We’re two months into 2021, and yet movies are still coming out that are eligible for this April’s Oscars—a strange situation that we’re ignoring for the purposes of this rundown, which covers everything debuting during this calendar year. Far from an underwhelming group, that initial batch of new releases has been a consistent delight, marked by dramas, sci-fi sagas, romances, and documentaries that take daring, enlivening risks. Though numerous blockbusters and A-list projects are on the horizon, it’s difficult to imagine them overshadowing some of the sterling efforts that have already premiered in theaters and on VOD. For now, these are our picks for the best films of 2021.
Things go horribly wrong in The Vigil for Yakov (Dave Davis), a young man who—having left his ultra-orthodox Jewish community for a secular Brooklyn life—accepts a job sitting vigil for a recently deceased Holocaust survivor. That task not only returns him to the neighborhood (and faith) he rejected, but puts him in the crosshairs of an evil demonic force that, it turns out, plagued both the dead man over whom he watches, and his wife (Lynn Cohen), who behaves creepily around David in her darkly lit Borough Park home. Keith Thomas’ feature debut has a great sense of its insular milieu as well as the trauma and stress of escaping an extremist religious environment, and the writer/director drums up suspense from set pieces that exploit silence to eerie effect. Davis’ harried countenance is the glue holding this assured thriller together, lending it an empathetic anguish that helps cast its action as a portrait of confronting the (personal and historical) past as a means of transcending, and escaping, it.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci don’t just craft indelible portraits of affection and grief in Supernova; they suggest, in the stillness and silence between them, the invisible but unbreakable ties that bind them together. Harry Macqueen’s understated drama charts Firth’s Sam and Tucci’s Tusker as they travel in their RV across the English countryside, their nominal destination a comeback concert for classical pianist Sam and their purpose a farewell tour for Tusker, who’s beset by irreversible early onset dementia. Their story is light on bombshell incidents but heavy on quiet, barely suppressed anguish and fear, both of which are kept at bay—if also amplified—by their enduring amour. Macqueen’s gentle and deft writing is in harmony with his imagery of his pastoral setting, allowing his performers—Firth defiant and pent-up; Tucci brave and terrified—to fully embody their protagonists’ fraught emotional circumstances. Supernova understands the tragedy and triumph of love, and the way in which our lives, at best, shine brightly before burning out, their dying embers touching and transforming those left behind.