While most of the world argued about how movie theaters were doing, and the future of the film industry, perhaps lost in the shuffle: there’s never been a better time to stream movies at home.
Sure, there were plenty of theatrical films that either went directly to streaming, or debuted both in theaters and at home, mostly on HBO Max or Disney+. But plenty of streamers were also pumping out their own excellent films that ranked among the best of the best as streaming exclusives.
And our list here at Decider embraces both those approaches. Whether we’re talking about a direct to VOD (Video on Demand) comedy, a heartwarming story of a deaf family, an Oscar winner you probably forgot came out this year, and more, we watched them all.
A word on methodology: the staff of Decider was asked to submit their own top 10 list of movies, which were then ranked, weighted, and culled together to form the list you see below. The only caveat is they had to premiere on streaming anywhere between January 1, 2021 and December 31, 2021.
So, without further ado? Here are the 18 best movies of 2021:
Between questioning the point of life and talking about dead parents, it was starting to feel like Pixar needed a Zoloft prescription. Then Luca premiered and reminded us all that kid’s movies can be fun. Directed by Enrico Casarosa in his directorial debut and written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones, Luca was a sweet, nice moment in a hard year. It’s a quiet, silly movie about two fish boys who want a Vespa that’s brilliant in its singular focus. Some of the hardest moments in children’s lives don’t have to do with existential crises or unexpected death. They have to do with a best friend taking a different path than you. Luca may tell a small story, but it tells it beautifully, both from a narrative and visual perspective. — Kayla Cobb
Bob Odenkirk is one bad motherfucker. Not only did he survive a heart attack this year, but the beloved Better Call Saul actor also turned in a deliciously badass performance in the action thriller, Nobody. Odenkirk stars as Hutch, a mild-mannered but seemingly weak family man whose dark past catches up with him after a botched home invasion. Turns out that in his life before marriage and kids, Hutch was an “auditor,” a skillful assassin employed by intelligence agencies, and he was *very* good at his job. With plenty of bone-crunching fight scenes, a taunt 92-minute runtime and fun supporting performances from Connie Nielsen, RZA and Christopher Lloyd, Nobody is an absurdly violent action outing that showcases Bob Odenkirk’s incredible versatility. — Karen Kemmerle
Certain movies feel like a rush of anxiety, somehow, in the best way possible — Shiva Baby is one of those flicks. For those of us who watched Glee growing up, it was delightful to see the girlboss-ification of Dianna Agron, who stars opposite Rachel Sennott. While at a Jewish funeral service, Danielle (Sennott) brushes shoulders with her ex, her sugar daddy, her sugar daddy’s wife, and, of course, her own family members. Standing at a breezy 75 minute runtime, Shiva Baby was the best panic-inducing masterpiece 2021 had to offer. — Fletcher Peters
Hollywood movie musicals have returned in a big way this year, but don’t expect Annette to sit comfortably beside the likes of West Side Story and tick, tick… BOOM! Originally envisioned as a live theatrical presentation to accompany a new album by pop duo The Sparks Brothers, Leo Carax’s musical fantasia about an artistic couple (Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver) and their gifted young daughter defies any easy categorization. Part-opera, part-absurdist tragicomedy, part-showcase for an impeccably unhinged turn from Driver, Annette is a relentlessly ambitious, often unruly beast that certainly won’t be for everyone. But in an era increasingly defined by IP-driven ennui, there’s something special about getting lost in a film that speaks a language all its own. — Abby Monteil
Y’all wanna hear about why this movie made our best movies of 2021 list? Zola was the wildest ride 2021 had to offer, taking us through so many twists and turns amidst the strip club scene in Florida. And Janicza Bravo’s movie is more than just a true, bonkers story brought to the big screen — it’s also an artistically brilliant film that’ll had us enthralled on so many levels. Zola herself says she has more stories to tell, and we want them ASAP. — Fletcher Peters
So, Cruella was not supposed to go that hard. Disney’s live-action remakes have been incredibly hit or miss and generally written off as cash grabs designed to turn kids onto a vault full of IP. And then… Cruella. No one asked for the origin story of Disney’s puppy-killing fashionista, but Disney gave it to us anyway—and it gave Emma Stone permission to cut loose with one of the most deliriously campy performances we’ve seen in a while. This movie delivered nonstop fashion moments that were so extra, even the straights were gagging on Cruella’s eleganza. And more than that, the film was just a ball from beginning to end—and thank god Cruella didn’t kill any puppies. Uh… yet? — Brett White
‘Bo Burnham: Inside’
Bo Burnham: Inside is one of the most innovative streaming experiences of 2021. Shot and performed during the pandemic, the incisive comedian’s unique, wildly entertaining musical comedy achieves the nearly impossible feat of making a smart, laugh-out-loud hilarious special about pandemic life. Bo Burnham is a true master of his craft and his creative masterpiece Bo Burnham: Inside is the type of art that makes you feel as if you’re in the presence of greatness. — Josh Sorokach
If you’re in the mood for an enjoyable blend of horror and comedy, you won’t regret pressing play on Werewolves Within. Josh Ruben’s critically-lauded whodunnit features brilliant performances from one of cinema’s most charismatic duos (Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub), a screenplay bursting with humor and originality, and an incredibly talented supporting cast that includes Michaela Watkins, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Harvey Guillén, Michael Chernus, Wayne Duvall, and Catherine Curtin. Now available on VOD, Werewolves Within is the type of endlessly charming film you need to go out of your way to see. — Josh Sorokach
‘The Green Knight’
Watching The Green Knight feels like stepping into the mind of a medieval poet. David Lowery’s lush adaptation of the classic chivalric tale uses sound and color, magic and fury to re-examine the Arthurian tale. A brilliant Dev Patel stars as Gawain, King Arthur’s lackadaisical nephew who stumbles into a challenge with a magical being known as the Green Knight. Gawain thinks that by beheading the knight, he’s wiggled out of the Green Knight’s challenge to return the blow. Gawain soon learns how wrong he is. The Green Knight is a wild journey into the weird, sexual, violent, and hopelessly flawed world of medieval literature. It’s also proof that David Lowery is a cinematic poet. — Meghan O’Keefe
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’
In a landscape defined by superheroes and space epics, it feels odd to say that modern movies are lacking wonder. Yet that was exactly the remedy directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim provided. Raya and the Last Dragon dropped audiences into its lush, fully realized world as fearless as Kelly Marie Tran’s protagonist approached her life. Raya is more than an intensely satisfying hero’s journey, a fun fight movie, or a nice story of unexpected friendship. It’s just cool. Disney has created a universe that’s so grand, it’s begging for sequels and spinoffs. Raya has proven there’s absolutely a place for original storytelling in a climate dominated by adaptations, and we want more of it. — Kayla Cobb
Only the director of Raw could turn the story of a serial killer with a fetish for cars into one of the most unexpectedly moving films of the year. Agatha Rousselle stars as Alexia, a young woman who has had an affinity for machines over humans ever since a childhood accident left her with a titanium plate in her skull. After getting impregnated by her beloved car (yes, really) and going on the run following a series of murders, she finds refuge by disguising herself as the long-lost son of grieving firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Suffice it to say, in the wrong hands, Titane could have become a disastrous B-movie for the ages. Instead, Alexia and Vincent’s unlikely bond turns what started as body horror into a singularly lovely rumination on found family and the hunger for connection that makes us human. — Abby Monteil
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’
Since its inception in 2008, Marvel Studios has used Marvel comics as the jumping off point for modern myth-making, preserving the heart of these 50+-year-old heroes and updating the rest. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, however, took the name of a lesser known character from Marvel’s groovy Bronze Age and handed a comparatively blank slate to director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter David Callaham, and a cast and crew emboldened to weave their traditional lore into the Marvel tapestry and elevate one of the very first Asian superheroes of all time to icon status. That’s exactly what Shang-Chi did. This film, an emotionally resonant thrill ride, took the old hero with “deadly hands of kung fu” and put him on the level with Captain Marvel, the Hulk, and Doctor Strange. — Brett White
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is pure sci-fi crack. A loving adaptation of the first half of Frank Herbert’s classic book, Dune fully immerses the viewer in the world of Paul Atreides and the planet Arrakis with a potent cocktail of epic visuals and wild sounds. Paul Atreides’s dreams take on a hallucinatory tone. His mother’s Bene Gesserit powers take on a supernatural hue. And the film’s star-studded cast lends each iconic character with the dramatic weight they deserve. While it’s true Dune is imperfect, that’s mostly because it’s unfinished. The fact that so many audiences were left hungry for more is a testament to Villeneuve’s power as a filmmaker. — Meghan O’Keefe
‘The Power of the Dog’
No one understands lonely men quite like Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jane Campion. The Power of the Dog, coming to Netflix tomorrow, may just be her best study of masculinity to date. Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as wealthy ranch owners in 1925. Though they are brothers, the two men couldn’t be more different—George (Plemons) is gentle and sweet; Phil (Cumberbatch) is cold and cruel. When George falls in love and marries an inn owner (Kirsten Dunst), Phil tortures his new sister-in-law and her effeminate teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The performances are top-notch—the young Smit-McPhee will especially blow you away—and while the first half may seem slow, a spectacular finale reveals you were watching a simmering build all along. From the beautiful landscapes to the haunting score, every moment of The Power of the Dog is exquisite. — Anna Menta
‘In The Heights’
Six months later I am *still* dancing to the music of In The Heights. The celebration of this unique New York neighborhood was so joyful and so, so necessary. Lin Manuel Miranda’s first big Broadway show became a film adaptation filled with beautiful music, impressive dance numbers and a cast we’ll be seeing on screens for a long time. The love, the happiness, and the representation this film delivered will have a lasting impact for years to come, as we’ll also always remember it for being a cinematic bright spot of 2021. — Lea Palmieri
First of all: yes, Nomadland came out in 2021. After a one-week theatrical release in 2020 to qualify it for this past year’s Oscars, the movie was officially released in limited theaters in January, 2021, followed quickly by a wide release and on Hulu the next month. And that business out of the way, Chloé Zhao’s careful, quiet, beautifully staged meditation on the fringe society of America was easily one of the best releases of any year. Anchored by a stunning performance from Frances McDormand, the movie eschewed the normal “actors playing down” aesthetic that often permeates these projects, and instead paid loving tribute to its characters, offering them as much honor and dignity as anyone else. Plus, it’s at least partially responsible for amping up an extremely important conversation about Amazon’s alleged mistreatment of its workers. For that alone, it’s worth the watch. — Alex Zalben
There is a zero percent chance that you’ll watch CODA and not bawl your eyes out. Sian Heder’s heart-warming story of a child of deaf adults (the CODA of the title), Emilia Jones proved her acting chops on Netflix’s Locke & Key were no fluke with a central performance that will break — then rebuild — your heart. From the perfectly captured small fishing town, to a family unit that feels real and vital, everything about CODA is wonderful to watch. But best of all, it’s funny. Particularly thanks to Troy Kotsur’s performance as the family patriarch, he gets both the biggest laughs, and the biggest sobs over the course of less than two hours. Do yourself a favor, and if you haven’t already, wonder in the powerful, positive magic of CODA. — Alex Zalben
‘Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar’
Perhaps 15 years ago, an absurdist comedy about two middle-aged women on vacation wouldn’t have felt like a revelation. But wacky mid-budget comedies are a dying breed, and with the pandemic dragging on, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar felt like the only movie this year to give viewers what they wanted: Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan belting out musical numbers on the beach. From Bridesmaids writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo—who also star in the leading roles—the brilliance of Barb & Star lies in its artful stupidity. The jokes are so over-the-top silly, so positively ludicrous, that you can’t not laugh. It’s the kind of movie that begs to be watched and rewatched, until you’ve memorized the scenes to reenact with your friends. It is, quite simply, a real tit-flapper. — Anna Menta
https://decider.com/2021/11/30/best-movies-2021/ Best Movies 2021