The best December 2021 movies bring a wild movie year to a close

The strangest year for movies in a long time slides in for its conclusion this December. Pandemic delays and the usual end-of-year rush combine to stack the deck this month. Oscar hopefuls fresh off the fall film circuit play next to small-budget indie thrillers and risky melodramas; West Side Story and The Matrix Resurrections are en route after long, long waiting periods.

So mark your calendars for these 13 wild, woolly, wonderful December movies.

The Power of the Dog

Release date: December 1

Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is The Power of the Dog, which is set, despite its New Zealand shooting location, in the American West. For most of its runtime, The Power of the Dog is confined to the big ranch that brothers Phil and George (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) own and operate. George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her there, along with her waifish teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil despises both of the ranch’s new residents. But people’s exteriors rarely match what they’re capable of inside. The film will keep you guessing as it morphs from a Western to a romance to something deliciously dark, a melodrama with an eerie bite and sweeping, craggy vistas.

How to watch it: The Power of the Dog will begin streaming on Netflix, following its brief limited theatrical run in late November.

Listening to Kenny G

Release date: December 2

Listening to Kenny G is a documentary about the smooth-jazz sax crooner that sets out to ask a few barely answerable questions: Why do people love Kenny G? Why do people hate him? And what do their responses to him say about taste, preference, and art? Director Penny Lane has consistently refused to walk the easy route in films like Hail Satan? (about the Satanic Temple) and The Pain of Others (about women who believe they have Morgellons disease). There are no pat answers in her movies, and Listening to Kenny G is no exception. The film’s main interviewee is the sax player himself, but he’s flanked by music critics who point out all his shortcomings. Can they really tell a person who walked down the aisle to a Kenny G song that they’re wrong? That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?

How to watch it: Listening to Kenny G will premiere on HBO at 8 pm ET and stream on HBO Max.


Release date: December 2

Paul Verhoeven draws on the true story of a 17th-century nun for Benedetta, adapted from Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It’s the story of a torrid affair between the devout Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and a new novice, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who escapes a dangerous and abusive home situation by joining the convent where Benedetta resides. But that’s a relatively small piece of the puzzle. Benedetta is far more interested in power, both secular and ecclesiastical, and in the ways that miracles — real and imagined — might be harnessed to serve, and gain, those powers. So while the film aims to shock (Verhoeven is the director who made Robocop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, after all), it’s got something interesting to say, too.

How to watch it: Benedetta will open in theaters.


Release date: December 3

It’s rare to see animation as the main medium in a documentary, but Flee uses it to great effect. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his friend, Amin, who endured years of horror after fleeing Afghanistan with his family in the 1990s following the Taliban takeover. Flashbacks to Amin’s experiences are mixed in with his current uncertainties surrounding his relationship with his partner, Kasper, who desperately wants to buy a house, get married, and settle down. The effect of his past is a strong one, showing how even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present. Flee is heartbreaking and moving, and hard to forget.

How to watch it: Flee will open in theaters.

The Hand of God

Release date: December 3 (theaters); December 15 (Netflix)

Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope, The Great Beauty) crafts a loving coming-of-age story from his own youthful memories. Filippo Scotti plays Fabietto, a young man on the verge of adulthood who lives in Naples with his family in 1984. He’s obsessed with Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona — actually, everyone is obsessed with Maradona, and rumor has it that the legendary player is going to join the Naples football team. (Fabietto is also mildly obsessed with his gorgeous Aunt Patrizia, played by Luisa Ranieri.) The Hand of God follows Fabietto through ecstasy, drama, and tragedy that comes with growing up in a world full of joy and pain, and often surprise, and Sorrentino’s trademark sense of the absurd and life’s painful beauty shine through.

How to watch it: The Hand of God will open in theaters on December 3 and on Netflix on December 15.

West Side Story

Release date: December 10

At last, it’s here. Steven Spielberg’s magnificent remake of the movie-musical classic was delayed by the pandemic, but it’s arriving in movie theaters just in time to coincide with the original film’s 60th birthday. A new screenplay by the renowned playwright Tony Kushner reimagines the film while remaining faithful to the original, tugging at narrative threads that enrich the story and foreground its greatest themes without being too obvious. The film stars Ansel Elgort and outstanding newcomer Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers at the center of a tale of warring gangs and family loyalties; the whole cast is tremendous, but a standout performance by Ariana DeBose as Anita may be the best of all. (The original film’s Anita, Rita Moreno, serves as an executive producer and plays a key role in the film.) Every frame is beautifully composed and colorfully rendered, with key homages to the film’s roots in modernism. It’s an extraordinary offering that shows how vibrant and vital a remake can be.

How to watch it: West Side Story will open in theaters.

Nightmare Alley

Release date: December 17

Guillermo del Toro returns with a dark psychological thriller about the seedy underbelly of a carnival, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. (If it sounds familiar, that’s because the novel was also made into a movie in 1947.) The tale centers on a carnival barker named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) who becomes entangled with a dangerous psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). That pair of actors with this director is exciting enough, but the rest of the cast — Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, and more — seem like a real dream. Prepare to get spooky.

How to watch it: Nightmare Alley will open in theaters.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Release date: December 17

Spidey is back, and the stakes are high. At the end of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, the true identity of Spider-Man — he’s Peter Parker (Tom Holland), of course — has been revealed, and now everything’s changed. Peter has to ask Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him out, but Doctor Strange’s magic creates a real mess when villains from other realities pop up out of the multiverse to fight Spider-Man. (Those other realities include the other versions of the Spider-Man franchise, the ones starring Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, which, depending on your age, might ratchet up the nostalgia factor several degrees.) In addition to Holland and Cumberbatch, returning cast members include Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Benedict Wong, and a bunch of actors who played villains in those “alternate dimensions,” from Willem Dafoe to Alfred Molina to Jamie Foxx.

How to watch it: Spider-Man: No Way Home will open in theaters.

The Lost Daughter

Release date: December 17 (theatrical); December 31 (Netflix)

Maggie Gyllenhaal directed and wrote The Lost Daughter, based on an Elena Ferrante novel, and it’s an extraordinary debut. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged professor of comparative literature who’s on a working holiday in Greece. There, she meets Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who dearly loves her daughter but finds the demands of parenthood are driving her to distraction. As Nina and Leda spend time together, their story starts to twine with Leda’s past (in which she’s played by Jessie Buckley), a time when caring for her own young daughters pushed her to her limits. The Lost Daughter is a marvelously complex story, expertly crafted, with the freedom, loneliness, and claustrophobia of the main characters aptly evoked by the cinematography. Its splendid performances and keen sense of ambiguity feel so true to life that you might feel your heart catch in your throat.

How to watch it: The Lost Daughter will open in theaters on December 17 and begin streaming on Netflix December 31.

The Novice

Release date: December 17

The Novice feels like a cousin to Black Swan and The Fits, a thriller that digs into the psyche of a college student who is driven to the edge by her desperate need to win, to succeed, to be good at something. Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature is about Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a college freshman who becomes determined, even obsessed, with making the varsity rowing team. Along the way she meets Jamie (Amy Forsyth), who is talented, nonchalant, and her biggest competition. Desire and drive twist together as Alex pushes herself to the limit, and Hadaway’s precise, taut filmmaking makes this one a heart-pounder.

How to watch it: The Novice will open in theaters.

The Matrix Resurrections

Release date: December 22

It’s been a long time since a new Matrix movie — The Matrix Revolutions hit theaters in 2003 — but that’s all about to change. Keanu Reeves returns to the franchise for its fourth installment, playing Neo. He’s been living as boring normie Thomas A. Anderson for 20 years, taking blue pills that make him blind to the reality of the Matrix he’s living in. But then he runs into Morpheus again, and everything changes. Carrie-Anne Moss returns as Trinity, while Morpheus is now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; Lana Wachowski serves as sole director this time. Get ready to bend your spoon.

How to watch it: The Matrix Resurrections will open in theaters and on HBO Max.

Parallel Mothers

Release date: December 24

Penélope Cruz turns in a stunning performance in frequent collaborator Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, a heartfelt story with a hearty dash of the director’s signature melodrama. Cruz plays Janis, a middle-aged woman who becomes pregnant with her married lover’s child; he’s soon out of the picture. In the hospital, she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a younger woman who’s also alone and pregnant, and frightened. They become friends, but circumstances conspire to make them much more. Parallel Mothers taps into not just personal drama but Spain’s political trauma that lingers from the days of Franco’s cruel regime, and it does it all with heart, passion, and a little tinge of absurdity.

How to watch it: Parallel Mothers will open in theaters.

Licorice Pizza

Release date: December 25 (wide)

A fantastically shaggy comedy, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most joyous film in years, though there’s a marked undercurrent of darkness running underneath. Alana Haim (of the band Haim) and Cooper Hoffman (son of the late frequent Anderson collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman) play Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, two young people living in the San Fernando Valley in 1973. Alana is 25 and miserable in her photo assistant job, unable or unwilling to finally embark on adulthood; Gary is just a teenager, but when he spots her he starts wooing her hard. She rejects his advances, but they become friends, and the film follows them through a wild set of adventures in the Valley against the backdrop of social unrest, gasoline shortages, and a rapidly changing Hollywood. It’s confident and funny and a true romp of a movie, a wistful reminder of how awful the world of adults can be and what it’s like to maneuver through the feelings of first love.

How to watch it: Licorice Pizza will open in theaters across the country following its limited run.