185 Best Movies & Shows Released in 2021

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 2021. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

The film opens with Julie in her early twenties, longing to pursue a career in medical school. But after briefly testing the waters, she switches over to psychology, only to drop completely out of school and transform her hobby of photography into a professional career. This indecisiveness carries over in most aspects of her life, including and especially in romance, where impulse and desire drive her to run after what she believes to be love. The movie follows Julie as she navigates adulthood in modern Oslo—at once a specific yet universally relatable story about the growing pains of growing up.

With The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier scores again with another life-changing Norwegian drama about longing, love, grief, and finding your place in the world. His films can be quite sad but amidst all the drama, moments of happiness and hope are scattered throughout, as it is in real life.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Anders Danielsen Lie, Anna Dworak, Gisle Tveito, Hans Olav Brenner, Herbert Nordrum, Ine Jansen, Maria Grazia Di Meo, Marianne Krogh, Renate Reinsve, Ruby Dagnall, Sofia Schandy Bloch, Thea Stabell, Vidar Sandem

Director: Joachim Trier

Wise, superbly acted, and gorgeously put together, all of these apply to Nightmare Alley. In a world where remakes are more in vogue than needed, Guillermo del Toro shows us how it's done. A sumptuous tale of a man's rise and fall guarantees some spectatorial pleasure, but having both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the same film (plus unsung genius Toni Collette and all-round-favorite Willem Dafoe) pushes us into talent overload, in the best possible way. In addition to its thrilling plot and studded cast, Nightmare Alley is also psychologically literate enough to make a carnival out of the human soul. It's no surprise that in 2022, it got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture where it certainly would have had my vote.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bill MacDonald, Bradley Cooper, Caleb Ellsworth-Clark, Calvin Desautels, Cate Blanchett, Charles Langille, Clifton Collins Jr., Clyde Whitham, Dan Lett, Daniel Falk, Danny Waugh, David Hewlett, David Strathairn, Dian Bachar, Holt McCallany, James Collins, Jesse Buck, Jim Beaver, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Mark Povinelli, Martin Julien, Mary Steenburgen, Natalie Brown, Paul Anderson, Perry Mucci, Peter MacNeill, Richard Jenkins, Romina Power, Ron Perlman, Rooney Mara, Stephen McHattie, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Post, Toni Collette, Troy James, Willem Dafoe

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: R

, 2022

Inu-oh is a visually stunning and thought-provoking anime that reimagines a Japanese folk tale as it explores themes of artistic freedom, individuality, and the consequences of challenging societal norms. The movie's striking imagery, original music, and captivating story make it a memorable viewing experience, delving into issues of identity and the prejudices faced by disabled individuals with sensitivity. While the catchy music may not appeal to everyone, the film's unique blend of ancient and contemporary storytelling creates a creative triumph that anime fans will appreciate, offering social commentary and a reflection on the power of staying true to oneself.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Music

Actor: Avu-chan, Chikara Honda, Gota Ishida, Kenjiro Tsuda, Mirai Moriyama, Tasuku Emoto, Yutaka Matsushige

Director: Masaaki Yuasa

From Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi comes another film featuring long drives, thoughtful talks, and unexpected twists. An anthology of three short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ponders over ideas of love, fate, and the all-too-vexing question, “what if?” 

What if you didn’t run away from the one you love? What if you didn’t give in to lust that fateful day? What if, right then and there, you decide to finally forgive?

Big questions, but without sacrificing depth, Hamaguchi does the incredible task of making every single second feel light and meaningful. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will leave you with mixed emotions: excited, startled, dejected, hopeful. But one thing you won’t feel is regret over watching this instant classic of a film.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Aoba Kawai, Aoba Kawai 河井清叶, Ayumu Nakajima, Fusako Urabe, Hitoshi Omika, Hyunri, Katsuki Mori, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Kotone Furukawa, Shouma Kai

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: R-13

Difficult but essential viewing, Procession tracks the progress of six men undergoing art therapy—specifically, by creating short filmed scenes to process their trauma from being sexually abused by Catholic priests. The resulting films we get to see are wildly varied in the emotions they express, forming a rich and powerful tapestry of the effects abuse can leave on individuals. And to see these men confront the worst events of their lives through filmmaking begins to feel like validation for filmmaking itself, that it can truly be an art form that changes and saves lives. But even more striking, somehow, is the unbreakable bond that forms among these survivors throughout this entire process, captured with reverence and overflowing compassion by director Robert Greene.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dan Laurine

Director: Robert Greene

Poignant, delightful, and simply gorgeous, Licorice Pizza just might be Paul Thomas Anderson's best work to date. The period dramedy follows two young people, one in her 20s and one in his teens, as they strike an unlikely but lovely friendship and try to find their place in the world. They may be 10 years apart, but they're stuck in the same swirl of rejection and confusion that trap a lot of ambitious people like them. The premise is far from original, but Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman turn in captivating performances (made even more impressive by the fact that this is both their film debut). There is an ease and naturalism to both their chemistry and onscreen performances that’s hard not to love.

The thick and wistful patina of the ‘70s, the comedic asides, and the colorful supporting cast all also help paint an overall charming picture that shouldn't be missed.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Somner, AJ Carr, Alana Haim, Alex Canter, Alex Herschlag, Allegra Clark, Anthony Molinari, Ariel Rechtshaid, Benjamin Barrett, Benny Safdie, Bottara Angele, Bradley Cooper, Cassandra Kulukundis, Charlotte Townsend, Christine Ebersole, Ciara Williamson, Cooper Hoffman, Craig Stark, Dan Anderson, Danielle Haim, Delaina Mitchell, Demelza Cronin, Destry Allyn Spielberg, Dick Rudolph, Eloy Perez, Emily Althaus, Emma Dumont, Erica Sullivan, Este Haim, Fatimah Hassan, Gerren Hall, Harriet Sansom Harris, Hazel Schaffer, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Isabelle Kusman, Iyana Halley, Jeff Willy, John C. Reilly, John Michael Higgins, Jon Beavers, Jonathan Goetzman, Joseph Cross, Karen Kilgariff, Kat Barnette, Kimiko Kasai, Kirk Saduski, Lakin Valdez, Laura Louise Richardson, Liz Cackowski, Louis Delavenne, Mark Flanagan, Mark Wolfson, Mary Eileen O'Donnell, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Max Mitchell, Maya Rudolph, Mick Giacchino, Nate Mann, Paige Locke, Patrick Salway, Pearl Minnie Anderson, Ray Chase, Ray Nicholson, Richard B. Larimore, Rogelio Camarillo, Ryan Heffington, Sasha Spielberg, Savannah Ioakimedes, Sean Penn, Skyler Gisondo, Steven Herrera, Tim Conway Jr., Tom Waits, Tyler Young, Waylon Richling, Zoe McLane

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

One of the most thrilling biographical films to come out of Hollywood in the 2020s, Shaka King's exhilarating take on a truly remarkable leader within the Black Panther Party—and the young man who would eventually be twisted into betraying him—also provides a respectful, honest space to voice out progressive views that still aren't fully embraced in the United States. Much of the film is made up of beautiful, powerful rhetoric, contrasting in fascinating ways with scenes of violence or deception that only remind us how ahead-of-his-time chairman Fred Hampton was and still is. And in a thunderous, Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Kaluuya brings all of Hampton's words roaring to life while still reminding us of how tragically young this inspirational figure was at the time of his death.

But Judas and the Black Messiah tells an equally powerful second story over this one: that of FBI informant William O'Neal who reluctantly agrees to sell Hampton to the feds, and quickly realizes that he's been scammed too. Rivaling—and, arguably, besting—Kaluuya's performance is LaKeith Stanfield, whose tortured and increasingly despairing performance as O'Neal is the stuff of pure Shakespearean drama. Together, both stories ask us what real freedom looks like, and that we believe we can still fight for it.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Algee Smith, Amari Cheatom, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ashton Sanders, Caleb Eberhardt, Chris Hahn, Daniel Kaluuya, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Fishback, Dominique Thorne, Graham Lutes, Ian Duff, James Udom, Jermaine Fowler, Jesse Plemons, Khris Davis, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Martin Sheen, Nick Fink, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill

Director: Shaka King

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiroko Matsuda, Jin Dae-yeon, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Perry Dizon, Reika Kirishima, Ryo Iwase, Satoko Abe, Shoichiro Tanigawa, Sonia Yuan, Toko Miura, Toshiaki Inomata

Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Rating: Unrated

Many films have tried to decipher the indecipherable bond between mothers and daughters. Lady Bird, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Turning Red, to name a few, center on this particular relationship, which to outsiders may seem strange at best and dysfunctional at worst. How can mothers yell at their daughters one second and coddle them the next? How can daughters treat mothers like their best friend and enemy all at once? 

One of the best films to explore this complexity is Petite Maman, a fantasy-like film that brings together mother and daughter in a unique situation, forcing them both to regard the other in otherwise impossible ways. It succeeds where others haven’t precisely because it accepts that this relationship is beyond dissecting, and the only way to honor it is in the poignant, poetic, and otherworldly way that it does. It’s a quiet film that manages to say a lot, not least of which is that it’s okay to feel and love and hurt as much as one does.

Genre: Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Joséphine Sanz, Margot Abascal, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne

Director: Céline Sciamma