The best original streaming movies of 2021 on Netflix, Amazon, and beyond

·6 min read
2021 was a stellar year for streaming originals (Amazon Prime Video/Netflix)
2021 was a stellar year for streaming originals (Amazon Prime Video/Netflix)

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Even as long-delayed cinema releases have finally emerged this past year, there’s still been a wealth of film available on streaming services, boasting the talents of more prolific directors than ever before. 

So, here are some of the best streaming originals of the past year.

Bad Trip - Netflix

Eric André as Chris Carey and Lil Rel Howery as Bud Malone in Bad Trip (Netflix)
Eric André as Chris Carey and Lil Rel Howery as Bud Malone in Bad Trip (Netflix)

From director Kitao Sakurai (a writer and director on the deranged, esoteric talk show parody The Eric Andre Show) and comedians Eric Andre, Lil Real Howery and Tiffany Haddish comes Bad Trip, a hidden camera prank comedy movie that plays a little bit like an anti-Borat

Where Borat used its absurd stereotypical characters to provoke a truthfully bigoted reaction from unwitting Americans, Bad Trip frequently inspires generosity as Andre and Howery undergo ridiculous (and hilarious) humiliations on a cross-American road trip.

Evangelion 3.0+1.0 - Amazon Prime Video

The final film in the ‘Rebuild’ trilogy — a series of sort-of remakes, sort-of sequels to the smash hit anime Neon Genesis Evangelion — Evangelion: Thrice Upon a Time is an astounding piece of meta-text, revisiting the series’ long and complicated past as a metaphor for itself, what its significance is to its creator and how that has changed. 

It’s as wild as anyone familiar with the series would expect, but also takes a surprising turn early on purely through how it leaves so much room for its characters to simply decompress, director Hideaki Anno leaves them on a remote pastoral settlement to work out their various traumas. It lives up to the promise of being the very last big finale for the series (which has now had three separate endings), while providing truly unexpected surprises that feel poetic and triumphant in equal measure.

First Cow - MUBI

Indie director Kelly Reichardt is well-versed in stories about intimate male friendships, and the history of American rural working classes. First Cow explores the intersection of these two recurring themes, with its heartbreaking and precisely told story of two friends who try to make a living by baking sweets with stolen milk in 19th century Oregon.

The Mitchells vs The Machines - Netflix

THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES - (L-R) Abbi Jacobson as “Katie Mitchell
The Mitchells vs The Machines debuted on Netflix in 2021 (Netflix/Sony Pictures Animation)

The Mitchells vs the Machines is a bright and energetic continuation of both the stylings of Phil Lord and Chris Miller animation Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs as well as their more recent effort as writers and producers, Into the Spider-Verse

A sort of inversion of The Incredibles — here the world must be saved by a nuclear family who are completely unremarkable — its mix of oddball humour with wild 3D animation with the quirks and textures of 2D drawing is impossible to resist.

Petite Maman - MUBI

Celine Sciamma’s latest is perhaps more gentle than even her previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In Petite Maman she sees a young girl somehow go back in time to when her mother was herself a child, and the two strike up a friendship. There’s an air of magic in how she simply walks into the past, Sciamma presenting time travel as a liminal dream space, a soft and deeply subjective boundary. 

It intentionally references the works of Hayao Miyazaki in how it builds itself around a child’s perspective of the world and treats it seriously — there’s more than a few shades of My Neighbour Totoro in here. It’s all gorgeously captured too, with warm autumnal colour and bright familial habitats. One of her finest.

The Power of the Dog - Netflix

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power Of The Dog (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power Of The Dog (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021)

The first feature from Jane Campion in nearly a decade doesn’t settle for ambiguity in its study of masculinity and power dynamics. The Power of the Dog is more post-western than western, bringing all queer subtext to the surface and taking the iconography of cowboy movies and finding sensuousness in them, as well as threat. 

While Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance too often skirts the line of being a broad impression, Campion’s imagery elevates it in a manner that highlights the character’s self-conscious, masculine facade.

Yahoo Entertainment UK named The Power of the Dog the best film of 2021. 

Procession - Netflix

'Procession' follows survivors of abuse. (Netflix)
'Procession' follows survivors of abuse. (Netflix)

The documentary films of Robert Greene have all, in one way or another, studied the use of reenactment itself, self-interrogative of their construction: his film Kate Plays Christine toys with a film-within-a-film, Bisbee ’17 is about the restaging of an event from a small town’s past with the actual people involved as the cast. 

Procession follows six men who were sexually abused as children by Catholic clergy, here creating short films inspired by their trauma, either revisiting events as they happened or making something more expressionist. It’s frequently disturbing but vital viewing, one that interrogates the long-lasting effects of systemic abuse as well as the potential for, and limits of, catharsis through the creation of art.

The Summit of the Gods - Netflix

THE SUMMIT OF THE GODS - (Pictured) HABU. (Julianne Films/Folivari/Mélusine Productions/Fran)
THE SUMMIT OF THE GODS - (Pictured) HABU. (Julianne Films/Folivari/Mélusine Productions/Fran)

This French animated adaptation of the Japanese manga from artist Jiro Taniguchi and Baku Yumehara finds an enthralling balance between expressive power and realistic fidelity to the mountain faces that its brave (perhaps obsessive) alpinists seek to climb. Condensing the series into a tight, tense 90 minutes, The Summit of the Gods is simply awe-inspiring, feeling of colossal scale despite its attention to even the most minute, hand-drawn details.

The Velvet Underground - Apple TV+

Archival split-screen frames from “The Velvet Underground,” now streaming on Apple TV+. (Apple)
Archival split-screen frames from “The Velvet Underground,” now streaming on Apple TV+. (Apple)

Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground reflects the spirit of the band in the film’s kaleidoscopic construction, creating both a detailed portrait of one of the most influential bands of the 20th century, and evoking their pop-art, avant-garde stylings while doing so. 

Haynes’ chaotic visual creativity immediately sets it apart from other about-a-band documentaries even as he tackles standard talking head segments, presenting such obligations as though we were looking into a portrait gallery. It perfectly incorporates a touch of the the kind of avant grade art that came to define The Velvet Underground, clashing various media in a way that represents their same free-spirited and chaotic aesthetic.

The Voyeurs - Prime Video

Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith star in The Voyeurs (Amazon Prime Video)
Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith star in The Voyeurs (Amazon Prime Video)

Cinema is an inherently voyeuristic art form, so The Voyeurs feels like a very welcome and somewhat overdue return for gleefully trashy and perverse erotic thrillers. As the title suggests, director Michael Mohan’s film places us in the point of view of the eponymous peepers Pippa (Sydney Sweeney) and Thomas (Justice Smith), a couple who become obsessed with the sex lives of a couple who live in an apartment across the street from them, with very big windows. 

Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith are extremely well cast, both for their chemistry (the couple banter is genuinely funny and endearing rather than just tolerable until the narrative kicks off) and for their similarly doe-eyed visage. This film plays with almost immediately as the two find themselves drawn to, well, voyeurism, and continues to toy with our expectations from there. It’s all good, unclean fun.

Watch a trailer for The Voyeurs

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