This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we take off with the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2021.
Our second year of living in a world stranger than science fiction, 2021 was another complicated time for considering fantastical stories. Last year, a lot of speculative fiction became coincidentally relevant. We had some of that this year as well due to delayed releases, but we also started getting movies responding to or at least made with an awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apocalyptic visions are too real now. And the escapist fare is too familiar, feeding nostalgia inadvertently for a time when things were “normal.”
This year, blockbusters came back in full force, but most of it blended together for me. Especially the superhero movies. This is another year where no Marvel movies show up on the list, despite there being plenty of them again (now, if this list included TV series, it’d be another story). There are only two sequels this time, and neither of them is yearning for the past (I do have a fondness for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, though). You won’t find any re-cuts of previously released movies either (even if they’re better).
I’m also excluding animated features again. As usual, it’d be too filled up with Disney’s fantasies (Raya, Luca, Encanto, etc.), all of which you can find on another list. But I do want it to be acknowledged that one of the best sci-fi movies of 2021 (maybe the best) is The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I also don’t seem to have overlapped with our horror list this time (not surprisingly, since Rob and I have very different tastes), though there are some movies here that are classifiable in that genre. And in action, too.
The following list also spreads through comedy, documentary, and drama while representing the smallest of indies and the biggest of Hollywood spectacles. Here are my picks for the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2021.
15. Don’t Look Up
Adam McKay’s latest comedy takes on the disaster epic, a genre of speculative fiction that has been thrilling cinema audiences for over a century. This one is a little more over-the-top and also a little more honest than the usual armageddon fodder (it’s even a wide turn from last year’s rather realistic and surprisingly intimate entry Greenland). This one is supposed to make you think more about the situation, especially as it parallels real-world disasters like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a time when superhero franchises are making us think about the concept of the multiverse, this movie might as well be seen as a true story from an alternate timeline. Indeed, it is almost too real in its possibility to consider as sci-fi (hey, if The War Game can win the Best Documentary Oscar, why not this?). But Don’t Look Up‘s first end-credits scene cements it in the genre. That’s one hilarious punchline, far enough removed from the rest of the too-close-to-home satire to leave us laughing through our own extinction.
14. A Glitch in the Matrix
Speaking of blurring reality with fiction, this documentary from Rodney Ascher (Room 237) has far more interesting things to say about The Matrix (not to mention Free Guy) and its ideas than that movie’s overly meta sequel released this year. It’s not just about the Wachowskis’ iconic cyberpunk actioner, but like The Matrix Resurrections, it does respond to fans’ takeaways from the 1999 original in how it has inspired belief in simulation theory (a.k.a. artificial, constructed reality). Some of it to deadly extremes.
The sci-fi element of A Glitch in the Matrix is in the way that its avatar talking heads are so convinced (and maybe, to some, convincing) that we are all living in the matrix. (But if we are, then this isn’t sci-fi, it’s sci-reality.) Also, it is likely prophetic about the future we’re heading toward (if a comet doesn’t wipe us out first), with the continued rise of socially distant but virtually connected living (fear the Metaverse) and the subsequent endangerment of empathy. Sadly, it’s not so much that we are in a sim as we wish to be.
13. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Time-loop movies keep on being made, and as this one proves, they keep on being enjoyable watches (I didn’t see Boss Level, but I hear that’s pretty good, too). They also can be pretty problematic when a rom-com element is involved, the more you think about them. The sentiment of The Map of Tiny Perfect Things regarding all the wonderful things we overlook in life, and the movie’s likable leads (Kathryn Newton and Kyle Allen) make up for any issues it has with the mechanics of the love story. I’d love a sequel that goes deeper into the idea of being a supporting character in another person’s story, but mostly just to follow these two actors more.
12. Swan Song
Four years ago, I included Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime on my list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2017. Even while celebrating its excellence, I recognized at the time that the close-quarters character study feels like a Black Mirror episode extended to feature-length. I’m actually surprised at how few sci-fi movies since then have given me the same thought. Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song (no, not that one) does have a similar feel, though, and it’s actually pretty similar to Marjorie Prime specifically.
That movie presents the idea of a holographic version of a deceased loved one. I described it as “part living portrait, part Amazon Alexa” in the 2017 list and makes you think about how we connect with other people, especially loved ones. Swan Song posits the idea of secretly cloning yourself so your family can go about living as usual after you’ve succumbed to a terminal illness. The ideas in this movie aren’t just thrown out there for the audience to consider. We get to watch Mahershala Ali (and Mahershala Ali) work out the ethics and all the notions of identity and self and memory and love on screen. Above all, it’s a great dual performance piece.
11. Nine Days
Imagine Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life but set in the “time” before you’re born rather than after you die. On its surface, the conceit of Edson Oda’s Nine Days is a simple dramatic scenario in which a divine bureaucrat judges souls on their candidacy for life on Earth. The premise isn’t anywhere near as fascinating as what’s built around it, however. This includes the setting and the imaginative procedure of the story and particularly the performances, especially those of Winston Duke as the evaluating authority figure, Benedict Wong as his friendly superior, and Zazie Beetz as one of the prospective human beings.
Related Topics: 2021 Rewind