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

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, “THE VELVET UNDERGROUND”

VU

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #4 – released March 1969. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 6/9/2014)

Track listing: Candy Says / What Goes On / Some Kinda Love / Pale Blue Eyes / Jesus / Beginning To See The Light / I’m Set Free / That’s The Story Of My Life / The Murder Mystery / After Hours

Just as everyone has a favorite Beatle, every music obsessive has a favorite Velvet Underground album. The debut, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO appeals to devotees of the titular Teutonic chanteuse, a band member for only that record (she sings on just three tracks, although each one is iconic). The second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is for those who prefer them at their loudest, most relentless and experimental. The fourth album, LOADED, is for those who first heard “Sweet Jane” or “Rock and Roll” on classic rock radio and thus favor the band at their most accessible. That leaves the self-titled third album (nobody likes the Lou Reed-less fifth album, SQUEEZE), the band’s quietest, most introspective and spiritual work. (Hereafter, I refer to it as VU, not to be confused with a “lost” album released under that name in the 1980s).

John Cale, the group’s founding bassist/cellist/co-songwriter left after WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT, so it would’ve been unlikely to expect another album in that vein. Besides, how could anyone top the extremities of “Sister Ray”, the seventeen-minute drone/groove/feedback epic that closed WL/WH? Thus, VU begins with a ballad, one softer and more fragile than anything they attempted before. As if to further emphasize this is a radically different band than the one who made WL/WH, “Candy Says” is not sung by primary vocalist Lou Reed, but (at Reed’s insistence) by Cale’s replacement, multi-instrumentalist Doug Yule, who delivers it in a softer croon than Reed could ever manage. Lyrically, however, it’s still recognizably a Reed song, a character sketch about Warhol superstar Candy Darling and incidentally the first in a number of similarly titled songs Reed would record both with the band and as a solo artist (“Stephanie Says”, “Lisa Says”).

Rest assured, Reed’s vocals return on “What Goes On” (one of VU’s two up-tempo rock songs), and not a moment too soon. While never one of the genre’s best singers on a technical level, Reed possesses one of rock’s most distinctive voices. On VU, he arguably never sounded better—still able to hit a relatively agile range of notes, but not yet lapsing into the knowing shtick that would color much of his solo career. Here, he sounds impassioned and engaged, a bandleader in every sense but not one who obscures the other members. “What Goes On” builds into a fine groove, the basic guitar-bass-drums lineup augmented by a soulful organ—it’s far more uplifting and optimistic than anything the band previously recorded. One could say the same, perhaps tenfold, for the other rocker, “Beginning To See The Light”. Reed’s vocal here is even more animated, reaching for (if not quite hitting) impossibly high notes but it doesn’t matter because his enthusiasm is so damn infectious. He sounds like a man redeemed, someone who has experienced the very worst but has yet come out the other side reborn and revitalized, ready to take on anything. The song ends with the repeated mantra, “How does it feel to be loved?”, simultaneously bursting with joy and wisdom; I could listen to it on repeat until the end of time.

Still, those two tracks are hardly indicative of what VU is about. As a whole, one could almost describe the album as folk rock, only it doesn’t sound anything like contemporaries Simon and Garfunkel or The Byrds—no chiming 12-string guitars, pretty harmonies or string arrangements. The majority of VU is strikingly minimalist. “Some Kinda Love” consists of a guitar in the right channel, a bass and a cowbell in the left channel, and Reed’s half sung, half spoken interjections in the middle, alternating the silly (“Put some jelly on your shoulder”) with the sublime (“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime”). “Jesus” accumulates intensity not just from its hymn-like allure and sudden crescendos, but also from the quiet spaces in-between—that old adage of what’s not played having as much value as what is (the song’s final, echo-laden rendition of its title is a suitably haunting conclusion to VU’s first half–it’s served as a great transition on multiple mixes for me). “Pale Blue Eyes”, nearly the Reed-sung twin of “Candy Says”, might be VU’s best-known song, not to mention the band’s most influential (followers from Yo La Tengo to R.E.M. (who later covered it) and countless other indie rock bands would not exist without it). I have nothing more to say about it except that Reed’s reading of the potentially rote lyric, “It’s truly, truly a sin” only works because he absolutely sells it.

I’d much rather talk at length about “I’m Set Free”, in which Reed tempers the optimism of previous track “Beginning To See The Light” with a resolution that approaches enlightenment. Majestic and nearly inspirational-sounding, it avoids seeming pretentious or overblown by sticking to simple-yet-profound language. Reed sings that he’s been free and he’s been bound, that he’s seen “his head laughing, rolling on the ground” and the chorus plainly but effectively repeats the song’s title, only to conclude it with the phrase, “to find a new illusion”, taking the wind out of a potentially fatuous statement while remaining in awe of the power of renewal. In full disclosure, it was a key song in helping me through a bad breakup years ago, and it still transports me back to that particular time in my life—it sort of underscores how much the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief not only apply to death, but also to a relationship’s demise.

If “I’m Set Free” is VU’s emotional peak, the three tracks that follow are strictly diversions, paths stumbled upon but not explored too extensively. “That’s The Story Of My Life” is in tune with the album’s overall gentler tone but is positively wistful in comparison, its two-minute duration ensuring that it comes and goes in the blink of an eye. One could make no further contrast than by placing it next to the nine-minute “The Murder Mystery”, VU’s sole callback to the band’s avant-garde roots (Robert Christgau amusingly called it “another bummer experiment.”) It mechanically alternates between overlapping spoken word poetry nonsense from Reed and guitarist Sterling Morrison (“Relent and obverse and inverse and perverse and reverse the inverse of perverse…”) in the verses with similarly overlapping disparate melodies sung by Yule and drummer Maureen “Mo” Tucker in the choruses. On first listen, it sticks out like a sore thumb on VU. However, if you’re open to it, it’s endlessly listenable, densely packed with content and almost hypnotic in its repetition-without-redundancy (and also highly influential, anticipating bands from Can and Television to Stereolab and Radiohead).

If it was VU’s closer, “The Murder Mystery” might be an ideal time for less adventurous listeners to tune out. As the penultimate track, it’s worth muddling through for the actual closer, “After Hours”, which you could not imagine placed anywhere else on the album. Presented as a simplistic, guitar strummed goof, it’s one of two songs in the band’s entire oeuvre sung by Tucker. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t have the vocal ability of even someone like Nico. You could call her voice thin, amateurish, even homely, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d be missing the point. Despite such perceived deficiencies, Tucker sounds incredibly human, a lot like you or I would singing this song. This is why VU, which missed the charts entirely upon release has aged far better than most of the more popular records of 1969: it doesn’t overtly feel like the work of rock stars but instead of real people, inspired amateurs, if you will. Not to diminish the band’s talent or accomplishments (or overshadow that fact that they sung about such things as drag queens and kinky sex) but today, VU’s fragility and rawness are refreshingly humane—the full-blooded efforts of flawed individuals, playing to their collective strengths simply via how well they played together.

Up next: we (finally) arrive at our first solo female singer.

Video for “Beginning To See The Light”:

 

Video for “I’m Set Free”: