got to where they were. A lot of credit is owed to their father who pushed them to their absolute limits and helped put them in a position to be where they are today. Smith is sensational in this role and after winning the Golden Globe, there’s a chance he could also win the Oscar for Best Actor. His role isn’t the only one that should be noticed however, since Aunjanue Ellis is arguably even better than he is as his wife, Oracene Price. She may also be up for awards consideration and I hope she gets even more high profile roles after her outstanding performance in King Richard. Ultimately, it’s a film about a father who is willing to sacrifice anything in order for his kids to be successful, while dealing with a handful of trials, tribulations and challenges along the way. It’s a can’t miss film of 2021.
3. tick, tick… BOOM!
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is something I wasn’t going to miss. He’s practically cemented himself as one of the most gifted talents in the musical genre with In the Heights and Hamilton, so at this point, anything he touches is guaranteed gold. tick, tick… BOOM!‘s premise is one I was particularly interested in since it’s an autobiographical piece on the life of Jonathan Larson, the man who created Rent, but he never lived to see what it accomplished on Broadway. I’m sure it’s dramatized a bit, but I was absolutely captivated by his story and his determination to continue chasing his passion of changing what musical theatre was all about, even when not everyone didn’t quite see or appreciate his vision. The cast is phenomenal, both acting and singing in the musical numbers, such as Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, and Vanessa Hudgens. However, you really see this because of Andrew Garfield since he carries this film on his shoulders and elevates it to drastic heights. Garfield has been one of the most gifted performers in recent memory and I feel he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for his talent. He’s always been an underrated Spider-Man, but he’s so much more than that role and he continues to prove why he’s shaping up to be an all-time great. Plus, his singing voice is amazing, considering he doesn’t have much of a background doing so. tick, tick… BOOM! is an emotional and riveting watch. It’s still a musical, but it sort of breaks the conventions and tropes most other musicals establish, and it works. I find it hard to believe you won’t laugh, be moved, or feel inspired after watching it.
2. In the Heights
The third musical on this list, In the Heights, is my favorite one of 2021. It may be personal bias speaking, but it’s the musical that resonated with me the most mainly because of the history behind it. I’ve always been a fan of the stage musical since it released on Broadway. I never saw it live on Broadway, or anywhere for that matter, but the soundtrack is fantastic and, till this day, I still listen to it. In many ways, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s baby since it’s his first feature play and ended up catapulting him to the success he now has today. A film adaptation was a long time coming and, other than Miranda, I can’t think of anyone else who would be able to bring it to life than director Jon M. Chu. His vision for how this film should be shot, the cast involved, and so on ended up paying off since it’s one of the best movies of the year. Anthony Ramos is a revelation as Usnavi and is arguably even better than Miranda is in the role. Corey Hawkins as Benny is great, especially with his surprising singing voice. The other standouts, for me, Leslie Grace as Nina, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, and Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, who should be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I have to show some love to Daphne Rubin-Vega as well. The cast is extremely well-rounded and each of them really bring justice to these roles. The musical numbers are outstanding, especially the opening number, “In the Heights,” as well as “96,000,” “The Club,” and “Carnaval del Barrio.” I felt at home watching this movie, mainly because it reminded me of the New York neighborhood my father grew up in, and I’m sure it’ll make others feel at home too.
1. Spider-Man: No Way Home
This may be the hype or the nostalgia just talking, but as of right now, Spider-Man: No Way Home is my favorite film of 2021. There’s no other movie I watched that made me feel the way No Way Home did, plain and simple. It was my most anticipated film of the year and it’s actually one of the few that ended up living up to all the hype, and then some. Watching this in theaters was a a complete joy and a long time coming, especially as a fan of the MCU and all of the Spider-Man movies in general (well, most Spider-Man movies). What the creators were able to accomplish with this movie is not only impressive, but very important. I think it’s important mainly because usually, fan service doesn’t always work out since it’s placed in the film for no reason other than to service the fans. There’s no logical explanation or reason as to why it’s being used. But, in No Way Home, the fan service is handled delicately and with purpose. Everything seems to make sense and there’s a reason for everything that’s happening in the movie. The performances are stellar across the board, but I have to commend both Tom Holland and Willem Dafoe for their portrayals as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. They’re both, easily, the best they’ve been in these roles. The action sequences are as brutal as they’ve ever been, and the surprises will have you cheering for joy. At this point, I’m sure I can discuss it, but if you haven’t seen it yet (highly doubt it), I won’t ruin it for you. No Way Home is the perfect conclusion to this MCU trilogy, but it’s potentially sets the stage for new stories to be told with Holland’s Spider-Man. I, for one, can’t wait for more, although I’m sure any other films to follow it will have a tough time dethroning this one.