At the start of 2021, many movie theaters weren’t even open. But that didn’t mean there weren’t great movies coming out — and as the US has slowly reopened, they’ve only grown in number. Now, at the year’s halfway point, there are dozens of great films to catch up on in theaters and at home: thrillers, action blockbusters, genre-bending rom-coms, musicals, weepy tragedies.
So before the (packed) second half of the cinematic year gets rolling, check out one or all of the best movies of 2021 so far. It’s a treasure chest.
The follow-up to the 2018 smash hit horror film, A Quiet Place Part II brings back Emily Blunt as she fights to keep her family alive in a world where creatures that hunt by listening are lurking everywhere. Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe, and Millicent Simmonds also star, and John Krasinski returns as the film’s writer and director. A Quiet Place Part II retains the horror of its predecessor, but starts to raise the questions that post-apocalyptic entertainment often asks best: In the wake of earth-shattering catastrophes and unspeakable loss, how does a culture rebuild itself? Can a society find a new and better way to live? Or will we simply fall back on the old ways? In this strange period of reemergence — and in the first big theatrical hit of 2021 — that question couldn’t be more resonant.
How to watch it: A Quiet Place Part II is playing in theaters.
All Light, Everywhere
We undeniably live in a surveillance society. Cameras are ubiquitous, from body cameras on cops to drone-enabled cameras that capture views from above to the phone cameras we hold in our hands every day. But what do cameras miss? Do they really give us a more objective view of reality? Those are the questions Theo Anthony (Rat Film) tackles in All Light, Everywhere, a sprawling essay film about “blind spots” in the technologies we trust (or don’t trust) to keep us safe and the illusions they too often depend upon. Watching All Light, Everywhere is informative, but more importantly, it’s an experience, and a sobering one.
How to watch it: All Light, Everywhere is playing in select theaters.
Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig — the dynamic duo who wrote Bridesmaids a decade ago — have returned, gloriously, with a new co-written film: Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a sweetly bonkers buddy comedy in which they both star. Directed by Josh Greenbaum, it’s the story of two middle-aged Midwesterners who get up the gumption to take their dream vacation (to Vista Del Mar, obviously) and have a grand old time. They find themselves unwittingly embroiled in a nefarious plot involving a handsome young man named Edgar (Jamie Dornan, perfectly cast), and the whole thing winds up hilarious. Barb & Star is full of wry jokes, screwy comedic set pieces, and the occasional musical number — and it’s an absolute joy.
On Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street, seven horses live in a stable tended by a group of enthusiasts who aim to preserve a century-long tradition of Black urban cowboys. The real Fletcher Street cowboys, the horses they love, and the challenges they face provide the setting for the fictional film Concrete Cowboy, which in turn is based on G. Neri’s award-winning 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy. The story centers on teenaged Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, from Stranger Things), who is sent to live with his father Harp (Idris Elba), who is one of those cowboys. Concrete Cowboy’s screenplay is clunky at times, but with strong performances and direction, it builds out an authentic portrait of a history worth remembering and a present worth safeguarding.
How to watch it: Concrete Cowboy is streaming on Netflix.
Is F9 the best blockbuster ever made? No. Is it absolutely perfect? You bet. The latest larger-than-life entry in the Fast & Furious franchise centers on the relationship between Dom (Vin Diesel) and his long-lost brother Jakob (John Cena). But while the Fast & Furious franchise has always been about family, it’s even more about very fast cars and death-defying stunts, and F9 is no exception. By the third act, the film has turned into something sublime. It’s hard to imagine having more fun at the movies.
How to watch it: F9 is playing in theaters.
You could say filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky is unconventional. His last film, Aquarela, was a portrait of water set to a soundtrack by the Finnish symphonic metal band Apocalyptica; his new film Gunda, executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix, swaps out the massive scope and ear-splitting music for an intimate portrait of a pig and her piglets, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There’s no dialogue; we just watch the animals go about their lives while we experience the quietly dawning recognition that these animals have real lives. Phoenix is an animal rights activist — as you may recall, he championed veganism when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2020 — and his interest in Gunda is no surprise. It’s a recognition of animals’ creatureliness and a quiet argument for their dignity.
How to watch it: Gunda is playing in limited theaters and is available to digitally rent via Neon’s virtual cinema.
In the Heights is perfectly timed to welcome moviegoers back to theaters after a long pandemic year. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (pre-Hamilton) musical was a hit on Broadway, and now it’s been translated to the big screen by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu. Starring a bevy of talent — Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Stephanie Beatriz, Dascha Polanco, Jimmy Smits, Marc Anthony, and Miranda himself — it’s a joyful, music-filled story about a community pulling together and their dreams of a better life.
How to watch it: In the Heights is playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
Judas and the Black Messiah is galvanizing, with an intoxicating energy that makes the story beats land with a jolt. Director and co-writer Shaka King tells the story of 21-year-old Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), the charismatic chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, who was assassinated in a raid on his home by police and the FBI on December 4, 1969. That raid was partly enabled by William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who had worked his way up the Black Panther ladder to become the Illinois chapter’s head of security and a trusted member of the party. Judas and the Black Messiah brilliantly evokes the texture and emotional tenor of the time, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself — while knowing that someone powerful is turning their crosshairs on you.
Pixar’s latest is set in the Italian Riviera, a coming-of-age story about a kid named Luca. Luca is having the best summer of his life. He’s also a sea monster, and he’s met another sea monster — a boy named Alberto, who convinces him to venture above the water to see what it’s like up there. Luca’s parents don’t approve, but Luca is enamored with the world of humans. He and Alberto travel to a town where they meet a little girl named Giulia, and the adventures begin. Luca is sweet, funny, and appealingly small-scale — a movie about feeling different from everyone but coming to terms with yourself anyhow.
How to watch it: Luca is streaming on Disney+.
Minari is the story of Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), who move their two small children (Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim) from California to Arkansas in the 1980s, in pursuit of Jacob’s dream of farming. But Jacob and Monica’s marriage is on the rocks, a circumstance that doesn’t improve the way they hoped it would when Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes to stay with them. Minari is a deeply personal project for writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, the son of Korean immigrants who also grew up in small-town Arkansas in the 1980s. It’s both a family drama seen through the eyes of a Korean American boy and a moving tale of love and loss in the American heartland, exquisitely told.
The FBI’s scrutiny of Martin Luther King Jr. is the subject of MLK/FBI, a documentary from Emmy-winning director Sam Pollard. Leaning on newly declassified documents about the Bureau’s surveillance of King under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the film explores in detail how the FBI tracked King and what kind of threats it claimed he posed to America. MLK/FBI shows how decades of Hollywood portrayals of Black men and the FBI contributed to public perceptions of King, and it doesn’t shy away from how the FBI’s invasion of King’s privacy turned up facts about his life and marriage that complicate his legacy.
Night of the Kings
A prisoner named Roman (Koné Bakary) in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest prison finds himself tasked with a terrifying challenge: He must tell a story to the other prisoners all night — one so engaging that they will stay absorbed in it until the sun comes up — or he will lose his life. Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings clearly plays homage to One Thousand and One Nights, weaving a tale in which a powerful older inmate named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) runs the prison with the tacit approval of the guards, and appoints Roman to his post as the prison’s official storyteller. The film is fantastical, an elaborate story that contains its own elaborate story, and it weaves magic into what feels a bit like madness.
No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh returns with another heist movie, though it’s not quite like any of his others (such as Logan Lucky or the Oceans movies). Working from a screenplay by Ed Solomon (Men in Black, the Bill & Ted franchise), No Sudden Move is the story of a couple of small-time crooks in 1950s Detroit who get hired by some bigger-time crooks to pull off a simple job. To nobody’s surprise, nothing is as simple as it seems. No Sudden Move is a purely satisfying film, Soderbergh’s best in years, and was shot under Covid-19 safety protocols with a bumper crop of a cast — Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, Noah Jupe, Ray Liotta, Kieran Culkin, Bill Duke, and the list continues. It’s stylish, funny, bleak, and brilliant, all at once.
How to watch it: No Sudden Move is streaming on HBO Max.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
It can be difficult to translate some of humanity’s most horrifying moments onto the big screen without flattening what happened, by trying too hard to convince the audience to care, or turning people into object lessons. But Quo Vadis, Aida? does the job with stunning deftness, telling the story of what happened on July 11, 1995, when the Bosnian Serb army murdered more than 7,000 civilians, mostly men, and raped women in the town of Srebrenica. Director Jasmila Zbanic grounds the tale in a strong perspective, centering his film on Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a translator working with the UN who struggles to find her own family and save them, if she can. Quo Vadis, Aida? is harrowing, to be sure, but it’s absolutely vital — a study of intense evil in our time and a reminder that the past never leaves us, even when the violence fades.
Stories of demons, devils, and religious dread have long made for great horror films, and Saint Maud, from first-time director Rose Glass, follows in those well-trodden footsteps. It’s the tale of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a home health aide in a small British seaside town. Maud becomes obsessed with the spiritual state of her patient, a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) whose life seems degenerate to Maud. But of course, Maud is harboring demons of her own. Saint Maud is the kind of low-budget horror film that sneaks up on you, as much a character study as a portrait of twisted belief and obsession. For some, the comfort that faith brings can become something much, much darker.
Shiva Baby is stress-out comedy at its finest, a claustrophobically fantastic debut feature from Emma Seligman. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) goes to a shiva with her parents (Fred Melamed and Polly Draper) — and to her horror, she runs into her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari), who’s there with his wife (Dianna Agron) and their baby. Even without that awkwardness, the shiva would be a horror; Danielle feels like an aimless hot mess, and her beautiful, successful ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon) also happens to be present, making her feel both exhilarated and confused. You’ll want to have a good bagel and lox on hand when you watch Shiva Baby. Maybe some Xanax, too.
Some Kind of Heaven
Lance Oppenheim was 22 when he first visited the Villages, America’s largest retirement community, which sprawls across three counties about 70 miles north of Orlando. He ended up filming there to craft the documentary Some Kind of Heaven, a stunning directorial debut and the kind of work that far more experienced directors would be proud to have made. Some Kind of Heaven follows several subjects: Reggie, who is experimenting with psychedelics, and his long-suffering wife, Anne; Barbara, who is looking for love after the death of her husband; and Dennis, who is living out of a van and looking for a wealthier woman with whom he might strike up a relationship. The film at times feels like a dreamscape rather than just an observational portrait. It’s clear that the relentless positivity of the Villages takes its toll on residents, but it’s also a glimpse into an idealized version of America, and the fantasy at its core.
Summer of Soul
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) has been one of the biggest crowdpleasers on the festival circuit since its Sundance debut in January, and that’s no surprise. Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove, the drummer and frontman for the Roots — directed the film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, sometimes dubbed “Black Woodstock.” The staggering concert, held over a series of weekends in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, featured everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson. The events were filmed, but the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. Now it’s been compiled into a documentary about a pivotal moment in Black cultural history, and the result is absolutely infectious to watch.
How to watch it: Summer of Soul is in theaters and streaming on Hulu.
A heartbreaking romantic drama like this requires exquisite performances to carry it, and luckily for Supernova, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth are more than up to the task. They play Tusker and Sam, who have been together for more than two decades and are now on a road trip across England’s Lake District to visit friends and family. We soon come to realize that Tusker has a terminal illness, and that Sam is wildly trying to deal with the knowledge that he’ll soon be alone and that the man he loves is suffering. The film is heartfelt, moving, and devastating, in the best possible way.
The Father reminds me of a diamond, a magnificent film through which light refracts in unpredictable directions. Florian Zeller directs the adaptation of his celebrated play about a man named Anthony (Anthony Hopkins, in an Oscar-winning performance) who becomes confused and belligerent when he needs to move into his daughter Anne’s flat. Anne (Olivia Colman) has moved him there because his dementia is getting worse, and she can’t bear the thought of putting him in a nursing home. The Father loops and doubles and plays tricks on the audience, in a way that draws us into Anthony’s mind; it lingers long after it ends, questioning our perceptions of the world and, more fundamentally, of one another.
The Reason I Jump, adapted from Naoki Higashida’s bestselling book of the same title, explores the inner life of its subjects, five autistic people from around the globe. Each time we meet a new subject, The Reason I Jump avoids gawking, opting instead to gently invite us into their experience, as much as such an invitation can be extended by a filmmaker. Close-ups and carefully chosen angles aim to evoke the point of view of the autistic person, mixed with commentary from their families and friends. The film exposes the way neurotypical attitudes toward what’s “expected” of human behavior, toward what’s considered “normal,” makes the lives of its subjects far from easy. But it also offers some hope for a more just and inclusive world.
How to watch it: The Reason I Jump is streaming on Netflix.
The Truffle Hunters
Certainly the most charming movie of the year so far, The Truffle Hunters unfolds as a series of vignettes documenting the lives of several older men and their dogs. They live in Piedmont, northern Italy, where they spend their days hunting for rare and costly white Alba truffles in the forest. Nearly every frame of The Truffle Hunters is wide and steady, focusing on the men as they discuss business, talk to their beloved canines, root around in the dirt, and take part in a simple way of life that, it’s clear, is slipping away. (We do occasionally get a dog’s-eye view, too.) It’s a sweet and simple movie with a healthy dose of bittersweet wistfulness for a fading world, and it’s beautiful.
How to watch it: The Truffle Hunters is playing in select theaters.
The World to Come
In mid-19th century America, isolated in a remote county in upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) live on a farm, quietly mourning the death of their young daughter. Abigail writes in her diary and is too wrung out to even yearn for joy. But one day, a young married couple, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott), move in down the road, and Tallie and Abigail become fast friends. Their relationship deepens as they reveal more of their secrets to one another, and soon they fall in love. This sort of story has a tragic ending, but The World to Come is so finely realized and carefully written that it’s more than worthwhile.
Matt (Ed Helms) works in tech and wants to have a child. But his relationships haven’t worked out, and now that he’s reached middle age, he feels like time is ticking. He decides to pursue surrogacy, and Anna (Patti Harrison), a 26-year-old barista with a caustic sense of humor, becomes his surrogate; the two then become fast friends. Together Together is a remarkably restrained spin on a “quirky comedy,” celebrating platonic love and the many strange ways that we find family for ourselves — and it’s never quite what you’d expect. (It also boasts comedian Julio Torres in a fabulously scene-stealing supporting role.)
Christian Petzold, one of Europe’s greatest living filmmakers (Transit; Barbara), returns with Undine, which transports an ancient mythological creature into the present day. In European mythology, an “undine” is a water nymph who falls in love with a man, but will die if he is unfaithful to her. In Undine, a (modern-day) historian who studies the urban development of Berlin falls in love with a man, but he betrays her — and she must kill him and return to the water. The film is stylish, passionate, and full of enchantment.