Favorite Films of 2021

1. QUO VADIS, AIDA?

I tend to avoid feel-bad movies (or as a friend categorizes them, “Films that make you want to slit your wrists”), so I approached Jasmila Žbanić’s dramatization of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre with trepidation. It is indeed a tough watch but a rewarding one in how precisely it lays out all the details leading up to the tragedy, for Žbanić’s commitment to depicting it with both fearless clarity and palpable compassion and most of all, for Jasna Đuričić’s tremendous performance—with respect to Frances McDormand and every other Oscar-nominated actress of the past few years, little of their work was in the same league.

2. THE POWER OF THE DOG

Jane Campion returns to feature filmmaking at the top of her game, from the striking landscapes and multifaceted, unpredictable character arcs to the feminist perspective she lends to the source material: A western/thriller about life on the last days of a frontier, familial dysfunction, the strain of keeping and covering up for a secret and the tenacity of wanting to go your own way and utilizing intelligence to your best advantage. With great performances all around (especially Kodi Smit-McPhee’s unapologetically fey beanpole), it carefully unfolds over two hours without a single wasted scene.

3. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Definitive, and maybe my favorite rock and roll doc since DiG! Despite him having mythologized both Bowie (VELVET GOLDMINE) and Dylan (I’M NOT THERE), I still never would’ve dreamt of Todd Haynes as the filmmaker to tell this band’s story; of course, he pulls it off completely, with masterful editing and sound design. His collage-like study preserves the band’s otherness, evoking a long-gone era so vividly while also recovering his own directorial edge—it’s easily his best feature since CAROL.

4. SHIVA BABY

I first saw this snappy cringe-com feature debut from filmmaker Emma Seligman at virtual TIFF in 2020; hardly anything filled me with more joy than it finding a most deserved audience when released earlier this year. Featuring a near-perfect ensemble (esp. Fred Melamed and the incorrigible Polly Draper as the lead’s parents), along with a pressure-cooker environment and score both somewhat reminiscent of, of all things, MOTHER! (Thankfully, no one eats the baby here.) 

5. LIMBO

Another TIFF ’20 watch: Ben Sharrock’s film about Middle-Eastern and African men stranded in a refugee camp off the coast of Scotland is deadpan and quirky, but it ends up in a place of warmth and great catharsis. The painterly landscapes, subtle attention to detail and the gradual deepening of character all provide a stirring backdrop for protagonist Omar, a Syrian musician stuck between stations of a tumultuous past and an uncertain future.

6. RED POST ON ESCHER STREET

The lesser-seen of two Sion Sono films released this year (the other being the Nicolas Cage-starring PRISONER OF THE GHOSTLAND) is inspired and often insane satire/self-referential cinema, from the five girls dressed in white who form a “love club” (read: cult) for the director of the film within this film to the self-proclaimed “King of All Extras” to the exquisite look of disdain the recipient of a “dream-catcher necklace” sports when she is suddenly gifted it.

7. DAYS

A quiet and often gentle film about loneliness, urban life, food, sex and water in all of its forms—yep, another Tsai Ming-liang picture. Actually, quite a lot happens in this one; naturally, it just does so at a snail’s pace, although like any master of minimalism, Tsai’s still adept at taking the same puzzle pieces and rearranging them into (if ever so slightly) distinct configurations that at best inspire one to look at the familiar with fresh eyes.

8. THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS

I continuously felt that this wry, warm documentary about mostly older male Italian truffle hunters (and their trusty canine companions) was made especially for me, from the adorable-verging-on-feral man/dog bonding and the dude who rather resembled Father Time to the multiple scenes of a young lady grooming a fancy red pillow on a pedestal just so in order to display The Perfect Truffle for a procession of onlookers to stop by and fervently sniff. 

9. TITANE

Felt a rush from this similar to first-time viewings of DRIVE or BEAU TRAVAIL. Shocking, seductive, transgressive, bonkers and somehow, I was with director Julia Ducournau (and a poignant Vincent Lindon) every step of the way, even though body horror is not really my jam (and if it’s not yours, see this at your own risk.) I don’t know how John Waters missed placing this on his top ten list of 2021 films.

10. A HERO

After a diversion to Spain with EVERYBODY KNOWS, this is a return-to-form for Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. A neat bookend to A SEPARATION, his breakthrough from a decade ago, he will never struggle to find inspiration for his intricate moral dramas just as the world will never run out of schmucks like Rahim (Amir Jadidi) whom implore one to ask (as a character does here) if they’re really smart or just incredibly simple. 

11. THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS

Tightly constructed, devastating study of a fractured marriage that’s more complex than it initially appears. Each frame is rich without being distractingly pretty.

12. SUMMER OF SOUL (OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)

Astonishing, rare footage + thorough, incisive context + sustained “can-you-top-this-clip” momentum = best concert doc in years.

13. SOME KIND OF HEAVEN

Whereas filmmaker Lance Oppenheim could’ve easily satirized or put down the absurdities of what is essentially Disneyworld for Seniors, his approach is one of cool but considered observation, often keeping the camera static and just letting the action unfold.

14. NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN

“If David Lynch wanted to make a Polish Wes Anderson film” but both weirder and more palatable than that. Rarely has a cookie-cutter residential McMansion community appeared so otherworldly.

15. THE LOST DAUGHTER

As a first-time feature director, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes wise and sometimes risky choices in this hard-edged gem of an adaptation with excellent, thorny work from both Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley.

16. TEST PATTERN

This underseen microindie deserves the same attention and cachet received by last year’s NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS; it also has a fearless lead performance from Brittany S. Hall.

17. ZOLA

I would ask for a moratorium on films about seedy Florida antics, only Janicza Bravo continues to impress me as a director with this based-on-a-true-story that’s really an incredible one.

18. THIS IS NOT A BURIAL, IT’S A RESURRECTION

I don’t think I’ve seen anything shot quite like this before: bold colors against darkness, faces and bodies illuminated by a single gas lamp, rough-hewn interiors giving way to bursts of painterly landscapes.

19. THE GREEN KNIGHT

Forget Kubrick—at times, David Lowery’s idiosyncratic take on an offshoot from the King Arthur legend feels more like the movie Tarkovsky would’ve attempted about the subject, at its most dazzling and effective when enigmatic.

20. ANNETTE

A pairing of weirdos (Leos Carax and the musical brother cult duo Sparks) results in an equally strange hybrid of heart-on-sleeve emotion and extreme artifice. I wouldn’t say everything in it works, exactly, but months on, it lingers like a dream (maybe a nightmare?) I’m still trying to assess.

I CARRY YOU WITH ME

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

CODA

THE DIG

DUNE

EYIMOFE (THIS IS MY DESIRE)

HOLLER

I CARRY YOU WITH ME

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH

LANGUAGE LESSONS

LICORICE PIZZA

LUZZU

NO ORDINARY MAN

PASSING

PLAYING WITH SHARKS

PREPARATIONS TO BE TOGETHER FOR AN UNKNOWN PERIOD OF TIME

SPRING BLOSSOM

SWEAT

TWO OF US

DAYS

Tsai Ming-liang’s a filmmaker who tends to make the same kind of picture over and over, like Yasujiro Ozu (to name one of his precursors) or Hong Sang-Soo (a contemporary.) This isn’t a deterrent, for nearly three decades after his feature debut (1992’s Rebels of the Neon God), he’s still unearthing inspiration in such long standing obsessions as loneliness, urban life, food, sex and, more so than perhaps any other auteur, water in all of its forms.

Since the anomalous erotic (!) musical The Wayward Cloud (2005), his work has seemingly turned more minimalist with each effort. His latest sports the disclaimer, “This film is intentionally un-subtitled”, which led me to expect even less action than his last narrative feature, Stray Dogs (2013), which had its share of endless long takes of people staring at a wall or eating a rotisserie chicken. Not that Days does a 180 on its predecessor, for it opens with another lengthy, static shot of Tsai’s long-running, now middle-aged protagonist Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sitting and blankly staring into space over a steady rain.

Actually, quite a lot happens in the film; it just does so at a snail’s pace, occasionally approaching the repetitious style of classic structuralist cinema. When the film’s other character, the younger Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) spends ample time preparing his dinner, meticulously washing his lettuce and fish multiple times, it feels like a direct homage to the rituals incessantly enacted in real time throughout Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975).

Individual scenes with Kang or Non make up the film’s first half; a little more than midway through, the two men come together in a long sequence that most viewers will decidedly not find boring. Afterwards, we see them apart again until the final shot fades to white. Again, a deliberate structure, even if Tsai claims he pretty much made the film up as he went along, working without a screenplay (there’s so little dialogue that the subtitles aren’t missed.)

Viewers unfamiliar with or unreceptive to Tsai’s work may think, “Huh?” at all this; his devotees might also initially arrive at that conclusion, at least initially. While not as masterful as, say, What Time Is It There? (2001), given time to absorb and ponder Days, I grew to appreciate it far more. It’s a quiet and often gentle film, running through those same, ongoing obsessions I mentioned above; fortunately, they don’t yet feel stale or superfluous. Like any master of minimalism, Tsai’s still adept at taking the same puzzle pieces and rearranging them into (if ever so slightly) distinct configurations that at best inspire one to look at the familiar with fresh eyes.

Films Watched, August 2021

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to watching 12 Angry Men. Perhaps I’d seen it used so much as a cultural reference point that I felt like I didn’t need to see it—after all, one could easily summarize the plot in a sentence or two, tops. Sidney Lumet’s a filmmaker whose workmanlike agility I’ve always felt more admiration than passion for, but his first feature film conveys a mastery of pacing, blocking and framing to transform what is essentially a single set play into cinema, albeit one best viewed as a period piece that intrigues most when it offers occasional glimpses of self-recognition. Either way, as essential as you’ve heard it to be.

With all his shorts expiring on Criterion at the end of the month, I took a semi-deep dive into Georges Méliès, the first filmmaker to utilize optical effects and thus take serious advantage of what one could do with the new medium. Every cineaste knows A Trip To The Moon (especially the two that made this music video 25 years ago), but follow-ups like The Impossible Voyage and The Merry Frolics of Satan are even better, experimenting with textures and a fine-tuned whimsy. They are records of Méliès exploring film in real time, trying out new techniques and occasionally finding magic in them.

Not much new stuff to write home about (apart from Annette, reviewed here), with re-watches mostly confirming first impressions: Elliot Gould still iconic as a 1970’s Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Point Blank still pretentious but oddly fascinating, etc. On the other hand, Limbo feels more like a future classic the second time around and Pink Flamingos proves far more watchable with John Waters’ predictably entertaining, motor-mouthed commentary track.

On that note, I’m taking a break from these watchlist essays after 18 straight months of doing them in order to focus on other writing (including this series) and some new endeavors. However, I’ll still be posting (mostly short) reviews of everything I see on Letterboxd.

Films viewed in August in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2018) 8

Joan of Arc (Georges Méliès, 1900) 7

The Dead (John Huston, 1987) 8

Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950) 7

Fully Realized Humans (Joshua Leonard, 2020) 6

Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)* 7

The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972) 8

The Kingdom of the Fairies (Méliès, 1903) 8

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) 10

Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983) 6

The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021) 7

Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)* 10

Limbo (Ben Sharrock, 2020)* 9

Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley, 2020) 3

Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016) 8

A Trip To The Moon (Méliès, 1902)* 8

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) 7

Hotel New York (Jackie Raynal, 1984) 6

Never Gonna Snow Again (Malgorzata Szumowska, Michael Englert, 2020) 8

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)* 10

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)* 8

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) 7

The Witch (Méliès, 1906) 7

Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1935) 6

Annette (Leos Carax, 2021) 9

Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020) 7

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014) 6

The Impossible Voyage (Méliès, 1904) 9

The Merry Frolics of Satan (Méliès, 1906) 8

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2013)* 8

ANNETTE

Annette is a tough film to wrap one’s head around and you wouldn’t expect anything less from an epic, operatic musical directed by Leos Carax (whose last film was the bonkers Holy Motors) and written/composed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the long running cult duo Sparks. It’s a work that revels in its extreme artifice from the opening scene where Carax, the Maels and the cast march from the film set/recording studio through the streets of Hollywood at night, singing the self-referential anthem “So May We Start”.

The story that unfolds is similarly insane, charting the tempestuous romance between Henry (Adam Driver, possibly never better), a popular shock comedian and Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera diva. Diametrically opposed in approach to their respective arts (Henry aims for laughter, Ann for tears as her character dies on stage every night), they have a child together, Annette; she is portrayed by a puppet.

From there, things gradually spiral, occasionally alluding to such iconic Hollywood tales as A Star Is Born and Mulholland Drive. There’s murder and manipulation, emotional and philosophical crises, and a heightened sense of fantasy and self-awareness that lends itself completely to the predominantly sung dialogue–if there is an analogue in the music here to Spark’s wildly diverse back catalog, it’s their great 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven, a quasi-classical work of melodic repetition and lyrical recitation.

The film sustains a teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity feel that rarely lets up during its 140 minute running time and it’s not difficult to see why that makes for such a polarizing watch. Often reminiscent of similar musical/film balancing acts like Phantom of the Paradise and, to a lesser extent, Moulin Rouge!, Annette’s weird hybrid of emotion and artifice manages to feel more personal than either. After one viewing, I don’t yet know if it’s a great film or just a great effort at one, but it lingers on like a dream (maybe a nightmare?) that I’m still attempting to fully assess.

Films Watched, July 2021

O Fantasma

No film festivals or reoccurring themes this month, unless you count two starring Veronica Lake (the silly one’s much better than the serious one) and another two with Gena Rowlands (though her role in Mazursky’s forgotten, half-misbegotten modern Shakespeare riff is relatively tiny.) I did celebrate Independence Day weekend with two concert films: Summer of Soul is one of the best in years, adding incisive context to its rare footage with a “can you top that clip” momentum that never lets up; Monterey Pop, on the other hand is more noteworthy for its historical value than anything Pennebaker adds to it, although the lengthy Ravi Shankar number at the finale could be an excellent short in itself.

Caught up on a few new-ish acclaimed titles, including the polarizing Promising Young Woman (thoroughly entertaining, pulls few punches but I don’t think I could sit through that scene again), Minari (more than adequate but only exceptional when Youn Yuh-jung’s onscreen) and the recently re-released Between The Lines, which intrigues for its depiction of a circa-1977, pre-gentrification, pseudo-bohemian Boston, even if it feels a little sitcom-y at times. Also finally saw A Quiet Place: wasn’t expecting Krasinski to meld Raimi-esque sci-fi/horror onto what could almost be a more commercial version of Malick, although I still do not have high hopes for the sequel (which I’ll likely watch in August.)

All my re-watches this month hold up nicely, especially Altman’s gambling picture, which gives a most vivid sense of its time and place and The Conformist, which offers a dazzling simulation of its time/place that could only exist in the mind but resonates strongly anyway. This also marks the first time I’ve made it through Fallen Angels without having to look up (much of) the plot online and the first time I’ve seen American Movie since it was in theaters—as a native, I can’t say it’s the best Milwaukee movie, but it’s certainly the most.

Standing out from the remaining hodgepodge of mostly middling titles new and old (though Mandibles is almost genius in its relentless stupidity) are two highly recommended first-time watches. O Fantasma brilliantly navigates a stunning turn in its third act from agreeably kinky to deeply unsettling, making me want to watch everything else Rodrigues made between it and The Ornithologist, while during the first ten minutes of It’s A Beautiful Day I thought, “Is this all Hertzfeldt can do?”, only to conclude by the end, “No one else has ever done this.”

Films viewed in July in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946) 5

Wildwood, NJ (Ruth Leitman, Carol Weaks Cassidy, 1994) 8

Sweet Thing (Alexandre Rockwell, 2020) 7

Land (Robin Wright, 2021) 5

Summer of Soul (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, 2021) 9

Monterey Pop (D. A. Pennebaker, 1968) 7

A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, 2013) 7

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020) 8

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) 9

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)* 10

The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2019) 6

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) 8

Labyrinth of Passion (Pedro Almodovar, 1982) 7

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)* 9

Between The Lines (Joan Micklin Silver, 1977) 7

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens, 2020) 6

Tempest (Paul Mazursky, 1982) 5

Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) 7

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)* 8

Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018) 6

Lisztomania (Ken Russell, 1975) 4

O Fantasma (Joao Pedro Rodrigues, 2000) 9

A Running Jump (Mike Leigh, 2012) 6

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995)* 8

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)* 10

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018) 7

Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971)* 9

Obsession (Brian De Palma, 1976) 6

Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel, 1964) 6

I Married A Witch (Rene Clair, 1942) 8

Mandibles (Quentin Dupieux, 2020) 7

Incoherence (Bong Joon-ho, 1994) 6

Films Watched, June 2021

A Bread Factory

Another month, another online film festival. While I’m yearning to go back to such things in person and could’ve feasibly done so for the 23rd Annual Provincetown International Film Festival, other travel plans and some lingering trepidation (I haven’t yet set foot in a theater) left me opting for the virtual edition, itself actually pretty fulfilling: a ten-day window to watch most of the fest’s titles (save for things like Opening Night selection In The Heights) anytime, anyplace. My favorites included Sundance winner CODA (coming to theatres and Apple+ later this summer), charming dating app doc Searchers, filmed-in-lockdown two-hander Language Lessons and profiles on Aussie diver/marine life activist Valerie Taylor and the aftereffects of a fifty-year-old stunt pulled by wealthy hippie weirdo Michael Brody Jr.

However, June’s best first-time viewing was A Bread Factory, Patrick Wang’s two-part, four-hour dramedy about a struggling arts organization in small town upstate New York, with an ensemble led by Tyne Daly and mostly unknowns plus a few ringers (Glynnis O’Connor, Janeane Garofalo, James Marsters). It received a miniscule release in October 2018 (I don’t think it played Boston) but came to my attention via rave reviews from critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Wang’s humaneness may initially seem at odds with his occasional absurdist slant, but he’s crafted a universe that, as finite as it physically appears, just continues to expand without ever obscuring the constants that embody and define it. Available to view on Kanopy and a must watch for any devotee of American indie cinema.

Solid new titles included the economical fractured marriage story of The Killing of Two Lovers, the thoroughly entertaining Some Kind of Heaven, which examines a fascinating example of artifice made “real” via a ginormous Florida retirement community and Slow Machine, a baffling but never boring pretzel-twist indie full of shifting identities and people playing versions of themselves. Paper Spiders, on the other hand, is fully skippable despite the ever-great Lily Taylor in a rare leading role.

Gypsy 83 was nearly worth a twenty-year wait (kept waiting for a theatrical release back in 2001!) and about as good as director/writer Todd Stephens’ latest, Swan Song, noteworthy for its tour de force work from the inimitable Udo Kier. House of Games was worth watching for Joe Mantegna’s barked-out reading of that old phrase, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” in its climax. Burn! was worth seeing for Marlon Brando donning an English accent and having it come out sounding like Michael Caine.

Perhaps Cruising was the worthiest screening of them all—not really a “great” film as it was neutered by its studio to get an R rating, but intriguing as a record of pre-AIDS Manhattan gay fetish bars. Also, it has undercover cop Al Pacino being asked by his boss Paul Sorvino if he’s ever been “porked”.

Films viewed in June in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.)

A Sunday in the Country (Bertrand Tavernier, 1984) 8

Iris (Albert Maysles, 2014)* 8

Sordid Lives (Del Shores, 2000)* 6

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008) 6

Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) 6

The Killing of Two Lovers (Robert Machoian, 2020) 8

The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987) 6

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask Isaac Julien, 1995) 6

Four Roads (Alice Rohrwacher, 2021) 5

Gypsy 83 (Todd Stephens, 2001) 7

A Bread Factory Part One: For The Sake Of Gold (Patrick Wang, 2018) 10

A Bread Factory Part Two: Walk With Me A While (Wang, 2018) 9

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)* 8

Paper Spiders (Inon Shampanier, 2020) 4

Halston (Frederic Tcheng, 2019) 6

Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim, 2020) 9

House Of Games (David Mamet, 1987) 7

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)* 9

Slow Machine (Paul Felton, Joe Denardo, 2020) 6

Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937) 8

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Jim Mallon, 1996)* 6

To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990) 8

The Big Picture (Christopher Guest, 1989) 7

Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969) 8

PIFF 2021:

Beans (Tracey Deer, 2020) 7

Breuer’s Bohemia (James Crump, 2021) 6

Ailey (Jamila Wignot, 2021) 7

Searchers (Pacho Velez, 2021) 8

Swan Song (Stephens, 2021) 7

CODA (Sian Heder, 2021) 9

Dear Mr. Brody (Keith Maitland, 2021) 8

Being BeBe (Emily Branham, 2021) 5

Language Lessons (Natalie Morales, 2021) 8

Sublet (Eytan Fox, 2020) 6

Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq, 2020) 5

Playing With Sharks (Sally Aitken, 2021) 8

Potato Dreams of America (Wes Hurley, 2021) 7

Yes I Am: The Ric Weiland Story (Aaron Bear, 2021) 4

Take A Deep Breath, Count With Me: Halfway Through 2021

It’s been a weird six months—for us all, no doubt. What has made them particularly odd for me is that, since January 1, I’ve been unemployed for the first time in over 15 years. I’ve had to make greater adjustments processing and navigating this than I did with the early days of the pandemic last year.

I’ve spent this additional down time ticking off project after project (Emptying out old files! Digitizing old photographs!) and trying to adhere to a daily routine that, in addition to job hunting makes ample time for reading, exercise, neighborhood walks when the weather permits and, as always, watching movies. I’ve also had to acclimate myself to this strange limbo; not entirely sure what my professional future might resemble yet, though I feel like I’m getting closer (check back with me in another three or six months.)

As for the music and movies I’ve been consuming, I’ve compiled two lists of 2021 favorites-to-date. Some of the albums (below in alphabetical order) come from long-beloved artists including three who’ve released their first full-lengths in over a decade (Liz Phair, Kings of Convenience, Arab Strap). Others are fresh discoveries: Wolf Alice’s reclamation of female-fronted alternative pop, Another Sky’s chewy but hooky soundscapes made distinct by androgynous vocalist Catrin Vincent and Cassandra Jenkins, whose singular, seven-track second album has remained in heavy rotation since I first heard it in March:

Another Sky, Music For Winter, Vol. 1

Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark

Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

Field Music, Flat White Moon

Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

Kings of Convenience, Peace or Love

Liz Phair, Soberish

Lord Huron, Long Lost

Morcheeba, Blackest Blue

Quivers, Golden Doubt

Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

I’ve also seen nearly thirty new films from two festivals plus a smattering of other new releases, mostly via Chlotrudis’ weekly discussion group. Within the next six months, I hope to even return to the cinema as well! Below is everything I rated at least four stars out of five in alphabetical order by title:

CODA

Dear Mr. Brody

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

Holler

I Was A Simple Man

The Killing of Two Lovers

Language Lessons

Limbo

Playing With Sharks

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Searchers

Shiva Baby

Some Kind of Heaven

Strawberry Mansion

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Two of Us

Films Watched, May 2021

I planned on seeing 4-6 movies at this year’s virtual edition of IFF Boston; I ended up watching 13, enough for a separate post about the festival, I guess. Regardless, even with slim pickings due to the crazy year we’ve just had, I saw some gems. My favorite was Strawberry Mansion, a deeply surreal but charmingly handmade film where dreams and reality overlap and coalesce but with a sustained gentleness that sets it apart from the work of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. It led me to co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s previous film, Sylvio, a similarly unique study of viral fame and audience perceptions.

Other festival picks: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, an Argentinian tale which rivals Strawberry Mansion in its unique approach to narrative; I Was A Simple Man, a Hawaiian film about mortality that’s soothing and unsettling in equal measure; Luzzu, Maltese neorealism about adapting to and reconciling a changing world; and Holler, which attempts to do for industrial small town Ohio what Winter’s Bone did for the Ozarks and has fine performances from Jessica Barden and Becky Ann Baker (more ferocious than you’d ever expect from her work on Freaks and Geeks and Girls.)

I had to ramp up my Preston Sturges re-watch because all his films left Criterion Channel at the end of the month. While The Lady Eve (see my April 2021 entry) is still his peak, The Palm Beach Story, with its madcap travails and characters nicknamed “Captain McGlue” and “The Weinie King” is not too far behind. Sullivan’s Travels remains an interesting experiment more than a realized apotheosis; the later Eddie Bracken films aren’t perfect, but their wartime reverie connects more than the internal fantasies of Unfaithfully Yours (still better than I was expecting, thanks to a perfectly-cast Rex Harrison.)

The rest is typically all over the place: a new Roy Andersson film that, while pleasant, continues the diminishing returns of his last few features; The In-Laws, whose late scenes with Richard Libertini as a deranged dictator made me laugh harder than anything else I’ve seen during this goddamned pandemic; and Francis Ford Coppola’s cult passion project, which feels quaint in a “Let’s look back at the 40s in the 80s” way but gets by on Vittorio Storaro’s streamlined, transcendent camerawork.

It was a treat to see both Tom Noonan’s Sundance-winning, one-of-a-kind first date film What Happened Was… and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H again after twenty-odd years. The former resonates far more deeply with me now (my own dating experience back then was pretty scant); the latter, while not on the level of McCabe & Ms. Miller or The Long Goodbye nonetheless feels almost casually miraculous a half-century on, not so much tapping into the zeitgeist as corralling it and formulating a new way to see and partake in it.

Films viewed in May in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches. Titles with a ^ are selections from IFF Boston 2021.)

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) 7

The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979) 8

The Heart of The World (Guy Maddin, 2000)* 10

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019) 7

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 8

High Society (Charles Walters, 1956) 5

What Happened Was… (Tom Noonan, 1994)* 9

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)* 10

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz, 2021)^ 8

A Reckoning In Boston (James Rutenbeck, 2021)^ 6

Holler (Nicole Riegel, 2020)^ 7

Thunder Force (Ben Falcone, 2021) 3

I Was a Simple Man (Christopher Makoto Yogi, 2021)^ 8

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021)^ 5

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942)* 9

Dream Horse (Euros Lyn, 2020)^ 6

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)* 8

Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, 2021)^ 9

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche (Paul Sng, Celeste Bell, 2021)^ 6

Luzzu (Alex Camilleri, 2021)^ 8

Marvelous and The Black Hole (Kate Tsang, 2021)^ 6

Last Night in Rozzie (Sean Gannet, 2021)^ 6

The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright, 2021) 5

Weed & Wine (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2020)^ 7

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, 1943)* 7

How It Ends (Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein, 2021)^ 4

Chinese Portrait (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2018) 7

Love Is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969) 6

The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, 2019) 7

Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux, 1973) 8

Hail The Conquering Hero (Sturges, 1944) 8

Sylvio (Audley, Birney, 2017) 8

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)* 9

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948) 7

The County (Grímur Hákonarson, 2019) 6

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) 7

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)* 8

Films Watched, April 2021

With respect to howlin’ wolf Frances McDormand in Nomadland (itself a deserving Best Picture winner) and all the other Oscar acting honorees this year, none of them gave as fierce and harrowing a performance as Jasna Đuričić in Quo Vadis, Aida? I would’ve also picked it for Best International Film over the affable if gimmicky Another Round—as a depiction of an interpreter desperately navigating the 1995 Bosnian genocide, it’s a nail biting, feel-bad movie that’s really good.

A few other significant discoveries this month: Sean Baker’s Starlet, which preceded Tangerine and affirmed his finesse with unknown actresses (including Ernest Hemingway’s great-granddaughter!) to be already fully intact; En El Septimo Día, a return-to-form (and feature-making) from Jim McKay, another director who excels with non and semi-professionals; The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, a classic I’d been meaning to see for years and well worth the wait (not least for Bogart at his most depraved); and The Watchmaker of St. Paul, my first Bertrand Tavernier (RIP) film and certainly not the last.

Re-watches offered few surprises except renewed confirmation that The Lady Eve might be my favorite Preston Sturges film (and the best screwball comedy ever next to Bringing Up Baby) and that Drugstore Cowboy (which I barely remembered from my last viewing decades ago) has Matt Dillon’s best, most sympathetic performance. Thrilled to see Shiva Baby receiving such a robust reception in its theatrical/VOD release—it was one of my faves at virtual TIFF last September, and I look forward to people discovering fellow newly released festival alums Limbo and The Disciple as well.

Somewhat let down by Sunset Song (the closest Davies has ever come to seeming banal) and a trio of inessential shorts that brought Maddin Mondays dribbling to a close (save for one Criterion is finally adding in May.) Really let down by The Staggering Girl, a high-pedigree pseudo-art-commercial with so much talent and so little substance. On the other hand, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar delightfully turned out more acid trip-y than expected and underground queer classic Pink Narcissus, while dutifully rough around the edges, answered a question that had previously never occurred to me: “What if Kenneth Anger had an ass fetish?”

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) 9

En El Septimo Día (Jim McKay, 2017) 8

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020) 6

The Hall Runner (Guy Maddin, 2014) 6

Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015) 6

Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971) 8

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, 2012) 7

To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)* 10

The Fever (Maya Da-Rin, 2019) 7

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum, 2021) 7

Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012) 9

Lines of the Hand (Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2015) 5

Family Romance LLC (Werner Herzog, 2019) 6

Ashes (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012) 7

Always Shine (Sophia Takal, 2016) 6

No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990) 7

Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)* 8

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic, 2020) 10

Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pedro Almodovar, 1980) 6

Spanky: To The Pier and Back (Maddin, 2008) 6

In The Soup (Alexandre Rockwell, 1992)* 7

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932) 6

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)* 8

The Watchmaker of St. Paul (Bertrand Tavernier, 1974) 8

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020)* 9

The More You Ignore Me (Keith English, 2018) 5

Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis, 1996) 7

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)* 8

Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932) 7

The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino, 2019) 4

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 10

The Man Who Sold His Skin (Kaouther Ben Hania, 2020) 6

Films Watched, March 2021

A few 10s this month, including one first-time watch, A New Leaf. Elaine May’s 1971 directorial debut, it has the ideal casting of Walter Matthau as a middle-aged trust fund playboy who has spent all his money and must find a wealthy wife in order to continue his accustomed lifestyle. Enter May’s daffy heiress, a klutzy botanist who genuinely (and literally!) falls for Matthau’s scoundrel. I’d heard for years how great this acerbic neo-screwball comedy was; now streaming on Criterion Channel, it did not disappoint, from opening car gag to deliriously wet finale. It also coincided with my reading of Mark Harris’ great new Mike Nichols bio, which naturally delves into his professional relationship with May, who is also deserving of such an extensive overview.

With five of them falling in March, Maddin Mondays continued strong, split between four re-watches and three new-to-me shorts. Regarding the former, the two early-aughts features impress slightly less now, if only because they precede what would prove Maddin’s most fertile period (which My Dad is 100 Years Old definitely belongs to); The Forbidden Room, on the other hand, proves enriching to revisit, almost as if by design. As for those shorts, Only Dream Things is the prize and easily the closest the filmmaker has ever come to David Lynch-ian dreamscape fantasia.

Many terrific re-watches beyond Maddin this month, from the still-startling movie that killed Michael Powell’s career to Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour-long film history lecture that hasn’t lost any of its power since I last viewed it sixteen years ago. More revelatory, however, was my first viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel since its theatrical run in 2014. As with The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s jewel box perfection resonated more at home for me than it did on a very large screen; it’s now ahead of The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox (but still not Moonrise Kingdom) in my ranking of the director’s features.

Elsewhere, with his classic run of eight films in the ‘40s now streaming on Criterion, my Preston Sturges watch has begun with The Great McGinty and Christmas In July; a month-long subscription to Disney+ for WandaVision allowed me to catch up on some Pixar features, including a rewatch of The Incredibles in preparation for the slightly inferior but still very good sequel; the absolutely deranged The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, which I may watch again in April before my MUBI subscription runs out; and The Movie Orgy, a pioneering found footage collage curated by a young Joe Dante, four-plus hours of it currently available to stream on Archive.org and essential for connoisseurs of trashy 50s/60s movies and TV.

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

Only Dream Things (Guy Maddin, 2012) 8

A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971) 10

The Mouse That Roared (Jack Arnold, 1959) 7

Sylvie’s Love (Eugene Ashe, 2020) 6

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)* 10

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940) 7

Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020)* 8

Soul (Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, 2020) 8

Keep An Eye Out (Quentin Dupieux, 2018) 7

Glorious (Maddin, 2008) 6

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (Maddin, 2002)* 7

The Rabbi Goes West (Gerald Peary, Amy Geller, 2019)**

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)* 9

Gutterbug (Andrew Gibson, 2019) 5

Stray (Elizabeth Lo, 2020) 6

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973) 8

Farewell Amor (Ekwa Msangi, 2020) 7

Coming 2 America (Craig Brewer, 2021) 5

Inside Out (Docter, 2015) 8

The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968) 9

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)* 9

Sinclair (Maddin, 2010) 6

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)* 9

Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax, 1984) 7

The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952) 7

Christmas In July (Sturges, 1940)* 8

Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018) 8

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)* 10

My Dad Is 100 Years Old (Maddin, 2005)* 8

Cowards Bend The Knee (Maddin, 2003)* 7

The Legend of The Stardust Brothers (Makoto Tezuka, 1985) 8

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)* 10

The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili 2020) 6

Slim Aarons: The High Life (Fritz Mitchell, 2016) 4

As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, 1988) 7

The Forbidden Room (Maddin, Evan Johnson, 2015)* 9

Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1976) 7

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2011) 5

(**not rated, because I know the filmmakers personally!)