The Best Movies of 2021: Top Ranked Must-Watch Movies

Media ReporterSeptember 21, 2021

The Best Movies of 2021: Top Ranked Must-Watch Movies

This year has been different in at least one significant way: It’s 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, even as theaters open back up with capped, socially distanced seating. 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. Like in years 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 The most exciting new movies coming  and Best Movies on Netflix.

1. F9

Release date: June 25, 2021
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Director: Justin Lin (Fast and Furious 6)
Why it’s great: After the bloated Fate of the Furious, which found the Fast franchise careening off the icy cliff of self-parody and into the freezing waters of self-indulgence, F9 serves as a necessary course correction courtesy of filmmaker Justin Lin, who helmed the best entry in the series with Fast Five and saved it from direct-to-DVD purgatory with Tokyo Drift. He’s clearly doing some necessary tune-up work here, stripping the series for parts (say goodbye to The Rock!) and futzing with the engine (say hello to some surprisingly compelling flashbacks to Dom’s teenage years!). If you find these proudly melodramatic, unrepentantly goofy movies tedious, F9 will not be the one to win you over. The plot is mostly nonsense; John Cena is not a particularly compelling villain; the “comedy” bits stop the movie in its tracks. But, with Lin throwing everything he’s got at the screen, F9 delivers the goods when it comes to the huge set-pieces, particularly any time a magnet is involved, and Diesel, rumbling with each line reading, remains a fascinating screen presence in these films, which still feel personal to him despite their ridiculous scale and unapologetic cheesiness.—Dan Jackson
Where to watch: In theaters; purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

2. The Sparks Brothers

Release date: June 18, 2021
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.—Esther Zuckerman
Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

3. In the Heights

Release date: June 10, 2021
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: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

4. Nobody

Release date: March 26, 2021
Director: Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry)
Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, RZA, Aleksei Serebryakov
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: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

5. Night of the Kings

Release date: February 26, 2021
Director: Philippe Lacôte (Run)
Cast: Bakary Koné, Issaka Sawadogo, Steve Tientcheu
Why it’s great: This film from Philippe Lacôte layers fables on top of fables to document a night inside a notorious prison in Côte 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 Lacôte’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:Hulu (Watch the trailer)

6. No Sudden Move

Release date: July 1, 2021
Director: Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight)
Cast: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm
Why it’s great: Steven Soderbergh’s crime drama dropped directly onto HBO Max, but it’s up there with some of his best work. It’s a period piece about mobsters in 1950s Detroit pitched at a minor key that reveals facets of its twisty storyline as it goes along. Don Cheadle plays a low-level gangster assigned to what seems like an easy job. He’s paired up with Benicio Del Toro, and their fractured alliance gets more complicated as they get deeper into the heart of the conspiracy they’ve been thrust into, which goes up higher on the food chain than anyone might expect. Though the plot can get downright overheated at times, particularly as characters inevitably start to double- and triple-cross one another in the climax, Soderbergh keeps the engine humming by making inventive visual choices throughout and allowing his performers, particularly his two excellent leads, to take the wheel when necessary.—EZ
Where to watch it:HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

7. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Release date: June 25, 2021
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Why it’s great: The footage alone would be worth recommending The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut. These recordings of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a weeks-long musical event that happened the same year as Woodstock, have been unavailable for public consumption until now, an example of a Black historical artifact being buried. The archival material is incredible, capturing unparalleled performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and so many more acts. Thompson frequently lets the music speak for itself, but also uses it as a guide through the place and the period, showing how Black artists were responding and evolving during the era. Summer of Soul is thoroughly joyous and also enormously vital.—EZ
Where to watch it: Hulu (Watch the trailer)

8. Riders of Justice

Release date: May 14, 2021
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken)
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann
Why it’s great: The idea of Mads Mikkelsen, the menacing and captivating star of NBC’s Hannibal and last year’s Oscar-winner Another Round, getting his own Taken-like revenge vehicle is appealing enough. But Riders of Justice, a philosophically knotty and refreshingly contemplative Danish action thriller, is more than your average Neeson-esque revenge movie knock-off. Yes, Mikkelsen, sporting a gnarly beard and a shaved head, plays a stoic, violent man seeking to find the men responsible for killing his wife. There’s plenty of suspense and twists and shoot-outs and even a deadly motorcycle gang, but director Anders Thomas Jensen, who also penned the script, finds room in this sprawling tale for bits of sharp comedy, most of it involving the team of stat-obsessed nerds who assist Mikkelsen’s tough commando, and welcome detours into more metaphysical concerns surrounding ethics and randomness and chaos. As the plot digressions (and the bodies) pile up, Mikkelsen keeps the narrative humming with his unceasing intensity.—DJ
Where to watch: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

9. The World to Come

Release date: February 12, 2021
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:Hulu; rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

10. The Truffle Hunters

Release date: March 5, 2021
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: Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube (Watch the trailer)

11. Space Sweepers

Release date: February 5, 2021
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.—Emma Stefansky
Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer)

12. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Release date: April 23, 2021
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)

13. Malignant

Release date: September 10, 2021
Director: James Wan (Aquaman)
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
Why it’s great: James Wan’s horror-thriller about a woman who realizes her dreams of a spooky figure violently murdering people are actually happening is by turns effectively creepy, utterly baffling, and absolutely hilarious, with an electrifying third act that plays as its own superhero origin story. The only way to accurately describe this movie’s goofy, heightened aesthetic is that it’s like a fake movie inside another, much more normal movie, except the fake movie turns out to be the actual movie. From the minute an asylum nurse intones, “IT’S TIME TO CUT OUT THE CANCER” you know you’d better buckle up for whatever madness this will turn out to be. — ES
Where to watch it: In theaters and HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

14. Bad Trip

Release date: March 26, 2021
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)

15. Shiva Baby

Release date: April 3, 2021
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: Hulu or HBO Max (Watch the trailer)

16. The Card Counter

Release date: September 10, 2021
Director: Paul Schrader (First Reformed)
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe
Why it’s great: At one point in Paul Schrader’s latest severe character study, the camera reveals a tattoo on the back of Oscar Isaac’s character’s back that reads, “I trust my life to providence, I trust my soul to grace.” In the shot, William Tell, Isaac’s troubled gambling protagonist, is sipping whiskey and writing at a desk, a pose familiar to fans of Schrader’s work, and the words come from a song written for Light Sleeper, Schrader’s mist-soaked 1992 drama about insomnia and addiction. These self-referential touches are hardly essential to enjoying the film, which tracks Tell as he plays in gambling tournaments for a kind-hearted manager (Tiffany Haddish) and considers a revenge plot against a private security contractor (Willem Dafoe) pitched to him by a disturbed young man (Tye Sheridan). The movie works as a shrewd thriller, a smoldering romance, and an often angry meditation on guilt. But it works best as yet another example of Schrader’s unwavering faith in his own divine gifts as a filmmaker. –– DJ
Where to watch: In theaters (Watch the trailer)

17. The Green Knight

Release date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery (A Ghost Story)
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury
Why it’s great: The Green Knight isn’t an action fantasy, or even a fantasy in the way we’ve become accustomed to it: There are no dragons (though there is a whale fossil), no sparkly magic spells (though there is at least one sinister incantation and a companionable fox), no athletic sex scenes (though the whole movie is very sexy). Dev Patel plays soon-to-be-knight Gawain, who, in chopping off the head of a mysterious Green Knight during a game of chivalry, dooms himself to death when his foe challenges to return to him in a year so he can return the blow in kind—a blow that, as he is not made of magical plants, Gawain is unlikely to survive. What follows is a gorgeous, surreal fable set in the medieval world of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, sending Gawain on a quest full of ghosts, giants, and magic that turns all the trappings of its source material on its head.—ES
Where to watch it: In theaters; purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or YouTube (Watch the trailer)

18. Test Pattern

Release date: February 12, 2021
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: Rent on Kino Now, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, or YouTube (Watch the trailer)

19. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Release date: February 12, 2021
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.—EZ
Where to watch it:Hulu (Watch the trailer)

20. Saint Maud

Release date: January 29, 2021
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.—ES
Where to watch it: Hulu or Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer)