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Our best movie experiences of 2021

The most fun we had in theaters and at home, with some great films and others that are just too ridiculous

Grid featuring six stills from movies playing in 2021 Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

When we talk about the best movies of a given year, we often focus on big ambitions — films that help redefine film, that push the envelope of what movies look and feel like, or at least get at essential human truths in new, exciting ways. But there’s often a difference between the movies we most admire for their craft and the ones we remember at the end of the year for the sheer joy they brought us. Our Best Movies of 2021 list is coming soon, but first, here are the 2021 movies that most got our blood pumping, whether we saw them in a theater or at home, with a crowd or on our own.

In the Heights

A group of young women sing and dance at the hair salon in In The Heights Photo: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment

In the Heights is one of 2021’s best movies, a densely written and deeply felt musical in a year surprisingly packed with powerful musicals. But it was also my first movie back in a theater since things started shutting down due to COVID quarantines in March 2020, and after more than a year of watching movies at home with my husband, In the Heights felt like sunlight bursting into a windowless jail cell. It was a triumphant return to Big-Screen Spectacle Cinema, to movies designed to overwhelm the senses and eat up every scrap of the audience’s attention and emotion. After so much time in isolation, seeing these huge crowd scenes of people singing and dancing at street parties and public pools felt like a fervent reminder that there used to be more to life than waiting on vaccines and connecting with friends via Zoom. And the film’s sweet summer energy was particularly uplifting after spending the Chicago winter hibernating. This movie re-warmed my bones when they really needed it, and it reminded me why I’m a sucker for musicals, where every emotion is worth dancing about. —Tasha Robinson

Fear Street

A screaming woman on her stomach on the floor in Fear Street 1994 looks like she isn’t having a good day Photo: Netflix

It began like so many great movie nights do: a friend and I (finally able to hang out in person thanks for vaccinations) turned on a few of the many new releases that dropped that week on streaming. Our first pick wasn’t be a winner, but it pushed us late enough that the summer evening became dark, and we started the night’s real treat: Fear Street 1994. It’s a surprisingly strong, unnerving slasher that felt as much like a classic as a throwback. Neither of us had background knowledge on the lore (based on books by Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine), but we didn’t care — and we certainly didn’t think about it once we hit the eerie ending teeing up Fear Street: 1978.

It seems wild to think about the original rollout for these movies, which were meant to hit theaters months apart. The franchise’s energy felt urgent and thrilling as all three dropped on consecutive summer Fridays. The movies are pulpy thriller fun, for sure. But the urgency of them dovetailing into each other (both in release and narrative) was incomparable. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the genuinely solid franchise is that it provided me and my friends with pleasurable appointment viewing. We cleared our schedules for something that brought us together in a time when that still felt a bit novel. They weren’t always incredible, but the experience consistently was. —Zosha Millman

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya lands in three-point superhero stance in the middle of a battle in Raya and the Last Dragon Image: Walt Disney Animation

Disney continues to make animated films that aren’t explicitly queer, yet lend themselves to queer readings. That’s a huge part of what I loved so much about Raya and the Last Dragon. The movie gave us not only one, but two, Disney princesses who are also expert fighters, in the form of hero Raya and primary antagonist Namaari. They start out as close friends, before being split apart as the various peoples of the fantasy realm Kumandra fracture into warring factions. The rest of the film takes Raya on a hero’s journey that also reads like a cat-and-mouse chase between the two women, culminating in an intense fight scene in a crumbling palace. While I didn’t watch the film in theaters, I really wish I’d had the opportunity. Kumandra looked beautiful, even on the small screen. And the film’s fight scenes, based on a mix of real Southeast Asian martial art styles and stuck with reality-based physics, rounded out an incredibly fun time — while also giving me lots of time to hope for a Catradora moment. Even if it never happened, a girl can have her own head canon. —Nicole Clark

Old

Two young people clutch each other in the dark and stare at something awful (what a twist!) in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Photo: Universal Pictures

One of the many reasons I like movies is because I want to be surprised and delighted, to see stories I never would have imagined or known about otherwise. And folks, let me tell you: Never in my life would I have dreamed up a story about a beach that makes you old. Watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Old is like seeing Michelangelo idly sketching The Creation of Adam over coffee: a work of art that will someday stop people in their tracks, casually taking shape in front of you over an afternoon. Yes, I am aware that Old is based on a graphic novel, and yes, I may have publicly said this movie is “not great” and “kind of dazzlingly stupid.” But consider: All these things can be true at once. Old is so audacious, I strongly considered putting it on my list of best movies of the year due to its sheer novelty, but then it would be bogged down with thoughts about what award it should win or what we think about its performances. Award this film with your attention, and yell at me about it later. —Joshua Rivera

Candyman (2021)

A shadow puppet of a hook-handed man with his ribcage exposed and empty in the 2021 Candyman Photo: Universal Pictures

I am a very big baby when it comes to horror movies, but sometime in the humdrum of 2020, I decided to slowly but surely start to conquer my fears. I’ve always been intrigued about scary movies, and I started off my adventure with the original Candyman — which I adored. I’m still wading in the kiddie pool of scary movies, but because I loved the original, I got tickets to see the 2021 Candyman on release day.

I was very excited! I watched people murdered on a big screen, and instead of covering my eyes like I would’ve a few years ago, I let myself embrace the scare and be thrilled. The movie has a messy ending that undermines many of its themes, but the kills and creepy hauntings are riveting, even gorgeous, especially when director Nia DaCosta really leans into the use of mirrors. Sure, I still covered my eyes when the main character’s bee sting got gross and inflamed, but I made it through a horror movie in theaters for the first time in my life!!!! With no nightmares afterward! :D — Petrana Radulovic

The Last Duel

Matt Damon with a scarred face and a battered helmet covering half his head in The Last Duel Photo: 20th Century Studios

After a month or so of overcommitting myself to seeing movies with friends, I realized that I had a strong desire to go to the theater, and an even stronger desire to not end up hamstrung by logistics or other people’s schedules. And so one rainy October afternoon, I treated myself to a 4 p.m. matinee of Ridley Scott’s historical movie The Last Duel — the perfect movie to see completely removed from anyone’s expectations.

The experience was even better than I hoped: I had enough rewards points for a solid array of snacks, and the theater was totally empty. It was an absolute dream, in a pandemic even moreso. My ultimate opinion on The Last Duel was a little mixed; I appreciate it, and I wish it had done more. I wasn’t sure I liked it immediately after, but it’s been one of the movies I’ve thought back on most in this final quarter of the year. The ending makes it hard to solidly recommend without couching it in vague thoughts about “post #MeToo,” and the run time really makes the movie stretch out. But the absolute high of digesting such a complicated, thorny narrative in a theater all to myself is something I’ve been chasing ever since. —ZM

Dune

Paul Atreides faces the Reverend Mother in Dune Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

I am not a fan of movie theaters. I’ll take my nice television and a decent pair of headphones over sitting cheek by jowl next to strangers in a dark room any day of the week. BUT… Dune came out this year. I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I didn’t want to see that in a theater, even though it was very much available on HBO Max on day of release. I bit the bullet and took myself out on a date.

Because I really wanted to impress myself, I took myself out to a 4DX screening. That meant all the bells and whistles — 3D glasses, fans, strobe lights, and articulated mechanical chairs. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. If you have the means, I absolutely recommend checking out Dune in a similarly equipped theater. The ornithopter scenes alone are worth the price of admission. —Charlie Hall

Bad Trip

Eric Andre and Lil Rel Howery screaming in a tilted pink car in Bad Trip Photo: Netflix

I watched Bad Trip at a pretty bad time (personally) during a pretty bad year (universally). Though I enjoy Eric Andre’s sense of humor, I wasn’t particularly expecting much from the movie, since I’m not traditionally a fan of hidden-camera “prank” films. I was prepared to be shocked by Bad Trip, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would shock me: by being so freakin’ heartwarming. Alongside deranged bits involving gorillas suits and Andre’s total lack of shame, there are genuinely affecting scenes of total strangers reaching out to help one another. Andre smartly makes himself the butt of most of the jokes, placing strangers in the awkward situation of reacting to whatever absurd form of distress he has put himself in. At the time I watched the film, it was easy to feel like the pandemic and election had drained away our capacity to feel compassion for one another. What Bad Trip reveals is that our fellow strangers are willing to help… even when you vacuum your entire outfit off your body. —Clayton Ashley

Malignant

Malignant: Gabriel attacks Madison with the golden knife Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

There was just no way to see it coming. After the Conjuring and Insidious franchises, plus blockbuster turns with Furious 7 and Aquaman, James Wan could have cashed in chips to make another moody franchise-starter to stretch his jump-scare muscles. Instead, he made Malignant, a high-emotion giallo stuffed into dingy ’90s direct-to-video pastiche like some kind of horror-movie turducken. Wan pulls back the layers in an almost tedious fashion: the pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is first the victim of domestic abuse, then she encounters another killer, and then she starts dealing with psychotic episodes tied to her childhood imaginary friend Gabriel, and theeeeen it’s revealed… well, please, go behold it.

Strung together with a melodramatic cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” reveling in horror tropes to the point of parody, the final twists of Malignant are some of the most gratifying lunacy of the year, and the acrobatic actor Marina Mazepa brings it all home in a display of gruesome ballet. I won’t explain anything more out of fear of spoilers — just get on the Malignant train. Wan put his dream (nightmare?) on screen for us all to enjoy. —Matt Patches