It’s nice to see that cinema, particularly independent cinema, has continued to give us messy characters who hold up mirrors to the equally multidimensional and sometimes hypocritical nature that is humanity in real form. Some of the best films this year have already given us stories about friends at odds, improper relationships, and a media industry falling on its own sword.
From biographical documentaries on flawed musicians and iconic actors to horror tales of the unfairly institutionalized and subversive love stories, 2021 has given us a potpourri of goodness from which to choose. Below, the top films so far.
20 The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
It was only a matter of time before the malevolence at the center of a Conjuring story dared to threaten the ironclad love between paranormal experts Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). As if this latest installment doesn’t have enough to contend with as the pair investigate the true-life case of a murderer claiming demonic possession (Ruairi O’Connor), they themselves succumb to the evil they’ve spent their whole lives defeating. Terrifying.
19 Wet Season
The story of a teacher who engages in an inappropriate relationship with her student isn’t exactly original material (Hulu’s A Teacher, for instance, premiered just last year). But writer-director Anthony Chen’s difficult drama set in Singapore bypasses the usual elements of a sordid love story to sensitively explore the uncomfortable bond between two unequal individuals.
18 How It Ends
If only the end of the world could be as fun and introspective as it is in writers-directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s surprisingly genuine apocalyptic dramedy about coming to terms with the end as well as yourself. Lister-Jones also stars in the movie as Liza, a woman looking for some sense of peace as she stumbles upon past boyfriends and party friends—from Glenn Howerton to Nick Kroll—on the way to finding herself.
17 Bo Burnham: Inside
If you were anywhere near a computer at the end of May/early June, then you’ve probably heard of this mixed-arts, impossible-to-describe special starring, written by, and directed and shot by Bo Burnham entirely during quarantine. He is both self-effacing about his own fascination with the foolishness of “White Woman’s Instagram” and the cacophony of opinion on the Internet just as much as he eviscerates the cacophony of opinion and hypocrisy of the general public. He captures the rage, loneliness, and frustration of being hyper amid a real-life apocalypse. In other words, he gets us.
16 The Djinn
Writers-directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell uniquely explore grief through the perspective of a young mute boy (Ezra Dewey) who, while his dad is at work, spends his nights at home alone to navigate both the despair over losing his mother and a sinister force preying on his vulnerability.
15 Framing Britney Spears
Though it was boosted by the thundering outcry of the #FreeBritney movement, director Samantha Stark’s documentary examining the complicated celebrity of the eponymous pop star provoked both fans and critics to reconsider their participation in the exploitation of young women at large. Whether it will be beyond the media’s mass mea culpa remains to be seen, but this compelling story, presented by The New York Times, demands something more than lip service. It insists upon change.
14 The Power
Writer-director Corinna Faith plays with the oppressive fear of both silence and darkness in a chilling tale set around the 1970s labor crisis in London, when the country opted to preserve power with regular electricity cuts following a miners’ strike. The filmmaker brilliantly uses both constraints as literal and metaphorical horror devices in a story that uncovers the cruelty of sexism and deception set in a dim hospital filled with awful secrets.
13 Who Are You, Charlie Brown?
Writer-director Michael Bonfiglio and co-writer Marcella Steingart get to the heart of the beloved Peanuts universe—and wonderfully trace a touching portrait of its creator, Charles Schulz—in this honeyed documentary. Featuring interviews with celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Al Roker, and cartoonists influenced by Schulz, this film is a balm for rekindling our youthful joy and wonder, as well as developing an affection for—and understanding of—our own awkwardness.
12 The Mad Women’s Ball
Based on Victoria Mas’s novel, Le bal des folles, writer-director-star Mélanie Laurent tells the haunting story of a young Parisian woman (Lou de Laâge) who is wrongfully sent to a mental institution for being able to see ghosts. Slyly avoiding jump scares and traditionally scary creatures, Laurent still manages to present a gorgeously shot and at times tragic story about a woman struggling to regain her freedom through her own supernatural gifts.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime September 17.
11 Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James
You’d think it would be impossible to compress the life and career of the over-the-top genius Rick James (regardless of how spot-on the Dave Chappelle Show sketches are) into one documentary under two hours. But somehow writer-director Sacha Jenkins—with co-writers Jason Pollard and Steve Rivo—accomplish just that. And they spare no wild details as they humanize a figure who was, for myriad reasons, superhuman, outrageous, unapologetic, infuriating and devastating all at once.
10 Fear Street: Part Three – 1666
Truthfully, each of the Fear Street movies, all adaptations of YA horror novelist R. L. Stine’s famous series, could have made it on this list. But it is the final entry, a smart and subversive composite of its two predecessors, that has the edge. In its first half, it’s an allegory for women who failed to comply with patriarchal standards and were mercilessly hanged in the 17th century. Its second half is a tale of vengeance spun by a Black butch teenage lesbian (Kiana Madeira) ready to torch the earth to save her romance. Writer-director Leigh Janiak—with co-writers Kate Trefry and Phil Graziadei—weaves a satisfying tale of love, witches, centuries-old curses, and evil incarnate.
9 Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It
EGOT winner Rita Moreno has never been known to mince her words throughout her decades-long career in Hollywood. And yet, in director Mariem Pérez Riera’s beautiful documentary portrait, the 89-year-old star is vulnerable with mere glimmers of her larger-than-life personality that has endeared her fans as she reflects on a life filled with determination, fear, heartbreak, and trauma.
8 The Mitchells vs the Machines
A cartoon about a family trying to fend off a bunch of rogue machines might not sound like it has much room for depth and heartrending themes. But director Michael Rianda’s animated college road trip is packed with meaningful dialogue about growing up, moving out, and the beauty of father-daughter relationships—all while similarly contending with the embittered relationship between out-of-date gadgets and the future.
7 Woodstock 99: Peace Love and Rage
It’s hard to really discuss the insanity of Woodstock 99 except to say, you just had to be there. And by there, I mean you had to have existed in 1999 when white male rage and sexism in music went entirely unchecked, hip-hop and metal invaded white suburbia, and this widely known music festival became a dangerous convention center for all their frustrations and entitlement. Director Garret Price encapsulates the mood and agony of the era in his eye-opening documentary.
6 In the Heights
From the moment it opens onto the busy and warm streets of Washington Heights in the dead of summer, director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the beloved Broadway show places its audience at the center of joy. It’s not only the fact that it bursts with Latinx pride, but it allows for each character to be rooted in their individual search for finding happiness—whether that be through love, cultural affirmation, professional success, or a wonderful combination of all the above.
5 Rare Beasts
Writer, director, and star Billie Piper continues to prove why she is one of the most promising purveyors of multidimensional female characters of today’s generation. Perfectly billed as an anti-rom-com, Piper’s latest painfully highlights the discomfort and utter lunacy that is dating and love—and especially love with the wrong people—and the radical decision to choose herself.
If you take it at face value, writer-director Sian Heder’s heartfelt family drama centering on Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in a deaf family, could consequently marginalize the deaf characters (played by real-life deaf actors including Marlee Matlin). But while telling Ruby’s perspective of being pulled between her obligation to her family and her own aspirations, Heder brilliantly highlights the lives of those she might leave behind—and makes them equally dimensional.
Director Myriam Verreault’s Innu drama following a pair of childhood friends (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine and Yamie Grégoire) has both the specificity the community it’s representing deserves, as well as a heartfelt universality that makes it especially impossible to turn your eyes away from. It’s the age-old story about two lifelong friends—bound together by strife, culture, and joyfully simple experiences—fading into opposite directions, but through a fresh and captivating lens.
2 Who You Think I Am
With the rampant fetishization of female youth on dating apps, writer-director Safy Nebbou’s fascinating film—written with the help of Julie Peyr—about a 50-year-old divorced woman (Juliette Binoche) who essentially catfishes a younger man (François Civil) has a sad yet striking relevance. Claire (Binoche) isn’t looking for money and doesn’t mean any ill will. Rather, she is a woman who has been romantically rendered invisible, so she concocts a romance of her imagination—with varying and at times shocking degrees of success and terrible failure.
1 Together Together
It’s easy to suggest that writer-director Nikole Beckwith’s sweet rom-com that centers on two lonely individuals (played by the wonderful Patti Harrison and Ed Helms) had a particular resonance in the throes of quarantine. But now as audiences try to make their way out of that stage, there is an even greater appreciation for companionship—as well as what it means to confront the best and worst sides of yourself within a relationship. It’s what makes the platonic romance in this film so timeless.
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