Top 10 Films of Summer 2021

After much delay, the summer movie season finally returned in 2021 with a hybrid mix of theatrical, streaming, and day and date releases. We look at the top ten best movies the summer movie season had to offer.

That felt like it would take forever right? 2019 was such a smash of a summer movie season with high-profile releases like Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and The Lion King it felt like 2020 was going to be a real step down, or at least an unpredictable summer. Who would come out on top? Would Wonder Woman 1984 or F9 be the top film of summer 2020? Would audiences want a break after the last two major MCU films and Black Widow to underperform or would it take everyone by surprise? How would the new original Pixar film like Soul perform? It was shaping up to be an interesting summer movie season with a lot of wildcards and endless possibilities…that didn’t end up happening. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and theaters shut down and many of the films mentioned above were delayed a whole year, or released later on streaming.

When theater shut down in 2020, many of the major summer movie releases were postponed to 2021, the 2020 summer slate was basically non-existent, with a few films getting released on VOD and streaming (Scoob!, The King of Staten Island, Artemis Fowl) while other films got a bit of a chance to shine last summer with nothing to compete with them (Da 5 Bloods, Palm Springs, The One and Only Ivan). However last summer lacked many of the big event films that people come to associate with the summer season. 2021 saw a semi return to normal, as theaters began opening up and more people being slightly comfortable going back out to the theaters. While it started as a promising return to the movies on Memorial Day weekend, over the coming weeks’ box-office and audience turnout dipped as stories of Delta Variant cases started to spike. Many of the major films were released in a hybrid format, on both streaming and theatrical day in date meaning that many people who may not have gone out to the theaters could still enjoy some of the big films the various studios had to offer.

There were a lot of films this summer, both released in theaters, a combination of streaming and theatrical, or streaming exclusively. Netflix had a new movie every week. There were so many that obviously, I couldn’t watch them all, but I tried to see as many as I could. In fact this summer I watched 24 films that were released ub the summer time frame, and there are still more I want to see. But this list is the ten films that stood out to me personally, that had an impact.

For the list, we are counting the summer movie season from the first Friday in May (May 7) to the last Friday in August (August 27). Sadly that means The Mitchells vs the Machines (April 30) and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (September 3) do not qualify, but I highly suggest seeing both. Now onto the list.

10. Fatherhood

Release Date: June 18

Originally set to be released in theaters, Sony Pictures decided to sell Fatherhood to Netflix and the film was fittingly released on Father’s Day weekend. Directed by Paul Weitz, it has the same mix of sincere love with humorous skepticism that informed the director’s previous hit About a Boy. Kevin Hart does very well playing against type in a much more serious role as Matthew Logelin (who is a real person and the film is adapted from his memoir Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love) where he is required to carry a large portion of the first half of the film acting opposite only a baby. The opening monologue he has to give at the funeral of his recently deceased wife hits because Hart sells it with the right mix of sad bewilderment but also blind faith that he is trying to impress a room full of people on what is the worst moment of his life. Melody Hurd plays the grown kid version of Maddie and really shines as opposite Hart; they have a real bond that feels lived in. Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Carrigan never disappoint as the comedic support, and DeWanda Wise really makes the most out of her role as the love interest and eventual mother figure to Maddie. Special attention also must be paid to Alfre Woodard, who in the normal narrative would have come off as the stereotypical mother-in-law but here adds a real depth that makes her a stern opposition but also a loving mother figure to not only Maddie but also Matthew.

It is nice to see a film that tackles the difficulties of single parenthood, particularly one with fathers and daughters, and how one will inform the other. Gender norms become a silly arbitrary thing, Maddie sees nothing wrong with liking Transformers and Spider-Man and doesn’t like wearing skirts, and Matthew doesn’t mind doing Maddie’s hair or playing with dolls because it is what his daughter wants. While it may seem odd to describe a movie where the main plot is kicked in when the lead character’s wife passes away (and is based on a real-life passing) the overall sense of joy and optimism felt by the end of the movie is one that cannot be understated. One imagines had it been able to be released in theaters if it would have become a sleeper hit like Hart’s last attempt at dramatic work, The Upside.

9. Jungle Cruise

Release Date: July 30

A nice throwback to a genre that really doesn’t get much attention anymore: the adventure film. It seemed like at the beginning of the 21st century, the adventure film was the dominant form of blockbuster film with The Mummy franchise and the massive juggernaut that was the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. However the adventure film gave way to the superhero film as the dominant form of summer movie spectacle, so much so that you compare how the 2005 King Kong is compared to the Kong seen in Skull Island and Godzilla vs Kong and they are very different genres of films. The Jungle Cruise is the sort of movie you want to see on a hot summer day in a big theater, it transports you to another point in time and gives you the wonder and mystery, if not quite the danger, that some of its predecessors had.

Pulling inspirations also from The African Queen (and also weirdly enough Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath Of God), The Jungle Cruise fleshes out the basic outline of the ride (trip on a boat) and creates an entirely new narrative that does maybe at times draw a little to much from the Pirates franchise, but also that was the only time turning a theme park ride into a movie worked so I can’t blame them. The cast is all game, and there is just a good time had by the people making it that becomes infectious to the viewer. Could this be the next big Disney franchise? Given the recent announcement of a sequel, it appears so. Not quite sure where they will go with it but this first film was a fun enjoyable summer adventure.

8. Cruella

Release Date: May 28

Previously reviewed here on the site, I found myself actually enjoying Cruella the more I thought about it and on second viewing actually think I may have undersold it. While the costume and production design are as great as ever, what really works is the character work on Cruella herself. Yes, it is different from what audiences expect, but that is sort of genius. Why else reimagine one of the classic Disney films if you are just going to do the same thing (looking at you The Lion King). Stone effectively plays both identities of Cruella so flawlessly and masters both that it really feels like a twisted inversion of the Clark Kent/Superman mythos where like that story: the true identity is somewhere in the middle. Combine that with a reworking of the classic story Great Expectations, its cool London aesthetic was a nice contrast to many films that typically define summer movie spectacle, making the film much like the character stand out and demand to be seen.

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