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These are the best movies released so far in 2021

Amid the return of fast cars and superheroes to the big screen have been intriguing dramas, piercing romances and a comedy that'll have you cringing as you laugh.

This time last year, the prevailing lament (a fundamentally false one) was that the early months of the pandemic had prevented any quality films from seeing the light of day. A year later, the dominating tension (one no one seems to want to admit out loud) is that we’re all a bit overwhelmed over how incongruous Hollywood’s release plans are. 

Between Warner Brothers’s day-and-date strategy of simultaneously releasing movies on HBO Max and in theaters, those regular/premiere access tiers on Disney+ and our newfound pandemic-induced familiarity with navigating the various VOD platforms, our roadmap to watching the newest movies in an almost-out-of-lockdown world is a bit of a tangled one. Don’t let that dissuade you from thinking there’s been little to check out between the return of fast cars and superheroes to the big screen! 

Here are my picks for the best films from the first half of 2021 (presented in alphabetical order) as well as where you can watch each. 

“About Endlessness” (dir. Roy Andersson)

How can a world of muted blues and tepid greys whose inhabitants always look like they’re either going to or coming from a funeral seem so full of that thing we refer to as our humanity? Roy Andersson’s sardonic style takes a turn for the oddly enchanting whenever we least expect it in his collection of (extremely) loosely connected anecdotes in “About Endlessness, and the movie – slow-paced and inexplicable, but also fiendishly funny – is only grating if you’re one of those movie-watchers who wants things clearly spelled out. 

Between a pastor who has lost his faith, a father who stops to tie his daughter’s shoes in the middle of a rainstorm and an army slowly trudging through a blizzard, the tableaus which make up “About Endlessness” enhance a sense of loneliness and melancholy. And, sure, there's some endlessness in there too, a lack of destination. Sometimes we return to the same figures and sometimes we do not, though while Andersson leaves it up to us to create a through-line, it says plenty about his idiosyncratic new work that we may feel inclined to keep our truest impressions of what we’re seeing to ourselves. “About Endlessness” isn’t for everyone, but it’s sort of about everyone. 

Available to rent on VOD.

“Bo Burnham: Inside” (dir. Bo Burnham)

To hell with parameters of film or TV specials or made-for-streaming projects, which after all is precisely what the home of “Bo Burnham: Inside” – Netflix – has done over the last half-decade anyway. Netflix as the stage for the comedian/filmmaker/artistic existentialist’s latest soiree of hilariously amusing, often self-cannibalizing ditties simply makes too much sense; behind the impressive one-man-band theatrics of “Inside” is a sort of digital-era gospel about being totally and utterly at a loss for what separates enrichment from indulgence in the 21st century.  

What’s real and what isn’t is a worthy thing to wonder about during the more metatextual detours of “Inside,” but our suspicions about the special’s basic presentation (he didn’t really confine himself in a studio-sized apartment for months on end, did he?) is the opposite of a flaw; it’s Burnham’s proof about how navigating artifice and authenticity is a hell of a task this deep into the internet age. It's probably impossible. 

Available on Netflix.

“The Disciple” (dir. Chaitanya Tamhane)

One of the frankest movies to arrive in some time about sacrifices made in the name of artistic excellence, “The Disciple” – one of those Netflix movies plopped onto the service with nary a marketing plan – charts a solitary Indian man’s steadfast desperation to keep an ancient form of classical singing alive. It’s worth wondering whether he’s motivated by personal ambition or preservational imperative, and inherent tensions of classicism and modernity add extra punch to the question. 

The film feels as though it consists of only a handful of shots. Its compositions are realized by a camera that remains mostly static, save for those meditative moments when it zooms in ever so slowly as a way of emphasizing both the protagonist’s focus and the fact that all the hours he’s pouring into this art are never going to be grasped again. “The Disciple” may very well be the most elegantly directed film of the year to this point. 

Available on Netflix.

“Holler” (dir. Nicole Riegel)

“Astonishing” is the right word here, applying to Nicole Riegel’s resourceful storytelling, Jessica Barden’s piercing lead performance and an attention to detail which lends “Holler” its scrappy sense of place. That this story about a poor teenage girl and her brother struggling against the weight of systems deeming them expendable feels so lived-in has a ring of truth to it; Riegel has said she carved the story from her own experiences living in corporation-ravaged Appalachia. 

There’s an aged wisdom Barden brings to the role of Ruth that often leaves you unsure whether she’s 16 or 26, and the impression fits the mold of a story unfolding in a bitingly cold Ohio town that seems to age its denizens faster than what’s natural, or at least robs them of a childhood. For all intents and purposes, “Holler” is every bit the no-easy-roads-taken-out-of-poverty story that “Hillbilly Elegy” tried so hard to be, and its final moments – at once inarguably cathartic and damningly sad – leave one with the impression that release is easy to dream about until the moment we have the keys in our hand. 

Available to rent on VOD.

“In the Heights” (dir. Jon M. Chu)

So joyous, so exhilarating, so impressively sincere are the best moments of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s Broadway adaptation “In the Heights” that even an IMAX screen can sometimes look like it’s struggling to contain it all. And make no mistake that the biggest screen is the best way to watch this musical about a predominantly Latino NYC neighborhood where dreams arrive in different forms and and at different times for everyone. Anthony Ramos is exuberance personified in the lead role of Usnavi, and the rest of the large cast has nary a weak link. But the star of the show may be Washington Heights itself, where clubs turn into dizzying constellations of dance, community swimming pools becoming bastions of escapist fantasy and back alleys play host to sweltering fits of Latino/a pride. The film may largely take place on these streets, but it’ll have you feeling like you’re in the clouds. 

Available in theaters and on HBO Max. 

“Shiva Baby” (dir. Emma Seligman)

The comedy of the year is less than 80 minutes long, unfolds almost entirely in a packed home during a moment of mourning and will have you tightly clutching the arm rest more than laughing out loud. That’s just the brand of humor first-time feature filmmaker Emma Seligman brings to the tangled and wonderfully fraught interpersonal dynamics of “Shiva Baby,” about a young college student, Danielle, who for an afternoon seems cursed to run into the exact wrong person at the exact wrong time. 

Seligman’s excellent movie has been called the most Jewish film since the Coen Brothers’ “A Most Serious Man,” and I’m inclined to think the comparison to those Oscar-winning filmmakers goes further. Like the Coens, Seligman in “Shiva Baby” teases an ability to deftly align the personal and the absurd, which is why her movie strays from mere circumstantial slapstick toward being about earnest reckoning with identity. The harder we grimace while watching “Shiva Baby,” the more real it all feels. 

Available to rent on VOD.

“Slalom” (dir. Charlène Favier)

Behind every triumphant athlete are the people who helped them get there, and the complicated suggestion propelling French writer-director Charlène Favier’s frostbitten feature debut is that someone will always be looking to take advantage of that narrow path toward the spotlight. Marvelously marrying a competitor’s uber-focused state of mind with the cold isolation of a mountain’s ski slopes, “Slalom” takes a simple situation of ostensibly straightforward antagonism and morphs it into a thicket of compromises pitting the young skiing wunderkind Lyz against the realization that her one shot may cost more than she ever imagined. 

The result is a small-scale sports drama that nonetheless provides us with a thorny new perspective on the dynamics of gender and agency in that world. That the snowy mountain ranges providing “Slalom” with its setting go from looking like a place of opportunity to one of foreboding before we know it is indicative of the talent Favier teases in her first full-length movie, and of the newfound flexibility it seems to provide the sports story with as a whole.

Available to rent on VOD.

“Test Pattern” (dir. Shatara Michelle Ford)

At once a slow-creeping drama about the labyrinth that is the American health care system and a piercingly grounded story about fragmented agency, “Test Pattern,” which mostly follows a couple in the hours after a sexually assault, packs a mighty punch in just 82 minutes. Part of that is because writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s first feature doesn’t provide much in the way of a conclusion or reconciliation, instead leaving the aftershocks of its bubbling tensions simmering within us after we’ve turned the TV off. 

Co-leads Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill display remarkable range in a story that begins with a meet-cute scene which hooks our sympathies in how straightforwardly it’s written. But the early touches of realism of Ford’s screenplay take on a much darker tenor as “Test Pattern” rolls along on thematic axes connecting flirtation and bodily autonomy, sex and self-consciousness. It’s a work that feels like it could have only been made in the present day. 

Available to rent on VOD.

“Undine” (dir. Christian Petzold)

The newest entry in the catalogue of softly reality-bending love stories from German filmmaker Christian Petzold – who had as strong a decade in the 2010s as anyone – sees him (literally) dive deeper into concepts of myth and fantasy while restraining the temptation for bloated storytelling. We have yet to get a movie longer than 110 minutes from Petzold, a storyteller enamored by characters deepened by the internalized weights of history. “Undine” is a film that carves devastatingly romantic, and also just purely devastating, drama from that contradiction. 

At the same time, on a simpler but no less effective level, “Undine” understands the pure melancholy that can be associated with faces; here our exhibits are Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, reuniting for another Petzold project in which their simple strolling along an urban river walk is enough to tear up audiences at the tragedy and inexplicability to come. Past and present converge to shattering effect in “Undine,” but the thing that leaves an impression are the moments of bliss in which we’re briefly convinced these young lovers can stave inevitable cataclysm.  

Available to rent on VOD.

“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” (dir. R.J. Cutler)

Simultaneously the most traditional of documentaries about an artist – long sequences of verite observation, the celebrity using the camera as a tool of self-reflection – and also the most organically unorthodox – faces pop up with no on-screen text indicating who they are, abrupt changes in scenery feel like journeying in and out of someone’s psychology – “The World’s a Little Blurry” gobsmacked mainstream audiences when they found out how long it was, yet it also wouldn’t feel as authentic if it were a tidy 105 minutes. Little about Billie Eilish’s life has been tidy up to this point, as it seems she would be the first to admit. 

This documentary about the early years of a career of which no one can know the ultimate length is propelled by the intuition of its director, R.J. Cutler, to film Eilish and her brother before every teen on Earth knew them. But it also channels a sense of uneasy fatalism, of scorched-earth wisdom about grounded normalcies that superstardom will upend overnight. The paradoxes we observe in “The World’s a Little Blurry” are never not startling, but it’s also quite moving for what’s being presented—as Eilish reaches wild levels of success at wild rates of speed that inevitably feel unsustainable, normalcy (or, whatever the hell she would consider “normalcy” at this point in her life) feels increasingly like something she’ll have to bargain for. 

Available on Apple TV+.