The best movies of 2021 prove film isn’t dead

For all the hoopla lately about how movies are on death’s door, 2021 was a gazillion times better than 2020. There were four Marvel films in theaters (“Spider-Man: No Way Home” bulldozed past the $1 billion mark) and in-person film festivals (Toronto, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, New York) resumed. We got a Spielberg, a Pixar, big-budget sequels, indie darlings and Bradley Cooper x 2. Other than “Spidey,” barely anything made a buck, but they were defiantly there.  

Like the old man who was mistakenly plopped on a pile of corpses in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the movies said, “I’m not dead!” These are the best films of 2021.

‘Licorice Pizza’

Cooper Hoffman, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, makes an unforgettable acting debut in “Licorice Pizza.”
Courtesy MGM Studios

The most shaken up I was at the movies this year came after I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s blissful, hysterical, romantic, youthful, nostalgic “Licorice Pizza” and realized that the unknown lead, Cooper Hoffman, is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Wow. Like his dad, Cooper is a brilliant actor, and at only 18. This 1973-set comedy will rub some people the wrong way — it’s about a flirtation between a magnetic 15-year-old actor and a down-on-her-luck 25-year-old woman (Alana Haim, a revelation) — but there was simply no better-written or -performed movie in 2021.  

In theaters

‘Dune’

Timothée Chalamet's latest big-screen project is "Dune."
Timothée Chalamet’s latest big-screen project is “Dune.”
Warner Bros./Everett Collection

This sci-fi epic could’ve been the Coke 2 of movies — an overhyped disaster. Frank Herbert’s novel is infamously dense and tricky to boil down into a “Star Wars”-like space opera, as poor David Lynch discovered with his unwatchable 1984 version that made Kyle MacLachlan look like a Mountie on Mars. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, however, wisely divided the tale into two films (Part 2 is due in 2023) and brought the titanic visuals and transportive storytelling that made “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival” so jaw-dropping. Oh, and Timothée Chalamet’s character can kill dudes with a whisper.

On demand

‘Mass’

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney play grieving parents in "Mass."
Ann Dowd and Reed Birney play grieving parents in “Mass.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This small, shattering drama was hard to watch — in two ways. One, its bold plot is about the parents of a school-shooting victim meeting the shooter’s parents years later. Ouch. Two, writer-director Franz Kranz’s film played in barely any theaters outside of New York and LA. But “Mass,” which premiered at Sundance, has some of the most forceful acting of the year, especially from the thunderous Ann Dowd and Martha Plimpton. Please rent it on Amazon.  

On demand

‘In the Heights’

"In The Heights," starring Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barbera, is one of the most dazzling movie musicals in years.
“In the Heights,” starring Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barbera, is one of the most dazzling movie musicals in years.
Macall Polay

In two back-to-back movies, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “In the Heights,” Jon M. Chu has catapulted himself to Hollywood’s most reliably entertaining director. His screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show is the finest movie-musical since 2002’s “Chicago” (yes, it’s better than Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” by a mile), features a charming-as-hell star turn from Anthony Ramos, and helped reopen New York City this summer with its vibrancy and infectious joy.

On HBO Max

‘Free Guy’

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds meet in a video game called "Free City" in "Free Guy."
Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds meet in a video game called “Free City” in “Free Guy.”
©20th Century Studios/Courtesy

What a refreshing surprise: A movie from Disney that isn’t a live-action remake of a cartoon or “Star Wars: Episode XCIX.” “Free Guy” stars Ryan Reynolds as a video-game character who discovers that he is … a video-game character. The high-energy actor’s shtick plays perfectly with Jodie Comer’s dogged hacker, and the delightful film showed how much originality and heart the House of Mouse is still capable of.

On Disney+ Feb. 23

‘Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar’

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo head to Florida in "Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar."
Kristen Wiig (right) and Annie Mumolo head to Florida in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”
Cate Cameron/Lionsgate

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s hilarious girls-trip comedy — the year’s funniest movie — sadly won’t land on many Top 10 lists or awards shows because of the industry’s pretention and narrowmindedness. But it’s made more of a cultural dent than what will. Find anybody who’s seen “Barb & Star,” shout “Trish!” at them and they’ll instantly know what you’re talking about. And laugh. Can’t say the same about any line in “The Power of the Dog.” 

On Hulu

‘Luca’

Pixar's "Luca" is set in a beautiful seaside village in Italy.
Pixar’s “Luca” is set in a beautiful seaside village in Italy.
©Disney+/Courtesy Everett Colle

It’s hardly groundbreaking anymore to say that Pixar makes animated films that have the same wit and sophistication of any live-action stunner. Whereas most of the studio’s works are too thinky or about bugs, though, “Luca” went emotionally deep. The main character, in fact, is a little sea monster who lives in the briny deep and escapes to the surface with his rebel friend and pretends to be human. The Italian setting, idyllic musical score and powerful ending are beyond lovely. 

On Disney+

‘King Richard’

The new film "King  Richard" traces how Richard Williams (Will Smith) took Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) from Compton to Wimbledon.
The film “King Richard” traces how Richard Williams (Will Smith) took Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) from Compton to Wimbledon.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Sports movies, by and large, tend to be about the athletes — not about their fathers. But “King Richard,” in which Will Smith returns to peak form, centers around Richard Williams, the controversial dad and coach of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. On one side you have a well-constructed and consuming biopic, and on the other a layered, lovable, loathable portrayal from Smith that’s the actor’s best work in forever.

In theaters

‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’

Andrew Garfield plays Jonathan Larson in "Tick, Tick... Boom!"
Andrew Garfield plays Jonathan Larson in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”
MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021

For as good an actor as Andrew Garfield is, he gets trapped in a lot of garbage like “Under the Silver Lake,” “Mainstream” and the lousy “Spider-Man” reboot. But Garfield and this gem of a musical, about the downtown New York life of “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, are a marshmallow-and-chocolate-perfect pairing. He embodies Larson’s artsy blend of charisma, eccentricity, persuasiveness and occasional petulance. And he sings pretty well too.

On Netflix

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

Denzel Washington stars in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Denzel Washington plays the titular Scot in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
A24

If you don’t like Shakespeare, Joel Coen’s captivating, black-and-white “Macbeth” probably won’t convert you. Still, it’s visually glorious and features one of the best interpretations of the witches you’ve ever seen, with an amazing Kathryn Hunter playing all three and contorting her body into bizarre shapes. Mackers — no surprises here — is also a role that Denzel Washington was born to play.

On Apple TV+ Jan. 14