movies 2021, best movies 2021
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

The Best, Weirdest, and Wildest Things We Saw at the Movies This Year

It's time for the 2021 Thrillist Movie Awards!

In 2021, the movies returned. Though 2020 had its fair share of excellent films, the uncertainty and instability of the pandemic left the moviegoing experience in a state of flux. It wasn't always triumphant or easy, but this year was different: The box office creaked back to life, blockbusters emerged from hibernation, and some of our favorite filmmakers came out swinging with new projects that reminded us just how great going to the movies can be. So, it only makes sense for the Thrillies, the highly coveted Thrillist movie awards, to return, too.

Like in years past, these awards serve as a chance to honor the great movies from the year. But they also give us a chance to shine a light on some of the funniest, strangest, outrageous, and absurd moments in movie-adjacent culture of the last 12 months. Movies aren't just what you see on screen; they spill over into our lives in surprising, bizarre ways. From magic mushrooms and puppet babies to vengeful daddies and empty men, we're immensely proud to once again award trophies to all the deserving winners.

benedict cumberbatch in the power of the dog

Best Best Picture: The Power of the Dog

If 2020 was the year the movies—along with the rest of the world—got interrupted, 2021 was the year the movies returned. With theaters back open, studios finally felt comfortable releasing the major event films they'd been sitting on all through 2020—one could argue the movies didn't really get rolling until the Fast dudes took a car to space in F9. With 2021 also came the revival of fancy Oscar campaigns and film festivals, celebrating art from around the world. There were occasionally hiccups, but for the most part, like Vin Diesel, we were satisfied the movies were back.

We clamored to see Denis Villenueve's Dune so we could feel our seats shake as Shai-Hulud emerged from the sand. We were ever grateful that A24, which had paused releases almost entirely during the height of the pandemic, waited to release The Green Knight when we could fully appreciate the eerie splendor of David Lowery's Arthurian tale on the big screen. Lowery's wasn't the only movie we loved that took us into the woods: On a much smaller scale, Michael Sarnoski's debut Pig brought us into the world of a truffle hunter played by Nicolas Cage who has to reemerge in the Portland food scene when his beloved porcine companion is stolen. From the Michelin-starred restaurants of Portland to the donut shops of Texas, Sean Baker's Red Rocket is tonally worlds away from some of our other selections, but we were entranced by the motor-mouthed, former porn star antihero played by Simon Rex.

And yet no film captivated the Thrillist Entertainment team the way Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog did. Adapted from an 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Campion's movie is an exquisite portrait of tortured souls and cowboy machismo in 1920s Montana. It's a tinderbox of a narrative, igniting with tiny glances between the characters, and finally burning in an extraordinary ending. From The Piano to In the Cut, Campion has always been one of our most sensual filmmakers and she proves that once again with Power of the Dog, which is particularly attuned to the way people use their bodies to hide or reveal their true natures. Benedict Cumberbatch is his best ever as Phil Burbank, a rancher who has crafted an unforgiving image of masculinity. He tortures his brother's new bride, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), but meets his match in her perceptive son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It's a film that encourages multiple watches—which we've already done. —Esther Zuckerman

Runners-up: Dune, The Green Knight, Pig, Red Rocket

timothee chalamet in dune, paul atreides and lady jessica
Warner Bros. Pictures

Best Movie Meme: Dune memes

With the return of movies came the return of movie memes, as we were all able once again to share the collective experience of making fun of something we like. The phrase "the beach that makes you old," inspired as it was by M. Night Shyamalan's bizarre and batshit Old, caught on within a day, as did posting screenshots of The Social Network and Wicked and captioning them with the "Wanna hear about why me and this bitch fell out?" tweet introduction from Zola. Gaga's dramatic intonation of "Father, son, and House of Gucci" gave us chills, stills from the Clifford the Big Red Dog trailer were likened to anti-anxiety medication, and Vin Diesel reminded everyone from the Twilight vampires to Avengers villains that the most devastating weapon of all is the power of family. 

But nothing came close to the power of Dune (desert power, some might call it), which improbably turned out to be the most memed movie of the year. Who knew that Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's dense and sober sci-fi parable would inspire people to compose rave remixes of the Sardaukar warrior chant, or make fun of the movie's endless references to "spice," or post videos of what Jady Jessica's Bene Gesserit mind control Voice reminded them of? And let's not forget about the character in the far-flung space opera whose name is "Duncan Idaho." The memes themselves were hilarious and endlessly creative, and made even funnier by the fact that they were inspired by one of the most Serious and Important sci-fi books ever written. No matter how canonized your work is, nothing escapes the razor-sharp wit of the Internet. I think Baron Harkonnen once said that. —Emma Stefansky

Runners-up: The beach that makes you old, Clifford memes, "Father, son, and House of Gucci," F9 family memes, "Wanna hear about why me and this bitch fell out?" 

annabelle wallis in malignant
Warner Bros. Pictures

Twistiest Twist: Malignant

If you haven’t seen Malignant, seriously—turn away now, because you’re about to spoil not only the biggest twist of the year, but perhaps the most demented horror movie twist, ever. From horror director James Wan (Insidious, Saw), Malignant introduces us to Madeline (Anabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman with a mysterious past who’s suffered an unfortunate string of miscarriages. During a tussle with her abusive husband (Jake Abel), her head is slammed against a wall, resulting in a bloody head wound and a total mental blackout. This triggers the first appearance of the film’s shadowy menace, who mangles her husband and begins a blood-drenched killing spree. Not long after Madeline wakes up in the hospital to the traumatic news that she lost her unborn baby, she experiences strange hallucinatory visions each time the unknown assailant strikes—it seems the two have some sort of psychic connection. As for the mystery monster, it’s mostly seen in glimpses and scurries along with unnatural motions, like some sort of contortionist killing machine.

As the body count rises, so do the clues and red herrings. We learn that: Madeline was adopted and that her real name is Emily; she had a malicious childhood imaginary friend named Gabriel; and finally, the biggest bugnuts clue of all, she was once the patient of a doctor who specialized in child reconstructive surgery. You see, Gabriel is no mere make-believe friend, but what’s described as “an extreme teratoma,” a parasitic twin that shares a brain and spinal cord with Emily/Madeline. In an absolutely bizarre flashback, the twist is revealed: Gabriel was once a half-formed twin protruding from Emily’s back. The surgeons (who he’s been slaughtering throughout the movie) managed to “cut out the cancer.” Except for Gabriel’s little face, which was neatly tucked away in the back of Emily/Madeline’s head this whole time. He went dormant until Madeline’s head injury woke the little bastard up.

Now he wants revenge against the doctors who tried to eradicate him, and he’s been puppeteering Madeline’s body to do it—that explains her visions, blackouts, and freaky backwards movements each time Gabriel was in control. Oh, and all of Madeline’s miscarriages? Gabriel was the culprit all along—he never really went away and has been feeding on the fetuses. Only James Wan could get away with this shit. Malignant is a deranged love letter to the outlandish horror oddities of the 1980s such as its low-budget brethren Basket Case (a 1982 cult classic about a murderous severed siamese twin), and we’re grateful that Warner Brothers gave Wan the budget to go full throttle with his absolutely mindfuck of a vision. —Gil Macias

Runners-up:Don't Breathe 2, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Jungle Cruise, Oxygen, The Power of the Dog, Sweet Girl

ben platt in dear evan hansen movie
Universal Pictures

Scariest Villain: Evan Hansen from Dear Evan Hansen

It was a good year for movie villains. There was our boy Gabriel, the parasitic twin from Malignant that literally lived in the back of the heroine's head. Stellan Skarsgård coated himself in oil to play the tyrannical Baron Harkonnen in Dune. We saw the return of Candyman himself in Candyman, while Julia Ducournau gave us a serial killer who approaches some understanding of humanity in Titane. Oh, and Adam Driver's character in The Last Duel just sucked, a 14th century rapist frat bro.

But, I'll admit, our pick for best villain is a bit of a serve. The best villain was Evan Hansen from Dear Evan Hansen. Is this a little mean? Sure. Is it deserved? Also yes. When the first trailer was released for the adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, the reaction across the internet was a resounding: "That's what this show is about?" Yes, Dear Evan Hansen is about Evan, a teen with crippling anxiety who is mistaken for the best friend of a classmate, Connor Murphy, who commits suicide. Instead of explaining to the grieving parents that he did not in fact really know Connor, Evan concocts an elaborate lie and starts dating Connor's sister. Though the movie tries, it cannot get around the fact that this is a pretty shitty thing to do, and even though Evan learns from his experience, he is still basically absolved for fooling the family of a dead kid. And, we'll admit, the fact that 20-something Ben Platt, reprising his role from the stage performance, struggles to look like a teenager certainly doesn't help matters. —EZ

Runners-up: Candyman (Michael Hargrove) from Candyman, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) from Dune, Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) from The Last Duel, Gabriel (Ray Chase and Marina Mazepa) from Malignant, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) from Titane

camilla cabello in cinderella, amazon cinderella
Amazon Studios

Fakest Streaming Movie: Amazon Prime's girlboss Cinderella

The streaming era has necessitated a glut of (some good, but mostly bad) Stuff to account for every available opportunity for the major players to lure in new subscribers and keep the ones they've got from clocking a platform's library as stale. Quantity trumps quality here, and the inevitable result of feeding the beast is a streaming-exclusive movie slate that becomes more of a parody of itself every year. "Business" may dictate that they exist, but who is watching all of these movies? Who are they for?? Nobody on earth could convince me that Amazon Prime's tech drama Bliss is real and that even tens of people watched it. Same goes for Cherry, adapted for Apple TV+ from Nico Walker's 2018 novel that was perfectly content to exist exclusively in that format until the Russo brothers went looking for something "serious" to follow-up Avengers: Endgame.

There's also The Tomorrow War, which Paramount dumped off to Amazon in the beginning of pandemic. I've seen the trailer, the plastered subway ads, and the big banner on my Amazon Fire Stick's homepage promoting it as merely a click away, and none of this evidence registers as anything above an expensive and time-consuming prank, much like Red Notice, Netflix's biggest-budget movie to date. With all this farce, still nothing from this year tops Amazon's baffling girlboss reinterpretation of Cinderella, allegedly starring Camilla Cabello as an aspiring dressmaking entrepreneur whom Billy Porter's "Fabulous Godmother" showers with a "Yaaas, future queen, yas!" Apparently, for some reason, there's a rendition of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army”? And some editor or sound engineer really fucking hates Cabello, exemplified by her extremely professionally embarrassing vocal run in the number "Am I Wrong.” Someone who claims they've seen this movie, please confirm this is real. I've only seen the TikToks. —Leanne Butkovic

Runners-up: Bliss (Amazon Prime), Cherry (Apple TV+), Red Notice (Netflix), The Tomorrow War (Amazon Prime)

click to play video

Celebrity Who Loves Movies the Most: Nicole Kidman

Well, someone had to convince the masses to return to a multiplex near you. Tom Cruise tried it last year with a video of him seeing Tenet (masked, of course) at a crowded London theater and just loving it. Vin Diesel gave it another go when F9 came out this past summer, releasing an overwrought PSA about the “one place where we all came together to be entertained.” (You can skip it and watch the hilarious Saturday Night Live parody instead.) But which A-lister really got us jazzed to sit in a darkened room and side-eye strangers who won’t stop texting? That would be the former Mrs. Tom Cruise herself, Nicole Kidman.

Even if Shangi-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, No Time to Die, Halloween Kills, Dune, and other franchise juggernauts did decent business, the state of the box office remains fragile. Kidman hoped to change that back in September, starring in a promotional campaign for AMC Theatres. In the ad, she bravely steps through a puddle and removes the hood on her head before gliding down a fluorescent hallway on her way to an auditorium. In her most reverent tone, Kidman waxes poetic about being “reborn” at the movies while she watches clips from Jurassic World, Wonder Woman, La La Land, and Creed play on the screen in front of her. Weirdly, Kidman is the only person in the building, making the whole thing feel like some sort of afterlife in an AMC that only she has been invited to. The best part comes at the end, when she turns her dewy face directly to the camera and says, “Don’t you fucking dare watch Netflix.” (She doesn’t actually say that, and wouldn’t, because she recently made a movie for Netflix.) Are we going to go back to the movies? Yes, because going to the movies is wonderful—and, moreover, because Nicole Kidman told us to. —Matthew Jacobs

Runners-up: Vin Diesel’s melodramatic F9 promo, the eternal legacy of Tom Cruise going to see Tenet

porky pig rapping, porky pig space jam a new legacy
Warner Bros. Pictures

Emptiest Man: Porky Pig in Space Jam: A New Legacy

Emptiness takes many forms. Obviously, it's tempting to simply give this award to the titular Empty Man of David Prior's brilliant cult freak-out The Empty Man and call it a day. But there's a catch: Though most viewers watched The Empty Man this year, it was released in 2020 at the peak of the pandemic, quietly dumped into theaters by Disney in the fallout of the Fox acquisition. So, despite inspiring this award and deserving to win, it technically doesn't qualify. Perhaps that's fitting? Often thwarted by forces beyond its control, The Empty Man lives on through this category and now must infect other movies.

It's not hard to find other "empty men" in the movies of 2021. On the human front, there's Ryan Reynolds playing a NPC in the video game IP-fest Free Guy and Oscar Isaac inhabiting one of Paul Schrader's hollowed out figures of 21st century despair in The Card Counter. Then there's the terrifying void jump-scare in this summer's unnerving thriller The Night House, an exquisite accomplishment in visual trickery. But the emptiest man of the year, the most soul-sucking example of masculine blankness, has to go to Porky Pig, specifically in the scene in Space Jam: A New Legacy where he begins to rap and drops gems like "I was famous before the internet/Since 1935 I've been getting respect." It's a minute of screen time that has the capacity to liquify the brain on contact. He transmits, we receive. —Daniel Jackson

Runners-up: William Tell (Oscar Isaac) in The Card Counter, the empty man (giant skeleton) in The Empty Man, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in Free Guy, the shadow in The Night House

baby annette, adam driver and baby annette
UGC Distribution

Best Baby: Baby Annette

I've already spilled many, many words about how 2021 was the year of the creepy movie baby. In Titane, spoiler alert, the protagonist gives birth to an infant with a metal spine, a child she conceived with a car. Lamb centers on a couple in Iceland who adopt a strange creature that emerges from a sheep's womb in their barn: Ada, a child who has a lamb's head, one hoof, and an otherwise human body. And then there's Baby Annette—but more on her later.

There were other movie babies of significance this year. In The Many Saints of Newark, we saw a baby version of Christopher Moltisanti, cooed at by his Uncle Tony Soprano who will later whack him. And then, of course—OF COURSE—2021 saw the return of the Boss Baby. (Though, admittedly, none of us saw his movie. Sorry, Boss Baby.)

But no better baby this year was better than Baby Annette, the titular character in Leos Carax's Annette, a musical written by Sparks, featuring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a stand-up comedian and opera singer, respectively, whose doomed romance guides the plot. Annette is their child, portrayed by a puppet, which at first might strike you as oddly expressionless, but you'll soon fall in love with her, especially once she reveals her special talent. She has the voice of an angel, and becomes a worldwide pop sensation singing a wordless melody that also, sort of, serves as a warning to her murderous father who she knows is responsible for her mother's death. Frankly, just none of these other babies have what it takes to perform surrounded by drones at a fake Super Bowl. Annette is the Baby of the Year. —EZ

Runners-up: Ada from Lamb, the Boss Baby, baby Christopher Moltisanti in The Many Saints of NewarkTitane baby

click to play video

Best Timothée Chalamet Performance: His Xbox controller mod YouTube video

Timothée Chalamet has been winning over fans with his floppy curls and the certain sensitivity he brings to each of his roles ever since his 2017 breakout performances in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. He's continued to be a scene-stealer in a handful of movies since then, like Greta Gerwig's Little Women remake, but this year was undeniably his biggest yet. 2021 saw him not only in the major blockbuster release of Dune, playing leading man Paul Atreides, he also appeared in highly anticipated films from big name directors Wes Anderson and Adam McKay, playing a French collegiate revolutionary in The French Dispatch and a mulleted Evangelical skater in Don't Look Up.

None of those performances compared to his appearance in a low-budget indie, if you will, in which he led the cast: The videos that resurfaced of him selling modified Xbox controllers off his 2010 YouTube channel, ModdedController360. The then-14-year-old is so serious showing off his red zebra-striped controller, and he delivers a top-tier line reading in his adolescent rasp when he says, "It looks nice. It looks sexy." With that charisma and ambition, it was inevitable that that argyl-sweating-wearing teen was going to be a star one day even if his business ambitions fluttered. See, although Chalamet is one of the best actors of his generation, part of his appeal is that behind that striking jawline and lanky stature is one goofy former theater kid who you can't help but feel endeared to. May his embarrassing YouTube videos never get deleted and one day appear in a legacy awards tribute. —Sadie Bell

Runners-up: Don't Look Up, Dune, The French Dispatch, his espresso martini lunch date with Larry David

click to play video

Best Vocal Performance Not in a Musical: Jamie Dornan singing "Edgar's Prayer" in Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

2021 blessed us with several blockbuster movie musicals, of course, but it was in the more standard fare where cinematic song and dance, both expected and totally unpredictable, brought us the most joy. See, for example, Emilia Jones' stunning voice in CODA, Suzanna Son's playful curveball covering *NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye" in Red Rocket, Jamie Dornan's touching rendition of "Everlasting Love" in Belfast, and Eric Andre's original music number staged with backup dancers and a whole ass set in a mall food court for Bad Trip. But no performance was more delightful than Jamie Dornan, once again, lamenting in Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar, surrounded by seagulls and daintily kicking up sand, singing "Edgar's Prayer."

It's a tiny miracle this movie exists at all, a silly nonsequitur of a comedy that came out right when we could all use it most. And casting Mr. Fifty Shades of Grey himself as Edgar, a hopelessly romantic beta boy and hitman henchman pining for "official couple" status with Kristen Wiig's Mad Hatterlookalike villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman, was a stroke of genius. Dornan absolutely understood the assignment here, belting "Edgar's Prayer" with the perfect seriousness of a man who just wants to be loved while twirling like a baby ballerina and climbing up a palm tree like a cat and tearing off his polo in exasperation. (It doesn't hurt that "Edgar's Prayer" is a low-key banger, the kind of song you'd cue up at a karaoke spot that lets you sing to YouTube videos among people in on the joke.) —LB

Runners-up: Eric Andre's "I Met A Girl Today" in a mall food court in Bad Trip, Jamie Dornan's "Everlasting Love" in Belfast, Emilia Jones in CODA, Suzanna Son's "Bye Bye Bye" in Red Rocket

dev patel in the green knight, sir gawain

Best Mushroom: The magic mushrooms in The Green Knight

It was shroom time at the movies this year, the fruiting bodies of film's creepiest and tastiest fungi revealing a surprising trend. From the delicious looking truffles in Nic Cage's quiet drama Pig and the gorgeous documentary The Truffle Hunters, to the hallucinogenic spore clouds in Ben Wheatley's eldritch horror In the Earth and a whole fungus creature menacing the hapless hikers in Gaia, mushrooms dominated seemingly every genre, popping up, as they tend to do, in places you least expect.

And who could forget our winner, the patch of magic mushrooms Dev Patel's Gawain shares with his fox companion in David Lowery's gorgeous and haunting Arthurian tale The Green Knight? As soon as Gawain, out of hunger and desperation, catches hold of the rubbery bunch of shrooms hiding from the rain under a rock, we knew what he was in for, and shortly after horking them down he experiences a striking and terrifying hallucination, calling into question the reality of everything he encounters afterward: the singing giants, the talking fox, maybe the axe-wielding Green Knight himself. Any naturalist will tell you: Never eat a mushroom of an unknown species, especially not when you're on a magical quest to prove your chivalry. But who could really blame him? After days of trudging through desolate countryside and nights bundled in a flimsy cloak, those mushrooms looked good. —ES

Runners-up: The mushroom people in Gaia, the infections mush In the Earth, the truffles in Pig, the truffles in The Truffle Hunters

spencer pea soup scene, spencer pearl scene
Neon/Topic Studios

Worst Dinner Party: Princess Diana’s soup freak-out in Spencer

When Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) saunters into a posh dining room on Christmas Eve, she does so with affected confidence, as if willing herself to survive another meal surrounded by royal ingrates. But as soon as she sits down, she unravels. Who wouldn’t, with all those requisite curtsies and a string quartet playing the harshest mood music imaginable? Many of the details in this roughly four-minute scene exist inside Diana’s head, where her thoughts have grown increasingly bitter. Of course she doesn’t really chomp down on one of the pearls that tumbles into her green pea soup, but the surrealism of the moment rings loud and clear: This is a waking nightmare, and Diana’s only way out is to flee.

Spencer, the latest anti-biopic directed by the masterly Pablo Larraín (Jackie), imagines the British royal family’s sedate 1991 holiday celebrations, which double as a three-day panic attack prompting Diana’s decision to divorce Charles. The dinner tableaux in other movies, like the gutting Nicolas Cage drama Pig, had tastier food, but Diana’s watery broth isn’t meant to be appetizing. Like everything else at Queen Elizabeth’s countryside manor, this sit-down epitomizes the gilded prison in which Diana finds herself after years of playing by her in-laws’ rules. You could put her freak-out in a horror movie (The Shining, perhaps) and it would be right at home. —MJ

Runners-up: The third vignette in The French Dispatch, Rob (Nicolas Cage) cooking for his hog’s kidnapper in Pig, Rose's (Kirsten Dunst) welcoming in The Power of the Dog, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) taunting Maud (Morfydd Clark) in Saint Maud

adam driver and matt damon in the last duel
20th Century Studios

Best Duel: Jean de Carrouges vs. Jacques Le Gris in The Last Duel

Whether it's the culmination of a long-simmering rivalry or a new conflict in a battle between fresh foes, the promise of a showdown is often enough to get butts in seats. Sometimes, the bout is right there in the title, like in the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, a long-awaited blockbuster that pitted a giant lizard against a (frankly, much smaller) gorilla. Delivering on spectacle, particularly in its colorful final set-pieces, the movie never really found its narrative footing. Similarly, this year's Mortal Kombat reboot, which boasted a beatdown between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, failed to nail the central tournament concept that made the '90s original such an entertaining slugfest. Instead, the movie teased sequels, emphasizing world-building over ass-kicking with mixed results.

At least Venom: Let There Be Carnage provided lots of sound and fury with its climatic melee, a wedding in a cathedral that played like a rom-com finale reimagined by a moody goth-rock band. Venom still has integrity, but it didn't have the best duel. Dune came close to winning with its intimate brawl for desert power between Paul and Jamis, the type of gripping hand-to-hand combat that too many modern blockbusters shun in favor of kinetic bursts of computer-generated destruction. No, the best duel award simply must go to Ridley Scott's The Last Duel, which told a complex, nuanced story while still building to a nasty, brutish death-match between Matt Damon and Adam Driver's headstrong knights. A good deal of the excitement in the scene comes down to the thrilling choreography, the clanging metal weapons, the bursting rivers of blood, and the grunts on the soundtrack. But The Last Duel's real edge lies in its ability to make you care about each body blow, a rare feat onscreen these days. —DJ

Runners-up: Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) vs. Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) in Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong in Godzilla vs. Kong, Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) vs. Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) in Mortal Kombat, Venom (Tom Hardy) vs. Carnage (Woody Harrelson) in Venom: Let There Be Carnage

wenwu shang-chi
Marvel Studios

Saddest Daddy Seeking Vengeance: Xu Wenwu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Thanos, Ego, Yondu, Odin, Howard Stark—there’s certainly no shortage of flawed father figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continued its signature daddy issues motif by introducing us to Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a ruthless warlord and wielder of the titular magical bracelets. While it at first seemed that Wenwu was just another villain who strived for world domination during the film’s prologue, he unexpectedly finds love and puts his power-hungry conquest aside after he meets the enthralling Li (Fala Chen). This leads to him locking away his prized Ten Rings, tying the knot and settling down to raise a family, which consists of his Kung-Fu master son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his equally skilled sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). 

But when his wife is killed by an enemy gang, the warlord within reawakens and he becomes unhinged and hellbent on revenge—and he’ll do anything to get it, even turn his own children into assassins to avenge their mother’s death. Wenwu’s grief and the rift it causes between him and his offspring is the driving force of Shang-Chi. He later becomes convinced that his thought-to-be-deceased wife is still alive and being held captive by the peaceful villagers of the mythical Ta Lo, but as we learn, the manipulative voices he’s hearing are conjured up by the Dweller in Darkness, a soul-sucking dragon and the true villain of the story. When Shang-Chi and Xialang refuse to support his plans to invade Ta Lo, Wenwu is so clouded by vengeance that he won’t even let his own children stand in his way. 

What was left of his already dwindling paternal instincts fades away, leading to an emotional smackdown between him and Shang-Chi, making his story arc (and final moment of redemption) far more tragic. Unlike Thanos, the guy was a pretty good dad (at first) and wasn’t always an asshole; he even redeemed himself in the end, recognizing what he's done and gifting Shangi-Chi with the power of the Ten Rings with his final breaths. What separates Shangi-Chi from the rest of the MCU is that, at its core, it’s ultimately a fantastical family drama with a complex and charismatic villain who is elevated even more by Leung’s commanding performance, making him the most compelling revenge-fueled daddy of the year. —GM

Runners-up: Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) in Army of the Dead, Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) in F9, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) in Nobody, James Bond (Daniel Craig) in No Time to Die, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) in The Tragedy of Macbeth, John Clark (Michael B. Jordan) in Without Remorse

taylour paige and riley keough in zola

Funniest Condescending Zinger: "Were you homeschooled?" from Zola

No burn seared as painfully this year as when Nicholas Braun's idiotic, chinstrapped character Derrek forced Taylour Paige's Zola to watch a Vine on repeat, telling her that he wanted to make "movies" one day, and she asked if he was homeschooled. With a straight face and direct eye contact, she managed to attack his greatest insecurity (his stupidity), and make us all laugh at how such a brief question could be so barbed. It does a whole lot more than point out how bafflingly weird Derrek is, considering how much Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris' screenplay, adapted from Aziah "Zola" King's tweets, is about assumptions about Blackness and code-switching.

While Zendaya's Chani verbally struck down Paul Atreides in Dune by telling him that "he'll die quickly" before a fight to the death, and an entire relationship's worth of tension blew up over a cigarette in Licorice Pizza as Alana told Gary smoking it would make him "puke like a little bitch," it's Zola's pointed question that's worth 50K retweets and 100K likes. —SB

Runners-up: "Jesus didn't say anything about you" from Benedetta, "He's a good fighter, you'll die quickly" from Dune, "If you smoke that cigarette, Gary Valentine, you're going to puke like a little bitch" from Licorice Pizza, "You're forcing me to have a tantrum" from The Souvenir Part II

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.


Editor: Leanne Butkovic, Gil Macias
Production: Sadie Bell
Writers: Sadie Bell, Leanne Butkovic, Gil Macias, Daniel Jackson, Matthew Jacobs, Emma Stefansky, and Esther Zuckerman 


Social Creative Director: Kisai Ponce
Graphic Designer: Maitane Romagosa