Saturday, January 1, 2022

My Top Films Seen in 2021

Here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2021.

Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold
It is the first film by Panahi that fully grabbed me.  I have also seen Offside.  Aside from Panahi's remarkable restraint with respect to sound, or in other words the film's almost complete absence of music and use of only minimal sound, what impressed me most was the depth and presence of Hossain.  The narrative structure of the film is also quite unique as it flashes back from the opening scene.  But until the end it is unclear how the beginning relates exactly in a linear manner to the rest of the film's proceedings. 
Frederick Wiseman's Near Death
A film that makes the case that it is Wiseman's fearlessness that could be his greatest asset, even more than his intelligence, rigor or his patience.  Once again, because of Wiseman's approach, the impact often hinges greatly on the ability of the subjects he selects to speak clearly and articulate in a manner that is compelling and engaging.  These speeches are the music of his films and the doctors and nurses in particular are responsible for some amazing passages.  This work also examines the staff's feelings about their profession in a way I have not seen before in a Wiseman film.
Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple
While the style of the film is cohesive and fairly rigorous, it is not the aspect of the film that gets to you.  What gets to you is the subject matter.  I can't recall a film that spends as much time or goes as far into the question of what it looks and feels like to be an artist in today's world - an artist that reveres the past and the loneliness of refusing to adapt or change with the times.  It is a tormented film that feels truthful in so many ways.   
Shatara Michelle Ford's Test Pattern
A highly effective indy.  I know nothing about the filmmaker but the two actors are strong and the direction is patient and efficient.  It is difficult material but the way the filmmaker sets it up in the beginning adds a sense of danger to the first 30 minutes.  Once we are caught up with the narrative Ford is still able to maintain the suspense by focusing on the couple and whether their relationship will survive the horrific events of the night before.  It reminds me of Sciamma's Tomboy in the way it successfully incorporates suspense elements of thrillers or mystery films in material that generally does not contain such characteristics. 
Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger
It only makes sense that because African-Americans have their own history and culture their story should be told using a style that is different and unique.  Burnett might be the first African-American filmmaker to bring that style to cinema.  I do not claim to have seen work by all of the African-American directors, but I can say that neither Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks Jr., Spike Lee, John Singleton, Carl Franklin, Antoine Fuqua, Barry Jenkins nor any of the other films directed by African-American filmmakers that I have seen to date bear a style as tailored and seemingly conceived to fit African-American stories as the work of Burnett.  

A broad statement but it can be seen in the way the sets look and the way the characters move, sweat and speak.  Burnett's style is naturalistic but mannered and accented in ways that make it feel even more capable of capturing the plight of the black experience in America.
Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill
A film that really would not even be on my radar if it weren't for Richard Brody and his Twitter feed that I follow.  Aside from Some Came Running, I have been lukewarm about every other Minnelli film I have ever seen (probably ten or so others).  And I can completely see why this one might miss for many, from the heavy presence of its score to George Hamilton's acting to the Sirk-like histrionics.  If you can get past those elements, it makes a strong case for Minnelli's greatness.  Look at the grace with which the camera moves around the scenes, Minnelli's careful, emotive framing and the space and time he allows himself (150+ minutes) to explore the characters, the story, the setting. 
Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name
Only the third film of Rudolph's I have seen so far and my favorite.  It meanders and never feels like it needs to make itself more conventional, comfortable or easy for those watching.  It inverts a story we have seen often and makes us realize how foreign a simple swap for a female in this type of story can make us feel.  Often I have read how Altmanesque Rudolph is as a filmmaker but this film seems to have influenced Altman (Short Cuts and The Player) rather than the other way around.
Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow
It's incredible to see Sirk working in black-and-white the same year he'd make one of the most color-forward films in history (Written on the Wind).  Sirk takes the leads from Double Indemnity and substitutes extramarital romance for murder.  In doing so, he is able to create the same level of suspense found in the best noirs and achieve something even more emotionally damaging as it all feels more rooted in reality - kids, family, profession.
Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night
The first of what I believe were three films that Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray made together, all of which are excellent.  Preston Sturges wrote the script for this one.  Leisen impresses with the amount of emotional depth he is able to create, producing greater feeling by repeatedly choosing complex character moments over entertaining turns of plot.  He shows such restraint, and willingness to defy typical Hollywood narratives, that by the end he is able to deliver a final moment of Bressonian gravity and weight.  
Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
My first experience with the cinema of Hamaguchi and I am as excited about what he might do as I have been with any new filmmaker in a while.  Hamaguchi uses music like Hong Sang-soo and at first glance his filmmaking might simply seem like alt Sang-soo.  But Hamaguchi's world is not as distilled as the Korean filmmaker's.  Hamaguchi utilizes more locations, pushes deeper into more "taboo" places (sexuality, even homosexuality) and ultimately creates moments and cinema that because they feel less controlled feel more dangerous than the work of Hong Sang-soo.  Many people may call Hamaguchi the Japanese Rohmer but in his playfulness, even daring, he seems as close to Rivette as he does Rohmer.  

Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affair(s)
Mouret proves himself very adept at tackling the romantic comedy genre while finding ways to make it feel updated and modern.  His most interesting contributions to the genre come by way of his parallel narrators and the way he continually subverts our expectations all the way until the final seconds.  While I wish his use of music a bit more restrained, this is a strong new entry for French cinema, in the footsteps of Desplechin and Assayas and akin to Civeyrac.    
Jacques Becker's Edouard et Caroline
It's the ninth of his thirteen features I have seen and what impressed me more than anything is how modern the narrative construction still feels today.  The film consists of only two sets and bears more resemblance in its scope to many low-budget American indies than to the other films of Becker.  This film that seems Nouvelle Vague seven or eight years before the commonly recognized beginning of the movement also seems to have lots to say about the importance of art in post WWII French society.   

William Klein's The French
A fascinating look at The French Open and tennis in the early eighties.  I have certainly never gotten this kind of look into professional tennis, particularly from inside the locker room.  Klein takes a patient, unobtrusive, Wiseman-like approach, producing a gem of a "sports movie". 

Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue
I should have seen this way before now.  It is a key film in the American New Wave and makes a case for being the final film of the cycle as much as any.  I never thought of Easy Rider, Hopper's first feature as director, as being much from an aesthetic point of view.  But this film possesses an incredible style - specifically its location work,  its graceful movements of the camera, its complex editing rhythms, and its sensitive use of sound.  Dark and disturbing like a David Lynch film but also with echoes of some of the seventies' stronger character work like Five Easy Pieces.    
Frederick Wiseman's Juvenile Court
Because Wiseman likes to leave his films unadorned - long takes, zero non-diegetic music and mostly a static camera - one of the main factors determining a work's impact is the quality of speeches (or conversations) his subjects deliver.  In his works, these speeches tend to be long and his subjects range from being highly intellectual and articulate to having difficulty putting forward coherent sentences.  The interactions Wiseman captures in his exploration of the juvenile court system are powerful and emotionally affecting, and the "speeches" in this work rate alongside his most effective films.

Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
One of the strongest qualities of Lee's work is the way he repeatedly uses the medium to talk about his anger with the treatment of African-American people in this country.  He sometimes finds dramatic ways to do it and he also often does it by having a strong comedic voice.  And regardless of the type of story Lee is telling, he gives it a flashy cinematic style that makes it all go down a little more easily.  

They say the flip side of anger is sadness.  This doc made for HBO might be the first Lee film I have seen (there are many and I can't claim to have seen them all) that embraces the sadness rather than the anger.  It is also the first Lee film that seems to background style and let the people and events stand for themselves.  As a result, it packs a weighty punch and stands up there with the greatest achievements of his career so far.  
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Summer of Soul
One of those documentaries where the story is so great that it's astounding the footage has sat on the shelf for 50 years.  That in and of itself speaks volumes about the situation of race in this country.  Some of the performances are simply grand from Sly to Mavis Staples to The 5th Dimension.

Leos Carax's Annette
There is real exuberance and a supercharge in Carax's last two fims.  Partly I attribute it to the fact that I cannot think of anyone else in film right now where the work feels as much in an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema.  In the latest, David Lynch looms large.  You feel his influence on the way the young girl Annette looks, who can't help but make you think about the baby in Eraserhead.  You also see it in the way Carax stutters the lights in the beginning and the stylistic device he uses several times that is pure Lynch - the visual separation of body shots that I know you find in Twin Peaks but that I also seem to recall in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.  

Carax's cinema could always be looked at as a love letter to the medium and its endless beauty and possibilities.  So it only makes sense that Carax is channeling Lynch, one of the most liberated of filmmakers who continues to defy any claims of cinema's boundaries or imminent death.  

I settled on the phrase above "an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema" because Carax's rear view has always gone farther back than most of his peers who have a hard time citing anything film-wise released before Kubrick's 2001.  Carax in his latest is in a dialogue with the musical, the early Disney films, and as much with the first 50 years of cinema as the last 76.


  1. I too am a huge fan of ANNETTE and SUMMER OF SOUL, and happy to see them included in your round-up here.

  2. Thanks so much Sam, always great to hear from you.