So, we’re halfway through another year and 2021 has certainly done its best to bring back the cinema experience after a slow 2020. But even as blockbusters return to center stage some of the best films of the year so far have been smaller releases, although some big names are among my personal favorites of the year to date. Oftentimes I like to look back at all the experiences that make up a year to explore what worked, what didn’t, and where I think the year needs to improve in terms of cinematic content. In doing so this year I was thrilled to see the variety of movies I decided were considered “Must See” material. I don’t go into movies believing I’m automatically going to love them or hate them and sometimes I find myself despising films other critics love or heavily enjoying ones others just don’t get. So with that said today I’m going to examine the movies that I personally felt were the biggest highlights of the first six months of 2021.
This list is comprised of ten movies I feel as of June 30, 2021 were the best, most memorable or overall most enjoyable movies I’ve experienced in the calendar year. Now let it be known I’ve missed quite a few more niche or extremely limited films. These are just the ones I was able to access and view and, thus, review on this blog. So far this year I’ve rated 13 movies as “Must See’s” or something equivalent so three didn’t make the cut but the ten that did still stick in my brain to this day to the point where I barely had to look back at my records to make up this top ten. These are the films that, in my book, set the standard pretty high for the rest of this year’s movies to follow. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Movies of the First Half of 2021.
What movie is your favorite of the year so far? Let me know in the comments below.
10. “Justice League: The Snyder Cut”
This movie makes this list for sheer unexpected enjoyment alone. I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan and seeing DC fail to establish its own cinematic universe similar to the MCU has been a guilty pleasure of mine like watching a Starbucks drinker drop their coffee while I sip on my Dunkin’ iced. Even when “The Snyder Cut” was announced I had my doubts. I was sure there was no way Zack Snyder could bring enough new life to the mess Warner Bros. actually released…boy was I wrong. Snyder’s new cut of the film, released exclusively on HBO Max, was a truly engaging experience that upped the ante in every way from the action to the acting and especially the story giving the DC Extended Universe’s magnum opus its own unique flair. Sadly the potential for the DCEU ended with this release as WB seems determined to make this a one-off, but “The Snyder Cut” was more than just an improvement on the original film. It was undeniable proof that Snyder had a vision and that allowing directors and storytellers control over their work has more value than pandering to the masses. Is it the best superhero movie ever, not by a long shot. It’s not even the best DC movie. But it’s a well crafted work that deserves to be labeled a true cinematic experience.
9. “Our Friend”
I can count on maybe both hands the number of movies that have made me genuinely cry upon the initial viewing. “Our Friend” was added to that list in 2021. Based on a true story about Matthew Teague and his wife Nicole, who died of cancer, “Our Friend” explores how the Teague’s friend Dane stepped up and became a part of their every day lives to help Matthew manage Nicole’s illness. The performances of Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel, in his first comedy since 2014, help this film rise above every cliché it chooses to embrace creating a heartfelt and honest story that made me feel both uncomfortable and blessed to have experienced it. “Our Friend” balances its serious themes and narrative with pitch perfect moments of levity that feel stripped right out of these people’s actual lives adding a layer of authenticity rarely seen in films of this nature. By the time the credits rolled I not only felt for the characters, but I felt understood by them having seen loved ones of my own deteriorate and pass away over time due to illness. It’s not to much for me to call this one of the most moving films I’ve seen in years.
8. “Malcolm and Marie”
This is one of those movies I absolutely adored but a lot of people didn’t enjoy quite as much. Taking place in the confines of the home of the titular duo and only featuring two actors, John David Washington and Zendaya, as they have fights, debates, and casual conversations over the course of a night after returning from Malcolm’s film premier, director and writer Sam Levinson dissects the ego and pretentiousness present on all angles of the cinematic world through the art of pure dialogue and his actors’ flawless chemistry. Watching these two complain about each other’s faults and praise their strengths while having the audacity to take shots at the clichés and artistic merit of cinema despite themselves clearly embracing these same flaws provides such an intriguing sense of irony that I couldn’t help but fall in love with this movie the longer it played out. It explores everything from relationship abuse to the unending cycle of self-importance in the film industry among both its critics and its artists and even made me feel attacked as an amateur critic which I absolutely LOVED. I’m certainly in a minority here, but “Malcolm & Marie” did plenty to earn my respect.
7. “In the Heights”
This musical adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name was sadly and shamefully underseen by viewers in theaters, including myself who caught it on HBO Max. I went into “In the Heights” with frankly low expectations but it drew me right in with its opening number and never let go creating a genuinely infectious experience that celebrates cultural identity, community, and what’s left of the American Dream. It seamlessly juggles multiple narratives exploring different lives and revelations along the way rarely feelings anywhere close to bloated or disorganized in its approach. The soundtrack alone keeps me coming back to it, but there’s so much to see as well as hear from this film with sparkling cinematography and set design, energetic choreography and an undying sense of optimism and fear of the unknown that permeate every minute of the film leaving viewers looking back on their own American Dreams and how, in the end, it wasn’t the big goals that mattered but the simple smiles that made it worth it. This movie provides one of those simple smiles and while I never saw the stage show the movie it inspired will show you exactly why it has become so beloved.
“Oxygen” flew completely under the radar for me until I finally gave it a chance one day when I was bored and looking for something to keep me occupied. A French science fiction bottle film (meaning it takes place mostly in one location) “Oxygen” focuses on a woman who awakens inside a pod with no memory of how or why she is there and has to figure out how to escape. It’s a race against time as her oxygen levels are depleting with every minute. The film puts the action squarely on Mélanie Laurent who is the only actor physically on camera for most of the picture and manages to keep the intensity at a fever pitch even with the limitations of its setting in mind. Every answer brings a new mystery or roadblock for Laurent’s character and the claustrophobia she feels easily envelopes the viewer bringing you into her scenario while the final revelations also ask some daring questions about how far we as humans may be willing to take science in the future. The fact that it’s spoken all in French might throw some people off, but if you can get past that “Oxygen” is a truly engrossing small scale sci-fi drama worth experiencing.
5. “Come True”
Talk about a movie I didn’t see coming. “Come True” might be my favorite surprise of 2021 so far. I watched this movie simply because it came highly recommended online and had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I finally experienced it for myself I was treated to a fabulous sci-fi horror clearly inspired by countless classics before it and yet felt very much like its own thing. Driven by a spectacular performance by Julia Sarah Stone, “Come True” sees a runaway girl sign up to be part of a dream experiment attempting to determine the origins of nightmares, especially during sleep paralysis. Eventually the barriers of dreams and reality are shattered leaving Stone’s character unsure of what is real and what is all part of her dream. As the film progresses the viewer also begins to wonder what is and isn’t reality leading to an ambiguous ending that has spawned countless online theories as to the true nature of the experience. That is my kind of movie, one that gives you some answers but leaves you guessing about others yet never left me feeling frustrated or cheated out of something greater. It’s a prime example of how some of horror’s best works remain beyond the boundaries of mainstream cinema.
4. “A Quiet Place Part II”
The first and only true cinematic blockbuster to make this list, “A Quiet Place Part II” is not just the best mainstream movie of the year so far, it’s also an absolutely perfect sequel to one of the best original sci-fi horror films of the last few decades. “A Quiet Place Part II” was absolutely worth the wait picking up right where the first movie left off and further building on the world beyond the Abbott family’s farmhouse to see what society has become since the invasion of the blind aliens. With new characters, new sets, news dangers, but the same sense of dread and pulse-pounding pacing, “A Quiet Place Part II” is a spectacular mix of old and new giving us what we loved about the original movie while also adding to this series’ legacy in extensive yet subtle ways usually more reserved for books or video games. It’s one of the few films that made me feel genuinely interested in its post-apocalyptic reality while also touching on intensely personal themes remembering that this story isn’t about the aliens, it’s about the people that are left to fight them off and survive.
A24 never disappoints me and they hit it out of the park again with one of the best films of 2020 and 2021 on pretty much every list you can find, “Minari”. An very personal story about a Korean family’s attempt to successfully assimilate into American society in the 80s, “Minari” had the benefit of being inspired by director and writer Lee Isaac Chung’s actual childhood and thus contains a certain amount of realism and sincerity necessary to make a family drama like this work. Featuring a mostly Asian cast and earning numerous Oscar nods as well as a historic win for Youn Yuh-jung for Best Supporting Actress, “Minari” remains one of the deepest most carefully crafted films of 2021 and a solid lasting contender for my best films of the year list in another six months. It was unfortunately overshadowed by my next entry, an even more stripped down masterpiece, but “Minari” at its core deserves to be praised and beloved for its exploration of immigrant life in the United States and the delicate and difficult balance between fitting in to a new world and maintaining one’s cultural and personal identity along the way.
The winner of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the Oscars this year, “Nomadland” had its wide release in February of 2021 and people just couldn’t stop talking about it for good reason. Everything about it creates an impeccably crafted look at the life of the modern nomad with Frances McDormand center stage in one of the best performances of a career already filled with incredible turns on the screen. Thanks to the careful craftsmanship of director, writer, cinematographer Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” shines on every level embracing a documentary-like feel, utilizing real-life nomads to add to its realism and taking a path of simplicity allowing its substance to shine over its style. “Nomadland” gives viewers a truly delightful look into a lifestyle many of us may find hard to understand exploring the sense of community and purpose that comes with being a traveling soul in a modern world. I absolutely loved it and am proud to join many others in calling it one of the best of the year. But there is one other Oscar nominated film that left an even bigger impact on me in the early months of 2021.
1. “The Father”
This movie is brilliant. No other movie in 2021 so far has left the kind of impact “The Father” did for me and while it might be overshadowed by the Oscars’ fiasco where they put the Best Actor award last believing the great Chadwick Boseman would earn it but it went to Anthony Hopkins instead, I’m not exaggerating when I say Hopkins deserved it for turning in one of the best performances of his career if not THE best. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay as director Florian Zeller adapted this movie from a play he also wrote and carried that stage approach to the big screen creating a movie that flows seamlessly between scenes from the past, present, and future as we explore the mind of a dementia patient and experience Hopkins unmatched dedication to capturing the complicated emotions that come with such a role. It’s heartbreaking, mind-bending and jarring in all the best ways leaving you questioning so much by the time the credits role but understanding that this is, in fact, the idea, to make the viewer feel as confused and frustrated as its main character who is losing touch of the reality around him. Every time someone asks me what I think the “must see” film of the year so far is, this is what I recommend and it’s hard to believe any movie yet to come will top it. We have six more months to find out.