Welcome to Back to the Movies, a special series of articles in which we’re exploring how we feel about returning to movie theaters after the pandemic. We begin with a time-honored FSR tradition: a list of the movies we can’t wait to watch in theaters in 2021.
Do you remember what you love most about seeing movies in theaters? For many of us, it’s been more than 15 months since we’ve shuffled across the tacky carpets of our local cineplex, carefully eyeing the elaborate stand-up advertisements for upcoming blockbusters while also trying desperately to keep an overflowing large popcorn from spilling before we make it to Theater 16 all the way in the back. So you’d be forgiven if you need a moment to remember.
One of the things the COVID pandemic took from us was the sense of normalcy that comes with getting yourself seated for a Friday afternoon matinee. We used to be able to do it without having to make sure our masks were on correctly or that we were properly observing our local theater’s social distancing rules. And while we will get back to that safe place, where our relationship to cinema is at its purest, it’s going to take some time. In time, the movies will feel safe again and for many of us, the theater will once again feel like home.
No matter when you decide that the world feels safe enough to return to movie theaters, we hope that you do. The sooner we can all return to having profound shared experiences in a dark room underneath the flicker of a film projector, the better. When that time comes, this list is here to help. We’ve assembled a list of 68 movies that we expect/hope will hit theaters before 2021 ends, each of which strikes a chord with at least one of the members of our team. It’s the list of movies for which we’ll be willing to put on real pants and venture back into the world. We hope to see you there, whenever you’re ready.
Movies to Watch in 2021 with Theatrical Release Dates
We begin with the films that have already had their release dates set and announced. As always, these are subject to change on the whims of chaotic Hollywood execs. That said, this section is presented in expected chronological order.
Spiral: From The Book of Saw (In Theaters Now)
As we return to the movies, there’s something incredibly comforting about reliable films, and few are as reliable as the Saw films. We know to expect frenetic editing and a thumping score, and, oh yes, there will be blood. The ninth entry in the franchise promises to be a grisly return to Jigsaw’s twisted games with a fresh and clever perspective from Chris Rock’s original concept for the story. The Saw films have always benefited from the anxiety-inducing claustrophobia of a big screen and the riotous reactions of masochistic audiences. For fans who have endured the horror genre’s trend towards austerity in recent years, seeing a big, bold, bloody display of morbid indulgence again will be a dream come true. (Anna Swanson)
A Quiet Place II (May 28)
When it came out, the concept of John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place was so remarkably authentic that a sequel was pretty much a requirement. Luckily, after a near-year delay due to COVID restrictions, A Quiet Place II is finally about to hit theaters; and it looks like it will be well worth the wait. The film follows the same cast of characters with the same premise: blood-thirsty monsters that are ready to pounce on you if you make a noise. This time, though, instead of attempting to uphold some sense of domestic normalcy, the family has been thrust into the turmoil of the outside world. The trailer exhibits the same tenseness of the original, but amplified, as the characters are required to brave the elements in their search for other survivors out there, (any Cillian Murphy fans in the house?) The sneak preview also emphasizes that, if there’s any new movie you absolutely need to see on the big screen, it’s this one. (Aurora Amidon)
Cruella (May 28)
There are a few movies on this list that we’ve already screened and Cruella is perhaps the one I didn’t expect to want to include. But here’s the truth: it’s fun. The costume work from Jenny Beavan (whose work you may know from Mad Max: Fury Road) is magnificent, the soundtrack bumps, and the film’s delightful cast is living their most chaotic and silly lives. The film is built around the rivalry between Young Cruella (Emma Stone) and powerful fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), and they are doing some great work, but it’s the supporting cast that comes through with some of the film’s best moments. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, especially. If you were at all moved by the energy of the film’s trailer, it’s worth seeing in the biggest, loudest manner possible. (Neil Miller)
Undine (June 4)
From Christian Petzold, director of Transit and Phoenix, Undine has mysterious mythic roots. The film follows a historian named Undine (Paula Beer), whose world turns upside down when her lover leaves her. Undine takes the whole: “if you leave me, I’ll kill you” thing to a whole new level, and follows the ancient myth of the undines. An Undine is a water nymph rooted in European mythic tradition who becomes human when she falls in love, but if her lover leaves her, he dies. It looks as though Undine will be a refreshing, modern take on the sinister myth, with mystical visuals and subtle, powerful performances. (Aurora Amidon)
In the Heights (June 11)
The John M. Chu-directed adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton stage hit is already being called “The Movie of the Summer” by the critics who’ve seen it. And it’s not entirely surprising, given the electric nature of the film’s trailer. It also stars Anthony Ramos, who was lowkey one of the best parts of Hamilton. And even though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the stage version, there’s something so magnetic about this film’s energy that I can’t help but imagine myself annoying the person seated next to me in the theater by moving to the rhythm (although, if I’m honest, I’ll probably be out-of-rhythm — don’t judge me). (Neil Miller)
The Sparks Brothers (June 18)
When our own Brianna Zigler reviewed this doc at Sundance in January, she highlighted the fact that director Edgar Wright brings his trademark dynamic energy to his first foray into the world of music documentaries. It sounds like an energetic, loving tribute to a legendary pop duo filled with talking heads from all over the musical and pop culture map. It’s a testament to the underrated influence that Russell and Ron Mael have had with their music since they hit the scene in the early 1970s. It’s also the kind of doc that’s going to deliver a soundtrack worthy of being heard through loud movie theater speakers, making it a perfect re-entry point for music-loving cinephiles. (Neil Miller)
Luca (June 17)
If you’re looking for your fix of the Italian seaside this year, look no further. This directorial debut from Pixar storyboard artist Enrico Casarosa follows the friendship of Luca (Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer). This friendship has a twist, though: both boys are hiding the fact that they are actually sea monsters. With bubbly aesthetics and no shortage of laughs, Luca looks like it’s going to be a joy to watch – and probably a bit of a tear-jerker, too. When it comes to Pixar and stories of friendship, (Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc., to name a few), you can definitely expect a whole array of emotions. Plus, the film itself is dedicated to the late Ennio Morricone, who was originally slated to create the soundtrack, which is pretty emotional in itself. So, whatever it is that catches your eye about this film, it looks like it truly has something for everyone. (Aurora Amidon)
F9 (June 25)
To quote Tom Cruise: “Big movie, big screen.” That’s what the Fast & Furious films are for — bombastic and indulgent displays of excess. These movies are as big as they come, both in action and emotion. The film’s delay was made all the more excruciating by fans being teased with Sung Kang’s return to the series. This has been a long time coming, a wait filled with heartache and hope, and anyone who has ever cared about this family is probably counting down the days until the film’s release. The billion-dollar franchise is a cornerstone of modern blockbuster filmmaking and the latest, The Fast Saga, promises the type of escapist excitement that even the most casual of viewers wouldn’t hesitate to pass up. (Anna Swanson)
Werewolves Within (June 25)
Returning to movie theaters isn’t just about seeing blockbusters. Sure, there will be plenty of big-budget cinematic adventures to be had, but we’re also very excited to return to a world in which we can see and support smaller films, as well. Enter Werewolves Within, a horror-comedy adapted from the popular Ubisoft VR game that will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in early June before getting a limited release later in the month from IFC. The plot is simple: the residents of a small town are trapped inside by a snowstorm and terrorized by a mysterious creature, forcing them to question each other in pursuit of answers. The real draw here is the cast — Sam Richardson (VEEP) and Milana Vayntrub (who you’ll most likely recognize as Lily from the AT&T commercials but has also been very funny in a number of web-based comedy ventures) lead a cast that also includes Michaela Watkins (Hulu’s Casual) and Harvey Guillén (who plays Guillermo on the What We Do In The Shadows TV show). If the concept isn’t enough of a sell, these four comedic talents alone are worth showing up for. (Neil Miller)
Zola (June 30)
The film based on the infamous Twitter thread was met with a largely positive response when it held its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – the last in-person festival before everything went to shit – then *gestures vaguely* the pandemic happened. The film’s theatrical release was not just pushed, it didn’t exist at all until very recently, leaving many of the film’s most ardent anticipants in the lurch. Then finally, at the end of March this year, the official trailer dropped after over a year of restless thumb-twiddling, and a release date was scheduled for June 30. The film follows the titular Zola (Taylour Paige), a waitress and pole dancer, and the eccentric, enigmatic Stefani (Riley Keough), who meet by chance while Zola is waiting tables. Stefani is a dancer too, and she coaxes Zola to come to Florida with her to dance at a club with an allegedly massive payoff – until things not only turn out too good to be true, they go entirely off-the-rails. Having had the privilege of viewing the film at last year’s Sundance, I can confirm that it is sharp, funny, entertaining, and surprising; just like the outrageous story it’s based on. (Brianna Zigler)