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Year in review: The best streaming movies of 2021
2021 was supposed to be the year people would return to the theaters to watch movies. However, thanks to the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie studios continued to delay major film releases. They also sold off many films to streaming services, fearing they wouldn’t be big box office hits in the current environment. Thus, our list of the best streaming movies of 2021 has a few films intended for a theatrical release, that ended up instead on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney Plus.
Read more: The best streaming services
However, there were still a lot of great movies that were made specifically for streaming services in 2021. Our list this year runs the gambit from animated family films to sci-fi action flicks to Westerns (two of them). There’s even a four-hour superhero epic to stream.
We did include a few films from Netflix that had very small and limited theatrical runs. However, we did not include films that had wide day-and-date releases in theaters as well. That includes all the Warner Bros. theatrical films that debuted on HBO Max, along with the Disney Plus Premier Access films and a few more day-and-date movies that also dropped on Paramount Plus and Peacock. With that out of the way, here are the ten best streaming movies of 2021, in no particular order.
The best streaming movies of 2021
Army of the Dead (Netflix)
In Army of the Dead, co-writer-director Zack Snyder combined two popular movie genres you might think would not go well together. A zombie plague has hit Las Vegas, and the US has barricaded the city from all sides. However, there’s still a ton of money inside a vault in a Vegas casino. The casino owner wants it, so a team of mercenaries, led by Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward, are hired to go in and take the money out, and hopefully avoid getting bitten by the undead.
This mix of zombie movie and heist flick is a lot of fun, and you have some time to get to know many of the characters that go into the undead streets of Vegas. Also, be sure to watch Army of Thieves, a prequel movie that stars Matthias Schweighöfer as Ludwig, the film’s memorable locksmith (Schweighöfer also directed the movie).
I Care A Lot (Netflix)
Before playing a sorceress in Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time, Rosamund Pike starred in this Netflix original movie. She plays a woman who targets older people with a lot of money and forces herself into their lives as their court-appointed guardian. The movie title suggests she might care about her charges, but in reality, she only wants to take their assets away for herself.
This black satire highlights the very real issue of senior citizens who find they no longer have control of their lives, due to people like Pike’s character. However, in this movie, she may have met her match, as her latest target happens to be the mother of a major crime lord. It’s definitely one of the best streaming films of 2021.
The Tomorrow War (Amazon Prime Video)
Initially set for release in theaters by Paramount, the studio decided to sell off the film to Amazon Prime Video, which released it during the Fourth of July week in the US. This was the perfect popcorn action flick for the summer. Chris Pratt plays a former soldier turned teacher. He, and the rest of the human race, find their lives turned upside down when a group of humans appears from the future, wanting to recruit new soldiers to fight off an alien invasion.
This movie echoes previous films like Independence Day, Starship Troopers, and others. However, it also has some surprising humanity (which we won’t give away here). There are many great action set pieces, and the aliens themselves are pretty scary as well. Just sit back and enjoy this entertaining movie.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (Netflix)
Netflix picked up this great animated movie from Sony. It comes from co-writer and director Michael Rianda, who previously was one of the major creators behind the excellent Disney Channel series Gravity Falls. Like that series, this movie centers on ordinary people who have to deal with extraordinary circumstances. In this case, the Mitchell family is the only hope for humanity as a rogue AI takes over all machines in an attempt to capture all humans and send them into space.
There are lots of funny bits in this movie, but there are also some great family bonding themes, particularly with the daughter Katie Mitchell, who comes into some conflict with her father, Rick. However, they try to put that aside as the rebel AI’s plans come into fruition.
Tick, Tick… Boom! (Netflix)
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, makes his movie directorial debut with this Netflix original movie. Jonathan Larson originally wrote this musical drama, but for the movie version; Miranda also made it an autobiography of Larson, who died very early at the age of 35, just before his most famous musical, Rent, had its first off-Broadway performance in 1996.
The musical itself is excellent and is helped by a terrific performance of Andrew Garfield as Larson. The character is depicted as a person trying to become a success as an artist but at the expense of his relationships with his friends. There are some surprising musical set pieces in this movie, which is just part of why we picked this as one of the best streaming films of 2021.
The Harder They Fall (Netflix)
Here’s the first Western on our list, and while it’s a fictional film, the main characters are all based on real people who lived in the Wild West. Nat Love, played by Jonathan Majors, wants to take out the frontier crime boss Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, who murdered Love’s parents in front of him when he was a small boy. He gathers a gang of sharpshooters to take down Buck.
There are some great Western shootouts in this movie, along with excellent performances by Major, Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, and others. It happens to have a great soundtrack as well.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (HBO Max)
Yes, Snyder gets two movies on this list. Indeed, the fact this film even exists is a testament to Snyder’s dedication and to his loyal fans who demanded the movie be released. The DC Comics superhero team movie Justice League was first released in 2017, but Snyder, while credited as director, didn’t handle the final cut of the film due to a family tragedy. Once more, the film had extensive reshoots written and directed by someone else. The final result was a huge disappointment, and fans staged a campaign to get Warner Bros to release “the Snyder Cut.”
Warner Bros. caved in and allowed Snyder to recut Justice League and even film a new sequence into this huge four-hour epic. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg fight to save Earth from Steppenwolf and his armies, and ultimately from his master Darkseid. Despite its length, this movie feels like the version that should have been released all along. You can also watch a black-and-white version of this movie at HBO Max.
The Guilty (Netflix)
After directing Infinite, a way over-the-top action movie eventually dumped on Paramount Plus, director Antoine Fuqua turned around and made a more realistic and intimate crime thriller for Netflix. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Los Angeles police officer with a checkered past. As a result, he’s been assigned to a 911 call center. Things get tense quickly when he takes a call from a woman who claims she’s been kidnapped.
Gyllenhaal’s character tries desperately to help this woman while still at the 911 call center. There’s lots of tension and suspense as we not only learn more about this crime but Gyllenhaal’s character as well.
Luca (Disney Plus)
Disney decided to release the latest animated movie from its Pixar division as a streaming exclusive on Disney Plus. The final result is a beautiful movie, both in its story and visually. The town of Portorosso, located on the shores of Italy, looks like a magical place thanks to Pixar’s artists and animators.
The story centers on two sea creatures who live in this small town but under human disguises. The movie is all about acceptance and friendship, no matter where a person is or what they might look like. It’s a great lesson to be learned in a very entertaining and beautiful film.
The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
Jane Campion, the acclaimed director of films like The Piano, returns to feature films after 12 years with this Western movie (ironically shot mainly in New Zealand). Benedict Cumberbatch gives perhaps his best performance yet (and that’s saying something) as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1925 Montana who tries to make himself look like a real man’s man.
Burbank’s life changes when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries a woman (Kirsten Dunst), who also has a nearly grown son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil makes fun of George’s new wife and stepson at first, but then things about Phil’s past come to light. It’s a powerful drama with great performances, including some spectacular cinematography.
Best streaming movies of 2021 — honorable mentions
Here are a few more great streaming films that just missed our top 10 list:
- No Sudden Move (HBO Max) — Steven Soderbergh directs another excellent heist movie, this time set in the 1950s, with an all-star cast.
- Outside The Wire (Netflix) — Anthony Mackie shines in this film as he plays an android in the near future who teams up with a human officer to prevent a nuclear attack.
- Blood Red Sky (Netflix) — This German-language film turns what looks like a plane highjacking film into a horror movie.
- Finch (Apple TV Plus) — Tom Hanks stars in this sci-fi epic about a man who tries to avoid dying on a post-apocalypse Earth, with the help of his dog and robot.
- Boss Level (Hulu) — Time loop movies seem to be a growing trend, but this one also happens to be a solid B-movie-style action flick.
Those are our picks for the best streaming movies of 2021. Do you agree with our list? If not, which films would you include? Let us know in the comments!