Jesus, we’re halfway through 2021 already. Didn’t want to let any more time pass without givin’ y’all my favorite movies of the year so far now that we’re on the downslope.
“Best of the Year So Far” lists are always more interesting and more fun than end-of-year lists. The bullshit critical consensus hasn’t calcified yet and there’s a greater variety of interesting movies that end up lost in the shuffle in the awards-bait second half of the year. This year in particular is worth looking at right now because it’s the first year of cinema’s post-apocalypse, where the industry is in shambles but still chuggin’ along and great movies are still making their way through the chaos. On top of that, since 2020 there’s been this phenomenal influx of independent filmmakers putting their microbudget films up on YouTube for all to stream for free, right here right now. Exciting shit!
For this list I’m just doin’ a rapid fire reflection of my top 15, just to fit in as much as possible without overloading y’all. And if you’re interested, you can check out my full 2021 Movies Ranked list on Letterboxd.
Here are my top 15 faves of the year so far…
because it’s as worthwhile a Saw spinoff as one could hope for — Se7ensploitation aka serviceable schlock and a largely successful reconfiguration of the franchise formula. To quote Red Broadwell’s review for Film Cred, “Spiral’s ACAB stance is a little hamfisted (pun intended) […] but being unsubtly political isn’t anything new for the franchise. It’s a fresh breath of air [and] a new way to introduce people to the magic of Saw —no reverse bear traps necessary.”
You can rent Sprial on whatever service you use to rent shit.
because, like last year’s Soul, it feels pretty off-brand for Pixar, but in a really good way, and it’s a charming low(er)-stakes story that looks gorgeous without being too, like, "pristine."
You can watch Luca on Disney+.
13. Video Carnage
because I’ve been on a ravenous hunt for free microbudget independent films (heads up, I’ll be covering them more in-depth on here in the next edition of the tube) since I found Joel Haver’s Pretend That You Love Me on YouTube last year, and this new thriller from the guys who make up the independent YouTube-movie outfit Doomed Productions is a real winner! Fellow “truly independent” filmmaker Cody Clarke (whose latest film we’ll get to further down the list) put it best in his Letterboxd review:
This is an essentially internet-less movie, and entirely by choice—the leads feel chewed up and spat out by the internet, reeling and grasping for something more tactile and real as a way out. Furthermore, in many ways the desire to 'solve the mystery' is motivated by revenge against the callousness of the rich and prosperous so to speak, whose use of young adults as disposable is a large part of what brought us here to this moment of time and despair.
You can watch Video Carnage on YouTube.
12. In the Earth
because it’s a messy, deliberate, post-COVID conversation with director Ben Wheatley’s other films (Kill List, A Field in England, High Rise) and a perverse, ecstatic confrontation with the existential dread of our times. It’s also gruesome and crudely psychedelic in a way that felt more poignant to me days after I watched it.
You can rent In the Earth on whatever service you use to rent shit.
11. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
because it’s the wild, delightful SNL-alumn comedy I didn’t know I needed and it already deserves cult status. Wiig’s still got it.
You can watch Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar on Hulu.
because director Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) crafts a fun, funny r-rated action romp that feels idiosyncratic and streamlined at the same time. Also, never bet against Bob Odenkirk.
You can rent Nobody on whatever service you use to rent shit.
9. Bad Trip
because the “inflict a movie plot on innocent bystanders” genre just works for me and it’s a great showcase for Eric Andre’s brand of confrontational yet wholesome and humanity-affirming comedy.
You can watch Bad Trip on Netflix.
8. Attack of the Giant Blurry Finger
because it’s a fuckin’ batshit erotic sci-fi/horror parody & breakup movie, immaculately shot (on an iPhone) during the pandemic for $0 by Cody Clarke and partner/star Chloe Peltier, and it’s so inventively weird and weirdly sexy that it truly has to be seen to be believed. Mad props to Clarke and Peltier for shooting so much nudity and bizarre sexual content in a contained, creative, ethical environment.
You can rent Attack of the Giant Blurry Finger on Amazon.
7. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
because for me this is the platonic ideal of a superhero movie and no one does excessive blockbuster CGI like Zack Snyder. I’ve quoted my buddy Conor Hilton’s Letterboxd review before and I’ll do it again here and now:
give me more mythic epic slow wild visions of superheroes plz
I don’t necessarily want all superhero movies to look and feel like this but I do want them all to have the sort of singular vision that’s on display in spades here
because goddamn, this is a fuckin’ movie, ya know? Adapted from a timely story in the real world with real characters, performed by a great cast, shot and cut together with wonderful, inescapable energy. Good news, folks — every once in a while, they do still make ‘em like they used to.
Zola is now playing in theaters.
5. Saint Maud
because it’s a killer fuckin’ debut with an emotional literacy and visual sense of violent spiritual euphoria that just floored me. Sorta-baroque psychological terror you can’t look away from.
You can watch Saint Maud on Hulu.
4. Judas and the Black Messiah
because I’m still totally blown away by the trick this movie pulled, folding in the conventions of Hollywood heist films and old Jesus epics with the (largely) uncensored politics of the Black Panthers, anchored in standout performances from three of our greatest young actors.
You can watch Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max.
3. Bo Burnham: Inside
because I’ve never been a Bo Burnham fan but this thing took me by complete surprise when it slowly revealed itself as the best “COVID movie” yet (without ever even mentioning COVID). Also, whether intentionally or not, this “standup special” is 100% a movie, an inherently cinematic venture about how the internet has put all of our minds in a diabolical soup of isolation from which we may never escape.
You can watch Bo Burnham: Inside on Netflix.
2. No Sudden Move
because Steven Soderbergh continues to fuck. This time around he’s made an immaculately cast, phenomenally shot crime thriller with a keen understanding of what America really is and always has been.
You can watch No Sudden Move on HBO Max.
1. Can’t Get You Out of My Head
because, like Bo Burnham: Inside, Adam Curtis’s six-part BBC docuseries is as much a “movie” as anything else that came out this year — a sweeping, indelibly cinematic gonzo-cut-up portrait of the world as a fucked up series of power struggles. It’s an astounding achievement in the art of editing, and a devastating examination of our shared emotional history through the lives of individuals who unsuccesfully challenged imperial power.
And despite its harrowing journey through our collective demise over the course of the 20th and 21st century, the central thesis of Can’t Get You Out of My Head can be summed up in the David Graeber quote that opens and closes the doc:
The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head keeps floating around YouTube in disparate corners, so just search for it and you should be able to find all six episodes out there somewhere.
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