The Best(-ish) Movies of 2021 So Far

Even in the middle of the pandemic, the movies never really stopped. Though many of the big films were delayed, many others went direct to streaming services in either “at-home theater” (read: more expensive) rentals or regular additions to subscribers’ streaming libraries. The Academy Awards even shifted its eligibility window to accommodate anything that was technically released in early 2021. What we’re left with is the uniquely thorny and frivolous question of what counts as a 2020 or a 2021 release. If you live outside a city or just never got to the theater much to begin with, the releases dates don’t really change: the big awards players in their scant qualifying runs are not often widely available until the following year, once awards and award nominations can figure into the marketing. So with that in mind, it feels a little strange to definitely include any of last year’s big Oscar contenders, if not to save me a headache then to at least talk about films that haven’t already benefited from that big, dubious spotlight. 

If this is a “best” list, then (as always) consider the increasingly arbitrary criteria for inclusion on such a thing, how easy it is to fudge the cutoffs. Consider, then, the actual function of a list like this, often to make readers feel like judgment has been passed on their taste or, more usefully, just to highlight some stuff. This isn’t quite a “best movies you haven’t seen” list for those reasons and because there are quite a few movies I have yet to see even in this still-relaxed release period. But in that spirit of being selective in terms of what gets included and written about, there are other reviews on this very website that will give you extended takes on potential inclusions like Night of the Kings, Saint Maud, Nobody, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and Bad Trip. Finally, this list is not in any order beyond which films can reasonably and non-awkwardly follow from the previous entry and flow into the next.

Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby

Worlds collide in Shiva Baby, where adrift twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott) attends a shiva only to discover that her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) is also in attendance, rubbing elbows with her family. Oh, and his wife is there (Dianna Agron). And their infant child. And Danielle’s decidedly not-adrift ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon). What manifests is a hellishly perfect storm of social anxiety realized through some devious cinematography and staging mixed with a sharp script that has people saying one thing but you can tell they mean another thing and then sometimes they’re trying to convey a third thing entirely by presenting the implication of the second thing. The performances are complex and hilarious as they unravel, layer upon layer of how the characters present themselves differently depending on who they’re with and how that gets thrown in flux when people who should absolutely never meet have met. In this debut, writer/director Emma Seligman exhibits a lot of impressive control in order to convincingly portray people who are so rapidly spiraling out of it.

On-Gaku: Our Sound

On-Gaku: Our Sound

Some people start bands, some people daydream about starting bands, and some people like the dim-witted delinquents of On-Gaku: Our Sound just sort of fall into it, serendipitously left with a bass guitar and then pilfering the remaining tools for musical stardom: a few drums from a full drum set and a second bass guitar. The funniest thing is that they’re good. Not in, like, a traditional sense but in a primal sense, the feeling in your bones and in your gut that’s depicted here in busy, often beautiful departures from the deceptively crude art style (seven years in the making!) that fits the deadpan tone perfectly, as if the guy behind One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 did a cartoon with Mike Judge.

Wrath of Man

Wrath of Man

Wrath of Man sounds like a semi-return to Guy Ritchie’s gangster roots: here is Jason Statham, here are some other guys with nicknames like “Boy Sweat Dave,” here are their squabbles and their hijinks. But rather than the British underworld, Wrath of Man is curiously set in the United States at an armored car company, which means a lot of people doing American accents (Statham keeps his) for dialogue that sounds a little off as well as a curious transformation into an angry revenge thriller with elements of a tense, multi-character heist movie bolted on for good measure. Moving through a vaguely nonsensical, convoluted soup of flashbacks and surprise allegiances, the result gets halfway to new meathead classic Den of Thieves before Trojan-horsing one of those late-career grimaces about human excess, the hard-wired fascination with conflict and rewards given or taken in blood.

Identifying Features

Identifying Features

The journey of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) to locate the body of her missing son, who disappeared after leaving to cross the border into the United States, is upsetting enough on its own. The pain and desperation is plain on her face, and the camera tends to linger there for long periods. With Identifying Features, director Fernanda Valadez augments this individual devastation with a rigorous attention to the larger bureaucratic structure, mingling eventually with the deportation of young Miguel (David Illescas). Combined like this in a story that eventually spins into disturbing and dreamlike imagery, we view the unjust existence of this system built to coldly accommodate death, relatives standing in line to look at belongings that may or may not have belonged to their loved ones, confronted by the ease with which one loss is swept up in many.

PVT Chat

PVT Chat

Jack (Peter Vack) makes an unsteady living through online blackjack, living frugally on instant ramen and paying his rent late in order to afford his greater preoccupations, massage parlor handjobs and tokens paid out to camgirls while he cranks it in the dark below the glow of his laptop. His new favorite is Scarlet (Julia Fox of Uncut Gems), a dominatrix often seen against a pink-walled arsenal of sex toys, and he grows increasingly familiar with her, speaking to her more like a boyfriend despite being aware, he insists, of the transactional nature of all relationships. There’s perhaps a version of PVT Chat that spins solely into some kind of preachiness, but director Ben Hozie complicates the matter by going outward, the nature of Jack’s other relationship as well, too, as Scarlet’s. It is not necessarily the death of emotion and intimacy so much as a strange mutation. 

PG: Psycho Goreman

PG: Psycho Goreman

Pity the nameless Archduke of Nightmares, for he has had a rough go of things as of late. Released from his long imprisonment on Earth, he soon learns that the gem dictating his power is in the hands of his rescuers, a sociopathic little girl (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her dork brother (Owen Myre). Rechristened as Psycho Goreman (“PG” for short) because they think “Archduke of Nightmares” sounds stupid, he reluctantly becomes a life-sized child’s plaything who grumbles about how he’s eventually going to very elaborately kill them all. Like a live-action, R-rated take on The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy if it had the best Power Rangers costumes ever, the film riffs on its loose story template — the powerful being in reluctant servitude to whoever they eventually come to respect — without sliding too far into self-awareness, content to be willfully abrasive and ugly in following its trajectory of learning to believe in yourself and stuff, only the big monster makes fountains of blood by pulling heads off with his bare hands.

Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers

The “ragtag space dirtbags” genre rarely steers us wrong, and South Korean blockbuster Space Sweepers is no exception. In a not-particularly-far future, Earth is a desolate shitscape, the bulk of the population left out of the clean corporate haven to rot in a haze of pollution and debt. One way to not escape but at least keep going is to collect space debris, and we follow one surly crew fighting over literal garbage: a chilly ex-soldier (Song Joong-ki) on the lookout for one specific corpse; a swaggering captain (Kim Tae-ri) who’s quick to violence; a trans assassination robot (Yoo Hae-jin) who at least inherits the ship if the humans all starve to death; a tattooed ex-drug lord (Jin Seon-kyu) whose work in the engines is an even more hands-on version of shoveling coal into a furnace. The plot is one of those heart-defrosting affairs about protecting a cute kid (Park Ye-rin), but here it’s done with visual effects and flair that contextualize and then completely embarrass the rushed assembly line of modern blockbusters.

The Disciple

The Disciple

An unsparing portrait of mediocrity, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple traces many years in the life of Sharad (Aditya Modak), who has the fervent dedication to singing Indian classical music but not so much the talent. He isn’t bad, but as his colleagues begin to surpass him and his guru (Arun Dravid) becomes more critical while the years go by, he confronts the wall that bars his progress. Though he remains dedicated to the music, his lack of success becomes a particularly sore spot when the things we tend to forgive successful people — the volatility, the snobbery, the neglect of everything except the art — have gotten Sharad nowhere in particular. It is a medium the masses no longer pay attention to unless it is used as a springboard for something more modern, and he languishes alone with the thing that seems to bring him joy but not validation. Many of the nuances are, I think, lost on me as someone unfamiliar with the music and the culture around it, but that distance functions like part of the point, its opacity to a layperson going hand in hand with this practitioner’s existential struggle.

Test Pattern

Test Pattern

Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern follows the relationship between a young black woman, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), and her white boyfriend, Evan (Will Brill), from their first meeting to the considerable strain in the aftermath of Renesha being sexually assaulted. They are directed from one hospital to the next in search of a rape kit and/or someone qualified to administer one, with Evan loudly expressing his anger at the labyrinthine health care system while Renesa looks on, sliding in and out of degrees of embarrassment, anger, and devastation. Test Pattern establishes the loving core of their relationship only to observe how knowledge of Ranesha’s assault nevertheless transforms Evan into a man grasping for control.

Gaia

Gaia

When forest ranger Gabi (Monique Rockman) is injured by a trap, she is taken in by a doom-preaching survivalist (Carel Nel) and his son (Alex van Dyk), all the while having freaky dreams of plants and fungi sprouting from her skin. Anyone remotely familiar with The Last of Us will have some idea of where this is headed and what the creatures are going to look like, but South African horror film Gaia quickly veers off in its own direction. The climax never really explodes the way that genre relatives like Annihilation, Antichrist, and even Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People) do, but it is fascinating to watch the film take these fungal abominations to the logical eco-horror conclusion.

Violation

Violation

Several of the films mentioned here emphasize processes to the point where they become distressing in their detail, our eyelids held open long after we expect the momentary escape of their closure. The fragmented rape-revenge film Violation takes this approach to the latter half of the contentious subgenre, with Miriam (co-writer/director Madeleine Sims-Fewer) enacting violence in a clinical clarity that soon becomes harrowing. Coupled with its earnest, convincing depiction of strained relationships, the disorienting debut from Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli becomes an enormously bleak statement about how, no matter what you do and how far you go, closure might just be unattainable.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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