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20 Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)
Now that the Academy Awards have (belatedly) handed out their golden statuettes to 2020’s finest, cinephiles can finally concentrate all of their attention on 2021, which to date has delivered a wealth of great fiction and documentary features— particularly during this past month. Having already proven his dramatic chops on TV’s Better Call Saul, comedic star Bob Odenkirk establishes his action bona fides as a dad on a murderous rampage in the stellar Nobody. Acclaimed British filmmaker Ben Wheatley digs deeply into our ongoing COVID fears and anxieties with the sterling pandemic-themed (and produced) eco-nightmare In the Earth. And Swedish master Roy Andersson crafts a haunting, droll, and altogether unique drama about mortality and the purpose of life with the mesmerizing About Endlessness.
Those films alone made April one of the strongest months in recent memory. Better still, more excellence should be on the immediate horizon, thanks to the fact that theaters across the country are now ramping up their efforts to reopen their doors in advance of the summer. Led by Disney’s Cruella, Marvel’s Black Widow and Universal’s Fast and the Furious 9, a slew of aspiring blockbusters will soon aim to provide the industry with a potent shot in the arm (pun intended). That can only mean good things for the movies and for moviegoers, who are no doubt itching to return to their favorite multiplexes and art houses to experience these works as they were meant to be seen. Nonetheless, while that coveted future isn’t far off (fingers crossed!), there’s no reason to bemoan the present, since as our current selections for the best movies of 2021 confirm, there’s plenty to celebrate right now.
20) Cliff Walkers
Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) brings glamorous style to familiar spy-movie clichés with Cliff Walkers, a knotty 1930s-set espionage saga in which four Chinese communist agents sneak into Japan-occupied Manchuria to smuggle out the sole survivor of a torture camp. This quartet splits up into couples to achieve their covert aim, only to be immediately and constantly beset by encounters with comrades who may be double (or triple?) agents. Be it early shots from the perspective of its parachuting-through-trees protagonists, or a snowy attempt to infiltrate a metropolitan gala, Zhang blends Hitchcockian suspense with Dr. Zhivago beauty, all while simultaneously shouting out to (among others) Charlie Chaplin and Sergio Leone. Virtually every convention in the Spy Fiction 101 book makes an appearance at some point, but the thrill is in the director’s orchestration of numerous set pieces that are all the more suspenseful for being somewhat inscrutable—a situation caused by plotting that keeps identities, and relationships, fuzzy and in flux. It may be dedicated to the Communist Revolution, but its real heart belongs to classic Hollywood.
19) The Vigil
Things go horribly wrong in The Vigil for Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man who—having left his ultra-orthodox Jewish community for a secular Brooklyn life—accepts a job sitting vigil for a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. That task not only returns him to the neighborhood (and faith) he rejected, but puts him in the crosshairs of an evil demonic force that, it turns out, plagued both the dead man over whom he watches, and his wife (Lynn Cohen), who behaves creepily around David in her darkly lit Borough Park home. Keith Thomas’ feature debut has a great sense of its insular milieu as well as the trauma and stress of escaping an extremist religious environment, and the writer/director drums up suspense from set pieces that exploit silence to eerie effect. Davis’ harried countenance is the glue holding this assured thriller together, lending it an empathetic anguish that helps cast its action as a portrait of confronting the (personal and historical) past as a means of transcending, and escaping, it.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci don’t just craft indelible portraits of affection and grief in Supernova; they suggest, in the stillness and silence between them, the invisible but unbreakable ties that bind them together. Harry Macqueen’s understated drama charts Firth’s Sam and Tucci’s Tusker as they travel in their RV across the English countryside, their nominal destination a comeback concert for classical pianist Sam and their purpose a farewell tour for Tusker, who’s beset by irreversible early onset dementia. Their story is light on bombshell incidents but heavy on quiet, barely suppressed anguish and fear, both of which are kept at bay—if also amplified—by their enduring amour. Macqueen’s gentle and deft writing is in harmony with his imagery of his pastoral setting, allowing his performers—Firth defiant and pent-up; Tucci brave and terrified—to fully embody their protagonists’ fraught emotional circumstances. Supernova understands the tragedy and triumph of love, and the way in which our lives, at best, shine brightly before burning out, their dying embers touching and transforming those left behind.
17) The Dig
Archaeology is the means by which the past is resurrected in The Dig, a based-on-real-events drama about the famous 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, which unearthed innumerable 6th-century Anglo-Saxon finds contained within an intact ship. Driven by the “hunch” of Sutton Hoo’s owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) searches for secrets buried in the mounds on her estate. Working from Moira Buffini’s script (based on John Preston’s book of the same name), director Simon Stone crafts a supple portrait of our quest to revive yesterday through the investigations of today. As his film expands to address the impending threat of WWII, and the way in which it impacts the circumstances of Edith’s RAF-bound cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and the wife (Lily James) of a researcher (Ben Chaplin), it also becomes a poignant examination of life’s impermanence, and the importance of seizing – and cherishing – whatever brief moments of joy and love one can. Its exquisite visuals (often indebted to Days of Heaven) enhance its graceful storytelling, as do sterling performances from all involved, led by Fiennes in one of his most understated – and quietly moving – performances to date.
Don’t eat anything of unknown origins – a warning that goes unheeded by oft-bickering Riley (Malin Barr) and Sam (Sawyer Spielberg, son of Steven) in Honeydew. On a New England camping trip, the couple have a run-in with an unfriendly landowner who evicts them from their sleeping spot, forcing them to embark on a nocturnal trek through the woods that leads to the home of Karen (Barbara Kingsley). Though Riley and Sam are vegans, they’re compelled to chow down on some of Karen’s home-cooked beef and bread, the latter of which is especially dicey given that this region is notorious for having lost crops and cattle to a poisonous spore. That’s just the beginning of the ordeal writer/director Devereux Milburn has in store for his protagonists, who are joined at their dinner by a dazed-looking man with a bandaged head, and who soon discover that Karen has devious plans for them – some of it having to do with her daughter. Crafted with jarring edits and split screens for maximum disorientation, the ensuing mayhem is stunning, scary and considerably gross, and heralds the arrival of a uniquely out-there horror voice.
Bob Odenkirk takes one hell of a beating in Nobody—and, per a joke made by his Hutch Mansell, you should see the other guys. Director Ilya Naishuller’s film is an obvious riff on John Wick, concerned as it is with a non-descript and seemingly meek family man who, following a home invasion, taps back into his government-assassin true nature and goes on a rampage that eventually inflames the ire of a Russian gangster (Aleksei Serebryakov). Yet a lack of novelty is hardly necessary in light of Odenkirk’s masterful performance as a man brought low by self-deception and, consequently, resurrected by facing his inherent angry identity. Odenkirk’s ability to handle the barrage of brutal set pieces thrown his way is itself part of this affair’s conceit, and yet once he proves his action-movie mettle, the proceedings lose none of their verve, delivering gory mayhem with a tongue planted firmly in cheek. The late participation of both Christopher Lloyd and RZA only enhance the goofy charm of this R-rated romp, which goes for broke—and breaks a lot of bones in the process—to amusingly ferocious ends.
Loss leads to retreat for Edee (Robin Wright), a woman who responds to an unspecified tragedy by moving to a remote Wyoming cabin in Land. Willfully cut off from civilization, Edee finds her new survivalist existence more than a bit difficult, what with the bitter cold, the sparse food (courtesy of fishing), and the occasional outhouse run-in with a bear. In her directorial debut, Wright employs compositions that call understated attention to the alienated anguish of her protagonist, whom she embodies as a fragmented (and potentially suicidal) woman with a sorrow as deep and cold as the vast wilderness. A spark comes at her moment of wintery death courtesy of Miguel (Demián Bichir), a rancher who revives her first literally, and then figuratively, teaching her to hunt (as her personal Yoda) and reminding her of the vital human connection that gives everything purpose. Guided by Wright’s expressively interior performance and Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam’s spartan script, the film captures the universal desire for escape in the face of grief, and the way resurrection often comes from accepting death as an inescapable facet of life.
13) This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
Faces don’t come more sorrowful than that of Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old woman whose solitary life in a rural African village is rendered lonelier still by the unexpected death of her miner son. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection begins with that man failing to return home, and ends with Mantoa reuniting with the dearly departed for whom she pines. In between, it recounts—via the narration of Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha’s lesiba-playing sage—a quasi-mystical fable of grief and loss, as Mantoa and her compatriots face a crisis of disconnection thanks to news that a dam will soon flood their land and, consequently, the cemeteries where their dead slumber. Through boxy-framed imagery that’s at once gritty and ethereal, and a score that cries out with its protagonist’s misery, Lesotho-born director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese conjures a lightly magic-realist mood of mourning and yearning. Disaster born from “progress” arrives at regular intervals for these forlorn individuals, none of whom are more distressed than Mantoa, embodied with a mixture of ferocity, despair and determination by the magnetic Mhlongo.
12) Wojnarowicz: F–k You F—– F–ker
Acclaimed East Village artist David Wojnarowicz spit politicized fire with every painting, song and piece of writing he produced, and director Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–ker captures his spirit with piercing urgency. Composed of Wojnarowicz’s home movies, audio recordings and voicemails, as well as collages of his art and snapshots of NYC in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that are embellished with interview snippets from colleagues, lovers, curators and admirers, the documentary is a tribute to an outspoken and unconventional (and, at times, controversial) queer firebrand who spoke truth to power right up until his 1992 death from AIDS, which itself became a late focus of both his output and activist energy. Locating the intersection of personal, cultural and political trauma that made him who he was—beginning with an abusive upbringing that he fled at an early age, to his time as a street hustler and, then, a gallery star—McKim’s film is an immersive peek inside the iconoclast’s mind and heart, its eclectic form exuding the mixture of sorrow, warmth and jagged rage that defined Wojnarowicz.
11) Night of the Kings
Tall tales about crime, war, power and survival are layered upon each other in Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte’s drama about an Ivory Coast prison ruled by an incarcerated kingpin named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who, on the night of the blood moon, demands that a new inmate (Bakary Koné) become a “Roman” and spin a yarn that will last until dawn. The ensuing fable that Roman recounts concerns a local gangster whose blind father was counselor to a queen, and who rose to prominence in the aftermath of a revolution—a legend that boasts echoes with the predicament of Roman himself, trapped as he is in a jail where treacherous schemes are afoot. In both the present and in CGI-enhanced flashbacks, Lacôte conjures an atmosphere that mixes stark City of God-style grit (Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film is even cited as an influence) with dreamy magical realism, the latter augmented by the many men who surround Roman during his oration, acting out his narrated action with dancer-like movements. Harrowing and lyrical, it’s a film about the transformative and redemptive power of storytelling.
The gig economy gets satirized in oblique, mysterious sci-fi fashion in Lapsis, Noah Hutton’s low-fi tale about a futuristic new exploitative industry. Tired of delivering lost airline luggage to its owners, and in need of money for treatment for his brother Jamie (Babe Wise)—who’s suffering from a chronic-fatigue syndrome known as Omnia—Ray (Dean Imperial) joins millions of Americans in laying cable between giant quantum server cubes in the forested Allegheny mountains. Writer/director/editor Hutton provides myriad clever details about the intricate mechanics of cabling without every quite explaining the larger implications of the business, which serves as the MacGuffin powering this tale of worker subjugation at the hands of a monopolistic tech conglomerate. Hutton’s film is like a blend of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, carefully doling out specifics (and establishing relationships and rebellious plots) while simultaneously leaving answers just out of reach. It’s a balancing act that Hutton pulls off with aplomb, his suggestive widescreen visuals as unnerving as Imperial’s lead performance as desperate-everyman Ray is charismatic.
9) Acasa, My Home
The Enache family—comprised of father Gică, mother Niculina and their nine kids—live a primitive off-the-grid life in Văcărești, an untamed stretch of wetlands situated right beside sprawling Bucharest. Theirs is an existence of fishing by hand, burning trash, and hiding children from social services. Journalist-turned-documentarian Radu Ciorniciuc’s Acasa, My Home accompanies this unruly clan as they’re forced to integrate into the very civilization Gică rejects after their residential area is earmarked for wildlife-reserve development. Far from a saga about idyllic rural life torn asunder by modernity, this patient and incisive film instead reveals itself to be a story about selfishness and togetherness, conformity and rebellion, and the responsibility parents have for their children, the last of which comes to the fore once Gică’s eldest son Vali begins resenting his father for raising him as an illiterate, unskilled vagabond, even as he follows in his dad’s footsteps. There are no easy answers here, only longing for a happier (if unhealthier) time, and fury over an inheritance of a squandered past and a bleak future.
8) Come True
The conscious and unconscious, and the organic and mechanical, coalesce in Come True, Anthony Scott Burns’ hypnotic sci-fi thriller about an 18-year-old named Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) who participates in a mysterious sleep study. The doctor running this inquiry is, in fact, watching his subjects’ dreams on grainy black-and-white monitors via wired contraptions and devices, and what he sees are gliding visions through misty, murky landscapes populated by crumbling structures, abyss-like doorways and spectral figures with glowing red eyes. Inspired by the works of David Cronenberg, Philip K. Dick, Stanley Kubrick and Wes Craven (among others), Burns’ sleep paralysis-steeped saga descends into a dark subconscious realm whose inhabitants appear to seek entry into our reality. Whether riding her bike Donnie Darko-style through tranquil suburban neighborhoods, or freaking out while wearing a patch to cover her bleeding eye, Stone embodies Sarah as a loner who’s equally empathetic and enigmatic. The same might be said of the film itself – an oblique, atmospheric tale about the terrors that bind and plague us, and the difficulty of truly understanding the nature, and limits, of our minds and world.
7) 17 Blocks
17 Blocks is awash in trauma, wrought not only from gun violence and addiction, but from individuals’ knowledge that they’re partly to blame for the tragedies that befell them. Davy Rothbart’s immensely moving documentary charts twenty years in the life of the Sanford family, comprised of narcotics-abusing mom Cheryl, her dealer son Smurf, daughter Denise and youngest Emmanuel, all of whom help shoot this self-portrait with video cameras. Drugs are a destructive scourge on this Washington, DC household, culminating with the senseless murder of Emmanuel, an infectiously cheery kid and good student who seemed destined to transcend his difficult circumstances. In the aftermath of that heartbreaking calamity, his relatives struggle to cope with guilt over their own roles in Emmanuel’s fate, all while attempting to right their wayward courses and not repeat the sins of the past – both for themselves and for their clan’s youngest members, including Emmanuel’s nephew Justin, who in many ways is his spitting image. Rothbart’s film is a deeply empathetic study of hardship, loss, and the way that change often comes from finally taking responsibility for one’s self and loved ones.
6) Saint Maud
Hell hath no fury like a religious zealot scorned, as demonstrated by writer/director Rose Glass’ feature debut, which concerns a young hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) who comes to believe that her mission from God – with whom she speaks, and feels inside her body – is to save the soul of her terminally ill new patient, famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). What begins as a noble attempt to share pious belief and provide comfort for the sick swiftly turns deranged, as Maud is possessed by a mania impervious to reason, and enflamed by both the slights she receives from Amanda and others, and by her own mortal failings. The sacred and the profane are knotted up inside this young woman, whom Clark embodies with a scary intensity that’s matched by Glass’ unsettling aesthetics, marked by topsy-turvy imagery and pulsating, crashing soundtrack strings. A horrorshow about the relationship between devoutness and insanity, it’s a nerve-rattling thriller that doubles as a sharp critique, punctuated by an incendiary final edit that won’t soon be forgotten.
5) In the Earth
A spiritual companion piece to his 2013 psychotronic freak-out A Field in England (not to mention Alex Garland’s Annihilation), writer/director Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a beguiling supernatural thriller fit for our pandemic-wracked times. In a world grappling with a viral outbreak that requires quarantine zones and sanitation protocols, researcher Martin (Joel Fry) is accompanied by park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) into a forbidden forest in order to rendezvous with scientist Olivia (Hayley Squires). That trip is complicated by a run-in with a dangerous hermit (Reece Shearsmith) with ulterior motives, and primal forces—emanating from a giant stone monolith with a hole near its peak—that may be related to an ancient god known as Parnag Fegg. Aided by a soundscape of sinister electronic tones, unnatural bird squawking and heavy breathing, Wheatley’s direction proves oppressive and hypnotic, whiplashing between ominous calm and hallucinatory madness. A journey into a deep, dark abyss of violence and corruption, it’s a story about nature’s unstoppable, inhuman power—and mankind’s helplessness in the face of it—that taps directly into present-day anxieties about infection, isolation and insanity.
4) A Glitch in the Matrix
What if reality wasn’t actually real? That’s the question plumbed by A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary to traverse unreal terrain in search of answers about human existence, alternate realms, and our conscious and unconscious connections to our celluloid dreams. Like his prior Room 237 and The Nightmare, Ascher’s film features a chorus of out-there voices, who articulate opinions about the likelihood that we’re all cogs in a program about which we’re unaware, and which is operated by higher beings we can’t understand. Ascher chats with these individuals via Skype, recreates their stories with computer animation, complements their hypotheses with movie clips, and conceals their identities through the use of digital avatars, creating a seamless (and playful) marriage of form and content that speaks to the material’s issues of self, truth, alienation and loneliness. Simulation theory comes across as a fantasy of both enslavement and escape, and Ascher’s amusing and critical inquiry posits it as a reflection of timeless human impulses to explain the inexplicable. Via the patricidal story of Joshua Cooke, it also exposes this Matrix-inspired idea’s capacity for catastrophic chaos.
3) Quo Vadis, Aida?
Quo Vadis, Aida? is a historical nightmare of unrelenting agony, charting the efforts of UN translator Aida (Jasna Đuričić) to save her husband and two sons at a camp in Srebrenica (in eastern Bosnia) where innocent civilians have taken shelter from the murderous Bosnian Serb army. Aida’s job affords her a voice but she’s nonetheless powerless to affect this mounting crisis, which is destined to end with the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,372 men, women, and children. With harrowing immediacy, writer/director Jasmila Žbanić thrusts us into the chaos and madness of this situation by sticking closely to Aida, whose efforts to enable communication between Dutch UN commanders and Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) are doomed to fail. In a towering performance, Đuričić’s frantic, desperate countenance conveys the unthinkable tragedy faced by Aida and her compatriots, which was facilitated by United Nations officers who knew full well that a genocide was taking place, and yet failed to maintain the “safe area” they were tasked with overseeing. A damning account of active and passive war crimes, the film – as evoked by its final moments – forces us to witness that which many didn’t want seen.
2) Identifying Features
Whether seen in agonized close-ups or at an alienated remove, director Fernanda Veladez’s characters are alone—and forlorn—in Identifying Features, a masterful Mexican drama of grief, guilt and dislocation. Consumed with finding her son, who’s gone missing while trying to cross the Mexican-American border, single mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) embarks on an investigative journey through a dusty, dangerous country of migrant shelters, remote gas stations, vacant homes and wide open plains that echo their inhabitants’ lonely sorrow. Her path eventually crosses with Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who, having been deported by the U.S., now seeks to reunite with his long-abandoned clan—one of many lyrical parallels found in this haunting descent into a national heart of darkness. Though dialogue is minimal, Hernández and Illescas’ pained-yet-resolved countenances speak volumes about the anguish and terror of a people plagued by separation and yearning. The film’s stunning formal beauty enhances its unholy nightmarishness, as Veladez alternately frames his protagonists amidst expansive landscapes and constricting structures in order to highlight their simultaneously lost and trapped condition. And in an unforgettable late sequence set to an indigenous speaker’s un-translated recollection, the filmmaker presents a vision of demonic cruelty so horrifying, it can barely be comprehended.
1) About Endlessness
Roy Andersson is cinema’s drollest dramatist of the anguished human condition, and About Endlessness is a more sorrowful extension of the inquiries he began with Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). A collection of vignettes marked by static single-take compositions full of muted hues and inviting diagonal visual lines, the film tackles the question of what awaits us on the other side—and what that means for our current Earthly predicaments—with a placid solemnity that’s only occasionally alleviated by his trademark humor. Grief, longing, regret, guilt and shame are all ever-present in this rumination on spiritual and literal loneliness, which Andersson executes with the aid of his typically manicured, static aesthetics. High above its many forlorn and adrift characters, an embracing couple soars through the cloudy sky, a vision of togetherness sought by so many and yet achieved by so few. Andersson doesn’t shy away from such despair, examining his wayward souls (and encouraging us to do likewise) with deep empathy, along the way finding—at unexpected moments—brief glimmers of hope for solace from the storm.
Nick Schager is a NYC-area film critic and culture writer with twenty years of professional experience writing about all the movies you love, and countless others that you don’t.
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