The Best Movies of 2021

Laura Martin, Esquire Editors
·21-min read
Photo credit: David Bornfriend
Photo credit: David Bornfriend

There were many industries crushed by the pandemic in 2020, but few as brutally, or as quickly, as the film industry. Within days of the first infections in the US and UK, production staff were furloughed en masse, major releases were shelved and several cinema chains went bust. Even the stars of the big screen didn’t escape: many ended up singing tunelessly into their phones for Gal Gadot’s celebrity cover of "Imagine".

Just as the movie world began to get back on its feet in the late summer – amid repeated Covid-19 tests for all cast and crew, as well as marshals to reduce the chance of the virus spreading on sets – the second wave crashed, shutting down international productions once again. It was enough to make even Tom Cruise scream out in fury when he noticed several crew not wearing their masks on the set of the new Mission Impossible film.

Which makes 2021 a strange year for new movies. On the one hand, what hasn't been filmed can't be released, which means some of the blockbusters that were lined up to land this year are now on ice. On the other, all those films that should have hit cinemas in 2020 – your James Bonds, your Marvel movies, your Oscar-bait dramedies – have been shunted into 2021, in the hope that cinemas might open up again. Although even that's not a sure thing, which means we're likely to see more shifting release dates, and more of the best movies of the year landing straight onto streaming services.

Still, we're already off to a great start. Here are our favourite movies of the year so far, as well as all the ones we're very, very excited about. Here’s hoping you've picked up a new projector.

April

Minari

The beautifully shot, Oscar-nominated tale of an immigrant Korean couple, Jacob and Monica, who move their young family to a small farm in the Ozarks in the Eighties, in a bid to chase a better life. But work as a inexperienced farmer proves to be a real struggle, as does the eventual arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja. With Minari, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung has produced a heartfelt and understated work of art that has a lot to say about the virtues and hardships of family, assimilation, the immigrant experience and the American Dream. The performances from Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, and Yuh-Jang Young especially, are brilliant.

WATCH NOW

Godzilla vs Kong

Look, Godzilla vs Kong may not be up there with other movies on this list when it comes to silly things like acting, character development, scripting or plot, but few films have made us miss the cinema quite like this. A blockbuster sequel to Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and part of Legendary Picture’s wider MonsterVerse, Godzilla vs Kong well and truly delivers on its title. They really go at it. There’s some dialogue and acting sprinkled here and there, obviously, but everybody’s really here for the titanic, box office showdown between a big gorilla and a prehistoric sea dinosaur. Stupidly entertaining stuff.

WATCH NOW

Palm Springs

It’s strange to find ourselves referring to Palm Springs, which debuted in the US almost a year ago, as a ‘new film’. Of all the films that have suffered delayed roll-outs in the UK, this one was perhaps the most ludicrous, and many have pointed out the irony of a groundhog day comedy receiving a seemingly endless amount of releases. All in all it was worth the wait: funny, boring, hopeful and nihilistic, it’s a rom-com that subverts tropes and makes the most of its existential premise and talented leads (Andy Samberg, finally receiving deserved praise for his work on the big screen, and Cristin Milioti.)

WATCH NOW

March

Ammonite

Reviews have been mixed – perhaps partly due to its various similarities with the incredible 2019 French-language film Portrait of Lady on Fire – but Francis Lee’s historical romance remains a powerful and richly crafted depiction of deeply buried passion and patriarchy. Kate Winslet plays the real-life figure Mary Anning, the 18th-century fossil collector who received little credit for her world-shaking discoveries and was refused entry into the male-dominated scientific community. A wealthy couple from London travel to Anning's humble shop to learn from her, and the husband asks if she would be willing to spend some time with his wife (Saoirse Ronan), who is suffering from “mild melancholia”. Before long, frosty walks across Dorset’s Jurassic Coast give way to fiery lesbian trysts, and Anning’s hard exterior begins to crack.

WATCH NOW

Tina

From the Oscar-winning directors behind Undefeated and LA 92, Tina is a story of immense trial and triumph, albeit a well-trodden one. What sets it apart is the fact that Tina Turner, now 81, gave her full cooperation on the project, providing private recordings and drawing her many famous friends into the fray (including Oprah, who described watching Turner as “no different from being in church.”) For those who don’t know, the ‘Queen of Rock’n’Roll’ started her life as Anna Mae Bullock and began her music career with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm at the age of 19, but she was always destined to be a solo star. Ike Turner realised this as much as anyone, marrying the young singer and changing her stage name to Tina Turner (which he also trademarked). The pair found success together, but behind the scenes Ike was physically and emotionally abusing his young wife. Turner refers to the sixteen-year marriage as “living a life of death”, but she eventually escaped – with some pocket change, a fuel card, and perhaps most importantly, her name.

WATCH NOW

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché

In the Seventies, Brixton-born Poly Styrene (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) became the first woman of colour in the UK to front a popular rock band. Her work with X-Ray Spex, an experimental punk outfit that made music about identity, sex, race and class, left a profound cultural footprint, but the songs can only give a peek into a complex story. In the documentary I Am A Cliché, Poly Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, delves into the high and low points of her late mother’s career, including her struggles with mental health, and celebrates her important legacy.

WATCH NOW

Judas and the Black Messiah

A true story of Black power and betrayal, Shaka King’s film is a fitting tribute to the life of Black Panther chairman and revolutionary socialist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who was tragically gunned down by the Chicago authorities at the age of 21. Lakeith Stanfield plays William O’Neal, a chameleonic and conflicted petty criminal who infiltrated the Black Panther party on behalf of the FBI following an arrest for police impersonation, and struggled to balance his alliances along the way. Packed with brilliant performances, the Oscar noms are fully deserved.

WATCH NOW

Celebrate the Sopranos

Who could have predicted that The Sopranos, a show that finished airing in 2007, would become the most important show of the pandemic? It surely came as no surprise to critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, who spent many years of their lives covering what is widely considered to be the greatest show of all-time – dissecting episodes, interviewing cast members and analysing the legacy of the HBO mob drama for the New Jersey Star Ledger (Tony Soprano’s home paper, FYI). Their dedication to the show eventually led to a brilliant book, 'The Sopranos Sessions', which in turn has resulted in a documentary triple-feature: Celebrating The Sopranos. One covers the critics’ experiences writing about the show, while the other two talk to cast members and creator David Chase himself. A must-watch for any Sopranos superfan (just about everyone at this point).

WATCH NOW

February

I Care A Lot

Marla Grayson is a bad person. Her nine-to-five consists of convincing the legal system to grant her guardianship over well-off, healthy senior citizens and then depositing them into care homes where they are administered unnecessary, dissociative medication and separated from society. Then she sells off their homes and assets. The craziest part? The whole scam is (mostly) conducted within the letter of the law. It’s all going off without a hitch until Marla, played by British Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike, picks on the wrong woman: Jennifer Peterson, the mother of an equally ruthless mafia boss. What follows is a pitch-black comedy and adventure that gets to the dark heart of late-stage capitalism.

WATCH NOW

Pelé

It’s been 44 years since Pelé hung up his boots, and seven more than that since he last lit up a World Cup. As a result, his once unquestionable legacy as the GOAT has come under intense scrutiny, exacerbated by the death of Maradona and the twilight years of Messi and Ronaldo’s careers. Few people actually watched Pelé in his free-scoring prime for Brazil and Santos, and it goes without saying that the odd YouTube clip can’t do his performances, or the hysteria that surrounded him at the time, justice. That’s why directors David Tryhorn and Ben Nicholas pulled together Pelé, a Netflix documentary that seeks to communicate just how powerful, charismatic and prolific the man was in his youthful heyday, before the Viagra ads and endless legacy-building FIFA functions. The unearthed film footage is beautiful, and the duo are also helped by an extensive interview with the man himself, now 80 years old and unable to walk without assistance, a shadow of the smiling superstar who burst onto the world scene over seventy years ago.

WATCH NOW

Framing Britney Spears

For the past thirteen years, Britney Spears has been living within the confines of a conservatorship led by her father, Jamie. The court ruling was imposed upon her after a period of mental health struggles, often played out in public and gratefully gobbled up by the hordes of paparazzi that had permanently surrounded Spears since her teenage years. This New York Times documentary delves into her heady rise to pop stardom, the cruel misogyny of Noughties celebrity culture, and her ongoing attempts to escape the grasp of her conservatorship, galvanised by the viral #FreeBritney movement that has swept social media over the past few years.

WATCH NOW

Beginning

Photo credit: Mubi
Photo credit: Mubi

Winner of Best Film and Best Director at the San Sebastian Film Festival, this debut feature from Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili centres on a young Jehova's Witness who undergoes a crisis of faith when her religious community comes under attack from a group of extremists. An examination of faith, love and loss, it moves with the pace and pressure of a glacier.

WATCH NOW

January

One Night in Miami

It’s a night that’s taken on a near-mythic quality over the years. On 25 February 1964, a young Cassius Clay shocked the world by beating World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, and celebrated his victory by retiring to a motel room with three other Black superstars: soul singer Sam Cooke, American football player Jim Brown and Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X. Nobody knows what truly went down within those four walls, only that conversation flowed deep into the morning, but debut director Regina King has had a good guess with One Night in Miami. Based on Kemp Powers’s powerful play of the same name, the quartet talk and argue about their individual roles in the fight for civil rights and Black empowerment. Tightly scripted and beautifully staged, King’s film delves into the nuances that existed within these four Black icons, all on the verge of great change.

WATCH NOW

The White Tiger

Based on Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger is a story of stark inequality in India, and how easily one person got stuck between gears of an oppressive system. Balram lives in the impoverished village of Laxmangarh, which is essentially owned and leased out by a wealthy coal baron named The Stork. As a young boy, Balram was denied the chance to take up a scholarship in Delhi because of the debts that his family owed to The Stork, but that doesn’t stop him from aspiring to become a servant for his merciless landlord’s family; specifically his son, Ashok, who has just returned to Delhi with his American-Indian wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). He manages to get the job, and is happy with his lot for a while, until a tragic event alters his fate forever. Director Ramin Bahrani’s classy direction never takes away from the grim reality of the tale.

WATCH NOW

Pieces of a Woman

A heartbreaking story of devastating loss; at its centre, a 24-minute single-shot scene of a home-birth gone wrong. British actress Vanessa Kirby is brilliant as Martha, the grieving mother who must attempt to pick up the pieces of her life and confront her fractured relationship. We spoke to cinematographer Benjamin Loeb about the scene in early January, and he talked about striking the balance between hope and dread. "My wife’s birth was 17 hours and it felt like two or three days but also like five minutes,” he said. “We wanted this scene to feel like the audience was drawn along and forced to feel everything and watch everything. It feels like you’re not able to take a breath and you forget about time and lean into the feelings you have.” Directed by Hungarian auteur Kornél Mundruczó, written by Kata Wéber and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, don’t be surprised if this appears on awards shortlists.

WATCH NOW

MLK/FBI

“This represents one of the darkest periods in the bureau’s history”.

So says one of the interviewees in this documentary about how the FBI, and the White House, viewed civil rights activist Martin Luther King as a threat, and worked insidiously to take him down: investigating, bugging and harassing him until his assassination in 1968. Thanks to government documents that have now been declassified, director Sam Pollard has pulled together a distressing examination about the abuse of power, revealing how the FBI would seemingly stop at nothing to extinguish a man who’s only mantra was for equality for all in America.

WATCH NOW

And everything else to look forward to in 2021

Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed's already generating Oscar buzz for his turn as a speed metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing, and his grip on reality. In deafness, though, he finds a new purpose. And maybe a little gold statue.

Release date: TBA

Nomadland

Part movie, part documentary, this Golden Lion-winning film by Chloe Zhao sees Frances McDormand travel cross-country to escape her Nevada home's economic collapse. She's guided by (real-life) nomads Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, and the cast and crew mostly lived in vans for the entire shoot.

Release date: 21 May

The World To Come

A love story set in the harsh 1850s American East Coast frontier, two women from neighbouring couples battle their way through hardship and isolation and find an unexpected bond that starts to grow between them. Starring The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston as Tallie and Abigail, the film has already picked up major plaudits, winning the Queer Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival in September.

Release date: n/a

Promising Young Woman

Rape culture and revenge go under the microscope in this dark – like, bottom-of-a-mineshaft-dark – comedy starring Carey Mulligan, who puts in a career-best performance a women hell-bent on getting justice for an old university friend. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell (yes, The Crown’s Camilla Parker-Bowles), it's a timely take on consent, justice and responsibility, plus belly laughs.

Release date: N/A

Supernova

A Best Film nominee at 2020's London Film Festival, Supernova follows partners Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth in a final trip to visit loved ones after Firth's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's. Sounds heavy, but writer-director Harry Macqueen treats their relationship, and enduring love in the face of tragedy, with a lightness of touch that's as hopeful as it is heartbreaking. Expect Oscar nominations.

Release date: N/A

Morbius

Infected with a virus from bats, you say? It’s no wonder this Marvel film – starring Jared Leto as the eponymous lead – was put on hold in 2020. Unlike Covid-19, this bat-born disease gives the scientist Michael Morbius incredible superpowers, but also turns him into a vampire (because presumably a superhero with no sense of taste or smell was a bit less cinematic). Chernobyl’s Jared Harris adds some much-needed weight to the story, which also stars Matt Smith, Tyrese Gibson and even a cameo from fellow chiropteran hero, Michael Keaton.

Release date: 2022

The King’s Man

Both the prequel and the third film in the Kingsman series, based on the comics about a bunch of well-dressed spies who operate out of a Savile Row tailor. Matthew Vaughn’s new movie explores the organisation's origins, taking us back a century or so and pitting them against a rogue's gallery of turn-of-the-century baddies, including Ra-Ra-Rasputin. Ralph Fiennes picks up the role of the Duke of Oxford once again, alongside Gemma Arterton, Tom Hollander, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Matthew Goode, while Rhys Ifans is almost unrecognisable as Russia’s greatest love machine.

Release date: 20 August

No Time to Die

Perhaps you hadn't heard, but there's a new James Bond film due. The much (much!) delayed 25th outing for 007, No Time to Die, stars Daniel Craig in his final outing as MI6's bluntest instrument, this time facing off against Rami Malek as the terrorist leader Safin, who’s out for revenge (is he actually Blofeld? Maybe!). Throw in return visits from Ben Whishaw (Q) and Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), plus Billie Eilish providing the official theme song, and this looks well worth the wait.

Release date: 30 September

Mortal Kombat

The high-kicking, fight-to-the-death film franchise from the Nineties is getting a reboot, despite the last outing for the computer game movie, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, being universally panned in 1997. But, onwards and upwards and all that? The film – based on a script that's been kicking around for almost two decades, but don't let that worry you – is a tonal shift from the first one, with an R rating and Saw creator James Wan in the director's chair. It's not going to be Citizen Kane, but it does look like dumb, bloody fun. Altogether now: finish him!

Release date: 16 April

A Quiet Place: Part II

Emily Blunt and family tiptoe around again in this sequel to John Krasinski's 2018 horror smash. The conceit remains the same – make a noise, get bumped off – but now her brood are heading out into a place where all new threats lurk.

Release date: 23 April

Last Night in Soho

Photo credit: Focus Features
Photo credit: Focus Features

Edgar Wright's new one stars Anya Taylor-Joy as a woman who travels through time and winds up in Sixties London, which is remarkably less swinging – and rather more horrifying – than she expected.

Release date: 23 April

F9

Will the Fast & Furious franchise ever end? For Vin Diesel's sake, we hope not. Hollywood isn't as welcoming to musclebound bruisers as it was back in the Nineties, and these actors – your Vin Diesels, your Dwayne Johnsons, your Jason Stathams – can't survive on fish out of water comedies alone. F9 introduces John Cena and Cardi B to the already mammoth cast, with Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron returning as well.

Release date: 28 May

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson's "love letter to journalists" tells the heartwarming tale of a muckraker who goes through celebrity's bins. Oh, wait, nope; The French Dispatch is about the Parisian bureau of a US newspaper (the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) where Anderson alums like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, alongside new faces including Timothée Chalamet and Léa Seydoux, pursue a trio of stories. Expect whimsy.

Release date: May

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Or, as it should be called: 'Ghostbusters: The Kids Are Alright'. A single mum moves to a small town in Oklahoma with her two children, who discover that their grandad (RIP) used to be a Ghostbuster. Which is kind of handy, actually, as there’s some supernatural goings-on spooking the townsfolk. Before you can say "Slimer!", the kids have jumped into those familiar greige boiler suits and are wieldinging the proton packs. Fans of the original will be happy to see familiar faces Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Sigourney Weaver popping up once again, while Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) and Paul Rudd are also up for busting some spirits, too.

Release date: June

Old

A delightfully silly premise from director M. Night Shyamalan, pulled from the pages of Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters's graphic novel, Sandcastle. A family camp out on a secluded beach only to discover that a mysterious force is making them age at an incredible rate, reducing their lives to a day.

Release date: July

Candyman

Jordan Peele must have uttered the Candyman's name too many times in front of the mirror, because the iconic slasher villain is back in 2021. This sequel to the cult 1992 horror movie is produced by Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta (who's helming 2022's Captain Marvel sequel) centres on a hipster artist (played by Watchmen and Matrix 4 star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who moves into an old sweet factory decides to create an installation, in which viewers are encouraged to say the “c” word into a mirror. Bad move, bozo: it awakens the demon from his slumber once again.

Release date: 27 August

The Many Saints of Newark

Thirteen years after the end of The Sopranos, and despite James Galdofini’s death in 2013, will this prequel to one of the greatest TV shows of all time work? It certainly looks like it might. Based around the race riots in Newark in 1967, The Many Saints of Newark focuses on Dickie Moltisanti, the father of the older Tony’s protege, Christopher, and in some genius casting, also features Galdolfini’s real-life son, Michael Galdolfini as a young Tony Soprano. Bada-bing, we’re in.

Release date: 22 October

Dune

Is Dune the film with the longest pre-production span in history? Quite possibly. Since the sci-fi novel was released in 1965, Alejandro Jodorowsky was tipped to helm a 10-hour series in the mid Seventies, but it never happened. David Lynch had a go in the Eighties that almost ended his career. In the Aughts, it was attached to a slew of names, including Peter Berg and Pierre Morel, before Blade Runner 2049's Denis Villeneuve came on board in 2016. Timothée Chalamet stars as Duke Leto Atreides, who's sent to the desert planet Arrakis to guard 'the spice' – the most valuable drug in the universe. Looking very serious amid the incredible backdrops are Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and Zendaya, and if you’re wondering why the score sounds so awesome – even on the trailer – it's because Hans Zimmer is at the helm.

Release date: 1 October

Black Widow

It felt like 2020 was the first time since the first fish crawled up onto land that there wasn't at least one Marvel movie in cinemas. In 2021, normal service resumes. Black Widow is the long-awaited origin story for Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, and it looks suitably epic. The film sees Romanoff reunite with her other ‘sisters’ from a highly unusual Russian training programme; Yelena (Florence Pugh) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). Also along for the ride is their father figure, the Red Guardian, played by Mr Lily Allen, David Harbour, as they duel the Taskmaster, who can mimic the abilities and skills of their duelling partners.

Release date: 28 October

Eternals

Photo credit: Jesse Grant - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jesse Grant - Getty Images

When Chloe Zhao isn't making docu-realist masterpieces with Frances McDormand (see Nomadland, above) she's helming Marvel's next blockbuster, which stars Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden and Gemma Chan, and reportedly features the studio's first transgender superhero.

Release date: 5 November

The Matrix 4

Photo credit: AKGS - BACKGRID
Photo credit: AKGS - BACKGRID

Now, no one needs a fourth Matrix movie, especially after the sour taste left by part three. But the signs are good. Lana Wachowski is in charge, Neo and Trinity (Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss) are in, and the idea that we're all slaves to semi-sentient machines is no longer sci-fi (go on, put your phone down, we dare you).

Release date: 22 December

Antlers

Fans of Stranger Things will be into this supernatural horror film featuring Jesse Plemons. A young boy has captured and is feeding some sort of beast that soon is at large in their town, with a devastating impact on everyone who lives there. Produced by Hellboy’s Guillermo del Toro, the trailer alone gives us the willies, so perhaps it’s a good thing the film’s release has been delayed once again, giving us time to bolster ourselves for the main event.

Release date: TBC

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox

SIGN UP

Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts

SUBSCRIBE

You Might Also Like