Film critics Sean Burns and Erin Trahan reflect on the year that saw films (and audiences) return to cinemas and selected their favorites from 2021.
After all the isolation and uncertainty, 2021 was the year we reconvened. Cautiously, and with gratitude. Even though the delta variant may have put a dent in any plans for a “hot vax summer,” what a relief to return to the aisles and balconies of the Brattle, Somerville and Coolidge Corner theaters after so many long months away. What a joy to once again experience a whole room roaring with laughter as Bobcat Goldthwait and Dana Gould hilariously held court at the first in-person Independent Film Festival Boston in nearly two years. Forgive me if I never want to watch another screener link at home with my email address burned into the bottom half of the frame. I’m so happy to be back out there with all of you, sharing stories together. It’s a pleasure I promise not to take for granted again. Despite a lot of doomsaying about the death of cinema from people who should know better, 2021 offered another rich and bountiful batch of films. A lot of my favorites were backloaded for box office reasons as the recovering industry still sorts itself out, but are soon to arrive in Boston over the coming weeks. See you at the movies.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose, loopy tale of teenage adulation in 1973 is the director’s most endearing picture, an episodic ramble through fading fashions, ephemeral fads and memories that endure. Young Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) stars as a child actor aging out of gigs, falling hard for an older, emotionally chaotic photographer’s assistant (musician Alana Haim) trying to find her foothold in the world. There’s magic in their misfit, Hollywood-adjacent misadventures, and a wistful evocation of just how fleeting such connections can be. I didn’t want this movie to end. (Opens in Boston Dec. 25.)
A scabrous, screamingly funny broadside from Romanian muckraker Radu Jude, ostensibly about what happens when a mild-mannered schoolteacher’s husband accidentally uploads their sex tape to the internet. But really it’s about the hypocrisy of puritanical outrage, with a mid-movie, history crash course slideshow illustrating how such performative morality always seems to end in atrocity. It’s a productively filthy provocation, using un-simulated hardcore pornography to make us question what’s really obscene, at the same time hilariously depicting how COVID isolation and living online have made us all lose our damn minds. (Boston release date TBA.)
Jane Campion’s first feature film in 12 years is a 1920s Western full of foreboding that blossoms into something far stranger and more seductive than its synopsis might suggest, a hothouse psychodrama about performative masculinity and the personas we put on so as not to feel so alone. It’s a menacing movie, thick with an atmosphere of lurid homoeroticism and repressed longing. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst deliver indelible performances as three people stuck play-acting roles they’ve been assigned by cruel circumstances, on a range where nobody feels at home. (Streaming on Netflix.)
This knowingly naughty nunsploitation epic from “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” director Paul Verhoeven is about a 17th-century sister struck with stigmata after seeing visions of a sexy Jesus. Soon she’s manipulating her way up through the church hierarchy, secretly having a lesbian affair with her cellmate as the plague makes its way to the region. Like a lot of Verhoeven movies, “Benedetta” is a sophisticated satirical exploration of institutional power imbalances and structural oppression that plays just as well with intellectual pointy-heads as to the raincoat crowd who came to see some nudity and gore. (In theaters now. Available on VOD Dec. 21.)
Writer-director Joachim Trier’s effervescent romantic comedy spends four years studying an early 20-something woman’s life in flux, bouncing between suitors and career paths while attempting to cement a sense of self on her way to adulthood. It’s a wise and ruefully funny piece of work, anchored by a star-making performance from Renate Reinsve as the self-deprecating title character. The picture is playfully alert to the pleasures of cinema, capturing the way the world seems to stop when two lovers first connect. Too bad for them it has to start up again. (Opens in Boston Feb. 4.)
Even a seasoned viewer of esoteric art films might find themselves politely asking, “what the hell is going on?” during Willem Dafoe’s sixth collaboration with director Abel Ferrara. Another personal exorcism and a bold leap into the unknown for these two artists, “Siberia” confounds with every cut, enveloping the viewer in a drifting perspective that adheres strictly to its own elusive, internal logic. It's like the way sometimes in your dreams, whatever you were just looking at isn’t what you’re looking at anymore, yet it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary at all that your cat just became your eighth-grade math teacher. (Available on VOD.)
Filmmaker Joel Coen’s first outing without his brother Ethan restages the Scottish play as a haunted, black-and-white noir unfolding on eerily empty sets. It’s a liminal space somewhere between theater and film. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand strut and fret their hours upon the stage, bringing an older, last-ditch energy to the murderous power couple. I was tickled to realize what a classically Coen-esque fable Shakespeare’s play already is to begin with: a stupid, arrogant crime escalating into a contraption-like bloodbath, as if orchestrated by forces of divine retribution. You’ve even got two dimwit hitmen. (Opens in Boston Dec. 25)
This astonishing debut from director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese hails from the Kingdom of Lesotho, a small country within the borders of South Africa, but the tale takes place in the realm of myth. It tells of an old woman who stood up alone against sinister forces of “progress,” and an army that came to follow her, before a great flood washed away any trace of their struggle forever. By turns alienating and enthralling, it seems to be inventing a new cinematic language as it goes along. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel and available on VOD.)
Director Chris McKim’s documentary portrait of the late multimedia artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz is an electrifying movie experience. It’s about the birth of a confrontationally queer sensibility, the quiet tyranny of the donor class and the impossibility of separating politics from art, particularly during a pandemic that’s ravaging parts of the population deemed undesirable by people in power. This is not a movie that placates the audience or pats you on the back for watching. It leaves you provoked, riled-up and ready to start an argument. As art should. (Available on VOD.)
While 2021 had many “getting back to life” drawbacks, amidst a pandemic and all, it turned out to be a year full of excellent movies. For the first time in a long time, I nearly could’ve swapped out all of these titles for others. The ones I’ve been mulling the most, and chose here, share a degree of seriousness that surprises even me. I keep thinking I’m turning into one of those people who wants to escape. Then I’m reminded that when I sit down in front of a screen, I want what I’ve never seen before, to dislodge what I’ve known to that point. Here are nine that did that for me in 2021:
Not only did Maggie Gyllenhaal have the audacity to adapt an Elena Ferrante novel for her writing-directing film debut, she flat-out pulled off one of the best films of the year. The brilliantly fragmented storyline lays one woman’s discordant relationship to motherhood over another’s like shards of broken dishes. Olivia Colman — impossibly good as an academic on break in Greece — encounters a brash, patriarchal family suspicious of her independence. Among them is a young mother (Dakota Johnson, slick and searching) who causes Colman’s character to recall raising her now-grown daughters amidst a sea of unmet desires. The narrative teems with the tension of who or what is lost, exactly, and ponders if one ever recovers from caring for children. Jessie Buckley, Ed Harris and Paul Mescal round off a tour de force ensemble. (Opens in theaters Dec. 17 and streams on Netflix Dec. 31.)
As more and more nonfiction storytellers utilize animation, they will look to “Persepolis,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Tower” and now “Flee” as touchstones. In an exemplar use of the form — the main character, Amin, has masked his identity most of his life and can remain hidden through animation – Amin collaborates on a film about his years-long flight from Afghanistan as a child. (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director and Amin’s Danish school chum, effectively brings in archival footage as well.) Now adults, their rapport gives the harrowing story the needed downtime that comes with lasting friendship. It also gives a window into what holds Amin back from settling down with his husband in the present day. Riveting from start to finish, “Flee” reflects the inhumanity of mass displacement with humane originality. (Anticipated Boston theatrical release in January.)
'Hive' and 'Quo Vadis, Aida?'
It’s one thing to passively recall headlines about the former Yugoslavia falling apart in the mid-1990s. It’s quite another to inhabit the worlds of two formidable women each struggling with her own incomprehensible situation due to the related violent conflicts. In the case of “Hive,” which swept international awards at Sundance, a village of women in Kosovo form a collective to make and sell a red pepper sauce called ajvar. In “Quo Vadis,” a Bosnian woman’s decision to work as a translator for the U.N. places her husband and two nearly grown sons at grave risk; she sets the film’s pace by desperately trying to outpace the inevitable. Fictional accounts based on true events, these two expertly-crafted yet very different films begin the work of reminding the world about an especially devastating chapter in Eastern European history and how women, in particular, were left to pick up the pieces. (“Hive” is now playing in select theaters. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is streaming on Hulu.)
In this highly entertaining archival wonder of a documentary (a first time out for the footage, left in a basement for 50 years, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut), a young Stevie Wonder shows up and wows the thousands gathering outdoors for the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. But it’s not just Wonder. It’s Nina Simone and Gladys Knight — and an American history lesson and a music history lesson — sobering and joyful all at once. “Summer of Soul” also breathed new energy into my playlist (though discovering the all-female rock band Fanny also helped). It made the rounds this summer, perfectly timed to when much of the world had a pandemic reprieve and could see movies together again, often outdoors. I loved this movie. Then again, full disclosure: I’ll take Stevie Wonder over The Beatles eight days a week. (Now streaming on Hulu.)
'Missing in Brooks County' and 'Waikiki'
The entirely different but equally memorable Texas border documentary “Missing in Brooks County” and “Waikiki,” the first feature film written and directed by a Native Hawaiian, both caught and held my attention this year. “Missing in Brooks County,” which screened as part of the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, puts an urgent focus on the tragic, mostly unrecorded deaths of people entering the U.S. through Texas. The documentary opened in a conventional way that made me believe it would be limited to a few missing person stories with mixed results. It became far more engrossing — about the heroic efforts of a rescue organization helmed by one man, a small university team of anthropologists, and two bereft families, looking for answers. Told with potent simplicity and never pandering, the film also includes landowners with an array of approaches to the situation and calls some of their practices to account.
Screened during the Boston Asian American Film Festival, “Waikiki” quickly establishes an unexpectedly commanding point of view for a feature debut. The main character, Kea, holds several jobs in Honolulu and puts on many faces, but, caught as she is between circumstance and the effects of colonization, she can’t quite get them to add up. Director Christopher Kahunahana risks showing his lead as both struggling and spiritually sound, though to some, that strength may look like instability. The film’s themes add a cinematic element to a broader conversation about contemporary Indigenous issues that writers like Leslie Marmon Silko and more recently Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Angeline Boulley (“Firekeepers Daughter”) have explored in fiction writing. (The latter has a Netflix series in the works.) Developed over many years with the Sundance Institute, “Waikiki” should certainly open more doors for Kahunahana. (“Missing in Brooks County” streams on multiple platforms and will broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens on Jan. 31. For “Waikiki,” check the film’s Facebook page for streaming opportunities.)
Here’s an instance of aligning with the protagonist, a somber stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who grudgingly agrees to be driven in his own car during a production of “Uncle Vanya.” He finally gives in and enjoys the ride if you will. I did then, too, swept up as I was into Chekov’s timeless dialogue and how it overlaps with Kafuku’s contemporaneous drama, which overlaps with the casts’ and his driver’s. I could’ve watched “Drive My Car” for another few hours (it runs about three). The mélange of stories comments on how humans form agency and how easily we misread each other’s motivations. But getting it right? That’s what we seek at the theater, at the movies… We’re desperate to see someone else express what we have not yet figured out for ourselves. (Opens Jan. 4 at Coolidge Corner Theatre.)
Honorable mentions: “Petite Maman,” “The Souvenir Part II,” “Test Pattern,” “Nine Days” and “Pig.” For best film with local ties, and for its feel-good spirit, the Gloucester set and shot “CODA.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the theatrical release for "Missing in Brooks County." We regret the error.