Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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From ‘Cruella’ to ‘Barb and Star,’ 2021’s best movies … so far


We’re midway through a topsy-turvy year that started out in quarantine and is just now starting to get back to normal.

It’s going to be a while before Hollywood fully recovers, and this weekend’s grosses for “F9: The Fast Saga” should give us an indication of how things look for the box office going forward. Smaller films and independents still have a more difficult path and are likely to continue to be released on streaming services rather than relying on theatrical-release models.

But that’s the business; what about the movies themselves? As we hit the midpoint of 2021, it’s a good time to take stock of the year’s best movies to date.

These films from the first half of the year are well worth your time.

“The Sparks Brothers” — Now in theaters, Edgar Wright’s weird, wild and wonderful documentary tells the story of the band Sparks, who have been making music since the early ’70s and have influenced too many bands to name. Yet they continue to exist in their own world and are obscured from the mainstream, and the film is so baffling that at times it plays like a mockmumentary. How could they have done this much while completely flying under the radar?

“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” — Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo wrote and star in this insane comedy, which is like a riff on a riff of an inside joke that keeps going because the two people telling it can’t stop laughing. These things usually go one of two ways: The insularity becomes insufferable, or the comic fumes become intoxicating. This one, thankfully, follows the latter path. It’s a cult film just waiting for its cult to discover it.

“I Carry You With Me” — Writer-director Heidi Ewing does something truly special with this immigrant love story, about an aspiring chef (Armando Espitia) and a teacher (Christian Vazquez) who come to New York without documentation. As such, they are unable to return home to Mexico, or they risk not being allowed back. It’s a narrative film with a real-life documentary twist that packs a wallop of an emotional punch. (Now in limited theatrical release.)

“CODA” — I saw this one in the first half of the year, even though it’s due out in the second. The feel-good hit of this year’s Sundance festival features a breakout performance by Emilia Jones, who stars as the child of deaf adults (that’s where the CODA title comes from) who dreams of going to school to pursue a career in music. Heartwarming and confidently told, “CODA” is a first-rate audience pleaser that will stream on Apple TV+ beginning Aug. 13.

“In the Heights” — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is a big, bright, shining celebration of the life and lifeblood of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, with huge choreographed set-pieces from director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and a charismatic performance by Anthony Ramos in the lead. So why isn’t it connecting with audiences the way it was expected to? That’s for the box office gods to decipher, but don’t let it take away from your enjoyment of one of the year’s most fun, upbeat movies. (Now in theaters.)

“Cruella” — Director Craig Gillespie really went for it, creating a rock ’n’ roll origin story for “101 Dalmatians” villain queen Cruella De Vil (Emma Stone, taking a huge bite out of the role) and turning it into a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. When’s the last time you saw a Disney movie that incorporated a full-on performance of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog?” “Cruella” goes there, and it succeeds. (Now in theaters and on Disney+ Premium Access.)

“The Water Man” — In this adventure film, a child (Lonnie Chavis) goes into the woods in search of a mystery figure who he thinks can help cure his mother (Rosario Dawson) of her cancer diagnosis. Director David Oyelowo crafts his Spielberg homage simply by having his characters get up and do something, rather than play on their phones or devices. It’s a reminder there’s a great big world out there that’s even bigger when you add in the power of imagination. (Available On Demand.)

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” — The Netflix animated movie is a hit, which anyone with kids already knows. The film centers on a family from Kentwood, Mich., that survives a robot revolution and is in charge of saving the world — if they can get along with each other first, that is. It’s clever, funny and action-packed, and a reminder that you don’t need superpowers to save the world.

“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” — The teen superstar is everywhere, and this enlightening Apple TV+ documentary offers a glimpse at why. Following her as her stardom truly ignites, “The World’s a Little Blurry” shows the connection she has with her fans, the relationship she has with her family (she still lives in the Los Angeles home she grew up in) and the drive that has allowed her to take the world by storm.