Entertainment

The Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)

Here's everything you need to see this year.

judas and the black messiah
'Judas and the Black Messiah' | Glen Wilson/Warner Brothers Pictures
'Judas and the Black Messiah' | Glen Wilson/Warner Brothers Pictures

At the beginning of last year, it was impossible to predict just how much the moviegoing experience would change over the following months as theaters across the globe closed, many films shifted to a streaming-only release strategy, and blockbusters got punted to a year or two later in the wake of the pandemic. This year will be different in at least one significant way: We already know it will be strange. With movies getting hybrid releases and major studios attempting to make a return to "normal," it's hard to predict exactly what will come out and when. Hopefully, that makes a list like this more useful than ever. 

The goal is simply to keep track of the best new movies released in 2021 as they come out. Some of the titles listed below, like the Best Picture winner Nomadland, technically premiered in select theaters in 2020 or at festivals to qualify for awards, but, for our purposes here, we will consider them 2021 releases because that's when most of the public will be able to actually see them. Like in year's past, we'll update this list throughout the year as more new releases arrive in theaters and drop on streaming services. These are the best movies of 2021 so far. 

For more movies to watch, check out our rankings of Best Horror Movies of 2020, Best Action Movies of 2020, and our favorite movies from 2019.

bad trip
Netflix

Bad Trip

Release date: March 26
Director: Kitao Sakurai
Cast: Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish
Why it's great: There are hidden camera pranks meant to embarrass or provoke the prankee to the point that they're practically forced to react out of an animalistic type of anger, and then there are the others that are simply there to capture everyday human behavior in the face of absolute absurdity. Bad Trip, the logical extension of the unpredictable gags featured on The Eric Andre Show, is the latter, even in its most egregiously ridiculous stunts. With the narrative backbone of Chris Carey (Eric Andre) and Bud Malone (Lil Rel Howery) road tripping from Florida to New York to pursue Chris's unrequited love (Michaela Conlin) in Bud's sister Trina's (Tiffany Haddish) hot pink car, the cast ingeniously use the film's interpersonal conflicts to engage the people they encounter along the way, soliciting advice, asking for help, and bonding with generally receptive locals from the Deep South up to New Jersey. The result is a hilarious and lighthearted take on the genre from Jackass producer Jeff Tremaine, The Eric Andre Show's director Kitao Sakurai, some very funny comedians, and the demented meme king of goofing around. -- Leanne Butkovic
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

barb and star
Lionsgate

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Release date: February 12
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr.
Why it's great: Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar took us by surprise like a benevolent water spirit, a reference you'll get if you watch this truly zany comedy from the minds of Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who also star as the titular Barb and Star, best friends who decide to leave their little Nebraska town for a vacation in the fictional Floridian paradise of Vista Del Mar. What they don't know is that a pale villain with a severe bob (also played by Wiig) is targeting that very spot because of a personal grievance. Barb & Star has multiple musical numbers, some wild cameos, and an infectiously goofy spirit largely thanks to the brilliant work of the pair of women at its center. It's hard to describe the specific lunacy of this film, so just go watch and be swept away by the good vibes. — Esther Zuckerman
Where to watch it: Rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the father
Sony Pictures Classics

The Father

Release date: February 26
Director: Florian Zeller
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots
Why it's great: Among the growing number of films examining the emotional toll dementia can take on families, The Father stands out for its ingenuity. Adapted from a play by director Florian Zeller, the movie finds clever, moving ways to dramatize its subject matter, bringing the viewer into the mind of a man slowly losing his grip on his memories. Anne (Olivia Coleman) is growing frustrated with her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a stubborn former engineer with a bad habit of frightening off the nurses hired to keep an eye on him in his old age. She thinks he might be better off living with her or living in a retirement home; he values his independence and his space, even if he can't ever seem to find his damn watch. The conflict between the two spins out in surprising directions, circling back on itself and twisting into knots as Anthony's condition grows worse. While all the actors give sharp performances, particularly Coleman, it's ultimately up to Hopkins to sell the film's most devastating moments and anchor the conceptual gambits. Luckily, the 82-year-old actor is more than up to the task. -- Dan Jackson
Where to watch it: In theaters; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

in the heights
Warner Brothers

In the Heights

Release date: June 10
Director: Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians)
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins. Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera 

Why it's great: In a year that promises a lot of movie musicals coming to the screen, In the Heights kicks things off in spectacular fashion. Jon M. Chu directed an ecstatic adaptation of the musical that made Lin-Manuel Miranda famous before Hamilton, the story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, in a star-making turn), a bodega owner in Washington Heights with dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, and his community. Too many modern movie musicals are plagued by inertia; that's not the case with In the Heights. When the characters open their mouths to sing the vibrancy pops off the screen. Instead of using green screens or CGI wizardry to make Miranda's metaphors literal, Chu decided to rely on the magic of New York City streets. Since its release, there have been important conversations had about the lack of representation of the Afro-Latino community on screen, but, while flawed in its portrait, In the Heights still feels like a breakthrough moment. -- EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; stream on HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

judas and the black messiah
Warner Brothers Pictures

Judas and the Black Messiah

Release date: February 12
Director: Shaka King (Newlyweeds)
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Why it's great: It's hard to think of another recent movie as propulsive as this historical drama with significant Oscar buzz about the murder of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, portrayed in extraordinary fashion by Daniel Kaluuya, and the FBI informant (LaKeith Stanfield) who led the killers to his door. Shaka King's film is simultaneously both radical in tone and tense in execution, shifting perspective between Hampton and William O'Neal, a car thief played with jittery energy by Stanfield, who is offered lenience if he provides J. Edgar Hoover's bureau, intent on quashing the Black Power movement, with information on the charismatic leader and orator. Judas and the Black Messiah avoids any of the sentimentality that can typically invade true stories, helped by Stanfield's deft work as a man who slowly realizes the danger of his lack of politics. — EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

minari
A24

Minari

Release date: February 12 
Director: Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo)
Cast: Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-Jung
Why it's great: In Lee Isaac Chung's Minari, a grandma arrives from Korea carrying seeds to grow a minari plant, a delicious tasting water dropwort that spreads like a weed in marshy spaces. Just where crops and people can grow and thrive is on this gorgeous film's mind. It's a drama about a Korean family that moves from California to Arkansas to chase father Jacob's (Steven Yeun) dream of becoming a farmer. The minute they arrive at the trailer house that Jacob has purchased on a vast patch of land, his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is distressed. As a compromise, the couple invites Monica's grandmother (Youn Yuh-Jung) to come live with them. Chung mostly documents this journey through the eyes of 7-year-old David (the incredible Alan Kim). He has adopted his father's enthusiasm for this place, and complains about his grandma, a wily woman who does not act like the Americanized ideal of a matriarch he has envisioned. David's adorable insolence often makes for big laughs, but the incisive portrait of a couple at odds is always in the background. — EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

mitchell vs the machines
Netflix

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Release date: April 23
Director: Mike Rianda
Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Olivia Colman
Why it's great: If Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse established Sony Pictures Animation as one of the most exciting studios making animated movies right now, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, on Netflix, solidified that reputation. Also from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the family comedy about a group of weirdos besieged by an AI apocalypse is very funny and extremely heartfelt, featuring a nuanced father-daughter relationship that feels akin to something out of Lady Bird. Directed and written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe, both veterans of the early 2010s Disney Channel and XD series Gravity Falls, The Mitchells vs. the Machines builds to a climax that's as exhilarating as it is touching, successfully blending an all-out, wonderfully goofy action sequence with the kind of resonance it needs to move its audience. -- EZ
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

night of the kings
NEON

Night of the Kings

Release date: February 26
Director: Philippe LacĂ´te (Run)
Cast: Bakary KonĂ©, Issaka Sawadogo, Steve Tientcheu
Why it's great: This film from Philippe LacĂ´te layers fables on top of fables to document a night inside a notorious prison in CĂ´te d'Ivoire. The place known as MACA in Abidjan is very much real and the site of frequent violence, but there's a mystical quality that hangs over Night of the Kings' tale of warring factions and political upheaval. In LacĂ´te's telling, the correctional facility is lorded over by Blackbeard, the reigning "dangoro," whose power is being threatened by a group of his lackeys as he grows ill. As a last grasp at control, he anoints a new arrival the "Roman" and orders him to tell a story upon the appearance of the red moon. The terrified young man's life is at stake as he weaves the narrative of Zama King, the saga getting more fantastical as he continues. As Roman speaks, his rapt audience uses dance and song to act out Zama's trials. It's a hypnotic combination of magical realism, choreography, and true life terrors. -- EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

nobody
Universal Pictures

Nobody

Release date: March 26
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, RZA, Aleksei Serebryakov
Director: Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry)
Why it's great: This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk beats up a bunch of goons on a public bus and later dismantles a whole army of gangsters in a factory. Whether you're a fan of Odenkirk from Better Call Saul or Mr. Show, the prospect of seeing the mild-mannered 58-year-old go full John Wick in a movie written by John Wick writer Derek Kolstad is intriguing. Luckily, Nobody mostly delivers on the potential of its premise, stringing together brutal, bone-breaking fight scenes with a Bourne meets Death Wish meets Taken plot that moves from set piece to set piece. He may not move with the balletic grace of Keanu Reeves or growl with the Biblical anger of Liam Neeson, but Odenkirk brings a psychological intensity and a winning wryness to a part that a more conventional action hero might have simply slept-walk through. With John Wick: Chapter 4 now pushed to 2022, Nobody might be the most satisfying jolt of slick, mean mayhem you get from a major studio project this year. -- DJ
Where to watch it: In theaters; 
rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

nomadland
Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland

Release date: December 4
Director: Chloé Zhao (The Rider)
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Why it's great: ChloĂ© Zhao's film is both a travelogue of the West, displaying some of the most stunning vistas ever put to screen, and a document of the innate hardness of American life under corporate structures. It's, above all, an immensely peaceful film, brimming with the kind of empathy that feels necessary and rare right now. Zhao, known for her docudramas, adapts a piece of journalistic nonfiction by Jessica Bruder, using some of Bruder's subjects, but anchoring the piece with a performance by Frances McDormand as her protagonist Fern, who lived with her husband in a small mining town known as Empire before the corporation keeping it afloat shut down and the zip code was rendered nonexistent. Fern is living out of her van and taking shifts at Amazon when her friend Linda May tells her about the teachings of Bob Wells, a van life guru. What at first appears to be an aimless narrative, dotted with mesmerizing tracking shots in which McDormand strides across landscapes as parades of mobile homes move out in the distance, subtly reveals itself to be a purposeful journey. Patiently, Zhao and McDormand reveal how Fern's insistence on traveling is a means of coping with grief over the loss of her spouse. Nomadland is gorgeous, but never glamorizing. Instead, it's a generous work of art. — EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; Hulu (Watch the trailer)

saint maud
A24

Saint Maud

Release date: January 29
Director: Rose Glass
Cast: 
Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer
Why it's great: Haunted by a horrific incident in her past, Maud, a young woman who works as a palliative care nurse for the elderly and infirm, has converted to Roman Catholicism and believes that she hears the voice of God coursing through her whenever she's done something she feels He's pleased with. Her new patient, Amanda, a former dancer suffering from stage four lymphoma, is more concerned with dolling herself up for fancy evenings with friends than with saving her soul while she still has time—at least in Maud's eyes. Her "visions" of God, often in the form of a cockroach, lead her to believe that saving her new charge's lost soul is her life's mission—at any cost. Rose Glass's sneakily funny and distressingly spooky directorial debut will charm and terrify you in equal measure. It's a haunting, religious experience. — Emma Stefansky
Where to watch it: Stream on Hulu or Amazon Prime; rent on iTunes or YouTube (Watch the trailer)

shiva baby
Utopia

Shiva Baby

Release date: April 3
Director: Emma Seligman 
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper
Why it's great: Emma Seligman's comedy about shiva gone very wrong often plays more like a horror film, the chattering of bubbes turning downright maniacal as the score's strings intensify. We first meet Danielle (comedian Rachel Sennott) in the middle of sex with Max (Danny Deferrari), her sugar daddy, who shows a lecherous interest in her budding law career. Most of the movie, however, takes place at the post-funeral memorial for a distant family acquaintance Danielle is roped into attending with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). It quickly becomes obvious that our protagonist is not, in actuality, pursuing a law career. She's an aimless college student who has made up her own major. If the agony of being barraged with countless questions about her future weren't bad enough, her high school ex (Molly Gordon) is a guest, as is—surprise!—Max. Jewish geography is indeed as much a curse as it is a blessing. Seligman's camera stays focused on Danielle as her anxiety skyrockets and she makes a series of increasingly rash decisions. At less than 90 minutes, Shiva Baby is both economical and a bit slight, but Seligman makes fascinating choices at every turn. — EZ
Where to watch: Rent or buy on Amazon Prime or iTunes (Watch the trailer

space sweepers
Netflix

Space Sweepers

Release date: February 5
Director: 
Jo Sung-Hee (Phantom Detective)
Cast: Song Joong-Ki, Kim Tae-Ri, Jin Seon-Kyu, Yoo Hae-Jin
Why it's great: Right from its first, electrifying sequence involving a bunch of bounty hunting spaceships chasing after a careering piece of garbage, Space Sweepers spins a far-future of multicultural, multilingual human life in space that's as exhilarating as it is crushingly dystopian. Tae-Ho is a pilot aboard the freighter Victory, along with Captain Jang, engineer Tiger Park, and loudmouthed robot Bubs, all of them part of an outer-space trash-collecting bounty-hunter guild known as the Space Sweepers, who capture space junk and sell it for parts. After a particularly harrowing chase, the crew finds a little girl hiding in a derelict spaceship, who just happens to be a nanobot-filled android that a group of space terrorists have fitted with a hydrogen bomb. At first the Victory crew plans to sell the "little girl" back to the terrorist group who lost her, before they realize that she's much more special than she seems. — ES
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

the sparks brothers
Focus Features

The Sparks Brothers

Release date: June 18
Director: Edgar Wright (Baby Driver)
Why it's great: I knew practically nothing about the band Sparks, made up of the brothers Russ and Ron Mael, going into Edgar Wright's loving and long documentary, but I emerged a fan, which is some of the highest praise I can give a film like this one. Wright sets out to explain the underground phenomenon behind Sparks, which has weaved in and out of the public eye since the early 1970s. The director methodically goes through the Maels' discography, highlighting their pop experiments and deeply amusing and bizarre lyrics. It's meticulous and also enormously funny, featuring insight from the Maels themselves as well as devoted fans like Flea, Weird Al, and Mike Myers. (Wright has a great time with the chyrons identifying these talking heads.) There are animated recreations, recreations acted out by the elder Maels, and tons of archival footage. Mostly, you leave feeling a towering affection for these weirdos and their weirdo music, which is, I assume, exactly what Wright intended. -- EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters (Watch the trailer)

test pattern
Kino Lorber

Test Pattern

Release date: February 12
Director: Shatara Michelle Ford
Cast: Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean
Why it's great: The love story that dominates the first 15 minutes of Shatara Michelle Ford's tight and stunning feature-length directorial debut is seductive. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) meets Evan (Will Brill) at a bar. When they run into one another at a grocery store sometime later, a romance starts to unfold. But Test Pattern is not about love. It's about bodily autonomy and what happens when a Black woman's is ripped from her, first by a predator and then by someone she loves. One night, well into her and Evan's relationship, Renesha goes out with a friend. They are targeted by two men and encouraged to drink and take weed gummies. Renesha ends up in a strange bed with no idea how she got there. In the aftermath, Evan drivers her to get a rape kit, a gesture that slowly becomes more and more oppressive as they realize how difficult it is to obtain one in Texas. Evan's insistence starts out with concern for Renesha's well-being, but turns into a violation—a white man having little regard for what his Black girlfriend is actually experiencing. Ford's use of music to shape tension is astounding, as is the way she films Renesha's trauma. Test Pattern is a tense, upsetting film, that is nonetheless utterly striking. — EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters; rent on Kino Now, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or YouTube (Watch the trailer)

the truffle hunters
Sony Pictures Classics

The Truffle Hunters

Release date: March 5 
Directors: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race)
Why it's great: One of the loveliest films of the year, The Truffle Hunters is a documentary about the truffle trade in Northern Italy. Its stars? A bunch of older Italian men and their beloved dogs, who they treat like children. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw offer gorgeously shot windows into the serious business of scouring the forests for these delicacies. It's not entirely sweet pups and their devoted owners, though. Without any extra context, Dweck and Kershaw introduce us to the traders who make the industry a vicious one with a lot of money on the line. Still, the indisputable star is Birba, a sweet pooch of unidentifiable breed whose elderly person feeds from his own dinner table and worries about leaving behind once he passes. -- EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters (Watch the trailer)

the world to come
Bleecker Street

The World to Come

Release date: February 12 
Director: Mona Fastvold (The Sleepwalker)
Cast: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott
Why it's great: The quiet, calm narration of Katherine Waterston's Abigail carries the viewer through this period romance between two women in an isolated corner of New York during the 19th Century. But for as meditative as her voice is, there's a turmoil that rages through Mona Fastvold's film like the storm that appears in the first act. At times, Daniel Blumberg's magnificent score sounds like screams, and even in moments of peace there's creeping anxiety. Abigail has resigned herself to a life of discontentment with her husband Dyer (Affleck) when their new neighbors Finney (Abbott) and Tallie (Kirby) arrive. Abigail and Tallie become fast friends. Tallie is worldly and self-assured, even as she steals away from her pompous spouse who has a violent streak. Their long afternoons talking turn into physical expressions of love, but Fastvold is less interested in how that may have been taboo in the era than in how the threat of isolation is always just around the corner for these women. — EZ
Where to watch it: In theaters;
 rent on AmazoniTunesVudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

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