2021 is almost over – how did that happen, by the way!? – and, just like other years that preceded this one, it’s been another stellar 12 months for the world's bigges streamers.
Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max continued to pump out movies and TV shows that were lapped up by fans and critics alike. And, with Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus increasing their respective outputs – some of which were equally well received as their competitors’ catalogs – there’s never been a better time to be a film and TV aficionado.
And there’s been something for everyone, too. From unexpected global hits like Squid Game to fantasy genre fare in The Wheel of Time, and productions that celebrate representation in CODA to blockbuster movies including Dune, 2021 was full of top-quality content.
Before the next wave of streamer-specific movies and TV shows arrive, TechRadar’s entertainment team felt it was only appropriate to say goodbye to 2021 by selecting our favorite films and TV series of the past year. Below, you'll find our picks for the Best Movie, Best TV Show, and Best Documentary or One-off Special for the five biggest streaming services around.
Thanks for sticking with us in 2021, enjoy the read (feel free to agree or disagree) and we’ll see you in 2022.
Best of 2021: Amazon Prime Video
Best Amazon Prime movie: Encounter
It’s fair to say that 2021 wasn’t a great year for Amazon and original movies. Having invested heavily in serialised content, the studio left Prime Video subscribers with a meagre selection of sci-fi adventures and action flicks that couldn’t match the equivalent movies produced by its streaming rivals.
The best of them, in our opinion, was Michael Pearce’s Encounter, which proved an intriguing and at-times poignant deep dive into the psyche of a paranoid veteran. It follows estranged father Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) on a mission to save his two young sons from an extra-terrestrial infection sweeping the Earth – though there’s a lot more to Encounter’s premise than meets the eye. This one is definitely worth a watch if you like movies that keep you guessing.
Best Amazon Prime show: Invincible
In stark contrast to its sparse film offerings, Amazon’s TV catalog has never been stronger than it was in 2021 – which made choosing one show all the more difficult. We could have gone for the streamer’s big-budget fantasy series in The Wheel of Time, sci-fi miniseries Solos, or young adult drama Panic. But, in the end, we had to pick Invincible, Amazon’s R-rated animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker’s beloved graphic novel series.
Not only does it have one of the best casts of any TV series, but Invincible is also a wonderfully animated series full of heart, humor and gratuitous violence. Episode 1’s shock ending, coupled with that brutal and tearjerking season 1 finale, dominated TV fan discussions for weeks. And, with season 2 on the way, we’re hoping for more of the same. Oh, and plenty of top tier memes, too.
Best Amazon Prime documentary or special: Val
Documentaries that focus on a particular actor or director are a dime a dozen these days – but few are as intimate and absorbing as Val, a 2021 docufilm that focuses on the life and career of Top Gun and Batman Forever star Val Kilmer.
With plenty of footage (which Kilmer shot himself) included, Val gave us a uniquely personal peek behind the curtain of one of the biggest actors of the 1980s and 1990s. From his childhood and his first major acting gig, to showing his homemade movies and his battle with throat cancer, Val is a fascinating deep dive into Kilmer’s life. It’s raw, authentic and pretty moving all round.
Best of 2021: Apple TV Plus
Best Apple TV Plus movie: CODA
One of the year’s best films (which should have earned a lot more attention than it did), CODA – which stands for Child of Deaf Adults – follows high school student Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she navigates the pressures of education, adulthood and living with a completely deaf family.
This Apple exclusive stars Locke and Key’s Jones in the lead role, and deaf performers Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant as her parents and brother, respectively. It paints an authentic, moving picture of everyday life for those living in unique circumstances and, in our view, it’s as good as 2019’s Sound of Metal. Not only that, but it's also the best Apple original movie of 2021 for us. You’ll laugh, cry and maybe even learn something – add it to your watchlist for 2022 (if you haven’t seen it already).
Best Apple TV Plus show: Ted Lasso season 2
In another universe, Foundation or Invasion may have taken first place on our Apple TV Plus show podium. But, just like its first season won our hearts in 2020, Ted Lasso season 2 is our favorite Apple TV series of the year.
And with good reason. It builds on the foundations that the soccer comedy-drama’s first outing but, equally, season 2 isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of its characters. From Ted’s panic attacks and Coach Beard’s disenchantment following one particular defeat, to Sam’s loyalties being torn and Coach Nate’s villainous turn, Ted Lasso has matured into one of the best shows around. Season 3 is on the way, too, so there’ll be more to enjoy sometime in 2022.
Best Apple TV Plus documentary or special: 9/11: Inside the President's War Room
Also available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, 9/11: Inside the President's War Room follows the shocking events of September 11, 2001 from the point of view of the man responsible for the safety of the United States at the time: President George W. Bush.
As well as providing deeper insight into the now-famous pictures of his initial response to the attacks, this documentary offers viewers an extraordinary fly-on-the-wall look at how the President and his advisors reacted to the unthinkable in the hours after the horror unfolded. Whether on Air Force One or inside the bunker itself, this gripping, feature-length film really does make you feel like you were in the room when it happened. Compelling television.
Best of 2021: Disney Plus
Best Disney Plus movie: Raya and the Last Dragon
But, while the easy choice would've been a Marvel movie, we’ve elected for a Disney animated offering that stole our hearts in March. Raya and the Last Dragon is another superb addition to Disney’s already packed roster of top-tier animated flicks, with a classic fantasy-based story that’s full of humour, family friendly action, female empowerment and poignant story beats. Its authentic depiction of Southeast Asian communities and traditions, too, was a huge step forward for a studio that’s been criticised for cultural stereotypes and a lack of diversity on the big and small screens. More of the same moving forward please, Disney.
Best Disney Plus show: WandaVision
After 13 years of building an interconnected cinematic empire, 2021 marked the start of Marvel Studios’ foray into the TV medium – and, honestly, we could’ve plumped for any of Marvel’s Disney Plus shows. At worst, they’re entertaining affairs and, at their best, they’re superb.
While Loki is the most highly-rated of Marvel’s Disney Plus offerings so far, we’ve opted for the series that kickstarted the MCU’s TV journey in WandaVision. Its celebration of multiple generations of sitcoms, unsettling vibe, mysterious plot and exploration of trauma delivered a story unlike anything we’ve previously seen from a Marvel live-action project. Add in the sheer wealth of fan theories that surrounded the series – R.I.P ‘it was Mephisto all along’ – and look past that turgid CGI battle during the series finale, and it’s the best MCU show thus far. Hawkeye pushed it close at the end, mind you.
Best Disney Plus documentary or special: The Beatles: Get Back
It’s fitting that a Peter Jackson production makes it onto our list. After all, it’s been 20 years since Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring landed in theaters (there’s an Amazon Prime prequel series coming in late 2022, too).
The Beatles: Get Back couldn’t be further from Jackson’s 2001 magnum opus – although that’s only from a non-fictional perspective. The three-part docuseries, which covers the making of the legendary quartet’s 1970 album Let It Be, is a captivating and thrilling behind-the-scenes look at their struggles to complete this particular LP. That The Beatles also have to rehearse for a concert and film project only makes things more difficult.
Get Back isn’t just your typical music documentary, however: across six house of footage, we get a deeply intimate, immersive and compelling glimpse into the world of one of the most influential bands ever. We see them bicker, come up with iconic songs on the spot and, lastly, watch their legendary, final public performance come to fruition. If you’re a Beatles fanatic, or even just a music lover in general, this docuseries is not to be missed.
Best of 2021: HBO Max
Best HBO Max movie: Dune
One of the biggest movies of 2021 – in terms of scope, budget and surrounding hysteria – Dune was director Denis Villeneuve’s crack at adapting the supposedly unadaptable. His take on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic stars Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, a gifted young prince forced to travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the survival of his people – and it didn’t disappoint in the scale department.
Dune is huge in every sense. Its cast, world, lore and score are so big that, at times, Villeneuve’s picture suffers under the weight of its expository responsibility. But the movie is also a beautifully crafted love letter to its source material that demands future movies, and we’re excited to see how Villeneuve brings to life the more action-heavy elements of Dune’s story in the now green-lit sequel. We’d always suggest seeing this one in a cinema if you can, but HBO Max will do just fine for those who missed its theatrical release.
Best HBO Max show: Succession season 3
Succession has developed something of a cult following in recent years – and for good reason. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong’s fictionalized take on the Murdoch media empire is dark, dramatic and often hilarious – combining tension and comedy in ways rarely seen on screen – and season 3 continued to prove why it’s one of the best shows around.
Following the fallout of (spoilers!) Kendall’s betrayal and Logan’s gung-ho quest for revenge, this year’s episodes placed the spotlight on each Roy sibling equally, giving actors Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin room to flex their (at times cringe-inducing) muscles. Season 4 is officially on the way, and we can’t wait to see how Succession addresses the jaw-dropping cliff-hanger left by its latest finale.
Best HBO Max documentary or special: Friends: The Reunion
.@HBOMax debuts the official trailer and key art for #FriendsReunion.In celebration of the special, HBO Max will launch activations, inspiring friends to reunite nationwide to watch Friends: The Reunion together: https://t.co/LrjBkbnw0j pic.twitter.com/NLd5vUg1aJMay 19, 2021
Was there a more eagerly anticipated one-off special in 2021 than Friends: The Reunion? HBO Max’s decision to bring the core cast back together for a night of reminiscing, games based on the sitcom's most iconic moments, table reads and guest appearances was clearly the right decision to make – Friends: The Reunion driving huge sign-ups for Warner Bros’ streaming platform.
The special wasn’t as good as we’d hoped for. But, taking the cultural impact that Friends had, and continues to have 17 years on, on the TV medium into consideration, there are few 2021 specials that were bigger than Friends: The Reunion. And, while it didn’t resonate with some viewers, it was touching to see the gang get back together for potentially one last hurrah.
Best of 2021: Netflix
Best Netflix movie: The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
Such is the speed with which Netflix pumps out movie and TV content these days, it’s difficult to pick out a single film. That is, unless there’s one that truly stands out for a myriad of reasons.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is one such flick. The animated sci-fi comedy, which includes Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 21 Jump Street) among its creative team, is a glorious example of how a film’s humor, heart, animation style, plot and originality can come together to deliver a feature film that’s sure to be a big winner on the awards circuit.
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines tells the tale of, well, the Mitchell family as they embark on one final road trip before daughter and movie protagonist Katie (Abbi Jacobson) heads to film school. A robot uprising, though, puts paid to those plans, and the dysfunctional Mitchells must learn to put their differences aside and work together to defeat the evil AI program known as PAL (Olivia Colman). With an all-star cast, regular laugh-out-loud moments, an endearing tale about family, growing up and learning to let go, and a gorgeous animation style, The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is the best Netflix movie we’ve seen all year.
Best Netflix show: Squid Game
What can we say about Squid Game that you don’t already know? Hwang Dong-hyuk's survival drama smashed countless streaming records, inspired everything from real-life robot dolls to amateur video game adaptations and literally changed the game for how Netflix measures the success of its shows as it dominated popular culture in 2021.
Hell, Squid Game was so popular that fans risked their lives smuggling it into North Korea. Why? Because it was awesome, that’s why. The Korean series follows hundreds of cash-strapped citizens coerced into a potentially lucrative game of life and death by a mysterious organization – a premise that translates into exceptionally entertaining television.
Riot Games and Fortiche's League of Legends TV series – Arcane – gave it a run for its money but, in the end, Squid Game was just too good and popular. We (and the show’s 150 million other fans) are already looking forward to season 2.
Best Netflix documentary or special: Bo Burham: Inside
Much like its movie and TV output, there are numerous options we could have selected here.
For us, though, nothing was as impactful, creative, hilarious and heart-wrenching as Bo Burnham: Inside. The comedy special, which was written, performed, shot and edited by the US comedian-cum-filmmaker during the Covid-19 pandemic, was Burham’s first live-action performance since 2016 due to health issues.
Inside is an unsettling, enthralling and amusing special that runs the gamut of what sets Burnham apart from his fellow live performers. Inside’s meta-commentary forces viewers to view things from a different perspective, or even take stock of them for the first time. Burnham’s intelligent and sometimes ruthless examination of tough subject matter, including the US socio-political system, mental health, the internet and religion are sung about with gusto, angst and genuine sadness, too. And there’s real concern for Burnham as he struggles to complete Inside in time for its air date, as well as the internal battle he endures as his own demons come home to roost.
Few 2021 productions left us feeling equally uplifted, inspired and empty as Inside did – and that’s a credit to Burnham’s generation-defining artistic talents. Inside truly is a special that’ll linger in your mind for days.
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Axel is a London-based Senior Staff Writer at TechRadar, reporting on everything from the latest Apple developments to newest movies as part of the site's daily news output. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion.
Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned an NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.