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The 10 best Netflix original films of 2021 so far

The Mitchell family in The Mitchells vs the Machines.
(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix’s recent slate of original films doesn’t appear to have attracted as much attention compared to previous years. Star-studded vehicles, big-budget blockbusters and awards bait have all been in relatively short supply, with the pandemic perhaps forcing the streaming giant to go a little more low-key. 

And those that did arrive with a semblance of hype (The Woman in the Window, Thunder Force) were largely panned or forgotten about within a week of premiering. Yet the streaming giant has still served up plenty of feature-length fare in 2021 that’s worthy of adding to your queue. From period dramas to prank comedies, here’s a look at 10 of the best.   

The White Tiger 

More than a decade after selling its film rights, Aravind Adiga finally got the chance to see his Man Booker Prize-winning novel adapted for the screen. Luckily, the wait proved to be worth it. Described as the darkly comic antidote to Danny Boyle’s crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire, The White Tiger boasts a magnetic breakout performance from Adarsh Gourav as a taxi driver determined to climb Indian’s societal ladder at any cost. 

The zippy Oscar-nominated screenplay, energetic hip-hop-meets-bhangra soundtrack, and immersive rags-to-riches cinematography also help to elevate the already compelling source material.   

Oxygen

Building on return-to-form Crawl, one-time enfant terrible Alexandra Aja delivered one of this year’s most effective horrors with the French-language Oxygen. Essentially a one-woman show, Mélanie Laurent – a late replacement for Noomi Rapace – impressively commands attention for 101 minutes as an amnesiac who awakes in a cryogenic chamber with a limited H2O supply. You’ll be holding your breath, too, as she attempts to restore her memory before it’s too late. Add this to the likes of Buried and 127 Hours on the list of survival tales seemingly designed to scar claustrophobes for life. 

Stowaway 

Interestingly, the best Netflix sci-fi of 2021 also centers on a shortage of oxygen. In this case, a three-man crew heading for Mars are forced to make some life-or-death choices when a hidden passenger and faulty air filter threaten to scupper their two-year expedition. Thankfully avoiding the Red Planet curse that has befallen films such as Mission to Mars and John Carter, Stowaway grounds its perilous interplanetary premise in hard science and philosophical questions to which there are no easy answers to. The result is more of an absorbing character study than a flashy space epic, and one buoyed by a terrific lead performance from perhaps Hollywood’s most underrated actress, Toni Collette.     

Concrete Cowboy

Caleb McLaughlin has often been unfairly sidelined as Lucas in the phenomenon that is Stranger Things. But Concrete Cowboy suggests that Millie Bobby Brown isn’t the only Hawkins teen with a promising film career ahead. McLaughlin more than holds his own against Idris Elba as a troublemaking youngster sent to live with his father in a community of African-American cowboys. First-time director Ricky Staub also puts his name on the map, shining the light on an unfamiliar corner of modern-day Philadelphia with warmth and a visual panache. If you thought that westerns were all gunslinging and saloon bars, think again.   

Tragic Jungle 

One of this year’s most curious Netflix offerings centers on a 1920s Belizean woman so desperate to flee her arranged marriage she seeks refuge in the unforgiving landscape of the Mayan jungle. And viewers are just as likely to be disoriented by the mysterious narration, discordant score and dream-like quasi-documentary style that follows, not to mention the ambiguity of Indira Rubie Andrewin’s runaway bride and her connection to a mythical femme fatale. More of an immersive mood piece than a straight-forward fable, Tragic Jungle may be a little too ponderous for some. But fans of Werner Herzog’s historical epics will undoubtedly appreciate its entrancing appeal.   

 The Mitchells vs the Machines 

Forget Roma, Mank, The Irishman or any of the other countless obvious bids Netflix has made for awards glory. When it comes to Rotten Tomatoes ratings, they’re all currently lagging behind a kids cartoon about a family saving the planet from a robot revolution. That’s perhaps of little surprise when you learn that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller serve as producers. The Mitchells vs the Machines exhibits the same thrilling everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style as their directorial hits (The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). But with its commentary on social media and ground-breaking LGBTQ+ representation, it also brings something new to the quip-filled animation table.  

Army of the Dead 

Logic-defying action sequences, thinly sketched parental issues, an over-reliance on slow motion: you know by now what you’re getting when you see Zack Snyder’s name on the opening credits. Part-heist thriller, part-zombie horror, part-father/daughter drama, the Dave Bautista-starring Army of the Dead sticks pretty rigidly to his well-worn formula. But unlike most of Snyder’s recent bloated oeuvre, its story of an opportunistic casino robbery in a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas remembers to be, well, fun. 

Bad Trip 

Anyone who’s witnessed the pure nihilistic chaos of The Eric André Show will know that Bad Trip was never going to be your average prank movie. The anti-comedian reaches new heights, or plunges to new depths, of absurdity over the course of 84 bewildering minutes, with an impressively higher rate of strikes than misses, too. But all the gross-out gags and shock tactics are counterbalanced with an underlying sweetness and sincerity that sets it apart from the Jackass franchise. It’s rare for such a comedy to both make you constantly laugh out loud and restore a little bit of your faith in humanity. 

The Dig 

Nominated for five BAFTAs, The Dig finds Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The End of the Affair) returning to familiar territory – a lush wartime drama that firmly maintains the British stiff upper lip. Fiennes plays a pipe-smoking archaeologist who discovers an Anglo-Saxon ship in the Suffolk countryside. This historic unearthing, based on the real-life Sutton Hoo excavation of 1938 – sparks both the interest of an unscrupulous academic and a touching friendship with his widowed landowner boss (Carey Mulligan). It’s the latter that proves to be the real treasure in a beautifully shot and acted rumination on the past that recalls vintage Merchant Ivory.  

Red Dot 

A brooding Nordic noir would have been the obvious route for Netflix’s first original Swedish film. Instead, Red Dot is a disturbing survival horror that could serve as a wintry counterpart to Midsommar. Anastasios Soulis and Nanna Blondell play an engaged couple who attempt to fix their turbulent relationship with a romantic getaway under the Northern Lights. But following a dispute with two local hunter brothers, the pair suddenly find themselves playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. Skilfully cranking up the tension throughout, director Alain Darborg certainly doesn’t accommodate for the faint-hearted in a gripping tale full of shocking twists and turns.