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The good, the great and the just plain weird: Favorite films of 2021 (so far)

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So we’ve passed the halfway point in 2021. Movie theaters have opened back up and the blockbuster summer movies we’ve come to expect are finally making their way to the big screen, many after a delay of a year or more. Seemingly every weekend, we’re looking at a new big-budget extravaganza coming to a theater near you.

But what about the movies we’ve already seen this year?

As a rule, I don’t do midyear looks back, but considering the bifurcated nature of the movie year, it makes sense to take a quick peek at what we saw before the dividing line as opposed to after.

Let me be clear – these are not necessarily the movies I would consider the BEST (though plenty would cross over to that list), but rather my favorites. I’d wager that there are a couple on here that wouldn’t make any of the lists currently making the rounds, actually. Some of these just arrived on the scene, others are from way back in January. But hey – that’s part of the fun.

I should also note that there are a number of big-time films that I saw in 2021, but that received releases in 2020, that I decided not to include. This means that shiny award contenders and winners like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Minari” and Best Picture winner “Nomadland” are not here. Without that caveat, they would top my list.

So here we are. Check out my favorite films of 2021 so far – some good ones, a couple of great ones and one or two that are just plain weird.

(Films presented in alphabetical order)

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French Exit

Every once in a while, you find a movie that gleefully upends your understanding of the world in which it operates. It doesn’t actually change anything, yet you’re left with fundamental questions about both what you’ve seen so far and what is yet to come.

That’s the kind of movie that you get with “French Exit,” a smart, engaging film directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay that Patrick deWitt adapted from his own 2018 novel of the same name. It is a dry and witty comedy that takes a surreal turn, introducing strange and unexpected elements that nevertheless only serve to enhance the overall experience of the film.

With an absolutely exceptional cast led by Michelle Pfeiffer, this movie is not necessarily what you might expect it to be, but by subverting your expectations, it gives you an experience that is arguably far better than the one you thought you were getting.

“French Exit” surprised me. For the first half, it’s a fairly straightforward film, albeit one where something that you can’t put your finger on is just a bit off. And then you find out what that something is, leaving you to both embrace the weirdness coming your way and reflect on what you already saw with a new perspective. I’m still thinking about it, and to me, that’s quality filmmaking.

(Read my full review here.)

In & Of Itself

I had heard a little bit about Derek Delgaudio’s one-man show “In & Of Itself” when it was first taking off a couple of years ago, but not much. Basically, I understood that it was a show that utilized stage magic but wasn’t ABOUT stage magic. That was it, really – no knowledge of content or tone or anything like that.

So when I learned that Hulu was airing a filmed version of the show – one directed by the same person who directed the stage show, the legendary Frank Oz – I figured I’d check it out, see some card tricks, that kind of thing.

I had no idea.

What I saw was one of the most mesmerizing and compelling shows I’ve ever watched. Ninety minutes of thoughtful storytelling interspersed with illusory feats the likes of which I’d never seen, all in the service of exploring the notion of identity. Specifically, the notion of self – who am I?

You know how you’ll sometimes hear the term “defies description” in reference to a piece of art? Personally, I find that 99 times out of 100, that phrase is there not because the thing can’t be described, but because the person saying it can’t be bothered to invest the time to come up with an apt, accurate description. It’s a symptom of critical laziness … except for that one time. That one time out of a hundred where description truly is defied.

“In & Of Itself” is that one time.

(Read my full review here.)

Little Fish

So much of how we relate to the world rests on a foundation of memory. But what if that foundation were to crumble? How can a society survive without remembering?

How can love?

“Little Fish” – directed by Chad Hartigan from Mattson Tomlin’s screenplay – is a look at what might happen if the world started to forget. A young couple is just starting out on their life of love when their future is threatened by a global pandemic (yes, I know), one that threatens the very memory of their time together.

It is a thoughtful and emotional engagement with the idea of what it means to be connected to one another and how much of what binds us together is shared experience and the ability to return to those times through memory. Without that tether, we simply float away. And yet … perhaps love can transcend that tether and form a tie of its own.

“Little Fish” is a smart and sincere film, one that embraces the importance of memory while also acknowledging its fleeting nature. To forget what we’ve done and where we’ve been is to forget who we are, both to other people and to ourselves. And as for love, well … it changes everything.

(Read my full review here.)

No Sudden Move

Since returning to feature filmmaking with 2017’s “Logan Lucky,” Steven Soderbergh has spent the past few years cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most progressive and experimental mainstream filmmakers. He’s been unafraid to try different methods of filming (such as making 2018’s “Unsane” entirely on an iPhone) and distribution models (self-distribution and fully embracing streaming services).

That tradition continues with his latest, the period heist/caper movie “No Sudden Move,” currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s a convoluted thriller featuring a typically dynamite Soderbergh ensemble cast, all of it presented through the skewed lens of the director’s unique perspective. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its own narrative complexity, the film largely holds up thanks to the considerable talents of those both behind and in front of the camera.

“No Sudden Move” probably isn’t pantheon Soderbergh, but it fits in nicely in the tier just below the tip-top. This is a smart, complex heist movie, one driven by great performances. Whether you’re talking on the movie or in the movie, no one puts a crew together quite like Steven Soderbergh.

(Read my full review here.)

Plan B

Despite the fact that my teen years are a distant memory, I still have a soft spot in my heart for teen comedies. In particular, I love a good buddy comedy; give me all the curse words and gross outs and what have you, but as long as we have engaging relationships at the center, I’m in.

Now, the majority of these films are male-driven, though that tendency is gradually changing – we’ve seen a handful of really good teen comedies centered around female friendship in recent years and we can only hope that the trend continues.

“Plan B,” a film marking the directorial debut of Natalie Morales and currently streaming on Hulu, certainly does its part to explore the potential hilarity and heart that comes with pairing teen girls and sending them on an up-all-night adventure.

Featuring plenty of foul language and outlandish situations – not to mention an absolutely dynamite central pairing – “Plan B” takes the standard teen romp formula and injects it with some real stakes. This isn’t about getting drunk or high (though they do that) or finding the right party (though they do that too) or hooking up (yep – you guessed it); it’s about what it means to deal with the consequences of our actions without much help from anyone except your always-game best friend.

“Plan B” introduces real-world concerns into its comedy without ever losing sight of the reason we’re here – to laugh. But by rooting that laughter in something true and meaningful to young ladies like its protagonists, audiences are given something just a little bit more. With some great gags and a dynamic duo at its center, “Plan B” should be your Plan A.

(Read my full review here.)

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain

Yeah, I just saw it. So what? It belongs here.

(Read my full review here.)

Slaxx

All it took for me to know, deep within my heart, was one descriptive sentence:

“A possessed pair of jeans is brought to life to punish the unscrupulous practices of a trendy clothing company.”

Boom. I’m in. Just like that. Give it to me.

Of course, just because the film has the sort of weirdo high-concept premise that hits me where I live doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to be, you know … good.

But that’s the thing: “Slaxx” IS good. Really good, in fact – the sort of movie that knows precisely what it is, crafted by filmmakers who understand how to maximize relatively limited resources to accomplish their goals. It is a smart, slyly subversive film, one that revels in the fundamental absurdity of its premise while also treating it with face-value seriousness. That blend of attitudes gives you a movie that is campy and gory and ridiculous and hilarious, rendered all the more effective by resisting the temptation to wink; the filmmakers trust the audience to get it in all its over-the-top lunacy.

Now, this obviously isn’t going to be for everyone. It is a deeply weird movie. But if it’s for you, it’s REALLY for you, a movie that will deeply delight you throughout its brisk 76-minute runtime. Bizarre and subversive and gory as hell.

In the world of “Slaxx,” the pants put you on one leg at a time.

(Read my full review here.)

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a new documentary about the show, attempts to break down the origins of what would become a phenomenon. It’s a look into how the project came to be and features interviews – both new and archival – with some of the primary figures responsible for making it all happen.

Now, this film could easily have coasted on the nostalgia wave inspired in so many of us by the mere mention of the show. And one could argue that by ending the story when it does – with the passing of Jim Henson – it avoids some of the thornier aspects of the show’s later years. However, this is not a viewing of the show’s history through a rose-colored prism – the film treats those first two decades honestly, the deep-dive ethos of director Marilyn Agrelo focusing on embracing the positive and not-so-positive aspects alike.

As a kid, I loved “Sesame Street.” And as an adult, I loved “Street Gang.” Telling the story of such an iconic and universally beloved institution can prove problematic, with the understandable temptation to veer into hagiography. But by treating its subject with honesty and accepting its imperfections, the film makes the glorious nature of “Sesame Street” shine out all the brighter.

Come and play – everything’s A-OK.

(Read my full review here.)

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a music guy. For whatever reason, music had never resonated with me in the way it did so many of my otherwise like-minded peers. It wasn’t my thing. But sometimes, I’d experience something that would give me a clearer sense of that passion.

I always cherish those moments when I have them, the gooseflesh-raising instances when music gets inside me.

“Summer of Soul” was one of those moments.

The new documentary – its full title is “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” – is directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It’s a look back at an iconic moment in music and cultural history, telling the story of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts that brought world-class talent to the NYC neighborhood.

Over the course of six weeks, an astonishing cavalcade of talent moved through Harlem’s Mount Morris Park. Literally hundreds of thousands of people would turn up to this series of free concerts, featuring A-list names like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and so many more, all part of this incredible endeavor.

“Summer of Soul” is as good a movie as you’re likely to see this summer. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and – of course – the music SLAPS. Don’t be surprised to be hearing all of this again come awards season, either, because this is an exceptional film. Do yourself a favor and experience it for yourself.

(Read my full review here.)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is the latest from the folks at Sony Pictures Animation. Directed by first-time feature director Mike Rianda and co-directed by Jeff Rowe from a script co-written by the two, it’s a CG film that manages to bring together two fairly disparate concepts together in a way that is both functional and fun.

Basically, what we have here is a movie that is a dysfunctional family road trip comedy AND a dystopian battle against the machine uprising. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow, the film manages to maintain its sense of goofball whimsy while also conveying genuine tension regarding the end of the world. It is heartfelt and hilarious animated fun that balances its seemingly incongruous parts with aplomb.

Does this movie find ways to obliquely approach the social and societal consequences of overreliance on technology? Sure. Does it address the notion that being different isn’t a bad thing and that we can almost always find points of connection between us, particularly if we love each other? Yep – that too. Does it do so in a stylishly animated, action-packed and joke-filled film that will likely appeal to audiences spanning generations?

Reader, it does.

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was much more than I expected it to be, a smart, sweet and very funny genre mashup that somehow manages to exceed the sum of its parts. With a great cast, an engaging aesthetic and a dynamite narrative, it was a pleasant surprise … and a heck of a good time.

(Read my full review here.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 12:01

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