The 25 Best Films Of 2021 We’ve Already Seen

The deck for 2021 film releases was shuffled yet again late last year, adding yet another wrinkle to what has undoubtedly been one of, if not the most tumultuous yearlong period for domestic film distribution in history. Obviously, some of 2021’s bigger blockbusters still have (tentative) release dates (see our massive 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2021 feature): we’re thinking of Denis Villeneuve’s hotly-anticipated “Dune” adaptation, which was supposed to be in theaters last December, and also Adam Wingard’s long-delayed “Godzilla Vs. Kong,” a tentpole presumably intended for the full, immersive big-screen experience that is now headed straight to HBO Max.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Films Of 2020

There are other noteworthy examples, but you get the point – and as always, some of the most rewarding films we’ve seen from this year are ones that may slip under the radar of film lovers who aren’t quite sure where to look. A few of our favorite films from 2021 were ones that we saw in last year’s festival circuit, either at Sundance, Berlin, or Venice. Late in 2020, a few smaller-scale domestic festivals, including NYFF and AFI Fest, opted to debut titles for online streaming purchase, thus allowing cinephiles the opportunity to see films ranging from the new Azazel Jacobs movie, “French Exit” to the movie-nerd doc “Hopper/Welles” well ahead of their domestic release dates.

READ MORE: The 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2021

In short, you guys have a lot of great movies to look forward to this year. Here are the best movies we’ve seen that are still yet to be released in 2021. As always, thank you for reading. – Nicholas Laskin

READ MORE: The 20 Best Performances Of 2020

Read all our Best of 2020 coverage and Most Anticipated 2021 coverage here and here.

It’s impossible to ignore the influence pioneering Greek “weird wave” director Yorgos Lanthimos has had on emerging filmmakers this past decade. While it might be an easy comparison, the unmistakable Lanthimos DNA can be traced throughout Christos Nikou’s debut feature “Apples.” Nikou, who first worked a decade ago as a second assistant director on Lanthimos’ breakout feature, “Dogtooth,” might wear his influences on his sleeve, while still crafting one of the most original and frighteningly relevant films of the new decade. At the height of a pandemic that causes immediate amnesia in its victims, lonely thirty-something Aris (Aris Servetalis) enrolls in a government program that helps newly-stricken amnesiacs build a fresh identity for themselves. What begins as a darkly comedic dystopian nightmare in the vein of Lanthimos’ signature works, slowly unravels into something far more heartfelt and empathetic than the pioneering Greek “weird wave” director’s output. Undeniably more effective for debuting during the height of our real-life pandemic, it’s Nikou’s droll humor and humanity that rescue the film from becoming a bleak mirror of the world we live in today, instead offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.
Release Date: TBD. – Max Roux

Originally intended to premiere at last year’s canceled Cannes Film Festival, Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s ethereal, haunting first feature “Beginning” is one of the most assured debuts we’ve seen in quite some time. Evoking the dread-inducing single takes of  Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown,” the film opens with a horrific attack on a small Jehovah’s Witness church at the hands of Christian extremists. Although everyone survives the molotov cocktail assault on the gathering, the church leader’s wife, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is faced with her own inner turmoil. Her husband, David (Rati Oneli) is determined to rebuild the church and return to normalcy, but the event triggers Yana’s deep-seated desires to break free of the patriarchal society she’s spent her life in. While the Haneke references are apt, Kulumbegashvili’s debut will undoubtedly draw comparisons to executive producer Carlos Reygadas’s hypnotic, sundrenched works like “Post Tenebras Lux” and “Silent Light.” Along with the film being Georgia’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards, indie streamer MUBI recently snatched up distribution rights, placing “Beginning” firmly in the awards mix and assuring this challenging, but rewarding debut finds the audience it deserves.
Release Date: TBD. – MR

Legendary Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang (“The River,” “What Time Is It There?“) has been crafting slow-moving, hypnotic portraits of time, loneliness, and isolation for years. I might even argue that Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s 2018 Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters,” was the more straightforward version of homelessness and found families that Ming-liang masterfully made with 2013’s aching “Stray Dogs.” I digress. Seven belated years later, Ming-liang finally returns with “Days,” another portrait of longing about two solitary men who eventually come together in a moment of healing, tenderness, and sexual release. Featuring his muse-for-decades Lee Kang-sheng, “Days” is a minimalist, spare, and exquisite as you’d imagine. In his New York Film Festival review, Jason Bailey described the  film as a powerfully quiet yet observant story about isolation and connection. “The despair of feeling adrift and abandoned, even in a city stuffed with people. For just a brief moment, these two offer each other a reprieve from that suffering.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Release Date: TBD. – Rodrigo Perez

The Disciple
The Disciple” is the long-awaited second film from renowned Indian auteur Chaitanya Tamhane, following his critically successful and much-discussed 2014 legal drama “Court.” That film was ended up being India’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. “The Disciple,” which is more than five years in the making, sounds like another deliciously languid and intelligent offering from this intriguing filmmaker, although this new work purports to examine a protagonist, played by Aditya Moda, who moves through the ranks of India’s classical music world. The Playlist’s Christian Gallichio gave the film a rave notice out of Venice, writing that Tamhane “[unfurls] an entire life of failed artistic ambitions in the span of a two-hour film” and that the director remains “unhurried in his approach,” which is admirable when one considers the apparently expansive scale of the film as an overall piece. Aside from “Monsoon Wedding,” Venice is often short on quality Indian cinema, and with a co-sign from “Roma” director Alfonso Cuaron, serving as an executive producer here, we’re hoping that Tamhane’s latest has enough legs to be mentioned in the Best Foreign Film category come 2022 Oscar season.
Release Date: TBD. NL

French Exit
Jaunty japes about the American upper crust are a tough sell in a post-“Parasite” world, but “French Exit,” the bewitching new comedy from “The Lovers” director Azazel Jacobs, could be the film to reverse that trend. “French Exit” is a film that takes a mildly barbed, not entirely un-affectionate look at the dwindling life prospects of a once-moneyed socialite (Michelle Pfeiffer, radiating wilted, self-deprecating regal glamor) who is fleeing Manhattan for Paris with her maladjusted son (Lucas Hedges, channeling the disaffected slacker romantics that Jason Schwartzman has played for Wes Anderson) in tow. Equally influenced by Peter Bogdonavich and P.G. Wodehouse, “French Exit” is a type of movie that we inherently love – the screwball adventure with the tragic heart – executed with a liberating sense of unaffected whimsy. Fans of Pfeiffer’s won’t want to miss it, as it offers the great actress’s richest role in over a decade: she and Hedges share a deeply charming, Martini-dry that just barely disguises the fact that their characters are terminally coddled and ill-equipped to deal with harsh realities such as death, economic inequality, and romantic ennui. Our own Tomris Laffly was quite taken with Pfeiffer, writing: “Like ‘French Exit’ itself, Pfeiffer is a vision,” and describing the film overall as a perfect marriage of a writer and director as two savvy genre-benders.
Release Date: February 12, via Sony Pictures Classics. – NL