From 'Cruella' to 'Barb and Star,' the year's best movies... so far

10 of the 2021's best at the year's midway point.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

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" 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. 

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar."

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.

Here are 10 films from the first half of the year that 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? That's what's so amazing about this tale. It's almost too good to be true. 

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in "The Sparks Brothers."

"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.

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar."

"I Carry You With Me" — Farmington Hills-bred writer-director Heidi Ewing does something truly special with this immigrant love story, about an aspiring chef (Armando Espitia) and a teacher (Christian Vázquez) 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. (In theaters July 2.) 

Armando Espitia in "I Carry You With Me."

"CODA" — Sneaking this one in because I saw it 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 hit 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 is nonetheless skipping theaters and will stream on Apple TV+ beginning Aug. 13. 

Emilia Jones in "CODA."

"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.)    

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."

"Cruella" — Director Craig Gillespie really went for it, creating a rock and 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.)  

Emma Stone in "Cruella."

"The Water Man" — An honest to goodness children's adventure about a child (Lonnie Chavis) who 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.) 

Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller in "The Water Man."

"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, Michigan, 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. 

Danny McBride and Abbi Jacobson voice characters in "The Mitchells vs. The Machines."

"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. Worth the watch even if you aren't a fan. 

Finneas (left) and Billie Eilish in "Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry."

"17 Blocks" — Davy Rothbart's stunning documentary looks at the life of one Washington, D.C., family over the span of two decades, and the tragedies and triumphs they endure. It's an intimate story told from within, and takes an unflinching look at the realities of inner-city life. It takes place in D.C., but it could be anywhere, as Rothbart's storytelling is universal in its humanity. (Available from 

Emmanual Durant in "17 Blocks."