Netflix: 25 films to watch out for in 2021

The streaming giant’s recently unveiled 2021 slate is coming down with romantic comedies, family films and mid-budgeted dramas

Donald Clarke on the big names, Oscar contenders and everything from westerns to romcoms that will hit the small screen this year

Nobody now doubts that Netflix enjoys the status of a major film studio. Indeed, few of its competitors deal so comprehensively in old-school Hollywood genres. The streaming giant’s recently unveiled 2021 slate is coming down with romantic comedies, family films and mid-budgeted dramas. There are even three projects that might reasonably be described as westerns: The Power of the Dog, Concrete Cowboy and The Harder They Fall.

No studio has so focussed on straight-up action flicks since the noisy high era of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and, to a lesser extent, Van Damme (who actually will be seen in Netflix’s The Last Mercenary).

The company will also be making another attempt to score in the awards season of 12 months hence. If Andrew Dominik’s Blonde and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up fail to figure in the 2022 race then there will be gnashing of teeth. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog feels like a favourite.

Those films will most probably not appear until the autumn, but, unconcerned about the closure of cinemas, Netflix will scatter the rest of its seed liberally across the coming year. Their captive audience may be captive for sometime yet.

Army of the Dead

Dave Bautista stars in Army of the Dead. Photograph: Netflix
Dave Bautista stars in Army of the Dead

You may not have enjoyed Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman or his Sucker Punch, but millions worship the ground he blows so cacophonously to pieces. Zack’s latest tinnitus-generator is a “zombie heist thriller” starring the charismatically enormous Dave Bautista. Dare we say it? That sounds like fun.

Beckett

No, sorry to disappoint you. Netflix haven’t thrown a squillion dollars at a Samuel Beckett biopic. John David Washington and Alicia Vikander play a couple who get caught up in a conspiracy during a trip to Greece. Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino is a frequent collaborator with Luca Guadagnino, who produces.

Blonde

“I have seen the rough cut . . . and it is startling, brilliant, very disturbing and perhaps most surprisingly an utterly ‘feminist’ interpretation.” So says Joyce Carol Oates of Andrew Dominik’s take on her non-fiction novel concerning Marilyn Monroe. Ana de Armas stars in one of the year’s most breathlessly anticipated films.

Bruised

Halle Berry’s directorial debut received mixed reviews at its Toronto premiere, but Netflix was sufficiently impressed to reach for the chequebook and acquire the finished film. Ms Berry stars as a mixed martial arts fighter seeking to regain custody of her son while preparing for a challenging contest.

A Castle for Christmas

In recent years, Netflix has become the first port of call for Christmas cheese. This sounds like the Platonic ideal of the genre. The always-welcome Brooke Shields plays a famous author who seeks to buy a Scottish castle for the festive season. But, och aye, the crusty old laird won’t sell. (Watch out also for something called A Boy for Christmas with Toby Jones.)

Concrete Cowboy

Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole in Concrete Cowboy. Photograph: Netflix
Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin in Concrete Cowboy

We were waiting for a film centred on the puzzling urban cowboy subculture. Idris Elba saddles up as a father trying to find common ground with an estranged son in contemporary Philadelphia. “Breathes new life into the western genre,” our friends at The Playlist said after its Toronto debut.

The Dig

The Dig stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Photograph: Netflix
The Dig stars Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star in a drama concerning the discovery of Anglo-Saxon remains in Suffolk just before the second World War. He is a gruff self-taught archaeologist. She is the well-off lady in the big house. Based on a novel by John Preston, the flick promises soothing pleasures.

Don’t Look Up

Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Anchorman, has learned to combine yucks with chin rubs. His latest casts Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as two astronomers failing to convince the world that a comet is about to destroy the Earth. There are (appropriately) more stars in the supporting cast than in the heavens. Chalamet? Blanchett? Meryl Streep? Phew!

Fear Street

A trilogy of films based on the teenage horror novels by RL Stine of the colossally successful Goosebumps sequence. A group of teenagers in the mid-west find that –much in the style of one S King – they are mysteriously connected to a malign force. A cast of unknowns is in on running-and-screaming duties.

The Harder They Fall

Okay, pay attention. We have already read about Idris Elba in Netflix’s pseudo contemporary western Concrete Cowboy. Jeymes Samuel’s debut feature is closer to the real thing. A black cast – Jonathan Majors, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield and Regina King join Elba – take over a traditionally white genre. Jay-Z is among the producers of an intriguing project.

The Last Letter From Your Lover

Last Letter From Your Lover features Felicity Jones as Ellie Haworth, Nabhaan Rizwan as Rory. Photograph: Netflix
Last Letter from Your Lover: Felicity Jones and Nabhaan Rizwan

Jojo Moyes’s bestseller concerning a love story that flits from the 1960s to the early 21st century stars Felicity Jones, Shailene Woodley and Callum Turner. Augustine Frizzell, a much admired young Texan filmmaker, gets to shout “action” on a second feature. Amnesia, ancient love letters, romance on the Riviera. It’s all there.

Malcolm & Marie

John David Washington and Zendaya as Marie in Malcolm&Marie. Photograph: Netflix
John David Washington and Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie

Sam Levinson, director of the underappreciated Assassination Nation, took just six days to write the script concerning a tense evening between a filmmaker and his girlfriend. Zendaya and John David Washington, two of the planet’s buzziest stars, decorate a film that was shot on lovely 35mm monochrome during the pandemical summer.

Munich

Jeremy Irons stars as Neville Chamberlain (makes sense) in a take on Robert Harris’s thriller set around negotiations leading to the British prime minister’s notorious compromise with the Nazis at Munich. George McKay is among those scuffling in the shadows. Martin Wuttke, who played Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, returns to the toothbrush moustache and the scraped-over fringe.

O2

Alexandre Aja, director of excellent full-on horrors such as Switchblade Romance and Crawl, moves to Netflix with an eerily timely (or the reverse, depending on your view) shocker about a woman who wakes up in a recovery unit and can’t remember how she got there. As she runs out of oxygen, she tries to rebuild her memory. Too close to the current knuckle?

Outside the Wire

Damson Idris as Harp, in Outside the Wire. Photograph: Netflix
Damson Idris in Outside the Wire

Mikael Håfström has had an up and down career with films such as Evil and the fine Stephen King adaptation 1408. His slice of the Netflix action pie stars Damson Idris and Anthony Mackie as, respectively, a drone pilot and a cyborg seeking to locate a doomsday device before the villains get to it. One can imagine worse ways of spending an evening.

Penguin Bloom

Penguin Bloom: Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom, Andrew Lincoln as Cameron Bloom, Griffin Murray-Johnston as Noah Bloom, Felix Cameron as Rueben Bloom, and Abe Clifford-Barr as Oli Bloom. Photograph: Netflix
Penguin Bloom: Andrew Lincoln and Naomi Watts

Still recovering from a debilitating accident, an Australian mother regains mental balance by nursing an injured magpie back to health. Sounds corny? Well, we saw this “at Toronto” (actually the couch) and almost wept ourselves into a coma on at least three occasions. Naomi Watts stars in a shameless hankie dampener.

The Hand of God

Hilariously, among the few things we know about Paolo Sorrentino’s latest is that it doesn’t have anything to do with Maradona. Those facts emerged when the late footballer’s lawyers attempted to sue. We do also know that Toni Servillo stars. But you’d expect that from the director of Il Divo (and The Great Beauty, of course).

The Power of the Dog

Want to place an early wager for next year’s Oscars? Well, Jane Campion, director of The Piano, is back with an adaptation of (no, not the Don Winslow book) Thomas Savage’s near-western novel concerning rivalries between two very different men in early 20th century Wyoming. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons top an awards-baity cast.

Red Notice

The Rock, Reynolds and Gadot together at last. The publicity bumf suggests “there’s no telling what will happen” when the FBI’s top profiler (the Rockmeister) comes together with the world’s greatest art thief (Gally) and the world’s greatest conman (the Ryan Man). Really? I’m betting sports cars get driven off bridges and helicopters crash into skyscrapers. They’d better!

The Starling

Theodore Melfi follows up the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures with an intriguing comedy-drama concerning a couple who take very different approaches to processing grief. Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd are tantalisingly cast as man and wife. Kevin Kline helps out as a wise veterinarian. The titular starling causes havoc.

Thunder Force

Do you want to see Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as two women with super-powers battling to save the planet from the evil “Miscreants”? Maybe you feel you’ve already seen that happen. Anyway, those two delightful actors will be doing just those things in a comedy from Ben “Mr Melissa McCarthy” Falcone. Melissa Leo is there to chew some scenery.

tick, tick . . . Boom!

What’s that line from Prick Up Your Ears? “Well, when they’re handing out awards for titles, then you can come.” It seems odd that polymath Lin-Manuel Miranda has not yet directed a film. His brilliantly named debut stars Andrew Garfield as a composer waiting tables while planning the great American musical. Like Miranda’s Hamilton, perhaps? Well, write what you know.

The White Tiger

Adarsh Gourav (Balram), Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Pinky), Rajkummar Rao (Ashok) star in The White Tiger. Photograph: Netflix
Adarsh Gourav, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao in The White Tiger

Ramin Bahrani, director of 99 Homes, adapts Arvind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel concerning the rise of an ordinary villager to great wealth in contemporary India. “Hard not to be seduced by what is essentially a dizzy, woozy, taxi ride to the dark side,” Kevin Maher writes in The Times.

A Winter’s Tale From Shaun the Sheep

A Winter’s Tale from Shaun the Sheep. Photograph: Netflix
A Winter’s Tale from Shaun the Sheep

Why is Christmas so far away? Must we wait aeons for Aardman Animation’s contribution to Netflix’s groaning seasonal sack? The adorable Shawn (that’s a pun in non-rhotic territories) gets in trouble when seeking out bigger stockings for the flock. Aardman also have Robin Robin, another Christmas release, on the Netflix slate. It sounds equally irresistible.

The Woman in the Window

Woman in the Window, Amy Adams as Anna Fox. Photograph: Netflix
The Woman in the Window: Amy Adams

Now this is what we call a troubled release. The adaptation of AJ Finn’s hit thriller – starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman – shot two and half years ago. It was reedited following test screenings. Finn landed in controversy. Covid annihilated a rescheduled 2020 rerelease. Then it passed from 20th Century Studios to its current home at Netflix. Make of that what you will.