The best films of 2021 so far

The best films of 2021 so far

Our half-time favorites of the year in movies include Zola, In The Heights, and Shiva Baby

Clockwise from top left: Judas And The Black Messiah (Photo: Warner Bros.), The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (Image: Netflix), No Sudden Move (Photo: HBO Max), Saint Maud (Photo: A24), The Disciple (Photo: Netflix), In The Heights (Photo: Warner Bros.), Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Photo: Lionsgate)
Clockwise from top left: Judas And The Black Messiah (Photo: Warner Bros.), The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (Image: Netflix), No Sudden Move (Photo: HBO Max), Saint Maud (Photo: A24), The Disciple (Photo: Netflix), In The Heights (Photo: Warner Bros.), Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Photo: Lionsgate)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

It’s difficult to say, from the limited vantage of our present moment, if movie culture is going to return to the “normal” of a pre-COVID world. Yes, theaters are open for business again, and Hollywood has started flooding them with would-be blockbusters once more, banking on audiences being ready to return to the big screen for some big spectacle. But setting aside the possibility of a new spike and a return to quarantine conditions, the lost year of 2020 also seemed to accelerate changes in distribution strategy that were already happening, just a little slower. Which is to say: There’s a good chance that a future where nearly all movies go to streaming has already arrived. Or maybe not. After a year and a half indoors, maybe the world is primed to give the theatrical experience a major second life.

Right now, at the midway of 2021, a couple things are clear. One, that the first few months of this new year were basically an extension of the last one, at least in terms of how and what kind of films came out. And two, that even a global pandemic can’t stop worthwhile movies from being made and released. What follows, in order of when they come out (and followed by info of where they can be presently watched), is an unranked list of our 20 favorite films of the year so far—an eclectic group that includes thoughtful indies, daft Hollywood comedies, acclaimed documentaries, a musical, a horrifying revenge thriller, a zany Netflix-by-way-of-Sony animated feature, an Oscar winner that’s a 2021 movie no matter what the Academy says, and an adaptation of a Twitter thread. Cinema’s future may be uncertain. But watching these movies, it’s safe to say that its present holds rewards aplenty.

Advertisement

2 / 22

MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI

MLK/FBI

Hulu and digital platforms

MLK/FBI
MLK/FBI
Photo: IFC Films

Sam Pollard’s straightforward but engrossing documentary history lesson does more than just lay out all the evidence of a shameful truth America has known for years—namely, that our intelligence community waged a war of surveillance and propaganda against Martin Luther King, Jr. The film also operates as an archival portrait of the man himself, and it finds in its wealth of footage unspoken but unmistakable parallels to our now: To see King accused on television of inciting violence, only to calmly ask who is actually committing that violence, is to understand anew how the powers that were used misinformation to undermine the civil rights movement—and how those strategies are still deployed, in every fear-mongering pundit’s bulletin on the “dangers” of BLM. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

3 / 22

Some Kind Of Heaven

Some Kind Of Heaven

Some Kind Of Heaven

Hulu and digital platforms

Some Kind Of Heaven
Some Kind Of Heaven
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The Villages is the biggest retirement community in Florida, the country, maybe the whole world; a funny, colorful documentary could be made from the various quirks and subcultures of its geriatric “paradise. Some Kind Of Heaven takes a different, pricklier approach, not so much shining a spotlight on the eccentricities of the so-called “Disney World for retirees” as following a few subjects struggling to tap into the promise of its brochures: the supposed utopian dream of living your twilight years large and carefree. Though wunderkind director Lance Oppenheim can’t entirely resist the bizarro-world kitsch of his setting, the sobering reality that life doesn’t always get easier during its final stretch pokes through the artificial cheer, like dark clouds rolling across a clear blue sky. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

4 / 22

Identifying Features

Identifying Features

Identifying Features

Digital platforms

Identifying Features
Identifying Features
Photo: Kino Lorber

Save for one devastating climatic shot, we never see the faces of the men whose atrocities drive the plot of Identifying Features. In this apocalyptically somber drama from Mexican writer-director Fernanda Valadez, the cartels are a force of nature—an evil spoken of in whispers but never seen, like a toxin that’s seeped forever into the air, affecting every aspect of the culture it’s poisoned. Following a mother (Mercedes Hernández) on a dangerous, likely doomed quest to find out what happened to her missing son, the film envisions modern Mexico as one giant ghost town. The endless hush can be oppressive, but there’s a moral clarity to it: Valadez has made a movie about the drug war that largely leaves the violence off screen, un-dramatized; its absence speaks to a larger one, that of the disappeared and of those struck silent by loss and fear. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

5 / 22

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Hulu and Paramount+

Saint Maud
Saint Maud
Photo: A24

Even as the “elevated horror” cycle reaches its ouroboros phase, a film like Saint Maud can still stand out from the impeccably composed slow-burn pack. Writer-director Rose Glass’ debut feature combines talky chamber drama, Paul Schrader-esque character study, and visceral body horror, all filtered through a hysterical Catholic lens. Morfydd Clark’s performance as the title character—an English home nurse with a ferocious devotion to her faith and a disgraceful hidden past—keeps the film from getting lost in its thick layers of atmosphere and dread; it builds to a climax powerful enough to seep into the most jaded viewer’s nightmares. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

6 / 22

Judas And The Black Messiah

Judas And The Black Messiah

Judas And The Black Messiah

HBO Max

Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And The Black Messiah
Photo: Warner Bros.

If the Oscars are to be believed, Judas And The Black Messiah has no protagonist; after all, both of its stars, LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, were nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year (the latter won the prize), even though they’re plainly co-leads. Still, there is a certain crosscutting novelistic quality to the way Shaka King’s biographical film about the betrayal and death of Fred Hampton spends nearly equal time with Hampton (Kaluuya) and William O’Neal (Stanfield), the FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968. King’s direction is thoughtful, but the real attraction here is seeing two of the most celebrated actors of their generation play off of each other, alongside a vast ensemble (the true supporting players of the movie) with no weak links, only secret weapons. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

7 / 22

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Digital platforms and VOD

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Photo: Lionsgate

Barb and Star descended from comedy heaven in February, blasting inspired silliness onto a frostbitten, pandemic-ravaged world like a couple of Nebraskan Care Bears. Co-writers and co-stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s nearly decade-later followup to Bridesmaids is packed with daffy, reality-bending non sequiturs. Combined with the comic chops of its cast—including a delightful Jamie Dornan, who should be allowed to have fun in movies more often—and a Lisa Frank-esque color palette bright enough to induce mild hallucinations, the result was a fruity tropical drink for the mind. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

8 / 22

French Exit

French Exit

French Exit

Digital platforms

French Exit
French Exit
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Azazel Jacobs’ arch comedy isn’t to every taste. In fact, this writer found its wordy, stylized farce—pulled from a novel by Patrick DeWitt, who handled adaptation duties himself—more labored than delightful. But the film, about a Manhattan socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer) who flees to Paris after spending the last of her dead husband’s money, has its fervent fans here at The A.V. Club (including Mike D’Angelo, who wrote a rave review for the site). And given the inherent subjectivity of humor, we’d be remiss not to direct readers towards what may at least be the most singular comedy of the year (if not necessarily the funniest), thanks to an eccentric cast of characters and dialogue dripping with caustic wit. If nothing else, see it for the pleasure of Pfeiffer sinking her teeth into a rare starring role—a deliciously acerbic performance on which everyone probably can agree. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

9 / 22

Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby

Digital platforms

Shiva Baby
Shiva Baby
Photo: Utopia

The line between a giggle fit and a heart attack can be surprisingly thin. Shiva Baby lives in the fluttery space between them. This impressively staged debut from writer-director Emma Seligman is most succinctly described as “sex-positive cringe comedy,” starring breakout talent Rachel Sennott as an aimless undergraduate of uncertain major who must endure an unbearably awkward afternoon trapped with her ex-girlfriend, her sugar daddy, his wife, their baby, and an assortment of nosy relatives at a shiva. From the food humor to the rapid escalation of surrealism as the day’s stresses start to wear on our heroine’s mind, Shiva Baby is sharply written and relatable enough to launch a buzzy 13-week run at New York’s Quad Cinemas, where Seligman and Sennott’s old NYU classmates have turned it into a word-of-mouth hit. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

10 / 22

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection

Virtual theaters

This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection
This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection
Photo: Dekanalog

From its opening title, This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection fills the screen with both grim poetry and righteous defiance. Metal bands could take notes from 80-year-old star Mary Twala Mhlongo, whose performance as a widow radicalized by the death of her last living child embodies an intractable spirit of fire-hardened rebellion. Throughout the film, director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese balances opposite values, both aesthetic and thematic: urgency and resignation, the mythical past and the political present, love of life and longing for death. All are reflected in Mhlongo’s endlessly fascinating face, which Mosese centers in long, unbroken shots that give the film the stately beauty of a Renaissance tableau. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

11 / 22

Violation

Violation

Violation

Shudder

Violation
Violation
Photo: Shudder

Violation asks viewers to dig into their psyches and pull out the darkest thoughts they’ve ever had about what they’d like to do to someone who hurt them. Then it brings those fantasies to life. The “righteous” violence in this brutally transgressive take on the rape-revenge genre is unblinkingly graphic, the catharsis that normally accompanies onscreen acts of vigilante justice completely absent. Instead, directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also stars) explore the psychological underpinnings of vengeance, and what it does to a human being to live in hate for so long. It’s not an easy watch, but its horror proves uniquely thought-provoking. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

12 / 22

Moffie

Moffie

Moffie

Digital platforms and VOD

Moffie
Moffie
Photo: IFC Films

The erotic underbelly of violently repressive all-male environments has fueled many a work of fiction, from Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to the work of Jean Genet. Moffie moves this theme to apartheid-era South Africa, where young white men like Nicolas (Kai Luke Brummer), an 18-year old recruit terrified of being exposed as homosexual, are broken down and reshaped into defenders of the colonial regime as part of their compulsory military service. But the horrors of racism are merely the background for a more personal—and poetic—story, attuned to the sensual nature of memory and told in an economical yet evocative storytelling style. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

13 / 22

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines

Netflix

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
The Mitchells Vs. The Machines
Image: Netflix

From the Lord-Miller school of cartoon shenanigans comes this charming comedy, whose tale of a bumbling, dysfunctional family forced to go full John Connor during an iApocalypse strikes an almost vintage-Simpsons balance of pathos to irreverence. Coming at its generational conflict honestly (it’s both respectful of luddite skepticism and made in an appealingly antic style indebted to social-media aesthetics), The Mitchells Vs. The Machines attempts a Pixarian assault on the whole family’s heart, all while tossing off inspired verbal and visual gags at TikTok speed. As for the animation, it’s nearly as pleasingly eye-popping as Spiderverse’s—proof that there’s a ghost of creativity left in the churning machine of studio animation. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

14 / 22

The Disciple

The Disciple

The Disciple

Netflix

The Disciple
The Disciple
Photo: Netflix

You could plaster every inch of Madison Square Garden with posters of movies about how important it is to follow your dreams. Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature is the reality check—a witheringly perceptive drama about an aspiring Hindustani singer (Aditya Modak, credibly playing both a twentysomething striver and the stockier, wearier older man he becomes) whose single-minded pursuit of a calling turns into an uphill struggle of rejection, disappointment, and the most fleeting of validation. Anyone who’s chased an unfashionable passion or impossibly lofty goal will relate; some exquisite dry humor and Tamhane’s clever, careful framing soften the blow of the film’s insights, its unsentimental look at what it really means—speaking of posters—to hang in there, baby. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

15 / 22

The Killing Of Two Lovers

The Killing Of Two Lovers

The Killing Of Two Lovers

Digital platforms

The Killing Of New Lovers
The Killing Of New Lovers
Photo: Neon

Chekhov’s famous gun makes a very early appearance in The Killing Of Two Lovers. Its presence, combined with the film’s ominous title, adds an undercurrent of simmering unease to writer-director-editor Robert Machoian’s intimate portrait of a couple (Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi) going through a trial separation in some grey corner of rural America. But without the threat of impending violence looming over its proceedings, this would still look like an uncommonly complex domestic drama, navigating the emotional minefield of an unraveling marriage through sharp details of character (one bittersweet scene in a parked car brims with information about a relationship on the rocks) and performances as loaded with potential, destructive power as a pistol brandished and then holstered for later use. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

16 / 22

There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil

Select theaters

There Is No Evil
There Is No Evil
Photo: Kino Lorber

Like countryman Jafar Panahi, writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof has continued to shoot movies even as the Iranian authorities have banned his work and legally barred him from filmmaking. That makes his latest, smuggled out of the country and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the top prize, the Golden Bear), an act of courageous political dissent. But it’s also just a terrific movie, and the rare omnibus project without a bum vignette in the bunch. Spinning four ideologically compatible but stylistically distinct yarns about the spiritual burden put on Iran’s executioners (many of them young soldiers), There Is No Evil isn’t so far removed from an E.C. Comics anthology, except that the twists nestled into each story convey a deep moral horror—the revelation of how capital punishment corrupts every aspect of a culture, leaving only the dead and those rendered undead by their complicity in a barbaric practice and system. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

17 / 22

In The Heights

In The Heights

In The Heights

Select theaters and HBO Max

In The Heights
In The Heights
Photo: Warner Bros.

Musical theater lovers don’t need to be sold on a big-screen adaptation of In The Heights, so we’re speaking to the skeptics in the audience when we say that, yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning tribute to Latinx communities in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights can be painfully earnest. That’s just the nature of the thing. But if you surrender to the spectacle orchestrated by director Jon M. Chu, and immerse yourself in the ebullient fantasy of numbers like the infectious “Carnaval de Barrio” and the show-stopping “Paciencia y Fe,” you might just find your self-consciousness disappearing over the course of this 143-minute crowdpleaser. Who knows? You might even catch a feeling or two. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

18 / 22

Slow Machine

Slow Machine

Slow Machine

Virtual theaters and digital platforms

Slow Machine
Slow Machine
Photo: Grasshopper Film

A Brooklyn Jacques Rivette. A lo-fi John Le Carré. Descriptions of Slow Machine are as evasive as the film itself, the enigmatic tale of a struggling New York theater actress (Stephanie Hayes) who may or may not be Swedish but is definitely not Texan (although she talks like it at times). Directors Joe Denardo and Paul Felten weave together the immediate past and desperate present of Stephanie’s life into a gauzy, thriller-adjacent narrative that coyly keeps its true nature hidden until the very end. The addition of indie luminaries like Eleanor Friedberger and Chloë Sevigny essentially playing themselves further obfuscates the reality of the film, giving it the air of a half-remembered conversation from an ancient warehouse party. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

19 / 22

No Sudden Move

No Sudden Move

No Sudden Move

HBO Max

No Sudden Move
No Sudden Move
Photo: Warner Bros.

Steven Soderbergh has now spent most of his career, pre- and post short-lived retirement, riffing on the destructive hierarchies of capitalism. Thankfully, that polemical focus remains compatible with his interest in crafting effortlessly cool, star-powered entertainments, as evidenced by this convoluted midcentury picaresque. Returning to the Motor City setting of his masterpiece, Soderbergh pushes an ace ensemble cast (led by Don Cheadle, making the Out Of Sight connection more explicit still) through the machinery of a criminal plot that starts down and dirty but reaches, inevitably and through a series of twists, into higher halls of power. Perhaps no one has found more satisfying variations on the heist movie—or more withering critiques hiding behind the turning gears of the genre’s conventions. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

20 / 22

Zola

Zola

Zola

Select theaters

Zola
Zola
Photo: A24

When filmmakers attempt to convey social media on screen, the results can be… a bit much. Zola harnesses the inherent extra-ness of the internet for laughs, bouncing Riley Keough’s outrageous, slippery Stefani off of new friend Zola (Taylour Paige), whose skeptical reaction shots only get funnier as a wild weekend dancing at a strip club in Tampa (or so Stefani promised) spirals further out of control. Drolly deploying iPhone sound effects for comic effect, director Janicza Bravo captures the chaos of Twitter and the tacky aesthetics of Florida every bit as well as she honors the voice of the real-life A’ziah “Zola” King, who executive produces this adaptation of her original 148-tweet odyssey. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement

21 / 22

Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised

Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised

Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Hulu

Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Photo: Hulu

The most joyous concert movie in recent memory. But for all the self-evident pleasures Questlove finds in a lost stockpile of footage, filmed at a multi-week music festival in 1969 and then thrown into storage to molder for half a century, the magic of Summer Of Soul goes beyond the country-preacher electricity of a young Stevie Wonder on piano or the heart-stopping balladry of Nina Simone live and on stage. The drummer-turned-director weaves these magnetic performances into the socio-political fabric of the era, exhibiting a musician’s (and DJ’s) understanding of how meaning can arise from sequencing and rhythm. It’s a great movie about the ’60s—not just its music, but also its struggles, its people, its spirit. [A.A. Dowd]

Advertisement

22 / 22