Though 2021 will always be remembered as the second year of our collective battle against the coronavirus, it was also a year marked by epic and in some cases game-changing films. As nerve-wracking as it might have been for many of us to travel to movie theaters and catch a flick in close proximity to strangers, millions of viewers didn’t let it stop them from enjoying the year’s new releases.
Fortunately, for those who weren’t as ready venture out, some of the year’s best movies were available to stream from the comfort of their own homes, sometimes in the form of a simultaneous release and other times as a streaming exclusive. Whether it was one of the year’s many thrilling superhero films, a heart-pounding new drama, or a classic Disney villain’s origin story, 2021 gave us plenty of welcome breaks from pandemic overwhelm.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the films from 2021 that the team here at We Got This Covered has deemed the very best.
Paul Verhoeven returns to the silver screen for Benedetta, a haunting erotic historical drama about a Renaissance-era nun experiencing strange mystic visions. Prophet to some, grifter to others, Benedetta never weighs in on whether its titular character really is (or isn’t) seeing the Messiah. It’s way more fascinated with how the people around its titular character respond to her claims and why, for reasons both heartfelt and opportunistic. That, and how the Church perceives her lesbian relationship with fellow nun Bartolomea, which is a little less than consensual on both ends, but always brimming with desire amid pain and pleasure. Critics who bemoaned the lack of nunsploitation in the film are missing the point: Verhoeven provides an unforgettable and often gruesome snapshot of a world where the line between religion, sex, and truth is hard to grasp ⏤ even for the most knowledgable in all three. ⏤ Ana Valens
In the movie landscape of 2021, Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon proves an oasis that, if not idyllic, is pensive and rejuvenating. It follows Joaquin Phoenix in a reflective and empathetic performance as Johnny, a public radio journalist asked by his recently estranged sister Viv to help babysit his nine-year-old nephew — played by Woody Norman with a depth many fully-grown actors would strive to achieve. When the supposedly short-term babysitting assignment stretches out into extended weeks of caregiving that sees the pair criss-cross the nation, Johnny experiences all that his life has been missing since the recent death of his mother. Mills’ simple yet nuanced journey of a middle-aged man unexpectedly experiencing the parenting process is easily one of the most heartfelt cinematic experiences of 2021. C’mon C’mon offers lessons that are common sense yet hard to learn in a fashion that never becomes mawkish or emotionally manipulative. By letting his two amazingly talented leads do the heavy lifting, Mills’ movie manages to be one of the most emotionally warm and satisfying film experiences of the year. ⏤ Beau Paul
As far as Disney villains go, some are so cruel that it’s almost hard to root for them. What Disney’s Cruella did was give Cruella De Vil an arc that made it easy to root for her, then made it just as easy to loathe her behavior entirely. You see, Cruella had a soul in her live-action origin story. After losing her mother, she’s forced to fend for herself as she tries to find a place to fit in. Determined to make a name for herself in the fashion world, she doesn’t let her circumstance — or lack thereof — get her down for too long. So when things start to change and she becomes the hottest designer in town, she makes enemies as quickly as she does friends. Will Cruella burn the bridges that once took her to safety, or will she realize what’s important before it’s too late? This film is an absolute can’t-miss for Disney die-hards and for anyone looking for a movie to wow them in a big way. ⏤ Ashley Dye
Dune: Part One
Many talented directors have attempted to bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to life and all have been dashed against the rocks of this sci-fi epic. But where they failed, Denis Villeneuve triumphed. After Blade Runner 2049, I was confident he’d bring dazzling visuals and sound, so what really impressed was how he adapted the story without dumbing down its surreal spirituality and environmentalist themes. I had half-expected it to flop regardless of its quality, so it doing well in the difficult pandemic-era box office is proof that audiences can handle complexity. Roll on Dune: Part Two! ⏤ David James
The Green Knight
Adapting an anonymous Middle English poem takes vision, and The Green Knight has that to spare. Loosely picking up the themes of the 14th-century chivalric romance, director David Lowery freewheeled from its famous Christmas challenge to create a fiercely relevant fable for modern audiences. This intoxicating morality tale centers around Dev Patel’s Gawain, a young knight and King Arthur’s nephew, who struggles to find the courage and conviction to fulfill his legacy. The result is a feast of filmmaking with a dreamy atmosphere, empathic performances, and an astonishing score. Although the pandemic disrupted its release, its quest to find an audience on streaming platforms hopefully won’t be as ambiguous as its subject. ⏤ Matt Goddard
Paul Thomas Anderson’s boy meets girl, boy-asks-girl-to-help-him-start-a-waterbed-company-with-his-earnings-as-a-child-actor story shouldn’t work. But first-time actors Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim have the charisma to pull it off, rollicking through the 1970s San Fernando Valley and turning every encounter into a harebrained business venture and every business venture into a roundabout way to chase intimacy. Haim’s actual family/bandmates play versions of themselves, bickering the way only sisters can. Bradley Cooper rounds out the cast as the egomaniacal Jon Peters, producer of A Star is Born, in a meta role he plays with thrilling conviction. Sometimes all it takes is taking your most ludicrous ideas seriously. ⏤ Tricia Gilbride
The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Despite having a rocky production history, The Mitchells vs. the Machines proved to be worth the wait. It tells the story of the Mitchells, a family trying to survive their own dysfunction as well as an AI uprising. While this could have been a generic “technology is bad” movie, the end product is nuanced, funny, and genuinely moving. Combine this with some excellent LGBTQ+ rep and The Mitchells vs. the Machines is easily 2021’s best and most memorable family film. ⏤ Jonathon Greenall
No Time to Die
In terms of where No Time to Die rates in the history of cinema, I guess we’re ultimately dealing with one of those films that falls apart when you think too much about the consistency of its plot. Nowadays in Hollywood, we hardly ever see action films that adhere to realistic story development. It’s something that most filmmakers don’t even bother themselves with in the first place. In that sense, it could indeed be argued that if you’re willing to overlook a shallow villain and a somewhat convenient narrative, No Time to Die is one of the best Bond flicks to come out in the last three decades, perhaps even on par with Casino Royale, which is famously the best of Craig’s run. The film is not only visually breathtaking and altogether well-built, but also serves as a fitting and conclusive end to Craig’s James Bond, whose tenure has been, at the very best, tumultuous and full of ups and downs. This is certainly one of those ups, and as cinemagoers, we couldn’t be happier to witness this iteration of the iconic pop culture hero bow out with such grace and respect. ⏤ Jonathan Wright
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Warning: The following paragraph contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home. Please proceed with caution and skip to the next entry if you have yet to see the film and don’t want anything ruined for you.
I cannot find enough good words to say about this film. No Way Home is a masterpiece disguised as just another superhero flick and delivers a story with genuine depth and emotion hidden behind the more typically thrilling fight scenes and charming humor. There isn’t a character in this film that doesn’t shine, but none do so more than the trio of Spider-Men, all of whom play perfectly off of one another to create a genuinely unforgettable movie-watching experience. — Nahila Bonfiglio
The Suicide Squad
James Gunn is apparently the man you call when you need a successful film about a bunch of kooks, creeps, and oddball outsiders. This second entry in the series maintains continuity with the earlier Suicide Squad and features a fun performance from David Dastmalchian as Polka-Dot Man. We hope this version of the character appears somewhere down the line again in the DCEU and though this movie was hurt due to COVID-19, Gunn deserves to come back for another round of zany yet serious action-filled adventures with the bad folks. ⏤ Evan Pretzer
West Side Story
Adapting one of the most famous movie musicals of all time for a new generation is no easy feat, but Steven Spielberg has proven himself worthy of the task with his dazzling reimagining of West Side Story. While the bones of the original material remain intact, Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and the rest of the cast and crew worked overtime to breathe new life into this familiar tale, incorporating fresh choreography, vibrant costumes, and bolder backstories for its central characters, not to mention authentic casting for its Latinx characters. If you’re a fan of the stage musical or the Oscar-winning 1961 film, then you’ll deeply appreciate the entire team’s efforts to make this West Side a wholly unique viewing experience. While it’s nearly impossible to beat the original, Spielberg has proven that there are still treasures to be found among fire escapes and city streets, and that if we can open ourselves up to the experience, we might even learn something new. ⏤ Josh Conrad
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder’s Justice League was the surprise hit that came to HBO Max after fans rallied for the release of the director’s original take on the film, which had been completely reworked by another director, Joss Whedon, in 2017. We were completely blown away by the breathtaking back-to-back action set pieces in the film, its distinctive visual style, and its improvement of almost every aspect from the original, including its better character designs, more straightforward plot, and fully-realized characters. We were also impressed by how the arc of Ray Fisher’s Cyborg was so emotional, striking at the very heart of the movie, after his character was relegated largely to the sidelines in the previous version. It might not be the biggest superhero film of 2021, but it is certainly one of the very best outings in the DC Extended Universe so far. ⏤ Danny Peterson