Countdown: Best Films of 2021 | Nic Champion

20. Judas and the Black Messiah

19. Shiva Baby

18. Wojnarowicz

17. In the Same Breath

16. Last Night in Soho

15. The Killing of Two Lovers

14. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

13. Eyimofe: This Is My Desire

12. The Card Counter

11. Titane

10. A Glitch in the Matrix

A Glitch in the Matrix has been somewhat misunderstood. Like Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film essay on The Shining, Room 237, his latest documentary doesn’t mean to seriously assert the claims of its subjects, but to expose the mental circuitry of the subjects themselves. Proponents of the Simulation hypothesis, which asserts we’re all living in a simulation, as in The Matrix, have varying justifications for their beliefs. Some have memories of strange occurrences in childhood— “glitches” in the artificial, computer generated world that might accidentally change the characteristics of a room or “delete” something before their eyes. Some think that a majority of people they encounter are NPCs, or Non-Player Characters, essentially artificial intelligence masquerading as real people to populate our manufactured world.

Like those who suffer from The Truman Show delusion, or the belief that one’s life is some kind of TV show where everyone else is an actor, believers in the Simulation hypothesis share an odd mixture of skepticism and blind faith. They’re typically non-religious, scientifically minded, and tuned in enough to question the fundamental nature of things, to understand that perception matters more than objective reality. But at the same time, they are slaves to their personal perceptions, sometimes to devastating effect. Patton Oswalt once theorized that Flat Earthers and 9/11 Truthers are so adamant about their beliefs because it’s actually more comforting to think there’s someone pulling the levers and controlling what we see, even for sinister reasons, than to accept the world as a fundamentally chaotic and uncertain place. What Ascher shows in A Glitch in the Matrix is that this particular theory provides the same comfort to those buying into it. To take the red pill, to be “Neo”, is to be the one. It means being special, and it means the confines of society, government, economy—even mortality—can be transcended.  

9. The Green Knight

David Lowery’s adaptation of the classic chivalric romance, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” combines high fantasy and realism, honoring the pagan roots of Middle English myth while situating it in a grounded, frankly dreary interpretation of Christian Arthurian legend.

The Green Knight offers a beguiling psychosexual interpretation of classic archetypes. The Hero’s Journey undertaken by Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain is characterized by both eerie brushes with death and recurrent encounters of a quasi-sexual or romantic nature, all of which ultimately define some level of responsibility to which he must rise in order to survive. His stay with an enigmatic lord and lady played by Joel Edgerton and a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander towards the latter half of the film more directly portrays their games as acts of seduction than in the poem, and a last-minute vision presents Gawain with the consequences of cowardice and unfaithfulness, a dramatic departure from the original conclusion.

The adherences and deviations in Lowery’s treatment yield a celebration of nature and magic that places integrity and personal values over systems of honor or esteem. As a fantasy film, it deserves high praise, making rare use of excellent practical effects, rich and moody cinematography, and a phantasmagoric soundtrack by Daniel Hart. It probably ranks above all others, this year, in terms of aesthetic beauty.

8. Pig

Pig is a movie with a somewhat misleading image. Nicholas Cage plays a hermit whose truffle-finding pig gets stolen, so he resolves to find it at any cost. Sounds like John Wick, and with notorious nutcase actor Nic Cage in the lead, probably a hyped up and mostly ironic, low-budget exercise in exploitation references, something Cage would be expected to star in. Consequently, Pig turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Cage gives a career best performance as Robin Feld, former star chef in Portland’s culinary scene, now in self-imposed exile after the death of his wife. Grimy backwoods clothing, stringy hair, and grizzled beard do a lot to express Feld’s destitution, his spiritual decay and palpable resignation, but Cage flexes his greatest strengths as an actor to portray Feld’s most profound struggles— he subverts his height with a constant slouch, relaxes his face into a sallow mask of regret, and expresses nearly all feeling through haunted blue eyes. 

Writer-director Michael Sarnoski’s script satisfyingly follows the revenge thriller formula, even taking bold risks with its use of tropes, including an almost ridiculous underground fight club scene, and then pivots from this path in a series of unexpected, emotional payoffs. Pig charts the process of release that comes from acknowledging loss and grief, a process that eschews the notion of a neat resolution, the kind often portrayed in more simplistic revenge tales. It’s also a close runner-up behind Memoria for best sound.

7. Some Kind of Heaven

Lance Oppenheim’s debut feature documentary about Florida’s census designated retirement community, The Villages, appears on the surface to be simply about old age, an inspiring profile of a 65+ utopia that gives those in their twilight years the chance to live as fully as possible. Instead, he avoids a thinly drawn overview, the stuff of mildly interesting but forgettable human interest journalism, and narrows his focus to four characters struggling to adjust to life in paradise. By viewing the outliers of the community, Oppenheim bypasses easy thematic targets, likening the retirement experience to the challenge of fulfillment, generally.

The Villages attempts to provide a dreamlike escape for people of a certain persuasion, assuming comparable interests across all residents. Widow Barbara finds the barrage of escapist activities, blithe but detached neighbors, and lack of emotional depth that pervades the serene and placid image of The Villages to be isolating. She seeks real connection and release in a place that celebrates artificial 1950s main street facades and holds regular margarita parties. Married couple Anne and Reggie come into conflict over Reggie’s sudden use of psychedelics and increasingly bizarre behavior, a seeming overreaction to The Village’s new-agey wellness practices. Homeless non-resident Dennis, a scheming and womanizing social climber, embodies the happily ignored counterpoint to The Village’s view of aging as a blissful and carefree process.

There’s a certain way that structures meant to create happiness and perfection can be alienating. If an environment can’t make room for negativity, then it will never be adequately positive. Marginalizing issues does not erase them, and in that sense the movie speaks to a greater conundrum of American culture, which has always modeled happiness on the practice of consumption and a restrictively uniform image of the ideal lifestyle.

6. Crestone

I’ve said a lot about Crestone in my previous writing, so I’ll keep it short, here. Simply put, Crestone is a documentary about the next generation— their strengths, weaknesses, and the existential threats faced by them. Weaving in climate change, late-stage capitalism, sound-cloud rap, weed culture, and generational tendencies into one documentary sounds challenging, but director Marnie Ellen Hertzler accomplishes it with empathy, humor, and keen self-awareness. Vinegar Syndrome and Utopia teamed up to give it a much needed release on Blu-ray, rescuing it from festival burnout, much to everyone’s benefit. An astounding debut.

5. Memoria

Much has been said about Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, which will visit one theater at a time for week-long runs instead of being conventionally distributed. On one hand, this feels unnecessarily exclusionary. It’ll be difficult for anyone not living near an art house theater to ever see the film. At the same time, if Weerasethakul really feels it should only be seen in a theater, the traveling show might actually be the best option. This way, the movie won’t be sequestered to four or five major North American cities. And he’s probably right. Memoria should be seen in the theater, almost without exception, at least for the first time. One of the major reasons for this has to do with sound. A theater would be better equipped to present the movie’s long silences, peppered with immersive ambience, without distraction.

In fact, the whole premise of the movie revolves around sound. Tilda Swinton plays Scottish expat Jessica, who runs a flower business in Columbia. The film begins with Jessica in a deep sleep, with little visual information in the frame other than vague silhouettes in the darkness. Suddenly, an indefinable sound, a sort of humming thwack combined with a deep pound, jolts her awake. For the rest of the film, Jessica will investigate the source of this mysterious noise while finding herself in strange but profound situations. It’s the kind of vague, artsy premise that sends general audiences running for the hills (the hills being the Marvel movie playing on the next screen over), but if approached with patience and a receptive mind, will bring indelible feelings to the surface. Atop this simple concept Memoria lays an equally sorrowful and joyful meditation on time and death—the haunting quality of nature, which continually dies and renews itself, that makes a forest or a river both ancient and new. 

4. The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s latest feels more like an incessant sizzle than a slow-burn, and like a slow-cooked meal, it’s all the juicier for it. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a ropey Phil Burba, outwardly menacing and twisted up inside with secret longings, a direct foil to Kodi Smit-McPhee’s lanky and effeminate, but increasingly unsettling, Peter Gordon. Of course, the triangulation between these blue-eyed vipers and the pairing of Kirsten Dunst’s alcoholic, insecure suicide widow and Jesse Plemmons’s dry and controlling cattle baron is both a central drama and a veil for a subliminal thriller, one that may only fully reveal itself on a second viewing. Still, whether realized or not, the sense that something isn’t right permeates every frame of The Power of the Dog, owing to the tightly wound performances of all four leads, Ari Wegner’s gothic cinematography, and Johnny Greenwood’s teeth-grinding score.

Absorbing on a technical level, it also offers the pleasures of decryption. After finishing The Power of the Dog I wanted to start it over right then and there. To firmly grasp the narrative mechanics and true motivations of the characters will only break the skin of this wonderfully taut study of paradoxes in desire and gender performance, one which attempts to navigate the blurry lines between hypermasculinity and homoeroticism, outward displays of power and inner strength, self-assertion and self-deception.

3. Candyman

Nia DaCosta’s directorial debut defied expectations for the long awaited Candyman reboot in a way that disappointed some, but nevertheless thrilled audiences receptive to its bold interactions with the source material. If Bernard Rose’s Candyman of 1992 has become a horror legend, then the script for Candyman 2021, penned by DaCosta and Jordan Peele, is like a reimagining of a fairy tale. The symbolism in Rose’s film evolves from mysterious and visceral motifs into clearer, more pointed analogues to racial injustices that define our current moment. The Candyman’s backstory, choice of victim, and overall purpose somewhat contradict the old story, and while it’s true that this version is more didactic, message-conscious, and less erotic, it crafts an intellectual response to Candyman with the use of the original film’s concepts, in essence becoming a thesis via fiction in addition to being legitimately frightening.

DaCosta latches onto the image of The Candyman as a reflection of racial terror in the United States, not just the experience of personal black suffering. By turning the violence away from Cabrini-Green residents and redefining the role of the Candyman as a retributive figure for said residents, 2021’s Candyman has resolved some of the ambiguities of its predecessor in a way that leaves a little less to the imagination, but still a whole lot to chew on. 

2. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Radu Jude’s hilarious and thrilling film takes many forms—slow art cinema, video essay, comical farce, witty satire, low-key existential horror, amateur porn, etc. Watching it in a theater makes for a somewhat uncomfortable experience, as its frankness can be both disturbing and provocative. Told in three parts, BLBOLP follows a Romanian teacher who works for a prestigious private school, and the calamity that ensues when one of her home sex tapes (shown in full, unsimulated) gets leaked to the internet and circulates among her pupils. The first part is a low-key, but occasionally devious, drama. Our teacher, Emi, attempts to go about her daily routine, all the while quietly experiencing intense anxiety and humiliation as a result of her ordeal. At the same time, the relentless bustle of city life creates a chaotic soundscape and visual business that overwhelms every scene. Even the camera can’t help but get distracted, becoming stuck on the squabbles of background characters in a pharmacy bickering about COVID-19 restrictions or panning away from the central action to regard an odd street advertisement.

The second part consists of an essayistic montage of varying topics, a sort of Devil’s Dictionary of loosely connected and sometimes spontaneous definitions, all commenting on themes from the first part or underpinning themes to come. The film ends on a parent-teacher meeting where Emi’s future at the school will be debated and voted on. The proceedings devolve into a farcical greek drama with postmodern pastiche, visual gags, spirited arguments, self-aware caricatures, mood lighting, and multiple endings, the best of which comes seconds before the pink comic-sans end credits. It’s a chaotic, mind-bending, sometimes shocking comedy that captures both the absurdity and horror of our time with a thorough understanding of how discourse is held in the modern world. For an uncanny personification of internet rhetoric, look no further.   

1. Procession

It’s probably too early to say, but Robert Greene’s body of work bears the mark of watershed cinema. He’s definitely not the first to use reenactment, subject collaboration, and theatrical techniques in documentaries, but the seamlessness of his technique and his ability to popularize the approach is unparalleled. Following his masterful combination of community art project and historical interrogation, Bisbee ‘17, Greene and his collaborators (who share equal credit and billing in the film) use similar tools to stage an investigation and examination of a far more intimate experience which nevertheless has a widespread scope—child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Along with survivors Joe Eldred, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine, Tom Viviano, Mike Foreman, and Ed Gavagan, Greene and his production stage scripted scenes in collaboration with a psychotherapist to reenact their abuse and work through their trauma. In doing so, the filmmakers repurpose the use of ceremony in Catholicism (procession) to unpack (process) the deep-seated after effects of child molestation in a way other films on the topic have not. The lived experience of the survivors and lasting psychological damage their abuse has caused comes through so directly via these sessions that the results are more harrowing and real than any other document of such crimes, making Procession essential to the ongoing work of uncovering and resolving them. The film will act as a document and a template, hopefully for many years to come. | Nic Champion

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