We’re two months into 2021, and yet movies are still coming out that are eligible for this April’s Oscars—a strange situation that we’re ignoring for the purposes of this rundown, which covers everything debuting during this calendar year. Far from an underwhelming group, that initial batch of new releases has been a consistent delight, marked by dramas, sci-fi sagas, romances, and documentaries that take daring, enlivening risks. Though numerous blockbusters and A-list projects are on the horizon, it’s difficult to imagine them overshadowing some of the sterling efforts that have already premiered in theaters and on VOD. For now, these are our picks for the best films of 2021.
Things go horribly wrong in The Vigil for Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man who—having left his ultra-orthodox Jewish community for a secular Brooklyn life—accepts a job sitting vigil for a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. That task not only returns him to the neighborhood (and faith) he rejected, but puts him in the crosshairs of an evil demonic force that, it turns out, plagued both the dead man over whom he watches, and his wife (Lynn Cohen), who behaves creepily around David in her darkly lit Borough Park home. Keith Thomas’ feature debut has a great sense of its insular milieu as well as the trauma and stress of escaping an extremist religious environment, and the writer/director drums up suspense from set pieces that exploit silence to eerie effect. Davis’ harried countenance is the glue holding this assured thriller together, lending it an empathetic anguish that helps cast its action as a portrait of confronting the (personal and historical) past as a means of transcending, and escaping, it.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci don’t just craft indelible portraits of affection and grief in Supernova; they suggest, in the stillness and silence between them, the invisible but unbreakable ties that bind them together. Harry Macqueen’s understated drama charts Firth’s Sam and Tucci’s Tusker as they travel in their RV across the English countryside, their nominal destination a comeback concert for classical pianist Sam and their purpose a farewell tour for Tusker, who’s beset by irreversible early onset dementia. Their story is light on bombshell incidents but heavy on quiet, barely suppressed anguish and fear, both of which are kept at bay—if also amplified—by their enduring amour. Macqueen’s gentle and deft writing is in harmony with his imagery of his pastoral setting, allowing his performers—Firth defiant and pent-up; Tucci brave and terrified—to fully embody their protagonists’ fraught emotional circumstances. Supernova understands the tragedy and triumph of love, and the way in which our lives, at best, shine brightly before burning out, their dying embers touching and transforming those left behind.
The gig economy gets satirized in oblique, mysterious sci-fi fashion in Lapsis, Noah Hutton’s low-fi tale about a futuristic new exploitative industry. Tired of delivering lost airline luggage to its owners, and in need of money for treatment for his brother Jamie (Babe Wise)—who’s suffering from a chronic-fatigue syndrome known as Omnia—Ray (Dean Imperial) joins millions of Americans in laying cable between giant quantum server cubes in the forested Allegheny mountains. Writer/director/editor Hutton provides myriad clever details about the intricate mechanics of cabling without every quite explaining the larger implications of the business, which serves as the MacGuffin powering this tale of worker subjugation at the hands of a monopolistic tech conglomerate. Hutton’s film is like a blend of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, carefully doling out specifics (and establishing relationships and rebellious plots) while simultaneously leaving answers just out of reach. It’s a balancing act that Hutton pulls off with aplomb, his suggestive widescreen visuals as unnerving as Imperial’s lead performance as desperate-everyman Ray is charismatic.
Night of the Kings
Tall tales about crime, war, power and survival are layered upon each other in Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte’s drama about an Ivory Coast prison ruled by an incarcerated kingpin named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who, on the night of the blood moon, demands that a new inmate (Bakary Koné) become a “Roman” and spin a yarn that will last until dawn. The ensuing fable that Roman recounts concerns a local gangster whose blind father was counselor to a queen, and who rose to prominence in the aftermath of a revolution—a legend that boasts echoes with the predicament of Roman himself, trapped as he is in a jail where treacherous schemes are afoot. In both the present and in CGI-enhanced flashbacks, Lacôte conjures an atmosphere that mixes stark City of God-style grit (Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film is even cited as an influence) with dreamy magical realism, the latter augmented by the many men who surround Roman during his oration, acting out his narrated action with dancer-like movements. Harrowing and lyrical, it’s a film about the transformative and redemptive power of storytelling.
Acasa, My Home
The Enache family—comprised of father Gică, mother Niculina and their nine kids—live a primitive off-the-grid life in Văcărești, an untamed stretch of wetlands situated right beside sprawling Bucharest. Theirs is an existence of fishing by hand, burning trash, and hiding children from social services. Journalist-turned-documentarian Radu Ciorniciuc’s Acasa, My Home accompanies this unruly clan as they’re forced to integrate into the very civilization Gică rejects after their residential area is earmarked for wildlife-reserve development. Far from a saga about idyllic rural life torn asunder by modernity, this patient and incisive film instead reveals itself to be a story about selfishness and togetherness, conformity and rebellion, and the responsibility parents have for their children, the last of which comes to the fore once Gică’s eldest son Vali begins resenting his father for raising him as an illiterate, unskilled vagabond, even as he follows in his dad’s footsteps. There are no easy answers here, only longing for a happier (if unhealthier) time, and fury over an inheritance of a squandered past and a bleak future.
Archaeology is the means by which the past is resurrected in The Dig, a based-on-real-events drama about the famous 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, which unearthed innumerable 6th-century Anglo-Saxon finds contained within an intact ship. Driven by the “hunch” of Sutton Hoo’s owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) searches for secrets buried in the mounds on her estate. Working from Moira Buffini’s script (based on John Preston’s book of the same name), director Simon Stone crafts a supple portrait of our quest to revive yesterday through the investigations of today. As his film expands to address the impending threat of WWII, and the way in which it impacts the circumstances of Edith’s RAF-bound cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn) and the wife (Lily James) of a researcher (Ben Chaplin), it also becomes a poignant examination of life’s impermanence, and the importance of seizing – and cherishing – whatever brief moments of joy and love one can. Its exquisite visuals (often indebted to Days of Heaven) enhance its graceful storytelling, as do sterling performances from all involved, led by Fiennes in one of his most understated – and quietly moving – performances to date.
17 Blocks is awash in trauma, wrought not only from gun violence and addiction, but from individuals’ knowledge that they’re partly to blame for the tragedies that befell them. Davy Rothbart’s immensely moving documentary charts twenty years in the life of the Sanford family, comprised of narcotics-abusing mom Cheryl, her dealer son Smurf, daughter Denise and youngest Emmanuel, all of whom help shoot this self-portrait with video cameras. Drugs are a destructive scourge on this Washington, DC household, culminating with the senseless murder of Emmanuel, an infectiously cheery kid and good student who seemed destined to transcend his difficult circumstances. In the aftermath of that heartbreaking calamity, his relatives struggle to cope with guilt over their own roles in Emmanuel’s fate, all while attempting to right their wayward courses and not repeat the sins of the past – both for themselves and for their clan’s youngest members, including Emmanuel’s nephew Justin, who in many ways is his spitting image. Rothbart’s film is a deeply empathetic study of hardship, loss, and the way that change often comes from finally taking responsibility for one’s self and loved ones.
Hell hath no fury like a religious zealot scorned, as demonstrated by writer/director Rose Glass’ feature debut, which concerns a young hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark) who comes to believe that her mission from God – with whom she speaks, and feels inside her body – is to save the soul of her terminally ill new patient, famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). What begins as a noble attempt to share pious belief and provide comfort for the sick swiftly turns deranged, as Maud is possessed by a mania impervious to reason, and enflamed by both the slights she receives from Amanda and others, and by her own mortal failings. The sacred and the profane are knotted up inside this young woman, whom Clark embodies with a scary intensity that’s matched by Glass’ unsettling aesthetics, marked by topsy-turvy imagery and pulsating, crashing soundtrack strings. A horrorshow about the relationship between devoutness and insanity, it’s a nerve-rattling thriller that doubles as a sharp critique, punctuated by an incendiary final edit that won’t soon be forgotten.
A Glitch in the Matrix
What if reality wasn’t actually real? That’s the question plumbed by A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary to traverse unreal terrain in search of answers about human existence, alternate realms, and our conscious and unconscious connections to our celluloid dreams. Like his prior Room 237 and The Nightmare, Ascher’s film features a chorus of out-there voices, who articulate opinions about the likelihood that we’re all cogs in a program about which we’re unaware, and which is operated by higher beings we can’t understand. Ascher chats with these individuals via Skype, recreates their stories with computer animation, complements their hypotheses with movie clips, and conceals their identities through the use of digital avatars, creating a seamless (and playful) marriage of form and content that speaks to the material’s issues of self, truth, alienation and loneliness. Simulation theory comes across as a fantasy of both enslavement and escape, and Ascher’s amusing and critical inquiry posits it as a reflection of timeless human impulses to explain the inexplicable. Via the patricidal story of Joshua Cooke, it also exposes this Matrix-inspired idea’s capacity for catastrophic chaos.
Whether seen in agonized close-ups or at an alienated remove, director Fernanda Veladez’s characters are alone—and forlorn—in Identifying Features, a masterful Mexican drama of grief, guilt and dislocation. Consumed with finding her son, who’s gone missing while trying to cross the Mexican-American border,single mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) embarks on an investigative journey through a dusty, dangerous country of migrant shelters, remote gas stations, vacant homes and wide open plains that echo their inhabitants’ lonely sorrow. Her path eventually crosses with Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who, having been deported by the U.S., now seeks to reunite with his long-abandoned clan—one of many lyrical parallels found in this haunting descent into a national heart of darkness. Though dialogue is minimal, Hernández and Illescas’ pained-yet-resolved countenances speak volumes about the anguish and terror of a people plagued by separation and yearning. The film’s stunning formal beauty enhances its unholy nightmarishness, as Veladez alternately frames his protagonists amidst expansive landscapes and constricting structures in order to highlight their simultaneously lost and trapped condition. And in an unforgettable late sequence set to an indigenous speaker’s un-translated recollection, the filmmaker presents a vision of demonic cruelty so horrifying, it can barely be comprehended.