Look, thanks to that godforsaken pandemic, which messed up the Oscars and the entire calendar year, it’s kind of hard to make the Best Films Of The Year, So Far feature because so many films were kind of released in 2020 — to qualify early for the Oscars — and or many were just released in a quiet limited release in December 2020. So, there is a tiny bit of crossover on our Best Films of 2020 list, but some films, “Nomadland” and “Minari” — which were essentially seen early last year at festivals — are not on this list and some films on the edge, like “Pieces of A Woman,” are okay? It’s our site; we write our own random rules.
In short, it’s been a weird year for movies, and mostly because many people haven’t seen films in movie theaters until only recently, and studios have been delaying their major films until this whole existential nightmare was over, either at festivals or for major theatrical release. So yes, weird year, but the pandemic seems (knock on wood) mostly over, everyone is getting vaccinated (do your part), and life is “returning to normal.”
Here’s an alphabetical list of the “best” films of 2021 so far in the spirit of the new normal. If you’re confused about anything questionably on the line, this year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, “Nomadland,” go see our Best of 2020 list, cool? Cool, let’s do this. – Rodrigo Perez.
Yes, the biggest Playlist malpractice of 2021 (so far??) was not reviewing “Bad Trip,” the hysterical hidden-camera prank, road trip friendship romance comedy from star and writer Eric Andre, “Jackass” director/producer Jeff Tremaine, and director Kitao Sakurai. Maybe that’s because, in 2021, hidden camera pranks seem passé, but lord, oh lord, were we wrong. “Bad Trip” is a hybrid and easily the best-hidden camera prank comedy because it’s so much more than that; it has a story and a beating heart. And to paraphrase something Eric Andre said that Sacha Baron Cohen told him: Cohen’s films prank people and turn an ugly mirror on society by showing the worst of who Americans are. “Bad Trip,” which also feels different because its rooted in Black culture, tends to bring out the best in people, genuine concern, and empathy without losing a step in comedy; no small feat. Lil Rel Howery is also incredible, and Tiffany Haddish deserves an Oscar. Engrossing, utterly hysterical, and somehow revealing about the human condition, it’s absolutely essential. – Rodrigo Perez
“Censor” is the type of directorial debut film fans love to see. Prano Bailey-Bond’s first feature doesn’t hold anything back, as it’s steeped in style and atmosphere that brings to mind greats like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. It’s clear Bailey-Bond wasn’t interested in playing it safe for her debut feature, and audiences can feel her passion in every frame. But more than just the aesthetics, the horror-thriller is an incredibly thoughtful exploration of trauma and repressed memories as a British censor (played wonderfully by the reserved Niamh Algar), in the ‘80s, has to reckon with her own terrifying past as she slogs through endless B-movies, trying to find areas that have to be cut to gain appropriate ratings. Overall, Bailey-Bond’s film is a love letter to the VHS nasties of a bygone era and a directorial debut that forces audiences to take note of one of the best new talents in filmmaking. In our review, we said, “‘Censor’ is an impressive, visually stunning, deeply disturbing debut from Bailey-Bond and a showcase for Algar, who gives a truly spectacular performance.” -Charles Barfield
“Technique can be taught. Truth cannot.” The attempt to master something creative that’s just out of the reach of someone has been a theme of fiction for generations. Still, Chaitanya Tamhane reframes it in a captivating way in a film that becomes as meditative and powerful as its music. Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) has spent his entire existence at the feet of masters in the art of Indian classical music, whether it was his father, mentor, or even the expert he listens to as he drives around the city at night (in gorgeously fluid slo-mo shots that give the film much of its rhythmic grace). And yet Sharad looks lost. It’s in the uncertainty that one can see in his eyes whether he’s looking for the rare approval of his teacher or wondering how a singing competition show is impacting the music he loves. One of the best scenes of 2021 comes when another expert tears down the pedestals on which Sharad has placed the people that have shaped his life. He has learned all the techniques, but he keeps struggling to find the truth. In conjunction with the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, our Christian Gallicho called the film “profound in its microcosmic world-building.” – Brian Tallerico
“This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection“
Grief is never an easy emotion to deal with but experiencing the loss of your own child is perhaps an unknowable sorrow. “This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection” is a cinematic psalm of insular pain and utter devastation, captured in the vein of a tragic folk ballad. Featuring one of the final performances of South African actress Mary Twala (who passed in 2020), channeling her own struggles into a majestic performance for the ages (she lost her own son in 1985), director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s close to the indescribably powerful movie is chilling yet cathartic. Twala plays an elderly mother who has outlived her entire family, having been informed that her son was recently killed in a mining accident, and – thanks to a dam being built on her village’s land – she will not be laid to rest beside him when she passes. Shot in stunning 4:3 and framed like a biblical bedtime story, ‘This Is Not A Burial’ is not for the faint of heart but is an absolute must-watch, Mosese using every movie-making tool at his disposal to capture a heartbreaking tale of one woman’s unwavering devotion to honoring the spirit of her family. – Andrew Bundy
“French Exit” sees “The Lovers” writer/director Azazel Jacobs successfully experimenting with cinematic formalism, and in this elegant upper-crust family caper, the filmmaker is assisted by his two brilliant leads, Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, both of whom are expertly in tune with the sweet, peculiar tone that their director is striving for. The narrative is a glittering string of farcical, uproarious coincidences in which Pfeiffer’s brittle heiress and Hedges’ dippy rich-kid romantic journey from New York to Paris (a highlight: when Hedges’ character meets a kooky clairvoyant aboard a cruise ship, a dreamy bit that feels airlifted out of a Marx Brothers laffer, or even “The Lady Eve”). The movie is the definition of an acquired taste, but what it does well is hard to miss: our own Tomris Laffly was one of a handful of critics that really went for Jacobs’ film, reserving special praise for a “mesmerizingly catty” Pfeiffer. – Nicholas Laskin