March 31, 2023

The best films of 2021 (so far)

If 2020 was a truly unprecedented year for movies, 2021’s been pretty strange in its own way. Sure, we didn’t have to adjust to widespread theater closures. But we started the year still dealing with last year’s release date shuffle and forced pivot to VOD, and then had to get used to the idea of transitioning out of those routines and back into theaters again. 

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, which perhaps is why it’s hard to believe we’re halfway through the year already. But yes, it’s about time to take stock at year so far, and think back at all the films we’ve enjoyed most this year — from daffy comedies to powerhouse dramas to epic-scale blockbusters. Here are the best films of 2021, according to Mashable. 

[embedded content]

Revel in the ridiculousness of Bad Trip. Brought to you by three of the dudes behind The Eric Andre Show, this mostly improvised romantic comedy stars Eric Andre as Chris, a hopeless romantic seeking a second chance with his high school crush. Lil Rel Howery co-leads as Bud, Chris’ best, er, bud (ha!) who agrees to a moonshot road trip in hopes of finding his friend’s lost love. Tiffany Haddish steals the show as Bad Trip‘s main antagonist, Bud’s sister Trina who is newly escaped from prison and wildly unpredictable.

It’s hands-down one of the funniest movies of the year, and also one of the most inventive. The movie’s meandering plot features a lineup of outrageous hidden camera pranks that cast innocent bystanders as extras in this rom-com from hell, and their genuine reactions make for an entertaining and surprisingly wholesome watch you’ll remember for a very long time. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter *

How to watch: Bad Trip is streaming on Netflix.

9. Limbo 

[embedded content]

Set on a remote Scottish island, Limbo follows a Syrian refugee named Omar (Amir El-Masry) who’s in, well, limbo: He’s waiting to see if his request for asylum will be granted, and there’s no telling if it’ll take weeks, months, or years to get an answer. 

There’s a deadpan edge to Omar’s struggles to adjust to this strange and distant land, but director Ben Sharrock is aiming for something deeper than fish-out-of-water comedy — the humor underlines Omar’s sense of disorientation and alienation, and beneath that surface-level absurdity is a poignant look at the deepest pains and frustrations endured by Omar and the other refugees around him. Limbo is hilarious in parts, heartbreaking in others, and humane through and through.

How to watch: Limbo is currently playing in theaters.

[embedded content]

Godzilla vs. Kong is enjoyable in the same way one might enjoy vividly imagining what a restaurant dish will taste like, ordering that dish, and finding it not only matches but exceeds your expectations for deliciousness. It says on the box that Godzilla’s gonna fight King Kong, and boy, do the big fellas fight. Children have been raised with less love than the animators put into every single moment of their titanic brawls, which span the surface and interior of the globe and culminate in the complete destruction of a world city — as well as one of the greatest third-act plot twists seen in a movie where a big nuclear lizard fights an ape. 

The question is not “Should you watch Godzilla vs. Kong?” It’s “Are you ready to watch Godzilla vs. Kong?” It delivers exactly what you think it does, so if you are ready, only you will know. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter 

How to watch: Godzilla vs. Kong is available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and more.

7. Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar 

[embedded content]

It takes maybe five minutes for Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar to elicit its first “WTF?” and to the comedy’s immense credit, it only gets weirder from there. 

There are life-saving culottes, and elaborate lies about turtles, and a mythological sea sprite named Trish, and a villain commanding an army of mosquitos, and a musical number that has Jamie Dornan climbing up a palm tree like a cat up a palm tree who’s decided to go up a palm tree, and…look, you’ve just got to watch it to get it. And at the center of all of it is the sincerely sweet, reliably rock-solid bond between Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig). Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar ended up being to us what Vista Del Mar was to Barb and Share: the breezy little break from reality we needed to get our shine back. 

How to watch: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and more.

[embedded content]

Judas and the Black Messiah burns with all the passion and fury and sorrow its real-life story deserves — but unlike so many historical dramas that seem to regard their events from a lofty remove, it never loses sight of the humanity of its central players. Anchored by powerhouse performances from Daniel Kaluuya (who won an Oscar) and LaKeith Stanfield, the story of Fred Hampton’s life and death takes on the urgency of the present and the tremulous hope for a better future. It’s one that not only commanded our attention from start to finish, but lingered for a long time after, reminding us that the true legacy of Hampton and activists like him lies with us here and now.

How to watch: Judas and the Black Messiah is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and more.

[embedded content]

First-time feature director Rohena Gera sticks the landing with Sir, which only hit Netflix early in 2021. It’s essential Indian cinema. Tillotama Shome stars as Ratna, a live-in housemaid to upper-middle class Ashwin. Housemaids are common in India, where the film is set, but Ratna and Ashwin develop a slow-simmering and socially unthinkable love. 

With Gera’s writing and direction, this unlikely story never feels forced. The love blooms organically, in furtive looks and hefty silence and the trust they develop as Ashwin recovers from a broken engagement and Ratna tells him about her late husband. The result is a film so soft and stirring that it will stay with you long after it ends. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter *

How to watch: Sir is streaming on Netflix.

[embedded content]

Take your typical family road trip comedy, toss in a robot apocalypse, and top it all off with a heavy smattering of meme-worthy filters, doodles, and GIFs, and you might end up with something like The Mitchells vs. The Machines: a truly fun-for-the-whole-family feature that hinges on whether an artsy teen (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and her luddite dad (voiced by Danny McBride) can set aside their differences long enough to save all of humanity from being launched into space by Siri Pal. 

Come for the jokes about our impending AI-led dystopia, stay for the heart-tugging moments of Mitchell family bonding. Seriously, we might never hear T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life” without tearing up ever again. 

How to watch: The Mitchells vs. The Machines is streaming on Netflix.

[embedded content]

The first feature film from writer-director Rose Glass, Saint Maud is a religious horror film set in the world of late-stage hospice care. When a pious nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) is assigned to care for the boldly blasphemous Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a battle to save Amanda’s soul before she dies of cancer ensues. It’s a staggeringly scary reflection on interiority and philosophy, with a searing assessment of the sometimes predatory messiah complex to boot. 

In addition to its exquisite acting performances and sublime cinematography, Saint Maud works because of its relentless meticulousness. Keeping with the grand tradition of A24 horror, Glass builds her film around an intricate latticework of symbolism and hidden details that will both unnerve and intrigue you. There’s enough to merit watching the movie twice, and, with a runtime of just one hour and 24 minutes, you can do that pretty easily. Just make sure to take some kind of break between viewings; this is one intense movie experience, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. — A.F.

How to watch: Saint Maud is streaming on Hulu. 

2. MLK / FBI 

[embedded content]

Directed by Sam Pollard and produced by Benjamin Hedin, MLK/FBI explores the damning relationship between its title subjects — the FBI’s consistent harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of his role as a civil rights activist. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI spied on King, exposed his personal affairs, and planned to discredit him in the eyes of the American people and thereby destroy the civil rights movement from within. 

The full story has yet to be told — more documents will be declassified in 2027 — but Pollard’s film sets your teeth on edge, exposing the insidious actions of institutions that are supposed to protect and uphold American values. The system is broken, and MLK/FBI reminds us that it has been that way for a long time. — P.K. 

How to watch: MLK / FBI is streaming on Hulu.

[embedded content]

Has there been a more joyous cinematic experience this year than In the Heights? Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical soars on the charm of its cast, the catchiness of its tunes, the dazzle of its dance numbers, and maybe most of all, the energy of its setting. 

It’s a portrait of a community — specifically the close-knit, predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan — woven from the dreams of the people in it, and brought to life in musical moments both awesomely epic (like the Busby Berkeley-inspired pool number “96,000”) and devastatingly personal (like the showstopping solo “Paciencia y Fe”). The timing of the In the Heights‘ release meant it was one of the first films, or maybe even the first film, back in theaters after over a year at home — and it’s hard to think of a better welcome back than this sunny celebration of togetherness. 

How to watch: In the Heights is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

* Asterisks indicate the writeup is adapted from another article.