The pandemic deprived many of their holiday traditions, but it had a positive impact on mine. I couldn’t go to haunted houses on Halloween so I had to curate a horror movie series in my house and leave candy out (individually bagged, of course) for trick or treaters while I carved jack-o-lanterns. My girlfriend and I cooked an entire Thanksgiving feast by ourselves. I scraped my hands and wrecked my hamstrings putting up Christmas lights. I earned the Christmas Spirit this year, as I did the spirits of all the other Holidays, and so felt them in my heart and soul in a way I haven’t since childhood. I’ll carry that with me for years to come. I’ll never take it for granted.
Conversely, the pandemic had a negative impact on my experience with movies. Without theaters, there’s no work involved, no activity, and instead the non-experience of sitting slumped on my couch, browsing streaming services, connecting my Chromecast, and trying to get absorbed by my 20-inch TV, which is to smart TVs as a Razr flip phone is to an Android. Theaters have already been in decline, what with overpriced lounges and gourmet meals and assigned seating doing their best to kill the atmosphere and make buying a ticket a pain, but without dedicated art house theaters like Plaza Frontenac and The Tivoli, we have no choice but to consume with languor whatever VOD content the studios drop on us like raw legs of lamb into a den of underfed lions.
So, while I’m certain I saw some great movies this year, I feel deprived of even greater ones. As a consequence, I think I should note that if circumstances had been different, some of these might not be on my list. I stand by what I’ve included and how I’ve ranked them, but some I must admit are there by default. Many titles you’ll see on year-end lists will not have been given a proper release, so I’m counting them as 2021 movies and will include them in next year’s list.
1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I actually read and enjoyed Iain Reid’s novel before the movie had even been announced and thought, then, that it would be ideal for someone looking to adapt a book. However, while I love Charlie Kaufman, hearing that he’d been set to direct gave me slight pause. It felt like overkill, as though the unsettling, paranoid, mind-bending qualities of Iain Reid’s psychological thriller combined with Kaufman’s multilayered, neurotic, and surreal direction would have a double negative effect. They’d cancel each other out. I almost got the sense that he’d been tapped to do this, required, even, by the streaming powers that be. You can have no other person but Charlie Kaufman directing a movie of this nature, so now you must do it, Charlie Kaufman. After having seen Kaufman’s version, though, it’s clear how much of an autonomous venture this was, and as much as I liked Iain Reid’s novel, there’s no reason to read it anymore now that Kaufman’s version exists. I rank it among his best, right up there with Synechdoche, New York, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation.
2. First Cow
The best part about First Cow is its portrayal of platonic male friendships. Some people see the relationship between Cookie Figowitz, soft spoken baker, and King Lu, slippery-but-compassionate businessman, as romantic. Gay relationships should, indeed, have representation, but I do find it troubling that a portrayal of two men caring for one another, supporting each other, and showing sensitivity must automatically be read as a queer story. The brilliance and beauty of Kelly Reichardt’s work (which has plenty of visual beauty, as well) is in its tacit acceptance and endorsement of a masculinity that exudes kindness, gentleness, and grace, regardless of orientation.
3. A Girl Missing
Koji Fukada did a number on me in 2016 with his brilliant and haunting Harmonium. A Girl Missing, which played at SLIFF, follows up with similar themes of morality, regret, and cosmic punishment, only this time there seems to be a shift in sympathy. The protagonist of Harmonium becomes a cautionary figure. Marika Tsutsui plays Ichiko, a maid whose nephew kidnaps her employer’s daughter, a character so doomed that even her truly condemnable transgressions feel like vulnerabilities, windows into her flawed humanity that leave her open to destruction from the outside. She has no control, and therefore cannot be cautioned. Her imperfections and deepest shame become weapons used against her, and guilt by association turns into outright guilt. Fukada takes a huge risk by divulging such flaws in Ichiko, but the end result is brilliantly sobering. We, as the audience, are poised alongside this protagonist just as the world in the movie is poised against her. A beautiful, complex character study with societal implications.
4. The Hottest August
(limited release in 2019 but wide home release in 2020) Brett Story’s visually captivating, hypnotic documentary purports to be about climate change, but you rarely hear it mentioned. Instead, Story illustrates the issue through circumvention. We see what is not there precisely because it is not there. In Story’s interviews, she asks participants to speak about the future— what they worry about, what they hope for, etc. Sometimes they give hazy responses, but mostly they avoid the question and stick to the present. They talk about their anxieties, their finances, their jobs, and basically everything going on in the here and now. In this way, the psychological impediment to addressing climate change is illuminated. When societal damage keeps people living day to day, they haven’t the capacity to think about environmental damage at the scale that we need to combat it
5. Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants seems to give off a different vibe depending on who’s pitching it. It began in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, sending a strong art film signal, then bounced around a ton of festivals, many of them horror themed. Shudder then released this erotic (in concept) black comedy (again, in concept), as though it were horror. In truth, the movie lands in the margins of all of those categories, except maybe horror which it emphatically isn’t. While the story involves a man who resorts to autoerotic asphyxiation with a dominatrix to find a release for the grief of losing his wife, you may very well be shocked at the lack of torture and prurience. At times the movie pushes boundaries, but mostly treats the sex work and pain as a quirk. The protagonist is a fish-out-of-water, a meek and orderly businessman failing to connect emotionally with his daughter. The ridiculousness of his presence in a fetishized context forms a slight comedic quality, but mostly this is a straightforward drama, arty for the fact that it seems slightly fringe and maintains a sobering tone. That this movie succeeds in being a tender and heartfelt but complicated romance, in spite of whatever pigeon hole one puts it in, is a testament to its strength and singularity.
6. Miss Juneteenth
Channing Godfrey Peoples poignantly crafts a subtly atmospheric, feminine continuation of the neorealist tradition of Vittorio de Sica and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Miss Juneteenth tells an intimate, warm story about love and community. It’s not restrained by messages, not subservient to the issues black filmmakers have been placed under the expectation to address. The issues have a presence, of course. The way black women are judged, the poison of elitism, poverty, shame, and guilt—these all hold weight in the world of Miss Juneteenth, and yet they do not rob the characters of agency and they do not dominate. Peoples chooses terrific, idiosyncratic locations as well as people to photograph, and allows for the evolutions of her characters to grow naturally out of the almost slice-of-life narrative. When black neighborhoods and communities are so often portrayed as dangerous or destitute, it’s a joy to watch one shown to be so sumptuous and appealing.
7. The Mole Agent
The Mole Agent does a terrific job of depicting old age in a way that feels vitally present and relevant to all who watch it. The subjects come to life through a blend of excellently curated, observational moments and creative, dramatic fabrications. It’s a wonderful balance of fact and fiction, both beautifully performative and heartachingly real, full of humor and empathy. Sergio Chamy makes an excellent main subject and character for a documentary that seeks to express such humanism, patience, and wisdom, but also such verve and energy.
8. The Invisible Man
I’m pretty happy to include The Invisible Man on my year-end list. I don’t think I’ve seen such a satisfying and distinctive big studio release in years. Producers like to tell us the popcorn movie is making a comeback while putting out either bland CGI extravaganzas with superheroes or arthouse/studio hybrids that don’t live up to either progenitor. The Invisible Man feels honest in this regard. It’s slick, punchy, fun, frightening, and exciting. I can’t think of anything like it of late other than Mad Max: Fury Road, a totally dissimilar movie except for it being a memorable “name” release that aims to use classic tools to tell a new and fresh story.
9. Feels Good Man
At the True/False film festival, director Arthur Jones said his intention with Feels Good Man was to tell an emotional story about the internet. He succeeded in doing so, but he transcends his goal, as well. Feels Good Man is an emotional story about a cartoonist. It’s an emotional story about a frog. I’m a millennial raised on the internet, so I have recent and vivid memories of Pepe the Frog before white supremacists stole him. Feels Good Man does a lot to reform his image, as well as provide vindication for Matt Furie and his work. Combined with excellent animation and a perfectly structured didacticism that explains internet culture and its role in neo-fascism, Jones’s movie is a potent tool for understanding and dispelling hatred.
Deerskin might be the most original mixture of horror and comedy that I’ve ever seen. Director Quentin Dupieux may be best known for his horror satire, Rubber, about a sentient, killer tire. Now he has Jean Dujardin wearing a killer deerskin jacket. The setup is preposterous, of course, and yet you get the feeling Dupieux wants you to take it seriously, to not view it as satire but as a completely straightforward art film. There’s definitely a sardonic, not all that cogent thematic vein running under the absurdism and sudden pivots into slasher horror that mystifies the action on screen, but then the action on screen is so bold and so simple that it almost takes precedence over whatever fleeting statements there are to be made, whether they be about materialism, masculinity, or filmmaking in general. What a weird movie.
These two documentaries never got a release, but they deserve recognition. If there’s any justice in the world, they’ll see a revival in exposure soon.
Crestone missed its shot to play at South by Southwest due to the pandemic, and that’s really sad, because it may have been the best thing I saw at the True/False Film Festival. An over-saturated distillation of the millennial generation’s greatest flaws, attributes, confidences, and anxieties, this beautifully rendered ensemble documentary about a commune of SoundCloud rappers felt deeply resonant before all of this widespread isolation and scrambling, and feels even more so now. It may be the most accurate portrait of our post-apocalyptic present; it feels like if Mad Max was diverted from the action to focus on some stoners living a few miles away. It may not sound profound, but it is.
2. The Viewing Booth
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz took the simple process of exhibition and viewing, building blocks of cinema, to craft a compelling, stripped down study of media bias and ideological determinism. His subject, Maia Levi, being such a well-spoken, likeable girl, makes the perfect lens through which to view our own tendencies to obfuscate what we see online or in images to suit whatever narrative is required to put us in the right. I think it should be required viewing in any course on media literacy. | Nic Champion