As 2021 draws to a close many publications are listing out their best movies of the year. While some may stick in the memory more than others, Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate of the highest-rated films of the year is a useful reminder of which films received the most praise upon release.
Rotten Tomatoes’ list is adjusted based on how many reviews it has garnered, though their top 10 still includes a variety of blockbusters, documentaries, and indie films that show how much 2021 had to offer for film fans of all stripes. There are still reviews coming in for some of the films in this list, so it represents the Rotten Tomatoes Top 10 at the time of writing.
10 West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s reworking of the classic 1961 musical has proved to be a hit with critics, although its longevity compared to the Robert Wise adaptation remains to be seen. The tale itself is a reworking of Romeo & Juliet, with the gangs the Jets and the Sharks standing in for Montagues and Capulets. Spielberg’s adaptation already seems to have held its own as a film that respects both Shakespeare’s tale and Leonard Bernstein’s iconic songwriting.
West Side Story is proof that Spielberg remains one of the most forward-thinking directors in Hollywood over fifty years into his career. Its approach to lighting, blocking, and choreography is all suited to the merits of the story and makes for a thrilling experience.
CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and the narrative follows Ruby, the only hearing member of her family who wants to pursue her passion for singing. The film is a tightly-knit family drama and while significantly different to 2020’s Sound of Metal, similarly seeks to better portray the lives of deaf people onscreen.
The film is a remake of La Famille Bélier, a 2014 film in French Spoken and Sign Language, and it has received much critical acclaim for its funny and heartfelt story, being included in the AFI ten best films of the year.
8 The Power Of The Dog
Jane Campion’s latest is her first feature film in twelve years, and following its limited cinema release, the film has been able to reach a much wider audience due to its release on Netflix. The Power of the Dog follows Benedict Cumberbatch’s rancher, Phil Burbank, and is a Western-Romance that explores love and masculinity in the New Zealand landscape that stands in for Montana.
The film is hotly tipped to replicate the Academy Awards success Campion saw with The Piano back in 1993 and could be considered one of the favorites for Best Picture.
Nicholas Cage has had a recent run of successful leading roles in cult films, starting with 2018’s Mandy, followed by the similarly stylized Color Out of Space, and in 2022 is primed to continue his weird and unique choice of roles with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Pig, the directorial debut of Michael Sarnoski, is yet another meaty role for Cage to dig his teeth into. The film follows a chef who becomes a recluse truffle hunter who goes in search of his lost beloved pig. Cage’s acting delves into a more naturalistic style under Sarnoski’s direction, and it is already proving to be one of his most beloved roles.
6 Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The only documentary in Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 10, Summer of Soul follows the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which lasted for six weeks in Mount Morris Park, Harlem.
Directed by The Roots’ frontman and drummer Questlove, Summer of Soul is a celebration of an underappreciated moment in music history. The festival had a huge attendance including the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and Sly & The Family Stone, and the documentary investigates the relative cultural obscurity that it experienced in contrast to events like Woodstock.
5 Spider-Man: No Way Home
While still an evergreen release, Spider-Man: No Way Home has already become one of the most acclaimed films of 2021, and one of the most successful MCU films both critically and commercially.
No Way Home is difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it provides what is certainly the biggest event movie Marvel has made since Avengers: Endgame. With its exploration into the multiverse, the film came with many references and easter eggs both to other MCU films and also other Spiderman films, spurring numerous Marvel fan theories and rumors from only a few trailers.
4 In The Heights
In a year that saw many successful musicals hit the big screen, In The Heights was one of the most exciting films of the summer of 2021, taking place during a heatwave in the Dominican Washington Heights area of Manhattan.
In The Heights features standout performances from Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, and Leslie Grace, with a vibrant selection of musical numbers that showcase the best talents of its ensemble cast. The adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s play was helmed by Jon M. Chu and featured breathtaking choreography and cinematography, providing the most thrilling visual spectacle of 2021.
3 The Father
Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play, The Father, is a narratively confusing film that seeks to replicate a specific experience. The film follows Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins, and it unfolds haphazardly from his perspective as he grapples with dementia.
Through the use of cross-casting, rearranged scenes, and an unreliable protagonist, The Father attempts to put the audience firmly in Anthony’s shoes, doing so in an entirely unique manner. Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for best actor for his frustrated and vulnerable performance, and Christopher Hampton’s script won Best Adapted Screenplay for its deft translation to film.
2 Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas and the Black Messiah follows the end of the life of Fred Hampton and his betrayal from FBI informant William O’Neil. While the film saw minuscule returns in the box office due to its release at the height of the pandemic, it remained a critical success, with the lead performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield praised alongside Shaka King’s direction.
Kaluuya won a Best Actor award for his portrayal of Fred Hampton, and it already stands as one of the definitive cinematic portrayals of the Black Panther figure.
In Nomadland Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman living out of her camper van after the Gypsum plant she used to work in shut down. She becomes a Nomad and travels across the United States, meeting like-minded Americans who aren’t bound to traditional means of living and working.
While the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture back in April, it is fitting that Nomadland remains at the top of Rotten Tomatoes’ list at the end of 2021. Chloé Zhao’s approach to narrative and editing is an intuitive one. Nomadland lacks a formal structure, instead opting for slice-of-life moments and vignettes that contribute to a cohesive whole.