Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Favorite Films of 2021

 

Petite Maman

The focus of this blog has always been on coverage of DVD and Blu-ray titles. It's right there in the name of the site. A few years ago my supply of screeners, once a raging torrent that flooded my mailbox each month, slowed to a trickle, and now appears to have shut off completely, a rough match for the trajectory of DVD sales over the past decade. I believe physical media is as important as ever – who wants to be dependent on the vicissitudes of the array of mercurial streaming channels we've all cobbled together to form our personal archives – but I can't escape the fact that it's mighty difficult to review releases that I don't have.

Do I now have to resort to reviewing new theatrical releases? What a depressing thought. Not that there aren't worthwhile films produced every year, but I've always been mildly embarrassed that the bulk of film criticism ignores 125 years of film history to focus on whatever happens to be in a theater (or its streaming proxy) this month. Just imagine only reading new books. Bo-ring!

Anyway, speaking of those worthwhile films released every year, it's time to talk about my favorite movies of 2021. As always, I'm sure I've missed seeing plenty of quality contenders: Tsai Ming-Liang's “Days,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi's “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir, Part II” and more.

My Top 10 of 2021:

Petite Maman (Sciamma)

Pig (Sarnoski)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts)

Summer of Soul (Questlove)

Memoria (Apichatpong)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (J Coen)

Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn (Jude)

The Card Counter (Schrader)

Passing (Hall)

Flee (Rasmussen)

And Six More That I Liked A Lot:

The Worst Person in the World (Trier)

Annette(Carax)

About Endlessness (Andersson)

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (Cretton)

Nightmare Alley (Del Toro)

Bergman Island (Hansen-Love)

If you don't count the end credits, Celine Sciamma's “Petite Maman” clocks in under 70 minutes, but that's not the only reason this little gem is one of the year's best movies. Eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just had to say goodbye to her beloved maternal grandmother. While grieving, Nelly helps to clean out the old family home and meets a very special new friend. The film spends almost all of its compact running time following young Nelly closely, relishing in the opportunity to show little girls at play, and providing a fresh, intimate perspective on the mother-daughter relationship. The film subtly and methodically builds up to an ending that's both surprising and deeply affecting. I'm still thinking about it a month later.

“Pig” has been creatively marketed as “John Wick, but with Nicolas Cage and a pig” which sounds freaking awesome and also promises some bonkers thrills. Cage plays Rob, a bearded recluse holed up in a shack in the woods with only his truffle-hunting pig for companionship. When his best friend is pignapped, Cage reluctantly treks back to the seedy urban jungle (Portland, OR to be precise) for either rescue or revenge. As you watch Cage get beaten half to death in one of those infamous underground fight clubs run exclusively by off-duty restaurant workers, you're expecting the gonzo fury to fully erupt, but screenwriter/director Michael Sarnoski provides the biggest shock by steering the film in a much more serene, contemplative direction. “Pig” winds up being a surprisingly moving portrait of grief and an impassioned testament to the value of artistic integrity in an increasingly homogenized commercial world. Cook what you want to cook – your very soul may depend on it.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is packed to the gills with shameless fan service and constructed by an established crowd-pleasing formula, but just as the Egg McMuffin is designed in the lab to be the tastiest damn sandwich in the world, this new MCU entry sure goes down smooth. I think what I love best about this goofy plot is that all of its multiverse-spanning mayhem stems entirely from the fact that Peter Parker just can't shut the hell up for a minute. Talk about respect for the source material! From the instant I first saw Tom Holland in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), I thought he fully embodied the Peter Parker of the comic book pages, and he still owns the role, even while sharing the screen with his worthy predecessors. This movie is pure Marvel joy from start to finish. After a bit of a lull, the MCU finished the year very strong with both “No Way Home” and the immensely entertaining “Hawkeye” series.

Speaking of pure joy from start to finish, “Summer of Soul,” Questlove's jawn/documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, is an absolute blast. Held over six weeks in the summer, the “Black Woodstock” featured an all-universe lineup, ranging from newcomers like a teenager named Stevie Wonder to veteran stars like Mahalia Jackson, with Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone sprinkled in just to keep everyone entertained. I admit that I knew nothing about this concert and I suspect the same will be true for many viewers, which is one of the primary reasons Questlove decided to edit together this long-unseen footage into the most electrifying music documentary to come along in years.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul's “Memoria,” Jessica (Tilda Swinton) hunts down a sound that has been haunting her (waking?) dreams. It's a bounce, a thump, kind of earthy. Are we even hearing the same noise Jessica does? When an audio technician who helps her pinpoint the elusive sound suddenly disappears, “Memoria” begins to feel like a detective story or perhaps psychological horror, and it might be both of those things, but to pigeonhole it as anything other than “the new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul” seems inadequate. As with the Thai master's earlier films, perhaps it's best to just immerse yourself in the sensory experience, turn off your cognitive filters, and just dream along with it.

The Scottish Film

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is easily the most visually seductive film I saw this year, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel deserves to win every award for his black-and-white photography that somehow looks both sleek and archaic at the same time. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand deserve all the praise they've received for this primal scream of a staging, but I have to give a shout out to Kathryn Hunter for bringing an intense physicality to the Weird Sisters that I've never seen in any other adaptation of the Scottish Play.

Romanian director Radu Jude's “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” may be the first great feature film set in the pandemic year(s). Emi (Katia Pascariu) wanders through a Bucharest populated by people wearing masks, face shields, animal costumes, and billowing cloaks of incoherent rage. But lest you think the film suggests a year-plus of lockdown has made everyone crazy, it ticks off a methodical checklist of historical lunacy proving that the crazy has always been there, just bubbling to the surface now in a different form. For a film that starts with a four-minute hardcore sex tape, “Bad Luck” covers a dizzying range of subjects with a radical flair that makes it feel like a forgotten film of the late '60s. It must have been part of some kind of New Wave, right? Its final act also demonstrates how exhausting it must be to be a rational, educated person calmly making an informed argument in an environment where the most meticulously researched facts can be dismissed by someone blowing you a raspberry and calling you a bitch. I also appreciate that Jude chose a title guaranteeing that the film will only be seen by film critics and other perverts.

I still don't understand what card counting has to do with playing poker, but that's no hindrance to appreciating Paul Schrader's latest take on God's Lonely Man by way of Robert Bresson. In “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac (delivering one of the best lead performances of the year) plays a man recently released from military prison, though not released from his blighted past. While atoning for his sins (to be identified later), he scrapes together a peripatetic living as a low-stakes gambler, content to bet small and stay off everyone's radar – maybe even God's? Backed by an investor (Tiffany Haddish, in a sparkling supporting turn), he's willing to play for higher stakes in order to save the soul of a very angry young man (Tye Sheridan) he meets on the road. Anyone familiar with Schrader's work can call out the Bresson influences along the way (we start with “A Man Escaped,” yep that's “Diary of a Country Priest” right there, and you better believe we're gonna end with “Pickpocket”) but Schrader has long since synthesized the Bressonian sensibility into his own purified vision. As a follow up to the indelible “First Reformed” (2017), this film is clear evidence that Schrader is doing the very best work of his career right now.

Rebecca Hall's adaptation of Nella Larsen's novel “Passing” is so assured and focused it's hard to believe it's her directorial debut. Hall also adapted the screenplay which doesn't waste a scene, hurtling forward through a series of itnense moments in the developing friendship/rivalry between Claire (Ruth Negga), a light-skinned black woman passing as white in prohibition-era New York, and her old high-school friend Irene (Tessa Thompson). The slight resentments and affections each feels toward the other propel the narrative to its powerful and seemingly inevitable conclusion, all bolstered by luminous black-and-white cinematography by Eduard Grau. Thompson and Negga are both sensational.

“Flee” is simultaneously one of the best animated films of the year as well and one of the best documentaries. Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the story of his friend Amin (name and animated likeness changed to protect his identity), an Afghan refugee who immigrated to Copenhagen as a teenager. Amin's harrowing refugee tale is paired with his story of coming-of-age in Kabul while realizing he is homosexual, a journey that quite charmingly involves an obsession with the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Muscles from Brussels. Amin's voice is the star and organizing principle of this riveting story.