Following a year where schedules were adjusted, smaller streaming titles were largely dominating the scene, and theatrical movie-going was absent for a good portion of 2020, 2021 has shown new promise. That’s not to say 2020 was lacking in great movies (far from it, actually), but I can’t deny this year’s level of variety when it comes to what I’ve enjoyed the most so far cinematically, in the form of big studio films, indie fare, and international movies. I’ve only been able to see so many films theatrically, but between some bigger titles and the continued reliance on streaming in many cases, I’m quite pleased with the films that have stood out for me so far. This list focuses on movies from January to the end of June, not counting some big festival hits that originally debuted the previous year.
Favorite Films So Far:
(Reviews Linked When Applicable)
10. No Sudden Move
Coming as no surprise to those who keep up with lists like this from me, Steven Soderbergh swooping in with an entertaining crime film that brings together an exciting cast, and his attempts at experimenting with style are almost always going to work well for me. Powered by an ensemble cast led by Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro, there’s a lot of fun to be had in this 1950s crime flick. The fact that it revolves around the Detroit auto industry makes it all the more offbeat. Plus, bringing in frequent collaborator David Holmes to handle the score put this whole thing on a groove I was delighted to be in step with.
Seemingly out of nowhere comes this pitch-black comedy teaming up Mads Mikkelsen and a group of tech-savvy geeks for a revenge plot against an evil motorcycle gang. Yes, the film leans on the absurd, but the tone is handled just right to bring this Danish movie closer to what one could expect from a Coen brothers feature than many other attempts I’ve seen. Mikkelsen, coming off one of his finest performances in Another Round, is at an entirely different place as a stoic military man who is humbled by the whole situation. Matching him with this set of computer wizzes manages to bring in plenty of humor, a strong level of sentiment, and a good dose of action. Somehow, it all works.
If there were any justice, Jasna Đuričić would have been up for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars. Her work here as a UN translator put in a desperate situation regarding her family, and the attempts to negotiate the safe passage for many Bosnian civilians away from aggressive Serbian forces are terrific. It calls to mind Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda or even Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List. Make no mistake, this is a harrowing film, at times quite brutal, but the way we watch negotiations and bureaucracy factor in so heavily allows the film to take on a fascinating perspective of the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre. Its Oscar nomination for Best International Feature was well earned.
7. Bad Trip
After various delays related to the pandemic, Netflix (as they frustratingly tend to do) quietly acquired and released Bad Trip. It’s a real shame, as the film is absolutely hilarious. Understandably, Eric Andre has an aggressive comedic style that’s not for everyone. However, as a hidden camera comedy that features an actual narrative to structure these pranks around, the setups are quite ingenious and feature a lot of great payoffs. All the more interesting, however, are the way the civilians on camera are portrayed. Compared to the Borat films, which tend to highlight the uglier sides of America, the people Andre and co-stars Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish encounter are genuinely empathetic and pushed to wanting to be helpful. It makes this incredibly bawdy film not only frequently funny but filled with a surprising amount of heart.
Last year, director-writer-absurdist Quentin Dupieux came in out of nowhere with the hilariously twisted horror film Deerskin. Now he’s back with Keep an Eye Out (which was actually made before Deerskin), and it’s causing me to question whether or not Dupieux has one of the best handles on strange comedy. Playing as a surreal French farce revolving around a police station, there’s a lot of fun to come out of this film, ranging from dialogue-related misunderstandings to broad physical comedy. Nothing is all that straightforward, even when the film seems to be playing fair with the audience. Still, there’s a purpose it all, and throughout this 73-minute feature, laughs are packed into almost every minute.
When the one-two punch of Gareth Edwards’ terrific 2014 Godzilla and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ madly entertaining Kong: Skull Island arrived, laying out a MonsterVerse in the process, I realized the eventual Godzilla vs. Kong was going to be one of my most anticipated films of this young decade. Having seen the film several times at this point, it’s safe to say I was not disappointed. Having been thrilled by the sights of modern-day versions of King Ghidorah, Mothra, and others, getting to see two cinematic titans come to blows provided exactly what I wanted out of it, and then some. Not only do the fights between Godzilla and Kong deliver, but the film makes room for a new take on Journey to the Center of the Earth as well as a newly designed MechaGodzilla. For a mega-budget pulpy affair, this is a wild dream-come-true for a kaiju fan, matched with huge-scale spectacle, some great neon visuals, and a cast that’s more-or-less game to be down with the silliness of it all. I’m glad Legendary let them fight.
In Phil Lord and Chris Miller, I trust. What initially came off as a throwaway release from Sony Pictures Animation, re-titled Connected, turned out to be a very clever, whiz-bang sci-fi adventure comedy about a dysfunctional family taking on smartphone software bent on taking over the world with robots. That should sound crazy because it very much is. With that in mind, director/writers Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe have taken their sense of humor combined with the sensibilities of the team behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to similarly provide a fast-paced, joke-heavy, animated ride. It’s a lot of fun without missing out on establishing terrifically-voiced characters who grow throughout the film. And perhaps most importantly, this film is so packed that rewatches are not only entertaining because of what’s already liked but because of the layered humor still waiting to be discovered.
What was once looking to be the musical/cultural event of 2020 finally made its way to theaters this year, and it still managed to deliver. Granted, the film did not quite light up the sky with box office fireworks. There’s also a lot of controversial attention placed on this film, which had to struggle to be made (yet much bigger films don’t garner nearly this much attention for the same issues). However, coming off of seeing it a few times at this point, I find so much to like in this winning cinematic adaptation of Quiara Alegría-Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical. Director Jon M. Chu feels right at home putting together larger scale dance numbers compared to his solid efforts on the Step Up films. Anthony Ramos leads a strong cast, with Olga Merediz ideally looking at an Oscar nomination for her showstopping number. For a big, splashy musical fit for the summer, there’s a lot to like here.
Remember when Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, and many others got together for a massive concert in 1969 Harlem? Probably not, because the Harlem Culture Festival, while filmed, did not get nearly the attention afforded to Woodstock that same summer. Fortunately, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson found the footage that’s been sitting in a basement for 50 years and has assembled a sublime documentary. Featuring a ton of footage, most importantly including the musical performances, audiences are given the treat of experiencing something that tens of thousands of people attended, yet had no real way of recalling it, aside from memory, until now. Also relying on interviews with musicians, notable figures, and concert attendees, Summer of Soul is a warm look back at a noteworthy event from history, with plenty of information surrounding culture and attitude of the times to go with it. It’s a real treat of a film, with a soundtrack that’s out of sight.
I’m not saying WB is my favorite studio necessarily, but it’s hard to deny how much cinematic joy they’ve delivered for me considering the films on this list so far. Chief among them is this terrific biographical drama focused on Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (portrayed by an Oscar-winning Daniel Kaluuya) and his betrayal at the hands of William O’Neal (the Oscar-nominated LaKeith Stanfield). This breakout film for director Shaka King makes an intelligent move by couching this story inside a genre film, rather than take a straightforward biopic approach. As a result, with a slight shift in focus to follow the path of the “Judas,” we get an action-thriller that manages to be as exciting as it is insightful about the cause of the Black Panthers. Just being able to see Hampton’s story be told, coming out as a mainstream studio picture, no less, should mean plenty as far as seeing a more substantial representation of what was going on at that time. The fact that this movie succeeds as powerfully as it does only adds to the impact it could have going forward when it comes to showing how this group is portrayed. Plus, beyond history, it’s also a dynamite thriller.
Bonus – Favorite Non-2021 Films Seen For The First Time (Alphabetical): Across 110th Street, The Amusement Park, Blue Collar, California Split, Chop Shop, Dead of Night, Gamera the Brave, The Heartbreak Kid, Kill List, Knightriders, Kwaidan, Lady Snowblood, Man Push Cart, Melvin and Howard, Mikey and Nicky, Nightmare Alley, Only Angels Have Wings, Race with the Devil, Rolling Thunder, Secrets & Lies, Toni Erdmann