Favorite Films of 2021

This has felt like a strange year in movies, and I’m not even trying to make reference to the pandemic. 2020 had a bounty of great movies, and 2021 did as well, but it somehow felt different. Still, here are a handful of films that I enjoyed for various reasons. I want to go ahead and highlight them now as our new (old) year runs ever onward.

Some minor spoilers ahead…

Drive My Car
Ryosuke Hamaguchi is well-aware of what he’s doing when the title credits show up 40 minutes into a 3-hour movie. Because without this opening prelude about a husband and wife, the film, while never a dramafest, would lose a dose of its quiet power dispelled over time. It does take some time to hone in its ambitions since it never feels like the characters have an agenda in a movie sense. They have jobs and relationships, but they just seem to exist, share conversations, and slowly over time we get to understand them better, even appreciate them.

Our protagonist is a theater director and so we spend our time observing the mechanisms of a multilingual stage production of Uncle Vanya he hopes to put on in Hiroshima. His Korean assistant is a fascinating individual fluent in Korean, Japanese, English and throw in some Korean sign language. He’s indicative of an entire cast who connect through their art form.

Kafuku-san directs the production but opts to give the lead role easily earmarked for himself to a young man who is very familiar. It comes out later he had his reservations because “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines he drags out the real you.” They might be the words of Chekhov, framed by a story from Haruki Murakami, but the fact that we struggle and cry and God has pity on us is a message of some hope. That we will look back on our current sorrow with rejoicing and finally find rest…

In a movie about many things, it becomes a story about how we replay our deepest regrets, and they stay with us, gnawing at our insides. If they lay dormant and generally unspoken in most of us then it’s even more common in Japanese culture. Living in Japan, I very rarely hugged people, and so Drive My Car has one of the most tender embraces I recall in recent memory. It takes so much, means so much, and the moment itself plays like an understated exclamation point if there can be such a thing. If you sit with the movie long enough perhaps you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
I have a fear of Shakespeare on par with anyone else who’s ever looked at the bard’s work with trepidation. His words can be as witty to the ear as they are mystifying. However, in watching Joel Coen’s latest adaptation of his work, it felt like we were given something new and formidable without making a total mockery of the text. For lack of a better word, it didn’t feel stagy or at least it blended the forms of the stage with elements that make it deeply cinematic because this is the language that Coen knows best.

It’s suffused into his very DNA as a filmmaker and cineaste. You never want to overstep your bounds, but there’s a cavernous immersion and at times claustrophobic drama to the picture. It’s a bit like watching some of Welles’s European works: The Trial was literally made in a giant hangar and Chimes at Midnight provides his finest adaptation of the Bard full of his own artistry. Coen resolves for black and white, but he also shoots entirely in these manufactured and measured interiors.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand fill up the spaces to great effect. We see their age, but also the intent behind their eyes. It’s fierce before devolving toward the crazed and maniacal. We see the fruit of such fateful decisions as portended by the baleful Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter).

There’s thumping sound design, murders of crows, whirling cauldrons, an army of trees, and gorgeous mise en scene reminding me ever so briefly of monochromatic De Chirico paintings. But most importantly, beyond the artistry and the performative qualities is a film quaking with ready-made danger. Because it’s a crime movie. It’s about treachery and paranoia in the name of power. I’m not a foremost mind on Macbeth, but this is something that stays with me.

Petite Maman

I couldn’t help thinking how the title made so much sense in retrospect and yet Petite Maman quietly ambushed me. Here is a film about a little girl and in the wake of her grandmother’s death, she helps her mother sort through effects. She winds up going off into the forest and befriending a young girl, who’s her spitting image. It’s no coincidence. In fact, this little girl winds up being her mother!

Given the premise, it would be easy to take this film in either one of two ways: Either we’re befuddled by this development or we accept it unabashedly. Employing literalism doesn’t aid the cause. And yet if we embrace what’s laid out before us, we’re opened up to all sorts of cinematic magic. Celine Sciamma chooses to do the latter. It is a quiet fairy tale without special effects – a modern-day incarnation like Pezold’s Undine – though even more simplified.

Still, where so many other movies have plot points and reversals to move the story toward a specific destination, Pettite Maman is one of the lucky few that just seems to happen in front of us, and we can experience the minor revelations as they come unhurriedly. Two young girls acting out their story or making pancakes together in a fit of giggles. There’s so much palpable satisfaction in experiencing these moments and part of this is borne in the adorable performances of the twins.

However, there’s also a level of kinship in the movie that feels infectious, and it’s given a deeper level of meaning in that this is a mother bonding with her daughter in some form. They are equals and they can meet each other on equal footing. What a gift this is, and I’m sure all parents would love for such an opportunity. It does feel a bit like a miracle of a film.

MASS
There’s an idiosyncratic way in which Mass functions; I couldn’t help reminiscing about the free-flowing ensemble in Patrick Wang’s Bread Factory though this is even humbler in scope. The staff of the church with their particular foibles effectively prepare the table for the main attraction.

Mass has the sensibilities of the stage. It plays like a mini 12 Angry Men where you have this petri dish of two couples, one still together, and one we believe might be split up. We have four folks in a room navigating emotional space in such an excruciating scenario, dancing around the tension wedged between them by circumstance. They both had sons implicated in a mass shooting: one a victim, the other the perpetrator.

These are characters clearing their chests (and their minds) as they debate and discuss, slowly beginning to open up and let their own private hurts come to the fore. What I appreciate about Mass the most is how it doesn’t feel like a monumental drama, and it would feel like a lesser film because of it partially because any grandstanding would not fit the humble intimacy of the space or its budget.

Like Lumet before him, Fran Kanz, who utilizes some quicker cuts and an active camera nearing an hour in, is not about manufacturing drama. He trusts his material and his cast. These are theater actors so they know how to carry themselves. We witness forgiveness manifested in excruciating seemingly insurmountable circumstances. It’s fragile and imperfect.

There’s no clear mark of clarity or complete healing. This can never be achieved. What matters is the incremental steps that have taken place in this back room. But these events themselves are cushioned by the surrounding moments reminding us life is continuous; it keeps on moving. Even as our hurt lingers and grief waxes and wanes, we must find a way to muddle through as best as we can.

Bergman Island
When the name of Bergman comes off the lips of the locals it initially sounded unidentifiable to my ear, but over time it becomes familiar and like this film, the entire world begins to suffuse into our consciousness. The island of Faro just happens to be where one of the great masters of cinema made his home. It’s hallowed ground albeit idyllic and unassuming.

Could it be an enchanted space where the muse comes down to christen men and women in their creative endeavors? More likely the battle rages as per usual as a filmmaking couple (Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth) look to work on their latest projects. It becomes a landscape fit for this kind of pensive cinema, a meditation on love, art, and the creative process.

There’s a certain dissonance when the artists we love don’t behave well in real life. Strangely the lot we are given as human beings, having our fractured souls reflected back at us through a glass darkly, doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with the outcomes.

Certainly, there are layers to be appreciated to the movie if you are familiar with the shadow cast by Bergman and his work, and yet I imagine there’s a different kind of mystifying quality of you don’t know him because it is a bit like he is floating around the edges of this movie like a spectral presence. We get to know him somewhat – see the spaces he frequented – and yet although this is intimate, it’s still rather like we’re trespassing on someone who is no longer with us.

Instead, it becomes about inspiration and conceiving movies. What holds us back and makes us anxious. We come to have life mimicking art or at the very least becoming the launching pad for stories. There’s a level of magic even seeing Chris’s movie materialize before us in the flesh. But it goes deeper than that where the creator gets to see her creations materialize before her. If there was something morose and at times oppressive about Bergman’s cinema, the film acknowledges these by sheer proximity, and yet Mia Hansen-Løve makes a dreamy film full of longing and warmth. It feels much more like the beginning of My Summer Monika than the end.

Belfast
It seems like every filmmaker has a personal story inside of them, and it’s a pleasure to receive Kenneth Branaugh’s latest offering Belfast. My face lit up immediately because from the first note I knew intuitively we were being blessed with the voice of Van Morrison. As we fall back into the late 60s, we appreciate the rhythms of a close-knit community nevertheless embroiled in The Troubles and the faultlines of Catholic-Protestant conflict.

The corollary to High Noon throughout the film including Tex Ritter’s ballad felt deeply moving. Because as someone who has cherished that film in my youth, it feels almost more universal to me than hearing Morrison. It has to do with those boyish inclinations – to want to see the world through the black and white mentality of the West. There’s a fork in the road and two obvious directions toward good and evil. Of course, rarely is it that easy to delineate.

Through the chipper, innocent eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), we see events as only he can. His parents are not perfect, and yet to him, they are larger-than-life heroes, beautiful, beloved, and strong. Likewise, movies are revelatory, life-changing experiences like flying cars in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’m not sure if the black-and-white images were something I necessarily needed, but the choice to put the scenes in the movie theater in color almost makes it worth it. Because it is in this space where Branagh suggests we can find magic, wonder, and sustenance to take back into our lives. This is a film where the little moments speak the loudest.

Spencer
Kirsten Stewart has grown steadily in my esteem thanks to her evolution from movies like Adventureland and then Cloud of Sils Mar. She continues to venture out into a territory fit for a consummate actor who looks to stretch herself and take on new and varied roles with worthy collaborators. Spencer is no different and she proves herself, not unsurprisingly, game for the task of taking on Princess Di.

I have to keep on getting my early notions of Stewart out of my head because with each new role she seems to exert herself as an ever-watchable performer and even walking the tightrope of the part that might so easily have pitfalls. Given the subject’s public persona, somehow it’s easy enough to buy her, and she falls seamlessly into the world with her mannerisms and the intonations of her voice.

It also helps Pablo Larrain’s film is a fable and not a biopic. Normally this term leaves room for Hollywood license and interpretation, but here the limits have been stretched even further as Spencer becomes more and more a character piece inside one woman’s splintering isolation on the eve of Christmas.

She begins to relate with Anne Boleyn, who had her head cut off for another woman; Diana can see the dissolution of her own marriage and her impending divorce before them with her own husband all but absent and Camila just off at stage right. Her relationship with her two darling boys is warm and affectionate. It only puts the rest of her royal world in sharp relief. If you don’t recognize the suffocating circumstances at first, it becomes supremely evident as we follow Diana at the hip. This is not a life we would wish on anyone.

Test Pattern
Test Pattern showcases a filmmaker with a level of bravery, and I don’t mean that primarily because of subject matter, although that is part of it. Because this is a film about an interracial couple (Britanny S. Hall and Will Brill). It is partially about the perplexing bureaucracy getting in the way of a resolution – the woman goes through a traumatic sexual assault – her boyfriend wants to get her answers. It leads to chafing, anxiety, and a relational tiff not because they don’t love each other but precisely because they do.

But the level of bravery comes with a filmmaker who is willing to hold their camera; it stretches out moments to the point of excruciation. It makes us uncomfortable and nervous waiting with the characters, breeding another form of empathy as we exist in the scenes alongside them caught up in their personal drama.

There’s nowhere to hide, and Shatara Michelle Ford doesn’t try to. What’s most petrifying is the fact we are left with no obvious resolution. Our couple, once so united and for one another, now feels listless and uncommunicative. Given the context built up for them at the beginning of the movie, it feels like the most troubling place to leave them. Again, this is brave. It’s not a giant send-off with a fight, but we feel this helpless sense of isolation even as they share the same space together. There’s no easy fix for what we have witnessed. It’s a sobering reminder for us all.

CODA
Coming of age films are a recurring pleasure of mine. They often traffic in very familiar ideas and tropes. CODA is no different, and it comes out of the East coast lineage of Mystic Pizza. It stars a young heroine (Emilia Jones) looking to find her voice, whether that’s by literally joining her school’s choir or sharing her feelings for the boy who doesn’t know she exists (Ferdia Walsh Peelo).

She has an impish best friend and a demonstrative teacher with a heart of gold as two primary talking partners. However, what sets the movie apart is her family life. The pun of the title becomes evident in this space. Because she is a child of deaf adults (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kosur).

She’s ashamed of how shameless her parents seem and also frustrated with how tied down she is to them. She lives by the lie that they are helpless without her that she can’t go off to college and leave them. Ultimately, she wants to protect them. The movie’s at its best not forcing conflict and leaning into these relationships.

Her budding boyfriend points out just how much he envies her because her parents actually love one another and their ramshackle abode is actually a home. CODA’s mixture of fishing milieu and glossy glee club covers don’t cater to my whims, but there is so much surrounding these nominal cliches making CODA wholly worthwhile. And any passing chance to get an earful of Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, or Joni Mitchell is something to be appreciated.

Sing Street (also with Walsh-Peelo) was a favorite of mine. This is yet another movie where music becomes such a vital life force, and it can lead teenagers in pursuit of remarkable dreams. It’s the family in this movie that feels even tighter and altogether more extraordinary because we see very few like them put to film.

The Worst Person in The World
The title of Joachim’s Trier latest film is easily misconstrued to mean “bad” whereas the suggested hyperbole is more about failure. We’ve all been there feeling like we’ve flunked out of life. Chris is in her quarter-life crisis, pondering her career outcomes, her current relationship status, and the lukewarm feelings she has about having children at the moment. It feels a bit like The Graduate without a Mrs. Robinson. She has two men in her life, first a comic artist, older than her, who brings stability, and then a more carefree barista who she meets quite by chance.

There are times where it is scatological, moments where it’s downright trippy, but there’s also some serendipity sprinkled in. I think of the sequence when the world seems to stop – humanity is at a standstill, and we see two lovers existing together totally present with one another in the expanse around them. It shrinks their world down in such a romantic way. Still, life goes on. It becomes about so much more than a romance or even the arc of one character. It’s about the men in her life too.

Trier said, “The films George Cukor made, like The Philadelphia Story, were films not only about finding the right partner but existential films, films that dealt with important life choices.” It’s hard to totally dismiss the inspiration because The Worst Person In The World becomes a film about insecurities, about how we become petty, and even as people leave our life, the memories of them are never completely gone.

It’s progressively all the more evident that being the worst person in the world is simply a marker of being human. That is to say, we have all been there; we can all relate in some capacity. We’re all the worst person in the world. This is the greatest gift of Trier’s film, and Renate Reinsve gives a performance worthy of this superlative.

Attica

If Summer of Soul was one of the most joyous discoveries of 2021 — a piece of Harlem’s culture all but relegated to a historical waste paper bin, then Attica has to be one of the most devastating. In some ways, they seem to run parallel. Whether it’s my own ignorance or 50s years of mild suppression, my only inkling about the uprising is the famed evocation of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t live through those current events, but seeing them excavated in this documentary was deeply unnerving, and rightfully so. It brings together many of the eyewitnesses from all sides who were present during those days. Prisoners took control and found hostages, they brought their demands before prison leadership and waited only for negotiations to break down. Finally, everything spiraled toward premeditated chaos

I can’t explain what happened exactly and even though this event is notorious somehow the gravity and atrociousness of this third act of history still scalded me. It highlighted this uneasy gulf between the sides. You had discontented prisoners, the majority black, being subjugated and just wanting some human dignity — the rights Americans are supposed to be accorded. Their requests were not all unreasonable. Then, on the outside you have families worried sick over husbands, uncles, fathers being held hostage. It’s possible they might never see them again. The consequences are steep and racial tension is magnified.

We are forced to reconcile these spaces as viewers and come to terms with this void between them full of unrest and entropy that no one could have foreseen; not the news cameras or the mediators. And yet we cannot deny the facts. Something horrible happened, beyond belief, and we are forced to grapple with it. It makes me hope and pray for empathy and true justice even as I question the inevitability of violence sometimes. If there is so much humanity within the frames of this documentary, how did it still culminate in Attica? Each of us must point the question back at ourselves.

1 thought on “Favorite Films of 2021

  1. Some good films.. just watched Test Pattern.. just a shame as it could’ve been such a powerful film as the story itself was – the complete lack of chemistry between the two leads was just overpowering for me that being said, Brittany S. Hall is so stunningly beautiful that I was almost jealous. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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