2021 is out, and as we’ve done in years past, the Cinelinx team has gathered to break down their top films of the year. Come inside to see their picks!
Featuring an overflow from 2020, the past year featured a host of incredible films for audiences to choose from. Whether through streaming options, or back in theaters, we saw big franchises return, some indie standouts, and plenty of stories to help us forget our troubles for a few hours.
Having already looked ahead to the potential greatness of 2022, our team has gathered to share their personal favorite movies that released in 2021.
Mass – I don’t think many people were aware of Mass when it hit. Hell, I wouldn’t have known about it unless I’d gotten a press release! The indie flick kind of flew under the radar, which is a shame considering how amazing it is. Since watching it, I’ve had a hard time getting it out of my mind. It’s such a captivating drama about grief and shared trauma that hits all the right emotional notes (mostly due to the powerful acting all around). Definitely check this one out if you haven’t yet.
Dune Part One – I doubt this choice will surprise anyone, but I’m still very much in love with Dune. As a long time fan of the novels, I was blown away by what Denis Villenueve was able to pull off with this film. It’s a stunning epic that manages to convey the story with impressive visuals and stellar acting. It felt like an event film that will only improve as time goes on. Now, let’s just hope the sequel lives up to the first (and puts in some actual MENA actors to boot).
Judas and the Black Messiah – While the film launched early this year, I knew from the moment the credits started rolling it was going to end up on my favorite movies of the year list. It’s powerful in its storytelling. Haunting and, sadly, still timely Judas and the Black Messiah is a window into the past. It manages a balance between the reality of the history it covers, while staying high in drama and engaging. Throw in a pair of my favorite performances of the year, and there’s magic at work in this film.
The Paper Tigers – Google is going to lie to you and say this is a 2020 movie, but considering it only debuted at Fantasia Fest and the rights for North America release weren’t secured until later (and then launching in May of THIS year), I’m counting this as a 2021 release. Either way, this is an amazing film and serves as a phenomenal love letter to martial arts and Kung Fu movies. Featuring hilarious comedic timing, solid fight sequences, and a TON of heart, The Paper Tigers is an easy film to love no matter how many times you watch it.
The Matrix Resurrections – To be honest, I struggled choosing between this one and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Both films capped off an impressive year and featured legacy sequel elements that tied together franchises I love. Ultimately, I give Resurrections the edge, if only because there’s so much to dive into with regards to the story. It deepens the overall Matrix lore, adding new elements that could greatly expand the potential of franchise, while honoring everything from before.
Runners-Up: Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Green Knight, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, The Suicide Squad, Raya and the Last Dragon
Titane – I have seen a number of films this year, most of them have been amazing. But nothing, and I mean nothing has topped seeing Titane earlier this year. The second feature film from director Julia Ducournau is a must see film. From almost the very beginning you’re sucked into the story of Alexia which takes you down a rabbit hole so twisted I still can’t put it into words several months later. All of which is to say Titane thoroughly blew my mind and I loved every minute of it.
Dune – I don’t care what anyone thinks, this new interpretation of Dune had a pretty high bar to clear in order to impress me. Despite its flaws I am a big fan of the 1984 Dune film and for a number of years I didn’t think anyone would be able to do any better, which is why I viewed the announcement of this film with some skepticism. But then I actually saw Dune in theaters and my God it brings the book to life in a way that I never dreamed possible. The attention to detail in this film is out of this world amazing and I’m already looking forward to Part Two.
Black Widow – For several reasons, Black Widow was my first Marvel movie experience in theaters since seeing Avengers Endgame all the way back in 2019. It’s also turned out to be the only Marvel movie I’ve seen this year and I’m not at all sorry because I enjoyed Black Widow very much. While I stand by my assessment that we should’ve gotten this film several years earlier than we did, I can’t deny this movie gives a firm sense of closure to Natasha’s story and it reminded me why I love Marvel movies so much.
Halloween Kills – While Halloween Kills is not the best entry in the long running horror franchise, it’s still one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The follow up to 2018’s Halloween did not disappoint me, and I had reason to be nervous as I’d never dared watch a Halloween film in theaters before. Halloween Kills is far from flawless but it did more than enough to hold my attention and leave me quivering with terror. And those twists, I’m still not over those twists.
Mortal Kombat – Knowing next to nothing about the Mortal Kombat game franchise, I’m happy to report that this movie exceeded almost every expectation I had going in. It’s crazy, it’s silly, and you definitely need to skip over a few logic gaps in the third act, but at the end of the day Mortal Kombat entertained me and isn’t that all that really matters? I would happily watch an entire franchise set in this universe and I desperately hope we get the sequel that was so clearly teased at the end of the film.
I’ll be honest, it has been such a crazy year I haven’t been able to see as many films this year as I would have liked. 2021 was an incredible year for films, and I still feel like I missed out on a lot. So my favorites of the year reflect what I have seen so far, but may not reflect my final thoughts once I get caught up!
Dune Part One – I’ve been waiting for a new cinematic version of Dune for ages, and Villenueve’s version more than met my lofty expectations. To say that Villenueve is one of my favorite directors is one thing, but add in the cast and creative talent surrounding this film and you have something that is really quite special. The film feels powerful and epic while adhering to its source material without significant diversions. All wins in my book.
The Last Duel – While there is a time and a place for movies which don’t ask too much of their audience, I find the ones that stick with me most are the ones where I am actively engaged. This film uses a fractured narrative which invites the audience to offer their own perspective and in doing so you essentially become a character in the film. And not only is it very well made, well acted, and well written, but it has a powerful message. Overlook this film at your own risk.
No Time to Die – While it is sad that we have to say goodbye to Daniel Craig’s James Bond, I am happy to say that his last adventure accomplishes everything we could have wanted. The filmmakers found a way to adapt the series to more modern tastes while also making it a fitting ending to an unforgettable era in the longest continuously-produced action franchise in history. It also felt more substantial and meaningful than James Bond films have in the past.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – As a fan of Hong Kong martial-arts action flicks, I was really interested to see how Disney would bring this type of a film into the fold, and by all regards, the filmmakers have done a fantastic job. Not only is the film a fitting homage to Hong Kong’s fantasy films of yore, but it brings fresh ideas and a distinct approach to the MCU without feeling like it is supposed to be part of a different franchise. Not only is it one of the very best MCU films, but it’s one of the most entertaining films I have seen in a long time that doesn’t just rely on nostalgia.
The Father – Technically this is a 2020 movie but I am counting it as a 2021 film because the only way you could have seen this in 2020 would have been at Sundance. The Father is an emotionally taxing film because it deals with the impacts of a deadly disease, but the way it tells its story offers more depth than you might expect. It feels more personal, as if we are experiencing the impact of the disorder first-hand, which allows us to learn from it. As it progresses we become astonished in the way the film manipulates us. It transcends the basics of film-watching to become a startlingly beautiful interpretation of struggle.
Justin (Casual Cinecast)
Titane – Hands down one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that can go so effortlessly between horror, comedy, drama, coming of age, gore, the hypersexual and much more. Not for the squeamish but surprisingly heartfelt and emotional. If you can stick through it, you’ll be equal parts confused and rewarded by what you feel while watching and it won’t leave your brain any time soon. There’s not a lot that I can say about this movie that wouldn’t just sound insanely weird out of context. But also, it’s insanely weird in the context of the movie. In the end, it just works and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a film that any open-minded moviegoer cannot miss!
Jay’s Quick Picks
Spider-Man No Way Home
The Harder They Fall
Judas and the Black Messiah
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The Power of The Dog – My new favorite Jane Campion film. This is a movie that sets up and then subverts expectations so often that I didn’t fully realize what the movie was until the last five minutes. It does this so deceptively that you aren’t even thinking much about what’s coming next.
Instead you’re pulled in by the gorgeous cinematography, great score by Johnny Greenwood and top tier performances from the entire cast. There are heavy There Will Be Blood vibes due to the combo of Greenwood’s score, time period (western America in the early 1900s) and cinematography. Which is never a bad thing.
Licorice Pizza – Speaking of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film represents a departure from his more recent, slower paced works like The Master, Phantom Thread and Inherent Vice. Which felt like a needed breath of fresh air, personally.
This film focuses on a pair of characters (a boy with a crush on an older girl) and quickly moves through and between most scenes in an almost rambling way, building their story through moments and shared experiences rather than a defined plot. It’s worth noting that the boy is based on a real life child actor and his time growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s who PTA was friends with.
The film plays out like the rambling stories with some caricatured personalities and events that feel exaggerated and romanticized by the story teller (the older version of the main character reminiscing). This context helped me look past some of the potential problematic aspects of the film (age difference between mildly romantic leads). Overall, this is a fun hangout movie that feels like a return to a less flashy and experimental Boogie Nights style that includes a ton of characters I can’t wait to see again.
Annette – This is the film I’ve watched most recently on the list and it hasn’t left my mind since the credits rolled. I’m unfamiliar with the director’s, Leo Carax, other work but Annette has made me sure to seek it out. The story and music is all written by the band Sparks (which is a good time to say that I think the vibe of the film is more easily understood by the familiarity with Sparks that I gained from watching Edgar Wright’s wonderful documentary, The Sparks Brothers).
This is a flat out weird drama/musical that seems playful in spirit but with pretty dark moods and subject matter. To try and explain it would take way too long and spoil some unexpected elements. The music is weird in a way that I think keeps most of the songs from being catchy but keeps it from feeling like most other modern musicals I’ve seen. We all know Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard have the greatest of acting chops but I have to give a special shout out to Simon Helberg who may surprise some people who are only familiar with him from The Big Bang Theory. His solo song is probably my favorite number in the movie and the point where I knew I was watching a truly great film.
The Green Knight – I’m convinced that David Lowery can make a movie about anything and find his way to the emotional meat of the story. Plus make it satisfying even though he denies us some of the traditional things we might want in an Arthurian legend like, say, action. I’m on record as being a person who generally cannot get into the medieval fantasy genre. I don’t like Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Game of Thrones or the tales of King Arthur in either book, movie or any other form. But Lowery grabbed me with his ability to convey tone through his cinematography, pacing and actor’s performances.
The Green Knight is all about tone, emotion and themes so this one will probably disappoint the person going for a big climactic showdown between Dev Patel and the titular Green Knight or a sword fight riddled journey to find him. But that’s what makes the movie, for me, stand out decapitated head and shoulders above the typical medieval fare.
Chris Reaves (Casual Cinecast)
Passing – Rebecca Halls directorial debut is a uniquely layered movie with strong performances from its two leading ladies Ruth Negga, and Tessa Thompson. Set In 1920s New York City, a Tessa Thompsons character finds her world up-ended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend (Ruth Negga) who’s passing as white.
This movie starts off asking questions about race but dives into a lot more. Who’s really passing and for what? After I watched this it has only grown in my estimation and hope to revisit it soon.
Pig – The Nicolas Cage pignapping movie another movie that upended my expectations. This first time movie from Michael Sarnoski is a quiet meditation on art and art criticism is not what I expected going in and it’s better for it. Nicolas Cage’s performance as a quiet grieving hermit that lives in the woods with his pig is one of his best and certainly one of the best of the year.
Benedetta – This year has we saw a lot of older directors putting out some great movies. Steven Spielberg with West Side Story. Ridley Scott put out two The Last Duel and House of Gucci. My favorite has to be Benedetta from Paul Verhoven. When I first heard of Paul Verhovens new “sexy nun” movie I rolled my eyes but this movie is so much more than the titillation I was expecting. It’s about a woman trying to grab power, however, which is no easy feat in the 17th century church man’s world.
Oh yes and there are sexy nuns.
Mike Johnson (Casual Cinecast)
The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion has made a great contemporary American Western here. There’s so much to unpack with this film that to look too much into what this film is about, would be to ruin it. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the overly macho rancher Phi. Jesse Plemons plays his brother, George, who brings home a new wife, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son. Once the new family moves onto the brothers’ family ranch, Phil decides to make their lives miserable.
The Green Knight – This was the first film this year where I left the theater knowing that this movie would be in my top films of the year. Dev Patel is great as Gaiwan, nephew of King Arthur, who is so determined to prove himself with a proper tale of knightly heroism that he gets too ahead of himself. He ends up agreeing to a “game” that might just put his honor to the test for the last time. David Lowrey continues to prove he can direct almost anything exceptionally.
Pig – This film was a surprise to me as a deconstruction of revenge films. Nic Cage takes on a sidekick and then proceeds to hunt down his beloved missing truffle pig, which was stolen from his cabin in the middle of the night. On his journey, he meets many faces from his past. Along the way we learn why he’s chosen this reclusive life of searching for truffles in the woods. It’s also a study on being an artist, and what the significance of creating art can do for the soul.
The Last Duel – The discourse around this movie has been unfortunate. Most talk has been about Ridley Scott complaining about why this movie failed to make money (let’s blame millennials). The real story, however, is that even though this movie didn’t make the money it needed to, it’s still awesome. It’s a “true story” about how even a noble woman had very few options for Justice in 13th century France (or any time in human history). Matt Damon is great, as is Adam Driver… But it’s actually Jodie Comer who is probably giving the best performance of the year. The film is long, brutal, smart, funny, harrowing and very violent. Ridley Scott’s best in years.
Red Rocket – Simon Rex delivers an all timer performance. In Sean Baker’s film, Simon commands respect, charm, and hatred as he takes advantage of common working folk, whether that be an ex, or an 18 year old with their whole lives ahead of them. He is an out of work adult film entertainer…. Who requires people to feed off of. Like so many, we have to ask… does he exist if he isn’t looking out for himself. How long can he keep up this amount of toxicity?
Spider-man: No Way Home – I think if you’re a fan of superhero films this was bound to be your most anticipated film of 2021. For me, it was definitely up there. I mean how could it not be? With all the rumors swirling about if the previous Spider-Man actors would be in the film and what this could all mean for the multiverse, it was all so different and exciting.
Remarkably, when it was released, it somehow found a way to exceed everyone’s expectations. The story was sensational and the acting was superb. Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man got the redemption he so desperately deserved. Meanwhile, we got to experience a masterclass in acting by Willem Dafoe. No Way Home was both a love letter to the Spider-man franchise of the past and laid a foundation for what is to come. Also, I’m all on board for #AmazingSpiderman3.
The Suicide Squad – While Spider-man stole the show in 2021, going into 2021 it wasn’t my most anticipated film. No, that belonged to The Suicide Squad. We had seen hilarious teasers regarding James Gunn’s disturbed mind and a new troupe of characters. It became a question of which characters would survive and which would meet an untimely demise.
The opening sequence killing half of them was amazing and the main group that followed had perfect chemistry. The film as a whole was highly entertaining and so well done. It even spawned a John Cena-led Peacemaker series, which I’m all for after his excellent performance. The Suicide Squad did not disappoint AT ALL.
Dune – I don’t know if there is a movie that has been talked about more in our offices than Dune. Before the movie was released, our EIC Jordan and Dustin would talk about Dune and how perfect the casting was. A new trailer would come out and people would lose their minds about how amazing it was. There were jokes about how Denis Villenueve would feel about us watching it outside of a theater. But when it released…it left them all speechless.
The reason for this is simple. Dune was a sensational experience. It may have been the most unique, cinematic movie of 2021 with its incredible CGI, cinematography, and direction. Now, I won’t blow smoke any say I know anything about Dune, because I really don’t, but it left both the fans and the new viewers (like me) blown away and excited for more. It took great care with its world building so people like me could understand what this whole thing was about. It was easy to grasp, but also kept the integrity of the mystery as to surprise us in the sequel. After the film, I was officially converted to a Dune fan.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings was THE surprise superhero film of 2021. When it was first announced, people didn’t really know much about the character or why he deserved his own film. Yet, when the trailers were getting released, it was easy to see why. The asian representation of this movie is incredible and much needed for this time. Plus, the martial arts was spectacular. I don’t know when we’ll see another Shang-Chi movie, but it was enough of a hit to deserve more and I can’t wait for Round 2.
Disney+ Animated Films – This is cheating. I know. I get it. I can only pick one film, but how could I? Disney+ released some exceptional animated films. (I’m in South Korea, so I can only watch these on Disney+. If they released in theaters, ignore the +).
Raya and the Last Dragon, Luca, and Encanto. These were incredible animated films that pushed the envelope on representation and each brought their own excellent brand of storytelling and entertainment. Disney often does wonders with their animated films and they didn’t miss in 2021.
Spider-Man No Way Home – It’s not exactly a surprise but I loved this movie, previous big franchise movies have got me super excited but not lived up to the hype, this was not one of those. No Way Home is the best example of fan service done well and it wrapped together three franchises wonderfully in a great Spider-Man story. I grew up with the Raimi movies, the Amazing films hit in my teens and Tom Holland’s arrival in the MCU happened when I had hit full stride in fandom over the MCU. These franchises have been massive parts of my love superhero movies and I’m not sure another movie could hit quite this hard in pure nostalgia and joy.
The Suicide Squad – What a goddamn fun movie. Just an amazing assembly of cast, writing, direction, fight choreography and pure comic book goofiness. I have nothing to complain about with this movie, it might be my favorite DC film ever and it is easily one of my favorite superhero movies. Surprisingly emotional, brilliantly funny and violence that is as cringeworthy as it is hilarious. I’d love to see a sequel to this gem but the box office doesn’t bode well for it, regardless I will be watching this again and again with a grin on my face.
Dune – I’m largely unfamiliar with the Dune books, I partially read the first book but never finished it. But I do really like Denis Villeneuve movies, and a sci-fi fantasy world with tons of lore and cultures is exactly my kind of thing. Dune’s first part was a stunningly beautiful film with a crazy ensemble cast that nailed it. I’ve never loved Jason Mamoa more and Oscar Isaac is just great. I’m looking forward to part two and plan to dig into the many many books soon.
Harder They Fall – I haven’t watched enough Westerns but it’s a genre I’ve really enjoyed since watching old 60’s movies with my Granddad. The Harder They Fall might be my favorite Western yet. There’s a bit of a trend in my list but a great ensemble cast again makes this a brilliant watch. Jonathan Majors is a new favorite for me, since stealing the show in the Loki finale I’ve become absolutely enamored by his performances. Charming on screen presence that makes his characters instantly likable.
Tick Tick Boom – I enjoy musicals but I don’t often seek one out, however Tick Tick Boom is a beautiful biopic that wonderfully encapsulates the works and life on Johnathon Larson. It’s no surprise that Andrew Garfield was amazing in this but as someone who had seen him in little other than the Spider-Man movies and Social Network, it got me on an Andrew Garfield binge. While I might not be the biggest musical fan, this was a brilliant movie.
Honorable mentions: A Quiet Place Part 2, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Godzilla vs Kong, The Green Knight
Eternals – I know that Eternals did divide some opinion, with some people loving it and some people really dislike it, but for me, I’m solidly on the side of loving it. Eternals was absolutely everything I wanted and more, I loved the cast, I loved the story, the visuals were stunning and I thought it was so different to many of the other MCU movies. Eternals is now by far one of my favourite MCU movies.
Tick, Tick… Boom! – Andrew Garfield really is the man of the hour at the moment, and Tick, Tick… Boom! Makes it so obvious why. As a person who doesn’t really like musicals, this film had me gripped and completely engaged. The songs all feel so fitting as they’re placed into the film, Garfield is a phenomenal actor who plays the role so perfectly, even down to the mannerisms. Garfield is just one of many amazing actors in the film. Tick, Tick… Boom! Also deals with some very important and at times rather sad themes, but still somehow makes itself a fun, enjoyable film.
Raya and the Last Dragon – I thought Raya was a brilliant movie. It was really touching and has some beautiful animation. The cast, including Kelly Marie Tran and Gemma Chan, and phenomenal and expressive in their delivery. If you’re partial to a Disney animated film but haven’t checked out many of the newer ones, Raya and the Last Dragon is one you shouldn’t skip over.
Army of the Dead – Look, I won’t sit here and claim that Army of the Dead is a ground-breaking masterpiece of cinema, but it was certainly one of the most fun releases of the year. This film is the definition of mindless action, and whilst it probably isn’t going to be the best film you’ve ever seen, if you’re looking for action, zombies, and just enough character development that you care about the characters and their motivations, this is an easy watch full of action.
Spider-Man: No Way Home – I just couldn’t resist putting No Way Home on my list. Just the perfect Spider-Man film that encompasses everything I’ve loved over several generations of Spider-Man, it’s hard to imagine how this film could have possibly gone better. From surprise appearances to that awesome new suit I can’t wait to see more of, No Way Home is a film you have to see if you’re a fan of the superhero genre.
2021 saw the return of movies/theaters and it certainly didn’t disappoint. While not everything landed quite like we hoped, there were more than enough stellar films to keep us thrilled throughout the year. What were you favorite movies from 2021?