Its been a wild year for all of us. 2021 continued to see big blockbusters pushed back in the wake of a certain pandemic. Toward the end of the year, theatres slowly reopened. Many big films released on streaming platforms first – or at the same time – leading to raging debates about whether the big or small screen is the best place to watch films.
Regardless of your favourite movie-going spot, 2021 has had some real cinematic crackers. Below we celebrate our top 20 favourite movies of 2021. From foreign dramas and superhero films through to big musical numbers; we’ve tried to diversify this list as much as possible. All releases are based on mainstream, public releases in both the US and UK.
Without further ado, TheReviewGeek team present our top 20 movies of 2021!
20 – Pieces Of A Woman
For 30 minutes, Pieces Of A Woman is breathtakingly good. The tone, pacing, storytelling and masterful camera work combine to produce a realistic depiction of a home birth.
Unlike many other Hollywood productions where two pushes are enough to pop out a child, Pieces Of A Woman is deliberately slow with its build up – and it’s all the stronger for it.
Pieces Of A Woman essentially plays out like every parent’s worst nightmare, drawn out and expanded into a 2 hour feature. How do you cope with the loss of a child? How do you pick up the pieces of your shattered life? And will those shards of glass ever form into something close to acceptance? These are powerful questions that writer Kata Wéber and Director Kornél Mundruczó attempt to answer across this story.
It’s not perfect, and at times it does stray – especially during the middle act of the film – but Pieces Of A Woman is undoubtedly memorable.
19 – In The Heights
In The Heights is a proper big-screen summer blockbuster and a feel-good musical that’ll leave a smile on your face.
Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes, the film does tend to get stuck in a rut of repeating the same themes and ideas. However, the songs are pretty good, the lyrics catchy and the dazzling colours and breathtaking cinematography will leave you captivated.
In The Heights shoots for the stars but does fall short of its lofty expectations. Strong themes about gentrification, family and community are welcome, but they also paper over some weak characters.
However, this certainly has enough visual flair to keep you watching until the end, and there’s definitely some big positives to be had from this.
18 – Pig
Who knew that a little movie involving a pig and Nicholas Cage could invoke such emotion! Pig isn’t a ghastly modern remake of Charlotte’s Web or Babe: Pig In The City, but instead a surprisingly emotional examination of a man and his best friend.
The story centers on a truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness. However, he’s forced to face his past in Portland after his beloved foraging pig is kidnapped.
This search is made all the more interesting by much deeper themes around loss, grief and sorrow. It’s not perfect, and perhaps a little rough around the edges, but it’s undeniably enjoyable.
17 – Raya And The Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon is a wonderful movie. It’s a gorgeously rendered, distinctly Asian-flavoured picture that combines adventure, comedy and thrills to excellent effect. The story zips by at a breathless pace, the action comes thick and fast, while the emotional climax rounds everything out with a neat little origami bow.
Raya and the Last Dragon’s story combines elements of Moana and Mulan, blending that in with a more conventional video game fetch quest. While that may sound bizarre, the execution is actually pretty good.
Long after dragons and human have lived in harmony, the dragons disappear and the evil Druun return and threaten to destroy life in Kumandra. It’s up to Raya to save the day, collecting up fragments of a special relic to bring about the end of the Druun – and the return of the dragons.
16 – The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad is a real marmite movie; you’ll either love it or hate it. This superhero flick is a soft reboot/sorta sequel to the original film and while a couple of characters survive the jump to this movie (namely Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller) it’s largely a whole new ensemble to play with. An ensemble that feels very similar to that of 2016’s team.
The team are basically tasked with shutting down a secret military project called Project Starfish. In order to do that they need to break into a top secret facility called Jotunhein and enlist the help of a being known as The Thinker in order to make that happen.
Our team have been split on this one, with half loving and the other half indifferent, but give its warm public reception and ability to stand out next to other superhero films this year, it’s certainly worth a spot on this list.
15 – Space Sweepers
Both epic in scale and hitting close to home, Space Sweepers tells the tale of a crew of misfits in a world aiming to leave imperfections behind.
It’s 2092 and the Earth is unsurprisingly (if depressingly) in tatters. Capitalism wins the century as one corporation’s leader, a scientific mastermind and self-proclaimed saviour of the world, offers a solution – if you can afford the ticket price.
Everyone else falls somewhere on the food chain from Sullivan’s trusted team to trash pickers. The salvage labourers – space sweepers as they’re known – live on cashing in whatever they can find in space, fighting each other for the biggest prize and generally owing more than they earn.
All the elements are present – strong backstories, great CGI, character arcs, dramatic narrative and a robot that wants to be human. Full of impactful moments it is certainly pleasurable to watch.
14 – Oxygen
Oxygen is a clever little film, one that keeps you guessing right up to the very end. Propped up by a stunning performance from Mélanie Laurent, Netflix’s latest cerebral thriller takes inspiration from 127 Hours, Saw and Buried, blending them up together, to deliver an enthralling French picture.
Gasping for air, a woman wrapped in a strange organic cocoon awakens. She’s inside a cramped cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there. With oxygen levels slowly decreasing and only computer AI MILO for company, Liz scrambles to work out who she is and – more importantly – how to escape.
The whole escape room scenario has been done numerous times over the years but Oxygen takes the best elements of what’s come before to produce a uniquely gripping, cerebrally charged thriller.
13 – Little Big Women
How do you move past the death of a family member? How do you replace that gaping hole in your life? And what happens if said family is a dysfunctional pressure cooker of emotion? Step forward Little Big Women.
The death in question here belongs to the estranged husband of a domineering matriarch, Lin Shoying. After leaving her life 20 years ago, his death – right on Lin’s 70th birthday no less – brings a wave of indifference, annoyance, frustration and genuine sadness from all involved.
This bubbling mixer of different emotions is churned into a syrupy, bitter drama that’s stretched out across the run-time. Ideas of acceptance, forgiveness and love are shared and fought through the eyes of five different females, which makes up the bulk of Little Big Women’s plot.
It’s a film about grief and acceptance, wrapped up in a heady cocktail of drama, light humour and heavy emotion. If you can go into Little Big Women with a bit of patience, this Taiwanese drama brings a big emotional pay-off.
12 – The Harder They Fall
Netflix’s latest western ticks all the cliched boxes for this genre, but where it excels is in its characters, which are both unique and echo elements of Clint Eastwood’s old flicks.
The story opens with a young boy called Nat Love forced to watch his parents being brutally murdered at the hands of ruthless outlaw Rufus Buck and his crew.
When Love steals from the Crimson Hood gang many years later, he’s promised that it won’t end well. And when Rufus Buck is freed by his fellow gang members after serving time behind bars, that only ramps up the tension. He teams up with several ruthless outlaws, including Treacherous Trudy and Cherokee Bill, determined to take back what Love has stolen. Only, Love is desperate to gain his revenge on Buck too, setting up a show-stopping showdown between the pair.
The pacing a little too slow, but the characters and an unexpected twist at the end certainly help. This is a real aesthetic treat too, with a unique soundtrack and some great visual flair throughout.
11 – Judas and the Black Messiah
As Fred Hampton himself declares: “You can murder the freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom.” Vilified for their role in trying to bring about equality, the Black Panthers find themselves fighting an uphill battle against the authorities. Desperate to maintain the established order, this party fights back against the authorities – and are punished for doing so.
Despite the prestige and attention surrounding Judas and the Black Messiah, this movie is not actually about Fred Hampton. In fact, beyond Kaluuya’s undeniably charismatic role, the spotlight falls on the “Judas” of this tale, Bill O’Neal.
Caught impersonating a police officer, Bill is put in a difficult position by FBI Agent Mitchell and J. Edgar Hoover. With the Black Panther Party gaining momentum – and crucial public acceptance – the duo task him with infiltrating the party.
Quickly rising up the security ranks, Bill is blackmailed into feeding back crucial intel that can be used to mount a counter-offensive against this “terrorist” organization.
Although a little slow at times, the mesmerizing performances make this an informative and important drama well worth checking out.
10 – Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman opens with an intriguing scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Within the opening 3 or 4 minutes we get a glimpse of our neon-lit club scene, bouncy pop music and understand what our main protagonist Cassie is up to.
Cassie spends her nights entrapping different men; a drunken anglerfish lying in wait with a pulsating neon-pink filament. Drunken hipsters, nerds and general weirdos see Cassie as an “easy score.”
Instead of chomping down on her prey, she waits for these men take her back to their apartment, turning on a dime and forcing them to admit their shame and insecurities until they submit.
At its heart, Promising Young Woman is a stylish revenge thriller, boasting a last-gasp twist and some challenging themes which help to elevate this one into one of the best movies of 2021.
9 – Nomadland
Directed by Chloe Zhao, Nomadland is a quiet, arthouse picture that explores the nomadic lifestyle. All the highs and lows are examined in unflinching detail (including Frances McDormand defecating in a bucket), unsurprisingly picking up several Oscars along the way.
The story centers on Fern, a woman who loses everything in the Great Recession. She packs up her gear and heads off through the American West, living in her van as a modern-day nomad.
This is a very quiet, human drama that certainly won’t be for everyone. It’s one of those pictures that’s best watched on the big-screen to really drink in the themes and ideas. It’s also very visually appealing too, typified by the picture above.
8 – The Green Knight
The Green Knight is an incredibly artistic movie. An undeniably gripping and a fantastic performance from Dev Patel props this film up – and it won’t be a picture you forget in a hurry.
In its simplest form, the story centers on a fantasy retelling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For some, this will be one of the best movies of the year. For others, it’s anything but.
This is an incredibly bold and ambitious project, one that’s bound to alienate as much as delight. Sometimes that’s a sign of a good film, as this surreal, hypnotic movie casts one heck of a spell across its 2 hour run-time.
7 – Last Night In Soho
Last Night In Soho is a captivating, visually striking movie, flirting the neon-lit line between thriller and horror. It never quite commits fully to either state – and it’s all the stronger for it.
Edgar Wright’s latest flick feels like a mash-up of Black Swan and Gothika, with a dash of Hitchcockian horror thrown in for good measure.
The story predominantly centers on aspiring fashion designer Eloise, who moves from the countryside to the heart of London. She has big aspirations, having been inspired by the 1960’s she’s read so much about. Unfortunately, London is nothing like she expected.
Eloise believes she’s found refuge from the crazy dorm life when she rents out an apartment. However, this soon brings about a litany of different visions, transporting Ellie back to the 1960’s every night.
Confined to mirrors, Ellie watches in awe as the confident, dazzling singer Sandy struts her stuff. She has big dreams of becoming a famous singer. Things soon descend into a nightmare though, as Ellie is forced to confront the horrifying truth.
6 – Just 1 Day
Set in Hong Kong, a young woman named Angelfish finds dating less than fulfilling. Her wish is to see a sunrise with someone who truly loves her. But her current boyfriend, in a long-distance relationship with someone else, can’t manage it.
Angelfish attends an alumni event, coming into contact with old friends, teachers and in particular her geeky mate from elementary school. Mosaic is long-term smitten but afraid to speak, stumbling over himself at seeing her again. They reminisce, he gives her a ride in the rain and there it ends.
Sometime later he reappears at the bank where she works with a medical letter showing a terminal ALS diagnosis. His wish is for her to be his girlfriend for just one day. And what a day it is.
For fans of sad romance flicks, this gem is like finding those perfect retro shoes in a thrift store – both surprising and delightful. The set-up warns it’s a tissue-fest but it’s full of funny, heart warming moments and worth every beautiful, fleeting misty-moment.
5 – Minari
Minari is a simple but highly effective movie. It’s a slice of life picture first and foremost, with likable characters and a lot of strong themes around immigration and hard work.
The story centers on Jacob Yi, a chicken sexer who has big dreams to start his own farm. Determined to make his dream a reality, he moves his family across the country, from California to Arkansas, to bring that to fruition.
Once he starts, Jacob enlists the help of a local called Paul who helps him grow and manage this venture. When Jacob’s wife Monica invites her mother Soonja along from South Korea, tensions soon escalate as money and health problems put a strain on Jacob’s marriage.
This heartwarming picture features some brilliant acting, stunning cinematography and thought-provoking ideas that resonate over time. It’s a great film that hits just the right vibes throughout.
4 – The Power Of The Dog
The Power Of The Dog is a slow, quiet, thought provoking movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, and you absolutely need to go into this with no distractions. There’s no hand-holding here; the themes are all scattered like puzzle pieces across the 2 hour run-time. And it’s up to you to piece them together in a way that makes sense. The beauty with this film though, is that there’s more than one solution.
At the center of this bubbling pot of emotion is charismatic rancher Phil Burbank. He’s angry and wound tighter than a screw. He invokes fear and wonder in all those around him. When his brother George brings home a new wife in Rose and her “half-wit” son Peter, Phil lashes out at the changes in his life.
What’s particularly clever here though is the way The Power Of The Dog doesn’t lay everything out with big exposition dumps and on-the-nose dialogue. The script also has a very clever way of shifting your feelings toward each of the characters across the run-time.
Slow, quiet and ready to explode with its emotional volcano at any moment; this is a brilliant film and a career-best for Benedict Cumberbatch.
3 – The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raising kids is the hardest job in the world. Harder still, is seeing them grow up and not need you as much anymore. That sense of pride and admiration as a parent is tinged with poignancy. Likewise, as a kid you find yourself craving independence and hanging out with your friends more. After all, they just “get you” and that’s something your family will never understand.
Teenage life is hard for both teens and adults alike, and it’s something that can put a strain on even the most tight-knit family unit. In the case of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, that’s something this film understands down to a tee. Yes, this is an action-packed animated flick but it’s also an exploration of family and a journey of acceptance.
Thankfully it’s not all emotional healing and action-packed fights. This film is also very funny. The comedic timing is nothing short of masterful and there are some wicked jokes right the way through the picture. Freeze frames, pop culture references and even musical montages are in full display, and every single one is absolutely glorious.
And glorious is probably the best way to describe this movie. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a wonderful adventure and easily one of the best movies of the year. This is a must-watch for adults and kids alike!
2 – Dune
Sand. It gets everywhere. In all the cracks. Although despite the abundance of sand in this sweeping spectacle of a movie, there are no real cracks to show. Dune is a tightly crafted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 work and is much better than David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation.
There are no signs of studio interference with this latest release. Denis Villeneuve, who has already proven his ability to create a piece of science-fiction on an epic and thoughtful scale with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is clearly calling all the shots with his version of Dune. The film is big, bold, visually fantastic, and perfectly in tune with a director who has imagination to spare.
The film chronicles the story of Paul Atreides, who has his destiny changed forever when his father, Duke Leto Atreides, accepts control of the desert planet Arrakis. Leadership over the planet is seen as important as it is the source of ‘spice,’ one of the most valuable substances in Frank Herbert’s universe.
The drug is highly sought after for its mystical and medicinal properties although access to it isn’t easy due to the giant sandworms that are responsible for its production.
Everything, from the striking visual spectacle of the greater universe to the wailing choirs present in Hans Zimmer’s score, adds to the sweeping scale that Villeneuve is trying to create. This is all impressively mounted but those not hypnotized by the director’s grand vision may find it all a little too much.
1 – Saint Maud
Saint Maud is not a horror movie. It’s not a particularly scary film and there’s certainly no jump scares here either. Going into this one expecting a conventional chill-fest will almost certainly leave you disappointed.
Instead, Saint Maud plays out as a slow-burn psychological thriller, taking ideas from many different movies and turning that into a patchwork draped around the shoulders of our heavily religious protagonist.
Saint Maud is a film about loneliness and in particular, the differing mental states one can go through while experiencing this. Taking up the central role of this moody picture is Maud, a nurse who has recently converted to Catholicism and begins caring for a woman named Amanda.
After seemingly sharing the same ideas, cracks begin to form in their ideologies which eventually grows into an unholy chasm from which there’s no escape. Maud’s spirituality eventually clashes against Amanda’s care-free persona, with Maud doing her best to “save” Amanda from her sins, which include drugs, drink and sexual pleasures.
These two opposite characters eventually crescendo into a messy and dramatic development during the middle act, turning the film on a dime and descending into thriller territory. The ending is absolutely haunting too, with a 3 minute sequence that will stick with you for a long time to come.
So there we have it, our Top 20 Movies Of 2021! It’s been a tumultuous year of highs and lows. 2022 also looks set to be a big year for the movie industry too.
In the meantime, 2021 bows out with some memorable films well worth checking out if you haven’t already. What did you think of our picks? Do you agree? Are there any notable omissions? Let us know what your favourites were from this year in the comments below!