The end is here, at least for the cinematic year and here are the best movies released this year.
Unlike 2020, Hollywood adapted to the waves of COVID by simultaneously releasing movies in theaters and on streaming platforms or on streaming platforms only. And while the setting looked different the year still gifted us with a tons of dramas, comedies, rom-coms, thrillers, action, and more. That’s the whole point of loving movies; if you like one of the huge ones, great, but it can sometimes feel even better to find one flying under the radar that you love, and making sure the whole world knows just how good it is.
So from crowd-pleasing blockbusters to under-the-radar triumphs, check out the best movies released in 2021.
READ: 25 Best New TV Shows and Limited Series of 2021
Melvin (Aml Ameen), a British author living in America returns home to London for Christmas to introduce his American fiancée Lisa (Aja Naomi King) to his eccentric British-Caribbean family. Their relationship is put to the test, as she discovers the world her fiancé has left behind.
The Harder They Fall
When outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) discovers that his enemy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is being released from prison he rounds up his gang to track Rufus down and seek revenge. Those riding with him in this assured, righteously new school Western include his former love Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), his right and left hand men–hot-tempered Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and fast drawing Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler)–and a surprising adversary-turned-ally. Rufus Buck has his own fearsome crew, including “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), and they are not a group that knows how to lose.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, who must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization. The film also stars Tony Leung as Wenwu, Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s friend Katy and Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan, as well as Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu and Ronny Chieng.
Stream: Rent or Buy VOD
Judas and the Black Messiah
FBI informant William O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton. A career thief, O’Neal revels in the danger of manipulating both his comrades and his handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell. Hampton’s political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, a battle wages for O’Neal’s soul. Will he align with the forces of good? Or subdue Hampton and The Panthers by any means, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover commands?
Stream: HBO Max
Don’t Look Up
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy grad student, and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) make an astounding discovery of a comet orbiting within the solar system. The problem: it’s on a direct collision course with Earth. The other problem? No one really seems to care. Turns out warning mankind about a planet-killer the size of Mount Everest is an inconvenient fact to navigate. With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media obsessed public before it’s too late proves shockingly comical — what will it take to get the world to just look up?!
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Thus began the odyssey of one A’Ziah King, aka ZOLA. From acclaimed writer/director Janicza Bravo, Zola’s stranger than fiction saga, which she first told in a now iconic series of viral, uproarious tweets, comes to dazzling cinematic life. Zola (Taylour Paige), a Detroit waitress, strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale.
Stream: Showtime, Showtime Anytime, Hulu, Sling TV, fuboTV, Amazon Prime Video
A man interviews five unborn souls to determine which one can be given life on Earth.
Stream: Rent or own VOD
The Outside Story
Brian Tyree Henry takes on his first big screen lead role as Charles Young, a broken-hearted video editor. Perceiving a betrayal of trust as a sign his girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) is leaving him, Charles preemptively blows up his relationship and sequesters himself at home. The fates do not comply and Charles locks himself out of his apartment. Stumbling into a transformational, timely odyssey exploring his community, Charles meets a dynamic ensemble of previously avoided neighbors (including Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward and Asia Kate Dillon) who show him everyone’s got issues and it never helps to keep them all locked up.
Young couple Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill) negotiate a variety of questions, judgments, and other comments on their interracial relationship. Yet, the most significant test for the strength of their bond arrives in the form of a brutal sexual assault Renesha suffers. A frantic Evan must then drive the distressed Renesha across the city in hopes of securing a rape kit, encountering further prejudice along the way. Written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford. Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, and Ben Levin co-star.
Stream: Starz, Hulu, Sling TV, Amazon Prime
“Safety” is a drama inspired by the empowering story of former Clemson University football safety Ray McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a young man facing a series of challenging circumstances, whose dedication and persistence help him to triumph over repeated adversities. Aided by his teammates and the Clemson community, he succeeds on the field while simultaneously raising and caring for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson).
Resort to Love
A romantic comedy about aspiring pop star Erica (Christina Milian) who ends up as the entertainment at her ex-fiancé’s wedding after reluctantly taking a gig at a luxurious Mauritius island resort while in the wake of a music career meltdown. She tries to keep their past relationship a secret from his bride-to-be Beverly, but Erica rediscovers her feelings for her ex, Jason (Jay Pharoah), despite his brother Caleb’s (Sinqua Walls) attempts to keep them from falling back in love. In this warm and funny romantic story that explores the bonds of love and family, the question soon becomes will Erica sing at Beverly’s wedding — or her own?
Spider-Man: No Way Home
For the first time in the cinematic history of Spider-Man, our friendly neighborhood hero’s identity is revealed, bringing his Super Hero responsibilities into conflict with his normal life and putting those he cares about most at risk. When he enlists Doctor Strange’s help to restore his secret, the spell tears a hole in their world, releasing the most powerful villains who’ve ever fought a Spider-Man in any universe. Now, Peter will have to overcome his greatest challenge yet, which will not only forever alter his own future but the future of the Multiverse.
Stream: In Theaters
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Power-hungry Macbeth sets his sights on the Scottish throne after receiving a prophecy from three witches.
Stream: In Theaters (Apple TV, Jan 14)
Armed with a clear vision and a brazen 78-page plan, Richard Williams is determined to write his daughters, Venus and Serena, into history. Training on Compton, California’s neglected tennis courts–rain or shine–the girls are shaped by their father’s unyielding commitment and their mother’s balanced perspective and keen intuition, defying the seemingly insurmountable odds and prevailing expectations laid before them. Based on the true story that will inspire the world, “King Richard” follows the uplifting journey of a family whose unwavering resolve and unconditional belief ultimately delivers two of the world’s greatest sports legends.
Stream: HBO Max
A war veteran seeks justice when police kill his unarmed son during a routine traffic stop.
Stream: BET Plus, Amazon Prime
A tender and sweeping story about what roots us, Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves to a tiny Arkansas farm in search of their own American Dream. The family home changes completely with the arrival of their sly, foul-mouthed, but incredibly loving grandmother. Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged Ozarks, Minari shows the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home.
Stream: Rent and buy VOD
Following the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career — from a child singing in her father’s church choir to her international superstardom — it’s the remarkable true story of the music icon’s journey to find her voice.
Stream: Rent and buy VOD
In The Heights
The creator of “Hamilton” and the director of “Crazy Rich Asians” invite you to the event of the summer, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big… “In the Heights.” Lights up on Washington Heights… The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life. “In the Heights” fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.
Stream: HBO Max, Hulu
In 1920s New York City, a Black woman finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with a former childhood friend who’s passing as white.
I Care A Lot
Poised with sharklike self-assurance, Marla Grayson (Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike) is a professional, court-appointed guardian for dozens of elderly wards whose assets she seizes and cunningly bilks through dubious but legal means. It’s a well-oiled racket that Marla and her business partner and lover Fran (Eiza González) use with brutal efficiency on their latest “cherry,” Jennifer Peterson (two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest) — a wealthy retiree with no living heirs or family. But when their mark turns out to have an equally shady secret of her own and connections to a volatile gangster (Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage), Marla is forced to level up in a game only predators can play — one that’s neither fair, nor square.
A widowed dad copes with doubts, fears, heartache and dirty diapers as he sets out to raise his daughter on his own.
After a proposed pipeline creates divisions within the small town of Beaverfield, and a snowstorm traps its residents together inside the local inn, newly arrived forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) and postal worker Cecily (Milana Vayntrub) must try to keep the peace and uncover the truth behind a mysterious creature that has begun terrorizing the community.
Stream: Rent or own VOD
Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence, only those who can conquer their own fear will survive.
Stream: Rent or own VOD
Sent to live with his estranged father for the summer, a rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit Philadelphia community of Black cowboys.
West Side Story
Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.
Stream: In theaters
The Suicide Squad
Welcome to hell–a.k.a. Belle Reve, the prison with the highest mortality rate in the US of A. Where the worst Super-Villains are kept and where they will do anything to get out–even join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X. Today’s do-or-die assignment? Assemble a collection of cons, including Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, Javelin and everyone’s favorite psycho, Harley Quinn. Then arm them heavily and drop them (literally) on the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese. Trekking through a jungle teeming with militant adversaries and guerrilla forces at every turn, the Squad is on a search-and-destroy mission with only Colonel Rick Flag on the ground to make them behave…and Amanda Waller’s government techies in their ears, tracking their every movement. And as always, one wrong move and they’re dead (whether at the hands of their opponents, a teammate, or Waller herself). If anyone’s laying down bets, the smart money is against them–all of them.
Stream: HBO Max, Hulu
The Water Man
Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Rosario Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who possesses the secret to immortality, the Water Man. After enlisting the help of a mysterious local girl, Jo (Amiah Miller), they journey together into the remote Wild Horse forest — but the deeper they venture, the stranger and more dangerous the forest becomes. Their only hope for rescue is Gunner’s father (David Oyelowo), who will stop at nothing to find them and in the process will discover who his son really is.
Hidden cameras capture two best friends pulling hilarious and inventive pranks on an unsuspecting public.
A live-action feature film about the rebellious early days of one of cinemas most notorious – and notoriously fashionable – villains, the legendary Cruella de Vil. “Cruella,” which is set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, follows a young grifter named Estella, a clever and creative girl determined to make a name for herself with her designs. She befriends a pair of young thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they are able to build a life for themselves on the London streets. One day, Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of the Baroness von Hellman, a fashion legend who is devastatingly chic and terrifyingly haute. But their relationship sets in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous, fashionable and revenge-bent Cruella.
Former high school football star Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) went from hometown hero to convicted felon, earning himself 12 years in a state penitentiary. He returns home to Louisiana, where he moves back in with Vivian (June Squibb), the grandmother who raised him. While trying to keep his head down and rebuild a quiet life for himself, Palmer is haunted by memories of his glory days and the suspicious eyes of his small town community. Things become more complicated when Vivian’s hard-living neighbor Shelly (Juno Temple) disappears on a prolonged bender, leaving her precocious and unique 7-year-old son Sam (Ryder Allen), often the target of bullying, in Palmer’s reluctant care. In time, Palmer is drawn into a more hopeful world as he forges a connection with Sam through their shared experience of being made to feel different by those around them. Life improves for Palmer, and a romance develops between him and Sam’s teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). An inspiring and unexpected journey unfolds for the three of them, but soon Palmer’s past threatens to tear apart this new life.
Stream: Apple TV
Marcus and Emily enjoy an unusual week without inhibitions when they meet new friends on vacation, but they are horrified when Ron and Kyla show up uninvited to their wedding.