14 must-see movies of summer 2021

From long-delayed action films to stellar Canadian indies, the season's movies come in all sizes and formats

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      We would usually open this section by singing the praises of air conditioned matinees, crowd-pleasing blockbusters, and oversized fountain drinks. But that’s not going to be possible just yet. With indoor cinemas unlikely to reopen until late July or early August—though drive-in theatres might be back in business sooner—movies are still very much an at-home thing in summer 2021.

      And most distributors have accepted that, meaning we’ll be able to premiere the biggest releases in our living rooms, subject to regional availability and ISP speeds. (Release dates are subject to change).

      In The Heights

      Director John M. Chu’s joyous and visually wondrous adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout musical is a loving bachata and hip-hop swan song to the Latinx community in Washington Heights. The movie is overloaded with a winning cast and knockout musical numbers, all celebrating the culture in a community feeling the strain of gentrification. We’ve already seen it and it’s safe to say we’ll be playing our fave numbers on a loop all summer. Read our review hereDigital release, June 11

      Akilla’s Escape

      Charles Officer’s first dramatic feature in 12 years stars Saul Williams as a mid-level drug runner trying to reclaim some stolen merchandise after a robbery goes sideways, and maybe save a kid (Thamela Mpumlwana) from going down the same path that’s swallowed his own future. Urgently paced and beautifully photographed—Maya Bankovic’s cinematography won one of the film’s four Canadian Screen Awards last month—this complex, artful thriller was a surprise knockout at both VIFF and TIFF last year. VIFF Connect, June 18


      “Based on a Twitter thread” is a thing now. Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of Aziah “Zola” Wells’s hilarious and horrifying viral tweets stars Taylour Paige as the titular exotic dancer who goes on a wild and dangerous trip to Florida with a manipulative fellow dancer (Riley Keough). There are pimps, hustlers, and Succession’s lovable Nicholas Braun finding himself oafishly caught in between. June 30

      Summer Of Soul (… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

      The Roots main man Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s debut film uncovers never-before-seen footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival for a doc that finds the perfect equilibrium between stunning performance footage and insightful social analysis. You can tell Thompson is an audio commentary guy – Summer Of Soul mixes deep-dive anecdotes, socio-cultural analysis and emotional first-person interviews to capture a pivotal but unsung moment in Black American music, politics and history while giving thrilling performance footage of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahlia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and many others room to express what words cannot. Disney+ Star, July 2.

      The Tomorrow War

      So here’s the deal: soldiers from the year 2051 arrive in the present day to warn us that aliens invade Earth, and only we can stop them by…travelling to the future and joining the battle. Chris Pratt and Sam Richardson are among the recruits in what looks to be a pretty straightforward sci-fi actioner—except that The Tomorrow War also marks the live-action debut of veteran animator Chris McKay, who made The LEGO Batman Movie. So we have no idea what to expect, really. Amazon Prime Video, July 2.

      Black Widow

      Natasha Romanoff simply cannot catch a break. Scarlett Johansson’s Russian dark-ops specialist was the first Marvel character to have her movie delayed by the pandemic, adding insult to (fatal) injury over the whole Avengers: Endgame thing. But after several delays, it’s finally locked in for a hybrid release in theatres where possible and on Disney+ as a premium purchase, and fans can finally find out who Florence Pugh and David Harbour are playing, and what Australian minimalist Cate Shortland brought to this project as a director. Drive-in theatres and Disney+ Premium Access, July 9.

      Saint Narcisse

      The Toronto filmmaker who flips between cult cinema and gay porn is back in mainstream crossover mode with an exploitation film about twins separated at birth. Set in the rural Quebec town of the same name, Saint Narcisse is about a narcissistic Montrealer who sets out to find his long-lost mother only to encounter a monk who looks strikingly familiar. It’s basically like a Freudian reimagining of The Parent Trap with a heavy helping of psycho-sexual Catholic terrors. Digital release, July 23.


      Tracey Deer’s debut feature restages the Oka Crisis of 1990 through the eyes of a 12-year-old Mohawk girl (Kiawentiio, of Anne With An E and Rutherford Falls) forced to confront racism head-on when her entire world collapses into chaos and rage. And even though the story takes place more than 30 years ago, the themes are sadly very contemporary. Beans was named best first feature and best picture at last month’s Canadian Screen Awards—and yes, it really is that good. Digital release, July 30.

      The Green Knight

      Dev Patel trades Charles Dickens for Arthurian legend in this lavish tale of a knight of Camelot who accepts a supernatural challenge from a mystical warrior. Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, and Sean Harris costar; writer/director/editor David Lowery demonstrated a knack for otherworldly narratives with Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story. If there’s one movie we hope we get to see in a theatre, it’s this one; it looks positively rapturous. In theatres, or at least drive-ins, July 30.

      The Suicide Squad

      Other than casting Margot Robbie as DC supervillain Harley Quinn, the previous Suicide Squad movie was a grey, joyless grind. So why get excited about the sequel? Because Warner gave it to Guardians Of The Galaxy writer-director James Gunn and let him do whatever the hell he wanted. Which means Robbie’s Harley now fights alongside a much wilder cast of weirdos—including Idris Elba’s Bloodsport, John Cena’s homicidal Peacemaker, and Sylvester Stallone’s King Shark, who is a shark—to save the world, or something. At least we’ll get some jokes this time. In theatres, August 6


      Aretha Franklin’s passing in 2018 has opened a floodgates of cinematic content. The concert documentary Amazing Grace emerged from the archives and Cynthia Erivo fronted a TV biopic about the Queen of Soul earlier this year. But the one we’ve all been waiting for is the official Hollywood big-screen biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, who was “hand-picked” by Franklin to play the role before she died. Mary J. Blige, on who’s been on an acting roll lately, costars as Dinah Washington and Marc Maron plays Franklin’s producer Jerry Wexler. In theatres, August 13


      Imagine La La Land by Leos Carax. Nine years after his intoxicating toast to cinema Holy Motors, the French director returns with a grim, noirish musical written by the Sparks Brothers. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star as the seismic push-pull forces in this mysterious and operatic Hollywood love story. On Amazon Prime Video Canada, August 20


      Nia DaCosta’s “spiritual sequel” to the classic Clive Barker adaptation—about a researcher of urban legends who inadvertently summons a vengeful but deeply romantic ghost—has been circling release for more than a year, but we have the sense that a horror movie rooted in America’s ugly history of racism and class war is always going to arrive at the right time. And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo have only become bigger stars in the interim. In theatres, August 27

      Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings

      We’ve been waiting for this one for a long time—ever since we fantasy cast Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu in the role not long before casting was announced in 2019. The martial arts epic featuring the Marvel Universe’s first Asian lead was originally slated for a February 2021 release date but has been bumped to late summer so we’re really hoping cinemas in Toronto will be back open by then. In theatres, September 3.