By Sean Boelman
The first half of 2021 has seen a return to (somewhat) normal moviegoing, as we have already had two $100 million+ blockbusters in theaters (Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place Part II) with a third well on its way (F9) and plenty of indie darlings debuting on the festival circuit, both online and in-person. Now that six months of the year are over, it is time to reflect back upon some of the best films we have seen in that time. Here are our top 10 films of 2020 so far, in alphabetical order:
Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham’s comedy special Inside is perhaps the best portrait of what it felt like to live during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hilarious, insightful, and poignant, the special features all of the brilliant comedy that one would expect and some catchy songs too. Everyone will have their own favorite part, but some clear highlights include “How the World Works” and “Welcome to the Internet”. It’s perhaps the most purely entertaining eighty-seven minutes of content released this year so far, and it will be hard to find anything funnier in the next six months.
Unlike most of Disney’s live-action reimaginings of their classic animated properties, Cruella feels less like a cash-grab and more like a legitimate attempt to tell a story. Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) was able to make a film that is stylish and fun, featuring the best costumes and soundtrack of the year so far. Of course, the performances are also exceptional, with Emma Stone and Emma Thompson having a competition to see who is better, and the audience being the only winner.
Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself
Directed by Frank Oz, Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself is a performance film capturing the mind-blowing stage show by magician DelGaudio. And while this magic show, which is very heavily rooted in audience participation, may not sound on paper like it would make for a great film, the power of the performance is absolutely undeniable. It’s an experience that is best left unspoiled, but there are plenty of absolutely awe-inspiring moments that will have audiences glued to the screen even though they are watching this from the comfort of their own home.
Judas and the Black Messiah
One of the films to take advantage of the extended Oscar eligibility window, Judas and the Black Messiah was honored in the most recent Academy Awards ceremony but is still a 2021 film nonetheless. And no halfway list would be complete without mentioning this emotionally-charged and unorthodox biopic following Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya’s award-winning performance as Hampton is obviously the highlight, but it’s an all-around exceptional film that people will hopefully be talking about for years to come.
Jamie Adams’s comedy Love Spreads is ultimately just a hangout movie about a group of musicians trying to make an album, but it’s exceptional at what it does and offers some surprisingly insightful commentary. Alia Shawkat and Eiza González are great in the film as the two creative forces in the band, giving performances that are uncharacteristically low-key for both of them. The thing that impresses most about Adams’s film, though, is how lived-in it feels, something which so many films in this genre struggle and fail to pull off.
Timur Bekmambetov’s Screenlife format of filmmaking has resulted in some really bad and gimmicky films, but his terrorism thriller Profile is not one of them. Having debuted on the festival circuit three years ago but not receiving a release until now, the film definitely isn’t as timely as it would have been had it been released when it was made, but that doesn’t keep it from being an entertaining and anxiety-inducing thriller.
Raya and the Last Dragon
The output of Walt Disney Animation Studios has been very inconsistent in recent years, but Raya and the Last Dragon is absolutely exceptional. It’s an energetic and emotional adventure with some really strong action and plenty of laughs for both kids and adults. The voice cast — including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and more — is great, but the true standout of the film is the gorgeous animation which builds this intricate world of Kumandra so wonderfully.
The Sparks Brothers
Somehow cult-favorite filmmaker Edgar Wright’s first foray into nonfiction filmmaking, The Sparks Brothers is undoubtedly one of the most fun and energetic music documentaries in recent memory. Telling the story of the groundbreaking and underappreciated duo Sparks (who will definitely receive their due when their musical Annette is released in August), Wright’s documentary has great interviews, wonderful archive footage, and of course, plenty of great music, and what else could someone want from a documentary like this?
Harry Macqueen’s gay love story Supernova is a brilliant film that got the short end of the stick in awards season because of the level of competition. However, this film features career-best performances from Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci that deserve plenty of recognition, especially the latter. The other thing that allows this film to stand out is that it is an LGBTQ film that isn’t about homophobia or being gay. It’s nice to see love between two men treated as love between two men, not as an obstacle.
There Is No Evil
The Iranian film There Is No Evil is hard to watch, but fittingly so, as it deals with the very difficult theme of capital punishment in Iran. The first two out of four segments of this anthology are riveting, containing some of the most harrowing moments of the film, and the latter two serve to reinforce the point. The fact that this film exists is extraordinary, and cinemagoers should take advantage of that to inform themselves on this issue.
This list only included films that received a regular release between January and June of 2021. Films such as Cryptozoo (releasing in August), We Need to Do Something (releasing in September), A Cop Movie, and Mass (both releasing later this year) might pop up on our end-of-year list.
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