“The Card Counter” is a callback to the gritty independent movies of the 1990s.
Paul Schrader’s latest is unlike most on this list as it is a callback to those gritty 1990s indies that were unapologetic in just telling a powerful story with few bells and whistles.
The film focuses on a gambler with a troubled past, played by Oscar Isaac, and the actor gives a fantastic performance as a man with principles and discipline who has to throw all of that away to do what’s right. — Jason Guerrasio
“The Card Counter” is available to buy or rent on Apple TV.
Isaac’s costar, Tiffany Haddish, previously spoke to Insider about how she had to suck during auditions to land her part in the movie.
“CODA” is a sweet coming-of-age story centered around a teen with deaf parents.
Emilia Jones, known for her role in Netflix’s “Locke & Key,” shines in this coming-of-age film as Ruby, a high school student with a passion for singing who struggles to balance nurturing her talents as she helps with the family fishing business.
A child of deaf adults (or CODA for short, hence the film’s title) Ruby is torn between heading to college to pursue her dreams and juggling the responsibilities of being her family’s interpreter.
A remake of a French film, “La Famille Bélier, “CODA,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, cast deaf actors in its lead roles, including Oscar winner Marlee Matlin.
Jones learned American Sign Language which is used extensively and expressively in the film to curse, joke casually about sex, and in light-hearted moments between Ruby, her parents, and her older brother as the film makes you fully invested in each of its main characters, not just the child who can hear.
Though some may be bothered a bit that the film’s characters are so codependent on their hearing daughter for a good portion of the movie, ultimately, “CODA” is a story about a close-knit family supporting one another and the sacrifices we make for our loved ones without compromising our own pursuits.
“Don’t Look Up” turns the mirror on humanity to show our not so pretty side.
The evolution of director Adam McKay from helming Will Ferrell comedies to thought-provoking dramas (“The Big Short,” “Vice”) has been a fascinating one.
In his latest, he enlists an all-star cast (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, and Cate Blanchett) to examine the end of the world. With undertones on everything from climate change, politics, and media, McKay turns the mirror on ourselves to show the not so pretty side. And I couldn’t get enough of it. — Jason Guerrasio
“Don’t Look Up” is available to stream on
“Encanto” Is Disney’s best animated feature in six years.
In recent years, Disney has pushed away from stereotypical princess narratives to focus on stories and characters that are more reflective of the world around us. Disney’s best animated feature in six years, “Encanto” is a beautiful and vibrant celebration of family, filled with the enchanting magic of “Beauty and the Beast” and the heart of Disney and Pixar’s “Coco.”
The film’s focus on Maribel, a quirky and spunky girl without magic in a family full of it, delivers a deeply heartwarming story about the pressures and expectations placed upon loved ones and the importance of communication to keep the foundation of a family from becoming fractured.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is easily becoming one of the studio’s go-to secret weapons, writing and producing eight original songs for Disney’s 60th animated picture. Grab some tissues and watch this one with the family. — Kirsten Acuna
“Fatherhood” proves Kevin Hart can be a convincing dramatic actor.
Before Netflix’s hit limited series “True Story,” Kevin Hart went full dramatic with this movie in which he plays a new father who has to raise his child on his own after his wife dies during childbirth.
It’s an impressive performance by Hart, who is the latest comic to prove that he has solid dramatic acting talents and should be recognized for being able to entertain just beyond jokes. — Jason Guerrasio
Hart previously spoke to Insider about how the movie proved his growth as an actor.
“Fatherhood” is available to stream on Netflix.
“Flee” is the most emotionally-charged movie of the year.
By far the most emotionally-charged movie I saw this year, Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen recounts the remarkable life of Amin Nawabi, who for the first time ever retells the story of fleeing Afghanistan in his childhood to become a refugee in Denmark.
Using animation to visualize Nawabi’s story, it is a harrowing tale of loss and perseverance. It is a movie everyone has to see at least once. — Jason Guerrasio
“Free Guy” is one of the best video game movies that isn’t even based on an actual game.
Video game movies are notoriously bad. Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy managed to not only make a great video game movie (that isn’t even based on a game), but also an unexpectedly smart satire on toxic video game work culture without it being boring or tough to understand.
Not only is “Free Guy” hilarious, but it’s also a full-blown action rom-com with a delightful Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve”).
Best of all, the film focuses on kindness over violence. While most games are about getting ahead by using violence, “Free Guy” shows you can get ahead, not only in a game, but also in life, by being a good guy. It was an unexpectedly refreshing message to see on screen. — Kirsten Acuna
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the best performances of the year in “The Guilty.”
In this American remake of the 2018 Danish movie of the same name, Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the best performances of the year as an LAPD officer who is working at a 911 call center while awaiting a court hearing for an incident while he was on the streets.
Set over one evening, we watch Gyllenhaal try to save a woman he thinks has been kidnapped. Captured from only the point of view of Gyllenhaal’s character in the call center, we are taken on an anxiety-filled thrill ride. — Jason Guerrasio
“The Guilty” is available to stream on Netflix.
“The Last Duel” is fueled by great performances from Matt Damon, Jodie Comer, and Adam Driver.
Ridley Scott’s masterful look at a knight (Matt Damon) who requests a duel against his friend (Adam Driver) after the knight’s wife (Jodie Comer) accuses the friend of raping her is a medieval times version of “Rashomon.”
Examining the incident through the perspective of the three characters, we are given a powerful exploration of male ego and the silencing of a woman’s voice.
Damon, Driver, Comer, and Ben Affleck as a horny count all give remarkable performances. — Jason Guerrasio
Read our review.
“Shang-Chi” is the best Marvel movie of the year.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is full of incredible, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and badass women. Marvel’s most original movie since “Black Panther” tells a beautiful story about family, loss, and how our grief can blind and destroy us.
The next chapter of the MCU is well off in Simu Liu’s more than capable hands. — Kirsten Acuna
“Licorice Pizza” features perfect performances by its stars, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is one of the rare times he goes light with the storytelling.
This coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s San Fernando Valley follows a twentysomething girl (Alana Haim) and and a teenager (Cooper Hoffman) as they navigate their lives and their feelings for one another.
As always, Anderson crafts a engaging story, but it’s really the performances by Haim and Hoffman that sucked me in. — Jason Guerrasio
“Luca” is a beautiful look at friendship.
Pixar’s latest is a beautiful look at friendship.
Following two sea creatures who want to see what it’s like to be human, the pair ventures onto dry land at the Italian seaside village near where they live. There, they learn that their kind is hunted by townspeople. But their obsession of one day owning a Vespa is just too powerful, leading to a enormously entertaining quest.
“Luca” is available to stream on Disney+.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” isn’t just enormously funny but extremely heartfelt.
This isn’t just one of the best animated movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies of 2021.
Following the antics of Katie, Linda, Rick, Aaron, and their hero dog Monchi in the midst of a robot apocalypse, “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve had this year (and it’s not just because my kids constantly watch it).
Director Michael Rianda takes his childhood memories with his father and mixes them with the tremendous storytelling talents of his coscreenwriter Jeff Rowe, then adds the genius of Chris Miller and Phil Lord as producers to capture a tale that isn’t just enormously funny but extremely heartfelt. — Jason Guerrasio
Plus, find out the songs Rianda considered before landing on T.I.’s “Live Your Life” for the movie’s father/daughter song.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” is available to stream on Netflix.
“Passing” is the powerful directorial debut of Rebecca Hall.
Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is a powerful look at two Black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) in the 1920s who can pass as White. Negga gives a incredible performance as one of the women, who has gone so far as to have married a wealthy White man (Alexander Skarsgård).
We follow the two women as they become more involved in each other’s lives, leading to a shocking ending. — Jason Guerrasio
“Passing” is available to stream on Netflix.
“The Power of the Dog” is a powerful look at love and steps we’ll take to protect family.
Jane Campion’s look at a wealthy rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who torments his brother’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) while also longing for his own lost love, is a powerful look at love — and the steps some will go to protect family.
“The Power of the Dog” is available to stream on Netflix.
“Procession” is unlike any documentary about sexual abuse you have ever seen.
Documentary filmmaker Robert Greene has spent his career thinking outside the box to examine topics like suicide (“Katie Plays Christine”) and even professional wrestling (“Fake It So Real”), but this movie may be his masterpiece.
Wanting to shed light on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Greene didn’t go the usual route of victims talking on camera about what happened. He teamed with six men who were sexually abused by priests and invited them to create fictionalized reenactments of their abuse and trauma to help heal.
The result is a powerful and raw look at victims trying to move on. — Jason Guerrasio
“Procession” is available to stream on Netflix.
“The Rescue” keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire movie.
The 2018 Thai cave rescue of a group of soccer kids had the world on the edge of their seats, but we really didn’t know the length the divers who saved them went to in order to pull off one of the most remarkable rescues ever.
Now, documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) take us inside the dangerous journey in their new movie. The remarkable recounts are topped by some of the best reenactment footage you will ever see. — Jason Guerrasio
Read how Vasarhelyi and Chin pulled off those reenactments by using the divers who were really there.
“The Rescue” is available to stream on Disney+.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a love letter to the original.
Another case of nostalgia done right, director Jason Reitman mustered the courage to bring the reboot/sequel hybrid of his father’s original films to life alongside him. How’d he do? Let’s just say, this is the “Ghostbusters” movie fans wanted in 2016.
The father-son passion project is felt on screen here through a strained family relationship in the film. Child actors Mckenna Grace and Logan Kim are highlights, and Paul Rudd has a few standout scenes of his own, including one with some tiny marshmallow men. You should go into this one knowing the least amount of spoilers possible. — Kirsten Acuna
“Spencer” uses the life and mythology of Princess Diana to craft a modern-day fable.
Director Pablo Larraín follows up his intimate look at Jackie Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman) after the assassination of her husband in 2016’s “Jackie” with another film about a powerful woman.
Teaming this time with Kristen Stewart, the duo examines the life and mythology of Princess Diana.
“Spencer” wasn’t made to be a historical account of Di’s issues with the royals; instead, Larraín uses one of the most famous icons in the world as the foundation of a fable that examines a woman being suffocated by tradition and title and her efforts to finally breathe again. — Jason Guerrasio
Larraín and Stewart previously talked to Insider about how they used their own fears to fuel the making of the movie.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” feels like a miracle to have come together.
Who would’ve thought we’d ever get a “Spider-Man” movie with villains from all three iterations of the franchise? “No Way Home” pulled out all the stops to deliver everything you’ve ever wanted from a “Spider-Man” movie without feeling gimmicky or cheap.
If you’ve been a diligent fan since 2002’s Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man,” you’re rewarded ten times over in “No Way Home.” Not since “Avengers: Endgame” has there been a bigger film you want to experience with other people to hear them collectively cheer and cry out at the many surprises on screen.
The only thing better than the film’s big surprises is Willem Dafoe’s return as the Green Goblin. At 66, Dafoe steals every scene he’s in, managing to outshine even his own original iconic performance as the Green Goblin. Here, he proves why he’s one of the best comic-book villains to ever grace the big screen and why no one’s better at giving unhinged performances. — Kirsten Acuna
Read our review here.
“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is a terrific peek inside the mind of a rising Broadway star, led by a brilliant Andrew Garfield.
From the moment Andrew Garfield starts singing the film’s opening number, “30/90,” you know “Tick, Tick… Boom!” is going to be something special. Garfield perfectly captures the existential dread of life passing you by without having anything to show for it as he embodies Jonathan Larson, the creator of the Tony award-winning musical “Rent,” in the years leading up to Larson’s tragic death before the show’s Broadway debut.
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”), the film’s structure is brilliantly designed so it feels like you’re watching the creation of a Broadway show within a Broadway show.
Most impressive is that Garfield’s really singing here. The actor spent about a year with several vocal coaches to bring the story of Larson’s first musical to life beautifully. Garfield passionately brings each song to life with a full-body performance (and if you don’t believe us, just check this out). Broadway fans will also squeal over some surprise cameos here. — Kirsten Acuna
“Tick, Tick… Boom!” is available to stream on Netflix.
“West Side Story” delivers a perfect Maria in new star Rachel Zegler.
Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake is gorgeously shot and faithful to the original Broadway show and film. It’s also bold enough to finally feel authentic without succumbing to the pressures of catering to a monolingual audience by including scenes of Spanish dialogue purposefully without subtitles.
Rachel Zegler delivers the strongest vocals of the cast, bringing Maria to life with a beautiful innocence and naivety. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role in the 1961 film, is a highlight of the remake. Joining this adaptation as an executive producer, Moreno appears in more than just a cameo, singing and raising hell. At 90, she’s still got it. — Kirsten Acuna
Read our review here.
“The Worst Person in the World” features a star in the making with its lead, Renate Reinsve.
Wowing audiences at film festivals this year and on the shortlist to win the best foreign film Oscar (the movie opens in theaters early next year), the latest from director Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”) is a dark romantic dramedy that follows Julie (Renate Reinsve) as she navigates her life.
We cannot wait to see what Reinsve does next. She is a powerhouse on screen. — Jason Guerrasio
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is the movie fans deserved to see back in 2017.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” shouldn’t even exist. The long-fabled four-hour cut was willed to life by fans after a more than three-year social-media campaign to get Snyder’s original vision of his film to screen.
The Snyder cut shares alternative dialogue and hours of footage cut from the original release. Many scenes with women in the theatrical version undermine their power, strength, and agency. Here, Snyder portrays women to look like strong warriors without ever feeling the need to call them gorgeous as a gag, suggest they’re “thirsty,” or by making them the butt of a joke.
Additionally, diverse characters, cut from the original, are almost all fully restored here. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg now has a fully-fleshed-out backstory, which explains he’s just as powerful as the gods he fights alongside. Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker finally were able to swap some dialogue on screen.
It’s a superior film to the theatrical cut and the movie fans always deserved. It’s a shame we’ll likely never see a sequel. — Kirsten Acuna
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is available to stream on
. You can read our full review here.
Kirsten’s top 5 of 2021
1. “Spider-Man: No Way Home”
2. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”
3. “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”
4. “King Richard”
5. “Tick, Tick… Boom!”
This is honestly a tie-breaker because it’s astounding to me that movies like “No Way Home” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” even exist. But I haven’t had a theatrical experience like “No Way Home” since 2019. When I’m not writing, I really love tennis, so “King Richard” was something I easily engaged with and Will Smith gives a tremendous performance as Williams’ father.
“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was one of the year’s biggest surprises for me. I still can’t believe Sony wanted to call that film “Connected.” I’m glad that Chris Miller and Phil Lord are around to bring some healthy competition to the Mouse, and I’m really looking forward to next year’s “Into the Spider-Verse” sequel.