From superhero franchise comebacks to post-COVID escapism, here are the best movies of 2021, at least for now. Starting with a movie already winning awards.
It’s hard to believe we’re already past the halfway point of 2021, a year that has undoubtedly suffered cinematically from shakeups and awkward transitions when it comes to the movie industry not really knowing how to cope with massive, cultural changes.
This year, we saw a more earnest return to theaters thanks to vaccines capable of mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. But we’ve also seen the emergence of new streaming services, hybrid film festivals, and honestly just a lot of noise.
Few films arguably broke through said noise to produce culture-defining moments, as partly evidenced by a genuine lack of interest from some of our writers to highlight more than maybe a handful of films. 2021 will go down as a bit of an oddball year for cinema, that’s for certain. But it’s still managed to introduce audiences around the world to an incredible slate of diverse features, many of them cycled through a dramatically reimagined model for film festivals.
The year in focus.
In particular, this is probably the best year for animation we’ve seen since 2016, especially if Shaun the Sheep fans checked out Farmageddon in the lead up to our belated Oscars ceremony (the less said about that night, the better).
Speaking of which, it was challenging to consider some films for this list that were released before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, which was pushed back two months to accommodate for films being delayed last year. But these are the best movies of 2021, after all, and we’re not about to play fast and loose with the calendar.
Without further ado, let’s take some time to celebrate the best films that 2021 has had to offer us so far, as picked by our film section writers. – Jon Negroni, Film Editor
10. Judas and the Black Messiah
Shaka King’s triumphant biopic introduced (or reintroduced) legions of moviegoers to Fred Hampton’s inspiring, but ultimately tragic life as a late-60s revolutionary. The film earned Daniel Kaluuya his first Oscar and a slew of other nominations, including Best Original Screenplay. Lakeith Stanfield simmers as the film’s muddled, POV antagonist (he was also nominated), but where Black Messiah truly reigns is in its bold, uncompromising depiction of the Black Panther movement and why it had authorities spooked enough to take authoritarian action against them.
In the wake of a year dripping with the blood of many Black men and women at the hands of unaccountable law enforcement, it’s fine to be a little cliché and say this is one timely piece of work from everyone involved. – Jon Negroni
9. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder’s Justice League felt like more than just a DC movie. For many, it also served as an achievement. Many criticized the first version, one that erased most of Snyder’s original vision, but this director’s cut completes a saga that the previously-released film didn’t. And it rightly fixes the story of Cyborg, a new favorite who stands out in this packed cast.
Some may disagree, but Zack Snyder’s directorial style fits the DCEU perfectly. He knows how to include mythos, character development, easter eggs, and even an alternate universe all into one. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is not only a heart-racing addition to the cinematic comic canon, but a cultural statement and example of the power of fan engagement and streaming platforms. – Amanda Reimer
8. In the Heights
As one of the first big films people returned to the theater for, In the Heights proved to be just as much of a spectacle as we were expecting. Anthony Ramos’ Usnavi holds the entire film together with heart and joy. His belief in his community and his dream are at odds with each other, but that internal conflict leads to wonderful rediscoveries of what home means.
But the standout of the film is Olga Merediz as Claudia, whose mid-film, solo performance of “Alabanza” reigns number one out of all of the musical numbers, probably due to the fact that it feels more fully realized as a showstopper and gives pivotal insight to her character.
The sequence, in which Claudia is reflecting on her move to America and the dreams she wished she had achieved—as the set design reflects images of Washington Heights in the past—evokes the nostalgia and hardships of life, alongside the joy that comes from caring about other people. – Katey Stoetzel
7. Raya and the Last Dragon
Sometimes, the stars align, realize what we’ve always wanted, and court disappointment. Not Raya. Personally, Walt Disney Animation’s newest is more than a world-saving artifact hunt featuring a chieftain’s daughter (Kelly Marie Tran) and a dragon goddess (Awkwafina). It’s an adventure that heightens and center-stages my birthplace of Vietnam and Southeast Asian culture.
Not only that, its mission—and, in a way, dream—of unity is extendable to the real, a gorgeous salve for those burdened by news of universal isolation and sights of specified hate. Toi, if these aren’t proof of the film’s greatness, what then?! – Nguyên Lê
In 2015, Aziah “Zola” King’s 148-tweet epic took the internet by storm. The viral thread read like a Jack Kerouac novel and captured people’s attentions with every 165 characters. When it was announced that it would be made into a movie, there was apprehension around the move. Could 148 tweets—which each take seconds to read—properly adapt to a full-length feature?
The answer is “Hell yes!” Over the course of a perfectly short, 90-minute runtime, Zola manages to be fun and stylish as it also focuses on female friendship.
Since its buzzy premiere at Sundance in 2020, people have been foaming at the mouth to see Zola, and it’s safe to say they won’t be disappointed. The film’s energy and style is sure to impress and keep viewers engaged from beginning to end. Just a slight warning, though: This film may encourage viewers to doll themselves up in glitter. Lots of glitter. – Yasmin Kleinbart
Set in a seaside town in Italy, Luca is the story about a pair of sea creatures named Luca and Alberto, who yearn to visit with the humans on land. With beautiful and bright animation, this sweet story follows the boys as they embark on summer adventures and making new friends. Putting themselves at risk they decide to sign up for the annual Portorosso Cup triathlon. Along the way they learn more about themselves and what it means to have true friends. – Melissa Linares
4. Shiva Baby
Everyone has different definitions of horror: maybe a ghost in the darkness, a killer breaking down the door, or a monster chomping up bystanders. But there are much more relatable versions of terror to be displayed in a movie, like being trapped in an endless loop of elderly relatives asking you how you’re doing and looking at you with soul-crushing disappointment.
Shiva Baby may not be classified as a horror movie, but writer/director Emma Seligman’s tale of an aimless Jewish college student (Rachel Sennott, equally droll and devastating) having her life crumble around her at a funeral is as tense and scary as any movie with a demon in it.
At just 77 minutes, Shiva Baby uses a creeping score, claustrophobic staging, and cringe-inducing encounters with overbearing parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) and a sugar daddy’s shrill partner (Dianna Agron, still with the claws of Quinn Fabray) to show that the people we fear the most are our own family members and their expectations of us. Michael Myers may stab you in the chest, but he could never tilt his head sideways in concern over your major in college. – Jon Winkler
3. Summer of Soul
“History is written by the victors.” The spoils of cultural appropriation and attempted eradication include the near-disappearance of that culture’s history. But modern pioneers exist to preserve legacy. That’s exactly what Questlove does in his directorial debut, the music documentary Summer of Soul.
Nearly two hours of positive energy, sweet vibes, and some of the best performances from the most iconic African-American musicians to ever grace the game, Summer of Soul isn’t just a well-done documentary, it’s a front row seat to the greatest event that history forgot. Questlove aims to rewrite history, and he strikes a bullseye. – Adonis Gonzalez
2. The Mitchells vs. the Machines
A lot of movies these days try so, so, painfully hard to accurately depict the weirdness of the late 20-teens and early 2020s, a period of ongoing history rife with technological overreach and family dysfunction. The Mitchells vs. the Machines succeeds, in part, because its crack team of filmmakers seems to really understand how these elements of human existence have always been a constant, never-ending, and hilarious battle.
So translating the evergreen, universal language of parents connecting with their kids despite a pretty obvious generational gap into a 2 hour sci-fi apocalypse romp with stunning, innovative animation that recently revamped the Spider-Man franchise just makes perfect sense for Sony Animation, especially with Phil Lord and Chris Miller involved.
Put simply, few 2021 flicks are this unrelentingly funny, witty, and clever in all the ways humor can be attained from art, whether it be a splendid vocal delivery, background visual gag, or the sight of a demonized Furby wreaking havoc on a midwest mall. I won’t spoil the victor in The Mitchells vs. the Machines, but safe to say, we’re the real winners, here. – Jon Negroni
1. Bo Burnham: Inside
In what will perhaps be looked at as one of the greatest encapsulations of this moment in time, Bo Burnham: Inside is an uncompromising look at life in lockdown and the mental trials that come through forced isolation. Burnham delivers both an uncomfortable and mildly voyeuristic portrait of a person spiraling while managing to keep the laughter going. Even if it’s just a way to evade ugly truths.
As director, writer, editor. and performer, Burnham is the star of the show even as he purposefully shows his own light dimming as the project gradually takes on more time. While the humor is fully intact and whip smart with bitingly funny social commentary on how we all disappear into the ether of the internet in order to both escape the mundanity of day to day life—finding solace in constant distraction, if you will—it’s the persistent melancholy and paranoia of the modern age that makes it such potent art.
In his words, the world might already be ending, but even as things continue to burn, he’s going to continue to create.
What’s perhaps most wonderful about the 90-minute comedy special—beyond the craftsmanship behind every frame, every beat, and every perfectly-timed disco ball light ricocheting off the rooms walls—is that this likely isn’t even the best Burnham has to offer. Only in his 30’s, he can only go up. – Allyson Johnson