Dan Sallitt

Dan Sallitt is a filmmaker and film writer living in New York

Films released for the first time in 2021, in approximate order of preference:

  1. El Planeta (Amalia Ulman, 2021)
  2. Souad (Ayten Amin, 2021)
  3. Koozhangal (Pebbles, P. S. Vinothraj, 2021)
  4. Outside Noise (Ted Fendt, 2021)
  5. France (Bruno Dumont, 2021)
  6. Quién lo impide (Who’s Stopping Us, Jonás Trueba, 2021)
  7. Susanna Andler (Benoît Jacquot, 2021)
  8. The Cathedral (Ricky D’Ambrose, 2021)
  9. Dangsin-eolgul-apeseo (In Front of Your Face, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)
  10. Espíritu sagrado (The Sacred Spirit, Chema García Ibarra, 2021)
  11. Wood and Water (Jonas Bak, 2021)

I usually add many films to this list after the year-end submission deadline.

Older films encountered for the first time in 2021, in chronological order. Each of these films would be in my 2021 top five if they were released this year:

Mashenka (Yuli Raizman, 1942)
A esli eto lyubov? (But What If This Is Love?, Yuli Raizman, 1962)
Once More (Paul Vecchiali, 1988)
Aux petits bonheurs (Life’s Little Treasures, Michel Deville, 1994)
Kippur (Amos Gitai, 2000)
Emek Tiferet (Beautiful Valley, Hadar Friedlich, 2011)
Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015)
Temporada (Long Way Home, André Novais Oliveira, 2018)
Jong chak yeok (Short Vacation, Kwon Min-pyo and Han-Sol Seo, 2020)

I won’t play favorites among all the great online series that made home viewing worthwhile this year, but I do notice that I crossed a psychological line sometime in the last decade, maybe during the pandemic, and would no longer cite “watching movies” as the most important reason to live in big cities. When I was an 18-year-old cinephile, I imagined the future as a home screening system that could show movies on demand from all international film archives. Having not foreseen the internet, I thought that centralized film collections would be necessary for any such system. Anyway, I lived long enough to get what I wished for, mutatis mutandis.

El Planeta

Maria San Filippo

Editor-in-Chief, New Review of Film and Television Studies

Not having managed a “best of” last year – the first I’ve missed in a decade, but it was that kind of year – I’m excited to get back to both list-making and movie-going. In alphabetical order, here’s what I loved most and the five cherished art house cinemas where I watched them. 

Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2021)
Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline, MA, USA)
Hansen-Løve’s meditation on life-as-art-as-life is her most moving, fully realized work to date, assisted by a perfect quartet of lead performers and (it must be said) an utterly sublime marriage of Maestro Bergman and ABBA.

The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)
Kendall Square Cinema (Cambridge, MA, USA)
Following First Reformed (2017), this second shocker of Schrader’s late period is a fierce four-hander – all supreme performances – about redemption, revenge, and life in endless wartime. 

Days (Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
30 years since Tsai and muse/creative partner Lee Kang-sheng first teamed up, their latest collaboration simmers with their signature slow-build, deep-seated desire for connection, and generational sense of time lost and – thanks to cinema – regained. 

L’événement (Happening, Audrey Diwan, 2021)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
Arriving amidst U.S. rollbacks against reproductive freedoms, Diwan’s adaptation of memoirist Annie Ernaux’s harrowing pursuit to terminate her pregnancy in early 1960s France made my “Filming Abortion” themed playlist and warns why – paraphrasing Planned Parenthood – we can’t go back. 

Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar, 2021)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
Penélope Cruz and the too-long-buried legacy of Franco’s Spain clearly make for combustive creative inspiration, as the septuagenarian filmmaker’s late period has me hooked more than ever. Together with Volver (2006) and Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, 2019), it’s Almodóvar’s Holy Trinity.

Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
This intricately constructed jewel box of a film is as serene as Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019) was impassioned; that they are only her fourth and fifth features, released two years apart, make them all the more momentous.

Red Rocket (Sean Baker, 2021)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
Baker works in mysterious ways: alchemizing Americana at its most degenerate yet uplifting, treating his characters lovingly yet knowingly, ingratiating itself as charmingly as Simon Rex’s hustling protagonist. Though his aims don’t appear political, Baker’s films could unite us all.

The Souvenir: Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2021)
Angelika Film Center (New York, NY, USA)
Like Bergman Island, this story of a stalled woman’s fumbling to find creative drive by recalling a lost love results in his, and her, revival through filmmaking. Resisting closure, Part II complicates rather than resolves Part I, by making meandering the artistic end the point in itself.  

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised, Amir Questlove Thompson, 2021)
Kendall Square Cinema (Cambridge, MA, USA)
This transcendent document of the Summer of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival provided a rush of jubilation as the lockdown eased, even while giving a wistful reminder of when revolution seemed realizable; every musical act nails it, but they save the best for last.

Verdens verste menneske (The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier, 2021)
Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA, USA)
An exhilarating portrait of a woman’s becoming and a man’s withering, and the shape-shifting bond between them, with a breakout performance by Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie at his most astonishing yet.

Gūzen to Sōzō (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
Film Forum (New York, NY, USA)
As rumors of (not yet seen) Doraibu mai kā (Drive My Car, 2021), Hamaguchi’s other film topping the year’s best lists, is a quiet marvel, pray that he remains as prolific as Yasujirō Ozu, whose playful solemnity he seems to have inherited. 

Honorable mention for most promising newcomer: 

numb (Liv McNeil, 2020)
A belated find, to which I’m definitely late to the game but amazed, nonetheless. 

Contenders I’m still waiting to behold on the big, or small, screen: Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021), Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021), The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2020), Doraibu mai kā (Drive My Car, Dune, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021), France (Bruno Dumont, 2021), The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021), Ghahreman (A Hero, Asghar Farhadi, 2021), The Humans (Stephen Karam, 2021), I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader, 2021), Kajillionaire (Miranda July, 2020), Language Lessons (Natalie Morales, 2021), Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021), The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, 2021), Malcolm & Marie (Sam Levinson, 2021), Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021), Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, 2021), El Planeta (Amalia Ulman, 2021), The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021), Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Lili Horvát, 2020), Procession (Robert Greene, 2021), Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021), Test Pattern (Shatara Michelle Ford, 2019), Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021), The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck, 2020), Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, Aleksandre Koberidze, 2021), Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2020)  – and no doubt many more.

Summer of Soul

Rowena Santos Aquino

Los Angeles-based film lecturer and critic

Favourite films viewed in 2021

2021 releases

Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021)*
El Planeta (Amalia Ulman, 2021)*
Una película de policías (A Cop Movie, Alonso Ruizpalacios, 2021)
Стоп-Земля (Stop-Zemlia, Kateryna Gornostai, 2021)*

Time irregardless

Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, 2020)
Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Lili Horváth, 2020)
Gull (Kim Mi-jo, 2020)*
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Werner Herzog, 2010)
In the Land of Lost Angels (Bishrel Mashbat, 2019)*
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019)
The Fugitive (John Ford, 1947)
The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili, 2020)*
The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree, 2020)
Tiong Bahru Social Club (Bee Thiam Tan, 2020)*

Honourable mentions

Anima (Cao Jinling, 2020)*
Liborio (Nino Martínez Sosa, 2021)*
Μήλα (Apples, Christos Nikou, 2020)*
Taming the Garden (Salomé Jashi, 2021)
Toda la luz que podemos ver (All the Light That We Can See, Pablo Escoto, 2020)

*debut feature

Jack Sargeant

Jack Sargeant is an author, casual academic, and curator – working as program director of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. In 2021 he also assisted in programming the Sydney Underground Film Festival.

As ever, I’m sure this will change and I’ve probably missed something out, but these films all caught my attention and imagination in 2021. These are presented in no particular order…

Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude, 2021) – there’s a combination of Brechtian cinema, melodrama, and explicit sex in this analysis of online porn, collective hypocrisy, and the power of social and cultural opprobrium. The shift between the three acts is fascinating and there’s a real sense of the possibilities of cinematic storytelling at play here.  

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021) – this looked and sounded great on the big screen, I saw it twice at the cinema, which is rare for me. Several people mentioned it in the same vein as Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996), but to me this is a misreading of both texts. Titane is its own (motorized) beast. A fascinating combination of body horror, maybe even a mutant form of science fiction, a family drama, and many other things. 

Bad Girls (Christopher Bickel, 2021) – the kind of no-budget, absurd, gleefully-nihilistic women-and-guns interstate-crime-spree-road-movie that you need in your life. 

In The Earth (Ben Wheatley, 2021) – I am a fan of Wheatley’s work and this low-key horror is no exception. 

Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg, 2021) – the story of one woman’s attempts to break into the porn industry, this really stayed with me after viewing. 

Other, Like Me (Marcus Werner Hed, Dan Fox, 2020) – the Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle documentary. Pretty much essential viewing for fans of TG and Coum Transmissions, perhaps it’s obvious I am, but I was very pleased to see this. 

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths & Legendary Tapes (Caroline Catz, 2020) – as somebody who grew up in the seventies and as a fan of Dr Who, Derbyshire’s work was central to my childhood. This film really told her story and helped contextualize her work. 

The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, 2021) – a great year for music documentaries (an honourable mention here to the equally enjoyable King Rocker, Michael Cumming, 2020), but this was just perfect. I watched it just coming out of lockdown and it was exactly the right film at the right time. A good use of archive footage that draws on many early Sixties’ underground movies to create its atmosphere. 

The Suicide Squad (James Gunn, 2021) – I tend to feel most superhero movies are mindless and largely forgettable fun, but James Gunn yet again takes the form and plays with it. In The Suicide Squad he seems to renounce any attempt to create the kind of canonical intertextual work that many seem to relish instead, inventing something that gleefully dances through the more surreal possibilities of the genre. 

Swan Song (Todd Stephens, 2021) – Udo Kier is on top form in this story of ageing, community, and friendship.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Christine Sathiah

Christine Sathiah runs a film club in Penang, Malaysia

2021, unfortunately, because of the pandemic, was not a great “cru” for outstanding films but, thankfully, there were a few notable exceptions. Some of the films in my list were released earlier but only watched this year:

In no particular order:

The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Colectiv (Collective, Alexander Nanau, 2019)

Dorogie Tovarishchi! (Dear Comrades!, Andrei Konchalovsky, 2020)

Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma, 2021)

Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude, 2021)

– The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)

Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Radu Jude, 2018)

Ya no estoy aquí (I’m No Longer Here, Fernando Frías, 2019)

Domangchin yeoja (The Woman who Ran, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)

A special mention to:

Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie (Never Gonna Snow Again, Malgorzata Szumowska, 2020)

Blue Bayou (Justin Chon, 2021)

Pig (M. Samoski, 2021)

Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021)

Deux (Two of Us, Filippo Meneghetti, 2019)

Discovered or revisited:

Nippon konchūki (The Insect Woman, Shohei Imamura, 1963) 

Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Our Beloved Month of August, Miguel Gomes, 2008)

Ka-pe-neu-wa-reu (Café Noir, Jung Sung-il, 2009)

Sibir. Monamur (Siberia, Monamour, Vyacheslav Ross, 2011)

Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004) 

– And the wonderful, epic Sibiriada (Siberiade, Andrei Konchalovsky,1979)

Barnabé Sauvage & Occitane Lacurie

Occitane Lacurie and Barnabé Sauvage are researchers and members of the editorial board of the French cinema journal Débordements

Here is our list of the best artist films seen in 2021, in the order in which we discovered them. As a way of recalling the prominent role of cinema programming, especially during the Covid era, we also include the event(s) during which we saw the film.”

All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony, 2021), Sheffield Doc/Fest
Juste un mouvement (Vincent Meessen, 2021), Sheffield Doc/Fest / FIDMarseille)
One Image Two Acts (Sanaz Sohrabi, 2020), Sheffield Doc/Fest
Spirit Film (Raya Martin, 2020), The Essay Film Festival, London
Madame Negritude (Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, work in progress), The Essay Film Festival, London
Tellurian Drama (Riar Rizaldi, 2020), Cinéma du réel, Paris
The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili, 2020), Cinéma du réel, Paris
Festina Lente (Baya Medhaffar, 2021), FIDMarseille, Festival des Cinémas Différents et Expérimentaux de Paris
Night Colonies (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021), Festival de Cannes
Il buco (The Hole, Michelangelo Frammartino, 2021), Festival de la Villa Médicis, Rome
Tugging Diary (Yan Wai Yin, 2021), Festival des Cinémas Différents et Expérimentaux de Paris
A Lack of Clarity (Stefan Kruse Jørgensen, 2020), Festival des Cinémas Différents et Expérimentaux de Paris
Pseudosphynx (Ana Vaz, 2020), research seminar with the artist

Howard Schumann

Film reviewer for thecriticalcritics.com

1. The Rescue (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, 2021)

The Rescue is the tension-filled story of the rescue of twelve young soccer players, ages 10-16, and their coach trapped in a cave in Northern Thailand in 2018. Though it was a retreat the boys had often used in the past, they found themselves surrounded by water two miles from the cave entrance, facing long odds for survival. The film is a deeply moving experience that should be seen on the big screen for full impact.

2. Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Aleksandre Koberidze, 2021)

Winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlinale, Koberidze celebrates the country of Georgia and the city of Kutaisi showing joy on the faces of small children, the slow-motion choreographed rhythm of a soccer game, and the eternal power of two human beings who find magic in each other’s presence. The sense of seeing the world newly permeates this lovely cinematic tone poem that bounces between playful fantasy and documentary-like realism.

3. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020)*

Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road, exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, Nomadland features real nomads as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West. Fern adopts a nomadic, hand-to-mouth lifestyle, and along the way, she meets other kindred spirits, modern-day nomads whose entire generation suffered a crippling blow after the 2008 financial collapse.

4. Beautiful Something Left Behind (Katrine Philp, 2020)*

The efforts of a non-profit New Jersey group, “Good Grief”, founded in 2004 to offer support for children and surviving parents who have lost someone close, are documented in the remarkable film Beautiful Something Left Behind, winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. In spite of the difficult subject matter, the film is filled with elements of joy as well as sadness and the resilience of children.

5. Words on Bathroom Walls (Thor Freudenthal, 2020)*

High-school student Adam Petrazelli lives in a world without silence. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, the voices in his head never stop, interfering with his ability to function and endangering his need to graduate from high school and fulfil his dream of going to culinary school. The film is framed by Adam’s own narration. Speaking to an unseen and unheard psychiatrist, Adam takes us into his confidence as he talks about his daily challenges. 

6. Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre (Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, Lili Horvát, 2020)*

Hungary’s submission for Best International Film at the 2021 Academy Awards, the film is a meditation on loneliness, the role of projection in a love relationship, and the problems we have in communicating the truth to each other. Complete with a femme fatale, loads of atmosphere enhanced by Gabor Keresztes’ score, and bits of opera and chamber piano music, it is an absorbing viewing experience that keeps us riveted, attempting to find out if there are any answers at the bottom of all the questions. 

7. Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020)*

Winner of the Sundance Award for Best Director, Garrett Bradley’s stunning documentary, Time, shows the human cost on a Black family in Louisiana coping with the absence of husband and father of six boys, Robert Richardson, sentenced to sixty years in prison for the attempted robbery of a credit union. The passage of time in the film, as shown in the videos compiled by wife and mother, Sibil Fox Richardson – known as Fox Rich, reflects the boys’ growth from childhood to young adults, an entire life without having ever known what it means to have a father.

8. 1982 (Oualid Mouaness, 2019)*

Mouaness looks at the Israeli-Lebanese War through the eyes of pre-adolescent children in Cedar High School, a private elementary school near Beirut. Based on his own experience as a ten-year old student on the last day of school in Lebanon in 1982, Mouaness’ film explores the children’s attempt to make sense of an incomprehensible situation, one that they can sense is fraught with danger for themselves and their families. The film shows that in “the darkest places of human behaviour generosity and love can survive; that humanity and love can overcome cruelty and brutality.”

9. Khorshid (Sun Children, Majid Majidi, 2020)*

Sun Children’s focus is on the street kids of Tehran – children of absent, addicted, or unemployed refugee parents, forced to sell trinkets on trains or buses, work jobs that require manual labour, or compelled to steal, transport drugs, and protect criminals from the police. No stranger to films about young people, the film continues in the tradition of Majidi’s works such as Bæccähâ-ye âsmân (Children of Heaven, 1997) and Rang-e Khodā (The Color of Paradise, 1999), the first two Iranian films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. His works have a purity and innocence that allows young people to see images on the screen that have relevance to their life. 

10. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)

Directed by Jane Campion, the first female director to win the Palme D’Or, in 1993 for The Piano, The Power of the Dog is a provocative exploration of toxic masculinity and its effect on women and families, a theme that dominated the myth of the Old West in American literature and films for half a century. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, the focus is on the relationship between two brothers, both wealthy ranchers: the overbearing Phil Burbank and his laidback brother George, his civility a sharp contrast with his brother’s brazen and bullying demeanour.

*Released in Canada in 2021

Honourable Mention: C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, 2021)

Disappointments: Benediction (Terence Davies, 2021)

The Power of the Dog

Christopher Small

Writer, filmmaker, and programmer based in Prague, Czech Republic

A 15ª Pedra (The 15th Stone, Rita Azevedo Gomes, 2007)
Aquí se construye (o Ya no existe el lugar donde nací) (Under Construction, or the Place I Was Born No Longer Exists, Ignacio Agüero, 2000)
Auksinis flakonas (Golden Flask, Jurgis Matulevičius and Paulius Anicas, 2021)
Banditi a orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, Vittorio de Seta, 1961) 35mm
The Blunder of Love (Rocco di Mento, 2021) DCP
Charm Circle (Nira Burstein, 2021) DCP
Čiary (Lines, Barbora Sliepková, 2021)
Der Untertan (The Kaiser’s Lackey/Man of Straw, Wolfgang Staudte, 1951) 35mm
Diários de Otsoga (The Tsugua Diaries, Maureen Fazendeiro, Miguel Gomes, 2021)
É Rocha e Rio, Negro Leo (Riverock, Paula Gaitán, 2020)
Esquirlas (Splinters, Natalia Garayalde, 2020)
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)
Gorbachev. Heaven (Vitaly Mansky, 2021)
Grenzland (Borderland, Andreas Voigt, 2020)
Hanare goze Orin (Ballad of Orin, Masahiro Shinoda, 1977) 35mm
Higit (Tug, Jon Lazam, 2021)
Juste un mouvement (Just a Movement, Vincent Meessen, 2021) DCP
A Kid’s Flick (Nikita Lavretski, 2021) DCP
L’hippocampe, ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Sea Horse, Jean Painlevé, 1934)
La Spiagga (The Beach/Riviera, Alberto Lattuada, 1954) DCP
Leto (Summer, Vadim Kostrov, 2021)
Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962) 35mm
The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder, 1942)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021) DCP
Narodnaya (Vadim Kostrov, 2019) DCP
A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, 2021) DCP
No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, Pedro Costa, 2000) DCP
Not Wanted (Elmer Clifton, 1949)
Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm: Essa Terra É Nossa! (This is Our Land!, Carolina Canguçu, Isael Maxakali, Sueli Maxakali, Roberto Romero, 2020)
O Fantasma (The Phantom, João Pedro Rodrigues, 2000)
Orpheus (Vadim Kostrov, 2020) DCP
Outside Noise (Ted Fendt, 2021) DCP
Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935) 35mm
Picasso in Vallauris (Peter Nestler, 2020)
Senza pietà (Without Pity, Alberto Lattuada, 1948) DCP
Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, Edwin, 2021) DCP
Silvia Prieto (Martín Rejtman, 1999)
Sinyaya Rosa (Blue Rose, Olya Korsun, 2020)
Sud saneha (Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002) 35mm
Surviving You, Always (Morgan Quaintance, 2021)
Toute une nuit (A Whole Night/All Night Long, Chantal Akerman, 1982) 35mm
U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet, Samad Mardanov, 1936)
Victor Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
Yari no gonza (Gonza the Spearman, Masahiro Shinoda, 1986) 35mm
Yi Yi: A One and A Two (Edward Yang, 2000) 35mm
Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1937)
Zima (Winter, Vadim Kostrov, 2021) DCP

Valerie Soe

Writer and filmmaker, author of the blog Beyond Asiaphilia

2021 saw the COVID-19 pandemic grind on, with some respites between variants  that allowed for a few in-person screening experiences. But for the most part my film-watching took place online, with a few exceptions. Herein follows my favorite films viewed in 2021, in random order.

  1. Attica (Stanley Nelson, 2021)
    Viewed at Doc Stories, at the 2021 San Francisco International Film Festival. An utterly devastating documentary about the infamous 1971 upstate New York prison uprising. Stanley Nelson masterfully weaves together archival footage with contemporary interviews with survivors of the rebellion and the result is a haunting, incendiary indictment of the police and carceral state. This one stayed with me for a long time.
  2. La Nuit Des Rois, (Night of the Kings, Philippe Lacôte, 2020)
    Viewed at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Another film about inmates, this time set in the infamous MACA Prison in the Ivory Coast. The film is a fantastical, gritty, and gripping fable about creativity, survival and the power of storytelling. 
  3. Faceless (Jennifer Ngo, 2021)
    Viewed at the 2021 Hawai’i International Film Festival. This documentary follows four anonymous participants in the 2019 Hong Kong protests as they demonstrate for the human rights of citizens in the city. Watching the events documented a year or so after they occurred, with full knowledge of the ultimately futile demands of the protestors, is similar to watching Attica. You know this doesn’t have a happy ending, but you can’t help rooting for the protagonists in their quixotic efforts. 
  4. Balsinjehan (Hard Hit, Kim Jang-ju, 2021)
    Tense and well-crafted, this film is everything you’d want from a South Korean thriller and more. Jo Woo-Jin is outstanding as an ordinary man suddenly facing a bomb crisis, who is forced to go to extremes to save his family from destruction. Heartthrob Ji Chang Wook plays against type as the obsessive antagonist who terrorizes a seemingly innocent family. Along the way the film makes a cogent commentary about South Korea’s crisis of compressed modernity. 
  5. Zuk Seoi Piu Lau (Drifting, Jun Li, 2021)
    Viewed at the 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Jun Li’s socio-conscious narrative follows several homeless denizens of Hong Kong as they attempt to retain some semblance of humanity and dignity despite the dire straits of their daily existence. Anchored by Francis Ng’s stunning turn as the ex-con junkie Big-Eye Fai, the film is an empathetic look at the forgotten street dwellers sleeping rough beneath Hong Kong’s glittering skyline.
  6. The Sparks Brothers (Edgar Wright, 2021)
    Viewed at the 2021 South by Southwest Festival. Emulating the cheeky and off-kilter attitude of its subjects, the documentary follows brothers Russell and Ron Mael from their childhood in Southern California through their long and winding musical career as pop duo Sparks. I’ve always been a fan of Sparks and their unique and twisted pop stylings, led by Russell Mael’s dramatic and operatic high tenor and Ron Mael’s sophisticated keyboards and songwriting. Throughout the film, their wit and intelligence shine through.
  7. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, 2021)
    I loved the way Todd Haynes remixed classic experimental movies and treated them like found footage. Shirley Clarke, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and many others are all part of the mashup. It’s hilarious, ironic and horrifying that he uses those films just like we 90s kids used old educational movies back in the day. To the average viewer, those clips may be just as anonymous and meaningless as educational films. But, some experimental film acolytes got a bit bent out of shape over the irreverence of it all. Turnabout is fair play, I say.
  8. 7 days (Roshan Sethi, 2021)

Viewed at the 2021 Hawai’i International Film Festival. A charming and amusing little romcom about a pair of strangers thrown together at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in the US. Lead actors Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan deliver spot-on comic performances. Nothing is quite as it appears at the start of this entertaining tale about two ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desi) who meet on a blind date set up by their parents. Traditional expectations about love, arranged marriage, family obligations and compatibility are turned on their head. 

  1. Sau Gyun Jin (Hand-Rolled Cigarette, Chan Kin Long, 2020) 

Viewed at the 2021 Hawai’i International Film Festival. Hand-Rolled Cigarette updates Hong Kong’s storied gangster films to the 21st century, centering around the uneasy relationship between a Chinese Hong Konger (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) and a South Asian immigrant (Bipin Karma) who are caught in the middle of various shady activities. Hong Kong cinema, as a rule, tends to ignore minority communities living in the territory. The focus on the South Asian residents of the Chungking Mansions is refreshing and enlightening.

Honorable mentions: Singkeuhol (Sinkhole, Kim Ji-hoon, 2021); Águilas (Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Maite Zubiaurre, 2021); Red Taxi (anonymous, 2020); Flugt (Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen);  Qīn’ài de fángkè (Dear Tenant, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020); Fanny: The Right to Rock (Bobbi Jo Hart, 2021)

Bonus: memorable film viewed for the first time in 2021. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 2004). Loved this one for humanizing the larger-than-life metal legends during a particularly fraught period in their lives.

Mark Spratt

Independent film distributor and cinephile.

In a year with a vast number of films seen via streaming links, many of which one is aware have diminished impact in not being seen on a big screen, I’ve chosen today ten which have stuck with me the most, including three which, as a distributor, I’ve paid shall we say a bit more than the usual price of admission to share with others – the best testament I could give?

The year’s home viewing has also been rich with enhanced access to many festivals and discoveries, such as those from Bologna and Pordenone and troves found on Mubi (the extraordinary films of Sergei Balabanov), and recently the 35mm.online/en site with an amazing restored archive of Polish cinema and the opportunity to see many films from directors such as Wojciech Has, Feliks Falk and more.

In alphabetical order:

Annette (Leos Carax, 2021)
Babardeală cu Buluc Sau Porno Balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude, 2021)
Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)
Doraibu mai kā  (Drive my Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
Gûzen to Sôhô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
La Civil (Teodora Mihai, 2021)
Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar, 2021)
Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt? (What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, Aleksandre Koberidze, 2021)
Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021)

And hovering in and out of this top ten would be:

Kapitan Volkonogov Bezhal (Captain Volkonogov Escaped, Aleksey Chupov, Natasha Merkulova, 2021)
Madeleine Collins (Antoine Barraud, 2021)
Noche de Fuego (Prayers For the Stolen, Tatiana Huezo, 2021)
Old Henry (Potsy Ponciroli, 2021)
Piccolo Corpo (Small Body, Laura Samani, 2021)
Red Rocket (Sean Baker, 2021)
Saint Maud (Rose Glass, 2019)

Drive My Car

Madalina Stefan

Postdoctoral researcher for film, literature and cultural studies, Mecila

Films released for the first time in 2021 (festivals, cinemas, streaming services):

Gûzen to Sôhô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)
È stata la mano di Dio (The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino, 2021)
Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó, 2020)
Doraibu mai kā (Drive my Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
The Assistant (Kitty Green, 2019)
Spencer (Pablo Larraín, 2021)
Passing (Rebecca Hall, 2021)
Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021)
Druk (Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020)
News of the World (Paul Greengrass, 2020)
Lapsis (Noah Hutton, 2020)
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)
The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021)

 Older films encountered for the first time in 2020

Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955)
The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)
Due soldi di speranza (Two Cents Worth of Hope, Renato Castellani, 1952)
La triologie de la cabane (Eric Pauwels, 2002, 2009, 2016)
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)
Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986)
Muchos niños, un mono y un Castillo (Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle, Gustavo Salmerón, 2017)
Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020)
The Nest (Sean Durkin, 2020)
Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven, Mia Hansen-Løve,  2007)
L´heure d´été (Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas, 2008)
La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969)
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, 2013)
Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens contributes regularly to Sight & Sound. He is currently working on an updated edition of his book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (FAB Press, 2004)

Films of the Year (in roughly preferential order)

  1. Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara, 2021)
  2. Dangsin-eolgul-apeseo (In Front of Your Face, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)
  3. Annette (Leos Carax, 2021)
  4. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, 2021)
  5. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)
  6. Chansilineun bokdo manhji (Lucky Chan-sil, Kim Cho-hee, 2019)
  7. Pretend It’s a City (Martin Scorsese, 2021)
  8. Le sel des larmes (The Salt of Tears, Philippe Garrel, 2019)
  9. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019)
  10. Rifkin’s Festival (Woody Allen, 2020)

Zeros and Ones

Iván Suárez

Writer and cinephile, Gijón

Best films seen at cinemas, festivals and streaming services in 2021 (listed alphabetically)

Adrienne (Andy Ostroy, 2021)
The Amusement Park (George A. Romero, 1973)
Annette (Leos Carax, 2021)
Baby (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 2020)
The Beatles: Get Back (Peter Jackson, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 2021)
El buen patrón (The Good Boss, Fernando León de Aranoa, 2021)
Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, 2021)
Dangsin-eolgul-apeseo (In Front of Your Face, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)
Dorogie tovarishchi (Dear Comrades!, Andrei Konchalovsky, 2020)
Druk (Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)
È stata la mano di Dio (The Hand of God, Paolo Sorrentino, 2021)
He Dreams of Giants (Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe, 2019)
Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021)
Lux Æterna (Gaspar Noé, 2019)
Malignant (James Wan, 2021)
¡Ni te me acerques! (Norberto Ramos del Val, 2020)
El Planeta (Amalia Ulman, 2021)
Shangri-La (Isabel Sandoval, 2021)
Soul (Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, 2020)
Stillwater (Tom McCarthy, 2021)
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Ahmir Questlove Thompson, 2021)
Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)
Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020)
Uno para todos (One For All, David Ilundaín, 2020)
Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara, 2021)

Very good films seen at cinemas, festivals and streaming services in 2021 (listed alphabetically)

Ammonite (Francis Lee, 2020)
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)
C’mon C’mon (Mike Mills, 2021)
Domangchin yeoja (The Woman Who Ran, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)
The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020)
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, 2020)
Gunda (Viktor Kossakovsky, 2020)
Gûzen to sôzô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
House of Gucci (Ridley Scott, 2021)
Inteurodeoksyeon (Introduction, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)
Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar, 2021)
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)
The Mitchells vs the Machines (Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe, 2021)
One Night in Miami… (Regina King, 2020)
Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, 2021)
Rien à foutre (Zero Fucks Given, Julie Lecoustre, Emmanuel Marre, 2021)
Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut (Sylvester Stallone, 2021)
Supai no tsuma (Wife of a Spy, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2020)
The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, 2021)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020)

30 best older films new to me without repeating director (in chronological order)

Pósle smérti (After Death, Yevgeni Bauer, 1915)
City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930)
An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934)
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951)
The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. DeMille, 1952)
The Happy Time (Richard Fleischer, 1952)
The Long Gray Line (John Ford, 1955)
All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
7 Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)
La vida por delante (Life Ahead, Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1958)
Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, Francesco Rosi, 1972)
Kanashimi no Beradonna (Belladonna of Sadness, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)
Cet obscur object du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel, 1977)
Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)
An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978)
Girlfriends (Claudia Weill, 1978)
La città delle donne (City of Women, Federico Fellini, 1980)
Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach, Éric Rohmer, 1983)
À nos amours (To Our Loves, Maurice Pialat, 1983)
Christine (Alan Clarke, 1987)
Parents (Bob Balaban, 1989)
O sangue (Blood, Pedro Costa, 1989)
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
En construcción (Work in Progress, José Luis Guerín, 2001)
Southland Tales: The Cannes Cut (Richard Kelly, 2021)
Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval, 2019)

There are several films that have not yet been released in Spain (the ones made by Paul Schrader, Apichatpong Weersasethakul, Mamoru Hosoda, Gaspar Noé or the other Hamaguchi – Osachi) or I was unable to see them for various reasons (the ones made by Clara Roquet, Agustí Villaronga or Chema García Ibarra). They will be included (or not) next year when I see them in cinemas, on home video or via streaming platforms, depending on each case. It was a good year, despite the usual share of disappointments, mediocrities and horrors, whether they were made by established auteurs or by committee, but it is not worthwhile to talk about them. As I always say, maybe the problem is with me for failing to appreciate their merits. This year was unforgettable for me as a cinephile due to discovering the work of Maurice Pialat, Alan Clarke and José Luis Guerín, and I also encountered for the first time many great films by Éric Rohmer, King Vidor and Richard Fleischer when I watched a retrospective of their work at home. In addition to this, I had the great fortune of physically attending the Gijón International Film Festival, where I saw some of the films included on these lists.

2021 marked the 40th anniversary of Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981), one of the films of my life. There is a line spoken by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez as Cynthia Hawkins (in the titular role) where she says, “It is up to business to adapt to art, and not to art to adapt to business.” Beineix himself said that he knew this line was very naïve, but he still believed in it. I believe in that line too, especially in the times we are living right now. Let’s hope things get better for everyone at every level and let’s see what 2022 will bring in the form of new, great films like those made by Leos Carax and Clint Eastwood, new great voices like Amalia Ulman and new, challenging and stimulating works like Abel Ferrara’s latest.

In Front of Your Face

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