by Walter Chaw Writing these annual wrap-ups feels to me a little like this passage from Anne Sexton's "45 Mercy Street":
I walk, I walk
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
The annual best-of ritual is frustrating because one can never see all the great films in a year--but it's the kind of frustration that feels aspirational for a change in this, our time of social and environmental apocalypse. I'm thrilled to talk about things that are good for a change and the movies in 2021 were very good indeed. So good that while I feel like I could have made a list 100 strong, I know there are still more gems from this year left to see.
Last summer, after missing a year because of the pandemic, I returned to the Telluride Film Festival. I know now that time spent with old friends is the only currency with value. I wish I knew that when I was younger. I'm glad I figured it out before it was too late.
Bryant Frazer died suddenly this year--a colleague more than a friend because, despite texts exchanged and plans writ in pencil, we never had that coffee we promised to share even though he lived about 20 minutes down the road from me. Life is cold, short, and eager to remind you of how you're not yet the person you wish you were and most likely will never be. I'm not a good son, either. My mother is dying, and 2021 saw her illness accelerate along with her need for pain medication and visits from palliative-care nurses. She lives not much farther from me than Bryant did, but we're estranged and I'm in too much pain to manage much interaction. I'm a failure, and I watch movies looking for a way through my self-loathing towards forgiveness, perhaps--acceptance, one day, if I'm fortunate. I'm looking for house numbers on a dark street that seems a little familiar. Maybe one day I'll find the place where I was born. Maybe one day I'll find the place I belong.
I'm deep in the tea leaves as 2021 winks out like a candle that's been guttering for hours and sending up an ugly black spiral of foul-smelling smoke. The best films of the year are meditative...no, tantric in their meting-out of coffee spoons and water drips that drill holes through stones across emotional centuries. Time is a broken construct, and I am my own Clotho, Lachesis, and eventually Atropos. Joel Coen's vision of the three witches likewise compresses them into one body--the cleanest, smartest metaphor for lives that have come to feel brutal, medieval, and relieved only through the sweet release of a hopefully painless--or, if not painless, quick--death. 2021 is a year when vengeance no longer matters--when we surpassed the Civil War death toll of 750,000 Americans in what is essentially another Civil War with the same antagonists. When life is so valueless that the worst thing we could do to someone else is ask them to be accountable for their brutality. We let the moment of crisis come and go, and we were not up to it.
Movies reflect our despair and always have. What they showed us this year is that whatever comes next, this period in our history is over. Our losses will only accelerate--the pebbles become the rock slide that buries a village while exposing a stratum of atrocities, telling the story of how everything we didn't do has been neglected before and will be neglected again, fossilized into the mountainside like tattoos of trauma memorialized on skin, paper-thin and cracking. If there's a curious throughline to the cinema of 2021, it might be the surprising number of "slow" movies--movies that are protracted in not only length but pace, too. Caught in the crucible of our nasty personal timesinks, many of the best films of 2021 appear to be describing lazy orbits around the circumference of their own relativity-warping temporal anomalies. As it happens, they're just my speed.
I'm too lazy to put documentaries on this list. If I did, movies like The Velvet Underground, Wojnarowciz: Fuck You F*ggot Fucker, and Summer of Soul would have positions of honour. Maybe I'll go back to including docs next year if we make it another year; I made excuses for excluding them in the past that sounded good, but they don't sound that good anymore.
I saw and despised a few of the favourites. The obvious ones like King Richard and the maybe not-so-obvious ones like Licorice Pizza. Fuck that movie. There are a few films like Red Rocket, The French Dispatch, Passing, Titane, The Souvenir II, and C'Mon, C'Mon that I respected more than I liked, and they didn't make the list, either. So what's left? What's left are the films that spoke to the stillness in me in 2021--a year where I got to do an episode of a David Fincher-produced documentary series and spent a night in Greenwich Village presenting a couple of movies and signing copies of my book, Miracle Mile. (The same night, as it happens, I was accepted into the National Society of Film Critics.) It was a year in which I was published in the WASHINGTON POST and on the Criterion site, increased my presence on NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour", and signed a development deal for a script that further confirmed the external markers of success do little to melt this core of fear packed around my heart.
But I'm grateful. Grateful for my friends and my family, for these opportunities to say the things I'm thinking so that when and if my kids discover all this stuff somewhere down the line, they'll find a vein of semi-precious metal. It's not much of an inheritance, but it's all of me in there if you know how to mine it. I don't know much, but I do know that at the end of your life, you will not wish you had worked more, or had spent less time with the people you love, or had not told people who've inspired you that you admire them. I tell my friends I love them now. It's changed my life.
I know how lucky I am. I'm one of the lucky ones. Sometimes I have to repeat it under my breath like a rosary.
Honourable Mention: Spencer, Labyrinth of Cinema, Raya and the Last Dragon, Malmkrog, Catch the Fair One, The Beta Test, Apples, Test Pattern, The Story of Southern Islet, Timekeepers of Eternity, The Dry, Red Moon Tide, Wife of a Spy, Sweat, Sweet Thing, No Sudden Move, Cruella, I Was a Simple Man, The Disciple, Fried Barry
A note, too, that I don't review films by folks I know on a personal basis. I wrestled early on with ever becoming friendly with anyone on the "other side," but life is short and friends are precious. There were new films this year by Edgar Wright (two of them!), a beautiful noir from Guillermo del Toro, a sharp southern gothic by Aharon Keshales, a marvellous doc by Alex Winter...and you should check them all out.
Okay, let's end this dirge and start the list, composed of ten groups of five as has become tradition. And here's the end of Sexton's poem--which is, my god, a real beaut, as relevant now as the day it was written in expressing the interiors of a deeply depressed artist trying their best to make sense of the world through the alchemical transfer of energy from fingers to the keys on a typewriter:
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
and its hauled up
Shadow in the Cloud
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (რას ვხედავთ როდესაც ცას ვუყურებთ?)
Wrath of Man
Roseanne Liang's Shadow in the Cloud was dismissed immediately upon release for being a "Max Landis joint" when in reality the production had long distanced itself from the seed called horrid. Find in this a clever, kinetic action film directed by an Asian-New Zealander who gives Chloë Grace Moretz one of the best female "hero" moments since Ripley's choice in Alien3. I wasn't pulled out of my chair often at the movies this year--this was one of the times.
Joe Denardo and Paul Felton's 16mm freakout Slow Machine centres another woman, Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes), a Swedish--or is she merely playing at Swedish?--actress taking on the role of a Texas layabout in an independent film who engages in a relationship with mysterious federal agent Gerard (Scott Shepherd) that ends in bloody misadventure. A general feeling of wrongness pervades the proceedings as realities smear into one another, all the way up to a bedtime story that one version of Stephanie conjures for that version's little girl. The tale she tells involves a talking pig, a trusted confidante who insists on a walk into the woods with the warning that something terrible will happen. In its smooth play between realities and trading off of personas, Slow Machine is the version of The Matrix Resurrections that doesn't seem like a child wrote it.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is Alexandre Koberidze's patient, gentle reminder to consider the things in your life that don't suck as miracles taken for granted. It's a tale of two soulmates who, after a magical day together, are transformed into strangers by a curse as cruel as Francesca de Polenat and her lover Paolo in Dante's Inferno, though they are forever in each other's sight. Whether they overcome their fate is of less concern than the impossibility of every good thing and how good things, despite this, happen anyway.
Potsy Ponciroli's Old Henry is a simple tale told well, as widower Old Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) tries raising teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) on his own on the outskirts of the Wild West. He's a farmer, a hard-working one, who comes across a badly-wounded lawman, Curry (Scott Haze), carrying a satchel of money and a bunch of stories that don't quite add up. There were some great westerns in 2021; I wonder if the attendant themes of the Civil War, such as the necessity of reconstructing civilization on the corpses of dead Americans, have something to do with that resurgence. Old Henry is anchored by a spare script and a mesmerizing Nelson, who plays this variation on his chicken-fried yokel with a compact, wiry intelligence and scary potential for violence. It's great.
So is Guy Ritchie's doom-soaked Wrath of Man, with Jason Statham back in familiar straits as a grieving father with a dark past out to avenge his murdered boy. Yet Statham lends the character and scenario an uncommon depth that focuses our collective sense of meaningless loss and misdirected rage. The picture's bloodletting is not so much cathartic as it is the disgusted cry of a broken animal; Wrath of Man is a précis of this international moment where we've all been so terribly wronged and something has to give.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc)
The Last Duel
John and the Hole
All the Moons (Ilargi Guztiak)
Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude's third time out is a brilliant send-up of the sexual hypocrisies in a Puritanical society intent on controlling a woman's sexuality above all else. It documents the terrible things that happen to high-school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband (Stefan Steel) when their sex tape leaks and their community stands in instant judgment of their marital conjugations. I thought a lot of what happened to Rep. Katie Hill when photos of a consensual relationship drummed her out of Congress--and how the party doing most of the drumming is also the one appointing sexual predators to the Supreme Court. Jude's picture honours that break in logic by using Kafka correctly in a sentence, placing Emi in front of a kangaroo court like the child murderer in M. Best, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is chockablock with dialogue so casually lacerating (like how the more idiotic the premise, the more easily the public will buy into it) that marks the picture as this year's Sorry To Bother You, i.e., the satire that is not only not a satire, but a documentary. I'm not sure it's even possible to satirize us anymore.
The first of director Ridley Scott's two 2021 releases, The Last Duel is a venomous, uncompromising takedown of male ego and a patriarchal state that rewards any asshole with a dick and a lineage to run riot over women, who are considered property to be haggled for, fought over, raped, discarded, murdered, and humiliated for the pleasure of the masters of the universe. The film is a triptych told from the point-of-view of two squires (Matt Damon and Adam Driver), and it's in the third section, scripted by Nicole Holofcener and knocked out of the proverbial park by Jodie Comer, that the truth of the ridiculous peacocking of the two men comes into sharp focus. "I am a jealous man," one of them proudly proclaims, as if it were a virtue. The climax that lends the movie its title shows that jealousy isn't simply not a virtue--it's a deadly vice. The Last Duel takes no prisoners in the savagery of its battle scenes, the oppressive filth of its medieval setting, or the dressing down of the wide gap between what men think of themselves (awesome) and what they are (not awesome). A great and timely work from a filmmaker who does not appear to give much of a shit what you think.
Pascual Cisco's John and the Hole follows 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell), a stunned and peculiarly affected kid who one day lowers his parents and big sister into a hole in the woods behind their house. It's a parable of how mental illness in adolescence can metastasize, exploding familial bonds, sinking self-esteem, and even sometimes destabilizing a kid's mooring to reality. John plays games online with his best friend, and then, when he invites him over for a weekend at his empty house, they play a drowning game to see who can get close enough to death to hallucinate a vision of the Virgin Mary. It's a horror film about the trauma of difference handled with reserve and intelligence.
Igor Legarreta offers another look at eternal childhood with his stunning All the Moons, a vampire flick that opens with the collapse of a nunnery and ends, a lifetime later, with an eternal child returning home to find her "mother" and call her to count for every terrible thing she's done. So many 2021 films are about going home, about broken time, about buildings and cities and civilizations falling into ruin; this one has the advantage of being so very meticulous about the beauty of its images. Starting in 1876 and ending around 1936, All the Moons makes clear that time itself is the real monster, swallowing all and still insatiable. Consider the role of hunger and time in the life of master chef Rob Feld (Nicolas Cage), who, after a tragedy, hangs up his toque and moves to the woods with his beloved truffle-hunting pig. At its heart, Pig is about giving up on the race to spend more time with the things that make you the best version of yourself.
Though Iuli Gerbase's debut The Pink Cloud was completed pre-pandemic, its J.G. Ballard-esque vision of the apocalypse as a period of forced cohabitation between two strangers is perhaps the most on-the-nose essay of our current status quo. A towering debut in a year of towering debuts. Mickey Reece, on the other hand, puts out movies at a terrifying pace--an almost Takashi Miike pace, in fact. His latest, Agnes, begins as a standard exorcism/nunsploitation piece before resolving as a larger indictment of a wide world afflicted by irresolvable sin. It seems featherlight, but its afterimage is stark and devastating. Smart guy, that Reece, and Agnes is only one of two--arguably three--nunsploitation films to make this roundup. Another is Paul Verhoeven's profoundly blasphemous Benedetta, which has a child suckling at the teat of the Virgin Mary, a pin-up trans Jesus, and a saint who saves a village while being pleasured with a dildo carved from a holy effigy. As a warmup to Verhoeven's "Jesus of Nazareth" project, it's a ripper.
Joel Coen's first solo effort, The Tragedy of Macbeth, adapts Shakespeare as a middle-aged lament for a lost child and the fear of a ruined legacy. And The Cloud in Her Room is another startling debut, this one from Zheng Lu Xinyuan, who casts as her avatar Muzi (Jin Jing), a girl in her early 20s who returns to her hometown of Hangzhou in the company of photographer boyfriend Yu Fei (Chen Zhou) in search of purpose or direction and discovering, instead, validation for her rootlessness in the materialism and moral decay of the "new" China. Playing somehow like a fusion of early Godard and early Almodóvar, it makes ennui look good and disaffection as sexy as dark glasses and the cigarettes everyone's smoking in sad chains that measure out the empty days like Prufrock's coffee spoons. A tone poem of the whimper at the end of the world.
There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)
The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (工作与时日)
James Wan's Malignant has just enough of a foundation in solid, thorny topics that when it does go deliriously nuts, it's like getting shot up into the sky on one of those giant bungee rides. Looking like a giallo, its closest analogue is Brian De Palma's fantastic Sisters; it's grotesque, sexually loaded, and so much fun that it's easy to overlook how smart it is around issues of reproductive rights and domestic violence.
Mohammad Rasoulof's There is No Evil comprises four short films about Iran's death penalty--applied liberally to enemies of the state--and the toll that state-sanctioned murder takes on the soul of a country. Like many of the films on this list, it details how ordinary people can normalize the unthinkable through years of steady erosion. Evil is stealthy, and what would have once inspired riots are now Someone Else's Problem. The first of the shorts is arguably the best, following a nebbishy schlub around his day-to-day through to his starting the graveyard shift as the guy who pulls the lever underneath a row of political prisoners: intellectuals and other threats to the theocracy. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, where the threat of arbitrary socialized death covers everything in a brown filth.
The Adams Family's Hellbender finds the writer/director/acting/scoring troupe--John Adams, his wife Toby Poser, and their daughters Zelda and Lulu Adams--in the full act of creating a singular horror film about a witch raising her daughter in the hopes she can keep from passing on her infernal knowledge. Alas, with puberty comes some pretty bad mojo, and hilarity ensues. When they're not struggling against the tide of adolescence, by the way, they're playing in a mother-and-daughter band called Hellbender. The Adams capture the simple pleasure of being young and alive in an almost tactile way, pointing to another unhinged explosion of energy further up the list: Spielberg's West Side Story.
Anders Edström and C.W. Winter's 8-hour The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is a different kind of ecstasy, starring the titular Shiojiri herself as a vegetable farmer caring for her ailing husband and covering a two-week period in which she has dinner with his friends, watches him watch Go matches on television, and generally goes about her business maintaining a sense of normalcy under extraordinary circumstances. The spell the film weaves is one of warm familiarity. I've had dinners like this where everyone talks at once about nothing at all. There's a term in Mandarin that means literally "warm" and "loud" and suggests that feeling you get a few times in your life when you're surrounded by people you love and hope it will last forever, though you know it can't. Split into four sections and spanning five seasons (not unlike Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring), Tayoko Shiojiri provides, I think, another reason slow movies gained traction with me this year: With nowhere to go these days, it's nice to stretch out in a better elsewhere.
Finally, Leos Carax's film of the mad Sparks musical Annette is a piece at once knowing and surprised, familiar and disorientingly alien. Like Sparks' music (and 2021 was big for them, too, the best and most influential band in the world that no one really knew anything about until Edgar Wright's lovely documentary earlier this year) revels in its idiosyncrasy. Its story of an edgelord comic (Adam Driver) and his beloved opera-singer wife (Marion Cotillard) has elements of A Star is Born's mortal relational competition but hinges on a child, a wooden puppet named Annette, clarifying the picture as a fairy tale of passion, narcissism, masculinity, fame, exploitation, and the perils of genius. Sparks are paired perfectly with Carax as artists who seem helpless but to make what they make, damn the torpedoes. Annette doesn't care if you like it and there's truth to that. Watch it with the film it most resembles, Phantom of the Paradise.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre)
Another exceptional 2021 feature debut, Nicole Riegel's Appalachian drama Holler is about impoverished scrap "farmers" harvesting recyclable metals from abandoned houses. Among them is young Ruth (Jessica Barden, destined for stardom), too smart to stay but too beholden to her family and her history to leave. A less-polished Winter's Bone but sporting many of the same outstanding qualities, Holler takes an unflinching look at the force that keeps the United States running even as its numbers are marginalized, abandoned, and abused before getting medicated and imprisoned for having the temerity to suffer. An all-American film.
Tsai Ming-Liang's extraordinary Days, a production that spanned five years offscreen, follows two lonesome men in separate orbits across three countries. The film watches Lee (career-long muse (and--lately, art-installation collaborator--Lee Kang-sheng) watching the rain, walking the streets, seeking a treatment for a mysterious (and real) neck ailment that results in Days in a painful mishap that Tsai captures and then, wordlessly, lingers on as Lee clasps his hand to his head and staggers around for interminable minutes. The line between what is performance and what is observed is meaningless for Tsai and Lee. Enter Anong Houngheuangsy, an undocumented Laotian vendor Tsai spotted one day and recruited to act in the film as a brief respite for Lee from his incalculable loneliness and isolation. The final scene is Tsai's most heartbreaking since his debut, Rebels of a Neon God, 30 years ago. It's almost unbearably human.
I didn't love Céline Sciamma's much-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I do adore her follow-up, the considerably more modestly-scaled Petite Maman, in which 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) grieves the loss of her beloved grandmother and accompanies her parents as they clean out the grandmother's house by the woods. Behind it is not a hole like John uncovers, but a fort Nelly's mother used to play in. And inside that fort? Little Marie (Joséphine's twin sister, Gabrielle), a playmate, sure, but also...well, that would be telling. I will say that Petite Maman is about how the adult is the parent of the child they used to be--and how the death of a loved one ages kids as it infantilizes adults. A lot of time-loop movies these last couple of years for obvious reasons, though none quite like this one.
In Lili Horvát's Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, neurosurgeon Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork) flies back to Liberty Bridge in Budapest after a long absence to track down her lost lover, János (Viktor Bodó), who was supposed to have met her there 19 years before but stood her up. The problem is that when she finds him, he has no memory of ever meeting her at all. With echoes of The Cloud in Her Room, it lands as something like a romantic comedy written by Oliver Sacks, with this brilliant doctor trying to untangle the puzzle of whether she's being gaslit by an inconstant lover or losing her mind. Horvát complicates matters by shooting Budapest as more labyrinth than city, an industrial hedge maze where the secrets buried in your brain are exploded out into the geography of the strange place you used to know. Seldom has the metaphor of a difficult problem slowly unravelling like a stubborn yet elegant knot been so appropriate.
And, man, Cyrano is exactly my jam.
I don't vibe with Pedro Almodóvar's early work, but his pictures since The Skin I Live In? Yeah, that's the stuff. In his latest, Janis (a maternal Penélope Cruz), a woman pregnant late in life, decides to raise the child on her own instead of with her partner, dashing anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). But then there's a question of paternity that leads to a question of maternity...and then everything gets pulled up into a literal excavation of a mass burial site in which Janis's great-grandfather may or may not have ended up, a casualty of the Spanish Civil War, which casts its black cloud over everything and everyone still. It's a picture that reminds me of John Sayles's masterful Lone Star in its treatment of traumatic episodes from our collective past intruding on the tragedies of our current state before landing on the moral that very little is essential outside of time spent with the ones we love. Parallel Mothers is full of wisdom and unanswerable questions, and it doesn't insult you by trying to answer them. Twenty years after her stardom, I'm finally getting Penélope Cruz.
My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To attacks the question of family and what's essential in a different way. Ditto Harry Macqueen's dulcet Supernova, a film that speaks in hushed tones about the importance of finding a soft place to land in a world of sharp edges. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a tale of love and eternity told in the favoured time-loop style of this era of amuck time, while Zack Snyder's Justice League presents itself as the best adaptation of Dan Simmons's Ilium that could ever be. I mocked this project when it was announced. I saw it as hubris--and the Joss Whedon version was so abominable, I couldn't imagine a four-hour version of the same thing being anything but intolerable. I was wrong.
The latest iteration of Paul Schrader's America, which burns men down and molds golems from their ashes, sees recently-paroled gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) deciding to walk the straight and narrow by only cheating a little bit at the blackjack table. The world of gambling pulls into his orbit a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows more than he should about Tell's past as a military interrogator at Abu Ghraib and seeks his counsel in plotting revenge against Tell's old superior (Willem Dafoe). I love how Tell is named after a Swiss folk hero, the assassin of a tyrannical reeve of the House of Hapsburg, and how this Tell is destined to be the assassin of a monster created by the United States military--which is, like the Hapsburgs, another factory for monsters. I love, too, how "tell" has a double meaning as a sign that a gambler's bluffing. Schrader is in absolute control of his obsessions at this point in his career: God's lonely men and the timebombs ticking inside them.
Andreas Fontana's Azor goes about its nihilism in a particularly 1970s way, marking the frost-like creep of fascism in Argentina as a cautionary warning to us all. Banker Yvon (Fabrizio Rongione)--a prototypical hero of paranoid cinema who is neither the soldier with a plan nor the private eye with the answer nor the Shane with a chrome revolver--and his wife Ines (Stephanie Cléau) visit Argentina amid its fall to authoritarianism to wrap up some oblique loose ends left by a missing predecessor. Their quiet, tense conversations, meaningless to anyone who isn't a historian or banker, are marvels of sublimated terror and rapidly-shifting transfers of power. You know something terrible is happening, but no one will name it. It's Eliot's whisper: the way the world ends. Alan Pakula used to mine this ground in the United States and we didn't listen then, either. Azor points to a place just beyond the line of sight where vast and implacable machinery turns as these minor players sit several degrees removed from the puppetmasters and power brokers. Matters of pennies, mistaken for matters of life and death. In many ways, this is the year's best horror film.
The Green Knight questions the same notions of heroism as Azor and The Card Counter. Ditto the shouldn't-be-surprising antiestablishmentarianism of The Suicide Squad, where the heroes ultimately betray their mandate--and reputations--to save a lot of innocent people. Ethan Mordden's line about the 1960s from Medium Cool that I paraphrase often is how listening to "mother" in 1960 makes you "psycho." What's great about The Suicide Squad is how it presents the idea that following orders for the people who are supposed to be in charge post-January 6 (and pre-) results in murder, destabilization, and chaos. Finding this message in an ultra-expensive comic-book movie, in a landscape dominated by the MCU's dedicated commitment to apolitical inoffensiveness, is like finding a clock in the desert. Also, it's lit cleanly, the action is innovative and exciting, and if you're looking for a true and effective middle-finger raised against the beige tide of uniform pabulum, James Gunn's picture has the balls to have a polka-dot throwing man in a onesie battle a six-story tall starfish kaiju. He got someone to give him money to do that. And he did the hell out of it.
Then there's Jeymes Samuel's concussive The Harder They Fall, which opens like Kim Jee-Woon's neo-western masterpiece The Good, the Bad, the Weird and ends with a message of empowerment so vital and bracing it made my hair stand on end. It's an exuberant, give-no-fucks spaghetti-western-cum-blaxploitation mash-up of extreme stylization, excessive violence, and a team-up of prominent historical Black figures in the frontier West, battling the spread of systems of oppression that have already begun to take hold. It's so kinetically, compulsively alive that the watching of it is tactile, even dangerous. I didn't know where it was going; no one in the film seemed safe at any moment. It felt a lot like, and I mean this as the highest compliment, Apocalypto in its devotion to a vision of a genuinely representative universe. The performers are all dancing to the same tune: muscular, sexy, strong. With one film, Samuel has announced himself as the first choice for anything he wants to do next.
Violation is about the broad devastation of sexual violence and how it's perceived by the survivor, the perpetrator, and the society built around believing the bad actor over the victim. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's meditation on time and memory Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy would play in a lovely, complementary way with Roy Andersson's About Endlessness (see below). I can imagine them spliced together into one long, rapturous strip. Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World is the most incisive, and empathetic, essay on the plight of millennials as they inherit an absolute shitshow of debt, climate change, and fascism.
The Novice is an atomic blast of a debut from Lauren Hadaway, a fable of the search for meaning in a meaningless existence and extending one's experience of life in the active pursuit of struggle and conflict. The Lost Daughter, meanwhile, deals with mothers and what's expected of them set against what they're capable of doing. Both of these directing debuts from women filmmakers are conventions-shattering statements challenging the notion that women are "just" or "merely" rather than complex, fully-formed human beings with as many disagreeable, nay, ugly traits as anyone else.
Rose Glass's first feature Saint Maud walks a difficult-to-navigate line between supernatural thriller and interpersonal chamber melodrama, doing so with the confidence and panache of a far more seasoned director. It centres on burnt-out nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark), who joins the in-home hospice team for ex-dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) and immediately begins to lose her mooring in trying to navigate a space between her newfound faith and Amanda's seductive, fatalistic hedonism. A baby Roman Catholic, Maud smoulders with the evangelical zeal of the newly-saved, judging everyone though no one as harshly as she judges herself. For Maud, Maud is dangerously undeserving of the salvation she covets, and so she begins to look towards more traditional means through which to mortify her flesh. Saint Maud is the ecclesiastical version of the existentialist The Novice, a film about the dangers of religion, what happens when a young and impressionable personality imprints on a stronger personality (see also: Parallel Mothers), and, finally, how expectation can pervert, The Lost Daughter-like, behaviours. It's stunning.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria is the Thai master's most accessible film, starring Tilda Swinton as a woman who, at her sister's deathbed, hears a sonorous gong that sends her on a quest to discover its source. Spoiler: she never does (we do see an image that suggests a solution), although the search proves to be a rabbit hole to more questions--none of them, as is Weersethakul's wont, remotely answerable. After all, he is a transcendentalist of the first order, and his visions of the sublime are ineffable by nature, much like Swinton's alien presence. The process of Memoria is a deeper exploration of the essential unknowability of nature--what the Romanticists would call the first testament of God, written on the west wind and inexpressible in any medium. Tone poems like Memoria attempt to communicate the universal truth of our yearning for an understanding of a unifying intelligence, some grand design in a universe that seems capricious and more often cruel than benevolent. There's a scene where Swinton, whose character is often stuck speaking in halting Spanish, tries to recreate the noise with a sound designer, using her limited vocabulary to describe a thing impossible to articulate. She travels to the countryside to discover the "source" and meets a man who has the same name as the sound designer and tells her he can't dream when he sleeps. He demonstrates, and immediately dies. Signs--like language and names--are in total decay. Memoria presents the idea that nothing is permanent; everything is written on the water. It would slot as comfortably against the lingual destabilization of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville as the story of existentialism we embed in the landscapes of Tarkovsky's Stalker.
Set in Tbilisi in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Dea Kulumbegashvili's great Beginning puts the bow on the poison of organized religion in her debut. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a Jehovah's Witness and pastor's wife broken out of her holy devotion by a firebombing at her husband's church, finds that she no longer has any sense of herself after a lifetime conditioned as a helpmeet in her regressive sect. Yana's struggle to summon the courage to detach from every safe tether and weather the open hostility of people she thought of as friends is presented without sacrificing her dignity. It's a tricky balance that Kulumbegashvili achieves by projecting Yana's struggles against images of a blasted landscape stubbornly coming back to life--delicate flowers poking through the cracks in a dry riverbed as metaphor for Yana's emergent awakening. The camera sits still, allowing for its players to move in and out of frame so that what we see feels accidental and our observation of it illicit. I don't know how Kulumbegashvili found this level of confidence the first time out, but I understand completely why Carlos Reygadas attached himself to the project as one of its producers.
Roy Andersson plays around with eternity in About Endlessness, presenting a series of tableaux vivant that are more scenarios than scenes, with actors posed in evocations of emotions like grief, betrayal, and jealousy and, on the other side, love and loyalty. Lulled by his deadpan sense of humour, we are occasionally devastated by what seems his earnest hope for an afterlife that's real for his sadsack penitents instead of a false promise made by people and ideologies looking to profit from our fear of emptiness. Hold this against films like Don't Look Up that are just snarky, smug checklists of our failures. Andersson does that, too (more dryly than smugly, I would argue), but he offers a genuine--and generous--vision of humanity to which we might cling. It's a quintessential film of our recent despair, an evocation of the things we've lost, from parents cleaning up the grave of their dead child to a couple floating above the city in an aerial minuet. All to demonstrate how sometimes the rituals we enact to commemorate the places our lives change serve an essential purpose--that is, to solidify our belief that we aren't alone, and that we're perhaps bound for something special, whatever the indignities and blows we suffer along the way.
Spielberg's West Side Story is spectacle done right, a remake done right, and a beautiful send-off for Stephen Sondheim. Spielberg is a visual savant, and every shot of this picture is a gift. Jane Campion is my favourite living director, and The Power of the Dog is her most evil film. Phil Tippett's Mad God is a work of infernal madness, an expression of the unconscious that flows from a nameless font. It's the best Lovecraft adaptation that isn't based on a Lovecraft text: a story of seeking with no clear prize; a tale that means nothing told not by an idiot, but by the malign absence of an organizing principle. I understand everything in the picture and there is nothing in it I could explain. It's a nightmare. The nightmare we're in. These three films are bound only by the intimidating mastery of the form each represents. No one has ever been better doing the things Spielberg, Campion, and Tippett have spent their lives doing. That all three of them delivered major works in the same year is the sort of miracle we shouldn't take for granted.
And finally, the best film of 2021 is Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, an adaptation of Murakami's eponymous short story that, like Lee Chang-dong's Burning before it, knows that the best way to adapt Murakami is to adapt the things Murakami was reading and the vinyl he likely spun from his vast collection as he wrote. Drive My Car, then, is also an adaptation of Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya, a piece about the inexpressible complexity--the ecstasy and excruciation--of being a sentient being in an insensible universe.