The 25 Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)

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The 25 Best Movies of 2021 (So Far)

2021 gets to count double when it comes to movies, right? The first six months of the year that’s seen the world—including movie theaters—reopen have offered a bounty of films to stream, rent and yes, even go see on the big screen after getting all vaxxed up. And honestly, we deserved it after 2020, when things like Bad Boys for Life led the box office. Blockbuster franchises are now releasing films in full swing, studios like Warner Bros. are experimenting with modified theatrical release windows and a plethora of genres have already had great showings. The ways in which we watch movies might be slowly shifting, but we’re still getting just as many good ones as always and they’re easier to see than ever.

As we collect our list of the best of the year (so far, anyways), we’ve also done our best to provide links to sites and services where you can watch our recommendations while some are still playing in theaters across the country.

Still, we left off a few films we think are worth tracking down whenever they’re available—films such as The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (which is opening wide sometime in 2022) and pretty much everything at this year’s True/False—that are getting a lot of attention this year but that we don’t yet know are being definitely given a 2021 release in the U.S. For those, you’ll have to stick around and find out how things shake out at the end of the year. As for the rest, well, don’t let anyone tell you that movies aren’t back, because they are. Here are the 25 best movies of 2021 so far:

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About Endlessness

about-endlessness-poster.jpg Release Date: April 30, 2021
Director: Roy Andersson
Stars: Martin Serner, Jessica Louthander, Tatiana Delaunay, Anders Hellström, Jan Eje Ferling, Bengt Bergius, Thore Flyge
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 76 minutes

Available for rent

What’s confusing at first about Roy Andersson’s latest is that it’s not very funny. Known for his wry deadpan—he’s a master at crafting absurdist humor out of seemingly banal situations—the acclaimed Swedish writer-director, who turned 78 last month, is noticeably in a far less jocular mood for About Endlessness. You can find stray chuckles in this slim, quietly moving treatise on the utter futility of everything, but the laughs are overshadowed by the somber realization that Andersson’s typically bereft characters are left to their own devices even more so than usual. Rather than punchlines, we get glimpses of melancholy lives stuck in limbo. About Endlessness doesn’t appear to be that much different than Andersson’s earlier movies, but its tone is more funereal and compassionate. The people we meet aren’t oddballs or objects of derision—they’re struggling too much to be merely “quirky,” and Andersson’s heart goes out to them, even if he doesn’t give them a happy ending. (Truth is, most of them don’t get an ending at all.) If before you marveled at his tightly choreographed dioramas, here you look beyond the stellar precision of his filmmaking. The human beings are front and center. We meet a dentist (Thore Flygel) who, for unknown reasons, is having a bad day. A pair of lovers (Tatiana Delaunay and Anders Hellström) fly silently over a bombed-out city, wrapped in an embrace that’s more protective than warmly romantic. A priest (Martin Serner) has dreams of being crucified. A woman gets off a train, expecting that no one will be there to pick her up. A defeated army trudges through the snow to a prison camp. A man holds a dead, bloodied woman, a knife in his hand. Did he kill her or just stumble upon the crime? This might make About Endlessness sound like a joyless bummer, and yet what’s remarkable is how it produces its own curious form of exhilaration. Partly, it’s due to Andersson’s rigorous filmmaking style, which presents us with these gorgeous little jewel boxes as each mini-portrait plays out in front of his locked-down camera. But also, it’s the inventiveness of the scenarios: Andersson cuts to the core of myriad mundane human experiences in order to find something resonant about, say, an overattentive waiter or a random run-in with an old classmate. The observations are so trenchant that they keep sadness at bay. Yes, we are these people. Their problems are our problems. But they’re still alive, and so are we. Sometimes, we don’t need the patina of humor. We’re strong enough to accept Andersson’s unhappy worldview unfiltered. It’s a slow-burn stunner.—Tim Grierson


Akilla’s Escape

akillas-escape-poster.jpg Release Date: June 11, 2021
Director: Charles Officer
Stars: Saul Williams, Thamela Mpumlwana, Vic Mensa, Donisha Prendergast, Ronnie Rowe Jr., Olunike Adeliyi, Colm Feore, Bruce Ramsay
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

Available for rent

In Akilla’s Escape, a hypnotic crime-noir from Jamaican-Canadian filmmaker Charles Officer (Nurse.Fighter.Boy), cycles of violence and oppression collapse into an ominous nightmare loop as one man retiring from a life of crime races to stop a younger man from following a similar path. The older of the two men, Akilla (multihyphenate Saul Williams, who also did the trip-hop score with Massive Attack’s 3D AKA Robert Del Naja) is a marijuana dealer in modern-day Toronto resolved to leave the business now that pot is legal and the government is muscling in, signaling that it’s time to step away from his grow-op and cash out. But on the eve of Akilla’s retirement, an armed robbery wipes out his supply and a dispensary employee is hacked to death with a machete. In the chaos that follows, Akilla knocks out one thief, a teen named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), who’s swiftly abandoned by the rest of the crew. Simultaneously, Akilla’s Escape follows 15-year-old Akilla in 1995 New York, where his Jamaica-born father (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) heads up a dangerous gang that Akilla’s abused mother (Olunike Adeliyi) is desperate but powerless to stop her son from falling in with. Mpumlwana also plays the younger Akilla which, in conjunction with the film’s flashback-heavy structure, works to collapse the decades and distinctions between its characters. It’s clear that the world-worn, melancholy Akilla sees himself in Sheppard, and Officer’s film shares that perspective, blurring the two characters until both represent distinct stages in a larger cycle of crime, carcerality and consequence. Throughout Akilla’s Escape, the weight of history as well as personal legacy hangs heavy in the air. The film’s opening montage, exploring Jamaica’s volatile past, intersperses newspaper clippings and archival footage with a hypnotic sequence of Williams dancing in a warehouse, drawing a portrait of Jamaican culture (particularly the emergence of reggae) as a rebellious movement against forces of colonial violence and political unrest. Akilla’s Escape is a requiem for its protagonist, a man whose life has been defined by his formative traumas and who struggles to avoid paying forward the pain he learned young. But the film’s central, timeline-collapsing gambit pays off by turning Akilla’s Escape into something more sweeping. Through its unification of Akilla and Sheppard’s struggle, the film offers a uniquely powerful visualization of Black men caught in oppressive cycles—and foregrounds the illumination of those cycles, rather than the characters’ individual stories, as the film’s main objective. Akilla’s Escape offers few answers when it comes to ending the generational traumas its characters carry, but the unique force with which it expresses the life-altering weight of such burdens meaningfully moves the conversation around them forward.—Isaac Feldberg


All Light, Everywhere

all-light-everywhere-poster.jpg Release Date: June 6, 2021
Director: Theo Anthony
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 105 minutes

In theaters

The camera is a gun according to Theo Anthony, director of All Light, Everywhere, a patchwork documentary which blends interviews, archival footage and even scenes from the film’s cutting room floor in order to dissect the omnipresence of video surveillance—particularly in Black communities which have long been over-policed. Anthony’s filmic medium appears paradoxical considering his vested interest in critiquing the omission of unbiased truth inherent in camera footage—particularly those recorded by police body cams, covert aerial surveillance programs and panopticonic corporate workplaces. But as the director peels back the layers of his methodology, the viewer observes unpolished glimpses of Anthony setting up shots, prepping subjects for interview and divulging research logs—a technique that shatters the illusion of objectivity altogether. Through obliterating the guise of impartial filmmaking, Anthony examines the insidious history of image capturing as a tool of incarceration and its continued weaponization by the state. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Heightened surveillance in minority communities proliferates a high rate of crime—with infinite eyes scanning for crime, more crimes (predominantly minor offenses) are reported and prosecuted. Without the amplification of these invasive practices in affluent white communities, the false narrative of crime-riddled cities—like Anthony’s hometown of Baltimore—is infinitely reinforced. Perhaps the most insidious use of surveillance technology evident in All Light, Everywhere is the intentionally grainy, indeterminate nature of body camera footage itself, the argument being that if the cameras are too perceptive, too unbiased in their ability to document altercations between police and citizens, they might sway courtrooms to see the police’s actions as irresponsible or negligent. After all, if the jury can clearly see that a victim of police brutality was indeed holding a water gun instead of a deadly weapon, how could cops be expected to take accountability for their mistakes? If the premise of authoritarian monitoring isn’t terrifying enough, a scene involving AI-generated faces—composites of would-be individuals (or criminals)—pushes All Light, Everywhere into overt horror. Not just through the uncanny, skin-crawling quality of human non-humans, but by effectively presenting the evil inherent in these technologies when utilized against citizens by corrupt institutions.—Natalia Keogan


Bad Trip

bad_trip_poster.jpg Release Date: March 26, 2021
Director: Kitao Sakurai
Stars: Eric Andre, Tiffany Haddish, Lil Rel Howery, Michaela Conlin
Genre: Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 84 minutes

Watch on Netflix

What’s most distinguishable about Bad Trip is the way that it depicts the public which it interacts with. The film never aims to humiliate or dehumanize its subjects—instead of being disparaged or mocked in the name of comedy, bystanders are portrayed as more of a righteous tribunal than mere crabs in a barrel. The reprehensible behavior showcased always stems from Andre, Haddish or Howery, with spectators taking it upon themselves to moralize and attempt to salvage any remaining shred of the incognito actors’ perceived dignity—perhaps all too perfectly exemplified in a scene with a parking lot Army recruiter who civilly declines Andre’s offer of a blowjob in exchange for execution during a profound period of hopelessness. This ability to invoke public reaction—with no rubric for hardline emotions that the actors must elicit—is what allows the fabric of Bad Trip’s humor to shine through. With the professional actors shouldering the burden of both maintaining character for the benefit of the film’s overarching narrative as well as ensuring that the orchestrated gags play perfectly, the public’s only obligation is reacting genuinely, whether that be expressing anger, frustration, disdain or bewilderment. It’s this spectrum of varied emotion that is woven into the very fabric of the film, giving it an overtly genuine tone. At times it is even surprisingly heartwarming, with good samaritans stepping in to talk characters off of ledges and break up public quarrels.


Censor

censor-poster.jpg Release Date: June 11, 2021
Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Stars: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley
Genre: Horror
Rating: NR
Runtime: 84 minutes

Available for rent or on demand

If Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension had a kid and raised it on Vinegar Syndrome releases, that kid would grow up to be Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor. A demonstration of refined craftsmanship and a gleeful embrace of horror’s grimiest mores all at the same time, Censor is the ultimate “have cake, eat it too” film, being both exceptionally well-made and stuffed to the gunwales with everything that makes horror worth watching: Creeping dread, paranoia, gross-out violence and inspired fits of madness, with a side of smirking defiance for the conservative pitchfork mobs that have tried to pin all the world’s ills on the genre since always. Bailey-Bond’s film is in conversation with history, the era of Margaret Thatcher and cultural garment-rending over the proliferation of video nasties among impressionable Brits. Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor, fills her days watching graphically staged dramatizations of brutality, then cutting down their countless offenses to an acceptable size. One such picture too closely resembles a horrible incident from her childhood, one resulting in the disappearance of her sister—or more specifically, it’s the lead actress in the picture who too closely resembles her sister. The encounter sets Enid on a quest to recover her long-lost sibling, which takes her on a descent into insanity…plus a few choice gore shots. But as much as Censor connects with Britain’s past, it connects with horror’s past, too, in keeping with the genre’s tradition of self-awareness and self-critique. When social forces come together to blame horror for the existence of darkness, it’s because those forces can’t stand their own self-reflections. They need an easy way out, and moral panic is easy. Horror knows who the real villains are, and so does Bailey-Bond. Don’t take that as a warning sign, though: Censor isn’t stuffy or preachy, not at all. It’s the reason we go see horror movies in the first place.—Andy Crump


Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train

demon-slayer-kimetsu-no-yaiba-the-movie-mugen-train-poster.jpg Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Stars: Natsuki Hanae, Akari Kito, Hiro Shimono, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Satoshi Hino, Daisuke Hirakawa, Hiroshi Kamiya
Genre: Action, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 117 minutes

In theaters, on demand and for rent on June 22

A new anime sensation is sweeping audiences off their feet: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. The series follows Tanjiro, a young man on a quest for vengeance against the demons who slaughtered his family. In his quest, he joins the Demon Slayer Corps—the force sworn to protect humanity from demons—and learns the way of the Demon Slayers through intensive training. Yet, the series is about so much more than vengeance: It is about found family, processing grief, coping with trauma, and inner strength. Amidst the beautiful battle choreography and animation are quiet, emotional moments that give the characters a complexity not often seen in male-oriented manga, or shonen. Now, months after the end of the hit first season, American audiences can now experience the season-capping film, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train. Mugen Train begins with Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae) and his companions Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono)—a perpetual scaredy cat—and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka)—who wears a boar mask and has an explosive temper—boarding the Mugen Train as part of their next mission. Once on the train, the trio find Rengoku (Satoshi Hino), a high ranking soldier in the Demon Slayer Corps with expert fighting techniques, to receive their next mission. There is something demonic on board consuming passengers and it’s up to this group of four to protect those on the train. They also quickly learn this threat is more than just a regular demon, but a much more powerful one who can manipulate dreams. The tone of these sequences fluctuate both in subject matter and animation style, and yet it all comes together as each dream—and their aesthetics—teaches the audience even more about these characters, their pasts and their deepest desires. Mugen Train is a feast for the eyes with its bright colors, meshing of animation styles and meticulously designed environments that emphasize the action. It’s a gorgeous film that expands the universe of Demon Slayer, but because it is canonical and provides a bridge between seasons, it is not a film meant for newcomers to the franchise.—Mary Beth McAndrews


In the Heights

in-the-heights-poster.jpg Release Date: June 11, 2021
Director: Jon M. Chu
Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits
Genre: Musical, Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

Watch on HBO Max

In 2018, director Jon M. Chu imbued the standard rom-com plot of his Crazy Rich Asians adaptation with classical Hollywood decadence, hanging it all on a framework of well-constructed cultural specificity. It was big, spectacular and embarrassingly novel for an American movie of its kind. Now, in 2021, we’re getting Chu’s version of In the Heights, the musical that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map (and won him his first Tony). It’s incredible. The exciting electricity of a non-white blockbuster cast becoming superstars before your eyes, the maximalist style of a modern smash updating its influences, the intertwining of hyper-specific and broad themes—Chu’s strengths and his cast soar, bringing In the Heights as high as it’s ever been. It’s the best Hollywood musical in years. Tracking a few sweltering days in New York’s Washington Heights, the film meshes Do the Right Thing’s hot summer tension with School Daze’s teasing affection for its song-slinging genre. It just so happens that the corner we’re on is the collision point for the intersecting lives and romances of two couples—bodega boss Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and dispatcher Benny (Corey Hawkins) and recent Stanford dropout Nina (Leslie Grace)—who serve as the neighborhood’s most vocal examples of those that life’s rigged lottery left putting their patience and faith in a daily scratcher. There’s no real pivotal struggle (especially not between Sharks and Jets, though wouldn’t it be incredible if Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story gave 2021 two great NYC musicals?) aside from the ever-present and myriad anxieties of Nth generation Americans living in a racist country. Yes, those familiar with the themes of Miranda’s Hamilton will find a similar rhythm and thematic flavor here—though with the showtunes’ style slipping into a salsa or bolero as easily as the rap bars dip in and out of Spanish—but with a purity of form and meaning that’s lyrical critiques and observations are even sharper than those mired in the phenomenon’s historical metaphor. But as much as Miranda’s sensibility is ever-present throughout the film, it’s a blessing that Ramos takes over as the lead, using the full breadth of his impressive AAA charm to assure every last unconvinced soul that he is one of our great stars. Singing, rapping, dancing, pining over Vanessa, pining over the Dominican Republic, bumbling, speaking in direct address (always a test of charisma), exuding a casual sexiness—Ramos is the platonic ideal of a romantic leading man and exactly who we need guiding us through the musical’s everyday complexity. But nobody, not even Ramos, can hold a candle to Olga Merediz, the sole original Broadway performer to reprise her role. She was Tony-nominated for her stage performance as the barrio’s honorary abuela, Claudia, and I’d be happy if she was Oscar-nominated for bringing it to film. Her song, “Paciencia y Fe,” is a show stopper, the most moving and emotionally intelligent of the film, that’s staged in the most inventive way. In fact, almost all the songs are bangers that keep emotions high—you’ll weep, you’ll cheer, you’ll hum the songs to yourself on the way out of the theater—bolstered by orchestration that, while restrained when limited to its lovers, explodes when the choruses finally incorporate the neighborhood at large. Head-bobbing bops and moving melodies match rhythmic editing and a vibrant, fittingly populous background that’s constant choreography sustains the perpetual, organic flow of a community. In the Heights is great, and its greatness is amplified by the joy that it will inspire in theaters full of people for years to come.—Jacob Oller


Judas and the Black Messiah

judas-and-the-black-messiah-poster.jpg Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Martin Sheen
Genre: Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 126 minutes

Available to rent

“Not all skinfolks are kinfolks” is an idiom used colloquially among Black people to address the fact that although they share a racial identity and corresponding experiences of racism, intracommunal ideas regarding the path to Black liberation are seldom synchronous. Furthermore, white supremacy’s propagation of capitalist individualism as the default social framework positions Black collective action as an inherent threat to the United States of America. Director Shaka King centers all these tensions in his brilliant film Judas and the Black Messiah, a historical drama tinged with dazzling shades of caramel and crimson that documents the FBI’s calculated assassination of noted Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). When car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is caught impersonating a federal officer, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) offers him an ultimatum: If O’Neal helps the Feds infiltrate the Black Panther Party and offers intel on their tactics, he can evade a substantial prison sentence and be handsomely compensated for his cooperation. As O’Neal immerses himself into the world of the Black Panthers, his commitment to his own self-interest is pressured by the Panthers’ communitarianism and radical politics. Judas and the Black Messiah superbly centralizes the betrayal of the informant’s Judas figure as he operates as a nexus between the Panthers and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen)’s FBI, while also amplifying the experiences of the messianic Hampton and his fellow prominent Panthers portrayed by the film’s impressive ensemble cast. While I would love to see Kaluuya take on a leading role in which he at no point has to fight for his life (Get Out, Widows, Black Panther, Queen & Slim) he is an exemplary Fred Hampton. EX-EM-PLA-RY. From the head tilt to the Chicagoan cadence to the emotive gaze, Kaluuya manages to embody Hampton’s physicality and voice without falling into the trap of pure mimicry or impressionism. This is no small achievement especially considering the dearth of Hampton’s fictionalized portrayals. On the other side of things, Stanfield sinks into O’Neal’s paranoia and shivering soul in a way that simultaneously prompts reasonable disgust towards the character and intermittent bouts of empathy. Understanding that Black liberation can not move at the speed of white supremacist comfort is the price of mental and emotional admission to this film. As it should be. Judas and the Black Messiah remarkably fashions a world in which O’Neal’s behaviors are contextualized through the ethos of America’s institutions, and one where the efforts of Hampton and the Panthers are given abundant space to be boldly witnessed.—Adesola Thomas


Jumbo

jumbo-poster.jpg Release Date: February 19, 2021
Director: Zoe Wittock
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Sam Louwyck
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: NR
Runtime: 93 minutes

Available to rent

Films like Lars and the Real Girl and Her have familiarized audiences with the “man falls in love with inanimate object” storyline (using a mannequin and an AI voiced by Scarlett Johansson, respectively). But Jumbo, Zoe Wittock’s directorial debut, refreshingly adds a woman—an amusement park worker who develops a romantic and erotic relationship with Jumbo, the newest ride at the park—to the mix. Wittock’s writing and direction effectively communicate how metaphorically appropriate the proverbial amusement park is when exploring the thrill, the valleys and peaks, the whirlwind of desire. While the audacity of Jumbo’s premise is certainly a draw, it also forces audiences to recalibrate their perception of what a romance looks like in a way that is effectively disorienting—but disorienting nonetheless. The film nestles itself between shock and earned awe. Before the romance in Jumbo reaches its apex, the audience is first introduced to Jeanne (Noémie Merlant), a pensive young woman with Joan of Arc bangs and an affinity for amusement park rides. Wittock strikes an excellent balance between characterizing Jeanne, familiarizing the audience with her individuality and using her complexity to ground the attraction that she ultimately cultivates to Jumbo. Throughout the film, Jeanne crafts small-scale, scrap metal replicas of the rides at the park. She also lives with her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot), a volcanic, playful figure who calls Jeanne “sugarpuss” and loves her, but cannot always see her. Together they talk about life and romance, listening to the ‘80s American rock that’s synths and heavy guitar define the soundscape of the film. Jeanne and Jumbo’s unconventional relationship undoubtedly demands an adjustment period. It’s not every day that we see a romance develop between a human woman and a pendulum ride. But this adjustment period mostly services the central conflict that arises: Margarette’s aggressive disapproval of Jeanne’s romance with Jumbo. Through Margarette’s balking, the audience is given the secondhand responsibility of assessing their own apprehensions to Jeanne’s romantic reality. The film thankfully does not equivocate queer people with sentient machines and thereby inadvertently dehumanize them, but rather appreciates the inherent legitimacy of Jeanne’s romantic affinity and understands the obtuse ways her mother dismisses it. Merlant and Bercot give compelling performances that pull the story out of the gimmicky crawlspace it could have easily collapsed into were the roles placed in the hands of less-equipped actors. Merlant’s writhing, fainting spells and intense gaze do well to communicate the intensity of desire and, although the film can sometimes be a dizzying attraction to climb on, Jumbo is certainly worth the ride.—Adesola Thomas


Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad

miracle-fishing-poster.jpg Release Date: March 25, 2021
Director: Miles Hargrove
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 107 minutes

Watch on Discovery+

Eleven months of Groundhog Day. Every morning waking up and missing your father, not absent by his own will, but held somewhere in the Colombian mountains by guerillas. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, kidnapping was a cottage industry for Colombian cartels and revolutionaries alike—big business that developed its own economy, professionals and best practices. When Miles Hargrove’s father, Thomas, was kidnapped in 1994 by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, now a legal and registered Marxist political party), it was a traumatic blow but not a wholly unexpected one. They could adapt, learn the rules of the waiting game and play it out. And Hargrove was filming all the while. His father’s kidnapping is documented with vigorous intimacy and authenticity in Hargrove’s Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad, assembled from home movie footage and unpacking kidnapping as a financial, communal part of life. It’s true crime done right, blending that sense of ogling fascination you get when understanding the procedural details of a criminal act with the dramatic empathy developed through its documentary framing. And this doc does some things right out the gate that separate it from most of its genre contemporaries: Miracle Fishing never cheapens things like human life for suspense (you hear Hargrove’s father speaking in voiceover early on, assuring you that this story does indeed have some kind of happy end) and focuses its structure on the nuts and bolts of the family’s negotiation reality. The quality and quantity of home video footage—relatable in its shaky, in-your-face closeness and ubiquity—and the surreal serendipity of a kidnapping victim’s kid going through a camcorder phase cobbles together a more personal portrait than any news story could accomplish. Some crackling editing and Hargrove’s addiction/devotion to filming seemingly everything around him pieces together elegant little snapshots of the main players of the case, observed both hiding ransom money in wooden pallets and posing a sleeping dog with a beer bottle. The expert juxtaposition of the mundane and the unimaginable give the film a magnetism, a buzzing heightened reality caused by the motion of these opposites. In this environment, focusing on either extreme makes for compelling cinema. The dinner parties are engrossing, while seeing the young family members’ foray into the robust kidnapping economy—where professional negotiators, consultants, drop men and drivers all have their place alongside the criminals—makes spy movie thrills pale in comparison.—Jacob Oller


Moffie

moffie-poster.jpg Release Date: April 9, 2021
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Stars: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 104 minutes

Available for rent

“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite. Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there is tenderness—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive. Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.—Aparita Bhandari


On-Gaku: Our Sound

on-gaku-our-sound-poster.jpg Release Date: March 9, 2021
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka
Genre: Comedy, Musical, Animation
Rating: NR
Runtime: 71 minutes

Available to rent

Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


One Night in Miami

one-night-in-miami-poster.jpg Release Date: January 15, 2021
Director: Regina King
Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr.
Genre: Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 114 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

A barebones summary of One Night in Miami sounds like a dude’s delight movie: Four men out on the town, no attachments to keep them in line, and a limit to their evening revelry that extends skyward. But the four men are Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and most of all Malcolm X; the town is actually the Magic City; and the specific evening is February 25, 1964, when heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston crossed gloves with Clay and lost his title in an upset. Subjects crossing the characters’ lips include, of course, boxing, and women, and rowdiness, but they’re joined by other, more important subjects like Black American identity, American identity, and how the two interact with one another. But that doesn’t rob One Night in Miami of the “delight” clause, thanks in no small part to crackling performances by a cast comprising a cadre of exceptional young actors (Eli Goree, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, Kingsley Ben-Adir), and directed with cool confidence by Regina King in her feature debut. Her adaptation of Kemp Powers’ stage play is a historical document written to presuppose what conversations these fellows might’ve had in private and away from prying ears, a compelling fiction rooted in reality. It’s also thoroughly entertaining, witty, and exuberant. This isn’t a film about meaningless carousing. It’s about conversations that actually matter. —Andy Crump


Plan B

plan-b-poster.jpg Release Date: May 28, 2021
Director: Natalie Morales
Stars: Kuhoo Verma, Victoria Moroles, Michael Provost, Myha’la Herrold, Jolly Abraham, Jay Chandrasekhar
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 108 minutes

Watch on Hulu

The meeting of past and present is on full display in Plan B which puts a new spin on one of the tried and true plots of the genre—the road trip. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) is a responsible student trying to do everything right. Her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles) seems to walk more on the wild side, but it’s really just bravado hiding some inner insecurity. When Sunny’s mom Rosie (Jolly Abraham) goes out of town for a real estate convention, Lupe convinces Sunny to throw a party to get the attention of Hunter (Michael Provost). “Who plays hockey in a cardigan? He’s like an athletic librarian,” Sunny sighs. But after one too many shots of some very questionable alcoholic punch (pickle juice is involved), Sunny has sex for the first time with the super religious and super geeky Kyle (Mason Cook from the late, great TV series Speechless). The next morning, to her horror, Sunny discovers the condom and its contents have been inside her all night long. The quest for the Plan B pill begins. All films require a willing suspension of disbelief and Plan B does need its viewers to not ask too many questions. Suffice to say a lot of Sunny and Lupe’s problems could have been solved by a simple Google search on their phones. But once you set aside any lingering doubts, the movie is a delight. That’s in large part due to first-time director Natalie Morales. Morales, known for her roles on Parks & Recreation, The Middleman and Dead to Me, clearly understands these characters and the emotional angst of high school. Perhaps because Morales is an actress herself, she’s even more conscious of ensuring that the female leads are treated with the respect they deserve.—Amy Amatangelo


Sator

sator-poster.jpg Release Date: February 9, 2021
Director: Jordan Graham
Starring: Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, June Peterson
Genre: Horror
Rating: NR
Runtime: 86 minutes

Watch on Shudder

There’s something in the forest. But at the same time, there’s nothing much at all. A man, a cabin and maybe—maybe—something more. Sator, a mumblecore horror somewhere between a modern-day The Witch, The Blair Witch Project and Lovecraft, is a striking second feature from Jordan Graham. It’s the kind of horror that trades jump scares for negative space, one that opens with imagery your typical A24 beast saves for its finale. Sator’s dedication to its own nuanced premise, location and tense pace make it the rare horror that’s so aesthetically well-realized you feel like you could crawl inside and live there—if it wasn’t so goddamn scary. Sator is a name, an evocation, an entity. He’s first described, by Nani (the late June Peterson, excellent), as a guardian. Nani’s known Sator (whatever he may be) for a long time. The film represents shifts in time, and the physical transportation to places soaked in memories, with an aspect ratio change and a black-and-white palette. Nani’s lovely longhand script is practiced well from a lifetime of automatic writing, with the words—including some of the opening company credits, which is a great little joke—pouring from her pen and claiming a headwater not of this world. That same paranormal river flows to her grandson Adam (Gabriel Nicholson), that aforementioned man in the woods, whose relationship with the voices in his head is a bit less comfortable. It’s a stark, bold, even compassionate film—which offers imperfectly planted details of a battered and bruised family at its core—with plenty to comprehend (or at least theorize about) for those brave enough to venture back into the forest for a rewatch. As scary as it is, Sator is an experience with enough layers and craftsmanship that its alluring call will rattle in your head long after you’ve turned it off.—Jacob Oller


Shiva Baby

shiva-baby-poster.jpg Release Date: April 2, 2021
Director: Emma Seligman
Stars: Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, Danny Deferrari, Dianna Agron
Genre: Comedy
Rating: NR
Runtime: 77 minutes

Available to rent

Marvelously uncomfortable and cringe-inducingly hilarious, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby rides a fine line between comedy and horror that perfectly suits its premise—and feels immediately in step with its protagonist, the college-aged Danielle. Played by actress/comedian Rachel Sennott, already messy-millennial royalty by virtue of her extremely online comic sensibility, Danielle is first glimpsed mid-tryst, an unconvincing orgasm closing out her perfunctory dirty talk (“Yeah, daddy”) before she dismounts and collects a wad of cash from the older Max (Danny Deferrari). Though it’s transactional, as any sugar relationship tends to be, Danielle seems open to discussing her nebulous career aspirations with Max, and he gives her an expensive bracelet—suggesting a quasi-intimate familiarity to their dynamic, even if the encounter’s underlying awkwardness keeps either from getting too comfortable. As such, it’s a smart tease of what’s to come, as Danielle schleps from Max’s apartment to meet up with her parents, Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed, naturally), and sit shiva in the home of a family friend or relative. That Danielle’s unclear on who exactly died is a recurring joke, and a consistently good one, but there’s little time to figure out the details before she’s plunged into the event: A disorienting minefield of small talk, thin smiles and self-serve schmear. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the high anxiety and mortifying comedy of Seligman’s film, though it helps. Underneath all the best Jewish punchlines lies a weary acknowledgement of inevitable suffering; the Coen Brothers knew this in crafting A Serious Man, their riotous retelling of the Book of Job, and Seligman knows it in Shiva Baby. That the climax involves shattered glass, helpless tears and a few humiliations more marks this as one of the most confidently, winningly Jewish comedies in years.—Isaac Feldberg


Some Kind of Heaven

some-kind-of-heaven-poster.jpg Release Date: January 15, 2021
Director: Lance Oppenheim
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
Runtime: 81 minutes

Watch on Hulu

Bubble worlds and echo chambers, escapism and selectivity—perhaps the reason that first-time director Lance Oppenheim seems to understand The Villages retirement community so deeply is because its social elements resonate with anyone that grew up online. These social phenomena are, of course, not new, but they are a vital part of everyday life—political and otherwise—in a digital landscape. Approaching them and those that willingly seek them with open eyes and ears, but with brains enough to assess their motives, takes a savvy non-fiction storyteller. Oppenheim’s new documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, introduces the filmmaker as an exciting new voice as he unpacks the quintessential “got old and went to Florida” locale with visual beauty, deep empathy and the wizened charisma of its subjects. Built from his college thesis project, Some Kind of Heaven is a confident debut that follows a handful of Villagers: Anne and Reggie, a couple with a husband that’s used retirement to experiment with drugs and embrace ideas (like that he actually died and has been reincarnated) that estrange him from his extremely patient wife; Barbara, a full-time working widow stranded in a place that rubs her the wrong way; and Dennis, a con man living in his van on the prowl for a wealthy single woman to provide him a place in The Villages. Immediately, that supposed sense of uniformity—that designed sameness of aesthetic and experience that helped give The Villages its reputation as “Disney World for old people”—is revealed to be nothing but a front. And that’s before you really even start to meet the subjects. The film’s opening juxtaposes a diverse selection of primary-colored synchronized activities (swimming, golf carting, rowing) with voiceover that lays out the hyper-positive, hyper-choreographed façade that comes with living in the community. The Villages create the same kind of “see no evil” bubble that resembles the positivity-only fronts put on by internet personalities looking to create their own echo chambery cults. Unraveled here, it’s somewhere between Errol Morris’ loving look at eccentric Americana and a John Waters wet dream: Hawaiian shirts, polyester, tanned wrinkly skin, souped-up golf carts and elderly cheerleaders. These striking visuals continue throughout the film, with editing by Daniel Garber that transcends its (still slick) match cuts to a more elegant place of narrative flow between images. And Oppenheim knows just where to place everything. Cinematographer David Bolen’s framing centers and grounds its subjects when everything around them is designed to be a heightened escape from the inevitable reason they all came there: To die happy. Some Kind of Heaven leaves its subjects’ stories without ends—except the one end everyone knows is coming for us all—basking in the beautiful imperfect potential of an open door, an empty calendar day, a bare dance floor.—Jacob Oller


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

summer-of-soul-poster.jpg Release Date: July 2, 2021
Director: Questlove
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 117 minutes

Hitting theaters and Hulu on July 2

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is the subject of Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s debut documentary feature, Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). More specifically, the documentary examines how this six-week summer festival, which featured many of the most revered Black musicians of all time— including Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and Gladys Knight—went largely unrecognized in America’s cultural consciousness. Featuring an immense catalogue of footage that sat in a basement virtually untouched for 50 years, Summer of Soul acts as an interrogation of what the absence of these materials has meant for the subsequent generation of Black artists, including Questlove himself. Despite the apparent cultural amnesia that followed the event (at least among non-Black Americans), the Harlem Cultural Festival easily overshadowed a ubiquitous moment in American history: The 1969 moon landing. Archival interviews with several attendees reveal that for many Black Americans, the moon landing was not seen as a boundary-pushing event worth celebrating. Catching Stevie Wonder’s set, on the other hand, was. Considering the undeniable essence of colonialism that space travel entails, who can blame them? 300,000 music lovers descended on Mount Morris Park that summer—hardly a negligible amount, especially when compared to Woodstock’s 500,000 attendees. While Woodstock may have been emblematic of the power of counter-culture, the predominance of white spectators in the crowd cemented the event as an artistic awakening. Meanwhile, the equally hyped Harlem Cultural Festival was relegated to the sidelines of historical preservation due to its predominantly Black audience and centering of Black acts on stage. Summer of Soul was easily one of the most successful films at this year’s Sundance, earning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the documentary section. But Questlove was never in it for the acclaim, a sentiment made evident in some of the first words the filmmaker uttered during his remote acceptance speech: “I didn’t even know this was a competition, yo!” The documentary was quickly picked up by Searchlight, with a streaming release on Hulu imminent. Whether interested in unraveling an overshadowed cultural event or eager to experience awe-inspiring performances from beloved artists at their best, Summer of Soul surely won’t disappoint.—Natalia Keogan


The Dig

the-dig-poster.jpg Release Date: January 15, 2021
Director: Simon Stone
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 112 minutes

Watch on Netflix

There are many reasons The Dig might have piqued initial interest: First, it stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and a fine cast of other notable actors; second, you could tell from the trailer that this is one of those British films, a period piece filled with silences and restraint; and finally, it’s based on a real-life historical event, the excavation and discovery of the Sutton Hoo site (an Anglo-Saxon burial ground) in Suffolk in 1939. Those were the reasons I’d decided to watch The Dig as soon as I saw the first windswept image of Mulligan, looking both determined and grim, much before I saw the trailer. But soon after I had settled into the couch, I found myself gradually immersed in the slow lyricism of the film. Right from the opening frame—which shows Fiennes sat on a rowboat, being ferried with his bicycle across a river; oars gently pulling through the lapping waters, birds in the sky, golden hour in the horizon—I could sense myself coming to a still. It felt like a balm. The Dig tells the story of Edith Pretty (Mulligan), landowner and widowed mother, who employs Basil Brown (Fiennes), a self-taught excavator/archaeologist, to dig up the large mounds of earth on her Sutton Hoo property. When Brown asks Pretty why she didn’t go through the usual route of contacting a museum, Pretty replies that she did, but the impending second World War means that resources are scant, and Brown was the best bet—even though he has been described as a challenging man, with unorthodox ideas. The war looming in the background adds a measure of urgency to the otherwise unhurried pace of the film. The drama lies within the interactions between these people who have come together for the project: Pretty and Brown, the team of experts from the British Museum headed by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and including Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Margaret Piggot (Lily James), Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and Brown’s wife May (Monica Dolan). As the archaeological team digs deeper, they also unearth emotions and motivations within themselves and those around them. Stott is delightfully annoying as the overbearing British Museum veteran, sneering at Brown’s lack of credentials and spluttering when put in his place by Pretty. James is endearingly conflicted as a young wife and junior archaeologist, trying to find her place in her marriage and the work field—even in her attraction to the roguish Rory. The film beautifully brings the account of the people behind one of England’s most famous archaeological events to life. Even if there have been some artistic licenses taken, I know that when I go to the British Museum next—in the near future, one hopes—I will be making a beeline for the Sutton Hoo exhibit.—Aparita Bhandari


The Mitchells vs. the Machines

the-michells-vs-the-machines-poster.jpg Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda, Jeff Rowe (co-director)
Stars: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Mike Rianda, Olivia Colman
Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi
Rating: PG
Runtime: 113 minutes

Watch on Netflix

Animated generational divides have never been more like a sci-fi carnival than in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Writer/director Mike Rianda’s feature debut (he and co-writer/director Jeff Rowe made their bones on the excellently spooky, silly show Gravity Falls) is equal parts absurd, endearing and terrifying. It’s easy to feel as lost or overwhelmed by the flashing lights and exhilarating sights as the central family fighting on one side of the title’s grudge match, but it’s equally easy to come away with the exhausted glee of a long, weary theme park outing’s aftermath. Its genre-embedded family bursts through every messy, jam-packed frame like they’re trying to escape (they often are), and in the process create the most energetic, endearing animated comedy so far this year. And its premise begins so humbly. Filmmaker and animator Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is leaving home for college and, to get there, has to go on a road trip with her family: Rick (Danny McBride), her Luddite outdoorsy dad; Linda (Maya Rudolph), her peacemaking mom; and Aaron (Rianda), her dino-freak little brother. You might be able to guess that Katie and her dad don’t always see eye-to-eye, even when Katie’s eyes aren’t glued to her phone or laptop. That technocriticism, where “screen time” is a dirty phrase and the stick-shifting, cabin-building father figure wants his family to experience the real world, could be as hacky as the twelfth season of a Tim Allen sitcom. The Mitchells vs. the Machines escapes that danger not only through some intentional nuance in its writing, but also some big ol’ anti-nuance: Partway through the trip, the evil tech companies screw up and phone-grown robots decide to shoot all the humans into space. This movie needed something this narratively large to support its gloriously kitchen-sink visuals. The Sony film uses some of the same tech that made Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse look so crisp and unique, adding comicky shading to its expressive CG. In fact, once some of the more freaky setpieces take off, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Miles Morales swing in to save the day. The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ spin on the Spidey aesthetic comes from meme and movie-obsessed Katie, whose imagination often breaks through into the real world and whose bizarre, neon and filter-ridden sketchbook doodles ornament the film’s already exciting palette with explosive oddity. This unique and savvy style meshes well with The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ wonderfully timed slapstick, crashing and smashing with an unexpected violence, balanced out with one truly dorky pug and plenty of visual asides poking fun at whatever happens to be going on.—Jacob Oller


The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Release Date: May 7, 2021
Director: Bao Tran
Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Genre: Action, Comedy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

Available for rent

When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

this-is-not-a-burial-its-a-resurrection-poster.jpg Release Date: April 2, 2021
Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Stars: Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng, Makhaola Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng, Siphiwe Nzima
Genre: Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 120 minutes

Available for rent

In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s extraordinary new film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, God isn’t present, probably because the sheer volume of suffering visited upon its protagonist alone is enough to make Him feel sheepish. Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), a widow in the Lesotho village of Nasaretha—so named by missionaries who, ages ago, came through the region in blissful ignorance of its history—is alone. Her son, her last living relative, has died in a mining accident. Her husband died years prior, as well as her daughter, and her grandchild. Mantoa’s life is the definition of bereft. No amount of well-wishes or condolences can ease her pain. And then the Lesotho government decides to build a dam on her mountain hamlet and flood the place out. At least they have a plan to displace the villagers. (Your shock of the day: This is actually a real thing.) But they don’t put much thought into the bodies buried beneath the earth. The tally is so high and reaches so far back that the land’s true name is “the plains of weeping,” which, in the thinnest of silver linings, feels like an appropriate appellation given the atmospheric tragedy of Mosese’s film. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection holds nothing back: Not aesthetics, not performance, not tone or sensation. Mosese composes his film as one part tone poem, one part scathing political critique, one part dirge and one part memorial, because death is a complex beast. Saying goodbye hurts, especially when you’re the last one left, like Mantoa. But This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, in between the sound of grief that’s somehow inchoate and eternal, finds the space to celebrate life through the marking of death. There’s a Grecian quality to Mosese’s writing and filmmaking. He delicately links each scene together with narration from a nameless lesiba player (Jerry Mofokeng), who often makes himself known through monologues about history and the film’s current events, gently playing his country’s national instrument as punctuation to his words. Mokofeng is one of Mosese’s two constants alongside Mhlongo, who provides This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection with its steady, stoic heart. The film’s otherworldly near-surrealism, the product of the thought and intention driving it, is given grounding through their work. The fate threatening Nasaretha is unbelievable, even though history has a habit of driving people out of their homes, whether with water or highways. But Mhlongo, Mofokeng and Mosese make us believe—not in God, but in people, the highest power in a staggering movie about powerlessness.—Andy Crump


Those Who Wish Me Dead

those-who-wish-me-dead-poster.jpg Release Date: May 14, 2021
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal
Genre: Thriller
Rating: R
Runtime: 100 minutes

Available to rent on July 2

There are few things about a thriller that get me more excited than realizing the movie doesn’t rely on complicated plot MacGuffins, but on a fully realized setting and characters that either make their home or find themselves helpless there. From writer/director Taylor Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead is one of those thrillers—and those two elements, setting and character, are two that Sheridan is most capable with. Based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film’s rock-solid survival story is enhanced by its charming ensemble and striking, elegant environment. This simplified adaptation (which Koryta co-wrote with Sheridan alongside Charles Leavitt) thrusts good and evil together with the same easy confidence of a corral shootout. A forensic accountant (Jake Weber, playing a pretty badass accountant but not a The Accountant-level badass) and his son, Connor (Finn Little) are on the run. Why? Well, the most we get is that Connor’s dad found out something pretty damn incriminating and those incriminated are none too happy. “What did you do?” Connor asks. All he really gets by way of answer is, “The right thing.” Quickly, that hard ol’ reality sets in that the right thing might not be the consequence-free thing it’s cracked up to be. It’s all carried by its cast, and Angelina Jolie is its best member. She plays Hannah, whom Connor stumbles into in the middle of the forest after Plan A is jettisoned for B. A smokejumper (basically like if a regular firefighter was in Point Break) with PTSD, Hannah was left guilt-ridden and shaken after a particularly awful wildfire. It also left her stuck in a dead-end assignment: All alone on watch duty, high above the forest in an isolated fire tower. Among the other visual feats pulled off by Ben Richardson (Sheridan’s cinematographer on Wind River and Yellowstone, who recently helped Mare of Easttown “[render] our small, collective suffering in stark shapes”) is the height, lonesomeness and awe of this skyward sentry, far above the verdant treetops. Ensembles collide, ricochet and tangle as Those Who Wish Me Dead builds its brutal if expected thrills, and it’s near impossible to look away. It’s the dense woodland, the savvy character work, the moral core that’s both optimistic and pessimistic enough to sustain its modern-day white and black hats. It pulls off the kind of complexity and aesthetic cohesion that Without Remorse and Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sheridan’s latest screenplay works) so sorely lack. Gripping and intelligent, Those Who Wish Me Dead is revitalizing.—Jacob Oller


Together Together

together-together-poster.jpg Release Date: April 23, 2021
Directors: Nikole Beckwith
Stars: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Tig Notaro, Fred Melamed, Julio Torres
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

Available for rent

Together Together is an amiable, successfully awkward surrogacy dramedy that also has the respectable distinction of being a TERF’s worst nightmare. That’s only one of the tiny aspects of writer/director Nikole Beckwith’s second feature, but the gentle tapestry of intimacy among strangers who, for a short time, desperately need each other certainly benefits from the meta-text of comedian and internet terror Patti Harrison’s multi-layered starring performance. Stuffed with bombastic bit parts from a roster of recent television’s greatest comedic talents and casually incisive dialogue that lays waste to media empires and preconceptions of women’s autonomy alike, the film is an unexpected, welcome antidote to emotional isolation and toxic masculinity that meanders in and out of life lessons at a pleasingly inefficient clip. That the tale of fatherhood and friendship is told through the sparkling chemistry of a rising trans star and her entrenched, anxious straight man (an endearing Ed Helms) only adds to Together Together’s slight magic.—Shayna Maci Warner


Undine

undine-poster.jpg Release Date: June 4, 2021
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski, Maryam Zeree, Jacob Matschanz, Anne Ratte-Polle
Genre: Romance, Drama
Rating: NR
Runtime: 91 minutes

Available to rent

Undine opens as a rom-com might. A lilting piano score, not without a shade of sadness, purrs quietly during the title cards. A tearful break-up presages a quirky meet-cute between industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and city historian Undine (Paula Beer), our new couple bound by the irrevocable forces of chance—and, in director Christian Petzold’s own mannered way, a bit of physical comedy—as the universe clearly arranges for the pieces of their lives to come together. Squint and you could maybe mistake these opening moments for a Lifetime movie—that is, until the break-up ends with Undine warning her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz) that she’s going to have to kill him. He doesn’t take Undine seriously, but the audience can’t be so sure. Beer’s face contains subtle multitudes. She could actually murder this guy. What once felt familiar now feels pregnant with dread. And that’s saying nothing about Christoph’s odds for survival. Anyone remotely familiar with the “Undine” tale knows that she’s not lying to her ex. Undine is a water spirit, making covenants with men on land in order to access a human soul (as well as a tasteful professional wardrobe). Breaking that covenant is fatal. Or so the story goes. When she meets Christoph, she’s revitalized, because she’s heartbroken but especially because he takes such interest in the subjects of her lectures. He too is bound to the evolving bones of Germany, repairing bridges and various underwater infrastructure—he may, in fact, be more intuitively connected to the country than most. He’s the rare person who’s gone beneath it, excavating and reconstructing its depths, entombed in the mech-like coffin of a diving suit he wears when welding below the surface. As in all of Petzold’s films, Undine builds a world of liminal spaces—of lives in transition, always moving—of his characters shifting between realities, never quite sure where one ends and another begins. Like genre, like architecture, like history, like a love affair—at the heart of his work is the push and pull between where we are and where we want to be, between who we are and who we want to be and what we’ve done and what we’ll do, between what we dream and what we make happen. In Undine, Petzold captures this tension with warmth and immediacy. Many, many lives have brought us here, but none are more important than these two, and no time more consequential than now. My god, how romantic.—Dom Sinacola