The pandemic – as it did with everything else – played havoc with our latest half-year list. Because Oscar understandably extended last year’s window of eligibility, films that would normally have been included on the list below (such as Judas and the Black Messiah) technically come down on the 2020 ledger.
Do we have to play by Oscar rules? No. But mainly to avoid confusion when it’s time for the end-of-the-year list come December, we will.
So in alphabetical order, here are our picks for the best films of March thru June, 2021:
A Quiet Place Part II
AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands the original film’s same level of tension in the nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Writer/director John Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release.
On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.
The final film for late documentarian Luke Holland, this oral history of Nazi Germany challenges rationalizations. It doesn’t accuse, doesn’t accost, but it also doesn’t let anyone off the hook. What is the difference between being complicit and being a perpetrator? It’s a question that haunts the film and its subjects. It becomes clear that it’s a question that haunts a nation.
If you seek an antidote to Hillbilly Elegy, writer/director Nicole Riegel’s feature debut has what you’re looking for. Driven by Jessica Barden’s blisteringly confident lead performance, Holler sugarcoats nothing about American poverty, patronizes no one, and does not need a Mamaw to explain the facts of life.
In the Heights
Director Jon M. Chu takes Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning In the Heights from stage to screen with the magic intact, for a block party worthy of celebrating – in a theater, with a crowd.
Are we really “back to normal?” Can the American dream still be alive?
For 143 minutes, it sure feels like it.
The one and only thing that separates Nobody from dozens and dozens of expertly crafted, wildly interchangeable “underestimated badass” films is the utter brilliance of its casting.
And by that, I mean exclusively the perfection of Bob Odenkirk in this role. His placement at the center of the film not only sells the “average guy” masquerade better than Liam Neeson ever could, but it makes his inner struggle and his displays of violence actually stand out.
Regardless of the fact that you’ve seen this exact movie a dozen times, you just don’t expect it to be this good.
Riders of Justice
Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, where he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in the dark comic revenge fantasy Riders of Justice.
But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For it
Beyond the treasure trove of archival footage, home movies and interview praises, director Mariem Pérez Riera finds the most resonance in the personal journey told by Rita Moreno herself.
Looking back on the obstacles she faced and the successes and failures of her life and career, Moreno displays a hard-won self-worth and an honest self-awareness that she continues to probe.
This is not just an entertaining Hollywood story, it’s an inspiring American story and a hopeful human story. It’s just a damn good story, from someone worthy of celebrating while she’s still here.
Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.
As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. Writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.
Clearly, much of writer/director Emma Seligman’s sharp dialog comes from personal experience, and if it’s one you share this is a film that will feel like part of the family. But you didn’t have to be Greek to get caught up in that Big Fat Wedding, and you don’t have to be Jewish to see the joy in Shiva Baby.
Seligman flashes an insight that disarms you with sex and humor, keeping its hand at a subtle distance. But by the time we’re leaving the buffet, a breakout filmmaker and star (the irresistible Rachel Sennot) have delivered a fresh, funny and intimate take on the indignities of finding yourself.
The sports movie genre is littered with tales of the could-have-been athlete who regains what legitimacy he can by shepherding the next phenom. Slalom is more interested in the havoc that can wreak on the younger athlete.
Writer/director Charlène Favier’s take on the situation is even-handed. She never stoops to melodrama, never paints young skier Lyz (Noée Abita’s) as faultless in her relationship with trainer Fred (Jérémie Renier, great). Lyz’s complexities – particularly given Abita’s assured performance – only ensure that the film leaves more of a mark.
There Is No Evil
Presenting four short films together as separately compelling variations on a theme is impressive. Make those four shorts all from the same writer/director, telling distinct stories that raise the emotional stakes in distinct ways, and you have a stunning achievement.
You have Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof delivering a political statement of immense weight and moral conviction. You have There Is No Evil.
Each chapter of the film presents a seemingly unique paradox, then quietly mounts the tension before revealing gripping plot turns that unite the strands in memorably devastating fashion.
With four masterful bits of storytelling and the exceptional ensemble cast in There Is No Evil, Rasoulof deftly explores the wages of those decisions, as well as the immoral center of a despotic regime that makes them necessary.
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
Incredibly beautiful and rich with color, light, and shadow, every scene in this film is a haunting painting. The cast, mixed with actors and non-actors alike, brings you to witness the erasure of a real place and real people, and you mourn with them.
Though the people of the film’s central town of Nazareth still live, something about them will be lost forever. They are some of the last of their kind as new roads, and new buildings, and new dams continue to creep into the quiet places of the world. Progress fills up little villages with the walking dead as ways of life are washed away.
It takes a full two minutes to get a really good feeling about Together Together. Writer/director Nikole Beckwith delivers witty, engaging dialogue from the jump, defining characters and setting the stakes in a beautifully organic manner.
There’s love and family and funny stuff here, and though none of it is quite the kind we’re used to seeing, all of it is wonderfully real. Together Together is a delivery that somehow feels comfortable and unique, both overdue and right on time.