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The Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)

Moviegoing is back, and the first six months of this year have offered plenty of films to discover

Dodge Williams Designs

The Movies are Back. We know this because F9 is in theaters in the U.S. and the Cannes Film Festival is underway in France (and, curiously, F9 is at Cannes, where hopefully Tilda Swinton will watch it on a beach with a Negroni and some oysters as foretold in the ancient scrolls). But of course movies also never really went away, and anybody who suggests that the past year and a half hasn’t seen its share of worthy new releases—some more widely accessible and better suited to streaming platforms than others—isn’t looking hard enough.


Looking through the best movies of the first half of 2020, I invoked the joke from Robert Altman’s great The Player about a studio whose motto reads “movies, now more than ever,” which parodies not only proliferating production practices but the omnipresent and too-precious rhetoric about what cinema means in times of crisis. Now, with summer tentpoles putting down stakes in theaters as well as online and the promise of a fall stacked with potentially top-tier auteur works—we see you, PTA—the feeling is more like business as usual. In compiling this list, though, I still wanted to try to err on the side of discovery. If a case can be made that Zack Snyder is, for better or for worse, the filmmaker of the year so far—with two spectacularly overcranked genre epics, one killer New York Times interview, and an all-time great redacted shitpost to his name—it’s also one you’ve probably read already (possibly on this website). So here are 10 strong, interesting, timely movies for anybody with the energy to try to play catch-up.

Bad Trip

As an exercise in off-the-cuff, kamikaze comedy in the Jackass-Borat mold, Bad Trip delivers the goods: the unscripted, hidden-camera interactions between star/crash-test dummy Eric Andre and the everyday Americans scattering in his path are funny, grotesque, and unpredictable—not necessarily in that order and sometimes somehow all at once. But there’s another, deeper achievement here, which is how dexterously Bad Trip’s half-verite concept exposes and crosses the wires of so many mainstream gross-out and/or romantic comedies. The movie frames Andre and his sidekick/straight man Lil Rel Howery as agents of spontaneous chaos as well as conventionally questing movie heroes in search of true love and self-respect, and the results are fascinating. Is it pretentious to say that a movie whose most memorable moment features a pair of flaccid penises stuck end-to-end in a Chinese finger trap is also interrogating the intersection of fiction and authenticity? Only if you think that there’s a dividing line between stupid and smart. And if you do, you’re squarely on the stupid side of it, by the way.

The Inheritance

Ephraim Asili’s intricately written and directed study of a West Philadelphia Black Liberationist group wrings deadpan visual and verbal jokes out of competitiveness and claustrophobia. Gathered together in a row house bequeathed to one member by his late grandmother, roommates bicker over dress codes (“Are we a shoeless home?”), steal each other’s spirulina, and even critique one another’s mango-eating habits. The joke is that such seeming trivialities exist along a continuum of principled, respectful, historically minded praxis, and Asili’s interest in questions of continuity and legacy (evoked literally in the title and deepened through documentary interludes about the stirring and tragic Philly-based MOVE collective in the 1970s) is itself a gesture of deep and searching conviction. A poster for Jean-Luc Godard’s incendiary 1967 Maoist classic La Chinoise, glimpsed amid the myriad artifacts and ephemera of Black art, poetry, and thought cluttering every square inch of the frame, suggests both the range of Asili’s influences and his aspirations. The most impressive aspect of The Inheritance is how its dense, complex weave of different narrative and rhetorical styles and visual and aural textures ends up playing as completely effortless. It’s a heavy movie with a light touch.

Identifying Features

The border crossers in Fernanda Valadez’s drama are determined people trying, each for reasons of their own, to get to the other side. What Identifying Features is about, though, are the ones who don’t make it—specifically, a series of lost boys whose mothers have set out to uncover their fates. It’s a journey that takes Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) beyond the morgue where her boy cannot be found and into the belly of two formidable beasts: Mexico’s dispassionate (and hopelessly swamped) governmental bureaucracy and the clandestine network of the country’s drug cartels, which exert their own top-down authority. By hewing so closely to her main character in terms of camerawork and point of view, Valadez risks a narrowed focus (and a lack of context). But the film uses Magdalena as both a viewer surrogate and witness, stranding her in a series of agonizing real-time set pieces and letting the stray details of place and culture speak eloquently for themselves.

No Sudden Move

The double and triple crosses of Steven Soderbergh’s period thriller are both thoroughly pleasurable and beside the point. It’s less important to follow the almost comically circuitous plot than to simply follow the money. In the opening scene, ex-con Curt (Don Cheadle) takes on a job of low-level thuggery in exchange for a quick, much-needed $5,000. He then comes into possession of a mysterious, valuable document, at which point he and his dim-bulb partner (Benicio Del Toro) start jacking up his price for the highest bidder. With its cynical allusions to Motor City history and industry—with a special emphasis on Detroit’s racial divisions and the postwar greed and grift of big-ticket automotive manufacturers—No Sudden Move unfolds as a political allegory in heist-movie garb. It also takes pains to rumple its own disguise, with Soderbergh daring ugliness through the use of the widest fisheye lenses since Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly. The look suggests either a warped, stylized noir-in-color universe, or a veteran filmmaker keeping his craft playful and experimental for the hell of it—a model that many of his control-freak peers might want to emulate. Bonus points for a regally menacing extended cameo by the great actor-director Bill Duke, who barely has to move (or speak) to impose his will on scenes.

Saint Maud

Piety is made terrifying in Rose Glass’s striking and assured debut feature, which deals with the perils of being a true believer and cared for by one. As hospice nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) grows closer to her lymphoma-stricken charge (Jennifer Ehle), she also burrows into her own delusions of grandeur, imagining herself as a savior figure even as she’s losing her grip on reality (and her bedside manner). If one mandate of horror cinema is to provoke strong reactions—the Lars von Trier argument, and Lars is definitely an influence here—Glass aces the assignment on both intellectual and visceral terms. Saint Maud works through some complicated, thorny ideas about faith and doubt before lowering the boom in a final image whose screaming intensity lodges itself in your subconscious and refuses to leave.

Summer of Soul

The old maxim of “show, don’t tell” gets tested in Questlove’s crowd-pleasing archival concert film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. On the one hand, Summer of Soul features stunning, irresistible footage of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and an entire roll call of 20th-century Black jazz, pop, blues, and rock greats at their prime. Each set is a veritable powder keg of melody and rhythm, and the songs go off, one after another. On the other hand: Questlove is eager to shore up his movie’s sociological heft, and he keeps cutting away to expert witnesses and talking heads to deconstruct the significance of what we’re seeing and hearing. It’s like an annotated set list, and it happens a few times too often. But it’s not enough to dampen the spirits of the movie as a whole, which takes its place alongside Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and The Last Waltz as a sweaty, sun-stroked tissue sample of an era’s transformative popular culture.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

The four writers profiled in master filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s new documentary were selected because of how their outputs narrate contemporary Chinese history. In particular, their novels and poems chart the nation’s widening rural-urban divide, a split that leads one to observe that from the modest vantage of his hometown, he sees the country and its hypermodern self-image as a kind of foreign land. Jia is excellent at conveying these kinds of disorienting sensations, and the loose, digressive structure of Swimming Out may leave some viewers feeling adrift. For those on the director’s wavelength, however, the film offers a treasure trove of images and prose that are carefully shaped and off-the-cuff reminiscences describing a nation’s ceaseless, quietly seismic patterns of change.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

The late South African actress Mary Twala carries this Lesothan drama on her deceptively frail shoulders. Playing a village elder who learns that the local politicians are planning to flood the surrounding valley to build a lucrative new dam, she’s a figure of skepticism and judgment. She hijacks community meetings about the logistics of the impending resettlement and makes a vow to defy the deluge, and her defiance is contagious. Cinematographer Pierre de Villiers wisely keeps the camera fixated on his star even in moments of silence: This is definitely slow cinema, but it holds our gaze and has a wicked sense of humor as well. Much of the film is made up of long, spectacularly beautiful landscape shots whose compositions hint at modernity encroaching on tradition, and the exposition is almost entirely visual and more powerful for it. The underlying dynamic is of an irresistible force hitting a surprisingly immovable object. By the end, Twala’s presence—and her grievance—feel genuinely monumental.

Undine

Comparisons to The Shape of Water are inevitable with Undine, which is named for a human-passing water sprite (Paula Beer) looking for love on land (specifically in Berlin, where she works as historian). But Christian Petzold—extending a winning streak from Barbara to Phoenix to Transit—is a very different kind of filmmaker than Guillermo del Toro. Instead of shoving the fairy-tale elements (and special effects) in our faces, he keeps them lurking suggestively and poetically in the background, both to cultivate a sense of ambiguity about whether Undine is literally a mermaid (she does like kissing in swimming pools) and to make room for a more abstract meditation on the theme of change. Undine’s area of study is Berlin’s gradual architectural mutation from century to century; a shot of two lovers diving among submerged ruins whispers a warning that all things—from true love to civilization itself—must pass.

Zola

Riley Keough throws her hat in the ring of the all-time more-is-more performances as the proverbial White Bitch in Janicza Bravo’s epic Twitter-thread adaptation, Zola. Somewhere, the James Franco of Spring Breakers and the Elizabeth Berkley of Showgirls are smiling. Meanwhile, as the title character, Taylour Paige is the face of wary, watchful disbelief, as if she’s trying to process how she ended up hijacked into a stranger’s wild Bonnie-and-Clyde escapades (and how she will tell her story later on). The heated, multidirectional discourse around Zola as the first official social-media melodrama, the charged racial dynamic between its frenemy protagonists, and the sheer explicitness of its sex scenes threaten to drown out discussions about the filmmaking itself, which is bold and inventive without being ostentatious. Aided hugely by Mica Levi’s atmospheric score, Bravo conjures up the sort of dreamy, heightened vibe you’d get from an out-of-body experience. It’s the perfect visual language for a movie about the comedy, terror, and life-changing perspective of being along for the ride.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.