CHICAGO - 2021 was a big year for movies. Long-delayed blockbusters like "No Time To Die," "Dune" and "Candyman" came roaring back into theaters, even as intriguingly original indies continued to pop up on more and more streaming platforms.
While superheroes filled our megaplexes and "Spider-Man: No Way Home" broke all sorts of box office records, musicals were another massive trend of the year. Big showy spectacles like "West Side Story" and "In The Heights" enchanted critics, even as they failed to connect at the box office.
But the smaller films were just as compelling as the big ones, with humanistic dramas like "C’mon C’mon," "Language Lessons" and "Together Together" that spoke to our need for human connection.
Plus the Oscar race officially got off to its star-filled start. Will Smith in "King Richard," Andrew Garfield in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" and Lady Gaga in "House of Gucci" are just a few of the names likely to be in contention for acting awards. Meanwhile movies like "The Power of the Dog," "Belfast," "CODA" and "Drive My Car" could be up for Best Picture nods.
Here, divided by category, are the must-see movies of 2021.
Must-see uplifting watch: "CODA" (Apple TV+)
Emilia Jones in "CODA."
The big winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Sian Heder’s coming-of-age drama "CODA", which earned four awards, including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award — and it’s incredibly clear why the film has brought home such recognition. ... From the beginning, it’s clear the filmmakers of "CODA" understood the responsibility to accurately and effectively depict Deaf culture and American Sign Language. ... It’s this soul and depth that takes the movie from feel-good and predictable to one that is [memorable] and masterfully achieved. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. Dir: Sian Heder. Featuring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, John Fiore, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Eugenio Derbez.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Apple TV+.
More uplifting watches
Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales. Photo: Jeremy Mackie.
"Language Lessons": Yes, "Language Lessons" is a webcam movie, but please don’t let that dissuade you from logging on and spending some time with two of the most engaging characters to appear on screen this year. Not rated. 91 minutes. Dir: Natalie Morales. Featuring: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass. Streaming on VOD. Read Allison Shoemaker’s review.
"Licorice Pizza": This groovy slice of 1970s nostalgia is one of the sweetest, gentlest films writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. Rated R. 133 minutes. Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson. Also featuring: Benny Safdie, Bradley Cooper, Skyler Gisondo, Sean Penn. In theaters now.
Must-see sci-fi: "The Matrix Resurrections" (HBO Max)
KEANU REEVES as Neo/ Thomas Anderson in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Venus Castina Productions’ "THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
How do you follow up a perfect movie? It’s a question that’s haunted "The Matrix" franchise since the Wachowskis changed sci-fi action cinema forever in 1999. And it’s one that explicitly sits at the heart of this long-awaited fourth installment ... This is a surprisingly playful, lighthearted film with a meta take on the idea of revisiting/rebooting a beloved franchise with a complicated cultural legacy. That makes "Resurrections" a wickedly entertaining, delightfully romantic addition to the "Matrix" canon – one that may prove divisive for those looking for a hardcore action flick, but will offer plenty of rewards for those willing to open their minds to a new kind of blockbuster. Rated R. 148 minutes. Dir:Lana Wachowski. Featuring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Neil Patrick Harris, Jonathan Groff, Jada Pinkett-Smith.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
More must-see sci-fi
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET as Paul Atreides in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ adventure "DUNE," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures.
"Dune": This titanic adaptation of "Dune" is perhaps the most gorgeous, sharply-realized vision of the world yet. Rated PG-13. 155 minutes. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Featuring: Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Dave Bautista, Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem. Available to buy on VOD. Read Clint Worthington’s review.
Must-see biopic: "Being The Ricardos" (Prime Video)
NICOLE KIDMAN and JAVIER BARDEM star in BEING THE RICARDOS Photo: GLEN WILSON © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC
Thanks to projects like "The West Wing" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7," Aaron Sorkin has sometimes been deemed a master of socio-political commentary. But the mile-a-minute wordsmith’s true skill is writing people who love each other while they’re having a fight. That makes Sorkin a perfect match for a behind-the-scenes show business drama about Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) and the week from hell they experienced on their groundbreaking sitcom "I Love Lucy." ... Here he takes everything he’s learned across 20+ years of writing workplace dramas and fuels them into a sparky, spiky, bittersweet feature-length story that’s at once big in scale, small in focus and steeped in the rhythms of Sorkin’s best work. Rated R. 131 minutes. Dir: Aaron Sorkin. Also featuring: Nina Arianda,J.K. Simmons,Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
More must-see biopics
Daniel Kaluuya, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and Lakeith Stanfield
"Judas and the Black Messiah": Daniel Kaluuya won the Oscar for his turn as Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton in this dualing biopic. Also on hand is Lakeith Stanfield (another Oscar nominee) as the troubled young man roped into going undercover among the Black Panthers for the FBI. Rated R. 126 minutes. Dir: Shaka King. Also featuring: Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons. Streaming on HBO Max and VOD.
"King Richard": This supremely watchable biopic tells the story of Richard Williams (Will Smith), the protective, enigmatic, larger-than-life figure who helped shaped his daughters Venus and Serena into tennis legends. Rated PG-13. 145 minutes. Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Also featuring: Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Aunjanue Ellis, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal. Available to pre-order on VOD.
Must-see superhero movie: "Spider-Man: No Way Home" (in theaters now)
Tom Holland stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.
What works best about "No Way Home" is its sense of surprise – not just in the cameos, Easter Eggs and returning characters it offers, but also in its bold tonal shifts. It’s a movie that can be subversively playful one minute and deeply somber the next. (It helps that star Tom Holland is just as good at conjuring up empathetic tears as cracking wise.) In fact, far from feeling like a trilogy capper, "No Way Home" seems more like the start of a new era for Peter Parker ... "No Way Home" puts the teenage superhero through the wringer in order to bring him closer to his comic book roots. Rated PG-13. 148 minutes. Dir: Jon Watts. Also featuring: Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Benedict Wong, J. K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Foxx.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.
More must-see superhero movies
Joel Kinnaman, Idris Elba and John Cena in "The Suicide Squad."
"The Suicide Squad": Yes, the "heroes" of "The Suicide Squad" are supervillains. But they’re fun supervillains, and in James Gunn’s soft reboot of David Ayer’s 2016 film "Suicide Squad," that makes all the difference. Rated R. 132 minutes. Dir: James Gunn. Featuring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Viola Davis. Streaming on HBO Max and VOD. Read Allison Shoemaker’s review.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings": It’s been a while since Marvel fully nailed the origin story template, which is why it’s such a delight to see "Shang-Chi" hit it out of the park. Co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton mixes with formula by letting his titular hero (Simu Liu) be ahead of the audience for once. Also featuring: Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng'er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen. Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.
Must-see family movie: "The Mitchells vs. The Machines" (Netflix)
THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES - (L-R) Mike Rianda as "Aaron Mitchell", Danny McBride as "Rick Mitchell", Abbi Jacobson as "Katie Mitchell" and Maya Rudolph as "Linda Mitchell". Cr: ©2021 SPAI. All Rights Reserved.
Oh, the Mitchells. Producers Phil Miller and Christopher Lord ("Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse") dropped a lovable yet seriously dysfunctional family right into a robot apocalypse, and in "The Mitchells vs. the Machines," Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) and company more than rose to the occasion. Co-writers Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe blend pathos and humor as nimbly as the film's several animation styles, creating a treat for the eyes, ears (courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh's excellent score) and heart. Oh, and it just might make you think twice about welcoming Siri and Alexa into your home, courtesy of a deliciously deranged vocal performance from Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Rated PG. Runtime 110. Dir: Mike Rianda. Also featuring the voices of: Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix and VOD.
More must-see family movies
Mirabel Madrigal struggles to fit in a family where everyone has been blessed with magical powers - everyone but her. Determined to prove she belongs within this extraordinary family, she strives to contribute in meaningful ways—denying to everyone,
"Encanto": Set in a magical village in Colombia, this lushly animated flick follows the one non-magical member of a family blessed with superhuman abilities. Rated PG. 109 minutes. Dir: Jared Bush, Byron Howard. Featuring the voices of: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Wilmer Valderrama, Alan Tudyk. Streaming on Disney+
"Luca": With a story about outsiders that can be read any number of ways, "Luca" serves as a welcome reminder of the courage it takes to face your fears and tell them, "Silenzio Bruno!" Rated PG. 95 minutes. Dir: Enrico Casarosa. Featuring the voices of: Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Marco Barricelli, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Sacha Baron Cohen. Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.
Must-see musical: "Tick, Tick... Boom!" (Netflix)
tick, tick...BOOM! (L-R) ANDREW GARFIELD as JONATHAN LARSON in tick, tick...BOOM!. Cr. MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021
Lin-Manuel Miranda made his directorial debut this year, with this heartfelt passion project that tells the real-life story of "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield). While Broadway aficionados will be thrilled by the cameos and Easter eggs tucked inside this love letter to musical theater, "Tick, Tick… Boom!" also tells a universally relatable story about the cost of pursuing a creative career and the fear of growing up and falling behind. Yet the single biggest reason to check it out is the career-best performance from Garfield, whose bombastic physicality and impressive singing voice bring Larson to life with a fiery, prickly passion worthy of a man who changed the face of American musical theater forever. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Dir: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Also featuring: Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Judith Light, Bradley Whitford.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.
More must-see musicals
Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
"West Side Story": For his new take on "West Side Story," director Steven Spielberg pulls from the beloved 1961 movie musical as well as the original Broadway stage show, while adding a few new elements of his own. ... The result is an earnestly old-fashioned movie musical that dazzles. Rated PG-13. 156 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Featuring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno,Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera. In theaters now. Read Caroline Siede’s review.
"In The Heights": Filled with creatively staged numbers and a charismatic cast of up-and-comers, Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In The Heights" is a musical treat as satisfying as an ice-cold piragua on a hot summer day. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes. Dir: Jon M. Chu. Featuring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits. Steaming on HBO Max and VOD.
Must-see cinematography showcase: "The Green Knight" (VOD)
Dev Patel in The Green Knight
This dreamy, haunting film from writer/director David Lowery puts a whole new spin on the medieval epic. Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, the layabout nephew of the legendary King Arthur. Looking to finally prove his mettle, Gawain gets mixed up in an ominous wager with a mysterious Green Knight. Using the framework of the classic 14th-century poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Lowery unspools an atmospheric, ambiguous coming-of-age quest that’s both timeless and decidedly modern. And yes, it counts as a Christmas movie. (Move over, "Die Hard"!) Rated R. 130 minutes. Dir: David Lowery. Also featuring: Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
More showcases of cinematography
Bill Murray in "The French Dispatch."
"The French Dispatch": Maybe the most Wes Anderson-y film Wes Anderson has ever made, this charming ensemble feature is a wistful tribute to creativity, art, writing and mentorship. Come for Owen Wilson riding his bicycle in a beret and Timothée Chalamet leading a student revolution, stay for Jeffrey Wright giving one of the best supporting performances of the year. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Wes Anderson. Also featuring: Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park. In theaters and VOD.
"The Tragedy of Macbeth": Shakespeare lovers and Denzel Washington fans alike will be equally thrilled by director Joel Coen’s stunning cinematic adaptation of the famed "Scottish play" — one that just might set a new gold standard for how to adapt the Bard for the screen. Rated R. 105 minutes. Dir: Joel Coen. Also featuring: Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter, Brendan Gleeson. In select theaters now; streaming on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.
Must-see comedy: "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" (Hulu)
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in "Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar."
"Bridesmaids" co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reunite for this delightfully absurdist comedy about two oddball midwesterners who decide to take a vacation to Vista Del Mar, Florida. Kindhearted Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig) might not have much, but they do have each other. And "Barb and Star" celebrates their unique bond while giving Jamie Dornan a musical number, Wiig a chance to pull double-duty as a Bond-style villain and Reba McEntire one of the best cameos of the year (or maybe the century). Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. Dir: Josh Greenbaum. Also featuring: Damon Wayans Jr.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Hulu and VOD.
More must-see comedies
Rachel Sennott in 'Shiva Baby.'
"Shiva Baby": A comedy that often feels more akin to a horror movie, "Shiva Baby" locks you into the real-time experience of an aimless college senior as she finds herself at a shiva with her parents, her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy — who she also discovers is a married man with a new baby. Not rated. 78 minutes. Dir: Emma Seligman. Featuring: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Dianna Agron. Streaming on HBO Max and VOD.
"Together Together": Funny, thoughtful and just the right amount of melancholy, "Together Together" both embraces and subverts rom-com tropes as it explores a different kind of love story. Rated R. 90 minutes. Dir: Nikole Beckwith. Also featuring: Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Rosalind Chao.
Must-see intense watch: "The Card Counter" (VOD)
Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell and Tiffany Haddish as La Linda in THE CARD COUNTER, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / ©2021 Focus Features, LLC
The best way to describe Paul Schrader’s engrossing revenge drama "The Card Counter" may also be the best way to describe the life of its protagonist: it’s not for the faint of heart. Schrader ("First Reformed", "Affliction") is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of intense cinematic classics "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver," to name a few of the titles on his lengthy CV, but if anything, his work when he’s behind both the pen and the camera is even more unrelenting. With "The Card Counter," he further weaponizes that tension by hinting that the impossible might be almost possible — that somehow, even the doomed have a chance to grab the brass ring. Perhaps it’s just that they can still be tricked into believing such a thing is possible. Rated R. 111 minutes. Dir: Paul Schrader. Featuring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish,Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
More intense watches
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.)
"Parallel Mothers": "Parallel Mothers" is a movie about motherhood with a subplot about the trauma of war. Or maybe it’s a movie about the trauma of war with a subplot about motherhood. Either way, it’s another singular vision from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, who gives longtime collaborator Penelope Cruz one of her best roles in years. Rated R. 123 minutes. Dir: Pedro Almodóvar. Also featuring: Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde. In select theaters now.
"Nightmare Alley": Based on both a 1946 novel and a 1947 film adaptation, Guillermo del Toro brings his signature love of outcasts to this sordid tale of love, ambition and the rules of the side show. Rated R. 150 minutes. Dir: Guillermo del Toro. Featuring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, David Strathairn. In theaters now.
Must-see documentary: "Flee" (in theaters now)
"Flee." Image: Neon.
Deceptively simple and profoundly moving, "Flee" uses animation not to defy the laws of physics or to make cute animals talk, but to help someone draw back the curtain they've kept draped over a heartbreaking secret for decades. In Jonas Poher Rasmussen's deeply empathetic documentary, the grown-up Amin Nawabi recounts his childhood flight from Afghanistan, his life as a refugee and the wrenching sacrifices made by himself and his family to give him a chance at a safe and whole life. Not to be missed. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen; written by Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi, the subject of the documentary.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.
More must-see documentaries
Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
"Summer of Soul": Featuring incredible never-before-seen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, this documentary showcases stunning performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone, all while examining American history through the lens of Black culture. It’s both a celebration and a reclamation, and one of the best films of the year. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes. Dir: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. Streaming on Hulu.
"Gunda": Viktor Kosakovskiy’s captivating nature documentary is, at its core, incredibly simple: He captures the lives of a pig and her piglets, some cows and a chicken in rich, dramatic black-and-white. "Gunda" is one of the most intimate and intense films of 2021, gently but inexorably highlighting the lives these creatures lead before they become, well, food. It’s incredibly compelling — and should come with a warning label for anyone with a bone-deep love of animals. Rated G. 93 minutes. Dir: Viktor Kosakovskiy. Streaming on Hulu.
Must-see horror: "Saint Maud" (Hulu)
Morfydd Clark in 'Saint Maud.'
Some of the best horror movies have placed religion at their center, and the thrilling debut feature "Saint Maude" aims to join their ranks. Set in a small English seaside town, recent Catholic convert Maud (Morfydd Clark) looks to find her godly purpose by taking up a job as a private carer for terminally ill dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). But Maud’s meekly devout exterior hides a complicated past, one that may or may not involve literally communing with God. Atmospheric and enigmatic, "Saint Maud" lulls you into a trance-like state of reverie before unleashing one hell of a climax. Rated R. 84 minutes. Dir: Rose Glass.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Hulu, Epix, Paramount+ and VOD.
More must-see horror
Agathe Rousselle in 'Titane.'
"Titane": Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Titane" is yet another provocative feature from body horror master Julia Ducournau. With an inscrutable tone all its own, "Titane" sits at the intersection of arthouse and grindhouse. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Julia Ducournau. Also featuring: Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh.
"Malignant": Horror master James Wan nimbly moves through several subgenres, even as the remarkably game Annabelle Wallis and Maddie Hasson manage to keep the film anchored in something like emotional honesty. Rated R. 111 minutes. Dir: James Wan. Also featuring: George Young, Michole Briana White, Jean Louise Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie. Streaming on VOD. Read Allison Shoemaker’s review.
Must-see movie about parenting: "C’mon C’mon" (VOD)
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in 'C'mon C'mon'
A stellar entry in the kind movie canon, "C’mon C’mon" tells the simple story of an uncle who spends a few weeks looking after his nine-year-old nephew. But it’s how that story is told that really makes it special. Anchored by a beautifully grounded, wonderfully warm performance from Joaquin Phoenix, "C’mon C’mon" has a breathtaking sense of empathy for all of its characters. It’s a movie about how hard it is to be a parent, but also how hard it is to be a kid too. That allows it to be sweet without being saccharine; gentle without being unrealistic; and emotionally cathartic without ever slipping into melodrama. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Mike Mills. Also featuring: Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann,Scoot McNairy.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on VOD.
More must-see movies about parenting
Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in 'Petite Maman.'
"Petite Maman": Céline Sciamma followed up her 2019 triumph "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" with this intimate exploration of parenting, grief and familial bonds. Despite its brief runtime, it packs a powerful punch — a film that lingers on the little details because it knows how much it hurts when they’re gone. Not rated. 72 minutes. Dir: Céline Sciamma. Featuring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse. Streaming on MUBI starting Feb. 4.
"Minari": "The Walking Dead" star Steven Yeun leads this poignant drama about a Korean family who move to rural Arkansas to start farming. With a stellar ensemble including child actor Alan Kim and Best Supporting Actress winner Yuh-Jung Youn, "Minari" offers a touching look at the growing pains of familial life. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Dir: Lee Isaac Chung. Also featuring: Yeri Han, Noel Kate Cho, Scott Haze, Will Patton. Streaming on Showtime and VOD.
Must-see performances: Kristen Stewart in "Spencer" (VOD) and Olivia Colman in "The Lost Daughter" (Netflix)
Kristen Stewart in 'Spencer' and Olivia Colman in 'The Lost Daughter.'
"Spencer": Kristen Stewart’s astonishing performance isn’t the only reason to catch Pablo Larraín’s "Spencer," but it’s the biggest one — and it’s not a close race. Larraín’s compelling film is far less interested in historical fact than in emotional honesty, and not a single second of it would work without Stewart’s bone-deep portrayal of Princess Diana, a turn that’s wrenching from moment one and never lets up. Rated R. 117 minutes. Dir: Pablo Larraín. Also featuring: Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins. Streaming on VOD.
"The Lost Daughter": Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this psychological drama about the difficulties of motherhood. Olivia Colman ("The Crown") stars as a vacationing woman who becomes obsessed with a fellow vacationer (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, and she’s so good it’s like she personally wanted to destroy your day and send you to your therapist. Rated R. 121 minutes. Dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal. Also featuring: Jessie Buckley,Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris. In select theaters and streaming on Netflix.
More must-see performances
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in "Drive My Car," directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Photo: Sideshow/Janus Films
The ensemble of "Drive My Car": A three-hour Japanese-language drama about a multilingual production of a Chekhov play might not sound like the most exciting movie of the year. But for those willing to get onboard with its hypnotic pace, this story of grief, art, connection and communication has plenty of rewards to offer. Rated R. 179 minutes. Dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Featuring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima, Yoo-rim Park, Sonia Yuan. In select theaters.
Vicky Krieps and Mia Wasikowska in "Bergman Island": Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve sets a filmmaking couple (Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps) on an island that was once the home of legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, then lets the history of the place, of the filmmaker and of these newcomers mingle with her own. The film and its audience are all the richer for it. Rated R. 112 minutes. Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve. Also featuring: Mia Wasikowska. Streaming on VOD.
Taylour Paige in "Zola": A dark comedy about a road trip gone very, very wrong, "Zola" is a thriller for the social media age with captivating central performances from Taylour Paige, Riley Keough and Colman Domingo. Rated R. 87 minutes. Dir: Janicza Bravo. Featuring: Nicholas Braun. Streaming on VOD.
Must-see historical drama: "The Power of the Dog" (Netflix)
THE POWER OF THE DOG BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. Courtesy Of Netflix
Forgive the pun, but "The Power of the Dog" is a film with teeth. In 1920s Montana, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) ostensibly shares the running of a cattle ranch with softspoken brother George (Jesse Plemons), but it’s clear to all who really stands atop the summit. Yet George manages to temporarily disrupt the fetid little world ruled by his cruel and charismatic brother when he falls in love with the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who moves into the Burbanks’ mansion and thus directly into Phil’s splatter zone. This tense, elegant Western from New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Top of the Lake") peels back the skin and sinews of its characters with the director’s typically penetrating insight. Rated R. 126 minutes. Dir: Jane Campion. Also featuring: Kodi Smit-McPhee,Thomasin McKenzie.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.
More must-see historical dramas
Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in 'Passing.' Photo: Netflix.
"Passing": Based on an acclaimed 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, "Passing" stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York. While Thompson’s Irene "Reenie" Redfield lives in a thriving Black community in Harlem, Negga’s Clare Bellew has chosen to live her life "passing" as a white woman. A chance encounter between the two old friends spins out into a complicated tale of race, community, privilege and identity. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes. Dir: Rebecca Hall. Also featuring: André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård. Streaming on Netflix.
"The Last Duel": Combine "Gladiator" with "Thelma & Louise" and you’ve got a sense of Ridley Scott’s new medieval epic "The Last Duel." The director’s twin interests in bloody masculinity and feminist rage combine in a 14th century courtly drama about a woman wronged and the petty, egotistical men who wronged her. Rated R. 152 minutes. Dir: Ridley Scott. Featuring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter. Streaming on VOD. Read Caroline Siede’s review.
For even more must-see 2021 films, check out these roundups:
- The essential kids and family movies of 2021: ‘Encanto’ on Disney+, ‘Vivo’ and more
- The essential comedy movies of 2021: starring Ryan Reynolds, Timothée Chalamet, Kristen Wiig and more
- The essential musicals of 2021: "West Side Story," "Encanto," "In the Heights" and more
- The essential animated movies of 2021: Disney's Encanto, Pixar's Luca, Sony's Vivo and more
- The essential onscreen superheroes of 2021: Marvel's Spiderman, Loki, Black Widow and more
More must-see movies streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017): It turns out there’s more to Wonder Woman’s (real world) origin story than we knew. This thoughtful, sexy biographical drama looks at the psychologist and comic book writer who first created the Wonder Woman character, and the two women who helped him do it. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Angela Robinson. Featuring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt.
Donnie Darko (2001): It’ll take at least two viewings to understand everything that happens in this trippy cult classic starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled suburban teen haunted by a giant bunny. That makes it perfect for falling down the rabbit hole again and again. Rated R. 113 minutes. Dir: Richard Kelly. Also features Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal,Patrick Swayze and Mary McDonnell.
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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.