Best movies of 2021, ranked: 'Spencer,' 'The Power of the Dog,' 'CODA' – USA TODAY

Last year was a pandemic-fueled disaster that kept cinephiles at home to watch films. And though many of us went back to the movies, blockbusters returned and streaming services persisted, 2021 was still a strange year that’s now ending with Spider-Man battling not the Green Goblin or Venom, but the omicron variant.
OK, so things aren’t totally back to normal, but there was plenty to see wherever you preferred to watch your favorites. It was a big year for movie musicals – some wonderful, others not so much (looking at you, “Dear Evan Hansen“). A year after “Bill & Ted” returned, Keanu Reeves brought back another beloved series with “The Matrix Resurrections.” Marvel debuted its first lead Asian superhero in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings,” Vin Diesel revved up the box office with a ninth “Fast and Furious” and Scarlett Johansson reprised her “Avengers” role in “Black Widow,” then sued Disney.
And amid all that, some really great works rose above the rest in 2021. Here are the year’s best films, ranked (and where you can watch them): 
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When Paul Thomas Anderson makes an awards season film, one expects the likes of, say, “There Will Be Blood.” So this excellent coming-of-age film set in 1970s San Fernando Valley is unexpected, but also a fun and scrappy delight that introduces two fantastic young leads. Come for Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) as an entrepreneurial teenage actor and Alana Haim (of the band Haim) as his quick-witted 25-year-old crush, but definitely stay for Bradley Cooper hijacking the movie as Barbra Streisand’s outrageous producer boyfriend. 
Where to watch: In theaters
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Just when you think superhero epics can’t get bigger than “Avengers: Endgame,” here comes the most Spider-Man movie ever. Tom Holland‘s teenage hero weathers magical spells and multiverse high jinks with a raft of old supervillains (welcome back, Willem Dafoe!) but also some surprise returning heroes fans probably never thought they’d see again. Where “No Way Home” differentiates itself from other blockbusters, however, is in its moral center, as a movie ultimately about the importance of second chances and a thoughtful reminder that “with great power comes great responsibility.” 
Where to watch: In theaters
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For his first movie musical, all Steven Spielberg did was successfully reinvent a Broadway classic, improving characterization as well as representation. The 1950s-set adaptation gives new life to Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, puts a Spielbergian spin on musical numbers like “America,” and introduces Rachel Zegler (the Maria to Ansel Elgort’s Tony) as a rising star. Make no mistake, though: Just as it was 60 years ago with Rita Moreno as the original Anita, this is Ariana DeBose‘s movie to own, and she absolutely makes the most of it.
Where to watch: In theaters
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A movie that had everyone weeping at the virtual Sundance Film Festival was director Siân Heder’s heartfelt dramedy about a working-class deaf family and its hearing member with big dreams. Emilia Jones plays a 17-year-old Massachusetts girl who finds a huge talent when she joins the school choir, though her newfound passion conflicts with helping the struggling fishing business run by her deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). “CODA” takes teen-movie tropes and gives them an inclusive tweak, and the result is a mess of tear-drenched hankies.
Where to watch: Apple TV+
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Amid a deluge of movies longer than two hours (most of which don’t need that length), Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s beautiful and exquisitely crafted Japanese drama earns every one of its 179 minutes. Hidetoshi Nishijima stars as a widowed stage actor and director who’s very persnickety about his beloved red Saab. When he’s hired to helm a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, he’s forced to use a quiet 20-year-old woman (Tôko Miura) as his driver, and initial awkwardness evolves into a close bond between two people needing each other’s help in dealing with loss. 
 Where to watch: In theaters
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Jane Campion’s intriguingly intimate, gorgeously shot Western drama has a toxic center: An uncannily good Benedict Cumberbatch plays an ornery Montana cowboy who’s cruel to his brother (Jesse Plemons), his sibling’s new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), first mocked by the antagonistic protagonist before he takes the young man under his leathery wing. “Dog,” however, is very much about the secrets that we all keep, and the tension that roils throughout the superb narrative leads to a breathtaking, unexpected end.
Where to watch: Netflix
Review: Benedict Cumberbatch stuns as a cruel cowboy in Jane Campion’s ‘Power of the Dog’
A fact that should shock no one, the best movie musical of 2021 is directed by “Hamilton” main man Lin-Manuel Miranda, though what puts the adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical effort over the top is a stunning turn by Andrew Garfield. As a New York composer under a tight deadline to finish the one song that will complete his sci-fi rock musical, Garfield is a singing, stressing wonder to behold. His role combined with a stack of catchy tunes fuel a moving tale about creativity and inspiration that you don’t have to be a musical theater nerd to adore.
Where to watch: Netflix
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David Lowery, who directed 2017’s best film “A Ghost Story,” puts his stamp on Arthurian legend in a dazzling and gleefully weird dark fantasy. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew and a brash young knight who runs afoul of the mysterious emerald title character one Christmas and embarks on a quest of honor, consequence and mortality. (And if that’s not enough to whet your medieval whistle, the film also features distressed ghosts, comely temptresses, scheming bandits, naked giants and a talking fox.) You’ll definitely lose your head for this one.
Where to watch: On-demand platforms
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While technically part of last year’s Oscar race because of the COVID-19-extended eligibility period, Florian Zeller’s poignant dementia drama is a hard one to shake, no matter when you see it. Anthony Hopkins (who upset Chadwick Boseman for best actor) gives one of his most stirring performances as an elderly man struggling to understand his existence as he loses his grip on the things and people around him, including his caring daughter (Olivia Colman). With brilliant production design and editing, Zeller makes viewers feel the man’s mounting confusion as his confident manner is stripped away, leaving only a childlike vulnerability.
Where to watch: On-demand platforms
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Princess Diana’s royal life seemed like a bit of a horror show, and director Pablo Larrain wholeheartedly leans into that in this enlightening psychological drama set over one maddening Christmas holiday. Kristen Stewart rules as Diana, a woman trying to deal with her cold husband (Jack Farthing) and navigate a surreal environment (with a never-ending array of dresses) while haunted by ghosts of the past, though at the end of the day, she just yearns to be a good mom. It’s quite the movie that can pull off appearances by both Anne Boleyn and a drive-thru KFC, and while the film surrounds Diana with sadness, it masterfully captures fleeting moments of absolute joy that lend bittersweetness to the tragic story we all know.
Where to watch: On-demand platforms
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