As we now enter the second half of 2021, cinemas are only just now beginning to reopen here in Ireland.
Slowly but surely, the release calendar for the year is beginning to fill up with mainstream blockbusters like 'Black Widow', 'Dune', 'Eternals' and further afield beyond 2021 with the likes of 'The Batman'.
2021 so far has been made up of exactly the kind of movies that would have been completely overlooked in a normal year - unusual, non-franchise movies without huge budgets. Sure, there's a few here that you'll have heard of from the Oscars (or us bleating on about it), but by and large, these movies would normally go under the radar. That said, a number of these had the same impact of a blockbuster - particularly one which ended up as a TV documentary, which we're including on the basis of streaming taking over for movies this year.
Here now, our list of the best movies of 2021 so far...
There really is something special about 'The Mitchells Vs. The Machines'. It could be in the star-heavy cast (Olivia Colman! Eric Andre! John Legend and Chrissy Tiegen! CONAN O'BRIEN?!) or it could be in its joke-a-minute script. It could also be in that while it may come with manic energy, the story is laser-sharp and the focus never falters from delivering it. Another big help is that it's actually really, really funny.
Just look at this.
Despite the fact that two of its leads were nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, 'Judas and the Black Messiah' nevertheless garnered a huge response from audiences when it went on release earlier this year. Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya both gave twin performances in the title roles, Stanfield living every moment of the panicked, hunted existence while Kaluuya endowed with grace, purpose and an eerie awareness that he would not live a long life. Shaka King's direction both examined the past and tied the story to our current times in a way that, although it was overt, it never felt cheap or obvious. Instead, it felt necessary and alive.
Channelling the glacial detachment from 'Gone Girl', Rosamund Pike plays a vicious grifter who specialises in preying on elderly people by moving them to assisted living facilities and then selling off their assets to pay for their care through guardianship. What's so refreshing about 'I Care A Lot' is not one single person in the movie is redeemable. They're all awful, terrible people who get filthy rich from their crimes and get away with it all the time. You might think that's not exactly the basis of a good movie, but what 'I Care A Lot' does so well is that it shows just how completely soulless it is, and how the warped morality is really just a symptom of what late-stage capitalism is once you strip back the layers of designer clothes and expensive cars.
Perhaps because of the pandemic, 2021 in movies have been quite reflective of what we're at as a society. 'I Care A Lot' and 'Nomadland' both examine where capitalism has led us to, while the likes of 'Framing Britney Spears' and 'Promising Young Woman' seek to understand how women have been and continue to be treated in this world. 'Nomadland' stands at this intersection, with Frances McDormand's resilient widow traversing the American outback in her van as she seeks to make a new life for herself. Made with care and quiet love, it might be just a little too gentle for this world, but it's still worth watching.
For many, 'A Quiet Place, Part II' was their first movie back in cinemas and what a movie to bring people back. Though it may refresh and rework some of the original, the sequel is nevertheless worthy of its name and the welcome addition of Cillian Murphy adds a weight and gravitas to things. Emily Blunt is as dependable as ever, and John Krasinski's confidence in directing has only grown since the last one. Compared to watching this at home, 'A Quiet Place, Part II' needs a cinema to experience it because the silence that broods between moments can only be really felt when the whole audience is holding their breath, waiting for the jump.
Riz Ahmed's performance in 'Sound of Metal' is rightfully being praised, but it's in Paul Raci, who plays Ahmed's tutor, that the movie gets it soul from. There's a beautiful, heartbreaking moment, when Raci confronts Ahmed and explains that silence is a path to peace. Darius Marder also skillfully employed closed captions and sound as a way to bring the audience into the fold, and from that, we are able to empathise with Ahmed more fully.
Emerald Fennell's blackly comedic thriller sees Carey Mulligan become a vigilante against non-threatening boys who just so happen to be the complete opposite of that. The high contrast colours and the almost other-worldly feel to it all belies something very relatable and all too familiar for women. Much has been made of the casting, which placed the likes of Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in roles where audience expectation is effectively weaponised against them.
If the goal of any documentary is to inform the audience and to shape conversation and discourse in its wake, 'Framing Britney Spears' did that and then some. So much of what made the documentary so fascinating was that it was made up of footage we're already familiar with. We've all seen that video of her smashing up a car with a shaved head, swinging wildly at paparazzi. What 'Framing Britney Spears' does is provide context, not to mention examining the other parties involved. For those who might dismiss 'Framing Britney Spears' as a pop culture documentary, give it a chance. You won't find a more searing, insightful, or damning account of the role media and celebrity plays in daily life in 2021, or the long shadow casts by the limelight.
Taking on a subject as remote as the Voyager spacecraft and turning it into a soulful, joyful examination of life and human ingenuity, Emer Reynolds might have seemed like an odd choice for Phil Lynott. Yet, in 'Songs For While I'm Away', it presents not only the magnetism and the charm that turned him into an international rock star, but also how his childhood and his life here in Dublin shaped him. Cleverly utilising both archival footage and interviews with the likes of James Hetfield of Metallica, Adam Clayton of U2, Suzi Quattro, and many others, 'Songs For While I'm Away' is the definitive documentary about Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott, and rock music in Ireland.
Anyone who's lived with someone who has suffered from dementia or Alzheimer's Disease will recognise all too well some scenes in 'The Father'. Indeed, what 'The Father' does so brilliantly is that it puts both viewpoints into perspective - we see what he sees, the confusion, the fear, and we see the family's frustration and heartbreak. So often, dementia is portrayed in overt terms but the truth is far more subtle, something 'The Father' embraces and utilises for dramatic impact. Anthony Hopkins rightfully won an Oscar for his performance here, and at 80 years of age in 2021, proves that real talent never fades.