From the TV shows we binged during social distancing to the movies we could actually go see in theaters, Netflix’s 2021 lineup has been full of titles worth talking about.
At the start of the year, we cued up returning favorites like Cobra Kai and Disenchantment. Then, by this summer, we were reveling in the weirdness of action flick Army of the Dead and the insight of unconventional comedy special Bo Burnham: Inside. So what rose to the top of our queues?
Listed in no particular order, here are the 15 best Netflix original movies and TV shows of 2021.
Among the more impressive pandemic projects to hit the market, Bo Burnham: Inside is an unconventional comedy special that takes a painfully precise look at the traumatic experience of social distancing during COVID-19. In it, Burnham takes musical aim at everything from aging (“30”) to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (“Bezos I” and “Bezos II”) with his characteristic wit and self-depreciation — having made the project while, of course, stuck at home like the rest of us.
It’s not an easy watch. Mashable’s Alexis Nedd actually described it as an “upsetting (in a good way?) musical recap of shared psychic trauma.” If that’s the kind of viewing experience you can manage, then you definitely should cue it up. But if you need to sit this one out, we get that too. The “I am not well” scene is genuinely hard to watch.
Where to watch: Bo Burnham: Inside is streaming on Netflix.
Revel in the ridiculousness of Bad Trip. Brought to you by three of the dudes behind The Eric Andre Show, this mostly improvised romantic comedy stars Eric Andre as Chris, a hopeless romantic seeking a second chance with his high school crush. Lil Rel Howery co-leads as Bud, Chris’ best, er, bud (ha!) who agrees to a moonshot road trip in hopes of finding his friend’s lost love. Tiffany Haddish steals the show as Bad Trip‘s main antagonist, Bud’s sister Trina who is newly escaped from prison and wildly unpredictable.
It’s hands-down one of the funniest movies of the year, and also one of the most inventive. The movie’s meandering plot features a lineup of outrageous hidden camera pranks that cast innocent bystanders as extras in this rom-com from hell, and their genuine reactions make for an entertaining and surprisingly wholesome watch you’ll remember for a very long time.
Where to watch: Bad Trip is streaming on Netflix.
Sweet Tooth was a surprisingly fantastical addition to the Netflix lineup this year and its big bet on childlike wonder paid off in spades. Even though its setting takes place after a deadly virus has decimated the human population and caused the collapse of civilization (yikes), Sweet Tooth is more of fairy tale told from the perspective of one of the other side effects of the apocalypse — a human-deer hybrid named Gus whose father sheltered him from the worst of the world until shelter became untenable. Gus’s journey through the world he barely knew existed is a beautiful coming-of-age story with a talented supporting cast and a flawless cute-to-concerning ratio. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
Where to watch: Sweet Tooth is streaming on Netflix.
At the center of The Dig is what might look at first glance like an ordinary bit of land, but with attention and patience reveals a rare and remarkable treasure. Likewise, The Dig might seem plain and mild at first, set in the picturesque countryside of 1930s Britain and centering on a nice lady (Carey Mulligan) and the nice man (Ralph Fiennes) she hires to unearth the sixth-century ship buried underneath her property. Gradually, though, it builds to something unexpectedly moving. With World War II drawing ever nearer, The Dig excavates the bittersweet histories and complicated emotions beneath its characters’ stiff upper lips, finally coming up with a profound consideration of how and why to carry on when the entire world seems about to end. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
Where to watch: The Dig is streaming on Netflix.
The best part of Army of the Dead is probably the first 15 minutes, but there’s plenty more to keep you entertained the whole action-packed, two-hour-and-28-minute journey.
Dave Bautista stars as a mercenary among the undead, tasked with carrying out an impossible post-apocalyptic heist. In a vault beneath Las Vegas lies more than 200 million dollars, but can he and his crew get it out without falling prey to the living dead?
Mashable’s Angie Han described the Zack Snyder-directed movie as “a gleefully gory good time” and, in an interview with yours truly, the Zombie Research Society argued the flick was a solid addition to the genre Snyder first took on with Dawn of the Dead. So yeah, pretty good!
Where to watch: Army of the Dead is streaming on Netflix.
First-time feature director Rohena Gera sticks the landing with 2018’s Sir, which only released in cinemas in November 2020 and hit Netflix early in 2021. It’s essential Indian cinema. Tillotama Shome stars as Ratna, a live-in housemaid to upper-middle class Ashwin. Housemaids are common in India, where the film is set, but Ratna and Ashwin develop a slow-simmering and socially unthinkable love.
With Gera’s writing and direction, this unlikely story never feels forced. The love blooms organically, in furtive looks and hefty silence and the trust they develop as Ashwin recovers from a broken engagement and Ratna tells him about her late husband. The result is a film so soft and stirring that it will stay with you long after it ends. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter (*)
Where to watch: Sir is streaming on Netflix.
Take your typical family road trip comedy, toss in a robot apocalypse, and top it all off with a heavy smattering of meme-worthy filters, doodles, and GIFs, and you might end up with something like The Mitchells vs. The Machines: a truly fun-for-the-whole-family feature that hinges on whether an artsy teen (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her luddite dad (voiced by Danny McBride) can set aside their differences long enough to save all of humanity from being launched into space by Siri Pal.
Come for the jokes about our impending AI-led dystopia, stay for the heart-tugging moments of Mitchell family bonding. Seriously, we might never hear T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” without tearing up ever again. — A.H. (*)
Where to watch: The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming on Netflix.
Loosely inspired by the Netflix kids’ show Winx Club, Fate: The Winx Saga was easily the most binge-worthy Hunger Games-meets-Harry Potter knockoff streaming this spring. Ridiculous in its title and premise, this YA drama didn’t seem like it would work as well as it did. But a stellar cast and some heartfelt scripting make this story of teenage fairy warriors a surprising winner.
Abigail Cowen leads as Bloom, a young woman stunned to learn she has magical abilities. At Alfea College, she hones her skills and makes friends with fairies played by Eliot Salt, Elisha Applebaum, Precious Mustapha, and Hannah van der Westhuysen. They’re an instantly likable group, up against an increasingly menacing foe when unseen dark forces begin to encroach on the school.
Where to watch: Fate: The Winx Saga is streaming on Netflix.
Shadow and Bone is the rare book-to-TV adaptation that took full advantage of the time between publishing and premiere and used it to improve the source materials in multiple directions. Leigh Bardugo’s original novel was a smash hit, but Shadow and Bone the series makes the cast more diverse, adds a subplot starring characters from the companion series Six of Crows, and brings forth some of the book’s messed-up romantic politics in a thoughtful and entertaining way. Casting Ben Barnes as the Darkling, long thought to be the ultimate fancast, is only the very, very good-looking cherry on top of a series that takes the thematic responsibilities of YA fantasy seriously while being a dang entertaining show. — A.N.
Where to watch: Shadow and Bone is streaming on Netflix.
Amy Poehler directs this charming film about budding feminist Vivian (Hadley Robinson) with a script from Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer. Inspired by her mother’s Riot Grrrl past, Vivian decides to expose systemic sexism at her high school through the anonymous zine MOXiE!, and ends up spearheading a cause other students support.
Robinson hits the perfect balance of fired up and unsure that feels so familiar to young women, and she’s surrounded by a strong and thoughtfully diverse ensemble (including viral hit The Linda Lindas). Moxie will make you want to get up and start something, even if the plan is a little half-baked but your heart is in the right place. — P.K.
Where to watch: Moxie is streaming on Netflix.
A laundry list of successful titles proves Netflix knows how to make a good cooking show. But High on the Hog is really more than that. In this stunning four-part docuseries, food journalist Stephen Satterfield follows the journey of African cuisine across West Africa and the United States. It’s a celebration of culture and cultural preservation that not only inspires, but urges viewers to appreciate the complex origins of food and family tradition as part of our global history.
Where to watch: High on the Hog is streaming on Netflix.
Reportedly the first French series to break the U.S. top 10, Lupin stars Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a cunning thief whose brilliant crimes are inspired by famous French literary character Arsène Lupin. The series begins with Assane attempting to steal a historic necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette from The Louvre, and only ramps up its high-stakes heisting from there.
Across 10 extraordinarily binge-worthy episodes, series creators George Kay and François Uzan maintain taut suspense at every turn. When you’re not watching an ingenious scheme unfold, you’re getting an intimate portrait of a charismatic antihero whose magnetism rivals the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood. More episodes are on the way, but we don’t have a release date quite yet.
Where to watch: Lupin is streaming on Netflix.
LeSean Thomas’ miniseries follows the life and legend of its title character, a Black samurai who served daimyō Oda Nobunaga. Years after Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke lives as Yassan, a boatsman who shuttles villagers along the water and speaks little of his past. But a young girl with awesome power undoes Yassan’s quiet life and alias, thrusting him back into a world of warriors, magic and more. The show blends together sci-fi, fantasy, and history as only anime can, with LaKeith Stanfield at the mic bringing Yasuke sublimely to life. — P.K. (*)
Where to watch: Yasuke is streaming on Netflix.
Lara Jean Covey’s famous love letters went out in 2018, and we’ve been obsessing over her romance with Peter Kavinsky ever since. This year, that love story finally came to a close with the release of the last film in the TATBILB series To All the Boys: Always and Forever.
As Mashable’s Proma Khosla pointed out in our official review, not a lot actually happens in this movie, but it’s a charming expansion on the fictional world we’ve come to cherish. Struggling with her suddenly long distance relationship after Peter leaves for college, Lara Jean spends the movie deciding on a future for herself in this bittersweet finale.
Where to watch: To All the Boys: Always and Forever is streaming on Netflix.
Netflix continued the impeccable legacy of The Karate Kid this year with Cobra Kai Season 3.
Picking up where that doozy of a cliffhanger left us back in 2019 was messy business to be sure, with series hero Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) on the outs with his dojo after star fighter Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) was injured in a high school brawl. Thankfully, Cobra Kai gradually founds its way out of those somber beginnings, building to some of the funniest and most entertaining episodes of the show. That we’re already counting down the days until Season 4 should be sales pitch enough.
Where to watch: Cobra Kai is streaming on Netflix.
Asterisks (*) indicate the entry comes from another Mashable streaming list.
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