The Best Movies of 2021…So Far


Frances McDormand and writer-director Chloe Zhao on the set of “Nomadland.”

What can you say about 2020’s film schedule that you can’t say about almost every other aspect of human life during the year? Theaters closed, movies were delayed and people constantly joked about how “Bloodshot,” a comic book flick starring Vin Diesel, might win an Academy Award for best picture by default. But the reels kept turning, and streaming services brought us memorable films such as Charlie Kaughman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods“ and Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs.”

So far, 2021 has promised to be at the very least kind of/sort of/almost normal. A number of films are seeing simultaneous releases and movies that debuted late last year at festivals or enjoyed minuscule theatrical runs to qualify for awards are joining the streaming frenzy. Personally, I find the sheer number a tad overwhelming, as there’s basically a new movie to watch every three days. Despite my best efforts to Pokemon this shit and watch ’em all, there aren’t enough hours in the day, minutes in the hour and Coke Zero in my fridge.

Instead of hurting myself in a hilarious ill-fated attempt to watch all movies tangentially related to the four digits of 2-0-2-1, I instead watched ones that caught my fancy for one reason or another. If you’re in search of a completely comprehensive list, then I suggest Wikipedia or IndieWire, and if you’re looking for coherent, lucid thoughts on films, then I also suggest Wikipedia or IndieWire, or maybe Rolling Stone? But if you’re looking for suggestions on movies related to 2021, then perhaps this is, in fact, the place for you.

Disclaimer: Some of these movies were released in 2020, but like I said in the paragraphs above, a number of them received wide release in 2021. Thus, the committee of one (me) says it’s okay to include them. 

Judas and the Black Messiah

Release date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback
Where to watch: Uhhh, not sure you can stream anymore, maybe the actual theater?

Why I liked it: The film is built on the foundation of its performers, as the ensemble cast features incredible character actors. The movie’s title is derived from the famous character in the Bible who betrayed Jesus. In an attempt to survive and escape a likely prison sentence, O’Neal strikes a deal with FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) to get close to the local Black Panther party’s chairman, Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), and keep tabs on him while reporting back with intel. Over time, O’Neal embeds himself in the party, taking positions of power and building relationships with its members. The film does an excellent job keeping you on the fence about where his allegiances lie, even if you know what happens in the end. The battle between the eyes of this character is palpable as he bears witness to the oration and political maturity of Hampton, while eagerly taking money from the feds to spy on him. And while O’Neal is Judas in how the events play out, he’s not the villain of the film. Anyone who knows the fate of Hampton already knows who the villain really is. For a sensational review of the movie, read H. Drew Blackburn’s in Texas Monthly.


Release date: February 12, 2021
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-Ri
Where to watch: Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video and Google Play Movies & TV

Why I liked it: My favorite part of this film doesn’t happen within the runtime, but months and months before the shooting took place. Lee Isaac Chung was set to hang it up and leave the directing business to focus on being a film professor at the University of Utah. Before doing so permanently, he figured he’d give it one last try with a more personal story than he’d written previously. What flowed through his fingers and onto the page was “Minari,” a film about a Korean family relocating from Los Angeles, California to the backwoods of Arkansas in order to establish a farm. The father, Jacob (Yeun), performs a ferocious internal tug of war between his dream of cultivating a self-sustainable “garden” with the contrasting needs of his wife Monica (Ye-ri), who fears the small town and isolated location could potentially endanger their children and render them without community. Chung’s tale is deft and tonally hopeful, despite a number of emotional hardships. It’s sad and uplifting and funny and uniquely American, as the family struggles to assimilate into a rural area while sacrificing city life for the almighty American Dream, despite what the Golden Globes said. Watch it, because this film is taking home more than one Oscar.


Release date: December 4, 2020 (We’ve been through this!)
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Francis McDormand, actual nomads
Where to watch: Hulu

Why I liked it: When Francis McDormand is afforded time and space to do her thing, it typically renders nominations and hardware. This time, the actor pairs up with the infinitely-talented Chloé Zhao in a film about how some people need to keep moving in order to live. Zhao is famous for her existential Westerns about real folks playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and the Chinese-born director has mastered the art of capturing the American West on camera without romantic blinders or an unrealistic glorification of life in them parts. In this meandering drama, an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, our protagonist Fern (McDormand) is a woman displaced by both her husband’s passing and the literal shuttering of the town called “home.” Over the course of the film, Fern flows through wondrous landscapes that allow for brief instances of serenity. Of course, she’s also enveloped by the franticness of staying afloat financially in the form of jobs at an Amazon warehouse, a fast-food restaurant and an RV park. The clash between need and want is ever-present as she toes the line of the two realities. And while we’re always afforded the luxury to stop, pause and be in awe of the still moments of beauty given to us by Zhao’s eyes, Fern’s grief constantly pushes her path forward.


Release date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Daveed Diggs
Where to watch: Disney+

Why I liked it: I’m going to level with you, my readers, and be honest about how I’m normally ehh on Pixar flicks. Sure, the animation is interesting to look at and the stories are generally heartwarming, but most of the time I’m left feeling as if I missed the AWW moments people say make them so great. “Soul,” on the other hand, I felt drawn to. The premise is simple: A struggling musician (Foxx), who’s also a music teacher for pimply preteens, dies and rediscovers his love for life while aiding a yet-to-be-born soul (Fey) as they encounter hijinks, fun and games on Earth. However, this all took a backseat for me, as the crown jewel of the film was its thought-provoking depiction of the afterlife. Giant voids of light, amusement park-esque long lines and humorous chaperones for wandering sentient cloud poofs amount to a pretty captivating take on how “Soul’s” universe handles spirits after physical bodies expire. For a bonus fun time, make sure to read April’s issue of District Fray, which can recommend a certain stimulant that makes this film even better.

Sound of Metal

Release date: December 4, 2020
Director: Darius Marder
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Why I liked it: Imagine being a metal drummer on tour when your ears give out: You can’t hear the music, your lead singer girlfriend or any sounds you’re used to experiencing. Talk about putting a movie character at the bottom immediately. Did I mention he’s a recovering addict? Ruben Stone (Ahmed) experiences this collection of trauma, and from there must pivot for the duration of the film’s two-hour runtime. The series of events starts with a visit to a doctor and eventually leads to an extended stay at a rural shelter for recovering addicts who are also deaf. There he befriends Joe (Raci), the man in charge of the home, who challenges him to cope with and embrace his newfound reality. The film’s thesis is relatively straightforward: What does Ruben want out of this journey and where does his life go from here? He loses his hearing in no time, but what does he gain in return? Raci’s performance is definitely one sure to garner award season buzz.

Space Sweepers

Release date: February 5, 2021
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Starring: Song Joong-ki, Kim Tae-ri, Richard Armitage
Where to watch: Netflix

Why I liked it: I’m a sucker for space Westerns, what can I say? This movie is about people who sweep the outer atmosphere of Earth for debris in the form of floating metal in exchange for whatever currency they’re using. Of course, it being a Western, things go awry when the Victory crew accidentally finds a 7-year-old cyborg. She’s sought after by the big bad, a tech genius, who’s trying to use the little girl to destroy Earth’s atmosphere so they’ll either die or work their way up to the new orbiting home world of humans. This film isn’t great because of a riveting plot, but instead because of the nerdy details such as nanobot technology, language translators (every crew in the film speaks a different language) and how humans will eventually handle the eventual departure from earth. Plus, it’s a fun flick with great action sequences and moments of levity that put into perspective what it means to find your humanity, even when you’re apart from our original planet.

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