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Best movies and shows of 2021 — what to binge right now

Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune and Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game, two of the best movies and shows of 2021
(Image credit: Chiabella James:Warner Bros. Entertainment and Netflix)

Unless you're talking about the best movies and TV shows of 2021, this wasn't exactly a great year. That said, we couldn't think of a better year to really need these excellent pieces of escapism (though Squid Game, thematically, hits close to home when it comes to desperation and debt).

In the hopes that you've got some down time to sit back and hit play on the best films and shows you may have missed, we're breaking down our favorites films and shows of the year. Fortunately, most of them are available to watch on some of the best streaming services

A special shoutout goes to HBO Max, which made it easy to watch some of the biggest (if not always the best) films of the year from home.

The best movies of 2021

Dune

The cast of Dune in the poster

(Image credit: Warner Pictures)

David Lynch already demonstrated that adapting Dune for the big screen is really, really difficult, and yet in 2021 Denis Villeneuve gave Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction epic the cinematic treatment it truly deserves. Villeneuve has become something of a force in modern sci-fi, having also helmed Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, but Dune is arguably his most impressive work to date. 

Dune is a triumphant picture, a behemoth in both scale and runtime. Most impressively, Villeneuve manages to break down Herbert’s lore-rich world and complex narrative into something far more digestible without losing any of the story’s intrigue and immense scale. The star-studded cast also deserves praise. Timothée Chalamet anchors the film, but Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa all shine. We can’t wait for the spice to continue flowing when Dune Part Two hits theatres in 2023. — Rory Mellon

Buy or rent on Amazon (opens in new tab), Apple (opens in new tab) and other services

The Suicide Squad

The cast of The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The DC comics movies get a bad rap, and sometimes that's deserved (hi, Zack Snyder's Justice League). Less so with James Gunn's terrifically unpredictable take on The Suicide Squad, which gave Idris Elba the chance to be really good at shooting guns (he doesn't need to be the next James Bond) as the leader of a bunch of misfit villains. Just like Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, this comedic take on a squad of mostly-unknowns has an excellent soundtrack, crackling script filled with good banter and great action scenes. Most surprising of all, though? Gunn managed to take the WWE's John Cena and give him a role interesting enough — Peacemaker is an entertaining himbo of the highest order, who is also really good at blowing stuff up — to create a whole spinoff show around.   — Henry T. Casey

Buy or rent on Amazon (opens in new tab), Apple (opens in new tab) and other services

A Quiet Place Part II

A still from A Quiet Place Part II

(Image credit: Paramount)

Returning to the cinemas in 2021 often felt like a bad idea, as the pandemic was still happening. And while monsters attracted to sound still ravaged the world in the dystopian A Quiet Place Part II, this was one of the few films that truly felt like it belonged in the theaters more than at home. Sure, Dune director Denis Villeneuve designed his film for the IMAX screens, but the collective tension of A Quiet Place's sound-focused chaos hits differently. In a hushed theater, with a scene where even the errant crunch of a tin can could bring painful death, A Quiet Place Part II made a good case for not watching it at home, in a year where we all had good reasons to stay there.   — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on Paramount Plus (opens in new tab)

The Power of the Dog 

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog

(Image credit: NETFLIX)

A dozen years was a long time to wait for Jane Campion to deliver her next feature film, but The Power of the Dog is worth it. And it’s not like the director has been sitting around twiddling her thumbs; she made one of the best television series in the past decade in 2013’s Top of the Lake. Campion returns to phenomenal form with a gorgeous, haunting psychological thriller that uses the still-wild West of 1925 as its backdrop. It’s anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, as a surly ranch owner whose cruelty toward sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst) pushes her into alcoholism. Then, Rose’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) visits for the summer and Phil takes him under his wing — to shocking results. The Power of the Dog ends with a bite you won't see coming. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Netflix (opens in new tab)

CODA

The title’s acronym stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and in this case, that is a teen girl named Ruby (Emilia Jones). She’s the only hearing member of her family, as her mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are all culturally deaf. Ruby helps out with the family’s fishing business, but she becomes captivated by singing in the school choir. When the teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), encourages her to audition for Berklee College of Music, Ruby is torn between pursuing her dream and helping her family. CODA is a sweet, heartwarming coming-of-age story that highlights an underserved community. You will laugh, and you will full-on ugly cry. Be prepared. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab)

Summer of Soul 

A still from Summer of Soul

(Image credit: Hulu)

Part concert film, part overdue history lesson, Summer of Soul is important and relevant to the current cultural moment. But it’s also simply a blast, from a past most of us knew nothing about. The documentary from first-time director Questlove unearths footage from the other, less famous music festival of the summer of 1969. We’ve all heard plenty about Woodstock; it’s taken too long to learn more about the weekly concerts that took place in a Harlem park. The doc is a joyful celebration of Black culture and excellence, with absolutely divine performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, BB King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples (among many others). The Harlem Culture Festival didn’t get the recognition it deserved then, but we can give it our attention now. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Hulu (opens in new tab)

Licorice Pizza

OK, once you get over the unnecessary age gap between 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), Paul Thomas Anderson's nostalgia-filled coming-of-age tale is a fantastic watch. Winning awards left and right (critics don’t seem to mind), Licorice Pizza is a delicious dramatic comedy about a kid whose ambitions are bigger than he is, and the woman who can't stop giving him chances. Gary goes from being a child actor to a waterbed salesman faster than you can put on a record (the title is a reference to LPs, if you didn't figure it out yet), and these schemes keep landing the two of them in wild scenarios. Hoffman (the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) is great in his debut, but it's Haim who truly impresses. — Henry T. Casey

In theaters only

King Richard

Will Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard, with Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in background

(Image credit: Chiabella James / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

In case you’d forgotten, Will Smith is a tremendous actor. King Richard proves once again that the veteran performer can pretty much single-handedly carry a movie. This easy-watch sports biopic is a vehicle for Smith to showcase his gravitas, charisma and remarkable ability to sink into a role.

While Smith has rightfully received plenty of praise for his turn as Richard Williams, coach and father of tennis all-timers Venus and Serena, the performances of Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as the young tennis superstars in waiting shouldn’t be overlooked. Aunjanue Ellis is also excellent as Oracene "Brandy" Price, the matriarch of the family. — Rory Mellon

In theaters only after an initial HBO Max run

Honorable mentions: 

  • Belfast
  • French Dispatch
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • The Velvet Underground
  • Belfast

Best TV shows and series of 2021

Loki

Sophia Di Martino and Tom Hiddleston in the Loki season finale

(Image credit: Disney Plus/Marvel)

Marvel's Loki show gave us the Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson buddy cop drama that its ads promised, but something bigger was afoot right under the surface. While some comics fans knew that Loki is gender-fluid, most MCU fans didn't see Sylvie coming. And with the arrival of this female Loki, Marvel coyly introduced more of the multiverse concept that is apparently underpinning its biggest projects, from Spider-Man: No Way Home to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

And within this wild world of variants, we got to explore Loki in ways that no MCU project ever got to do before. But, beyond the fact that we met an Alligator Loki in 2022, the Loki show was a great mystery-box show that managed to stick the landing with an episode that should have failed. In the Tom's Guide virtual offices, we talked about how introducing a brand-new (for the MCU) character as the "big bad" was a terrible idea. But the show masterfully brought in He Who Remains (a Kang the Conqueror variant), and Jonathan Majors proved what many already knew: He has the charisma and chops to make even the most confusing stuff work. — Henry T. Casey 

Watch it on Disney Plus (opens in new tab)

Succession season 3

Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook and Matthew Macfayden in Succession season 3 episode 5

(Image credit: HBO)

After Kendall and Shiv failed to be the chosen Roy child in seasons 1 and 2 of succession, we should have known Roman's time was coming. What we couldn't have seen coming, though, was the shocking way it would all come crashing down. But Succession wasn't just about the worst errantly-sent photo between family members ever. Yes, Jeremy Strong's performance as the tone-deaf Ken continued to impress, but it was Matthew Macfadyen who often stole the show from the rest of the family. From shouting at shrubs to spending whole episodes pondering what kind of life he'd lead in prison, Tom Wambsgans was the one who constantly kept us entertained with his foolishness. While HBO really wanted to make Westworld its new Game of Thrones, it was Succession season 3 that truly became the network's biggest reason to subscribe. — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on HBO Max (opens in new tab)

Squid Game

Park Hae-soo as Cho Sang-woo, Lee Jung-jae as Seong Gi-hun and Jung Ho-yeon as Kang Sae-byeok in Squid Game

(Image credit: YOUNGKYU PARK)

Everywhere you looked online, someone was asking what is Squid Game? Or at least that was the case for about half of September and most of October (will any of those Squid Game Halloween costumes ever see the light of day again?). But even though the Squid Game ending was kinda disappointing, few shows started as red-hot as the story of inveterate gambler Gi-Hun, who's failing in every sense of the word. While his daughter is OK with her father's lack of funds, he's depressed by everything — enough so that he accepts an invitation to the deadliest set of games this side of the Mockingjay. In the Squid Game competitions, we and Gi-Hun meet the rest of the players so indebted that they're also willing to risk their lives. Living in a giant bedroom reminiscent of an Amazon warehouse, the Squid Game contestants each get a three-digit number and play to the death to survive and advance. Each "playground" is as beautifully designed as it is lethal. So even while I didn't love the ending, I'll remember how I white-knuckled my way through the dalgona challenge that created a viral Tik Tok game. — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on Netflix (opens in new tab)

Only Murders in the Building

How to watch Only Murders in the Building online with Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short

(Image credit: Hulu)

Any time Steve Martin and Martin Short team up, it’s worth watching. This sleeper Hulu hit pairs the two as residents of a tony Upper West Side condo who, along with Selena Gomez (who can keep up with the duo), start a podcast investigating a murder in their building. In addition to being a clever murder mystery with plenty of red herrings, it’s hilarious and is a real send-up of all the true-crime podcasts, and captures UWS living as well as any Seinfeld episode. Martin and Short’s performances are complemented by a host of other comedic geniuses including Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan and even Sting. Like all good mysteries, this first 10-episode season ends on a cliffhanger — and I can’t wait for Only Murders in the Building season 2. — Mike Prospero

Watch it on Hulu (opens in new tab)

The White Lotus

The cast of The White Lotus

(Image credit: HBO)

Throughout the current pandemic, many (if not all) of us have likely daydreamed about the lavish resort vacation that awaited the characters in HBO's The White Lotus. The twist, of course, was that the families, couples and singletons populating the White Lotus in Hawaii are mostly terrible people. And that's exactly what fans of creator, writer and director Mike White (Enlightened) expected. Dysfunctional parents played by Connie Britton and Steve Zahn struggle with their ne'er-do-well kids, including a daughter who dislikes her brother so much that she exiles him to the beach. And then there's the newlywed couple played by Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario, who seem headed for divorce from the second we meet them. But don't forget about Jennifer Coolidge's character, Tanya McQuoid, who is somehow always there to make a scene and make it all about herself. At the end of the day, you'll feel really bad for anyone who's ever had to work at a hotel. That possibly includes the chaotic Armond (Murray Bartlett), who undercuts himself at every chance he gets. — Henry T. Casey

Watch it on HBO Max (opens in new tab)

Mare of Easttown

Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown

(Image credit: HBO)

This year, the binge has fallen a bit out of favor and appreciation has rebuilt for the slow burn of weekly viewing. Mare of Easttown contributed to that trend, as fans obsessed over twists and new suspects in the murder of a teen girl. More than that, it was fascinating to peel back the layers of the titular character, the tough but brittle Detective Mare Sheehan. Kate Winslet is always a meticulous performer, but damn — she really nailed the Delco accent and vibe. She was surrounded by top-notch castmates, including Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson (all three actors won Emmys for their roles). The crime drama may not have broken any new ground, but it was just so well-done and expertly executed that it would’ve been a shame had it disappeared into the cacophony of binge releases. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on HBO Max (opens in new tab)

Hacks

Jean Smart in Hacks

(Image credit: HBO Max)

The Jean Smartaissance kicked into gear in 2021 and I was living for it. Her supporting turn in Mare of Easttown was a highlight of that show (I could watch her play Fruit Ninja all day), but Smart truly displayed all her depths as the co-lead of Hacks. Deborah Vance is a stand-up comedy legend and a trailblazer for other women in the field. She headlines a successful Vegas show, but is facing a crisis of relevance. Her agent sets her up with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a millennial comedy writer who is down on her luck. Generational clashes ensue. Watching Smart deliver snarky set-downs alone is worth the price of admission (or in this case, an HBO Max subscription), but the best part is seeing the two women develop a crackling rapport. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on HBO Max (opens in new tab)

Maid 

This limited series might be one of the best arguments in favor of the social safety net. When young mom Alex (Margaret Qualley) flees an abusive relationship, with her toddler daughter in tow, she finds herself homeless and jobless. She has no money and her only support is her erratic bipolar mother (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s real-life mom). Alex’s struggles with poverty, housing and childcare can be brutal to watch at times. You’ll shake your first and decry “the system” that leaves so many vulnerable people, particularly women, flailing on their own. Yet, Maid is also absorbing and riveting. Much of that is due to Qualley, who makes you root for Alex through all her ups and downs. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Netflix (opens in new tab)

For All Mankind

A still from For All Mankind

(Image credit: Apple)

Here’s another case for a slow burn that turns into a rocket launch thanks to smart storytelling. For All Mankind is powered by the big “what if” of its premise: What if the Russians had beaten the Americans to the moon? The first season established this alternate history, but season 2 takes that foundation, builds on it and culminates in a masterpiece of a finale. There are some storylines that seem slow and character development that feels unnecessary … until it all comes together in the thrilling conclusion. Every piece suddenly clicks into place, as the Russians and Americans engage in a space version of the Cuban missile crisis. And per usual, the last moments of the finale jump ahead in time, leaving us in breathless anticipation of For All Mankind season 3. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab)

The Underground Railroad

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins puts his signature, elegant touch on the adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The result is a stunning piece of art, filled with images that are equally gorgeous and horrifying. You can’t look, but you also can’t not look — which can also be said about the ugly history of this country, both in reality and in the alternative America of the limited series. In Whitehead’s story, the Underground Railroad is not just a concept; it’s an actual working train system, with tracks, cars and stations. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) is an enslaved woman who uses it to escape, but a ruthless slave catcher (Joel Edgerton) is hard on her heels. Her harrowing journey is brutal, but also marked by moments of grace. - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Amazon Prime Video (opens in new tab)

The Beatles: Get Back

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison perform on a roof in The Beatles: Get Back.

(Image credit: Apple Corps. Ltd.)

Honestly, I didn’t think there was much else to say about The Beatles. It seemed like we’d heard and seen it all. Peter Jackson proved me wrong with his three-part, nearly eight-hour documentary miniseries that gives a new perspective to the 1969 making of Let It Be. It reframes the story of the Beatles’ break-up and puts a different spin on the footage shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for his doc. While John, Paul, George and Ringo occasionally clash, it doesn’t feel cataclysmic — it’s just what happens among longtime friends and colleagues. The absolute best part of the doc is the insight into the band’s creative process. I’m still blown away by the bit where Paul was noodling around on his guitar with a couple chords, which transformed into the core of the song “Get Back.” - Kelly Woo

Watch it on Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab)

Ted Lasso

Brendan Hunt, Jason Sudeikis and Brett Goldstein in Ted Lasso

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

The first season of Ted Lasso felt like lightning in a bottle. The right show at the right time. So naturally, there was some skepticism that the Apple TV Plus original show could capture the same magic in its second season. Those fears proved to be unfounded. 

Far from suffering from a sophomore slump, Ted Lasso season 2 flourished in its second outing. The overused “idiot abroad” trope that propped up much of the first season was (mostly) shelved, allowing the strong supporting cast time to shine as the show went surprisingly dark covering both Ted’s mental state and assistant coach Nathan Shelley’s spiral toward the dark side. Ted Lasso season 2 managed to keep the plucky underdog spirit of its first collection of episodes alive while also simultaneously evolving the series beyond its initial fish out of water premise. You better BELIEVE that’s worth celebrating. - Rory Mellon

Watch it on Apple TV Plus (opens in new tab)

Honorable mentions

  • Bo Burnham: Inside
  • Dickinson season 3
  • Insecure season 5
  • Midnight Mass
  • Mythic Quest season 2 
  • Sex Lives of College Girls
  • Station Eleven
  • WandaVision
  • What We Do in the Shadows season 3
Rory Mellon
Rory Mellon

Rory is a Deals Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on deals, gaming and streaming. When he’s not scouring retailers for PS5 restock or writing hot takes on the latest gaming hardware and streaming shows, he can be found attending music festivals and being thoroughly disappointed by his terrible football team.