The best films of 2021 so far | Movies
The White Tiger
Adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s award-winning novel, with Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the wealthy couple to whom precocious “white tiger” Adarsh Gourav is forced to hire himself as a driver.
What we said: “A dangerous adventure of self-betterment from the teeming city streets, influenced by Adiga’s own avowed love of Dickens and Balzac, and it’s a really enjoyable story.” Read the full review.
Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky returns to the spotlight with this scathing account of a Soviet-era scandal: a massacre of striking workers in 1961, which was promptly hushed up by the authorities.
What we said: “Konchalovsky clearly shows the incompetence, paranoia, bureaucracy and secrecy that created this mass murder … it is a passionate drama of fear and rage.” Read the full review.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
Harrowing recreation of the Srebrenica massacre by writer director Jasmila Žbanić, as seen through the eyes of a Bosnian translator working for the UN, whose family is caught up in the horrifying events.
What we said: “After 25 years, the time has come to look again at the horror of Srebrenica, and Žbanić has done this with clear-eyed compassion and candour.” Read the full review.
I Care a Lot
Rosamund Pike is on top form in an outrageously black-comic thriller, playing a court appointed “guardian” who specialises in getting elderly people forcibly confined to care homes, then milking their assets.
What we said: “Pike offers a window display of pure predatory wickedness, lighting up the screen with her sociopath haircut, shades and fashion-plate outfits, like Nurse Ratched’s aspirational granddaughter.” Read the full review.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Daniel Kaluuya won an Oscar for his portrayal of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, gunned down by the FBI in 1969, in a heartfelt drama that focuses attention on informant-betrayer William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield).
What we said: “This drama shrewdly and fascinatingly elevates [O’Neal] to equal status with Hampton – a diptych of tragic irony, the Judas to Hampton’s messiah.” Read the full review.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
The long-campaigned-for recut of the poorly received Justice League movie from 2017, in which the collection of superheroes take on Ciáran Hinds’ Steppenwolf, with Snyder’s “vision” restored at a four-hour running time.
What we said: “Its sheer colossal size, its sepulchral feeling of doom and its trance-like sense of its own mythic grandeur make it weirdly entertaining.” Read the full review.
Memories of My Father
Moving biopic, directed by Fernando Trueba, of Colombian activist Héctor Abad Gómez, assassinated in 1987 by far-right paramilitaries, as told through a memoir by his son and featuring a great performance from Javier Cámara.
What we said: “This is a wonderfully sympathetic, deeply felt and tenderly funny family drama with a novelistic attention to details and episodes … Cámara thoroughly inhabits the figure of Gómez: unselfconsciously inspiring and lovable.” Read the full review.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star in a period drama from God’s Own Country’s Francis Lee, loosely based on the life of pioneering 19th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning; here Lee posits a passionate affair between her and a convalescing visitor.
What we said: “The open secret of Victorian sexuality is rediscovered by Lee in this fine, intimate, intelligently acted movie about forbidden love in 1840s Lyme Regis.” Read the full review.
Godzilla vs Kong
Fourth instalment in the MonsterVerse series, here deploying the mother of all punch-ups between the giant lizard and the mammoth ape of the title. Just what everyone needed after a year without cinema.
What we said: “So while, yes, Hollywood and Warner Brothers may end up being the biggest winners in the battle of Godzilla vs Kong, it’s a genuine surprise to report that we, as viewers, also emerge as victors. The last laugh shall be a roar.” Read the full review.
Finely observed Oscar-winning drama about a Korean immigrant family in the US struggling against the odds to make a success of a farm in Arkansas.
What we said: “A wonderfully absorbing and moving family drama with a buttery, sunlit streak of sentimentality.” Read the full review.
A Common Crime
Chilling Argentinian drama that taps into the country’s hidden legacy of extra-judicial killings and “disappearances”, with Elisa Carricajo as an academic who thinks she is being haunted by her maid’s dead son.
What we said: “Guilt and the return of the repressed are behind this elegant, disquieting and impressively acted political ghost story from Argentinian film-maker Francisco Márquez.” Read the full review.
Fun time-loop romcom with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two wedding guests who connect at the party, and then get trapped in a Groundhog Day-type nightmare.
What we said: “It’s a credit to LA musician turned screenwriter Andy Siara that he has managed to make this film so ingenious, so good-natured and so funny, hurdling the inevitable deja-vu objections.” Read the full review.
Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan delivers a full-throttle performance as Cassie, a woman faking drunkenness to entrap predatory men in this sharp as nails rape-revenge satire, written and directed by Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell, of Killing Eve renown.
What we said: “Cassie’s dangerous vocation is there to make everyone in the audience feel uncomfortable – to trigger a convulsion of #NotAllMen indignation, to make its audiences feel queasy scruples about entrapment.” Read the full review.
Aubrey Plaza shines in this clever meta-movie, first as a screenwriter visiting friends at their lakeside retreat – then the scene switches as all three appear to be part of a film production.
What we said: “This is Plaza’s best role yet, her cool feline sensuality achieving something more mysterious than anything in her previous work.” Read the full review.
Labyrinth of Cinema
The final film from cult Japanese director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, an off-the-wall blizzard of film references wrapped around a story of three moviegoers who get sucked into the screen and end up confronting the Hiroshima nuclear blast.
What we said: “At first, it looks as if it is going to be a sentimental lump-in-the-throat elegy to cinema-going’s golden age. But then it takes us to the heart of Japanese darkness: the second world war and the atomic bomb.” Read the full review.
Mexican drama dealing with the horror of the lawless borderlands with the US, centring on a woman trying to find her missing son, after his fellow migrant is found dead.
What we said: “There is unbearable heartbreak in this migrant drama from first-time Mexican film-maker Fernanda Valadez – and also a vision of real evil.” Read the full review.
Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning study of retirees forced on to the road after the financial crash of 2008, which extracted a superb performance from Frances McDormand as well as from a cast of non-professionals who are the real thing.
What we said: “An utterly inspired docu-fictional hybrid … It is a gentle, compassionate, questioning film about the American soul.” Read the full review.
Beautifully shot black-and-white drama set in 80s Czechoslovakia, about two young seminary students grappling with Communist party control of the Catholic church, the Faustian bargain that enabled the church to avoid being shut down.
What we said: “Pure evil permeates this 80-minute film, whose cold visual brilliance reminds me of the recent movies of Paweł Pawlikowski.” Read the full review.
The Human Voice
Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton’s lockdown collaboration, a half-hour adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play, with Swinton as the woman we see and hear on one end of a fraught phone conversation with her former lover.
What we said: “An elegant jeu d’ésprit from Almódovar, with a bleak hint that moving on from the present malaise will mean some kind of wholesale destruction.” Read the full review.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
Wonderfully conceived comic drama from Argentinian director Ana Katz, developing a episodic series of scenes about thirtysomething Sebas as he negotiates the ups and downs of a working life hampered by his unhappy canine.
What we said: “This film is enigmatic and yet very digestible, deadpan in its comedy and so insouciant and casual in its form, you might almost think that Katz had written it in five minutes, filmed it in a week. There is real artistry here.” Read the full review.
A Quiet Place Part II
Sequel to the blockbuster horror thriller about humankind fending off savage aliens with super-sensitive hearing. Emily Blunt returns in family-protection mode, while her hearing-impaired daughter sets off on her own to find another set of survivors.
What we said: “In the end, it’s impossible not to see these gross creatures as Covid metaphors and impossible not to delight in their comeuppance. What a pleasure to see a big, brash picture like this on the big screen.” Read the full review.
Eye-opening documentary that cuts together long-abandoned archive footage of Stalin’s wake and funeral in the former USSR, once intended for an official film but now assembled by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa.
What we said: “The faces are the most intriguing thing. Loznitsa gives us a montage of inscrutability and repressed anxiety. Some people – a very few – are shown crying. The rest are serious, watchful, deadpan and neutral, an accentuation of the faces people learned to show while Stalin was alive.” Read the full review.
Impressive feature-directing debut from Billie Piper, in which she stars in a self-described “anti-romcom” as a media-industry type with a difficult family who starts a relationship with a charmless man played by Leo Bill.
What we said: “Go into Rare Beasts expecting a funny romantic film and you will have a rough time. Go for a challenging, psychological satire and … well, you’ll still have a rough time. But you’ll see a smart piece of work from a very smart new film-maker.” Read the full review.
Another live-action treatment of the 101 Dalmatians villain, here going down the prequel route, with Emma Stone as the young De Vil as a wannabe fashion designer in punk-era London, wrangling with Emma Thompson’s haughty fashionista.
What we said: “There’s an unexpectedly huge amount of old-fashioned fun to be had in Disney’s spectacular new origin-myth story … She is now an icily supercool supervillain, and Stone gives it everything she’s got – which is a considerable amount.” Read the full review.
Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt returns with another superbly observed, off-kilter tale of the American frontier, about two hardscrabbling migrants who cook up up a scheme to steal precious fresh milk to make highly sellable cakes.
What we said: “[Reichardt tells the] story with force and skill and the movie is shot with beautiful simplicity. There’s a muscular authority in its plainness and its calm, unshowy evocation of the American landscape.” Read the full review.
The Killing of Two Lovers
Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi star as an ex-couple trying to work things out in a civilised manner; tensions over their different life paths make for an explosive, violent cocktail in Robert Machoian’s lacerating film.
What we said: “Pain and rage pulse through this superbly made drama about marital breakdown and male humiliation.” Read the full review.
Fascinating animal’s-eye view of farmyard life from Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky; it focuses largely on a pig and her piglets – as the latter grow up and are then dispatched for slaughter.
What we said: “There are no people. No dialogue. Just animals. The camera follows this sow around the farm, just after farrowing, and we see the tiny piglets suckling; and later these same piglets, much bigger, still suckling and jostling.” Read the full review.
Joanna Scanlan delivers a revelatory performance as Mary, a Muslim convert who discovers – after his death – that her husband was leading a double life, and goes in search of the truth. An excellent feature debut from Aleem Khan.
What we said: “After Love has the agony of a domestic tragedy and the tension of a Hitchcock thriller. Mary herself is the suspense; she is the ticking bomb who could explode at any time.” Read the full review.
Anthony Hopkins is magisterially brilliant in Florian Zeller’s dementia drama, superbly evoking the confusions, mysteries and terrors of the condition. Hopkins thoroughly deserved his best actor Oscar for the role.
What we said: “What is deeply scary about The Father is that, without obvious first-person camera tricks, it puts us inside Anthony’s head. We see and don’t see what he sees and doesn’t see.” Read the full review.
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