The 20 Highest-Grossing Movies of 2021

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The 20 Highest-Grossing Movies of 2021

With Marvel movies taking up a quarter of the entire domestic box office this year, superheroes once again were good for business. Nine of the top 10 films in the U.S. were either sequels or part of a larger franchise. Kudos to Free Guy for at least coming up with something new.

The global picture was completely different with two Chinese films that weren’t even released here (The Battle at Lake Changjin and Hi, Mom) beating out everything but the latest Spider-Man.

If you want the best movies of 2021, go here, but if you want to know what the biggest films of the year were—at least in America—here are the 20 highest-grossing movies of 2021.


1. Spider-Man: No Way Home

spider-man-no-way.jpg US Box Office: $573 million
Director: Jon Watts
Stars: Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei
Rating: PG-13

Now Playing in Theaters

Spider-Man: No Way Home holds no surprises. It delivers what’s expected and whether you cry “spoilers” or not, you likely already know exactly what I mean. That’s what the film is hoping for, as its premise—that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has come so far from his enjoyably low-key Homecoming, his secret identity known thanks to Far From Home, that he must literally toy with fate spanning far beyond his own universe—assumes its audience has a working knowledge and appreciation of two decades of Spider-Man cinema. The multiverse, which supplemented the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse origin story with explosive animated verve, is the only force at work here. It is a massive fan servicing crossover, with the MCU bringing staggeringly little to the fold like a potluck mooch. It is a metatextual collage, which often overshadows the actual text—it’s easy to miss the movie for the Easter eggs. No Way Home is an intriguing case study of corporate collaboration, a self-aware meme machine, and a lackluster movie that understands its hero so well that the disservice stings all the greater. What director Jon Watts’ trilogy has done better than its Raimi and Webb counterparts is convince us that Peter Parker is a kid. A nervous, charming goodie-goodie with a headful of knowledge and not a lick of sense. So it fits that when he, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon) face problems—blown out of proportion by crippling cases of teen-brain—he’d run off to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and plead for a magical worldwide memory wipe without really considering consequences or alternatives. What follows, with characters from past Spidey films getting interdimensionally sucked to this NYC, only really makes sense if you’ve been keeping a keen eye on casting rumors. If so, congratulations: They’re here and shenanigans ensue. If you don’t really care about a fan-fictional Spidey Greatest Hits parade, there’s some other stuff in the movie (it continues trying to convince us that Marisa Tomei’s May and Jon Favreau’s Happy were anything but a long and bad running joke; it lightly engages with bad journalism’s shift from tabloids to InfoWars) but you can tell it’s mostly ceremonial. Spider-Man: No Way Home’s routine is overwhelmed with flourishes, more devoted to Spider-Man™ than its Spider-Man. But it sticks the landing. It’s not that it’s without the MCU’s required final act CG spectacular, but that said spectacular is followed by an excellent denouement, subtly written and acted in turn by performers who’ve waited years to actually act with each other. After so long playing with the legacy and impact of Spider-Man, No Way Home finds its way back. All the spectacle, all the stunt performers and stunt casting—it all evaporates like so many Snapped extras when confronted with small, connected scenes of human-level dramatic filmmaking that remind you why broke loser Peter Parker resonates with us so deeply in the first place. It’s valuable, this recollection, but getting back to Spider-Man basics is a shallow victory with diminished returns. Perhaps the fact that Spider-Man: No Way Home finds any success in this familiar territory, after devoting itself so wholly to unwieldly examinations of its own IP, is itself its biggest surprise. —Jacob Oller


2. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

shang-chi.jpg US Box Office: $225 million
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung, Ben Kingsley
Rating: PG-13

Watch on Disney+

Delayed by and filmed throughout the pandemic, filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton’s sprawling and intangible martial arts journey wears its rich influences openly, treats its supporting cast reverently and dilutes it all predictably. Despite hints of the interpersonal nuance Cretton brought to his indie work (best seen in 2013’s Short Term 12) lurking in a bulky script, recognizable elements of Asian action cinema struggling for breath under countless layers of digital sediment and one of our greatest living actors working wonders as its villain, Shang-Chi is as bland and busy as its title. Poor Simu Liu never had a chance. Every character is more interesting than the actor’s Shang-Chi, who’s a straight man foil to the world around him. He is the sweet-faced stoic to Awkwafina’s Katy (his rambling, riffing, spotlight-stealing comic relief pal) and—as is implied through countless flashbacks and, naturally, a long opening Legend—the allegedly brooding center of the film’s themes of identity and inheritance. But the San Franciscan valet with the heart of gold, single-digit body fat, and secret, mythical family history has a personality akin to circling a lot looking for parking. He is a vehicle for plot to drive around, picking up more interesting characters (Ben Kingsley’s faux Mandarin; Benedict Wong’s Wong) along its extended roadtrip. That’s because, really, this isn’t Shang-Chi’s movie at all. It’s the movie of his father, Tony Leung’s Wenwu AKA The Mandarin. Not only is his character arc the only compelling one of the film and not only is Leung an ultra-charismatic master at handsome mystique, but he’s the essential force of the unwieldy story. That frustration especially chafes because of how clearly Shang-Chi desires to inject a cultural and personal uniqueness into its fantasy template. The idea that someone must wrestle with familial expectations, the desire to be one’s own person and the inherent influence upon that person by those that came before them is a compelling inner struggle—one that could have special resonance for Asian Americans. But with only the vaguest of gestures towards this deeper emotional conflict—not helped by a main character who’s only got that title because his name is in the movie’s—it’s drowned in an overload of particle effects and Easter eggs. Shang-Chi’s a long and often sidetracked movie so, if you’re inclined, there’s plenty of time to find these threads and pull them, hoping not to unravel anything but to find something meaningful at their ends. That the threads exist at all hints that Cretton or one of his two co-writers attempted this specificity—in addition to their casting choices, karaoke scenes and nods to understanding (but not really speaking) a parent’s language—but that their ambitions were either incompatible with or swallowed up by the needs of a wide-ranging origin story with its eyes squarely on a boardroom flowchart’s future.—Jacob Oller


3. Venom: Let There Be Carnage

venom-carnage.jpg US Box Office: $213 million
Director: Andy Serkis
Stars: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Reid Scott, Stephen Graham, Woody Harrelson
Rating: PG-13

Available on Demand

Just as it felt like the box office may never recover, one film rose from the goo to save movie-going. Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a silly, self-aware and just straight up fun movie. The Andy Serkis-directed sequel leaned into the best parts of the original and made a film that abandoned any hope of being serious. Tom Hardy has mastered the art of wacky voices and has such good chemistry with himself you hardly want the plot to continue. And yet Woody Harrelson and Naomi Harris fit perfectly into the strange world of Venom: Let There Be Carnage with their cartoonish and maniacal villains that embrace the comic part of a comic book movie. Wrap all the insanity into a narrative about the power of love and accepting your alien/host for the person they are, and you have a romp of pure delight. Still on the fence? How about a tight 97-minute runtime and a stellar scene where Venom goes to an underground rave and is welcomed into the community (yes with EDM music and glowsticks abound)?—Leila Jordan


4. Black Widow

black-widow.jpg US Box Office: $184 million
Director: Cate Shortland
Stars: Florence Pugh, Scarlett Johansson, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone
Rating: PG-13

Watch on Disney+

In many ways, Black Widow is a peculiar film, simultaneously relic and preface, an epilogue that occurs before the story ends, and, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, an introduction of another piece of the post-Phase 4 MCU. It seems unlikely Black Widow was ever envisioned as more than a coda to the grand finale of Endgame, one that set up a baton exchange between Widows while doing what MCU movies do best—print box office money for the Mouse. Yet in other ways, especially as relates to its genre-specific weaknesses, Black Widow is all too familiar. Director Cate Shortland tries to leaven this particular loaf o’ unacknowledged concussions, fractures and tissue damage with family drama and trauma. Flashbacks and present action introduce Rachel Weisz as Melina Vostokoff and David Harbour as the single traditionally superpowered character in the movie, Alexei Shostakov (a.k.a., the Red Guardian). Beyond the general joy of seeing Weisz in another comic book adaptation, these scenes work well initially—the flashbacks and jailbreak in particular—but as the scope of the current crisis, and the role of Weisz’s character in it, is revealed, the jokes don’t so much land as disappear down a bottomless pit. (I haven’t seen a more morally imbalanced/unearned “plot pass” given to a character since Mirage in The Incredibles.) So what is there to be excited about with Black Widow? Pugh’s Black Widow, whether she arrives via Thunderbolts, Avengers 2.0 or by other means, is Florence Pugh—no matter how light in calories, Pugh delivers like it’s a steak dinner (and it’s difficult to overstate how crucial that is to pulp fare).—Michael Burgin


5. F9

f9-poster.jpg US Box Office: $173 million
Director: Justin Lin
Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Charlize Theron
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

Available on Demand

This latest entry marks the return of director Justin Lin, who helped guide the series’ evolution from Tokyo Drift to Fast & Furious 6, and while he struggles with how unwieldy F&F has become, his undeniable understanding of what makes these movies tick keeps the film roaring along. Lin’s still adding new characters and twists to this high-octane telenovela as often as prefixes, retconning deaths and introducing long-lost brothers as easily as he moves from simply defying physics to defying astrophysics—as easily as he turned street-racing spies into globe-trotting superspies. The crew, including the newly domestic Dom and Letty, is pulled back into the world of…whatever it is they do...once again and their impossible mission (which they always choose to accept) has to do with another globally destructive techno-MacGuffin and a globally destructive flesh-MacGuffin: Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena), excommunicated from the family for sins that become apparent over the course of extensive flashbacks. As Dom’s uneasy relationship with Jakob becomes clear—over the course of explosion-laden jungle races, rooftop chases and posh sitting room brawls—F9’s knowing relationship with its own cartoonishness balances it out. One of the funniest gags sees Tyrese Gibson’s Roman openly speculating if he and the rest of the crew have plot armor. Are they actually invincible? The gang realizing that they’re all in a movie seems like it could honestly be the next step, with them turning their cars towards the camera and bursting out of the fiction like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck. While both come too late in the film for my taste (leaving much of the film hanging on how pleased you get seeing the admittedly amusing returns of Sung Kang and Lucas Black), two innovations keep F9 on the cutting edge of ridiculous action: Magnets and rockets. But such winning ideas, timed as they are to energize a relatively dramatic entry like last-minute nitro boosts, have a hard time standing out amidst the meandering plot and the narrative’s bevy of cameos. Perhaps the most telling way in which you can tell that F9’s action is a little underwhelming is that the standout moment from the film is purely dramatic. A shockingly well-directed “life flashing before your eyes” sequence allows Diesel to undersell a bevy of emotions through little more than a lemon-pursed mouth, while Lin spins his past, present and future around him. It’s not a great standalone entry into the Fast canon, but as the franchise speeds towards its finish line, it’s still satisfying to know that it’s in the hands of someone well-versed in the series’ strengths and still willing to imagine new ways to crash its toys into each other.—Jacob Oller


6. Eternals

eternals.jpg US Box Office: $165 million
Director: Chloé Zhao
Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Rating: PG-13

Watch on Disney+ on Jan. 12

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is not a film that frustrates because it misses an obvious target, plunges down the wrong path or even mangles the source material. In fact, it doesn’t really frustrate at all. Instead, it just kinda … occupies time? Oh, plenty of things happen, but, weighed down by 11 or so narrative arcs of mostly “bland new” superheroes—creator Jack Kirby’s signature style and energy is mostly absent—while also dutifully doling out a millennia-spanning, massively predictable larger plot, Eternals never really feels that connected to the greater MCU. Instead, it feels like a well-shot but rather densely packed educational film on some other comic universe, one filled with off-brand heroes and the usual array of power sets. If Eternals had merely been an enjoyable ensemble one-off—an Ocean’s Eleven or Knives Out of the MCU’s very own!—that could have been delightful. But there’s no real magic, Marvel or otherwise, happening here. Eternals is unlikely to leave audiences wanting more (or remembering much), though it may well whet the appetite for the day when the Fantastic Four and X-Men finally arrive.—Michael Burgin


7. No Time To Die

no-time-to-die-poster.jpg US Box Office: $161 million
Director:Cary Joji Fukunaga
Stars: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Rami Malek, Ben Whishaw, Lashana Lynch, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Christoph Waltz
Rating: PG-13

Available on Demand

It’s telling that Craig’s swan song No Time to Die being the longest Bond ever, at a superhero-sized 163 minutes, probably won’t inspire as much public self-flagellation as the leaner, meaner Quantum. No Time to Die is neither lean nor mean; it’s a hard-working attempt to reconcile the Bond rituals with a series-finale emotional weight that these movies have been accumulating (with mixed success) since 2006. Apparently, that reconciliation process takes time: Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (or, more likely, Eon Productions, the tight-gripped caretakers of the Bond franchise) is so unwilling to drop either aspect of this opus that it often feels like two movies in one, both feature-length. So pronounced is the movie’s two-track approach that many of its story elements feel doubled: The opening sequence is a bit of creepy, horror-tinged backstory for Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann (first introduced in the half-lackluster Spectre) and a big Bond action sequence jostling him out of retirement. It feels like 30 minutes before the opening titles finally roll. Then, after those credits, it’s five years later, and the movie gives us a whole other Bond retirement, this time in Jamaica rather than Italy. If it seems like the characters, locations and plot turns keep on coming, and that it’s impossible to keep from mentioning the other Craig Bonds that have preceded it, that’s very much the experience of watching No Time to Die—and not always unpleasantly. If you can accept a saga-fication of Bond, with callbacks and plot threads and interconnections, it’s, at minimum, less of a Forever Franchise than the endlessly self-teasing superhero mythologies (ironic, given that this is the most forever of franchises). This movie really does want to tie the extended Craig era—longest in years, though not in total output—together. Despite the craft on display, No Time to Die lacks pantheon-level Bond action sequences. Cuba is terrific fun, Fukunaga stages a solid late-movie one-take stairwell fight and the big/delayed opener delivers. But the movie is more concerned with the human stuff, a decision that’s by turns hubristic, heartening and unprecedented. (Well, not entirely. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tried something different, and the filmmakers show their belated appreciation for that once-maligned Bond classic here.) The emotional weight it’s trying to foist onto its loyal audience doesn’t always feel earned, just because it’s tricky to parse what, if anything, the movie is actually trying to say about a James Bond who has spent the majority of five movies beginning and ending, sometimes on a loop. Yet fans may welcome the chance to watch the series struggle against its conventions: Are these performances good, for example, or are all the good guys just beautiful? Is this movie visually sumptuous or was it just shot on film? Has James Bond been deepened, or just weathered? As neatly as No Time to Die wraps up, its certainty is ultimately limited to the last line of the credits: James Bond Will Return. How is another question altogether.—Jesse Hassenger


8. A Quiet Place Part II

a-quiet-place-part-ii-poster.jpg
US Box Office: $160 million
Director: John Krasinski
Stars: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

Watch on Paramount+

Serving as both prologue and epilogue to the original film, flashing back to the day the sound-averse killer aliens landed on Earth, A Quiet Place Part II is an exercise in diminishing returns. But thanks to the strengths of its core ensemble and returning director John Krasinski’s ability behind the camera, A Quiet Place Part II’s technical merits mostly drown out the franchise’s increasingly noisy flaws. Picking up directly after the first film, the surviving Abbott family—Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Marcus (Noah Jupe), Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and a nameless newborn—mourn the sacrifice of patriarch Lee (Krasinski) by abandoning their somewhat busted, partially ablaze post-apocalyptic compound in search of a mysterious bonfire they spot on the horizon. They’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with these monsters thanks to the discovery that they hate the frequency produced by Regan’s cochlear implant—though with that baby in tow and their home apparently no longer inhabitable (for some reason), the family’s clearly in need of a more permanent solution. Not only are the film’s actors so good that they sell ridiculous ideas or freshen familiar situations—Simmonds is still a standout, at once the most expressive and grounded of the group, while Murphy shifts with a dying animal’s dangerous melancholy—Krasinski understands how to play to their physicality, keeping a tight focus on small actions and their potentially large consequences. Yes, people are once again taking very slow footsteps. But when he’s telling stories through these silent, zeroed-in processes, climbing through a window can be far more compelling than an alien barreling through a train car. These sequences are the intimate, often breath-holding culminations of Krasinski’s audiovisual talents, which are showcased in the flashback scene in which he appears. Fittingly, it’s also the best scene in the movie. That leaves A Quiet Place Part II to be a charmingly unambitious, ultimately enjoyable step down of a sequel: A controlled expansion where novelty fades to reveal technical prowess and contempt starts peeking out behind familiarity.—Jacob Oller


9. Ghostbusters: Afterlife

ghostbusters-after.jpg US Box Office: $122 million
Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, McKenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim
Rating:PG-13

Now Playing in Theaters

If I had to guess that Ghostbusters: Afterlife will end up gifting anything lasting to contemporary cinema, it will be as an unequivocal litmus test for what kind of moviegoer you are: One who appreciates a tsunami of callbacks from a much better film cobbled together into some semblance of something, or as someone who begs for an exit strategy from any nostalgia onslaught that completely takes over after the first act. I’m in the latter camp, as someone who desperately hoped to receive a fresh installment of Ghostbusters mythology that might rival the comedic/supernatural genius that almost 40 years ago birthed into existence Gozer the Gozerian, The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, terror dogs, and the concept of crossing the streams. As a kid, I remember sitting in a darkened summer theater witnessing what felt like my first grown-up comedy where the jokes were so great, you missed a lot of the dialogue amidst the roars of laughter. Sadly, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not our savior. And to add insult to injury, writer/director Jason Reitman dangles the carrot of a fun and exceptionally cast sequel that was ready to stand on its own merits until the nostalgia itch got so bad, he had to unleash the beast which, like Slimer in that hotel hallway, devours everything original in its path. Positioned as a direct sequel to Ghostbusters II, set 30 years after the supernatural events of that film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens with a prologue that sets up a spectral disturbance centering on a rural farmhouse protected by strange scientific gadgetry that seems to be the work of a shadowy man with Dr. Egon Spengler’s silhouette. But he’s overcome by that supernatural entity, and whatever he captured in a familiar Ghostbusters trap is lost under a tattered chair that also looks oddly familiar. But whatever promising story teased in the first act is lost. Perhaps most egregious is that Reitman betrays his new cast by sidelining them for returning faces and a ridiculously maudlin climax that makes Ghostbusters II’s Statue of Liberty bit look emotionally tempered in comparison. I can’t remember another movie throwing such a competent cast under a bus so badly. How they turn out and how they could continue in the mythology is just iced in service of a reunion that doesn’t land, coupled with a ghoulish use of technology that is downright uncomfortable to watch. Let me add that the movie isn’t even given a proper ending. It’s more of an abrupt shoulder shrug that rolls into three non sequitur credit scenes that confirmed for me that if I ever feel the need to recapture my love of Ghostbusters, I’ll just re-watch the untarnished original. —Tara Bennett


10. Free Guy

free-guy-poster.jpg US Box Office: $122 million
Director: Shawn Levy
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi
Rating: PG-13

Watch on Disney+ on Feb. 23

It probably says something about the superheroicized state of big-budget entertainment that some movies have turned to videogames to find avatars of genuine human emotion. Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the non-human at the center of Free Guy, is essentially a cross between the two leading pixels-with-feelings from parent company Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph: Like Ralph, Guy is a videogame character who starts to feel stirrings of dissatisfaction in his programmed role, and like young racer Vanellope, he’s also a glitch in the system that threatens to bring the whole game down with him. As a citizen of Free City, sort of a massive-multiplayer Grand Theft Auto, Guy’s job is to walk through the action, stumble across the paths of the actual players, and regularly get killed and reset. When he catches sight of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), he doesn’t realize that she has a human in another world controlling her impeccably styled action moves—and certainly doesn’t understand that her human controller is an idealistic game designer named Millie (also Comer). He only knows that he no longer wants to get knocked through the digital shrapnel at will. He wants to go where she goes, which means experimenting with a level of freedom heretofore unavailable to his routine background life. Having Reynolds play a revolutionary figure in the field of artificial intelligence with the innocence of an awkward middle-schooler who doesn’t yet understand not to repeat the jokes he overhears from mean-spirited gamers is funny—and the movie can’t wait to skip over the funny stuff in order to use Guy as a vehicle for lessons in real-world self-actualization. Reynolds, as ever, seems both happy to be there and faintly self-mocking about his never-ending quest for validation. A better movie could tease out that tension, or allow its star to unravel a little, rather than just get knocked around. Free Guy is too busy mashing buttons. —Jesse Hassenger


11. Jungle Cruise

jungle-cruise-poster.jpg US Box Office: $117 million
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
Rating: PG-13

Watch on Disney+

I’m not a Disney theme park person, but thankfully I didn’t have to be for Pirates of the Caribbean. That movie was an anomaly. There’s no reason that it should’ve been so good or been able to build such fun out of source material that all too easily brings out our inner cynic. This dull semi-mystical boat trip lacks the charisma and action prowess of its ride-based predecessor. Even if you have some level of affection for the retro style and setting of its source, the confused collection of conflicting influences and tones underneath are, at their very best, an advertisement for the better movies cannibalized to create its ramshackle ship. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his fully crewed vessel of writers never sink all the way to the bottom, but the very best they accomplish is keeping their heads above water. Tough khaki-clad hero Lily (Emily Blunt) and her foppish brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) seek a magical healing plant somewhere along the Amazon, ferried by Frank (Dwayne Johnson) and pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). The siblings are Brits, Frank is American and Joachim is exceedingly German. It’s in the middle of WWI, some on-screen text assures us. The point here really isn’t the relatively meaningless MacGuffin destination, but the cruise. Lily and Frank have a lightly bickering, unbearably Disneyfied African Queen thing going on (less boozing, more benign sexism), mixed with hand-me-down pulp tropes purchased at Indiana Jones’ estate sale. Jungle Cruise desperately wants to replicate the success of its mythology-building, franchise-starting, ride-enlivening corporate older brother. But without a charming breakout character, a visual grasp of action or an aesthetic able to miraculously blend the grimy ol’ human hardships that turn journeys into quests and the magic that turns quests into adventures, Jungle Cruise crashes into the kind of mediocrity that many assumed would doom Pirates. Some might enjoy meandering down its lazy river, but most will realize they’re simply marinating in recycled juices. —Jacob Oller


12. Godzilla vs. Kong

godzilla-vs-kong-poster.jpg US Box Office: $99 million
Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Bryan Tyree Henry, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Demien Bichir, Julian Dennison, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri
Rating: PG-13

Watch on HBO Max

Not as aggressively dumb as the preceding Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but also lacking any real attempt at a bigger message or any kind of profundity, Godzilla vs. Kong knows exactly what it is and delivers what it promises in its title—no more, and no less. Generations have been waiting for this rematch, and the fight scenes between the two “alpha” Titans are certainly worth the price of admission, as the two great beasts smash each other’s faces through skyscrapers with absolutely no concern for the thousands of innocent bystanders who are most assuredly trodden underfoot. We admit that we’re particularly glad to say that an actual winner is crowned in that fated 1v1, and the right choice was made. The human drama of Godzilla vs. Kong, on the other hand, is like a starvation ration of plot being shared by three times as many performers as should be necessary to handle it. Why more human characters keep getting added to the Legendary MonsterVerse, when it doesn’t know what to do with the ones it already has (and killed the only interesting ones), we can’t say. But they don’t do Godzilla vs. Kong any favors. Still, this is a serviceable popcorn muncher. —Jim Vorel


13. Dune

dune-poster.jpg US Box Office: $93 million
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa
Rating: PG-13

Available on Demand

Both technologically innovative and narratively faithful to the original text, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is bolstered by its seamless special effects and starpower above all else. Considering the director’s previous work in these arenas—namely Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—he should be totally adept for the challenge. Yet there exists a nagging query that begs to be quelled: How much of this film is predicated on the sheer fact that cinematic advancements have finally rendered Dune an attainable possibility? Though it remains true to the first part of the text’s unhurried pace and detailed world building, Villeneuve’s adaptation feels overlong and void of subtext. It’s important to note that the film only adapts the first part of Herbert’s novel, which is notoriously kind of a slog. Much of the plot is focused on worldbuilding and creating an incremental immersion into the immaterial political hierarchies that shape this unknown yet familiar world. Admittedly, Villeneuve evokes and embraces this unhurriedness—a choice that just might predicate Dune’s future fortune. By limiting the scope to Part I, Villeneuve’s Dune maintains a consistent tone and sense of time—though it invariably drags over the course of two and a half hours. However, the meandering pace may perfectly suit fans of the original novel, which captures a certain pensive density indicative of the text. To be fair, there is a plain reason as to why Villeneuve opts for a subdued and sedated Dune. With so many failed attempts at adapting Herbert’s novel preceding it, how could the project ever fully embrace auteur-driven artistic risk? It translates as Villeneuve playing it safe, expending all of his energy on ensuring that his remake can’t possibly flop. Though Dune is faithful and fantastical in vision, its existence is merely proof that the enduringly popular novel can, in fact, be adapted into a box office hit. —Natalia Keogan


14. Halloween Kills

halloween-kills.jpg US Box Office: $92 million
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Anthony Michael Hall, Will Patton, James Jude Courtney, Robert Longstreet
Rating: R

Available on Demand

For whatever reason, the David Gordon Green Halloween trilogy to date has been adamant about the fact that it either doesn’t think the Strode women are worthy of truly being the central protagonists of this series, or it doesn’t trust them to shoulder that particular burden. It’s impossible to say why, but it’s a shame for capable performers like Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer and Andi Matichak, all of whom are seriously sidelined to some degree in Green’s Halloween Kills. This entry has “middle chapter” written all over it, which only makes it more egregious that it tries to make a promise to the audience that “evil dies tonight,” as if it could possibly have the guts to actually kill off the franchise cash cow, Michael Myers. Suffice to say, we’re mostly left treading water instead, although as with the previous installment, the violence is quite gnarly and the body count is insanely high. Instead of truly continuing the story of Laurie Strode, Halloween Kills does make the interesting choice of turning its focus on the town of Haddonfield and the psychic scars that the entire community bears thanks to the horrors that Myers has visited on their home. It makes some interesting commentary on scapegoating and mob justice, although these aren’t new ideas—they were explored previously in Halloween 4 way back in 1988. Regardless, the focus on Haddonfield is the most interesting aspect of Halloween Kills, but it all comes to naught as pretty much all of these characters are dismissed as soon as they’ve arrived. We’re left with the promise that the next installment will get back to the central storyline, which makes Halloween Kills feel sadly like filler in the interim. —Jim Vorel


15. Encanto

encanto.jpg US Box Office: $91 million
Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard
Stars: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero
Rating: PG

Watch on Disney+

Both Disney and Lin-Manuel Miranda had better showings this year (Raya and the Last Dragon; In the Heights), but Encanto’s blessings—like those of Mirabel, the only member of the Madrigal family without magical abilities—are enjoyably subtle. Beneath the hyper-Miranda songs (“Surface Pressure” gives in most deeply to his writing tics, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” showcases just how good he is with catchy complexity) and the heightened realism of its characters lurks a lush fairy tale haunted not by evil witches or dastardly dragons but by the hardships of the past and fears for the future. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard craft a mature story of family strife that won’t scare off kids, packaging it all neatly and specifically into the Colombian jungle. A shockingly versatile lead performance from Stephanie Beatriz, who sings and charms and jokes like she’s been a Disney princess before, and a few great supporters (John Leguizamo’s put-down prognosticator steals every scene) keep the already light tale moving briskly along. Encanto isn’t the flashiest or most heartbreaking of the more traditional Disney musicals, but it’s crisp and smart—and its miracles might linger with you longer than you expect.—Jacob Oller


16. Cruella

cruella.jpg US Box Office: $86 million
Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jon McCrea
Rating:PG-13

Watch on Disney+

A movie following the youth of a cool, punk rock Cruella, the would-be murderer/wearer of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, is a premise that’s chances of success seem as thin as the skeletal animated villain herself. Other live-action entries from the Disney Industrial Complex’s Nostalgia Division seem merely like superfluous wannabe upgrades, but Cruella is a bit more ideologically confounding. As newly orphaned Londoner Estella (Emma Stone) makes friends with her future henchmen, she’s still got her eyes on the big time: Fashion design. She makes her mark in a familiar yet entertaining sequence, impressing Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) and fully transitioning the film into The Devil Wears Prada territory. The Baroness owns some extremely evil-looking Dalmatians that are more Cujo than Pongo (and their relationship to Estella will likely leave you cackling in disbelief), a giant manor and London’s premiere fashion house. Of course, Estella wants von Hellman’s success—and her eventual transition to the darker “Cruella” persona is motivated by a complex mix of loathing and admiration for the merciless mogul. It’s here that the film struts its stuff, with the central Emmas savoring their roles. Stone is theatrical and clownish in the best way, wearing the over-the-top expressions that’ve sprinkled charm into her other roles like costume jewelry. Seeing her display these in a tragicomic farce even more ridiculous and flowery (and possessing an equally complex central dynamic between Stone and its matriarch) than The Favourite would be a treat on its own. Thompson makes it a 101-course meal. Lifting from Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly—cartoonifying her more than if she was actually rotoscoped—Thompson’s evil is casually superior and severe. One-liners fly out like darts, downing everyone in the room until she finishes off her diatribes with a drizzled poison delivery and contemptuous stare. Caught between conflicting expectations, it’s hard to appreciate Cruella as a whole. It’s overlong, with endless endings, and invites more conversations about it as a curious corporate product than as a cohesive movie. But it can also be perversely enjoyable with its flashy playlist-while-playing-dress-up aesthetic and brash, heightened central actresses—after coding villains as queer for decades, that camp is as front-and-center as ever. Cruella is a perhaps inherently flawed film, but whether its dark-but-Disney strangeness intrigues or repels, there’s often something to love and loathe in equal measure. —Jacob Oller


17. Sing 2

sing-2.jpg US Box Office: $75 million
Director: Garth Jennings
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Bono
Rating:PG

Now Playing in Theaters

Bono joins the Sing franchise in its second feature film, portraying Buster Moon, a global-rock-icon-turned-recluse who happens to also be a lion. Matthew McConaughey returns as the ambitious manager who must coax Buster out of retirement in order to save his outfit of would-be stars (played by an array of actual stars—the film’s cast also includes Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Nick Offerman, Chelsea Peretti, Letitia Wright and Eric André). Garth Jennings, who directed the delightful indie film Son of Rambow, helms this sequel, which has won over two-thirds of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 98% of audiences.


18. Space Jam: A New Legacy

space-jam-new.jpg US Box Office: $67 million
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Stars: LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya
Rating:PG

Watch on HBO Max

Space Jam: A New Legacy banks on the nostalgia of Millennials. The core audience for Space Jam: A New Legacy is not Gen X or Boomers, who hate Space Jam because their kids loved it and forced them to watch it (like my parents), or because they were teens or young adults when it came out and they were forced against their will to endure merely being conscious of its inane existence. The audience is supposed to be today’s kids, who could be courted with the promise of LeBron James and the ubiquitous Looney Tunes characters, but they have no understanding of Mad Max: Fury Road or The Matrix or A Clockwork Orange, or the majority of the Warner Bros. intellectual properties of yesteryear that proliferate this film. No, I would argue that the audience for Space Jam: A New Legacy is me, one of those who stupidly thought they wanted a sequel like this to happen. So come on and slam, and welcome to the Jam. Except this time around, the framework of the first film is recycled and made far more convoluted than it needs to be, and the soundtrack is far worse. The Looney Tunes are CGI-ified, and they exist in a universe that acts like an unholy, kaleidoscopic hall of IP horrors. In A New Legacy, an all-powerful, all-seeing algorithm named Al G. Rhythm (played by a scenery-chewing Don Cheadle), is tired of seeing his genius go overlooked. But his newest creation for Warner Bros.—the Warner 3000—is on track to get him the recognition he believes he deserves, by enlisting the help of NBA superstar LeBron James (whose acting chops are about on par with Michael Jordan’s, which is to say, not good). The Warner 3000 will essentially be able to scan LeBron, digitally recreate him and place the basketball legend into any popular Warner Bros. property. The only problem is LeBron isn’t hot on the idea.
Space Jam: A New Legacy operates the facile modern IP culture consumption machine that people in my generation are spellbound by, only seeking the sinister serotonin rush one receives upon recognizing something. This will guarantee that studios like Warner Bros. can continue profiting off a lack of creativity and maintain a death grip on the success of their former ideas. There is no need for artistic integrity or imagination if you can make even more money from exploiting the past. —Brianna Zigler


19. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

conjuring-devil.jpg US Box Office: $66 million
Director: Michael Chaves
Stars: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard
Rating:R

Watch on HBO Max

The Warrens deserve a rest. The paranormal investigators whose files The Conjuring franchise rifles through, Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), are constantly being thrown around, haunted, punctured, strangled and scared stiff in the line of their demonological duties. In The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third film in the main series started by James Wan (who gives up the reins this time to director Michael Chaves), they’re afflicted by problems both familiarly spiritual and refreshingly mortal as they lean most heavily on the “investigator” part of “paranormal investigator.” It’s not a positive tweak to their résumés. In fact, the only thing keeping its loose look at the Arne Cheyenne Johnson trial from entirely going to hell in a handbag is the established, warm rapport of Wilson and Farmiga. With few scares and a marked decrease in this entry’s level of filmmaking, The Conjuring series is now a shadow of its old self. The Devil Made Me Do It proves that, with The Conjuring franchise at least, the devil you know is far, far better than the one you don’t. Chaves doesn’t quite manage to close the Warren files, but his efforts in the universe are now two of the weakest. Ambitious as its larger story may be, moving Ed and Lorraine beyond the trappings of haunted homes, its ghoulish gambles rarely rise above mediocrity and its craftsmanship rarely shows the refinement of a twig-and-bone witch’s totem. —Jacob Oller


20. Candyman

candyman-poster.jpg US Box Office: $61 million
Director: Nia DaCosta
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd, Vanessa Estelle Williams
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes

Available on Demand

The problem with writing about Candyman is that you will inevitably have to write “Candyman” five times. What if my monitor suddenly craps out, leaving me to see a paranormal entity rocking a full-length shearling behind my dark reflection? Unlike many of the white Chicagoans in writer/director Nia DaCosta’s slasher sequel, I’m not foolish enough to tempt the Bloody Mary of the Near North Side. I am, however, still drawn to her update of the legend, which manages to pick up the original film’s pieces and put them back together in a compelling, reclamatory collage. Ignoring the rest of the Candyman series in favor of a direct follow-up to Bernard Rose’s allegory-rich 1992 slasher, DaCosta introduces fancy-pants artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the same urban legend that consumed lookie-loo grad student Helen Lyle. The original story adapted Clive Barker to U.S. racism and wealth inequality—particularly in Chicago, and even more particularly in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Now its homes and high-rises have been demolished or abandoned. A massive Target overlooks its northwest border, where you can buy athleisure and grab an in-house Starbucks before heading to Panera Bread. Gentrification may have neatly plastered over history, but that history cannot be so easily erased. “A story like that—a pain like that—lasts forever,” says Colman Domingo’s long-timer laundryman Burke. “That’s Candyman.” DaCosta makes it clear that Anthony’s pulled by the legend, by history, more intimately than Helen ever was, and updates her scares in turn. The nightmarish apartments and putrid bathrooms Helen crawled through and photographed neatly reflected the entity haunting them; but the projects have been paved over, and Candyman persists. DaCosta shoots the city accordingly, either in dividing straight lines, or fully warped: You never notice how Marina City’s towers look like beehives until they’re flipped upside-down. Spurred on by Anthony’s interest, Candyman’s now an inevitability in every reflective surface. You can’t look away from DaCosta’s inspired compositions and layouts, your eyes led from one dark corner to the next with an Invisible Man-like mastery of negative space. One of these days, you think, she’s going to run out of ideas about how to shoot a mirror kill. Not so, especially in her world of omnipresent, physically and psychically painful self-reflection. While the kills, perpetrated by a being mostly just seen in mirrors, are sometimes a bit too obfuscated by their gimmick to be viscerally satisfying, they slot in perfectly with the film’s themes and aesthetic even when they’re not dumping cascades of blood. The power of martyrdom, the cycles of economic exploitation, the blood price expected for progress—even if these ideas are imperfectly engaged with, they’re so compellingly introduced as to solidify Candyman as a must-see horror and a must-discuss tragedy.—Jacob Oller