The Best Pictures of 2021

From 'Belfast' to 'West Side Story,' today we honor the ten films nominated by the Academy as the best of the year.

The finish line is in sight, Oscar voting is now closed, and there’s nothing to do but sit and wait and overthink all our predictions. As is the norm when the season stretches to the end, the race for Best Picture has boiled down to two camps. And not just two camps, but very passionate ones at that. It’s exciting to go into Oscar night still wondering who might win it all. But what gets lost in the conversation are all the other nominees. We (collectively) have come down to an almost all-out brawl between CODA and The Power of the Dog, two exceptional films that mean a lot of things to a lot of people. And how exciting is it that we’re “fighting” over two films both written and directed by women?

What gets lost in all of this, though, are the eight other films in the lineup. Comedy, drama, satire, science fiction, sports, musical, western. Period films and modern day stories. Rich, vibrant color and crisp black-and-white. Veteran directors, beloved stars, newcomers and ingenues. The nominees literally have something for everyone, and even if some (or most) of them aren’t your favorites, they are someone’s.

Earlier this week, I asked Twitter to share their favorite nominees and what made each of these films so special. Listening to so many cinephiles sharing their love and enthusiasm for all of these films was a great (and necessary!) reminder that this collection of films is a beautiful representation of a broad segment of movie lovers.

Here is a look at the ten nominees and some of the reasons these are the Best Pictures of 2021:

Focus Features

Belfast
dir. Kenneth Branagh

With 7 nominations, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film follows a young boy and his family as they face the decision to stay in their beloved but besieged Belfast or to seek new opportunities in England.

Several commenters praised the style and technical elements of the film, as well as Branagh’s balanced tone. Here are just a few quotes:

“A reminder of family first even if at the moment decisions hurt.” – Denise

“A film about war that leaves you filled with hope.” – Jennifer E.

“[Belfast] portrays the sadness and happiness of life in an uplifting way, I left the cinema with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.” – Isabel

 

Apple Original Films

CODA
dir. Siân Heder

Nominated for 3 Academy Awards, it’s been called “the little movie that could,” but after its $25 million acquisition at Sundance, calling it “little” seems oddly dismissive of what Siân Heder and her team have crafted. The sweet family drama taps into the real experiences of children of deaf adults and is one of the happiest films on the list.

Some of the praise it’s been getting:

Finally got round to checking out CODA and I loved it! Sometimes all a movie needs is heart and this film wears it on its sleeve. The cast is superb and my eyes were watery by the credits.” – Liam D.

Finished watching CODA. It might be my fav film of this year, a film of great humanity and humor. It’s a great story, very well written and beautifully acted. The cast is brilliant! I know exactly how they feel because I’m deaf too.” – Hannah

Finally got around to seeing CODA and my gosh did I love this movie. The last 20 minutes hit me like a train.” – Dominic H.

Netflix

Don’t Look Up
dir. Adam McKay

Grabbing 4 nominations, and perhaps the most divisive of the nominees, Adam McKay’s political satire about a comment on a crash course with Earth encapsulates the fears and frustrations of people who see the dangers coming and can’t get anyone to listen. Through absurdist humor, creative editing, and a star-studded cast, Don’t Look Up may be inspired by the climate crisis, but its themes apply to so much of what we see in the world today.

Viewers had this to say:

“To see art speak truth to power is a wonderful to behold.” – Lin H.

“I think the story captures the zeitgeist of the moment of today perfectly. The writing is perfect!” – Rick F.

“It’s the most original and blunt, while being completely misunderstood, which I find hilarious. Others have better acting and cinematography but none encapsulate all the moods it does.” – Brent N.

Janus Films

Drive My Car
dir. Ryûsuke Hamagachi

With 4 nominations, including Best International Feature, the Japanese film from master director Ryûsuke Hamagachi uses multiple languages and techniques to relate Chekov’s most famous play to the process of overcoming grief. Its broad appeal across the world speaks to the universal experience of love, loss, and learning to move forward.

This is the film that received the most effusive reactions by far:

“Simply beautiful storytelling of the power of grief and reconciliation. And the multi-language staging of Chekov was brilliant. So many layers to get through.” – Jennifer M.

Drive My Car, a film that conjures up some of the most beautifully restrained, cathartic, and also just plain beautiful sequences of the year.” – Calvin

“Dealing with grief and talking about it out loud. Working to move on. I’ve had people in my life who refuse to talk about their feelings find this film frustrating. I think it’s exactly what we need more of.” – Bryan G.

Warner Bros.

Dune
dir. Denis Villeneuve

Scoring 10 nominations, Denis Villeneuve proved with his technical marvel that Dune was not unfilmable. With dazzling world-building and remarkable mastery of craft, Frank Herbert’s classic sci fi novel has become the most audacious and sprawling film in the lineup, and one that has genre fans head over heels:

“A gorgeous, thought provoking spectacle that still feels like an intimate character film.” – Spartan23

“More than the technical feat, it’s also one of the most difficult science fiction stories to adapt, and Villeneuve somehow pulls it off, making the sprawling adventure feel like just another natural fit in the auteur’s filmography.” – Joseph B.

“Dune may not be an underdog film (see what I did there) but it’s made with such a unique artistic vision on that grand cinema canvas. It feels like something as close to Star Wars 1977 made in the 21st Century (A movie worthy of Best Picture back in the day).” – TrekRecall

Warner Bros.

King Richard
dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, King Richard tells the story of the rise of Venus and Serena Williams through the lens of the man who had a front row seat: their father. With beautiful performances and a triumphant spirit, we experience the journey of two of the best athletes in history. Positive messages, emotional depth, and thrilling tennis action, this is a film that everyone can cheer for:

“Smith’s career best performance, the snappy editing, and it was a complete story that made me feel things.” – Cory

“King Richard, aka my favorite crowd-pleasing family film of the year. Complete with great editing and outstanding performances, it leaves you feeling motivated to strive for greatness all while showcasing the impact of the early stages of the Williams sisters’ success.” – Jaelyn

“King Richard, as it tells a real-life story of the ascent of two tennis greats that rose to the top in a very unconventional way. A stirring film that marches to its own unique rhythms, with an excellent cast that is game-set-match every step of the way.” – Marshall F.

MGM/United Artists Releasing

Licorice Pizza
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

With 3 nominations, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest transports the viewer back to the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s, and the hazy, unfettered feeling of a Southern California summer. Featuring two knock-out debut performances from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic ode to days gone by.

The love for this one is strong:

“It’s the first time a film has ever spoken to a very big part of my life these past few years, and a key relationship, that has shaped me in ways both good and bad.” – Reece J.

“I loved how the entire film was essentially multiple chapters of the characters’ relationship weaved together with small conflicts and resolutions forming the big picture.” – Abhiraj L.

“Licorice Pizza: had a big smile on the whole time (except for the Asian jokes) & felt incredibly sad that the ride was over. Oh! Bradley Cooper had one of the funniest performances of his career I’d seen from him as Jon Peters.” – Matthew A.

Searchlight Pictures

Nightmare Alley
dir. Guillermo del Toro

Earning 4 Academy Award nominations, Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of William Lindsay Greshem’s 1941 novel. Gloriously stylish, Nightmare Alley was released in both color and black-and-white versions and looked incredible in both. Featuring stunning performances and many of the background details that were missing from the 1947 film, del Toro proves his mastery of beauty in tragedy and simplicity in horror.

These are some of the things people loved about it:

“I was smiling every second Cate Blanchett was on screen, the last shot might be my favorite movie moment of the year, and every frame had me going ‘Wow, this is awesome.'” – Ryan M.

Nightmare Alley is my favorite, largely because it’s just so stylish and so well-executed. Also, Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett give the two best ‘modern actor giving a classic Hollywood-style’ performances I’ve ever seen  It’s just an all around great throwback movie.” – Broderick

“Guillermo del Toro crafted a masterful noir that is both terrifying and sexy. Not to mention Cooper continues to be the best A list working today.” – Anthony

Netflix

The Power of the Dog
dir. Jane Campion

The most nominated film with 12, Jane Campion’s masterpiece blends powerful performances with stunning craftsmanship. Beyond its incredible landscapes and perfectly lensed motifs, Campion strips down the classic Western, exposing the pretenses and performative masculinity that perpetuated myths which still persist today.

These are just a few of the things folks have had to say:

“There’s so much nuance and layering happening in the subtext. The slow, steadiness of the first half lulls you into such a false sense of the action that it’s astonishing when the payoff arrives.” – Steve J.

“The way the story plays out is brilliant. All laid out from the very beginning, but so subtle. I feel like both Phil & Peter are some of cinema’s most iconic characters ever. The acting is top-notch, Dunst & Plemons are so understated & brilliant.” – Shenandoah L.

I don’t wanna wade into this BUT I hate this binary Best Picture matchup where Power of the Dog is being considered the elitist, intellectual pick when I (and many other queer people I’ve talked to) find it a supremely moving romantic tragedy that really emotionally affected me” – Cody D.

20th Century Studios

West Side Story
dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg directed his first (and apparently only) musical to 7 Oscar nominations. After many proclaimed his best days were behind him, after they said it was ridiculous to remake a classic Oscar winner, he showed everyone he is as great as he ever was. Beautiful, captivating, and with glorious song and dance, West Side Story may not leave off on a happy ending, but it is an exciting ride.

These fans loved it too:

“Spielberg using every filmmaking tool in his arsenal to create an overwhelming sense of vibrant energy that’s sustained for nearly three hours. Gorgeous to look at, kinetic to experience, and just a powerful, awe-inducing piece of filmmaking.” – Mitchell F.

“Blown away by the filmmaking, the performances, the adaptation. How every song was performed knocked me out. Emotionally invested in this in a new way. For me, took a classic 5/5 movie and made a better one!” – Michael K.

“Master cinematography, superb performances, the way it addresses the predicament of being an immigrant, the way it both honors and improves on the original.” – Sara

The 94th Academy Awards are this Sunday, March 27 on ABC.

Be sure to check out all of the Best Pictures of 2021 and celebrate the magic of the movies.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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