The 15 Best Netflix Original Movies of 2021
The 15 Best Netflix Original Movies of 2021: Let us be honest here- Netflix’s 2021 was like any other year. Other than a few overrated, chart-bursting favorites, there was only mediocre content spilled all over. From yakuza actioner Kate to the romantic comedy He’s All That, there was no dearth of cringe-fests either. While it might mean a greater number of web shows on the platform, that just means a new low for feature-length cinema.
However, Netflix also surprised by bankrolling a few festival favorite films. These were brilliant and at times so away from the platform’s aesthetics that they didn’t feel like a part of it. So while the mediocrity did confirm its presence, there were some true gems scattered all over the platform. Here, I’ll make your task easier. This list acknowledges the best of Netflix in the feature-length format this year. From out-and-out thrillers to slice-of-life comedies and from horrors to psychosexual tragedies, the list has it all. Do tell us about your favorite Netflix Original Movies of 2021!
Geeli Puchchi – Ajeeb Daastans
Mediocre anthologies are something that Netflix India has now championed. They seem to manufacture a set-up in which only one of the few short films works well. However, such is the deep-seated mediocrity that everything about the individual product ultimately sinks. However, sometimes art is so audacious that it becomes a sociological asset. And that’s exactly what Neeraj Ghaywan achieves with his standout entry of Ajeeb Daastans.
Geeli Puchchi starts out as if making a loud comment on the working class. It then becomes an almost romantic drama injected by a warm relationship between two women in their workplace. What it gradually dismantles though is way more urgent. It’s essentially a character study of the protagonist Bharti, a woman on the verge of intersectionality. Her merit doesn’t matter because ultimately, she’s a dark-skinned Dalit woman. Also, it’s explicitly suggested that she might be homosexual.
However, Geeli Puchchi delivers way more than ample bravery. It orchestrates a twisted story about marginalization. It is immediate in showing the perils of a caste-affirming society. The short is helped by Konkona SenSharma’s beautiful performance as Bharti. It’s so extraordinary that it might have been her career-best. The only thing which keeps us from including it in our list is the fact that it’s only a short film.
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An invasive thriller about a woman stuck in a cryogenic chamber, the discomfort gets very real in Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen. While that doesn’t take away from the fact that it has glaring problems, it hits a sweet spot between silly and substantial. This is because, while maintaining a constantly real sense of anxiety, it isn’t disregarding the campy pleasures. In fact, the sense of dread finds its place from the first frame to the last, which means it does its job competently.
However, Aja stumbles in execution when it comes to the film’s final act. Thankfully, the film is saved by the fantastic performance which Mélanie Laurent has delivered here. Additionally, the film has enough personality for you to care about its leading character Liz and the nearly traumatic experience she’s going through. It’s the plot and the situation alone that becomes a great stand-in for the pandemic we’re going through.
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14. The Mitchells vs. The Machine
It’s clear – we’re not getting enough of inventive animated cinema. All that is being churned out nowadays is a surge of Disney commercial tropes being rehashed. Technology is so preferred by these industry-driven outputs that cinema is almost neglected. Michael Rianda’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a wonderful change of pace. It might be less ornate than its biggest counterparts, but that also makes it more eye-catching and original than them. More importantly, it tries to be a lot more complex and exciting than pondering over its own limitations.
While critiquing an increasingly tech-savvy world, it also has interesting points to make about entering into a film school. Through its protagonist Katie, it tells us very real and lived-in things about the chaotic and often funny nature of a dysfunctional family. It uses cinema not as a mere medium but as a device for liberation. Additionally, it has a very layered suggestion of queer representation in more accessible cinema! Change might be gradual, but it’s coming certainly. And while it might take a little more explicit and perfect entry than this, it’s a delightfully acceptable and warm entrant.
13. Don’t Look Up
In Don’t Look Up, Adam MacKay delivers one of the funniest films of the year. It is not like one of those cheap satires which try to deliver fun and relevance hand-in-hand. You can blame the film for everything, even pretentiousness, but you can’t deny that the film has a compelling understanding of the world we’re living in. Both the world and the people inhabiting it are running out of time. And this is used as an allegory to justify its rather straightforward depiction of sheer impotence of the flag-bearers from around the globe.
While I understand the critique of the film, I truly enjoyed it holding my reservations. At least, it doesn’t plainly hire its star-studded ensemble so the screen lights up and they’re paid a huge chunk of money. It puts them as very real stakeholders in an impending climate crisis. The satirical filmmaking does fall off the cliff occasionally because of its rather forgettable humor and all too self-aware satire that gets mediocre at times. Also, I’m not entirely sure whether I really liked the bonus scene in the film. However, this is the kind of one-time viewing experience that is essential to be had, if only to be disappointed/impressed by all the verbal commentary.
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12. Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa – Ray
Ray was another mediocre Netflix India anthology. While it was supposed to be a centenary cinema event as a tribute to Satyajit Ray, it got lost in pretentiousness because of its awful first two films. In this superficiality, Abhishek Chaubey’s slight wink felt like an entirely original sigh of relief. Based on Ray’s short story Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, the film weaponizes Hindi-belt storytelling to present a very honest tribute. As a period film, it’s an ode to the gone-by Awadhi etiquette of the Islamic elite of Uttar Pradesh. The kind that read proses and enjoyed bouts of wrestling. On another level, the chamber drama of the film is a wonderful homage to Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Ray’s only Hindi feature film.
The film becomes an immersive experience because it delivers its wealth of aesthetics with sharp twists. Also, it works because of the excellent camaraderie between Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao. Both are electric in their own unique ways and deliver their sense of humour by their sheer physicality. It’s very much a treat to witness such fine actors giving their everything to their roles!
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11. Fear Street: 1666
The Fear Street trilogy was one of the most talked-about films of the year. Leigh Janiak’s horror pieces were low-concept, sleazy, and mostly mediocre, but they almost seemed to work. This was because their hokey nature seemed to fit right in because of their summer holiday vibe, perfect for the time of their release. Having said that, it might be possible that the ordinary sensationalized nature of the previous two films made the third installment good in comparison. But it wasn’t so. In fact, the third part is where we can actually see Janiak donning the director’s hat. Here’s a director who is entirely sure about her world-building and impressively independent of restraint.
After swinging from the overdramatic nineties to the gory seventies, Leigh goes back to the medieval era. Because of the non-existence of cinema as a medium at the time, it was fairly possible to create something more original. Fortunately, it’s this opportunity that has been seized by the writing. Through the folktale-style cult horror, the film centers around a witch. What it also does is justify her love and make it a fierce feminist parable. It succeeds in its attempt to get effectively complex and dark. And it comes up with a very peppy way to deliver a mature closure!
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10. Tick, Tick… Boom!
Lin Manuel-Miranda is the most insanely successful Broadway playwright right now. The Latino star’s musical stories stand out because they are incredibly human. So, it might sound strange when I say that his cinematic directorial debut isn’t an original work by him. Adapted from an autobiographical musical play by Jonathan Larson, the film finds its first-time director in a deliberately playful form. Even so, the focus on his craft is surprising. Miranda is able to capture the life and times of a young legend. More importantly, his film is one long and affecting song about the dilemma of getting thirty and doing nothing ‘of substance’.
Since this is already such a personal theme in a young world, it stings even more for artists and writers. Props to the writing, yes, but the film is elevated by Andrew Garfield’s charismatic turn. As Larson, his performance has a distinctive tune to it which makes it highly enjoyable. Also, it has a warmth and soul to it which I found incredibly touching. If nothing, watch tick, tick… Boom! for Garfield’s sheer nuance.
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9. The Harder They Fall
Like everyone who’s watched it, I entered The Harder They Fall expecting a fantastic ensemble leaving its brilliant flavor on my tongue. However, by the time the credits rolled, it was Jeymes Samuel’s skill as a director that fascinated me more. The debut director takes a heavy plot apt for an overdrawn black western and treats it with the unapologetic flair and conviction of this year’s The Suicide Squad. Opening with a text that confirms the existence of these black bandits, the film goes for no-holds-barred entertainment thereafter.
Tapering its genre boundaries for some truly electrifying campy pleasures, The Harder They Fall doesn’t really fly initially. It follows a very routine path to carve out the leading players in the conflict between Nat Love and Rufus Buck. However, it intelligently shifts gears in the second half and becomes a stylistically heavy, melodramatic actioner. It’s self-aware enough to take itself with a pinch of salt. And this is just why it remains so engaging despite its disappointments.
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8. Minnal Murali
This has been a year of surprisingly effective superhero cinema. From the epic-style Zack Snyder cut of Justice League to the deliciously enjoyable Spider-Man: No Way Home, directors gave us valiant good guys to root for. However, none of these had the originality and creativity one can associate with this banger by Basil Joseph. Minnal Murali takes a pretty basic superhero origin story but gives it a wild new spin. The spin itself is attractive enough because of what the film is- a homegrown savior story avoiding the mainstream tropes of American cinema in the action-fantasy genre.
Rooted in a reality, yet challenging in its plot points, Minnal Murali works way beyond its innovations. Its screenplay has been trusted upon by debut writers, but it pays off successfully because of ably playing to the gallery. Even better, it has an actually multi-layered anti-hero in the form of Shibu. This is an aching man who has already watched his world burn, and his vengeance comes straight from the heart. Guru Somasundaram is extraordinary in pulling off the strings of this role, often surpassing Tovino Thomas as the protagonist Jaison.
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7. A Cop Movie
Films that embody their own commentary fall off the cliff sooner or later. But the commentary is embroiled here by Alonso Ruizpalacios, who with Güeros and Museo, has established his name among the finest twenty-first-century filmmakers of Spanish language cinema. While I haven’t seen his two other well-received films, A Cop Movie is a rich, impressive visual and aural experience that invests us and delivers very serious underpinnings about the free-flowing nature of its definite auteur.
This is a film that stays true to its genre. It really is a documentary. However, much like the works of Chilean contemporary Pablo Larraín, Ruizpalacios can’t stay faithful to a single territory without conning the wits out of it. And this deception works magically for this film. It starts out with a very literally ‘blood-soaked’ sequence. But by the end, the rest of the documentation gets extremely delightful. It’s quite mindful of the challenges that police officers face, but it maintains a consistently charming and surprisingly idiosyncratic tone throughout. However, all that you saw, and all that you grasped, gets thrown into a well, and from the same cloth is cut an entirely new tone and an entirely new story. Mónica Del Carmen and Raúl Briones don, not just the performances, but also a degree of productiveness and observance in this journey.
6. The Hand of God
With The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino explores storytelling on a more personal level than a cerebral one. A distinctive do-away from the usual flavor of his other films such as Youth or The Great Beauty, this film places Fabietto, his alter ego, in his place and stylistically brings together a proper three-act autobiography. His is a story where a sexual encounter with a much-older baroness, the accidental death of his parents, a psychologically revealing encounter with a directing master, and love for Diego Maradona act as ceilings.
But his provocative visual style breaks the glass ceiling that divides a fun, bubble-blowing first half and an intelligently contemplative second. He’s majorly successful in capturing his own agony with masterful, indulgent flourishes. To top it off, the film benefits a lot from the overwhelming and delightful leading performance by Filippo Scotti, who I wish breaks out as the next big thing. It’s a rare thing to witness a filmmaker who’s so gleefully self-aware that he practically knows himself and what to do with his life. I wish every filmmaker gets to make one such personal film in their life. And put them on Netflix, of course.
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5. The Disciple
Chaitanya Tamhane established himself as a fiercely compelling voice with Court – an extraordinary judicial drama. However, he shines the brightest with The Disciple. In this masterful sophomore effort, Tamhane truly taps into loneliness and mediocrity. It all feels organic and not for the sake of it because the aura around everything is deeply moving and brimming with internal (and external) outgrowths. At its heart a focused character study of a classical musician, it studies its own musical nature with powerful deliberation.
When I saw the film for the first time, I was in awe of Tamhane’s way of putting small things across. I’ve only grown to appreciate his craft ever since. There are moments that get thrown back at you again and again. Aditya Modak, himself a classical musician, delivers a muted and poignant performance that works way beyond his occupational skill. It’s hard to play yourself wearing and tearing down to someone basic, and that’s exactly what he achieves here. The Disciple is a moving meditation, but it might also be a horror.
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Ivan Ayr is one of the finest storytellers of Hindi cinema today. With only two feature films, he has established the fact that his poetic, quiet approach can be at odds with his subtle, stark stories. His sophomore film Milestone carries an entire odyssey of pain in its singular moments. Essentially a character study for its trucker protagonist Ghalib, Ayr returns to the cool of the North Indian world to paint a mundane, meditative working-class world. Ghalib is a man who carries piercing grief over his aching middle-aged shoulders. And of course, a sense of discomfort and insecurity over the newly employed Paash, his supposed successor.
Shot in vivacious realist fashion by Angello Faccini, Milestone is a nuanced film that is unashamed of wearing its clouded identity. It largely benefits from Suvinder Vicky’s excellence as Ghalib. He nails the sentiment and misery of Ghalib. His sheer banality is definitive proof of the film’s success and an exemplary showcase of the film’s clear political stance.
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A definitive breakout from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Passing is a minuscule masterpiece. Not only does it establish Rebecca Hall as a strong directorial voice, but it also brings to light a very relevant question about identity. Benefiting from the impressive performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, the film takes an issue of the past and fits its immersive intellect right into it. In fact, the black-and-white aesthetics have been used here to serve as a brilliant blurring of lines between statures and the racial nature of its characters. It also makes the film a lot more sophisticated and complex.
Adapted from a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing is a fantastic revelation. It’s an enthralling and masterful directorial debut that has the ability to break a heart. Through a tightly knit narrative, it goes beyond discussions on racism and queer acceptance. It morphs into something extremely core-rattling, empathetic, and personal.
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2. The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is a sturdy western, which defies your heavy expectations from a complex psychosexual experience by simplifying it with an economical approach. It doesn’t succumb to grand aesthetics or a visibly gritty visual approach. It creates a profoundly meaningful and even sensitive character study. Beneath all the flourishes though, it carves out a family story that’s too real and human to be dismissed. Sometimes its humanity becomes its biggest strength, all thanks to the extraordinary writing. More importantly, Campion has opted for a consistent tone here. There are no two movies in one, and it doesn’t become anything other than what it is. But that’s exactly what electrifies this epic tale. Because it certainly changes gears.
Of course, the boat is rowed through by the excellent cast. Kodi Smit-McPhee delivers a sensitive and unsparing performance as Peter, his touch of youth staying remarkable. Kirsten Dust initially appears to be intentionally cast for her fragile demureness, but then she reveals a transgressive color like none other. It only helps that her arc is mostly gelled with that of (an excellent) Jesse Plemons because it defies the real-life couple cuteness and transforms into something more real and mature.
But the one, true achievement of the film’s acting spectrum has to be sir Benedict Cumberbatch. One doesn’t need to look through Doctor Strange or his more underrated films to find him at his best. He has delivered the most glorious performance of his career, one that is masterful enough to compete at times with the mastery of his director. In the end, though, it’s Jane who has grabbed the sword, and now she must be frequent enough. We want more of that virulent, ferociously committed presence.
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1. The Lost Daughter
Adapted from a namesake novel by Elena Ferrante, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s nuanced directorial debut The Lost Daughter might just be the best film of the year. More importantly, it’s a subtle statement that she has made in The Lost Daughter. This is what we can call a statement within a statement. The core of this story shifts from discomfort to utter pain. But Maggie seems to be marrying the content with something profoundly personal. She churns out an undeniable truth and feeling out of it. But in that pursuit, she never over-simplifies things.
This is a layered and complex character study that is revealing on submission. It puts the female gaze on a pedestal and gives it a stinging embrace. Deeply brusque secrets about motherhood are peeled off like onions. Open display of affection becomes some kind of a burden. And in the end, a small set of events hits you like a cataclysm.
But it’d be a lie to deny the fact that Olivia Colman singularly brings together the film. In what might just be the finest performance of the year, she truly proves herself. Leda is someone who seems like an offspring of a carefully calibrated mind-frame. She’s layered, complex, and even chilling. However, beneath all those intertwined threads, there’s a simple human being who is beautifully relatable. In Leda lies the key to success – only if she’s simplified, can she work on screen. However, Olivia doesn’t need such trappings. She effortlessly combines the sophistication and simplistic charm of Leda. And the results are masterful.