2021 Was a Great Year to Go Back to the Movies

27 Dec
Belfast movie scene

After a year and change of pandemic-related limitations, and fewer theatrical releases to choose from, moviegoing was back in 2021. No more did we have to settle for watching films at home, on our TVs or tablets, all by ourselves. With vaccines in our bodies, we could (mask up and) see them on a much bigger screen, with much better sound … with other people!

In short, it was pretty great. Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and, while I never took movie theaters for granted, I sure came to appreciate them more when I couldn’t go to them.

To be honest, my own at-home movie-watching experience got much better in 2021, thanks to a new TV I purchased at the end of last year — one with a bigger screen than I had previously and that paired with my AirPod Pros, allowing me to listen to movies at louder volumes without disturbing my neighbors or (thanks to noise-canceling technology) being disturbed by them.

While I did watch a fair number of movies at home this year, and it was fine, I still preferred seeing movies in a theater when I had the chance. And so should you; it makes a real difference. The clearer picture … the louder sound … the more immersive, communal experience … fewer interruptions … If you have the opportunity to see movies in optimal conditions (which, luckily, I often do), and it’s safe, it can make the experience so much better. That includes the bonus of standing around outside after the movie is over, discussing it with friends who’ve just seen the movie with you.

We’ll see what happens next year. Already, Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff has announced that the studio won’t be releasing movies on HBO Max the same day they debut in theaters in 2022 — so that’s an encouraging sign for the pro-theaters crowd.

A large number of this year’s releases were delayed or held over from the year before, and a solid percentage of them were worth the wait — from the beautiful cinematography, to the super-cool special effects, to the large-scale production numbers, to, in some cases, the over-the-top performances, all tailor-made for viewing and enjoying on a big screen. 

As Robyn Bahr wrote recently, “The major films of 2021 encapsulate [a] snapback against the downbeat sensibilities of the past year and a half, emphasizing joy and melodrama in lieu of naturalism and brutality.” She’s right. Some good movies were released in 2020, but this year’s films just felt bigger and better, and they often inspired a strong emotional response.

In the end, I saw 47 of the films considered 2021 releases — most of them in the final third of the year. That’s just a little more than half of what I was seeing in pre-pandemic times, but still a not-insignificant number given the circumstances.

Below, you’ll find a full list of all the new releases I saw this year, in a theater or via a streaming service, in the order of when I saw them. But first, a few favorites — listed alphabetically and unranked.


I loved just about everything about this movie. From start to finish, Kenneth Branagh’s look back at his childhood in the late 1960s is one gorgeous film. Credit Haris Zambarloukos for cinematography that largely eschews color, but isn’t lacking in brightness. The film takes place at the start of the period known as the Troubles, but Belfast is more of a family drama than a political one. We watch as young Buddy (Jude Hill), tries to make sense of what’s happening around him, with the help of his older brother (Lewis McAskie), their mother (Caitríona Balfe), their father (Jamie Dornan), and their grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). The characters are all well drawn, and the classic Van Morrison tunes on the soundtrack are transporting. The “Everlasting Love” scene (fyi: he’s lip-synching) is just the cherry on the top.

C’mon C’mon

If I had to choose one film as my favorite of 2021, it would probably be this gem from writer/director Mike Mills. Joaquin Phoenix (a very long way from Joker) stars as Johnny, an unattached radio journalist, who’s asked by his estranged sister (Gabby Hoffman) to take care of his nephew (Woody Norman) when she needs to deal with a health issue. C’mon C’mon is not a film about big events. Rather, it’s about what happens in those quieter, seemingly inconsequential moments, and how they can mean so much. Mills makes magic happen, nailing the subtle ways that kids and adults get to know each other, and what happens as this relationship plays out. Suffice it to say, as an uncle and a brother, the film hit me all up in the feels. (The scenes in which Johnny interviews other children about their lives and their hopes for the future are wonderful, as well.) C’mon C’mon is a knowing, heartfelt, and truly special movie, and I absolutely adored it. And I can’t believe Farrar, Straus and Giroux hasn’t reprinted Claire A. Nivola’s book Star Child, which was featured in the film’s trailer and in one of the film’s more memorable scenes. Damn, that book. Damn, this movie.


Writer-director Siân Heder’s film is about a young woman finding her voice. That logline sounds simple and conventional enough, but layer in that the young woman here, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), is the child of deaf adults — thus, CODA — and this film becomes something more. Ruby has grown up speaking for her overbearing parents and brother (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant), and working on the family’s fishing boat in Gloucester, Mass., but now it’s time for her to break away and stand on her own. Heder dramatizes this tension in charming and heartfelt ways that feel authentic and well earned. In the dictionary, under “crowd-pleaser,” you’ll probably see a photo from this movie. Even when watched solo at home, CODA is a real winner.

In the Heights

From its first scene, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning Broadway musical is so full of life and energy and love. Anthony Ramos gives a charismatic performance as the bodega owner Usnavi, who longs to leave Washington Heights and head back to the Dominican Republic. He’s just one of the characters here who grapple with their definition of “home” and resist the gentrification that’s quickly swallowing up their neighborhood. Chu effectively captures the love these characters have for each other and the pride for where they live vividly, and the memorable songs — including “96,000,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” and “When You’re Home” — are a mix of Latin American pop, hip-hop, jazz, salsa, merengue, and traditional Broadway show tune that are hard to resist. 

King Richard

A cynic might watch King Richard and dismiss it for focusing on Venus and Serena Williams’ father instead of on the two future tennis champions themselves, but Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film about Richard Williams (Will Smith) shines for being a compelling family drama and a strong portrait of a father’s devotion to a dream. Smith is excellent in the title role, and he’s matched well by Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene, the girls’ mother. While the Williams family’s story has been well documented at this point, credit Green for making it all fresh and engaging — including multiple tennis-match scenes that had me watching on the edge of my seat.

Licorice Pizza

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a 15-year-old actor/hustler/high school student crushing on 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, a sweet and funny romantic comedy that, while too long and not my favorite of PTA’s works, is filled with so many great sequences that it earned a spot on this list. (Blame my PTA bias.) Set in 1973, with a fantastic, period-appropriate soundtrack, Licorice Pizza is basically a series of episodes in which Gary pines for Alana, and multiple supporting characters played by Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and Benny Safdie come and go to create assorted roadblocks (as if the age difference wasn’t enough). Hoffman, Philip Seymour’s kid, is good, but Haim, joined here by her entire family (mom, dad, and her two bandmate sisters are all in the film), is excellent — effortlessly cool and truly crush-worthy. Is it weird that Alana hangs out with Gary and his friends all the time? Maybe. But who can blame him for wanting her around? 

A Quiet Place 2

In any other given year, this movie would not be on a year-end favorites list. It’s definitely not one of the year’s best films. But in May, A Quiet Place 2 was my first movie back in a theater after 14 months, and I was so happy about that. Thankfully, the film was a good one (not that its quality would have mattered at the time, but it certainly helped). John Krasinski’s sequel is a skillfully made horror film that’s not without its issues, but is less problematic plot-wise and a bit more exciting than its predecessor. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, it was great fun to see it in a theater with other people.

Summer of Soul

If Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary had just been a compilation of performances from the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival (a series of shows, known as the “Black Woodstock,” that featured Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many others), it probably still would have been great. But with the help of talking-head interviews from those who were there, on stage and off, and other archival footage that offers historical context, Thompson’s film illustrates how this festival wasn’t just a concert series, it represented something much more important. Summer of Soul makes a more than valid case that the festival has been overlooked as a seminal cultural moment for way too long.

tick, tick … BOOM!

Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, him again) makes an impressive directorial debut with his adaptation of RENT composer Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical. A love letter to Broadway that’s filled with so many cameos it gets a little distracting after a while, tick, tick … BOOM! is a bittersweet story about the pursuit of creative greatness and Larson’s single-minded struggle to write a generation-defining musical. The music itself is enthusiastically performed and often earworm-worthy, from the urgent opening salvo of “30/90” to the question-filled closer “Louder Than Words,” not to mention shoulda-been-a-radio-hit “Come to Your Senses” — the version by Alexandra Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens, that is. (The music is time capsule–worthy, too.) And in the lead role, Andrew Garfield outdoes himself, creating a sympathetic portrait of a creative genius whose time ran out before he could realize his own success or see the effect his work would have on others.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

A tale of sound and fury, told not by an idiot but by Joel Coen in his first film as solo “writer” and director. Macbeth is, of course, Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play,” and while I’m no expert and couldn’t tell you in any great detail what it’s about, Coen’s film is still a thrilling and visually stunning adaptation, led by two of our greatest actors (Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand). Shot entirely on a Hollywood soundstage by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose black-and-white chiaroscuro imagery gives the film a distinctive and memorable aesthetic, this Macbeth is both contemporary and timeless. I was lucky enough to see it on an IMAX screen, and the experience blew me away. 

Honorable mention

Worth a brief mention but not a full blurb were Aaron Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat-tat dialogue (out of place though it felt at times) in Being the Ricardos, Anthony Bourdain’s world travels in Roadrunner, and the uncle-nephew relationship in The Tender Bar.

And now, here’s …

Every New-Release Movie I Saw in 2021

  1. Coming 2 America
  2. Godzilla vs Kong
  3. Together Together
  4. Kid 90
  5. A Quiet Place 2
  6. In the Heights
  7. F9: The Fast Saga
  8. Black Widow
  9. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
  10. CODA
  11. Luca
  12. Free Guy
  13. Dear Evan Hansen
  14. The Last Duel
  15. No Time to Die
  16. The Many Saints of Newark
  17. The French Dispatch
  18. Last Night in Soho
  19. The Eternals
  20. Belfast
  21. Spencer
  22. The Harder They Fall
  23. C’mon C’mon
  24. The Tender Bar
  25. tick, tick … BOOM!
  26. Mayor Pete
  27. Passing
  28. Red Rocket
  29. Ghostbusters: Afterlife
  30. King Richard
  31. The Power of the Dog
  32. Being the Ricardos
  33. House of Gucci
  34. Summer of Soul
  35. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  36. The King’s Man
  37. West Side Story
  38. Don’t Look Up
  39. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  40. Spider-Man: No Way Home
  41. The Matrix Resurrections
  42. The Lost Daughter
  43. Licorice Pizza
  44. The Rescue
  45. Encanto
  46. Worth
  47. The Eyes of Tammy Faye

What were your favorite movies this year? Leave a comment below and let me know!

4 Responses to “2021 Was a Great Year to Go Back to the Movies”

  1. Dr Andrew Albert January 5, 2022 at 12:37 pm #

    I loved “in the heights” fantastic movie. Thanks for this fantastic review

    • Martin Lieberman January 5, 2022 at 12:42 pm #

      Glad you saw/enjoyed it … Thanks for reading and commenting on this post!


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