The best movies of 2021 (so far)
Are we back to normal yet? No, and we may never be. But so far, this year's mix of platform streaming, VOD, and oh-my-God-we're-sitting-in-an-actual-theater-again has already yielded more than enough films than there is room to celebrate in a top 10. (If we could, we'd also be telling you not to miss Together Together, The Killing of Two Lovers, Shiva Baby, The Courier, Hope, The Human Voice, and Framing Britney Spears. Oh look! We just did.)
As the industry continues to crawl out from its pandemic slumber, the next six months will undoubtedly offer richer things, including a resurgent run of festivals and the usual deluge of prestige projects that pre-awards falls and winters tend to bring. But until then, we've got Pixars and Zolas and one dazzling post-Hamilton dream to see us through.
In the Heights
Paciencia y fe (patience and faith) - that, and about 13 years, is what it took to get Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-sweeping 2008 debut In the Heights from stage to screen. In the hands of director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) - and the gifts of its gorgeous young cast, including an extraordinary Anthony Ramos - the play's Latinx-centered story line takes cinematic flight. The result is a vibrant modern musical so full of song and dance and bright Technicolor joy that it feels like the purest distillation of hope; a beacon to light our way out of pandemic darkness and beyond.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Though Judas' February release already feels like half a lifetime ago - its arc inextricably tied to this spring's delayed awards season alongside 2020 juggernauts like One Night in Miami and Nomadland - Shaka King's portrait of slain Black Panther Fred Hampton is that rare thing in a biopic: a weighty narrative that doesn't trade the urgency of its message for electrifying style. King deserves heavy credit for that, as do costars like LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons. But it's British actor Daniel Kaluuya's Oscar-winning performance at the center that makes the movie: raw, magnetic, and alive in every frame.
Riders of Justice
Scandinavian Suicide Squad on a budget? Yes, please. If the premise for Riders of Justice doesn't sell you, Mads Mikkelsen will; Denmark's best export since salty licorice stars as a Markus, a military man compelled to find who's responsible for the death of his wife in a Copenhagen train explosion. Markus has never found a problem he can't fix with fists, but a ragtag group of scientists and IT guys - along with his own semi-estranged teenage daughter - have other ideas of getting to the truth in Anders Thomas Jensen's witty, profane action comedy.
From a tweetstorm it came, but Zola can hardly be contained by the screen; that's how kinetic director Janicza Bravo's dark comedy - a wild candy-colored road saga, told in the key of smartphone - feels in nearly every scene. Zola (Taylour Paige) is vaguely dazzled to meet Stefani (Riley Keough), a fellow stripper with a simple plan: They'll drive south for the weekend to work a few clubs, get rich, and go home. What follows is more like Fear and Loathing in Central Florida, but for all its digital pings and palm tree lunacy, there's real humor and humanity in the movie's chaotic neon heart.
There's no shortage of movies about young men and war - though few are as brutal, or as beautiful, as Moffie, director Oliver Hermanus' starkly affecting portrayal of a shy teenager named Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) conscripted into the South African army at the height of apartheid. Nicholas has always known that his sexuality sets him apart, even if it's the last thing he can confess to in a place where difference is punishable by far more than harsh words; somehow, he manages to find friendship in basic training with the other boys, and even a clandestine romance. With its unvarnished takes on bigotry, violence, and queer desire, Moffie isn't exactly breezy viewing, but it feels essential nonetheless.
Summer of Soul
You may know Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson as a drummer, DJ, and indefatigable ambassador of sound; now meet the man (and fan) who directs this summer's best concert documentary - one whose central events happened to take place just over half a century ago. Culled from long-languishing footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul features a staggering convergence of stars: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone. Though Thompson takes care to place his story in the larger context of that tumultuous era, it's the uncut you-are-there wonder of the performances - every mic crackle and finger snap, every sueded fringe and money note - that stays.
A Quiet Place Part II
"Family horror" feels like an odd genre to recommend, if it exists at all; but what makes writer-actor-director John Krasinski's 2018 apocalyptic breakout A Quiet Place - and now its briskly sinister sequel, delayed over a year for COVID - stand out isn't just the scrabbling pincers of alien spider-crabs or the abject terror of awaiting their kill response to every human sound. It's the fact that his story is actually rooted in real relationships - specifically that of a tenacious mother (Emily Blunt) and two resourceful kids (deaf actress Millicent Simmonds and Ford v. Ferrari's Noah Jupe) who feel, gratifyingly, like more than screaming space-bug chum.
Luca; Raya and the Last Dragon
Now that animated movies regularly get metaphysical and then get Oscars (we see you, Soul and Inside Out), the ones that merely entertain can seem like underachievers. But to aim that high with every pixel would mean to miss stories like the sun-dappled Italian rhapsody Luca and Disney's scrappy proto-feminist adventure tale Raya and the Last Dragon. Both movies' winsome charms come as much from the fact that they're largely song-free and modestly scaled as for the timeless messages contained within (it's okay to be different or strange, and even small people deserve big dreams).
The White Tiger
A sprawling, splashy melodrama about class and caste and destiny in modern-day India, The White Tiger was bound to be compared to Slumdog Millionaire. Director Ramin Bahrani's adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning 2008 novel of the same name shares some surface similarities - including a star-making turn for its ambitious young hero, played here by Adarsh Gourav - but its Horatio Alger tale of a village boy whose eyes are opened by his job chauffeuring for a wealthy Delhi scion (Rajkummar Rao) and his American-bred wife (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) is more than aware of the themes and prejudices that precede it. Gourav, in his achingly vulnerable performance, becomes the mouse that roared.
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Maybe you had to be there. But in the bleakest days of February, two ladies (co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) with the feathered bobs of a discontinued QVC wig factory and the can-do spirit of cartoon dolphins took a trip - and their journey from Soft Rock, Neb., to the distant lands of Vista Del Mar felt like everything absurdist comedy should be. The accents in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar are Fargo on poppers; the plot, as it were, is nearly nonexistent. And yet! What a joy to spend nearly two giddy, disorienting, sand-dancing Jamie Dornan hours with Barb and Star.