Every year, our nation of assholes shells out millions of dollars to see complete crap at the multiplex. If there is anything positive that can be gleaned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has kept away the annual parade of big budget sequels and mind-numbing action films. For most of 2021, rather than spending our hard-earned cash to see dinosaurs chew up a bunch of morons, we have to pick and choose between streaming films if we want to see something new. We hope this list inspires you to watch something tonight that you may have normally skipped out on. Thank you for reading and stay safe as we return to the movies this summer.

All Light, Everywhere (Dir.: Theo Anthony)

We all have blind spots, in more ways than one. Director Theo Anthony’s follow-up to his fascinating debut, Rat Film, declares from the start that our eyesight has a built-in blind spot, and that’s key to a nonfiction film essay that seems to go lean in one direction but in fact questions how trustworthy vision can be at all. This is a sobering premise, especially in light of the film’s central set piece: the headquarters of Axon, a company that manufactures the body cams and tasers used by police departments. The infomercial elements culminate in an expertly choreographed recreation of a criminal standoff in which Axon cameras are shown in all their surveillance-society glory; this is at once chilling and thrilling, as is all of the provocative documentary.

While local and national politics plays into this concept, there’s something that goes far beyond, and that’s demonstrated beautifully by the end credits: a series of morphing artificial faces accompanied by new age legend Laaraji’s “All of a Sudden,” a soulful meditation on, well, everything. The title All Light, Everywhere suggests an idealized film that includes all possible perspectives, but that’s impossible. The film, as Anthony admits himself, failed on some level. But it’s a brilliant failure that lingers long after Laaraji has finished singing. – Pat Padua

Bad Trip (Dir.: Kitao Sakurai)

The combination of story and gimmick in Bad Trip is poised somewhere between Jackass and Borat on the spectrum of movie-stunt experiments. The basic setup is not intended for the stars themselves, as was the case for Johnny Knoxville and his cohorts, but it’s also not meant to be as sociologically pointed as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakh reporter (or, for that matter, any of his alter egos). It’s something of a road movie, starring Eric André and Lil Rel Howery as longtime friends who sojourn to New York City in a sort-of-misguided attempt to find love.

That’s the set-up. The gimmick is that the pair get into a lot of zany shenanigans in front of unsuspecting extras who were most definitely not under contract. The result is a splendid example of improvisational idiocy, with a so-called screenplay (written by André with director Kitao Sakurai and Dan Curry) that could not have been more than a 10-page outline with bullet points. The story, which also involves Michaela Conlin as the target of Cupid’s arrow and a phenomenally funny Tiffany Haddish as the Howery character’s sister (who breaks out of jail and flees the police in the film’s most daring set piece), doesn’t even matter. The gimmick is the pull here, and the movie’s laughs are surprisingly huge. Most importantly, the film is good-natured, as no one is out here to ruffle any feathers. – Joel Copling

Brother’s Keeper (Dir.: Ferit Karahan)

Kurdish filmmaker Ferit Karahan ascended to the big-league film festivals this year when Brother’s Keeper, his fourth feature, played in the prestigious Panorama section at the Berlin International Film Festival, winning the coveted FIPRESCI Prize in the process. It’s a terse, tightly contained social drama set at a remote boarding school for boys, a place where young Yusuf’s (Samet Yildiz) desperate attempts to help his mysteriously, suddenly ill friend Memo (Nurullah Alaca) are met with apathy, delay and denial by staff.

Karahan doesn’t waste a single gesture, not a single word – everything is put to the purpose of serving his film’s design, a meticulously constructed lattice of social commentary, narrative complexity and emotional richness. This is dramaturgy wrested from the knottiness of reality, an intricate machine of cinematic artistry seemingly running on some kind of cosmic emotional fuel. It’s formally and conceptually spare yet resolutely compassionate and fit to burst with subtle, poignant details. And it’s those details that make it the masterpiece it is, elevating a potentially cold, mechanical story and making it supremely moving. It’s perfectly shot, scripted, performed and edited, and it ought to serve as a clear sign of a major new auteur on the rise. Brother’s Keeper should mark the first step for Karahan on a continuing ascent through the international film festival ranks, and on this basis alone, he belongs at the very top. – Paddy Mulholland

The Disciple (Dir.: Chaitanya Tamhane)

The Disciple, the year’s best film, arrived on Netflix unceremoniously. There were no trailers for it, and thanks to the streaming giant’s recommendation algorithm, it was hard to find. Don’t let that deter you, since it is a rigorous, intense portrait of an uncompromising artist. The film follows Sharad (Aditya Modak), a serious young man who wants to become a great performer of Indian classical music. He follows the tutelage of his mentor, eschewing most creature comforts, because he believes this path is the only way to achieve artistic purity.

Director and writer Chaitanya Tamhane supplies Sharad with ample opportunities for temptation and doubt, and it is quietly thrilling to watch the character navigate these minefields. Needless to say, The Disciple features lots of music, and in a genre unfamiliar to most Western ears. The sneaky thing about the film is how it teaches you to appreciate the nuance. You learn to recognize who is the best performer, the sincerest, who means it the most. There are significant time jumps in this film – we see Sharad enter middle age – and Tamhane’s expectation that his audience can fill the gaps only deepens our attachment to his difficult, flawed protagonist. For a film that follows a musical genre that has appeal to a small subset of listeners on the other side of the world, The Disciple is surprisingly punk rock. – Alan Zilberman

I Care a Lot (Dir.: J Blakeson)

If you enjoy films that stoke up righteous anger, I Care a Lot pulls out all the stops to give you what you need. After all, like its principal character, legal guardianship kingpin Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), this movie has got your best interests at heart. That last bit is a lie, of course; Marla is a cold, evil woman who has established a corrupt syndicate in order to con pliable judges into granting her guardianship of healthy senior citizens in order to remove them from their homes, institutionalize them and steal all their assets. In cahoots with a crooked nursing home manager (Damian Young), she can control everything from the room temperature to the diet of her unfortunate and unwitting prey.

The first 20 minutes of this film are infuriating as we see an enraged son (Macon Blair) helplessly fail to convince the pushover judge (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) of the truth that Marla is clearly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, donning a guise of compassion as she twists the knife. But when she picks the wrong mark (Dianne Wiest), she meets her match in the woman’s crime boss son (Peter Dinklage) and an intensely satisfying game of cat-and-mouse ensues. After Gone Girl, Pike has cornered the market on a particular brand of sociopathic manipulator, and she’s spellbinding here as an utterly contemptible menace in a film that’s probably the most fun you’ll have being angry all year. – Josh Goller

In the Heights (Dir.: Jon M. Chu)

Let’s get one thing out of the way: In the Heights has a colorism problem. This grand spectacle, dramatizing events that occur over a few days in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, fails to accurately represent the demographics of its real-world counterpart. The actual Heights teems with Afro-Caribbean men, women and children, people who are glaringly unrepresented by named characters in the film’s foreground. For all its diversity, In the Heights (perhaps unintentionally) effectively applies the Brown Paper Bag Test to the skin color of its Spanish-speaking leads. It’s a criticism Jon M. Chu previously faced with his adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians. That he repeats the same blunder here is unfortunate to say the least. It distracts from the good news: This is the best adapted musical since Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

That’s a high bar to meet. But the showstoppers come at a rapid clip, and their inspirations are legend (West Side Story, MGM extravaganzas, Busby Berkeley geometrics). The film’s lead, Anthony Ramos, is a major upgrade from his stage counterpart, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also wrote the music and lyrics to the original production). The supporting cast (Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits) is just as excellent. In the Heights is a vibrant, unselfconscious celebration of many things — most of all, the Great Broadway Musical. – Peter Tabakis

The Killing of Two Lovers (Dir.: Robert Machoian)

At only 84 minutes, The Killing of Two Lovers invites its viewers into multiple worlds. There’s the world on a reality level, where we witness the ongoing separation of David (Clayne Crawford) and Nikki (Sepidah Moafi). But as we dive further into the internal world of David’s mind in particular, Robert Machoian’s film becomes all the more compelling. Its opening scene informs so much of what’s to come; a haunting collection of shots that finds David standing in the bedroom of Nikki and her new lover, both of them asleep, a gun pointed at their faces. He’s clearly tormented as he contemplates pulling the trigger, swapping his aim between each lover tentatively. We hear the sounds of the bathroom outside in the hallway, and he immediately shifts into nervousness, fear and shame, which we later learn is because he’s in his own former home, and the sounds are of his own children (of which he has four). Is David going to succumb to his own violent, angry intentions? Or are they just morbid fantasies? Those are the questions at the core of the film, and what makes it so damn invigorating, exciting and anxiety-inducing to endure. We spent much of the film following David as he grapples with his deliberations, often in pure silence that’s punctuated by an aggressive yet limited industrial score of sharp single notes and soundscapes resembling the loading of a gun’s chamber. It spends so much time in silence as we watch its subject’s eyes reflect the turning clockwork of a tortured, angry, compulsive man, and then it simply leaves us in that same silence to contemplate everything that was given. – Greg Vellante

Pieces of a Woman (Dir: Kornél Mundruczó)

Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and his wife, screenwriter Kata Wéber, got the year off to a flying start with this harrowing, provocative drama, adapted from their play based on their own experiences of losing a baby during childbirth. Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf star as Martha Weiss and Sean Carson, a mixed-class Boston couple who experience a miscarriage during a botched home birth in an utterly grueling, drawn-out, unrelenting 30-minute scene near the start of the film. The film then portrays the toll this event takes on the couple’s relationship with each other and with Martha’s family over the next year or so, as well as the ensuing gross negligence lawsuit her mother convinces them to fight against the attending midwife, against their better judgment. It deals with an unimaginable trauma in a way that is emotive, sensitive and believable. Mundruczó and Wéber’s real-life grounding in the realities of miscarriage ensures the film is always authentic and manages to stay just the right side of being painfully so. Kirby and the normally obnoxious LaBeouf deliver powerful performances as the central couple, as does the ever-reliable Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s interfering and snobby mother. Pieces of a Woman was a difficult watch, but ultimately an emotionally rewarding one. – Greg Hyde

Riders of Justice (Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen)

Riders of Justice could have been a movie seen a thousand times before, and director Anders Thomas Jensen knows that. For most of the first act, the endpoint seems clear; sudden tragedy leads to a desire for justice, leads to cold revenge. Led by Mads Mikkelsen at his grizzled hardened best, violent vengeful action weaves through the film. Some of the best genre experiments succeed by being both an excellent example of the form and a deconstruction of the form; Riders of Justice lands snugly in that category. If audiences want to see Mads tactically murdering vicious bikers, Jensen’s films will satisfy. But what seems like a very familiar thread becomes genre embroidery bordering a much more complex and clever canvas.

The introduction of comedic trio Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann, and Nicolas Bro pushes the film’s angry momentum down a decidedly different path. A revenge thriller becomes a darkly comic tragedy about a most unorthodox family. Its meditation on grief and healing overshadows every aspect, turning irreverent interactions into deepening connections, visceral bloodshed into scarring consequences. The well-crafted revenge thrills spike the adrenaline, but Riders of Justice goes right for the heart with its askew charisma, relatable characters, and their dramatic growth amid guns-blazing shootouts. – Christian Valentin

Saint Maud (Dir: Rose Glass)

First time writer/director Rose Glass expertly cultivates an atmosphere of dread and foreboding in Saint Maud, the story of a private caregiver with a mysteriously bloody history, embodied with stoic reserve by Morfydd Clark. Subtle nods to classic films of demonic possession like The Exorcist and The Omen evoke a sense of creeping horror as Maud, painfully timid and self-abnegating, goes about the routine of providing palliative care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a retired dancer dying of cancer. Maud insists that she can save the dying woman’s soul, and Amanda is close enough to death to grasp at any tatter of hope even if Maud seems a little on the unhinged side. But the horror, when it manifests, springs not from the depths of hell but from inside Maud’s head, where she hears the voice of God speaking directly to her–in Welsh, no less.

This is a film of subtle pleasures and percolating unease, much of it owing to the skill of the actors and the camera’s tight focus on Maud and her shifting, twitching state of mind. Some of the most effective sequences hinge on the restrained use of CGI to tweak Maud’s features as the madness threatens to burst out of her. Such a sight, far creepier than a jump-scare from a silly monster, are apt to leave you bug-eyed and squealing, just like Maud. – A.C. Koch

Siberia (Dir: Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara’s late phase has coincided with belated sobriety, which may be as much an explanation as age for why his movies have slowed down over the last decade and swapped provocation for unexpected tenderness in an increasingly fraught world. That impulse informs even Siberia, surely his most old-school feature since Welcome to New York in its capacity for grisly brutality and shocking immersion, but one that plays out its demented dreamscape within the realms of Jung and Freud. Always smarter than his grimy exploitation sheen might have suggested, Ferrara long specialized in sinking into his characters’ milieux so completely that the distance between their perspective and the camera’s erased, and that’s true of the way he shoots Willem Dafoe’s loner artist as the man goes on an unwitting vision quest in search of the answers to life’s myriad and overwhelming mysteries. By turns shocking, baffling, hilarious and aching, the film is as profound an attempt to illuminate the subconscious as anything Terrence Malick has done in his own experimental twilight, but Ferrara proves altogether more willing to confront and illustrate the more animalistic aspects that dwell in the recesses of the mind as the more aspirational, philosophical musing. Ferrara’s time in Italy has brought him spiritually closer to influences like Pasolini, whose own search for the art of life in its simultaneous beauty and grotesquerie informs Ferrara’s approach, but you could make that case that Siberia is equally shaped by the high modernism of Antonioni, who suggested that natural and manmade surroundings do as much to shape our sense of self as anything to do with our personalities. – Jake Cole

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Dir: Lee Daniels)

The United States vs Billie Holiday contains one of the most compelling performances of 2021 so far. Andra Day soars as the magnetic, sometimes volatile, sometimes deeply fragile Billie Holiday. Her performance is convincing, uncompromising, vivid. Day embodies the trauma Holiday endeared, her artistry and her singing that arrives fully formed from a higher realm. There is a danger and tenderness to her performance that carries the entire film. Lee Daniels may not have delivered a perfect film, with an over-emphasis on the traumatic aspects of Holiday’s life and a dreaminess that sometimes veers into a lack of focus, but these aspects sometimes work brilliantly. There is some of the visceral pain reminiscent of Precious and Monique’s Oscar-winning performance. That hazy, drifting quality to certain scenes works beautifully in conveying a sense of being carried away by music, by memories, of being transported and breaks narrative convention. The musical moments are often transcendent. Daniels takes an unexpected approach to telling Holiday’s story. Other notable performances include Natasha Lyonne and Trevante Rhodes. Rhodes, in particular, brings tortured, withdrawn complexity to his character who is both a lover and a traitor. – Zebib K.A.

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