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The 17 Best Movies Based on True Stories of 2021 (So Far)

Several are already Oscar nominated!

the united states vs billie holiday best true story movies 2021
Takashi Seida/Hulu

As much as we love being whisked away in the escapist fantasies of a thorough Marvel binge, a stunt-filled spy movie, or even just a delightfully ridiculous rom-com with a completely unrealistic premise, sometimes we want to keep our movie nights firmly planted in the real world—but without going full documentary. On nights like those (and literally any other time you want to feel inspired and entertained and at least a little more historically informed), your best bet is to dive into a movie that's based on a true story, though still technically fictionalized. We're talking biopics like I, Tonya, historical dramas like Hidden Figures, and occasionally fantastical deep-dives like The Big Short—movies that perfectly toe the line between fact and fiction, please critics and casual viewers alike, and send you scrambling into a never-ending Wikipedia hole to learn everything you possibly can about the person, place, or event you just watched come to life onscreen.

Fortunately for us all, the 2021 cinematic slate is already loaded with films based on remarkable true stories, several of which have now been nominated for Academy Awards. Here are the ones you absolutely must add to your watch list.

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'Our Friend'

Based on an essay written by journalist Matthew Teague for Esquire in 2015, this is the heartwarming (and -breaking) story of the incredible friend (Jason Segel) who dropped everything to be with Teague (Casey Affleck) and his family when Teague's wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Get those tissues ready!

Premieres January 22 in theaters and on demand.

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'The Dig'

File this one under very cool women you've never heard of. Carey Mulligan plays Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow who tapped local amateur archeologist Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes) to see what was going on under the strange hills dotting her English countryside estate in the 1930s. Brown and his team uncovered countless monumental relics from the Anglo-Saxon era, and the rest was (literal) history.

Premieres January 29 on Netflix.

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'Penguin Bloom'

For the record, the titular character is neither a penguin nor a flower—it's an injured magpie adopted by the Bloom family after matriarch Sam (Naomi Watts) is left partially paralyzed from a terrible accident. As Penguin heals, Sam takes note and finds the strength to relearn how to spread her wings and fly, too. After watching, make sure you check out the book it's based on, which was written by Sam's husband Cameron (played in the movie by Andrew Lincoln).

Premieres January 27 on Netflix.

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'Judas and the Black Messiah'

If you're not familiar with the tragic and infuriating story of the police assassination of Black Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton (played here by Daniel Kaluuya) and the young FBI informant who helped make it happen (Lakeith Stanfield), it's time. The movie was made with the blessing of Hampton's family and garnered five Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor nods for both Kaluuya and Stanfield.

Premieres February 12 in theaters and on HBO Max through March 14.

'Minari'

Another Best Picture contender (on top of its five other Oscar noms), Minari is a semi-autobiographical version of director Lee Isaac Chung's upbringing in rural Arkansas as the child of South Korean immigrants in the 1980s. Critics have hailed it as a powerful depiction of the immigrant experience in the U.S. and of the pursuit of the mythical American dream—and a must-watch.

Premieres February 12 in theaters and on demand.

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'The Mauritanian'

Despite repeated promises of closure and regular reports of inhumane conditions, the Guantanamo Bay military prison opened by the U.S. after 9/11 remains open, with 40 detainees still imprisoned there. This film tells the true and horrific story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian man who was held at the detention camp without any charges or trial for 14 years. Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley play the defense attorneys fighting tooth and nail to free Salahi, while Benedict Cumberbatch plays a military prosecutor doing everything he can to stop them, even if it means working well outside the law.

Premieres February 12 in theaters and on demand.

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'Nomadland'

Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who takes on a nomadic lifestyle, living out of a van, after her husband dies and she loses her job. The eye-opening film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book of the same name about the growing numbers of older Americans who began living as nomads and following seasonal work opportunities across the country after losing their jobs in the 2008 recession. It stars several actual nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves and was nominated for six Oscars, including a historic Best Director nod for Chloé Zhao.

Premieres February 19 on Hulu.

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'The United States vs. Billie Holiday'

In yet another frustrating story of the U.S. government's history of racist, fear-based, and unwarranted attacks on prominent Black leaders, this film shows how the Grammy-winning singer (Andra Day) was used by the government to racialize the so-called war on drugs. Day was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in movie, which also stars Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, and Garrett Hedlund.

Premieres February 26 on Hulu.

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'My Salinger Year'

We'll call this one The Devil Wears Prada lite. An adaptation of writer Joanna Rakoff's 2014 memoir of the same name, My Salinger Year stars Margaret Qualley as Rakoff in the post-grad year she spent working for a demanding boss (Sigourney Weaver) at a literary agency in N.Y.C. in the 1990s. With much of her days spent responding to J.D. Salinger's fan mail, Rakoff begins to find her own writer's voice while secretly spicing up the mandated form replies.

Premieres March 5 in theaters and on demand.

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'The Courier'

Benedict Cumberbatch simply cannot say no to a historical drama—and thank goodness for that. In this one, he stars as Greville Wynne, a British businessman who was recruited by MI6 during the Cold War to deliver secret messages to a contact in the Soviet nuclear program; Wynne's daring actions ultimately aided in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Premieres March 19 in theaters and on demand.

'The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It'

I hate to break it to anyone who self-soothes after watching horror movies by reminding themselves that "it's just a movie," but the Conjuring series and its many spinoffs are actually all based on the real-life cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). And though it's not set in a haunted house, the next installment continues this trend, focusing on the 1981 trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, a Connecticut man who claimed he had been possessed by a demon when he killed his landlord. Uh, sure.

Premieres June 4 in theaters and on HBO Max through July 4.

'Fatherhood'

Prepare yourself for another major tearjerker: Kevin Hart will star as Matthew Logelin, a man whose wife dies barely 24 hours after giving birth to their first child, a daughter, prematurely. The movie is based on the real-life Logelin's 2011 memoir Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love, in which he recounted his courtship and marriage to his late wife Liz and his first year as a single father to their daughter Maddy. (Much more fun fact: After the film was sold to Netflix, Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions signed on as distributors.)

Premieres June 18 on Netflix.

'Respect'

Several years before her 2018 death, Aretha Franklin asked—or, more accurately, told—Jennifer Hudson not only to play her in a biopic, but also to win an Oscar for the performance. Obviously, Hollywood immediately began working to make the first part happen and, if the trailer alone is any indication, the second part is almost guaranteed to follow. The film has a star-studded cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Titus Burgess, and so many more, and truly cannot come out soon enough.

Premieres August 13.

'The Last Duel'
the last duel matt damon jodie comer true story movies 2021
MEGAGetty Images

The '80s are back, baby! The 1380s, that is. The Last Duel is based on Eric Jager's 2004 nonfiction book of the same name detailing the last official instance of trial by combat in France, which occurred in 1386 between two knights. The screenplay was written by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, with the latter two also starring in the film. Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, who accuses his former best friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), setting up a judicially ordered fight to the death between the two men. Between the stacked cast, intense story, and Damon's insane medieval goatee, we're going to go ahead and predict a full Oscars sweep for The Last Duel in 2022.

Premieres October 15.

'King Richard'
richard williams king richard true story movies 2021
Julian FinneyGetty Images

There's no denying that Venus and Serena Williams have achieved some unbelievably GOAT-worthy accomplishments in their decades as pro tennis players, but equally impressive is the story of their father Richard, who coached them to those achievements for most of their lives without ever having played tennis competitively. He'll be played by Will Smith in this biopic, which will take place in the '90s, right as the Williams sisters were preparing to go pro.

Premieres November 19 in theaters and on HBO Max through December 19.

'House of Gucci'

As if you didn't already know from the set photos thirsted over 'round the world, Lady Gaga and Adam Driver are playing Patrizia Reggiani and Maurizio Gucci, respectively, in this portrayal of Reggiani's involvement in and trial for the 1995 assassination of her ex-husband Gucci. The film also stars Al Pacino, Jared Leto, and Jeremy Irons and is directed by Ridley Scott, and I swear, if it doesn't win a 2022 Oscar for Driver's Big Sweater Energy alone, the Academy will have me to answer to.

Premieres November 24.

'Spencer'
kristen stewart spencer princess diana
Neon

It's been almost 25 years since her tragic death, and yet Princess Diana's life and legacy have only seemed to increase in relevance during that time, especially as we've watched her sons grow up and learn to navigate the world without her. This year, the late Princess of Wales will be further immortalized in biopic form. She'll be played by Kristen Stewart, who already appears to be Lady Di's spitting image in photos from the set, and the movie will cover the three-day period over the 1991 Christmas holidays during which Diana decided that she needed to seek a divorce from Prince Charles.

Release date TBD; expected sometime this fall.

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