The 20 Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)

Make some space on your “to watch” list.

Originally Published: 

It’s been a packed year for everyone, even for the film industry. Part of the overload is due to all the great movies that were supposed to come out in 2020, but were ultimately delayed — until now. From film festival dramedies (Shiva Baby) to blockbuster musicals (West Side Story) to critically-acclaimed shorts (The Human Voice), here are the 18 best movies of 2021 (so far).

Thanks to the pandemic, which forced Hollywood to halt production and postpone premieres, this year’s movie release schedule has been unusual, to say the least — and many films on this list were completed, and seen and reviewed by critics, well before their U.S. debuts. One feature included below, Judas and the Black Messiah, was even eligible for awards contention in the 2020 cycle, even though it wasn’t released in the U.S. until February 2021. Several others, like Zola and Limbo, were supposed to hit theaters last year, but saw their release dates delayed amid COVID-19. Still more, like Licorice Pizza, were shot (safely) in the midst of the pandemic after the production hiatus.

After last year’s disastrous series of events, these movies are well worth the wait. Below, see the best movies of 2021.


Judas and the Black Messiah

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah was included in last season’s awards circuit, but came out at the beginning of this year. Based on true events, the film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, the chairman of Illinois’s Black Panther chapter, alongside Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neill, the FBI informant who helped aid Hampton’s assassination. Kaluuya swept the Supporting Actor category at nearly all the major ceremonies, even taking home an Academy Award.


Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Cate Cameron/Lionsgate

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is like Bridesmaids on an acid trip. Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo star as two Nebraskan women who vacation to Florida’s (fictional) Vista Del Mar, hoping to get their groove back — and find themselves fending off villain Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig), who seeks personal revenge on the resort town. With a singular comedic vision and a visual palette reminiscent of Lisa Frank stationery, Barb and Star is irresistible.


The Human Voice

Sony Pictures Classics

Spanish visionary Pedro Almodóvar’s first English-language film is a loose adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name. In a short runtime of just 30-ish minutes, Tilda Swinton delivers one of the most vulnerable and poignant roles of her career. Like the play, the whole thing is essentially one big monologue, which Swinton delivers expertly — particularly in the scenes where she’s on the phone with her (off-screen) ex-lover. The Human Voice is a half-hour well spent.


Raya and the Last Dragon


Disney Animation Studios did it again with Raya and the Last Dragon, a delightful animated feature that will win over both children and adults. Inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, featuring a largely Asian-American cast (lead by Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, and Sandra Oh), and written by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Malaysian-born screenwriter Adele Lim, Raya is a fantastical tale of power, loss, and resilience.


Shiva Baby


Shiva Baby refuses to give its audience any respite. Taking place in realtime at a shiva in Brooklyn, Shiva Baby film follows Danielle (comedian Rachel Sennott), a recent-ish college grad floundering in early adulthood, as she makes her way through a series of cringe-inducing conversations. Fiercely relatable, Shiva Baby will make you feel less alone about all the things going wrong in your life.




Writer-director Ben Sharrock takes a serious issue — specifically, displacement among refugees seeking asylum — and turns it into an off-beat comedy. Limbo follows Omar, a Syrian musician, and other immigrants as they bide their time on a remote Scottish island, awaiting the approval of their asylum claims. By juxtaposing the characters’ all-too-real trauma with deadpan humor, Sharrock crafts a narrative that’s relatable for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong.




“I love creating something where there was nothing before,” says Alvin Ailey in Jamila Wingot’s documentary, Ailey. Considering how important the dancer and choreographer was in the realm of modern dance, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for this documentary to arrive — but it’s well worth the wait. Ailey features archived interviews and exclusive footage of the titular legend, interwoven with new rehearsal clips from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the legendary company that Ailey founded in 1958.




A’Ziah “Zola” King’s epic 2015 Twitter thread about her hair-raising “ho trip” with a near-stranger gets the silver screen treatment. Directed by Janicza Bravo and starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, Zola weaves suspense, comedy, and even a little buffoonery into a thrilling ride. Both actresses give memorable performances, particularly Keough’s outrageous Stefani who lures Paige’s Zola in the worst weekend of her life.


The Mitchells vs. the Machines


It’s been a good year for animated flicks, in no small part thanks to The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Starring iconic comedians like Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobson, and Danny McBride (among many others), the film is being praised for the way it handles LGBTQ+ representation — not to mention its madcap plot, about a robot apocalypse that forces the Mitchell family to save the world.


In the Heights

Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of In The Heights, his Tony Award-winning musical about the Dominican community in New York City’s Washington Heights, is already generating Oscar buzz for its larger-than-life dance sequences and sentimental storylines. However, the movie has also faced scrutiny for its lack of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx actors in leading roles.


Summer of Soul

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

Famed music producer Questlove makes his directorial debut with Summer of Soul: a documentary takes audiences back to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka “Black Woodstock,” a six-week concert series that featured icons like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Sly and the Family Stone. The doc took home both the Grand Jury: Documentary and Audience Award prizes at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.


The Green Knight


Fans of Medieval literature and ambitious cinema alike will be awed by The Green Knight, David Lowery’s (A Ghost Story) reimagining of the Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, who, in Lowery’s version, is an irresponsible but ambitious young man dreaming of knighthood. When the elusive Green Knight approaches him with a wager, he travels to the mysterious Green Chapel, and encounters numerous challenges along the way.


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


The Marvel Cinematic Universe accomplished many firsts with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, none more important than the critical and commercial success of its first Asian and Asian-American led film. Starring Simu Liu as the titular superhero, Shang-Chi is as much an action-packed rollercoaster as it is a family drama. The film also stars Awkwafina, Tony Leung, and Fala Chen.




Denis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation of Dune has the distinction of being both one of the year’s best films, and one of the most memed. Based on Frank Herbert’s cult-classic novel about a battle for power on the planet of Arrakis, Villeneuve’s Dune only covers the first half of the book. Luckily, a sequel has since been greenlit, and Villeneuve’s already at work on the script.


The Velvet Underground


Todd Haynes is known for his stylized contemporary classics, like Carol and Safe. This year, he presented his first documentary feature — a look at the life and times of Mod-era rock band The Velvet Underground. Given Haynes’ talents, it should come as no surprise that he pulled off one of the best films this year, documentary or otherwise.


Drive My Car


Ryusuke Hamaguchi achieves cinematic greatness with Drive My Car — a film so moving, one forgets it’s almost three hours long. Based on Haruki Murakami’s acclaimed short story about a theater actor-slash-director grieving the loss of his wife, the film won the Best Screenplay award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival — and acclaim from many a Chekhov diehard.


C’mon C’mon


C’mon C’mon is among this year’s spate of black-and-white films, and quite possibly the best among them. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio journalist who agrees to look after his nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), after his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) asks for a favor. Despite their totally opposite personalities, Johnny and Jesse form a bond that’s as strong as it is heartwarming.


West Side Story


Diehard West Side Story fans were (understandably) nervous for Steven Spielberg’s new take on Leonard Bernstein’s beloved musical — could a director known for action or war thrillers pull off a Broadway adaptation? Much to their relief, the film was a widely acclaimed. Thanks to Spielberg’s judicious updates to the script and memorable performances from Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, and newcomer Rachel Zegler, West Side Story is not only one of the year’s best movies, but also one of the best musicals to come out in the past 10 years.


Licorice Pizza


Set in California’s San Fernando Valley during the early ’70s, Licorice Pizza defies the conventional tropes that most coming-of-age films rely on — a tribute to Paul Thomas Anderson’s charming, quirky script, and to the talents of lead actors Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, both of whom are new to the screen. Haim is already generating awards season buzz for her performance.


The Power of the Dog


Jane Campion’s new film — her first in over a decade — is based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. Two brothers run a Montana farm in the 1920s, each wading through an atmosphere of repression, abuse, and trauma. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all deliver memorable performances, and Dunst has been singled out for early Oscar buzz.

This article was originally published on