110 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.

There’s a lot of good to be found in the charming, poignant, and endlessly quotable Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It follows a documentarian named Dean, who has as his subject the one-inch talking shell that is Marcel. Marcel looks after an empty house along with his grandma Connie, and together they run a delightfully intricate system subsisting on electric mixers, tennis balls, and the occasional human hair.

Despite his small size, Marcel unwittingly makes big observations about life and the world around him, often moving Dean (and this writer) close to tears. It’s a simple film with a grand message, with lots to say about the importance of participating in life as opposed to merely observing it. But ultimately this is a movie with a precocious talking shell at the heart of it all, so really, what’s not to like?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Vortex, Gaspar Noé’s haunting exploration of death and dementia, begins with a dedication: “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The statement sets the heartwrenching tone of the film, which follows an elderly couple—one with dementia and the other with a heart ailment—during their last days together. Noé cleverly depicts all this in a split-screen design, which evokes the fractured pattern of old-age thought. 

Noé’s mother struggled with dementia, and Noé’ himself suffered from a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him, so Vortex is clearly a personal film. But even without knowing this, Vortex feels effortlessly dear and deeply intimate, like it could've only been done by a person with a first-hand experience of this tragedy. At once personal and universal, Vortex is a haunting and inventive ode to love, death, and everything in between.

Summer of Soul would already be remarkable if it was just a collection of some of the greatest live performances ever put to film. Boasting a roster that includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone, the nearly-forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the documentary was an all-star catalog of some of the biggest names in popular music, all at pivotal moments in their careers. Seeing them at the height of their powers, in front of a Black audience that meant so much to them, makes for an unexpectedly emotional experience.

But Summer of Soul also expands beyond the actual concert, using the Harlem Cultural Festival to represent a turning point in Black culture and history, especially after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the film's pristine, electric editing and gorgeous archival restoration, music becomes a communal act of mourning, a rallying cry to face the uncertain future, and a celebration of a people and a heritage continuing to fight against erasure and persecution.