Films of the Year 2021

Contrary to what we might have expected, the pandemic did not completely dry up the supply of films to watch, and productions have continued as before, even if relatively few films have yet to incorporate the pandemic into fiction. It was a good year and a number of good films featured in the big awards – the films below include a Golden Lion-winner, an Academy Award-winner for best picture and a Palme d’Or-winner, among others. My viewing was largely in a domestic setting for the second year running and there is probably an imbalance in favour of American films, which is unsual for me. As ever, some films will feature here that did not get a release this year in other parts. But this isn’t an exact science.

  1. Malmkrog – Cristi Puiu (Romania/Serbia/Sweden/Switzerland/Bosnia and Herzegovina/North Macedonia/United Kingdom/France) 201 minutes

Like Lav Diaz, Béla Tarr and a number of other directors, Cristi Puiu has made the long form his own. On the face of it, a long talky philosophically inclined film (based on the writings of 19th-century Russian thinker Vladimir Solovyov) set largely on a single location shouldn’t be so compulsively watchable but Malmkrog is endlessly enthralling. A gaggle of aristocrats and bourgeois from across Europe gather in winter at a country home in Transylvania (the title comes from the German name of the village, Mălâncrav, where it is set) at the turn of the 20th century, and talk of airy theological and moral matters while seemingly oblivious to a creeping violence that is forever present offscreen.

Malmkrog is in more ways than one a crazed work–a Romanian film almost entirely in Hungarian, German and French, none of which, to my knowledge, Puiu speaks–but as finely honed drama it works incredibly well. This is partly due to the quality of the directing and acting (an unstarry cast drawn mainly from European theatre), the splendid production design (as with most good period dramas, the sets have a palpable texture and feel properly lived-in) or it could be down to the fact that the world it depicts–one of erudite leisure that is doomed to pass along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire inside whose borders the country home lies. A patina of historical fatalism lies over the action (insofar as there is any), rendering the lofty discourse the characters engage in extra quixotic. As is the case with the novels of Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and both Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Malmkrog is a wistful yet withering depiction of a society which contains sparse hints and portents of what is to come. It’s fair to say that it might not be to everyone’s taste but for those willing to stick with it, this is wonderful cinema.

  1. Lovers Rock – Steve McQueen (United Kingdom/United States) 68 minutes

A measure of how marginalised black voices have been in British cinema is the fact the country’s foremost black director is only now getting to cover black Britain in his films, which had previously been set in either Ireland or the United States). With the Small Axe series for the BBC, Steve McQueen certainly made up for lost time. Most of the five films are essentially TV movies, however excellent, but Lovers Rock and Mangrove are fully cinematic works. The former is the best of the lot, a mood piece thin on narrative but rich on atmosphere and detail, taking place in a reggae house party in West London in 1980.

The title is a nod to the loveliest, most soulful sub-genre of reggae, and one song in particular runs through the film–Janet Kay’s 1979 number one “Silly Games”. McQueen is brilliant at capturing a zeitgeist that would have escaped many people at the time, especially the way in which the avant garde rears its head in the least auspicious places–we see here MCs and sound systems of the sort that wouldn’t seep into the mainstream of British music culture until nearly a decade later. He is also, and this is what makes Lovers Rock particularly fantastic, a great chronicler of parties and dancing. Far too often on screen, partying looks perfunctory, forced and incidental, and even in the rare instances of directors capturing the euphoria of it, such as Richard Linklater, it is seldom sustained for long. Lovers Rock looks real, documenting the genuine joy, ennui and aggro of a house party, and, as with the other Small Axe films, shows a countercurrent in British culture that thrived in spite of official indifference and proscription.

  1. Minari – Lee Isaac Chung (United States) 115 minutes

Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical film is one of the great immigrant films (and probably the best one made in the US). The story of a Korean family’s move to rural Kentucky in the 1980s to farm (the title is the Korean name for water celery) while also working sexing chicks in a hatchery, Minari is an unusually gentle narrative–there’s surprisingly little racism on display–but whose blows when they come are devastating nonetheless. The family are joined by grandmother Soon-ja (played by Youn Yuh-jung, a regular in the films of both Hong Sang-soo and Im Sang-soo), who is initially rebuffed by her grandchild David, but who soon wins him over. Soon-ja’s presence also has consequences of various kinds for the family farm, and Youn’s blustering garrulous matriarch is a counterpoint to the rest of the family’s rather staid dutifulness, deservedly earning her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (Chung also won for Best Original Screenplay). Though it is an indelibly American film, Minari is nonetheless a further example of the incredible international success of South Korean pop culture, which has reached unprecedented heights for a once-obscure mid-sized Asian country.

  1. About Endlessness (Om det oändliga) – Roy Andersson (Sweden/Norway/Germany) 78 minutes

Roy Andersson’s latest offering of sparse, perfectly choreographed darkly comic tableaux won him Best Director at Venice in 2019. A series of 31 vignettes, About Endlessness continues in Andersson’s vein of whimsical humour undercut with an unsettling menace (one of the vignettes takes place in Hitler’s bunker and another shows Martin Bormann’s supposed escape, while a defeated army is marched off to Siberia, a reference possibly to the defeat of Charles XII at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, which Andersson previously alluded to in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence). As with all of Andersson’s films, the humour is not always terribly subtle but its absurdist conceptualism resonates far beyond the tableau. Another great film from one of the glummest of cinema’s funnymen.

  1. The French Dispatch – Wes Anderson (United States) 108 minutes

A lot of focus was on the tribute to The New Yorker in Anderson’s film (not surprisingly, given he dedicates it to, among others, Harold Ross, William Shawn and Roger Angell) but the magazine story is little more than a framing device for what is in reality a nostalgic love letter to 20th-century France. The stories it tells are all tinged with the usual Anderson whimsy and a slightly detached proximity to actual history. The stories are amusing–a prisoner (Benicio del Toro) sculpts a nude of his jailer (Léa Seydoux), a Dispatch reporter (Frances McDormand) has a fling with the student revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) whom she is covering in her story, while a policeman and chef (Stephen Park) solves the case of a police commissioner’s (Mathieu Amalric) missing son–and even if they lack the heft of actual drama, there is something there. The signifiers of French life and society are often wildly distorted and misdirected in the hands of American filmmakers but Anderson, who has spent more than a decade living in Paris, has a good eye and ear for them. The French Dispatch is a gleefully affectionate compendium of Brassaï, Willy Ronis, Jacques Demy, the glory days of France Soir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Not to be taken too seriously and none the worse for that.

  1. The Card Counter – Paul Schrader (USA) 112 minutes

After First Reformed, Schrader continues his late-career resurgence and, once again, the Iraq War is the albatross that hangs around the neck of his main character. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a small-stakes gambler who earns a subsistence living at the tables thanks to the card-counting skills he picked up in military prison, where he was sentenced for his part in the Abu Ghraib atrocities. The world outside is a far greater prison for Tell, who, as well as being haunted by his past, is embittered at how others, including his former superior Col. John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), have got away with things and even thrived. The Card Counter bears more than a passing resemblance to Taxi Driver, which Schrader also wrote, and Isaac’s Tell is a soul similarly adrift in the world to Travis Bickle, but one who has at least found a discipline that trammels him. Yet another fine spiritual portrait by the once-Calvinist disciple of Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson.

  1. Undine – Christian Petzold (Germany/France) 90 minutes

After a few detours elsewhere, Christian Petzold returns to contemporary Germany for this adaptation of the euro-mermaid myth, with a very particular backdrop: the urbanism of Berlin. The titular Undine (Paula Beer, who appears to have now dislodged Nina Hoss as Petzold’s leading lady) is a historian who lectures on the German capital’s urban development. She starts an affair with an industrial diver, Christoph (Franz Rogowski) but it gets suddenly interrupted and he is then unable to find her again, and it becomes increasingly doubtful if she ever existed in the first place. Undine is a disarmingly modest film whose impeccable realism is belied by the dark fantasy that lies beneath. It is also a chilly reminder of the watery depths that exist even in the stone and concrete of contemporary cities.

  1. Nomadland – Chloé Zhao (United States) 108 minutes

The Academy’s recent commitment to greater diversity of representation might have seemed to many as tokenistic window dressing but it has also had the effect of resulting in more interesting films getting nominated, and, for the second year in a row, a good film won Best Picture. Though Zhao was head-hunted by serial Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (who won again for this) to adapt Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, Nomadland’s success did seem to come out of nowhere. McDormand is great as the quietly stubborn Fern who decides to live on the road after her husband dies and the gypsum plant where they both worked closes down.

Zhao’s previous documentary style is in evidence here again with much of the cast real-life nomads themselves, a phenomenon that took off following the mass loss of jobs and homes in the Great Recession. Fern’s embrace of a life on the road is far from romanticised–if anything, it is configured as a form of grieving–and you sense she is ill at ease with it, for want of any alternative (or at least any alternative she herself can tolerate). Nomadland isn’t perfect–there is too little said of the economic circumstances that forced many into modern nomadism and Amazon, in particular, is cast in far too positive a light–but it’s a refreshingly different Best Picture winner.

  1. Annette – Leos Carax (France/Germany/Belgium/Japan/Mexico/Switzerland/
    United States) 140 minutes

Though Leos Carax’s musical, written in collaboration with Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, is superficially similar to other musicals of recent times, such as Dancer in the Dark and La La Land, there is also something inimitable about it, as is ever the case with a Carax film. The plot of a possibly abusive marriage between edgy stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and soprano Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) is fairly unremarkable but the emotional intensity that Carax ratchets up, particularly in its astounding final scene, is exceptional. Annette, underneath all the singing and pageantry is a raw film and, though it is not exactly conventional, cleaves closer to a recognised narrative than most of Carax’s work. There are also a few amusing in-jokes, one of which appears to be Cotillard, in one of her scenes on stage, sending up her famously badly acted death scene in The Dark Knight Rises. A splendidly strange film.

  1. Titane – Julia Ducournau (France/Belgium) 108 minutes

Ducournau’s body horror flick was a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. Following her brilliantly gruelling cannibalism debut Raw, Ducournau serves up a rough diamond of a film that is ambiguous in every sense of the word, not least that it features a serial killer as its heroine. Former journalist and stylist Agathe Rousselle is a revelation as Alexia, a woman who had a titanium plate fitted into her head after a childhood car crash, and who is estranged from her parents and has a particularly violent streak. She passes herself off as the long-lost son of a middle-aged fireman (Vincent Lindon) even though it appears that he isn’t particularly taken in by the ruse. Titane is a film that is hard to synopsize without making it seem irrevocably risible, but it is a fascinatingly outré portrait of unchecked impulses and alienation that does justice to its most obvious filmic reference–David Cronenberg (and his son Brandon). Not quite as gruesome as initially reported but rather a thoughtful horror film that throws up a host of troubling questions without ever getting schematic.

Also worth a look

The Lighthouse – Robert Eggers (United States/Canada) 109 minutes

Ema – Pablo Larraín (Chile) 102 minutes

Burning Ghost (Vif-argent) – Stéphane Batut (France) 104 minutes

Meanwhile on Earth (Samtidigt på Jorden) – Carl Olsson (Sweden/Denmark/Estonia) 72 minutes

Josep – Aurel (France/Belgium/Spain) 74 minutes

Dead Pigs (Hǎishàng fúchéng) – Cathy Yan (China/United States) 121 minutes

Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart (Ireland/Luxembourg/France) 103 minutes

Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art – Barry Avrich (Canada) 94 minutes

Sound of Metal – Darius Marder (United States) 120 minutes

The Hater (Sala samobójców. Hejter) – Jan Komasa (Poland) 135 minutes

Little Big Women (Gū wèi) – Joseph Hsu (Taiwan) 123 minutes

Pieces of a Woman – Kornél Mandruczó (Canada/United States) 128 minutes

Judas and the Black Messiah – Shaka King (United States) 126 minutes

She Dies Tomorrow – Amy Seimetz (United States) 87 minutes

Uppercase Print – Radu Jude (Romania) 128 minutes

The Call (Kol) – Lee Chung-hyun (South Korea) 112 minutes

Soul – Peter Docter (United States) 100 minutes

The Father – Florian Zeller (France/United Kingdom) 97 minutes

Concrete Cowboy – Ricky Staub (United States) 111 minutes

Let Them All Talk/No Sudden Move – Steven Soderbergh (United States) 113 minutes/115 minutes

The Last Shift – Andrew Cohn (United States) 90 minutes

The Mauritanian – Kevin Macdonald (United Kingdom/United States) 129 minutes

The Harder They Fall – Jeymes Samuel (United States) 139 minutes

Drifting (Zuk seoi piu lau) – Li Jun (Hong Kong) 112 minutes

Zola – Janicza Bravo (United States) 86 minutes

The Killing of Two Lovers – Robert Machoian (United States) 84 minutes

Lapsis – Noah Hutton (United States) 108 minutes

Mangrove – Steve McQueen (United Kingdom/United States) 128 minutes

The Humans – Stephen Karam (United States) 108 minutes

Labyrinth of Cinema (Umibe no eigakan kinema no tamatebako) – Nobuhiko Obayashi (Japan) 179 minutes

The Velvet Underground – Todd Haynes (United States) 110 minutes

The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion (Australia/New Zealand/United Kingdom/Canada) 126 minutes

Memories to Choke on, Drinks to Wash Them Down (Jé hoeng, Jyún joeng, Sham Shui Po) – Leung Ming-kai, Kate Reilly (Hong Kong) 78 minutes

Petite maman – Céline Sciamma (France) 72 minutes

The Green Knight – David Lowery (United States/Canada) 130 minutes

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