DECEMBER 25 — So many films, so little time. That’s more or less what I feel every year, when it’s time to compile my list of favourite films of the year.
The pandemic meant that for the second year in a row, I’m unable to make my annual trip to the Singapore International Film Festival to catch up on most of the festival films I wanted to see from major festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Locarno etc.
The pandemic also meant that there are films that played festivals in 2019 that are only now getting released in cinemas or on VOD, which also means that it’s just impossible to be able to catch up with everything.
As usual, please don’t take this as a “best of 2021” list, because as the title clearly implies, these are, from the hundreds of films I saw in 2021, the films that I’ve loved the most, for a variety of reasons, some emotional, some cerebral, and some purely visceral.
It took almost two years for this jewel from the 2019 edition of the Venice Film Festival to finally be released in the UK, but the wait is totally worth it, because this latest film from Italian auteur Pietro Marcello is a real game changer in the world of European art cinema, and instantly places Marcello’s name at the forefront of that scene.
A very free adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel, Marcello places the story in Italy instead, and uses every filmmaking tool available to tell the story, including anachronistic touches like using vintage stock footage (and even “fake” vintage stock footage) and pop songs, with results so powerful that this tale of a working-class sailor rising above his station thanks to the power of his words and his tragic subsequent disillusionment after becoming a literary sensation, is one that will haunt you for weeks after seeing it.
One of the most heartbreaking films of the year, this second film from Indian writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane (who first caught attention with his brilliant debut Court) is one of the most perfect embodiments of that oft-asked question — can you love someone/something that doesn’t love you back?
In this case, that something is music, and even though our hero Sharad (an astounding Aditya Modak) is deeply in love with Indian classical music and harbours ambitions of becoming a master vocalist, no matter how hard he practises and perfects his technique, it becomes more obvious as the film goes along that he simply doesn’t have “it.”
How does one handle/accept such a sad predicament? The movie sings this sorrowful melody of regret with such elegant beauty that only two films in, it’s no exaggeration to say that we’re already in the presence of a new master with Tamhane.
After Holy Motors, it’s almost inevitable that French auteur Leos Carax will make a full-on musical film, which he finally did with the English-language Annette, a visually and cinematically full Carax creation, but which was made to soar absolutely by the magical songs provided by legendary American pop band Sparks.
It may take a few minutes for the audience to get into the movie’s groove, with most of the dialogue being sung, not to mention the startling creation that is the Annette character itself, but once we’ve got into grips with Carax’s sometimes wild and bonkers take on the musical genre, the viewer will be rewarded with a beautifully operatic experience.
‘Red Post On Escher Street’
The ever so prolific Japanese maverick Sion Sono may have another, much higher-profile film released in 2021, Prisoners Of The Ghostland, thanks to the presence of Nicolas Cage in the lead role, but the better and more impactful of his two films this year is definitely this one.
A surprisingly sweet, warm, funny and goofy tribute to movie extras, Red Post On Escher Street focuses on various groups of friends and families answering an open casting call for a new film by a genius young director.
Weaving in and out of their lives and casually connecting the dots as the film goes along, the film has a zest for life and a hugely uplifting theme — that we’re not extras in our own lives and that we should fight for every moment of screen time available to us before the curtain falls — that probably reflects the fact that Sono technically died for a full minute when he had a heart attack in 2019, and he’s come back with an even stronger appreciation for life now.
‘The Tsugua Diaries’
When the pandemic halts your plans for one film, why not make another film about making films during the pandemic instead?
That’s the disarmingly simple, yet simply infectious idea behind the latest film from Portuguese genius Miguel Gomes (of Tabu and Arabian Nights fame), this time co-directing with his partner Maureen Fazendeiro.
Already hinting at the film’s structure through its title, as Tsugua is August spelled backwards, and the whole film is in reverse chronology, another hint comes from the usage of August in the title as well, as this connects the film to Gomes’ 2008 breakthrough Our Beloved Month Of August, in which a film crew’s production of a narrative feature was stopped and they then turned their attentions to the locals in the village they’re stranded in instead.
The Tsugua Diaries mirrors that immortal gem both in spirit (there’s lots of dancing and hanging out here, and lots of oh so gorgeous summer scenery) and in playfulness, and is hands down one of the whimsical delights of 2021.
‘PG: Psycho Goreman’
As cheesy and dumb as the many lovingly created practical makeup effects and creatures that populate this horror comedy are, I doubt many fans of genre films will be able to resist the goofy good humour that makes up the majority of modern trash movie maestro Steven Kostanski’s latest magnum opus, PG: Psycho Goreman.
A glorious meeting between two of the most unlikely genres — the classic monster movie where a bunch of people unwittingly activates an ancient evil artifact, and those timeless 80s children movies wherein kids discover a magical or alien creature that becomes their best friend — the film chronicles what happens when a spoiled brat (but a delightfully funny one, thanks to an unforgettable performance from Nita-Josee Hanna) comes into contact with an evil intergalactic warlord, and does so in the most entertaining way possible.
It’s as if Troma decided to make their own Power Rangers movie, but with Spy Kids-era Robert Rodriguez directing.
‘Drive My Car’ & ‘Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy’
I’m cheating a bit here as I’ve put two films in this same spot, but my explanation for this is that it’s simply too hard to choose between these two new films from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (of Happy Hour and Asako I & II fame), with both films also winning major prizes at two major film festivals this year (Best Screenplay at Cannes for Drive My Car and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at Berlin for Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy).
Elegantly executing his by now trademark screenplay move of conjuring multiple sudden coincidences to spark new plot movements, Drive My Car is the deeper and more sorrowful film (which cleverly makes use of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya) while the anthology film approach of Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy provides a more playful platform for Ryu-san, but whichever film rocks your boat, it’s clear that this one-two punch signals the arrival of a major new player in international cinema.
You know how sometimes people just can’t look away from a train wreck or a car crash? Well, this is exactly what will happen to you, should you decide to watch this totally addictive and anxiety-inducing exercise in cringe comedy.
In Judaism, “shiva” is the week-long period of mourning for first-degree relatives, during which guests are welcomed to the home of the hosts to spend time and pray with the family.
The “baby” of the film’s title is Danielle, who was dragged along to a shiva by her parents after an appointment with her sugar daddy.
What ensues is a series of confrontations, calamities and pure chaos that are so uncomfortably funny. If you’ve ever been at a kenduri/party you don’t want to be at, having to fend off questions like “when are you getting married” and things like that, you’ll definitely relate with this one, big time.
A humble and heart shattering triumph from writer-director Uberto Pasolini, Nowhere Special is one of the smaller and more unassuming films you’ll encounter this year, focusing very intently on a pair of father and son, based on a newspaper story about a terminally ill father seeking adoption for his four-year-old son.
Playing almost like a great Dardenne Brothers film, Pasolini doesn’t let the potentially melodramatic premise overwhelm his storytelling, preferring a more naturalistic register, sticking with his characters like a documentarian as the window cleaner father John (a sensational James Norton, possibly a future James Bond too) patiently observes his son’s interactions with the potential adopting families, leaving it to the audience to guess which one he’ll finally choose for his son and figuring out why he chose the them during the film’s final shot.
A model of humble, humane and luminously natural filmmaking, this one is truly something special.
‘There Is No Evil’
Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, is technically banned from making films.
In Rasoulof’s case, he was banned from making films for life and was even sentenced to a year in prison, but that still didn’t stop him from finding ways around that ban, which is probably why his latest film is an anthology of four short films, running about 150 minutes in total, all centred around the same major theme — capital punishment.
Possibly his loudest cry of defiance yet against the Iranian government and the practices and policies surrounding the death penalty there, the four short films here each approach the issue from different angles, giving voices to both sides of the coin, with gorgeous technical merits.
How he managed to make this one in secret, we’ll probably never know. I’m just thankful that he did.
Honourable Mentions: Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn, Undine, The Green Knight, Verdict, Pig, After Love, Golden Arm, The Velvet Underground, The Worst Person In The World, The Suicide Squad.