Last year is in the rearview mirror, meaning it’s time to look back on the year that was in film. I logged 510 first time watches in 2021, seeing a lot of different kinds of films. This week for Binge Watch I’m going to share my Top 10 films, plus 15 more I liked, and my Bottom Five films of the year. Where possible I’ll share the places you can go and view the Top 10.
Best of 2021:
10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Disney+ and VOD): This was the second of four Marvel films released in 2021 and the most surprising. I didn’t know what to expect as this one dropped around Labor Day, but it was a lot of fun. I loved Simu Liu in the lead role, the action and the story this film offered.
9. No Time to Die (VOD/Theaters): The final outing for Daniel Craig as James Bond took some time to be released. It was originally scheduled for April 2020 before being delayed a few times due to the pandemic. It proved worth the wait. Craig was great in this film and one of the best in the role. I loved the story arc for his James Bond and the ending left me deeply moved.
8. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (VOD): Jessica Chastain gives one of the best performances of the year as Tammy Faye Bakker. This biopic looks at her life, marriage to Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and their ministry, which ended in scandal. It’s a beautifully produced film that is elevated thanks to the work of Chastain and Garfield, who are great in the roles.
7. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (HBO Max): When the original Justice League debuted I was excited, but the film didn’t work. I was curious about this long gestating Director’s Cut which runs more than four hours. What we got was a masterful telling of the story that was engaging, emotionally gripping and left me wanting more. This is the film we should have gotten in 2017 and it’s a shame we didn’t.
6. Nine Days (VOD): Edson Oda crafts a beautiful drama that explores the meaning of life, the joys and the sorrows of existence. Winston Duke delivers a beautiful lead performance in a quiet and thought-provoking film. I wish more people would have gotten to see this drama, which was seemingly buried in a late summer release.
5. Sing 2 (Theaters): The rare sequel that surpasses the original. This finds the same characters with a few new additions in a new adventure. It was not only my favorite animated film of the year, but it was also one of my favorite theater-going experiences of the year. The music is powerful and the emotional resonance of the story keeps you hooked.
4. Spider-Man: No Way Home (Theaters): Few films faced as much pressure as this Spider-Man sequel, which was set up by the close of the last film in 2019. Tom Holland is great, but it’s the extended cast and the call back to the history of Spider-Man on film that takes this to another level. This was one of the most exciting and emotionally engaging films of the year, a blockbuster that is elevated to another level.
3. Belfast (Theaters, VOD): Kenneth Branagh delivers a deeply personal and emotional tale of life in Belfast in the late 1960s. Jude Hill is a capable POV character as Buddy, but it’s the work of Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench that elevates this story. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, this is a gripping and beautiful story.
2. Mass (VOD): Another film that didn’t get the high-profile release it deserved, debuting in limited fashion in October. This one is a simple film about two couples (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) who gather in a church for a difficult conversation. Their children were involved in a school shooting, one a victim and one the shooter. Over the course of 111 minutes Fran Kranz delivers a powerful, emotional and timely discussion of parenting, gun violence and the weight of guilt and grief. The four performances are incredible and this movie is one that sits with you long after the closing credits role.
1. CODA (Apple TV+): This has been my No. 1 film for months, and it hasn’t changed. It’s a beautiful story of a girl (Emilia Jones) who was born to a deaf family. But she has a passion for singing. How do you describe the beauty of voices in harmony to someone who’s never heard a sound? That’s part of her challenge, and the way Sian Heder’s beautiful film unfurls this story is moving to behold. Troy Katsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant do a beautiful job as Ruby’s family, but Jones’ beautiful performance—and beautiful voice—captured my heart. There were some incredible films in 2021, but this was easily my favorite.
Worst of the Year:
5. Zola (Showtime, VOD): This film was nominated as Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and there are some who liked the finish product. I won’t deny that Colman Domingo is great in this film but the story was a trainwreck and the overall production didn’t work for me at all.
4. Space Jam: A New Legacy (VOD, HBO Max): I didn’t love the original film, but I thought it worked for what it is. This one didn’t work at all. I like LeBron James and he’s been funny in other films, but this didn’t work.
3. Deadly Illusions (Netflix): I don’t know what this was trying to be but it turned out to be a disaster. Netflix deals in volume, producing some good films and some that are train wrecks. This is the latter.
2. Dear Evan Hansen (VOD): The story here is deeply flawed. This has some glitzy production and some catchy songs, but that can’t overcome the gross message in the film. Seeing it one time was too many.
1. Habit (VOD): Where to begin here? I am sure there was a plan with this film and something that writer/director Janell Shirtcliff and writer Libby Mintz wanted to say, but it doesn’t translate. This was the worst cinematic experience I had in 2021.
Other Films to Consider:
Let’s not leave on a down note. Here’s 15 other movies I enjoyed in 2021 that are worth checking out!
11. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Theaters): This sequel was fun, engaging and surprisingly emotional. It was a blast of nostalgia in the best way.
12. Nightmare Alley (Theaters): This is all about Bradley Cooper, who gives my favorite male performance of the year. Guillermo del Toro delivers an engaging re-make of this 1947 Noir film.
13. West Side Story (Theaters): I really enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s re-make of this classic musical. Ariana DeBose is great as Anita.
14. Licorice Pizza (Theaters): There are elements of the story that are problematic, but I enjoyed the writing from Paul Thomas Anderson and the lead performance from Alana Haim.
15. American Underdog (Theaters): I love a good sports movie, and this tale of Kurt Warner’s life and rise to NFL stardom was moving and engaging. I loved Zachary Levi in the lead role.
16. Riders of Justice (VOD): This film is one I saw early in the year and I really enjoyed it. Mads Mikkelsen is great in the lead role, and this one gives you plenty to think about.
17. The Rescue (Disney+): This was my favorite documentary of the year, an engaging and moving tale about the efforts to rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave by monsoon rains in 2018.
18. A Quiet Place 2 (VOD): This sequel built on the story in an engaging way. It didn’t achieve the emotional high of the original for me, but I really enjoyed returning to the world.
19. Church People (VOD): This Christian film focuses on a church looking to make a splash at Easter. I loved the humor and as someone in the church, this spoke to me on a lot of levels.
20. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain (VOD, HBO Max): This powerful biopic features an incredible lead performance from Frankie Faison. It’s also an important story, so please take some time to see it.
21. The Courier (VOD): This one is another biopic, this time focusing on Benedict Cumberbatch as a British businessman who served as a key spy during the Cold War. Great performances and an interesting story.
22. Encanto (Theaters, VOD, Disney+): This animated tale was a delight. It features a beautiful look and great music from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
23. Jungle Cruise (VOD, Disney+): This was one of the most fun rides of the summer, giving me big Brendan Fraser Mummy vibes. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt were great in this one.
24. Free Guy (VOD, Disney+): Another fun summer film that’s a great blend of action and comedy. I enjoyed Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer in this one.
25. Women is Losers (HBO Max): A surprising find on HBO Max, I enjoyed Lorena Izzo in the lead role and the blend of comedy and drama here.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.