Maya at 24 – Lynne Sachs’ short uses the simple image of her daughter Maya running in front of the camera to offer kinetic snapshots of how our children change physically and emotionally over the years.Peter Wong
For this writing filmgoer, 2021 offered the first tentative steps back to pre-pandemic filmgoing. Film festivals adjusted in various ways to using both online streaming and in-person events to reach their audiences. The reopening of film theaters in San Francisco allowed proper enjoyment of such big screen must-see films as “Summer Of Soul,” “Dune,” and “Shang-Chi And The Legend Of Ten Rings.” On the other hand, the least worrisome in-theater viewing was had at the Roxie, which required ID and proof of vaccination before a viewer could even get a ticket.
Because there’s no category here for episodic TV screened at film festivals, special note needs to be made of Maria Belen Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan’s Argentine TV mini-series “Four Feet High.” The Sundance Film Festival presented this touching and funny story of wheelchair-bound teen Juana, who’s just transferred to a new high school. Her struggle for personal independence gets intertwined with her desire to get laid. In addition, she’s helping some fellow queer students’ efforts to get a real sex education course at their school. Its greatest asset is giving viewers a chance to see through Juana’s eyes what life is like as a disabled person. Where else will you get to hear Juana’s riposte to a woman who patronizingly wants to put Juana on a pedestal: “Your life must be awful if I’m setting the example.”
Of the actual feature films seen by this writer this year, here are some lesser known films which deserve a little more than a title-only honorable mention:
“The Show” comes from director Mitch Jenkins, who worked off a script by comics legend Alan Moore. The film begins with a familiar fictional trope: A man whose name is supposedly Steve Lipman comes to Northampton on a quest. But by the time “Lipman”’s true name and intentions are revealed, the viewer discovers Northampton teems with such ongoing surprises as a superhero investigator, a supposedly dead comedian/mage (played by Moore), and a burned down men’s club that’s still thriving in dreams. Call the Moore-scripted film one unburdened by the diktat of genre storytelling. The film is available via Shout! Home Video.
2021 saw two films titled “Swan Song” hit theater screens. Todd Stephens’ version stars perpetual character actor Udo Kier in his first lead role. He plays a gay beautician reluctantly escaping retirement for one last job. Kier makes the most of “Swan Song”’s hilariously bitchy dialogue (e.g. “Let her be buried with bad hair”) and showing how his “Mr. Pat” remains fabulous even in reduced circumstances (e.g. the candelabra “wig”).
A different sort of swan song is offered by the Benny Chan action film “Raging Fire.” It might very well be a bullet- and blood-soaked farewell to the Hong Kong popular cinema brand of balls-to-the-wall action thanks to the mainland Chinese government’s draconian use of its “National Security Law,” The antagonists are tough but righteous Bong (Donnie Yen) and Bong’s now disgraced former protege Kong (Nicholas Tse). Kong’s determined to have his revenge on the people he blames for ruining his career, no matter how powerful they may be. The mainland Chinese government generally frowns on films with corrupt government officials as villains, which is why viewers might be unlikely to see future “Raging Fire”-style films.
Now on to the main Best Of lists.
Part I: Features
The Power Of The Dog–The year’s best feature film brings deep and memorable shades of gray to a genre notorious for its characteristic stark black and white morality. Director Jane Campion’s anti-Western challenges the genre’s exaltation of straight maleness. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil magnetically dominates the screen as one of two 1920s Montana ranch owners. Even when his character despicably emotionally abuses Kirsten Dunst’s modest Rose, it never feels as if his behavior plays into cultural stereotypes. Yet the film’s biggest sting comes from the viewer’s eventual realization of why the film’s title is perfect for its story.
Drive My Car–On paper, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 3-hour movie may sound as if it’s greatly padding Haruki Murakami’s 30-page original short story. Yet Hamaguchi treats Murakami’s original as a starter kit for his own take, one which begins by filling in characters’ backstories only hinted at in the original. Theater director/actor Yusuke Kafuku and his young chauffeur Misaki Watari turn out to be kindred souls in finding time has not been a balm for personal grief. Producing Kafuku’s multilingual version of the Chekhov classic “Uncle Vanya” turns out to be key in different ways to helping these two characters’ grieving processes move to their conclusions.
Titane–With an abandon matched by driving a car at top speed on urban streets, Julia Ducournau’s entertainingly demented French feminist body horror tale gleefully runs over bourgeois aesthetics. Neither objectification nor sentimentality is allowed to soften car dancing lead character Alexia’s serial killer nature. Unconstrained describes both her killing methods and her means of sexual satisfaction. Even when Alexia goes to ground by scamming her way into a rural fire chief’s life, Ducornau’s lead character remains defiant in a different way courtesy of a public deliberately sexy dance and a fantastically strong Ace bandage body wrap able to conceal her increasing pregnancy.
Judas And The Black Messiah–The title of Shaka Khan’s electrifying film refers to Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and undercover FBI informant William O’Neal. Daniel Kaluuya masterfully brought to life Hampton’s personal charisma and his incredible political skills at unifying politically opposed Chicago subcultures. But the film’s also a painful lesson on the limits of Hampton’s personal charisma. In O’Neal, actor LaKeith Stanfield memorably created a man for whom it was unclear whether he’d turn on his FBI puppet masters or he was continually conning his fellow Black Panthers. “Anti-white” scolds of the film can soak their heads given it’s a fair description borne out by history to say white law enforcement officials’ willingness to permanently neutralize Chairman Fred went into “by any means necessary” territory.
There Is No Evil–Admittedly, this 70th Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear winner is not an easy film to sit through. But Mohammad Rasoulof’s film demonstrates once again why real art skillfully disturbs its viewer. Its four stories about administering the death penalty in Iran questions individual responsibility in a brutal system. How does a person deal with the reality of being compelled to take another person’s life at the government’s order? As the viewer learns the motivations and consequences that affect a character’s obedience to the kill order, they wind up considering their own boundaries if they were placed in a similar situation.
The Lost Daughter–Maggie Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully thorny debut feature shows the consequences of culturally assuming that women are inherently maternal creatures. Her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s titular novel teases out the emotional similarities between comparative literature professor Leda (Olivia Colman) and young semi-irresponsible mother Nina (Dakota Jackson) during a Greek summer vacation. Jessie Buckley, who plays the younger version of Leda, ably handles the crucial task of showing how Leda’s marriage to her job and her valuing of personal independence frequently overrides her responsibilities as a mother. If Gyllenhaal’s film liberates one woman from resignation to motherhood, it will have succeeded.
Riders Of Justice–Director Anders Thomas Jensen’s revenge tale carries within its frames the seeds of its darkly comic deconstruction of the retribution genre. Eccentric mathematician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his friends may have common cause with military man Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) thanks to a train “accident” that claims the lives of both a key criminal trial witness and Markus’ wife. But Jensen shows how healing the strained relationship between Markus and his teen daughter Mathilde deserves as much importance as avoiding the film’s lethal flying bullets.
Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy–In this unusual year of 2021, Ryusuke Hamaguchi manages to put a second film on the year’s best of list. This one is a triptych of short stories about love forgotten or rejected. In each story, a woman who’s failed at finding love in the past is given the opportunity to either change or repeat their earlier mistakes. This film may appear visually simple, yet its stories roil with deep and complicated emotions.
Night Of The Kings–A forest-bound Ivory Coast prison run by its inmates happens to be the setting for Philippe Lacote’s always hypnotic tale of the power of storytelling. As new prisoner Roman tries to stay alive until morning by telling tales of the life of notorious outlaw Zama King, the viewer is swept up in the recreations and dramatizations of such moments as the betrayal that ended Zama’s life and magical battles between African rulers. Yet equally fascinating are the efforts of dying prison kingpin Blackbeard to avoid being deposed and ambitious rival Lass’ efforts to push Blackbeard out of the top seat.
Zola–The greatest stripper saga ever Tweeted gets an entertaining dramatization in Janicza Bravo’s hands. Its tale of a money-making road trip to Florida that goes south in a non-geographic way works via the contrast between Taylour Paige’s Black commonsensical stripper title character and Riley Keough’s blaccented white trash deceptive fellow stripper Stefani. The crazier events Zola recounts still feel way more truthful than Stefani’s account of Zola’s rocking garbage bag couture.
Dune Part 1–Big screen science fiction adaptations often create the temptation of letting the spectacle of its imagined worlds overwhelm the human story that’s supposed to be a film’s core. After literal decades of attempts to bring Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic to the silver screen, “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve finally succeeds. By breaking this adaptation into (potentially) two parts, Villeneuve gives the viewer breathing room to inhabit the arid magnificence of Arrakis and to follow and understand the destiny awaiting Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). Props to the director for gambling that audiences would make this first half profitable enough that he can show how Atreides’ story ends.
Honorable Mentions: The Show, In The Heights, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, The Green Knight, Language Lessons, The Souvenir Part II, Pebbles, Raging Fire, Swan Song, Passing, I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking), Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes
Summer Of Soul—Thinking of Questlove’s debut feature documentary as just a powerful concert film sells his cinematic achievement short. 2021’s best documentary is also a thrilling piece of cinematic cultural archeology. It both resurrects footage of the unjustly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and rebukes the cultural gatekeepers who ignored the festival in favor of the (predominantly white) Woodstock Music Festival. This film is a treasure chest of period performances by such seminal Black artists as Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, and Nina Simone. But equally fascinating are the reminiscences from both sides of the Cultural Festival stage.
The Velvet Underground–Director Todd Haynes’ outstanding first documentary feature captures the life and times of the Lou Reed years of the legendary art rock band and the cultural milieu the Velvet Underground emerged from. Andy Warhol’s portrait studies of the individual VU members and VU founding member John Cale’s reminiscences are just two of the powerful primary sources Haynes draws upon to make the film come alive. The original iteration of the VU may have produced a limited discography. But the impact of that music on sparking future musical talents demonstrates once again the virtue of quality over quantity.
The First Wave–It is not “too soon” for the appearance of Matthew Heineman’s emotionally intense chronicle of a beleaguered New York City-based medical facility during the first wave of COVID infections. It’s a snapshot of the chaos and desperation of those months when even vaccines for COVID weren’t available. Seeing the stress on medical personnel who are regularly confronted by their inability to save lives from the disease makes those who deny the seriousness of COVID appear even more selfish and short-sighted than ever.
499–Rodrigo Reyes’ incredible hybrid documentary surveys contemporary Mexican life to show why the country’s conquest by Spain nearly 500 years ago was not the boon touted by advocates of such conquest. An unnamed 16th century Spanish conquistador becomes a mostly silent guide through modern day Mexico as he shows how MS-13 gangsters and the desperate migrants hopping a ride on The Beast aren’t that far removed from the conquistador’s contemporaries.
Procession—Robert Greene may be the name director in this film following half a dozen victims of clerical child abuse using drama therapy to find emotional closure. But these victims break down the subject/director barrier by using the therapeutic recreations or confrontations they commit to film to empower themselves. The legal system may have repeatedly failed these recipients of clerical abuse. But the audience is privileged to see the men using this film they made together to take back their lives.
The Neutral Ground–The years-long struggle to remove four statues honoring the Confederacy from New Orleans’ public land provides an entry point for director CJ Hunt to examine the history of America’s toxic romance with the Antebellum South and the evil it represented. Hunt’s non-confrontational approach does allow advocates for “Southern culture” space to appear as more than just ignorant stereotypes. But the film ultimately argues that America’s long-standing romance with the so-called Lost Cause is one that preserves and strengthens the worst aspects of America’s soul.
Dear Mr. Brody–Keith Maitland found the right angle to recount the tale of self-styled hippie millionaire Michael Brody, Jr.’s publicly announced plan to give away his entire $25 million fortune (up to $172 million in 2021 dollars) to “anyone in need.” Instead of centering on the enigmatic young man making this public offer, the director finds the tale’s heart in the stories of some of Brody’s would-be supplicants and a couple of people in his inner circle. That smart decision shows the real lesson of Brody’s offer comes not from seeing human avarice on display but in learning the often touching dreams and desperation that compels people to seek Brody’s aid.
Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America–Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s documentary captures ACLU’s deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson explaining the intertwining of American greatness and the country’s long racist history. It’s shocking to see how present day innocuous places (e.g. NYC’s Wall Street, New Orleans’ The French Quarter) have strong ties to the slave trade. Contrary to the whitewashed racism behind opposition to “critical race theory,” the Kunstlers’ film powerfully argues that only through asking questions and confronting its shameful bigoted legacy can America truly move forward racially.
A Sexplanation–Local filmmaker Alex Liu skillfully uses humor and curiosity to undermine viewers’ prurience around sex. His ultimate goal is to show viewers the inadequacies of current sex education, as seen in a cringeworthy sequence of random adults in S.F.’s Dolores Park being unable to identify human genitalia. The director’s search for better ways to learn about sex sends him on a cross-country journey to such places as the Kinsey Institute and even a class that teaches age-appropriate sex education. What other documentary this year allows its director the opportunity to masturbate for science?
Morgana–One of the year’s more intriguing documentary subjects is the titular Morgana Muses. This divorced middle-aged Australian housewife re-invented and re-discovered herself making woman-oriented erotic videos. This funny and frequently heartbreaking film follows her over several years as she tries to live her best personal and artistic life while fending off mental illness.
Honorable Mentions: A Glitch In The Matrix, Burning, Landfall, Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street, Ricochet, North By Current, Lily Topples The World, A Kaddish For Bernie Madoff, Ascension, Writing With Fire
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama–Topaz Jones’ update of the 1970s’ “Black ABCs” flashcards offers a wonderful snapshot of modern-day Black American culture by bringing in everything from the concept of code switching to the joys of eating sour candy. Simply the year’s best short film.
What You’ll Remember–Erika Cohn’s heartfelt locally-based short is an expression of love from a mother for the resilience of her children as their working poor family all weathered houselessness in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Maya At 24–Lynne Sachs’ short uses the simple image of her daughter Maya running in front of the camera to offer kinetic snapshots of how our children change physically and emotionally over the years.
Exquisite Shorts Volume 1–Applying the Exquisite Corpse game to filmmaking, Ben Fee and 18 other filmmakers or duos made short films inspired by a pair of unrelated words. One word begins the film while the other ends it. Otherwise, anything goes. The entertaining results include a flying saucer abduction, a back porch conversation, and a “Survivor” style game where unlucky contestants turn into ooze.
Opera–Erick Oh’s breathtaking animated film takes viewers through the various levels of a fictional hierarchical society. The exquisitely detailed animation is such that several viewings and a good screen will be needed to truly appreciate Oh’s work.
Honorable Mentions: ASMR For White Liberals, 24,483 Dreams Of Death, Nuevo Rico, Koto: The Last Service, The Leaf, Luv U Cuz, A Ship From Guantanamo, Mission: Hebron, Almost Famous: The Queen Of Basketball