2021 is the year of the movie musical. No, that’s not what’s officially written on the zodiac calendar, but it really should be. Movie musicals are coming back into style again, partly thanks to streaming services and partly thanks to the iconic Lin Manuel-Miranda. Many of these films were set for 2020 and pushed back a year. Because of that, we had twice as many!
This year, there was truly something for everyone. Some musicals were big and bombastic, while some were more quiet and heartfelt. Hispanic and LGBTQ representation was offered, with Newfoundlander rep thrown in. Even if you’re not a musical lover, I think you will find one that speaks to you.
For this ranking, I did something different. In addition to a simple worst-to-best, I will also be giving each of these movies a special award. Not every one of these will be recognized at the Oscars, but The Young Folks wanted to give them a little something. Whether you saw all of these or not, I still hope you will enjoy my ranking of the movie musicals of 2021.
100. Most Eclectic Soundtrack — Cinderella
Yes, it’s really that bad.
Usually, musicals hold to one particular musical style. There’s variety, sure, but it’s consistent. Cinderella breaks this rule in an extremely jarring way. The film opens with “Rhythm Nation,” which is already weird for a princess movie, but might have worked if they stuck with it. Spoiler alert: they don’t. The rest of the songs swing back and forth between pop and rap, with no explanation, and at one point, a gospel choir shows up to sing “Somebody to Love.” This movie gets some points for somehow scoring Idina Menzel and Minnie Driver, but that’s the only nice thing to say.
6. Most Intense Solo Numbers — Dear Evan Hansen
This should be no surprise, but Dear Evan Hansen focuses intensely on… Evan Hansen. He is onstage for the majority of the show and almost half of the songs are solos. It was a show created to showcase the talent of Ben Platt, and the movie amps this up even more. Many of the group numbers and scenes that do not focus on Evan are cut (RIP, “Disappear“). The result is a show where every song is a close-up of Ben Platt’s face. He gives a good performance, but still, it’s too much. This film is filled with great actors doing their best. However, it never embraces its identity as a musical, preferring to remain a solo piece, to its detriment.
5. Outstanding Musical Duel — Cyrano
One of the most energized, inspired, and cinematically satisfying moments of any movie in 2021 occurs about 20 minutes or so into Cyrano, Joe Wright’s sophisticated musical romance drama based on the 2018 stage musical, which itself was based on the classic play by Edmond Rostand. A dashing and proper Peter Dinklage, the titular character, wields roguish insults as sharp as his sword, doing impromptu wordsmith battle after heckling an onstage hack, then engages in a subsequent sword fight in tune with the steps and rhythm of said poetic duel, now extended to someone who thinks themselves superior to a man impossibly in love with his best friend.
Though the rest of the film never scales to nearly the same thrilling heights as this early scene, it’s still a standout accomplishment and surely in service to Cyrano as a triumph in its own right. Even if you must resign yourself to several more songs of the weeping, self-pitiful nature.
4. Best Sequence — Paciencia y Fe (In the Heights)
In the Heights, the Lin Manuel-Miranda creation that won Best Musical in 2008, is practically bursting with elaborate, over-the-top dance numbers. It fully embraces its status as a musical and takes full advantage of the opportunity for colorful drama. “96,000” and the title song in particular stand out. “Paciencia y Fe,” though, is the one that stuck with me, six months after seeing it in theaters. It’s rare that an older woman gets to sing the showstopper, but Olga Merediz, who also originated the role on Broadway, kills it. This number shows us all the hardships Abuela had to endure in coming to New York in a gorgeously visual dream-like sequence, something musicals do best. By the end of the song, when Abuela chooses to die peacefully and join her mother, you will be in tears. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting all at once.
3. Best Lead Performance — tick… tick… BOOM!
Biopics are incredibly hard to pull off, especially when we have access to tons of live footage of the person being memorialized. Jonathan Larson, creator of iconic musical Rent, died less than 30 years ago and many in the theatre community still idolize him. The idea that an actor could capture who Larson was may sound ludicrous. But Andrew Garfield nails the role. He plays Larson with the right maniac energy and vision, while still managing to make his self-centeredness not a hateable quality. Not to mention, he can sing.
tick… tick.. BOOM! is a beautiful tribute to Larson and the Broadway community as a whole. It’s not afraid to be a musical and it uses the language of film to its advantage in masterful ways.
2. Most Catchy Soundtrack — Encanto
Lin-Manuel Miranda has a real talent for writing songs that you will be humming for weeks. He repeats motifs and tunes often, but in an intentional way that strengthens the themes he’s trying to get across. You can see Hamilton influences in several big group numbers like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “All of You,” which both feature fantastic layered vocals that showcase the big family dynamic. And there’s a little bit of rap thrown in, because this wouldn’t be an LMM project otherwise.
Another thing I really loved is the way several smaller characters, like Mirabel’s sisters, are given solos that flesh them out beautifully. My personal favorite is “Surface Pressure,” Luisa’s song. She’s a mostly silent character throughout the film, but this song does a great job showing her inner thoughts and world in a way many of us can relate to.
1. Best Choreography — West Side Story
Sometimes, remakes are better than the originals. This is certainly the case with Spielberg’s West Side Story, which breathes new life into a classic. A lot of screen time belongs to the Jets, the white gang, and their dance moves brought Newsies to mind, which makes sense, since several of the actors performed in that show as well. “Gee, Officer Krupke” stands out as the number that brings these boys to life.
Every song was a joy to watch, and they further the plot and themes instead of bringing the story to a screeching halt. One number that stood out was “The Dance at the Gym,” where the Jets and the Sharks are supposed to be getting along, but instead only dance with their own. The hostility between them is on full display, not just in the way they dance, but even in the color palette. The Sharks dress in rich yellows and reds, while the Jets wear cool blues. Stunning visual storytelling.
Beyond this, what makes this film shine is the performances. Mike Faist (Dear Evan Hansen) humanizes the character of Riff and makes your heart break for him. Ariana DeBose (The Prom) dazzles as Anita, and Rachel Zeglar sells me on Maria’s naivete. This is another musical that will leave you sobbing.
Best Ensemble of Misfits — Come From Away
Unlike the rest of the movies on this list, this one is a pro-shot (professional recording of a stage show), not a true movie musical. However, it’s so good that it deserves inclusion. Come From Away is a true ensemble piece, which is becoming rare as Broadway focuses more and more on highlighting celebrity performances. In this musical, every member of the small cast plays multiple roles, including both members of the small town and plane passengers. Each character is quirky and colorful in their own way. Throughout the show, we see a determined female pilot struggling with the aftermath of 9/11, an animal lover who cares for all the animals left on the planes, a gay couple who aren’t sure they’ll be accepted in this small town, a cheerful news intern doing her best to cover the story, and many more. Along with the music, the characters are the true strength of this show.