The Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)
Here's everything you need to see this year.
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 current Oscar front-runner 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.
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: In theaters; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)
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 and HBO Max (Watch the trailer)
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; A24's virtual screening room (Watch the trailer)
Release date: December 4
Director: Chloé Zhao (The Rider)
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Why it's great: Chloé 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)
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: In theaters; Epix (Watch the trailer)
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 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; available via On Demand on March 2 (Watch the trailer)
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