It’s only been 69 days since the Oscars. It therefore feels a weird to be picking the best films of 2021 so far. Nevertheless, we’re already halfway there. 2021 has had, perhaps unexpectedly, as many challenges for Hollywood as 2020 did. Movie theatres, at least in Toronto, haven’t been open for a single day this year. Some theatres, like my local the Mt. Pleasant, are surviving as churches. You can meet to sing hymns and shake hands, but god forbid you use the same room to watch A Quiet Place II.
Some distributors are, it seems, similarly in survival mode. The release calendar for the year to date looks like a flyer for some sales agent’s going-out-of-business sale. There is no shortage of movies these days despite the lack of venues to screen them. While scrolling through lists to assess the best films of 2021 so far, however, quality doesn’t quite match quantity. Consider that this time last year we already had First Cow, Da 5 Bloods, Promising Young Woman, The Invisible Man, The Assistant, and a flood of Sundance riches. The recent schedule offers something of an uptick, so let’s be cautiously optimistic. Moreover, as those of us who Sundanced virtually this year know, strong films are on their way.
Picking the best films of 2021 so far…and some holdovers from 2020
However, picking through a Blu-ray bargain bin at Wal-Mart usually yields some hidden gems. This year’s movies are no exception. There are some great little films and even some great big ones…provided one can access them. The challenges of access mean that many of our writers have some “2020 films” among their picks for the best films of 2021 so far. Simply put, it was virtually impossible to see many 2020 contenders in 2020 without access to awards screeners. Writers were therefore permitted to be liberal with their eligibility this year. In many cases, films only went into commercial release in 2021. (Even our collective pick for the best film of 2020, Nomadland, wasn’t released in Toronto until April, and that was only on Disney+.) Any film that writers screened at a festival or in commercial release in 2021 was eligible.
As we look forward to the rest of the year, here are the films that stood out to our writers. – Pat Mullen
That Shelf‘s picks for the best films of 2021 so far:
It might feel like a 2020 release thanks to Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar win, but many eyes watched Judas and the Black Messiah in 2021. A searing indictment of institutions tasked with protecting the public, Shaka King’s film powerfully depicts how, for many people in America, a “badge is scarier than a gun.” Daniel Kaluuya gives his all as a revolutionary that time has sought to stamp out, and LaKeith Stanfield is equally electric as the traitor who made sure Fred Hampton’s message wasn’t received on a national stage. The loss of Hampton’s promise hurts as much now as it did then.
A welcome reminder of everything that the animated medium can do, complete with a family that you’d spend several more films with. Delightfully chaotic while still offering poignant commentary, The Mitchells vs. the Machines never loses focus on the at-times fractured relationship between budding filmmaker Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her luddite father Rick (voiced by Danny McBride). Pixar may not be keeping up its end of the bargain as event films anymore, although Sony Pictures Animation is picking up the slack. Exactly the level of energetic wit you want out of a summer movie.
Slaxx premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in the year that we’d all like to forget, but I didn’t come across this gem until 2021. So I’m including it here. The premise of a pair of pants ripping through a bunch of narcissistic trendsetting employees should be ridiculous, but Elza Kephart’s film completely grounds the scares and stakes within 20 minutes.
4) A Quiet Place Part II
Efforts to expand the Quiet Place universe took off even with diminished roles for Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. Hopefully, they can keep up without discarding the heart that makes this franchise unique.
It delivers on the promise of its title, even if it still doesn’t solve the conundrum of the irritating humans standing beneath Kong and Godzilla.
1. Painting with John
Writer/director/composer/overall-badass John Lurie “stars” in this perfectly realized HBO documentary mini-series, wherein the titular John teaches us about life and art through stories about family, fame, New York, animals, illness, music, and of course, painting. Although broken down into six 20-minute-ish episodes (with Lurie himself repeatedly calling it a show), it’s more of a chaptered two-hour experience. Tonally and thematically, the six parts work symbiotically and are interwoven into a loose and spontaneous—yet entirely cohesive—document.
Lurie isn’t a curmudgeon, which some reviewers have been quick to (lazily) suggest. He’s just observant, and he cares a hell of a lot about people. He is—for all intents and purposes—a nice man, a funny man, a man who is empathetic, sincere, and generous. Lurie also uses a long branch as an elephant’s trunk and pretends to stomp around his Caribbean home like a pachyderm. He is clearly having fun. Painting with John is definitely not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. It is full of joy and humour, and that’s very necessary these days. It makes me happy and it makes me sad. And while these are simplistic sentiments, these words distill a lifetime of experience and emotion into something unpretentious and honest, just like the show. Thanks, John.
Picture 2020. Now picture the exact opposite. That’s Luca. Replete with cinematic references, drool-worthy pasta scenes, and beautiful, vibrant set pieces, Enrico Casarosa’s film glows with the spirit of discovery, one that comes both with childhood, and with growing out of it. If The Old Man and the Sea were a kid’s book, this would be it: true, fine, Pixar. We should all subscribe to “Silencio Bruno!”
3. Saint Maud
A gothic psychological body-horror tour de force, Rose Glass’s first feature buzzes with a violent tension both erotic and unrestrained. Its vulgar spirituality is insatiable and grotesque, making it 2021’s preeminent day-ruiner…and I mean that in the best possible way. More please, Ms. Glass.
4. In the Earth
A psychedelic phantasmagoria of violence, obsession, and psilocybin, Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a bleak, yet surprisingly hopeful, look at pandemic paranoia and isolation. While the viral set-up wavers in the second half in favour of a more hallucinatory approach, the film remains a horrific trip into the darkest recesses of the forest, and our minds.
Much like the web-culture that spawned it (and that it tries to antagonize), Gia Coppola’s Mainstream is unsubtle, shallow, and cruel, a darkly funny satire where Network meets TikTok. Andrew Garfield gives a bravura central performance as an obnoxious influencer, while the film’s kinetic editing and memesthetics give the film its tasteless charm. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and #despair!
1. The Father
Florian Zeller delivers a first-hand perspective of the confusion and terror that comes with dementia. Part-drama, part-horror, Zeller’s direction and writing, and Yorgos Lamprinos’ editing create an incredibly immersive cinematic experience. Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance is nothing short of brilliant and heartbreaking. Given his illustrious career to date, it’s not said lightly that this is one of his best performances — all at the ripe age of 83.
2. Riders of Justice
Mads Mikkelsen is the actor Hollywood needs right now: darkly humoured, tough, and vulnerable. Riders of Justice is the perfect vehicle for him and for us to appreciate him, as well as director Anders Thomas Jensen and what Danish cinema has to offer.
Asian-Canadians/Americans love this one for the specificity to our childhoods and experiences. But a movie so beautiful takes the specific and makes it universal.
Bob Odenkirk gets the John Wick treatment and despite any preconceived assumption, the man kicks ass. A highly entertaining film with a banging soundtrack to boot.
5. Malcolm & Marie
Man, people hated this movie. Sam Levinson’s 35 mm, black and white, 90+ minute dialogue-fest with perfect music is every bit beautifully pretentious and self-important as the haters say it is…and I’m here for it.
Flee is an extraordinary and courageous film. This animated documentary by Jonas Poher Rasmussen shares the story of Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) who recounts his family’s tense journey from Afghanistan to Russia while escaping the Mujahdeen. Amin’s tale of survival is twofold, as he recalls his own sexual awakening and coming out in a conservative culture. Flee is palpably therapeutic, as Amin describes a life spent on the run. Rasmussen animates the tale to convey the journey of which Amin speaks. In doing so, he takes audiences to places that a camera could never go along the perilous journey, like the bellies of boats carrying crowds of refugees. Flee is the story of someone who was in hiding while hiding, carefully masking every aspect of his soul from the family members who shared a stake in his survival.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, more awards are sure to follow when (if?) Flee opens this year.
Questlove can direct! This massively entertaining doc reveals an invaluable record of musical history, but also boldly corrects the erasure of Black history through the mere fact of its existence.
A gut-punch of a movie if there ever was one, Jasmila Žbanić proves herself one of the most exciting merging filmmakers with this harrowing portrait of the genocide in Bosnia. Devastating.
Robin Wright’s feature directorial debut is a thing of beauty. She has a natural eye behind the camera and gives one of her fullest and richest performances as a woman finding herself anew.
A beautiful film that could make a powerful double bill with Flee, Moffie is a stirring portrait of queer awakening against the backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa.
While the major animation studios roll out their new releases this year, be sure to save room on your watchlist for indie productions like Flee. In this outstanding animated documentary, Afghan refugee Amin recounts his incredible story as his life and family were torn apart in the wake of political turmoil. Now living in Denmark decades later, this stunningly animated odyssey leads to a cathartic conclusion as he strives to embrace his gay identity amid the lingering traumas of his past.
Drawing on some of the best elements of theater (trained singer-dancers) and film (flashy cinematography and visual effects), In the Heights is a truly dazzling musical. Despite its disappointing box office performance, in part due to COVID, this exuberant celebration of Latino culture seems destined to find its audience in the coming years.
3. Catch the Fair One
A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival, Catch the Fair One mixes disquieting social commentary with unbearable tension. It tells the story of a former boxer engaged in a perilous hunt for her missing sister. Starring real life WBA boxer Kali Reis, it provides a rare Native American perspective to devastating effect.
Directed by Camilla Nielsson, President examines the recent history of Zimbabwe’s scandal-ridden democracy as a pivotal 2018 election exposes rampant corruption from the ruling party. Chronicled with a gripping sense of urgency, the film takes you on a campaign trail that introduces audiences to a heroic political candidate – Nelson Chamisa – who fights for his country and its future.
This exhilarating music documentary made noise at Sundance, as it showcased the underappreciated Harlem Cultural Festival in the shadow of Woodstock in the 1960s. It feels appropriate, then, that a famed musician (Questlove) would be the guiding light helping to restore its rightful place in the public eye,. It’s a brilliantly crafted spectacle of triumphant Black culture and music in the midst of a tumultuous period in American society.
1. Riders of Justice
A terrible title and poster belie what is a wholly original, dark, funny, and heartbreaking tale of grief and forgiveness. For viewers familiar with the work of Danish writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken, The Green Butchers), the fine line between pathos and comedy is familiar, but here he elevates that fine line even further with Mads Mikkelsen starring as Markus, a man grappling with the death of his wife in a tragic accident that may not be an accident at all. Blurring the lines between coincidence and purpose, a ragtag group of statisticians show up at Markus’s door encouraging him to take revenge on the suspected culprits. Thus begins a journey of loss, revenge, and, ultimately, togetherness. Riders of Justice is hands down the best movie of 2021 so far.
2. The Mitchells vs. The Machines
As an ardent cat lover, I have never laughed out loud at an animated dog’s antics. Until now.
From Sundance, actor Fran Kranz’s feature directorial debut is a gut-punching look at the aftermath of a school shooting years prior. Anchored by a quartet of powerhouse performances by Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney, Mass is a must-see that deserves to be part of the awards conversation on its release later this year.
It is impossible to describe the Canadian indie horror-comedy Psycho Goreman in a way that makes any sense, but it’s the best blend of laughs and gore this year, and perhaps, ever. It’s a true homage to the 1980s’ horror genre that should not be missed.
5. Little Fish
A sci-fi-tinged pandemic-ish story that’s all about finding and holding onto connection in troubling times with strong performances by Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke. This film largely slipped under the radar and is one of the true hidden gems of the year.
Honourable mention: The Dig because sometimes you just want to watch a nice historical drama where Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes traipse around looking for fossils in an English field.
What are your picks for the best films of 2021 so far?
Let us know at @ThatShelf!