An odd year, 2021. We returned to theaters, kinda. Some studios tried baiting people back with mixed results, some gave the option to stay safe while screening their new releases. As for the films themselves, the moviegoing (or movie-staying-in) landscape was littered with an outright hodgepodge; Blockbusters left over from The Before Times and international indies that had sat on shelves for years released alongside post-COVID productions reflecting on the new state of affairs. However, despite all the clash and confusion, 2021 gifted the world with an overabundance of amazing cinema.
While I myself dedicated most of the last year to exploring lesser-known cinema of the past (check out The Screen’s Margins if you’re interested), I still managed to see enough new stuff to warrant making this list. I’ll note, just in case, that I did not get a chance to see Licorice Pizza, Memoria, Parallel Mothers, The Souvenir: Part II, The Tragedy of Macbeth or West Side Story. With that out of the way, we’ll start of course with some [twenty-five] honorable mentions:
Bo Burnham: Inside
The Fear Street trilogy
The Harder They Fall
The Human Voice
In Our Mother’s Gardens
Maɬni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore
No Sudden Move
The Summit of the Gods
This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection
#10: Tie: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car
As a result of my journey into the streaming service Ovid.tv last year (chronicled in Oll Obout Ovid!), I have been introduced to many contemporary arthouse filmmakers working under the mainstream’s radar. One such filmmaker is Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, whose 317-minute drama Happy Hour is a triumph, depicting adult life as a most ordinary melodrama. Hamaguchi had two new films released in the United States this past year. While only one is currently making waves in the awards circuit, both are wonderful additions to his filmography, and each boast one of the best ensemble casts of 2021.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a triptych of love triangles, each less conventional than the last. “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” has a familiar rom-com premise of two friends in love with the same man. “Door Wide Open” depicts two friends-with-benefits that devise a scheme to frame their college professor, and “Once Again” tells of a middle-aged woman running into her high school sweetheart…sorta. Like in Happy Hour, the storylines in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy are broad enough to where they’d be perfectly suited for big melodrama. However, where someone like Almodóvar would take this material and go for the throat, Hamaguchi sits down and has a looong conversation. The film is ten scenes of people talking to each other, dancing between obscuring and divulging their true feelings; it is a seductive dance, twirling you around and leaving you wanting more despite how beautifully it sticks the landing.
Drive My Car, meanwhile, stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yûsuke Kafuku, a stage actor/director who specializes in putting on multilingual productions of the classics. After a forty-some-minute prologue set two years prior to the main events of the film that establishes his relationship with his wife, Kafuku is hired to direct a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, where he is required to have a driver despite his desire for privacy during his commutes.
Drive My Car is a tapestry of small moments that seem incidental, but are in fact tiny wedges that slowly pry you open over a three-hour runtime. A majority of the film is dedicated to driving around in the titular Saab 900, a bright red temple where intimacy and revelation emerge through quiet, magnetic conversation. The extended scenes showing the dramatic workshop offer a rare and exhilarating insight into the theatrical process; fans of Uncle Vanya will delight in how Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe weave in parallels to the events onscreen. By the end, audiences have been discreetly raked through the emotional muck, and hopefully hold a newly-constructed constructive outlook on grief and guilt.
#9: Last and First Men
Hearing the news of Jóhann Gunnar Jóhannsson’s passing in February of 2018 was crushing; one of the great, ambitious new voices in film scoring, snuffed out at only 48. Two years later, The Berlin International Film Festival announced the premiere of Jóhannsson’s first and final feature directorial effort, Last and First Men. The seventy-minute film, featuring black-and-white 16mm depictions of stone sculptures set to Tilda Swinton’s description of a future two billion years away, didn’t come to the United States until this past December. It was worth the wait.
Jóhannsson was known for pushing music to a place of beautiful abstraction, and here he has done something similar with science-fiction cinema. Representing an unfilmable future with shaped stone as opposed to digital soup is wildly refreshing, as is a glacial pace; one is able to reflect on the film’s philosophies in real time. There’s a temptation to read the voice’s contemplations on its own extinction as meta-commentary, but I really doubt that’s the intention. One might also interpret the film as an indictment of the world’s denial of climate change; I don’t buy that either. Rather, Last and First Men seems to be reaching for something higher, for a kind of peace with futility. It’s bold, and far from a pleasant pill to swallow. It deserves to be beheld nonetheless. Oh, and the score is transcendent, obviously.
#8: Quo Vadis, Aida?
Perhaps the significant difference between my Best-of-2021 list and my Best-of-2020 list is the lack of films not directed by men. Little to say beyond that really, but I’ll acknowledge it.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Where Are You Going, Aida?), directed by Jasmila Žbanić, is the most harrowing cinematic experience of the year. Set over the course of July 13th, 1995, the film follows Jasna Đuričić giving 2021’s best performance as Aida Selmanagic, a translator working in Srebrenica for the United Nations with the Dutch military. As the Bosnian-Serb army encroaches on the thousands of Muslim refugees at the Dutch compound while the U.N. stalls, Aida does everything in her power to keep her family safe.
Quo Vadis, Aida? takes on the task of detailing one of the darkest days in human history; the day of the Srebrenica massacre. And Žbanić, faced with portraying genocide, chooses not to rend heartstrings in twain nor drain tear ducts. Žbanić instead pins an audience to the floor with her knee on their sternum and whispers in their ears with righteous anger: “we could have stopped this.” Depictions of the brutal violence are eschewed in favor of board meetings where people decide to do nothing. As Aida runs from room to room, we grasp like her for any straws of hope, that at least this narrative could be a sanctuary from inhumanity’s very human horror. There is none to be found, Žbanić assures us. Perhaps by the end Aida will be allowed some small taste of catharsis; by then the deed will be long since done, and remain unpunished.
#7: The Gaze
Back in May of 2021, Amazon Studios released Barry Jenkins’ latest project, the ten-hour miniseries The Underground Railroad, which takes place in a fictional mid-1800s Southern United States. It’s a towering, flawed, beautiful work, and for the purposes of this list, it doesn’t qualify. Thankfully, Barry Jenkins released a feature-length experimental film alongside the miniseries on his own Vimeo channel for free! The Gaze is a fifty-minute compilation of B-footage that was shot alongside The Underground Railroad, consisting entirely of Jenkins and James Laxton’s signature portraits of figures staring into camera; they are accompanied by excerpts from Nicholas Britell’s score for the miniseries.
The Gaze, put simply, stuns. For fifty minutes, you are asked to gaze into the eyes of the past, and you are asked to let the past gaze into you. All of these people, these unnamed people who had names lived, both with great suffering and great joy. Watching each shot slowly push in, then pull away is akin to sitting on the edge of an ocean shore at fiery sunset, a shore that is washing you in Britell’s impossibly full sound. With The Gaze, Jenkins boils cinema down to the point that it recaptures its spiritual quality; The Gaze is cinema as tribute, as prayer.
I distinctly remember, upon finishing Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, wishing for an actual good film performed in spoken verse. Well, folks: we got one! Carlos López Estrada’s follow-up to his blow-away debut Blindspotting, entitled Summertime, is a delight. The film follows some twenty-seven poets, playing versions of themselves, over the course of a single summer day in L.A.; from sunrise to sunset, we flow between the men, women, and nonbinary folk voicing their innumerable struggles and aspirations.
Summertime abandons conventional language and structure, but never passes into the artificiality of something like musical theater. Consequently, it lives in a space of just-barely-magical realism, an ideal tone for its Los Angeles setting: everything is mundane…except when you can touch the stars. While Marquesha Babers and Tyris Winter are standouts, every single one of The Summertime Poets has a distinct and obvious power; combined they form a bonafide bard battalion (one that never forgets to have fun while fighting their demons). And at this point, anything I could say they could say better, so I ask that you just go listen to them.
#5: Tie: Ema and Spencer
My introduction to Chilean director Pablo Larraín wasn’t the best; his contribution to Netflix’s Homemade, a series of short films made during lockdown, left much to be desired. However, Larraín gifted the United States with two very different films in 2021, and together they are the sharpest-directed double feature of the year.
Ema stars Mariana Di Girolamo as Ema, a dancer who has given her adopted son back to the orphanage after a tragedy. When this causes both personal and professional fallout, she becomes determined to rebuild her family, no matter the means. Ema is glorious. Ema is wild. To disclose too much about Ema is to rob a viewer of that creeping, giddy smile that appears on their face mid-way through the film, when they realize what is really going on. Suffice it to say, this is one of the sexiest, most outrageous films of the 21st century. José Vidal’s pulsating choreography combines with Nicolas Jaar’s writhing score, and are then remixed by Sergio Armstrong’s orgasms of color and Sebastián Sepúlveda’s inspired edits to create erotic montages not seen since The Wachowskis’ Sense8. All hail the New New Queer Cinema.
If Ema is the chokehold you cry out for midst the throes of passion, Spencer is the chokehold of a boa constrictor. That is to say, it is sheer terror and you need to escape now if you intend to keep on living. Spencer stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales during the 1991 Christmas holiday, her last before separating from Prince Charles. Over the course of three days, Diana struggles to survive the dinners, dressings, and daydreams, all of which are drenched in The British Royal Family’s unique blend of tradition and shame.
Much much more a parable than an archival document (as someone who never lived during Diana’s lifetime/has never been an Anglophile, I cannot speak to what this film gets right/gets wrong historically), Larraín zeroes in on the intense anxiety of having to live under immense social pressure; is there no liberty to indulge here, to relax, to but feel something? As a result, the film functions more like a haunted house picture than a biopic, and good: that done-to-death formula needs to be ripped apart like a pearl necklace gifted as an act of spite. Once again, Sepúlveda’s use of montage here is breathtaking, and between Claire Mathon’s cold yet soft 16mm shots, Jaqueline Durran’s eye-popping costumes, and Jonny Greenwood’s unfettered musings, Spencer offers the richest sense of mood of any 2021 film.
#4: Labyrinth of Cinema
“On a rainy night in a small neighborhood in Hiroshima, a traveling director arrives in his trans-dimensional spaceship filled with floating goldfish. He’s here to see an old theater off after one last ‘A Night of War Films!’ Inside, a mysterious young girl becomes trapped inside the screen, and three young men (a romantic, a bookworm, and the son of a monk who wants to be a yakuza) chase after her through Japan’s history of bloodshed in a surreal rescue attempt.”
So goes the summary for Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final and absolute banger, Labyrinth of Cinema.
To try and describe how much this movie is is to fail; even the term maximalist lacks sufficient moxie. For three hours straight, Obayashi bombards the viewer with eighty-mile-an-hour edits, every color of the rainbow and so much onscreen text one doesn’t bother trying to read it all. The ubiquitous green-screen effects are so blatantly cheap, a child with color cardstock and scissors could recreate the amateurish aesthetic. But don’t be fooled: there is no more mature work to be found in 2021. Not-so-hidden inside this fairy tale, Obayashi’s searing condemnation of war and militarism wrenches at you with all its vim and all its vigor. Not even “the pictures” are beyond his judgement, for propaganda killed just as many as the Bomb. The Bomb. The Bomb. Upon finishing Labyrinth of Cinema, one can but quote that famous phrase: “What a way to go, bro. What a way to go.”
#3: The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Sometimes a film hits different not only thanks to its quality, but because of how specifically it speaks to what you’re going through. On that note, The Mitchells vs. The Machines stars Abbi Jacobsen as Katie Mitchell, a queer teen about to leave home for film school who has a strained relationship with her father, voiced by Danny McBride. During the family’s impromptu road trip to college, the robot apocalypse happens thanks to unregulated corporate tech, and the dysfunctional Mitchell family is all that’s left to save the world.
During my first viewing, it took a solid half hour for me to get through The Mitchells vs. The Machines‘ opening five minutes, as director Michael Rianda and his animation team make it abundantly clear up front that they know and love cinema; among those referenced are Varda, Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Ashby, Bresson, Cuarón, Sciamma, and my personal favorite director Lynne Ramsay. Like, pardon me for writing informally on this entry, but this movie was made for me! The film goes on to be absurdly emotionally intelligent, exploring family dynamics in a familiar, but totally earned way. The animation is free to be weird, the script is chock-full of jokes (all of which land), and dang it I sobbed so hard during the climax I went to bed with a headache. The Mitchells vs. The Machines, without getting too personal, helped heal some family wounds: I’ll always be grateful for it.
Right about now some readers may be wondering how this list, eighty percent of which is dedicated to arthouse fare, took a hard left into being a big-budget studio animation lovefest. To that I say: I contain multitudes. Also, two big-budget animation studios released films in 2021 with loads of queer subtext that made me bawl with joy, so there’s that.
Luca stars Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Glazer as Luca and Alberto, two sea monsters who can chameleon as humans when dry. When their adolescent urge to escape home’s confines inevitably emerges, Luca and Alberto run away to a human village. Porto Rosso, unfortunately, hates sea monsters. Nevertheless, Luca and Alberto hope to win the local triathlon and buy a Vespa, to forever adventure with together.
The thing that makes Luca work so darn well, something that separates the film from its Pixar peers, is simplicity: the script strips away all the worldbuilding and plot and plot twists endemic to the studio, leaving an uncluttered, under-ninety-minute children’s fable about two boys’ budding friendship. Because of this concentrated focus on their relationship, what might superficially seem to be a story with very low stakes (it’s only a race, right?) is in actuality critical drama. Luca also weaves in, intentionally or not, a queerness allegory about passing that truly sings. And speaking of singing, Dan Romer’s score for the film is maybe the best of 2021. All in all, Luca is the beach to visit when you long for the sun, the pillow to hug when you miss your friends, and the tissue to absorb your tears when you just need to let it all out.
Days is directed by Taiwanese titan Tsai Ming-Liang. It stars Lee Kang-Sheng, Tsai’s roommate and muse, as a man that might as well be Lee Kang-Sheng. Days also stars newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy, who basically plays himself too. Over the course of the forty-or-so shots that make up the two-hour film, Kang and Non go about their solitary lives. Eventually, they meet for a professional and sexual interaction. They then separate and return to their aloneness. There are no subtitles in Days, which is fine because there really isn’t dialogue anyway.
Those wishing to explore Tsai’s filmography should not start here, that is unless they’re a cinemasochist; Rebels of the Neon God and The Hole are much better gateways into his particular brand of dreamy meanderings, and one of Days‘ great appeals is how it reflects on/interacts with Tsai’s past work. However, for someone who has developed the taste for this kind of slow cinema as one might for marmite, Days is bliss. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t challenge; its austereness extends to the point of literal minutes-long shots of people sleeping. But what Days is doing is essential for today’s world. It invites the viewer to, for once in their lives, slow down. To stop. To be. It’s not a forceful invitation, but it’s not an apathetic one either; humanity’s need for stillness is urgent, and society has long ignored it to everyone’s detriment.
Come then, if you dare, and be.
Here’s to another year of stories. May they bring us to a better place.
Thank you for reading! Have you seen any of these films? Comment down below!
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