By Andrew R. Chow, Peter Allen Clark and Megan McCluskey
Looking back at the movies we anticipated in 2020 is an object lesson in how quickly things can change. Movie theaters closed, production came to a halt and releases were indefinitely postponed as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. As we look ahead to 2021, we do so with as many questions as answers. Will Fast & Furious fans watch the ninth installment of that franchise in movie theaters in May, or will more and more movies go the way of Warner Bros. entire 2021 slate and make their way to us via the TV sets in our living rooms? When will masses of Americans feel safe enough to venture back to movie theaters, and how many more will close before they do? How will the year accommodate a slew of postponed 2020 blockbusters like Black Widow, Dune and Eternals crowding the calendar? Will Lebron James find the same chemistry with Bugs Bunny that Michael Jordan did in the original Space Jam?
Of the many things we’ve learned during this difficult year, one is that the business of predictions is apt to make fools of us all. Here is our list of the 39 most anticipated movies due, at least for now, to release in 2021.
Pieces of a Woman (Jan. 7)
Vanessa Kirby, known to many for playing Princess Margaret on The Crown, earned raves during the primarily virtual fall festival season for her performance as a woman grieving her baby, who died moments after birth. In a fictional story based on the personal experiences of writer-director team Kornel Mundruczo and Kata Weber, who are partners in real life, Kirby’s Martha moves through her grief, against the backdrop of a trial against her midwife and a faltering marriage, to find her way forward again.
The White Tiger (Jan. 22)
Just like last year’s Parasite, The White Tiger, which will debut on Netflix, depicts class warfare waged in close quarters. In Delhi, the ambitious villager-turned-entrepreneur Balram (Adarsh Gourav) scores a job as the driver for a wealthy couple (Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas). But as he gets closer to the couple, he uncovers a web of corruption and violence, and must scheme his way out of their toxic household. The acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) directed and adapted the novel of the same name, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was written by his longtime friend Aravind Adiga.
Malcolm & Marie (Feb. 5)
One of the first films to be shot completely during the pandemic this summer, Malcolm & Marie reconnects Zendaya with Euphoria creator Sam Levinson. On the first season of that show, the pair plumbed the depths of depravity, addiction and depression, earning Zendaya an Emmy. Reports say that Levinson wrote Malcolm & Marie over the span of a week. The tumultuous romance drama pairs Zendaya with another one of Hollywood’s rising stars, John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet).
The Mauritanian (Feb. 19)
Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Last King of Scotland) returns in February with a new legal drama The Mauritanian, which is already the subject of some Oscar buzz. Attorneys played by Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley seek justice for Tahar Rahim’s Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been imprisoned without charge in Guantánamo Bay, only to run up against a military prosecutor played by Benedict Cumberbatch who might be defending something far larger than they expected.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Feb. 26)
Despite being one of the musical biggest stars in America in the 1940s, the jazz singer Billie Holiday lived a life of anguish and hardship: she was constantly broke, in abusive relationships, addicted to substances, and being chased down by the vicious and racist leadership of the FBI. The powerhouse R&B singer Andra Day steps into Lady Day’s shoes—and while she might not have much big-screen acting experience, neither did Diana Ross before she played Holiday to rave reviews in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. Lee Daniels returns to direct in his first film since 2013’s The Butler.
Coming 2 America (March 5)
The continued cultural impact of the 1988 Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America is hard to overstate: hundreds of TikTok creators have replicated Murphy joyfully screaming profanities out his Queens fire escape, while the fictional fast food joint McDowell’s has popped up sporadically across the country. In this long-awaited sequel, Akeem (Murphy) and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) depart from their Zamunda palace and travel across the Atlantic once again after Akeem discovers he has a long-lost son in Queens.
Boogie (March 5)
The restaurateur Eddie Huang is a captivating storyteller, as evidenced by his memoir Fresh Off the Boat (which was turned into an ABC sitcom) and his food chronicle shows on Viceland. He makes his feature-length directorial debut with Boogie, which follows an Asian-American basketball prodigy with NBA dreams. The late rapper Pop Smoke, who was shot to death last February, makes his posthumous acting debut as a basketball rival. “He can turn emotions on a dime,” Huang said of Pop Smoke in a New York Times interview. “A lot of actors just don’t have the depth of emotion and experiences, but because of what Pop’s gone through, he has a tremendous well to draw from.”
Raya and the Last Dragon (March 5)
Disney’s latest 3D animation film will arrive on March 5, bringing the story of a land where long ago dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity from evil monsters. Now, the monsters have returned and a star-studded cast, featuring Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Raya and Awkwafina as the last dragon known to exist, will have to find a way to save the world.
The Truffle Hunters (March 5)
Old men trawling the Italian woods for prized truffles may not seem like the richest source material for a documentary, but The Truffle Hunters received rapturous reviews on this year’s festival circuit, accruing an 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film follows its subjects into the brush at night as they squabble over territory, closely guard their foraging techniques and develop close relationships with their smelling dogs; it’s a patient and personal movie about a fading way of life.
The Many Saints of Newark (March 12)
The 13 years since The Sopranos left the air has only deepened the critical and cultural appreciation for what many consider to be one of the best TV shows of all time. Series creator David Chase is set to return to the world of Tony Soprano with this prequel, set in the 1960s and 1970s, exploring taut relations between the Italian-American and African-American communities. The Many Saints of Newark stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, and Michael Gandolfini, the son of the James Gandolfini, who will take up his late father’s role.
No Time To Die (April 2)
Daniel Craig will play James Bond for the fifth and final time in this much-delayed film, which is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, Maniac) and includes screenwriting from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The franchise adds some intriguing new faces—Ana de Armas, who previously acted with Craig in Knives Out—Rami Malek, who plays the menacing villain Safin, and Lashana Lynch, who will take on the mantle of 007.
Bios (April 16)
Tom Hanks, in a role filmed before his bout with the coronavirus, portrays one of the few survivors on Earth after an apocalyptic event has turned the planet into a wasteland. Slowly wasting away to a terminal illness, Hanks’ Finch builds a robot that will care for his dog once he dies—and must teach the robot and dog to trust one another. Miguel Sapochnik, who directed some of Game of Thrones’ most apocalyptic and dramatic episodes, helms the project.
Last Night in Soho (April 23)
Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s time-hopping psychological horror flick centers on an aspiring fashion designer (Thomasin McKenzie of Leave No Trace) who travels back to 1960s London to meet her idol, a glamorous singer played by Anya Taylor-Joy, with disastrous consequences. “I’ve always liked films which have a slow burn into something else, and a lot of my movies have that feeling,” Wright told Empire. “Last Night starts in a more psychological realm and then starts to get increasingly intense as it goes along.”
Black Widow (May 7)
Before she became an Avenger, Natasha Romanov’s work as a Russian spy landed her in hot water with some bad people. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Black Widow for an origin story directed by Cate Shortland that casts Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as the superhero’s equally lethal “family.” Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, this is the first installment in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the franchise’s 24th film overall.
Fast and Furious 9 (May 28)
If the barren landscape of 2020 films didn’t provide you with enough big-budget explosions and car chases, then the ninth film in the long-running Fast and Furious franchise should satisfy that need for speed. Though the series has always vaulted the idea of “family,” this film, which brings back most of the expected regulars including director Justin Lin, plans to expand on that notion, with Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) son and the new threat of Dom’s brother, played by John Cena. The family’s not the only thing getting bigger, as the outrageous action of F9 seems poised to outdo everything that came before it.
Cruella (May 28)
The era of the female villain-turned-protagonist is in full swing. In February there was Birds of Prey starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn; in September, Sarah Paulson donned scrubs in Ratched. Now comes Cruella, with Emma Stone playing a younger version of the Disney dame who would eventually kidnap a bunch of Dalmatians. Emma Thompson co-stars in this live-action family movie heading to Disney+.
In the Heights (June 18)
Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton, he wrote In the Heights, a musical inspired by the multicultural working class neighborhood in which he grew up. This film adaptation of the musical, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2008, fuses New York rap, salsa dancing and exuberant Busby Berkeley-inspired set pieces to tell a story of immigration, cultural and generational gaps, gentrification and romance. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) lends his sense of grandeur; rising multi-threat talent Anthony Ramos plays the protagonist Usnavi.
Luca (June 18)
The latest Pixar adventure is set on the Italian Riviera, where a young boy named Luca enjoys a blissful summer of gelato and fun with a new friend, Alberto. But Alberto is hiding a secret: he’s actually a sea monster. Given Pixar’s successes underwater (Finding Nemo, Finding Dory), don’t be surprised if this film leans heavily on vivid aquatic scenery.
Blue Bayou (June 25)
Filmmaker Justin Chon’s previous film, Gook, received critical acclaim for its rendering of two Korean-American brothers confronted with violence and bigotry during the Rodney King riots. In Blue Bayou, he stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean adoptee who has planted roots in Louisiana and built a family but learns he is soon to be deported. Alicia Vikander co-stars as his wife.
Zola (June 30)
Soon after a Detroit waitress who called herself Zola delivered a wild tweet-storm about a road trip to Florida involving stripping, sex work and guns, the internet demanded a movie adaptation. Five years later, director Janicza Bravo (Lemon), with a script co-written by Jeremy O. Harris (Broadway’s Tony-nominated Slave Play), delivered when the movie debuted to raves at Sundance at the top of 2020. Next June, it will finally be available for widespread viewing. Taylour Paige, currently seen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix, stars alongside Riley Keough in the bizarre adventure, adapted from a Rolling Stone article that tells the inside story.
Top Gun Maverick (July 2)
After waiting 34 years for a sequel to Top Gun, it must have really cooled the jets of high-flying fans to have the movie pushed into 2021. But come July 2021, those craving a return to the dogfighting world of Maverick and Ice Man will get their chance to experience the Joseph Kosinski-directed film. Starring Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm, the movie will also feature Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer reprising their classic roles. Kelly McGillis, who played Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood in the original movie says she was not asked to return for Top Gun: Maverick.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (July 9)
Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero movie stars Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, a martial arts master who must contend with the mysterious Ten Rings crime syndicate (the same terror group behind Tony Stark’s kidnapping in Iron Man). The Destin Daniel Cretton-helmed film, also starring Tony Leung, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh, will be the 25th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (July 16)
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo—a.k.a. the braintrust behind Bridesmaids—reunite to write and star in this comedy about two best friends who leave their small Midwestern home town for the first time.
Space Jam: A New Legacy (July 16)
Lebron James has been drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan since he entered the NBA, and that dialogue has only intensified since James won his fourth NBA title in October. James may or may not be a better basketball player than Jordan, but by taking the lead role in the sequel to Space Jam, James has unequivocally embraced his position as Jordan’s cultural heir. But James has also gone farther in Hollywood than Jordan ever did: his producing credits include Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker and Becoming, and he’s also proved his surprisingly agile comedic abilities in Trainwreck and Smallfoot. In the film, James ditches his Lakers teammates for the Looney Tunes gang. Don Cheadle and basketball stars like Chris Paul and Diana Taurasi are also set to appear.
Deep Water (Aug. 13)
Patricia Highsmith’s novels have made for excellent film material, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Carol. The latest adaptation of her work stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas (who made plenty of tabloid headlines while filming last year) as a married couple who start playing dangerous mind games with each other in order to rekindle their spark.
Candyman (Aug. 27)
Few directors have kept audiences on the edge of their seats more frequently over the last three years than Jordan Peele. Following Get Out and Us, he returns as a producer and co-writer of director Nia DaCosta’s forthcoming sequel to the 1992 classic Candyman, which depicted murder in the housing projects of Chicago. This film takes place in the present day, after those towers have been torn down and replaced by condos during the course of gentrification. But when an artist who was terrorized by the Candyman as a child (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) moves in, he finds that the hooked man’s presence lingers.
Dune (Oct. 1)
Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides awakens to his destiny in a new adaptation of the first novel in Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi saga. Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa also appear in Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded epic, which is set to debut on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously.
The Last Duel (Oct. 15)
Ridley Scott’s new historical drama, based on a 2004 book by Eric Jager, chronicles the final legally sanctioned duel in French history. Matt Damon and Adam Driver star as Norman knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris, two best friends in 14th century France who are ordered to fight to the death by King Charles VI (Ben Affleck) after Carrouges accuses Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer).
The Eternals (Nov. 5)
With the Avengers series (excuse me, “Phase Three of the Infinity Saga”) wrapped up, Marvel is turning to a new series of characters to jumpstart another era of worldbuilding. These superheroes—immortal aliens who have hidden on Earth for thousands of years—must reunite to save the world from the Deviants, the newest post-Thanos Big Bad. The Eternals are played by a star-studded cast that includes Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayek. This movie, directed by acclaimed indie filmmaker Chloe Zhaó, also reportedly includes Marvel’s first LGBTQ kiss.
Mission: Impossible 7 (Nov. 19)
The forthcoming seventh installment in the long-running action franchise sees Tom Cruise reprise his role as daredevil IMF agent Ethan Hunt alongside a number of returning co-stars, including Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Vanessa Kirby, and newcomers Hayley Atwell, Pom Klementieff, Shea Whigham and Esai Morales. Rogue Nation and Fallout writer-director Christopher McQuarrie resumes his dual role on both 7 and Mission: Impossible 8, which are shooting back-to-back.
Encanto (Nov. 24)
Lin-Manuel Miranda has penned new music for this animated Pixar musical, which follows a magical Colombian family. He previously worked with Encanto writers Byron Howard and Jared Bush on Moana.
West Side Story (Dec. 10)
It might surprise some that the classic Broadway musical and 1961 film has yet to be rebooted onscreen in this age of nostalgia and rebranding. But when it finally hits theaters next December, it will have been 50 years since filmgoing audiences have had a fresh take on the Sharks and Jets dancing off for control of the streets. On Dec. 21, Ansel Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler will star in the Steven Spielberg-directed remake of the classic musical, which puts a metropolitan spin on the legendary story of Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers. The extended cast will also feature The Prom‘s Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll and Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for appearing in the original film.
The Matrix 4 (Dec. 22)
In a year already marked by multiple remakes, reboots and sequels, this might be one of the most surprising franchises to return. After wrapping up the first trilogy with Matrix: Revolutions, creators Lilly and Lana Wachowski had been outspoken about not wanting to revisit the series, even as Warner Bros. reportedly planned to launch a reboot without their approval. A compromise seemed to have been reached as Lana Wachowski returned to direct and co-write this fourth film with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles. Though the trailer doesn’t give away much of what to expect story-wise, it has plenty of the style, action and bullet-time slow motion that made the first trilogy a hallmark of contemporary science fiction. The Matrix 4 set to release in theaters and on HBO Max.
Babylon (Dec. 25)
Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land is highly anticipated but has many question marks: Emma Stone, who anchored La La Land, recently departed the film and may be replaced by Margot Robbie. Brad Pitt remains still attached to the period piece, which portrays the film industry’s transition from silent films to talkies in the 1920s.
False Positive (TBA)
Ilana Glazer, one half of the duo behind Comedy Central’s beloved series Broad City, has co-written her first movie, which she’s also producing and starring in, set to debut on Hulu in 2021. In False Positive, Glazer and Justin Theroux play a couple who seek the help of a fertility doctor played by Pierce Brosnan. Glazer’s Lucy gets pregnant, but as the pregnancy progresses, something appears increasingly off about the charming doc, and Lucy sets out to uncover the full story.
The French Dispatch (TBA)
In his much-anticipated 10th feature, writer-director Wes Anderson brings to life three unique stories from the final issue of the film’s titular New Yorker-inspired magazine, an American weekly published in the fictional 20th-century French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The ensemble dramedy, Anderson’s first true anthology film, is as star-studded as ever, with notable newcomers to the Anderson multiverse Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss and Jeffrey Wright joining returning regulars like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (TBA Summer 2021)
Original Ghostbusters Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson reprise their roles as supernatural pest controllers in a new sequel to the ’80s blockbuster that also stars Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, and Paul Rudd. This time around, the squad faces off with a paranormal force wreaking havoc on a small Oklahoma town.
Judas and the Black Messiah (TBA)
In the late ‘60s, Fred Hampton emerged as one of the most charismatic and effective leaders of the Black Panther Party, dedicating himself to fighting racism and bringing change to the violence-ridden Chicago. But his growing influence drew the fear and suspicion of the FBI, which employed a petty carjacker, William O’Neal, to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle and track his movements. In this film from Shaka King, Daniel Kaluuya plays Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield plays O’Neal as they warily circle each other and become irrevocably entangled in each other’s lives.
The Woman in the Window (TBA Spring/Summer 2021)
Amy Adams and Julianne Moore have 11 Oscar nominations between them but have never appeared in a movie together—until now. Adams plays Anna, an agoraphobic wit a pill addiction who befriends a neighbor, Jane (Moore), across the street. Soon after, she witnesses Jane being violently attacked in her home. But when she reports the attack to the police, nobody believes her—and Jane has seemingly been replaced by another woman. The film, based on a novel with its own strange backstory, has been shuttled between studios and is finally set to arrive on Netflix this year.