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7 best pandemic-era movies, ranked

The cast of "The Suicide Squad" standing in a forest.
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros. Pictures

Looking back at the pandemic is, for many people, not exactly a fun experience. It was a time when everything was out of whack, and that was especially true of the movie business. Theaters had to close, and while there were plenty of great intimate dramas, it can be hard to remember what the best movies from that time were.

If you want to look back at the best movies of the pandemic era, we’ve got you covered. We’ve pulled together seven of the best movies released in 2020 and 2021 (which is loosely defined as the era when movies were most impacted by the pandemic). Some of these movies were released in theaters, but others weren’t. Either way, we’re still thinking about them several years later.

7. Hamilton (2020)

Hamilton | Official Trailer | Disney+

A movie that was so soothing it simply had to be released early and directly on Disney+, the filmed version of Hamilton brought the musical to an entirely new audience, and ensured that one of the great works of art of the 21st century was preserved in vivid detail.

It’s popular nowadays to look back at Hamilton as a relic of the Obama era filled with unearned optimism and empty sentiment. This movie was a reminder that the musical is much more complicated than that, and that its story of the forgotten founding father remains a genuinely visionary piece of work. On top of all that, many of the songs like Satisfied are real bangers.

6. Tenet (2020)

TENET | Re-Release Trailer

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is almost undoubtedly his most underseen film, and that might have been true even if there wasn’t a global pandemic. Nolan’s insistence that the film get a chance to play in theaters ultimately meant that Tenet‘s release was delayed and delayed, and when it finally did come out, many people were still unsure about whether it was physically safe to see it.

On top of all that, Tenet is the most layered and dense movie that Nolan has ever made. It tells its story forward and backward in time, and that premise was always going to be a hard sell. If you let it lull you into a rhythm, though, Tenet is endlessly rewarding.

5. Dune (2021)

Dune Official Trailer

The first attempt to adapt Dune was less than successful, but Denis Villeneuve’s eagerly anticipated and delayed attempt turned out to be worthy of all the attention. Featuring a cast composed almost entirely of major talents and the kind of CGI that doesn’t look like mush, Dune manages to build a world that feels thoroughly alien, even if it has a few things in common with our own.

The decision to split the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s massive novel in half certainly made sense, but it does leave this first part a little bit adrift at the end of its story. Up until that moment, though, it’s one of the most thrilling sci-fi epics of its kind, and the 2024 release of Dune: Part Two satisfactorily completes the original’s story.

4. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (2021 Movie) Official Trailer – Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar managed to be a genuine comedy phenomenon when it was released on VOD, but the movie would have been an even bigger deal if it had been released in theaters. Starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as two strange friends who become ensconced in a truly absurd spy thriller, Barb and Star is great because it is deeply absurd and strange.

Most modern comedies try to have at least a little bit of chill, but Barb and Star goes at its premise with such reckless abandon, and is so genuinely funny, that it’s impossible not to love it at least a little bit.

3. The Suicide Squad (2021)

THE SUICIDE SQUAD – Official “Rain” Trailer

It probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise that James Gunn’s DC movie is the best thing Warner Bros. has made with superheroes in it in years, but The Suicide Squad was yet another major blockbuster that got smothered by the pandemic. The movie mostly ignores the first installment, keeping only the elements that it wanted to, and introducing a mostly new cast.

What makes the movie work, though, is that it’s both sickly and sweet. Like Gunn’s Guardians movies, it’s a story about misfits who find one another, and it’s also a movie where a killer shark voiced by Sly Stallone regularly eats people. It’s bananas in the best way and a fun watch.

2. Minari (2020)

Minari | Official Trailer HD | A24

It’s true that 2020 was a deeply weird movie year for all the obvious reasons, but the weirdness of that year also gave us the opportunity to appreciate movies that might not otherwise have gotten much attention. Minari is an intimate, personal story about a Korean family that moves to Arkansas, and has to adjust to life in a totally new world.

Steven Yeun’s brilliant central performance anchors the film, but the entire ensemble is doing excellent work. The real star here is director Lee Isaac-Chung (Twisters), who in telling his own story manages to avoid all the pitfalls of making this kind of personal film.

1. West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" | Official Trailer | 20th Century Studios

Steven Spielberg may not be the greatest director of all time, but he’s pretty darn close. Making the bold decision to remake a classic, Spielberg more than justified himself with his finished product. The man was born to make a musical, and his very first effort ranks up there with the best things the genre has ever produced.

Featuring a picture-perfect cast (with one unfortunate exception), Spielberg’s talent for both memorable shots and great story, and a few genuine discoveries in Rachel Zegler (The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes), Mike Faist (Challengers), and Ariana DeBose (Argylle), West Side Story is every bit as good as we could have expected from a movie directed by the master filmmaker.

Editors' Recommendations

Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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