19 of the Best Movies of 2021 You Can Watch at Home Right Now

19 of the Best Movies of 2021 You Can Watch at Home Right Now
Screenshot: The Green Knight/A24
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It has been a good year for movies. Not a great year for movie theatres, though.

In 2019, the last year in which box office returns were unaffected by the pandemic, U.S. theatres banked $US11.4 (A$15.9) billion in ticket sales. Last year, that lofty total dropped to $US2.2 (A$3.07) billion (for context, Avengers: Endgame alone made more than $US850 (A$1,184) million domestically in 2018). While things look much better in 2021 — ticket revenue is expected to approach $US4.7 (A$6.55) billion — that’s still obviously not great for businesses built on people plunking down $US10 (A$14) every weekend to catch a new release (and hopefully buy some overpriced popcorn while they’re at it).

There’s a lot to unpack here: What would it mean if a big chain like AMC went under? How are independent theatres being impacted? With even “event” movies and comic book sequels sometimes unable to motivate people to take the risk of sitting in a dark room with strangers for a few hours, will smaller stories simply fall by the wayside? And what will it mean for you, the movie-lover?

Well, at least for now, it means that movies are coming to streaming a hell of a lot quicker, and if you don’t mind sacrificing the theatrical experience, that might be a good thing. No more waiting six (or even three) months to catch the latest blockbuster; no more wishing you lived near a big city so you could see the film festival sensation all the critics are buzzing about. These days, pretty much everything is available at home before most people have even had a chance to check their local listings.

Consider the following 19 films, all acclaimed by reviewers and (mostly) loved by audiences, and all available to watch at home now, whether on a streaming service or via a digital rental. No, not every likely award-winner is out yet — some are still sticking exclusively to theatres (sorry, Wes Anderson fans and Lady Gaga stans); others (like Amazon Studios’ Being the Ricardos and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake) simply haven’t debuted yet. But there’s plenty to keep you busy until those, too, are only a few clicks away.

The Amusement Park

Technically it’s one of the best films of 1975, but this surreal satire from George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) was never released outside of a single film festival screening at the time, and was thought lost for decades until a print resurfaced and was restored and released on the horror streamer Shudder.

At 54 minutes, the film is more of a curio than a “real movie” — commissioned by a Protestant church organisation to highlight the grim realities of elder abuse, it marked the only time the director did work-for-hire — but it’s weirdly worthy of rediscovery. It explores the way many elderly people in the U.S. are forgotten and ignored through the metaphor of an old man’s increasingly distressing experiences at an amusement park, and it feels no less cutting or relevant nearly 50 years after it was made.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Annette

Maybe it’s a stretch to include French auteur Leos Carax’s (Holy Motors) divisive arthouse musical here; it divided critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is definitely, uh, not for everyone. But considering it’s an opera in which Adam Driver and Marianne Cotillard belt their way through the ups and downs of their toxic marriage before the latter gives birth to a baby who turns out to be a…well, I don’t want to spoil it, but you won’t see it coming, a 76% audience score seems pretty good. In naming it the year’s best movie, John Waters — director of many celebrated grotesqueries — called it “insane, over-the-top, and thankfully self-indulgent,” which sounds like an endorsement to me.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar

Don’t judge this one by the uninspiring trailer, which makes it look like an extended sketch starring one of Kristen Wiig’s least inspired Saturday Night Live characters. Nope: It’s way weirder, sillier, and more adventurous than that, with a zany energy that recalls the first Austin Powers film, before the character became a tired pop culture reference. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the plot, but it’s worth pointing out that Wigg co-wrote the script with co-star Annie Mumolo; you may have seen their first collaboration, a little film called Bridesmaids (which, you probably do not recall, got a best screenplay Oscar nomination). Watch it, it’s very good.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Coda

Apple spent $US25 ($36) million to acquire this Sundance Film Festival favourite, hoping to stake a claim as a home for powerful, celebrated independent films. I don’t know if that was a worthwhile investment for the tech company-turned-entertainment conglomerate, but I can’t argue about the quality of the movie, which follows the hearing daughter (Emilia Jones) of a deaf couple (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) who aspires to attend a prestigious music college. As an example of representation on film, it’s a standout — the cast includes a number of deaf actors — but it’s a heart-filling knockout of a narrative, too.

Where to stream: Apple TV

The Green Knight

The Green Knight is about what you’d expect from a fantasy blockbuster produced through the collaboration of angular indie studio A24 (whose slate reads like the definition of “tough sell with audiences”) and a director like David Lowrey, whose film A Ghost Story is an obtuse, transcendental musing on the nature of grief and existence and finds real power in a scene in which a character eats an entire pie on camera in one long, unbroken shot. Suffice it to say, star Dev Patel’s long, arguably boring trudge through this dreamlike interpretation of Arthurian legend is hardly The Lord of the Rings, but it includes images you will never forget.

Where to stream: Prime Video

The Last Duel

With two major, star-studded, serious films out this year, 84-year-old Ridley Scott still as spry a director as ever — and as grumpy, too. He blamed the box office failure of this Rashomon-esque medieval drama about France’s last legal fight to the death (which made like zero dollars despite the presence of stars/co-writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, not to mention Adam Driver and Jodie Comer) on millennials and their cell phones, instead of on the fact that a grim story tracking the conflicting accounts of a woman’s rape might not be the most enticing night out amid a pandemic.

You can understand his bitterness — he made a very good film, treating the heavy subject matter with a delicacy that belies its reputation as yet another story of a woman’s trauma told by men (and for that we should probably thank the third member of the screenwriting team, Nicole Holofcener, who writes the story from the woman’s point-of-view — the only account the film assures us is the truth).

Where to stream: Disney+

Mandibles

This weird and wacky French comedy is about two idiots who find a giant fly in the trunk of their car and decide to raise it as a pet. John Waters called it, “the stupidest art film of the year,” but also the funniest and the most charming. Sold.

Where to stream: Apple TV

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Netflix has gotten into the animation game in a big way, and though many of their offerings to date have felt a little like first drafts of Disney movies in desperate need of a rewrite, this one bucks the trend. It plays out like an increasingly frantic chase sequences, as the titular family’s road trip to take eldest child (and aspiring filmmaker) Katie to college — and hopefully shore up the cracks in her relationship with her overbearing dad in the process — is derailed by a robot uprising.

The outlandish premise is supported by a level of strong characterization and heart that feels surprising, until you realise the movie comes to us from many of the same people who assembled Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, quite possibly the best film (animated or otherwise) released in 2018.

Where to stream: Netflix

No Sudden Move

Minus a flashy premise or anything in the way of over-the-top action or special effects, this low-key crime caper from director Steven Soderbergh — featuring a cast of true characters actors (including Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Brendan Fraser, and John Hamm) stumbling through a con quickly gone very, very wrong — feels like the definition of kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Thank goodness for HBO Max.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Passing

Reportedly a deeply personal project for actress turned writer-director Rebecca Hall, this black-and-white adaptation of the once-controversial 1929 novel explores the very real practice of some light-skinned African-Americans of the era to attempt to pass as white. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson play old friends who reunite unexpectedly after years apart; one is married to a Black man and living in Harlem while the other is married to an odious, racist white doctor who has no idea his wife isn’t the woman he thinks she is. The fallout both women experience as a result is an indictment of a society that would place so much value on skin colour, yes, but it’s also a challenging consideration of the choices people will make in their own self-interest that offers no easy, black-and-white answers.

Where to stream: Netflix

Pig

Nicholas Cage will seemingly star in any movie that will result in a paycheck, but every once in a while, he picks a really good one. This revenge drama about a celebrated Portland chef who flies off the handle after his beloved truffle-hunting pig is stolen is definitely a prime cut.

Where to stream: Apple TV

The Power of the Dog

The first proper film in years from New Zealand director Jane Campion (who won the prestigious Palm d’Or for 1993’s The Piano), this anti-western stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a commanding cattle rancher who dominates his relationship with his meeker brother (Jesse Plemons) but starts to unravel when his brother comes home with his new wife (Kristen Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), forcing him to confront secrets about himself he has long denied. It’s a quiet, interior historical drama carried by a quarter of powerful performances, shepherded by a director who has proven herself a master of the form.

Where to stream: Netflix

A Quiet Place, Part II

Horror sequels used to be considered little more than junky cash-ins, but though A Quiet Place, Part II did make quite a lot of money, it’s also a very finely crafted thing, remarkable for the real character drama it mines in what might be yet another story of interchangeable victims getting picked off one-by-one by very scary monsters that hunt based solely on sound. Emily Blunt (wife of writer/director John Krasinski, who understandably does not have much to do onscreen this time around) carries this one like the star she is, but it is Millicent Simmonds, playing her deaf daughter, who gives it true heart.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Written and directed by a recently minted Oscar-winner, everyone thought Chloé Zhao’s Eternals would be the superhero movie to beat in 2021 (there was even some very early “will it be nominated for Best Picture?” buzz). Nah — turns out this one was a lot more comfortable with itself, and a lot more fun. Sure, it hits a lot of the same Marvel origin beats, but this story of a young man (Simu Liu) grappling with his stern father’s (Tony Leung) abandonment, to say nothing of his status as a supervillain, is both a near-perfect execution of the formula and something more.

Where to stream: Disney+

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Directed by the Roots’ Questlove, this historical documentary assembles never-before-scene footage captured during the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival into both an unparalleled concert film (featuring performances by Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more), a chronicle of an era, and the examination of a movement that would change America.

Where to stream: Disney+

tick, tick… BOOM!

Some of you might balk at the inclusion of this Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed stage-to-screen adaption/musical biography of RENT creator Jonathan Larson over the big screen version of Manuel’s own Tony-winner In the Heights. But while both films have their own show-stopping moments, this is the one that will truly speak to the heart of every theatre kid who ever nurtured dreams of Broadway.

Andrew Garfield is endearing and insufferable by turns as Larson, as the film follows his struggles and fails to write his first Broadway musical — a process which he later recounted in another largely un-produced show, which he titled tick, tick… BOOM! (a performance of which is interlaced throughout the more traditional narrative segments). Whatever you think of Larson after watching this warts-and-all film — he seems like he was probably often a deeply frustrating person to know — you’ll agree that it truly, truly sucks that he died suddenly, one goddam day before RENT opened Off Broadway.

Where to stream: Netflix

Val

Val Kilmer was once one of the most celebrated actors of his generation, then a punchline of sorts, then he disappeared altogether. This power chronicle of his life in the spotlight, assembled from video diaries he recorded obsessively throughout his life, reveals why. But it isn’t just a film about his health struggles, but a meditation on the idea that we all leave behind a legacy when we die, even if we don’t all have hours and hours of footage to show for it.

Where to stream: Prime Video

The Velvet Underground

Filmmaker Todd Haynes assembles a chronicle of the rise and fall of one of rock’s most influential bands every bit as complex and philosophically considered as the best of musician-poet Lou Reed’s lyrics. Even if you know nothing of the band’s history or the musical milieu from which it arose, it will make you ache for a bygone era of New York City, a time when artists and madmen lived side-by-side in dingy, $US25 ($36)-a-month apartments, trying to create works that would move the world — truly the stuff of an American cultural Renaissance that feels impossibly far-removed.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Werewolves Within

Horror comedy is tricky to get right; video game adaptations, even more so. This silly, bloody romp about a group of small town folks falling prey to paranoia after they get trapped in a snowstorm and become convinced a werewolf is in their midst, is somehow a very good version of both.

Where to stream: Apple TV

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