As part of our annual Mid-Year Report, we’ve tasked Senior Editor and Chief Film Critic Rob Hunter with assembling a list of the Best Movies of 2021 so far, as of the end of June.
2021 is only half over, but it’s already clear that this year is a pretty clear improvement over the last. Like, in almost every possible way. I say almost as the movies continue to be something of a mixed bag. While last year suffered due to a lack of releases, this year is slow-going as so many of the films were produced during various stages of a pandemic shutdown. There are still plenty of gems, though, that have hit screens big and small in the first six months of 2021, and we’re going to celebrate some of them now.
Our lists of the year’s best films are typically broken into genres — horror, action, comedy, etc — but with this year’s limited offerings we’re foregoing that separation and combining them all into one list of the best movies released from January 1st through June 30th. Of course, that means that the list below features more odd outliers than you might expect to find in a non-genre list meaning classier fare will be sharing the page with monsters, killers, and Bob Odenkirk. If the rest of 2021 continues to deliver more and better movies, our year-end lists will return to form, but for now, here are, in alphabetical order…
The Best Movies of 2021, as of the end of June
Horror/comedies can be tough nuts to crack, but three of them have secured spots on this list. That’s no small feat, and while this first of them is the least known of the trio it deserves your love. The film follows a young American whose energetic act of heroism lands him in jail for a few years, and once released he heads immediately to Finland in search of a relaxing time. Instead, he’s abducted, has a leg amputated, and is left hanging in a basement — and his fight for survival is just beginning. Director Alister Grierson and writer Robert Benjamin craft a fun, highly energetic thriller with some unexpected laughs and twisted surprises. The heart of the film, though, belongs to lead Ben O’Toole who finds the right notes of attitude, emotion, and aggression. Here’s my full review.
Bo Burnham’s Inside
Am I including a “comedy” special on this list of the year’s best movies so far? I am indeed. To be fair to both Bo Burnham and this list, though, Inside is something quite a bit more than just a mere comedy special. It’s a work of art crafted by one man during a global pandemic, and while all of us deserve credit for making it through this extraordinary time in human history in one piece, Burnham earns an extra point or two for using the time to create something that’s alternately funny, creative, revealing, and raw in its observations on what it means to be stuck indoors and unable to socialize with loved ones (or strangers for that matter) for fear of literally dying. It was a terrifying time (and still is for some), and it feels good to laugh even if it’s in recognition of the absurdity of our shared nightmare.
Even good movies sometimes fade from your mind over the weeks that follow, but the great ones often sit with you month after month, popping back into your brain at various, unexpected times. Come True is one of the latter, even it doesn’t pop back in as much as crawl back and invade your subconscious. Writer/director/composer/cinematographer Anthony Scott Burns delivers the first truly chilling look at sleep paralysis with his tale of a teenager whose days are troubled and nights are even worse. Researchers tap into her nightmares only to find something unpleasant awaiting them, and the result is an atmospheric gem built on character, emotion, and a clear love for John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987). That, my friends, is a recipe for genre success. Here’s my full review.
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
Another streaming special on a list of the year’s best movies? Correct, I am a mad man who refuses to be restrained by societal list norms. I’m also someone who desperately wants more people to discover this utterly affecting and highly entertaining display of magic, laughs, and human insight. DelGaudio’s goal here is to explore the concept of identity — both how others see us and how we see ourselves — and he accomplishes that through storytelling woven through illusions, mental hijinks, and an unmistakable sincerity. His journey towards discovering himself becomes the fuel to help others do the same, and while the show is entertaining on its surface thanks to humorous beats and truly impressive magical shenanigans, its observations on people will stay with you for a long, long time.
For as many memorable films have come out of Australia in decades past, there aren’t very many films coming out in recent years. (Don’t @ me, there are some, just not many.) The Dry hopefully makes a shift in the winds on that count as it not only succeeds at delivering strong drama and a thrilling mystery, but it has also been a hit down under. The film is an adaptation of Jane Harper’s bestselling novel and stars Eric Bana as an investigator who returns to his small, rural hometown after a violent tragedy to face crimes of both the past and present. The character is a recurring lead in a few of Harper’s novels, so here’s hoping the follow-up goes into production soon.
Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth got most of the eco-horror ink this year, but the entry in the sub-genre is this South African chiller from director Jaco Bouwer. It does get lost up its own behind more than once, but the visuals and themes always work to keep viewers entranced right up until the end. Body horror makes an appearance as fungus and flowers sprout and blossom from human flesh, and the jungle atmosphere succeeds at suggesting both beauty and terror. Less a cohesive narrative than a nightmarish vision, Gaia marks Bouwer as a filmmaker to watch. Here’s my full review.
Godzilla vs Kong
The big-screen Monsterverse from Legendary and Warner Bros. is now four films deep, and the most recent is arguably the most satisfying of the bunch. It may not feature as many gorgeous shots as the past two films, Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), but its Hong Kong sequence is a stunner all on its own. Even better, the film is the first of the four to strike the right balance between human shenanigans and monster fun — as in there should be far more of the latter. Here’s my full review.
I Care a Lot
There really aren’t enough caustic comedies being made these days. American studios, in particular, have lost their stomach for dark comedies and irredeemable protagonists, but thankfully a few films still sneak past the party poopers. Writer/director J Blakeson isn’t afraid, and neither is his lead actor, a brilliant Rosamund Pike, who channels charm, charisma, and absolute evil into her character. She plays a legal guardian who works within the system to essentially trap elderly people and milk them of every last cent, and it’s all perfectly legal. It’s also horrifying, and the film’s ability to wring grim laughter from it all speaks to the talents involved.
Pixar’s latest has already been relegated by some to be a “lesser” release from the animated film giant, but while that’s understandable — it’s a simple film about friendship and self-confidence rather than a deep, thought-provoking tale about emotions or death — it’s not really a criticism. Luca may lack the weight of some other Pixar titles, but it’s still a sweet, funny, and vibrant movie that delivers laughs, emotion, and the sensation of being on vacation in coastal Italy. You can almost feel the sun and water on your skin and almost smell the freshly baked bread. It’s a sensory experience complete with sea monsters and a Breaking Away-inspired bike race. It is wonderful. Here’s my full review.
The Mitchells vs the Machines
The second of three animated movies to make this list, The Mitchells vs the Machines is the only one to not come from the mouse house. It’s a Netflix Film, produced by those wacky tastemakers Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, and it’s the story of one family’s fight against a robot apocalypse. The animation style feels slightly askew, in the best of ways, but the warmth between the family members comes shining through as if they were real people in front of you. Happily, so does the humor and action, both of which are present in abundance. It’s a big, fast-moving adventure using technology to remind us that sometimes it’s best to turn off the screen and be with the people in our lives.
This list of the Best Movies of 2021 so far continues on the next page…