The Best Films of 2021
Dumont, Apichatpong, and ... Peter Jackson?
France (Bruno Dumont)
Bruno Dumont’s France is, in one sense, one of his most accessible and palatable films, tinged with the satirical, comic, and melodramatic, and far removed from both the bleak austerity that characterizes much of his work as well as the more playfully experimental flourishes of his more recent work. Or is it? France is almost like a movie in a disguise of sorts. It is 2021’s most confounding and original film. It oscillates between styles in an uneasy way. It renders its images either unstable or overdone. Its camera is always thinking about what it means to use a camera. It is the tragic portrait of a narcissist trapped in a prison of images who cannot tell the real from the unreal and is a purveyor of the latter even as she yearns for something beyond. In other words, it’s a portrait of living life today. A masterpiece that can obscure its own urgency, France is a film that, even as it reckons with a world of clichés, generates new images.
Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Hamaguchi is one of today’s great masters of tone and pacing. He can take the simplest of setups and stir complex emotions and ideas through his control of timing and how he directs his actors. His knack for internal suggestiveness allows for moments of explicit verbosity to carry with them a sort of natural indirectness. One can feel every character’s effort to express themselves, to just exist, and Hamaguchi’s films try to provide avenues for them to do so. Embodying the compelling malaise of Murakami’s work that serves as its basis, Drive My Car is an abstract staging of mostly absent drama revolving around a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya that creates a cross-section of intangible coherencies that can emerge between people.
Annette (Leos Carax)
“Carax has made the sort of pop spectacle lacking in our present day. It suggests alternative possibilities for our culture and for cinema. Annette exemplifies Carax’s uncanny ability to make cinema new again, to make it exciting, wondrous, and awe-inspiring. He is a creator of new images and a defier of clichés who reaches for the sublime and transcendent capabilities of the art form”.
Old (M. Night Shyamalan)
"Shyamalan creates an impressively disorienting yet legible visual experience that is constantly finding ways to express ideas and sensations. In this sense, it’s not unlike his other work but it’s the dizzying and breakneck way it’s enacted that has an altogether different resonance. Like the characters, we are unable to catch our bearings, to freeze the moment at our fingertips, to just be still and live. Everything is rendered ellipses, not just that which escapes our purview, but even what we can see is so transient—change is too quick, too constant, and too discreet for us to keep up—even what’s in the frame feels as if it is out of frame."
Memoria (Apichatpong Weearasethakul)
Aural resonances as ripples of unfinished hi(stories), Apichatpong’s career-spanning obsession with memory finds new dimensions and expressions in what can feel like one of his smallest and simplest films yet contains exponentially expanding mysteries. Structured with the straightforwardness of a procedural drama, Memoria leaves you with the sense that it is always more than what you can see and hear—and therefore so is everything.
Malignant (James Wan)
“Through its mastery of form and embracing of possibilities without mind paid to what’s perceived to be fashionable or palatable to audiences, Malignant liberates modern horror from its contemporary configuration.”
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
“Verhoeven is one of our most honest filmmakers whose perceived provocations come from a commitment to what he understands to be accurate and, importantly, compelling. One of the sharpest directions in Benedetta is to provide all of the evidence of [the protagonist’s] manipulations without compromising the portrayal of her faith—these things are not mutually exclusive which leaves us with a much messier idea of human behaviour, and between right and wrong.”
Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Cinema has a lineage of portrayals of the challenges of relationships between artists, usually focused on clashes of egoism and narcissism. Here, Mia Hansen-Løve takes a nuanced look at the power dynamics between a middle-aged couple whose respective creative pursuits have earned disproportionate levels of success. Bergman Island delicately captures the way we can push and be pushed in relationships, the way we navigate our interior worlds, where it can take us emotionally, and where we can end up should we choose.
Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The semi-adolescent romance at the core of PTA’s latest film suggests a more youthful, romantic subject and while LP is his most effusive work since Punch-Drunk Love it is also his most mature, appropriating the formal intricacies he’s honed amidst his more overtly ambitious projects in subtle ways, creating a fully lived in past with an overflowing periphery of details that other come in to frame or come close. His most skilled ensemble work, it may be more about every other character than its inconveniently aged protagonists, the plight of everyone the camera encounters and its implications.
The Beatles: Get Back (Peter Jackson)
A Wiseman-esque documentary on The Beatles from Peter Jackson was not one of things I expected 2021 would have in store. One of the year’s best surprises, no other film caught me off guard like Get Back. Its commitment to the minutiae of the artistic process is what makes it as compelling as it is sprawling. The inherent dramas of the band’s nearing final days crack through overtly at times but are always underlying every moment and yet are transcended by the beauty of art and its creation—not to mention its perpetual power of renewal—and the bittersweet movements of life that take us from the past to the future, close to new things and further from old ones.
+ 1 special mention
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter, Anders Edström, 2020*)
Had I seen The Works and Days last year it would have been on my end of year list, so I’m including it here to make amends. From the introduction to my interview with C.W. Winter: “Divided into five chapters and four parts, sprawling over eight hours, and taking place over 5 seasons, it is a film that evades durational conventions within both the cultural mainstream and contemporary art cinema of which it may initially seem part and parcel. In fact, it avoids easy placement into any contemporary categories, and while this makes up a fruitful portion of the conversation below, it is less interesting than that of how co-directors C.W. Winter and Anders Edström render their anti-epic of minimalism, discreet construction, and de-privileging of moments—which as with many great works of art makes the poetic and political inextricable.”
+ 10 more
All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)
Red Rocket (Sean Baker)
In Front of Your Face (Hong Sangsoo)
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
The Girl and the Spider (Ramon Zürcher, Silvan Zürcher)
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze)
Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra)
The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson)
Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara)
+ 4 pure pleasures
The Tsugua Diaries (Maureen Fazendeiro, Miguel Gomes)
Sycorax (Matías Piñeiro, Lois Patiño)
Train Again (Peter Tscherkassky)
earthearthearth (Daïchi Saïto)