Top 31 of 2021

2019 seems to have become my benchmark for great release years, but 2021, through the truly heroic distributors who released probably more notable arthouse films the same year they premiered than any year since probably 2016, came pretty close to equaling it. While there wasn’t quite the same amount of masterpieces, the bench was very deep for great films, and spanning a wide swath of filmmaking.

The following list is formed from the reds, oranges, greens, and blues that I have seen at time of writing that were commercially released in New York City or received a virtual commercial release in 2021. A list, not the list.

1. Drive My Car (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke)

2. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

3. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

4. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter & Anders Edström)

5. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze)

6. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke)

7. Beginning (Déa Kulumbegashvili)

8. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

9. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

10. Wife of a Spy (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)

11. Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)

12. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

13. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (Anno Hideaki)

14. Labyrinth of Cinema (Ōbayashi Nobuhiko)

15. Annette (Leos Carax)

16. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)

17. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke)

18. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen)

19. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)

20. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)

21. Procession (Robert Greene)

22. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes)

23. France (Bruno Dumont)

24. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

25. Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

26. The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (Wes Anderson)

27. Fauna (Nicolás Pereda)

28. The Souvenir: Part II (Joanna Hogg)

29. The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

30. Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)

31. Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar)

My Top 10 Discoveries During 2021 (for first-time viewings of films made before 2001)

  1. Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg)
  2. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996, Peter Chan)
  3. Shanghai Blues (1984, Tsui Hark)
  4. Tih-Minh (1918, Louis Feuillade)
  5. The Aviator’s Wife (1981, Éric Rohmer)
  6. Canyon Passage (1946, Jacques Tourneur)
  7. Kagemusha (1980, Kurosawa Akira)
  8. Rosa la rose, fille publique (1986, Paul Vecchiali)
  9. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
  10. The Color of Pomegranates (1969, Sergei Parajanov)

2021 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Ballot

Best Picture
1. Drive My Car
2. Memoria
3. Days

Best Director
1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria
2. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Drive My Car
3. Tsai Ming-liang, Days

Best Actor
1. Nishijima Hidetoshi, Drive My Car
2. Lee Kang-sheng, Days
3. Adam Driver, Annette

Best Actress
1. Tilda Swinton, Memoria
2. Miura Tōko, Drive My Car
3. Léa Seydoux, France

Best Supporting Actor
1. Elkin Díaz, Memoria
2. Okada Masaki, Drive My Car
3. Mike Faist, West Side Story

Best Supporting Actress
1. Park Yu-rim, Drive My Car
2. Urabe Fusako, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
3. Kirishima Reika, Drive My Car

Best Screenplay
1. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke & Oe Takamasa, Drive My Car
2. Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
3. Hong Sang-soo, The Woman Who Ran

Best Cinematography
1. Anders Edström, The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
2. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Memoria
3. Janusz Kamiński, West Side Story

Best Production Design
1. Stefan Dechant, The Tragedy of Macbeth
2. Ataka Norifumi, Wife of a Spy
3. Adam Stockhausen, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun

Best Editing
1. Alexandre Koberidze, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
2. C.W. Winter, The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
3. Ōbayashi Nobuhiko & Sanbongi Hisaki, Labyrinth of Cinema

Best Music Score
1. Ishibashi Eiko, Drive My Car
2. Giorgi Koberidze, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
3. Jason Lytle, The Witches of the Orient

Best Film Not in the English Language
1. Memoria
2. Days
3. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film
1. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream
2. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
3. Procession

Best Animation
1. Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time

New Generation Award
1. Alexandre Koberidze, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
2. Déa Kulumbegashvili, Beginning
3. Alana Haim & Cooper Hoffman, Licorice Pizza

Career Achievement
1. Paul Vecchiali
2. Nakadai Tatsuya
3. Claire Denis

The Douglas Edwards Experimental/Independent Film/Video Award
1. C.W. Winter & Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
2. Frank Beauvais’s Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream
3. Sky Hopinka’s małni — towards the ocean, towards the shore

Cinéma Du Look [FRANCE]


Rating *** A must-see

Directed by Bruno Dumont

Maybe the best scene(s) of France — not La France, though Bruno Dumont doesn’t attempt to hide the national implications of the film, literally making the first shot a view of a French flag — comes early in the film, as the amusingly named France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is shooting one of her many news reports in a war-torn country. After conducting a translated interview with one of the loyalist fighters, she essentially directs a smattering of B-roll: a reverse shot with her issuing questions straight-on into the camera against a different background, a shot of another soldier instructed to walk past the camera, and a series of miscommunications with soldiers, attempting to get them to act heroic. After this jumble of moments, the next scene shows the end result, a genuinely rousing expression of solidarity that concludes, tellingly, with a close-up of France. While the temptation to connect this with an exposé of the journalistic process or, especially, filmmaking in general, is quite strong, the impact of the sequence, apart from the minutiae of interactions that take place — including a selfie taken by the first fighter and the general spectacle of watching Seydoux in a troop transport — lies in the synthesis, in the gulf between different manifestations of appearances.

I will freely confess that my firsthand knowledge of Dumont’s work is limited to the Quin/Coin duology, which I have a strong fondness for, and Jeannette, which I found so mindnumbing that I haven’t seen its counterpart. But France evidently marks a departure for the director, who made fairly austere and rigorous works for about the first decade and a half of his career, then began making much more overtly comedic works beginning with P’tit Quinquin (2014) and Slack Bay (2016). While even those works took place for the most part in rural areas, this film firmly situates its home turf in Paris, and specifically in the most elegant arrondissements of the city. Everything, as befits a film at least in large part about the media, is hyperreal: France and her husband and son live in a ludicrously large and high-ceilinged modern apartment that looks lifted straight out of Saint Laurent, car ride scenes are rendered with too-large rear projected images, and the cinematography is glaringly bright; even bombed-out ruins are shiny and digital, something that the shifts to lower-quality news camera footage can only do so much to overcome.

From these layers of artifice comes an unexpected anchoring force: the visage of Léa Seydoux, which would seem almost too perfect in this setting — and buffeted by the colorful array of attire she wears — to convey a host of emotions, each more complex and profound than the last. But France spends something like a fifth of its not inconsiderable runtime to simply sit and stare at her face. It’s uncommon for a film that’s otherwise this glossy to spend the contemplation that’s apparent here, with so many moments where the conversation or surrounding context will seem to drop out and Seydoux’s face — which at turns throughout the film is inscrutable, mischievous, anguished, and nearly every other emotion under the sun — will undergo a series of minute transformations. Such movement amidst restiveness forms something of a manifesto for this film’s intentions: to turn the gaze of fame and sensationalism back upon itself, a set of reflections that produce unexpected changes.

As I said before, I haven’t seen Dumont’s actual rendering of the trial, but it’s irresistible to see France as another, modern iteration of Joan of Arc, here spun out not into issues of life and death — that comes for other people — but into questions of morality and belief, though of a much more worldly pattern and through often hilariously absurd moments. The close-ups are certainly suggestive, but it comes forth even more fully in the rapid back-and-forths of emotion and interactions, sometimes almost too pointed in their intention but each palpably registering, thanks to Dumont’s willingness to sit with the moment. Everything rests upon a sequence of gaps: between the glamor of France and the dire situations that she puts herself in, in an almost competitive desire to push her coverage into uncharted waters; between the malicious intentions of a journalist and his apparently genuine adoration; between the seeming unseriousness of France with the scrupulousness and insight of her reporting.

Perhaps most boldly of all, France appears to recognize the limits of the transformation that traumatic events can provide within the modern world. The characters, including France, generally retain their general outlines, their convictions as can be rendered on a multitude of two-dimensional screens: a television, a smartphone). But Dumont shakes them, at least for a time, making sure that the gravity of the world can exert its force in both the most expected and unexpected of circumstances, one drawn-out shot and rupture at a time.

December 2021 Capsules

As a Christian, I’m naturally inclined to believe in the validity of Benedetta’s visions, but I was surprised the degree to which the film — and Verhoeven — seem to agree, or at least in the conviction of her beliefs. Many have rightly commented on the general primacy of power relations over the lesbian copulations that were supposed to be the backbone, and it’s important to situate that within how it relates to the central dilemma of faith: the belief in something that can’t be directly experienced. Numerous characters, even Rampling’s daughter, invoke this, twisting it for their own ends, and while the film can be said to be a critique of the Catholic Church, a central core of faith remains intact. The two characters who most fervently express a desire for faith, Benedetta and the Reverend Mother, maintain it to the end, and as such remains unchallenged in that realm, even by the forces of lust for sex or power. What they end up doing with that desire is where interpretation lies, and where purity is corrupted.