Hello and welcome to the year 2031! The 40th Spider-Man movie is a hit. Timothee Chalamet still hasn’t cut his hair. Taylor Swift just released an hour-long song about her summer with that Kennedy cousin. People are still in awe of that gorgeous and surprisingly poignant West Side Story remake.
And nobody is talking about, let alone vividly recalls, the Hollywood studios’ ever-fluctuating theatrical versus streaming strategies in the wake of a global health pandemic.
My point: There was a lot of breathless talk and analysis devoted to the new-normal movie-going experience in 2021. (Read: Yeah, maybe the high-profile Dune and that prequel to The Sopranos shouldn’t have been available to watch on HBO Max for free the same day they also arrived on big screens). But ultimately, only the movies themselves will stand the test of the time.
And this year’s offerings deserve to be a part of the long-term pop culture fabric. For starters? Ghostbusters, Suicide Squad, Cruella and Dune were all reborn to surprising success, while a certain A Star Is Born leading lady proved she was no one-hit wonder.
Black Widow said farewell to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the all-powerful hero Shang-Chi kicked his way in (and proved himself an excellent karaoke singer, to boot!). But 10 marvelous movies truly stood out from the crowded field. Here’s this year’s honor roll.
P.S. Another Spider-Man is coming in 2022.
1 of 10
No theatrics, no gimmicks — just a wonderful coming-of-age gem that aims directly at the heart and hits the bullseye. The fantastic Emilia Jones (who does ASL, sings like an American Idol champ and uses a flawless American accent) stars as a teen who must choose between going away to college to pursue music or staying home to help her deaf parents and brother run their commercial fishing business. Guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and everything in between. Want to know what’s wrong with that? Nothing. (Streaming on Apple TV+)
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
2 of 10
2. West Side Story
Somehow, someday, somewhere a glorious classic musical has been reimagined for the ages. Steven Spielberg’s sweeping take on the tragic Romeo and Juliette tale dazzles the senses, as each shot looks like a painting and each song makes you want to float on air. Special shout out to fierce breakout star Ariana DeBose, who shows how this West was won. (In theaters December 10)
Credit: Ramona Rosales/Twentieth Century Fox
3 of 10
3. King Richard
To recap: A man with no athletic experience raised two girls in Compton, California, to become tennis icons. No doubt Venus and Serena Williams’ path to glory is truly incredible — and their ultra-compelling biopic happens to be as well. Featuring a towering performance from Will Smith in the title role, proving that a hero is not necessarily easy to root for. (In theaters and streaming on HBO Max)
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
4 of 10
The fall film festival favorite (and Oscar frontrunner) is both grand and intimate, gooey sweet and shockingly violent, life-affirming and cynical. Set during the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Ireland in the late 1960s, it’s writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama as seen through eyes of a movie-obsessed, girl-chasing 12-year-old boy. (In theaters now)
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
5 of 10
5. House of Gucci
It’s long and poorly paced and plays too loose with the facts. Oh, well! The bonkers true story that chronicles the unraveling of the Italian fashion empire is also first-class frothy and fun entertainment. And Lady Gaga, as the status-obsessed scorned wife, puts on her fine leather boots and stomps over everyone in her sight. Bravo. (In theaters now)
6 of 10
6. Don’t Look Up
Please ignore that instruction — or else you’ll miss out on a so-sharp-it-hurts satire that skewers our current state of politics, technology and celebrity culture within the context of an asteroid headed to Earth. But hey, if anyone is going to warn us about all the above, it may as well be Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep. (In theaters December 10; on Netflix December 24)
Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix
7 of 10
7. The Last Duel
Good Will Hunting Part 2, this is not. But Matt Damon and Ben Affleck do finally reunite onscreen in an ambitious and thought-provoking spectacle that deserved better at the box office. Set in France in the 14th century, the two are at odds after Damon accuses his former friend (Adam Driver) of raping his wife (Jodie Comer). A layered, if uneasy watch. (Available to purchase on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video)
Credit: 20th Century Studios
8 of 10
8. Last Night in Soho
Yeahhhhhhh, so this audaciously original time-traveling thriller — with a plot too complicated and twisted to explain in a few sentences — wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing hit (or even a medium-sized one). But please do yourselves a favor and stream it soon. You’ll never be sorry watching Anya Taylor-Joy strutting around in 1960s London. (Available to purchase on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video)
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
9 of 10
9. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
A Justin Bieber-obsessed teen grapples with an emotionally distant boyfriend and attempts to sort out her ever-fluctuating feelings by writing in a journal in her bedroom and then recording her thoughts. Of course, Billie Eilish is hardly your prototypical Gen Z-er; but thanks to this illuminating documentary, she’s never seemed so authentic. (Streaming on Apple TV+)
Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
10 of 10
10. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Seriously. From Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the Oscar-nominated actresses and screenwriters who brought us Bridesmaids a decade ago, comes a goofy vibe-of-a-movie centering on two middle-aged culottes-lovin’ gal pals who take a wild trip down to Florida. Makes the list if only for Jamie Donan and his chortle-inducing musical number. (Streaming on Hulu, Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video)