Favourites in 2021: Film

December 30, 2021

I had an unexpectedly wonderful year in movies. Sharing the house — and, in particular, sharing the nights — with baby twins meant that I was frequently awake in the wee hours, bottle-feeding, and in this manner managed to see quite a few films, piecemeal. It turns out that 25 or 30 minutes a day is enough to peg one’s way through quite a few films in a year. The conditions might not, from a certain point of view, have been ideal, but honestly I didn’t find it all that bad.

Here are brief notes on the ten best films I saw for the first time this year, in rough descending order of preference.

*****

Come and See
(Elem Klimov, 1985)

I have sometimes heard the complaint that film, as a medium, is inherently prone to glorify war because simply putting it on the screen inclines us to admire the spectacle and the scale of it. Come and See is a counterexample. It captures the texture and the mechanics at least as well as other films do — rather better on the texture, I’m inclined to say — but it infuses the imagery with a disconcerting manic energy and a derangement of purpose and a moral horror that undercuts quite effectively whatever might, in its power and glamour, be seductive. If you want to make an anti-war film, this is how to do it.

What is really remarkable about the film is that it seems to have a point of view, an actual mental world, through which we experience it. We inhabit the mind of someone who is not well. Think, for example, of that episode in the forest in which a vaudeville act seems to intrude upon the action, out of nowhere. Is it a dream? Or those roving point-of-view shots during the barn burning sequence, as though a mad man were stalking the grounds — as indeed was the case, and not just one.

As the film approached its conclusion I was convinced by its artistic vision, but with a reservation: it could see naught but evil. It seemed to have been born from a white heat of hatred. But even if you take the view that war is an evil, or, more narrowly, that this war — the Nazi occupation of Belarus — was an evil, it is nonetheless not the case that all involved were or could be wholly devoid of all goodness. And then, in the closing minutes, that chance, that crack through which the light could get in, appeared. Bravo.

By putting it here at the head of my list for this year, I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. It’s not an easy film to sit through, and I’m in no hurry to return to it. It’s a big, swirling, crazy film that defies easy judgment, but I cannot deny that it seems to me a masterpiece.

***

The Mill and the Cross
(Lech Majewski, 2011)

What an amazing film. The premise would be hard to beat: we enter the landscape that Pieter Bruegel painted in his masterpiece The Way to Calvary. The idea is not exactly that we enter the painting — although it feels that way if you know the painting in question — but rather that we enter the world from which the painting was made (as though such a world ever existed!). The effect is marvelous: the bizarre imaginative landscape peopled by a huge variety of sixteenth-century Flemish folk comes alive in a way that frequently left me slack-jawed in wonderment.

It’s a wonderful idea, though it is not quite clear how one could make a story of it. And, indeed, in one sense there isn’t really a story. “Nothing is going to happen,” we hear from one of the characters, in a rare burst of loquacity. But in another the story is the greatest ever told, and providential contemplative viewing during Lent.

This was actually the second time I saw it. The first was almost ten years ago, shortly after it was made, and at that time it left me cold. This time the effect was wholly different. It’s a difficult film, chiefly because of its non-narrative nature, but it enchanted me.

***

The Green Knight
(David Lowery, 2021)

It was my most anticipated film of this year, both on account of the director, whose previous films I have admired, and the source material, which I love. I can’t decide if that love is a handicap or not in this context; Lowery is clearly very aware of the poem and wants us to think of it, but he is also clearly not doing what it does.

The truth is that, considered simply as cinema, I loved this to bits. It’s the moviest movie I’ve seen in a long time: beautiful, striking imagery, an imaginative story, and superb direction.

But it’s a perplexing film in many ways. It doesn’t always make sense, even on its own terms. By the film’s end, it had grown so enigmatic, or confused, or inconsistent that I could not be sure what happened. It was also true that the music, much of it faux-medieval, was rather hokey and distracting, and might have been so much better with the right people on board.

Even so, I think it is such a strong film that it deserves to be treated seriously, both for its technical and artistic merits and also for its philosophical and religious perspective. After reading a superb long-form essay on the film, I’m convinced that it is not only fundamentally anti-Arthurian and anti-Christian — which sets it at odds with its source material, of course — but nihilistic. It’s a problem. Any film that wants to put the emptiness and futility of all human things at its centre isn’t going to win, and doesn’t deserve to win, my highest praise, but I can’t deny that this is in certain ways a great achievement, and it is a film I plan to see again.

***

Taste of Cherry
(Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

I guess the lesson here is: if you’ve only got $50 but you’re a genius, you can still make a pretty great film.

Taste of Cherry is about a man searching for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. With remarkably spare means, Kiarostami sets before us a meditation on the value of a human life. We don’t know why this man has come to this decision — what horror he has committed, or witnessed; what disappointment he has endured; what affliction he has suffered. For Kiarostami, it seems, it doesn’t matter. Be he victim or perpetrator, the value of his life is set before us, in the balance.

I couldn’t help but notice that his various interlocutors traced out the basic structure of a Kierkegaardian dialectic. One attempts a religious argument, derived from transcendent sources. “The Koran says…” Another attempts an ethical argument, in, for an Iranian film, a remarkably Kantian mode. “What would happen if everyone did as you intend to do? Killing yourself is killing.” But if anyone is successful, it is the stalwart taxidermist who appeals in the aesthetic sphere. “The taste of mulberries.” You have to meet people where they are at.

I have a problem, which is that my screen was really very dark in the last few minutes, and I don’t know if I missed something that I was supposed to see. For me, the film ended in ambiguity. I believe the film’s title prods us to resolve the ambiguity in a particular way.

What is missing in Taste of Cherry is the “cinema” part of cinema. I cannot deny that it is drab looking and unimaginatively shot. But we all carry around with us the memory of the films we have seen, and in my memory those disappointing aspects of it have faded away, and the strength of the film’s story and structure have remained.

***

Whisper of the Heart
(Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)

A quiet and very welcome surprise. I expect good things from Studio Ghibli, but I don’t believe this is one of their most heralded films. A case can be made that it ought to be. Sidestepping much of the mythical or magical elements in the studio’s better-known films, this is a very grounded, closely observed (with a gorgeous, realistic animation style to match) look at young love and young ambition, and how one affects the other.

I was completely charmed by the sensitivity of the film to the delicacy of this tentative romance between teenagers. So many films can only treat teenaged love as comedic or vulgar; here there is some comedy, yes, but gentle, and joyful, and careful not to impugn the importance of what is happening between these two characters. A scene of two characters sitting at a table in a library, reading and writing, is here invested with so much tenderness that it becomes a kind of icon of honourable love.

And the romance is only the sub-plot! The main thread explores how these two see their lives opening up before them, full of possibilities, and attempt to discover or discern the right path forward. This, too, is carried off so triumphantly that I am lost in admiration.

Finally, the girl in the film has a father, and, as a father, I am grateful to the filmmakers for this portrait of a man who is tired, but intelligent and caring, and who does his best for his family. No sign of the Dumb Father motif so common in American animated films.

***

Cleo From 5 to 7
(Agnes Varda, 1962)

Another surprise! My only previous experience of Agnes Varda’s filmmaking was “The Gleaners and I”, and that could hardly be more different. Where it was frumpy, casual, artless, and cheap-looking, this is elegant, formal, superbly crafted, and gorgeous. Comparisons are odious, but the contrast is really striking, and raises a somewhat parenthetical question in my mind about what the rest of her films are like.

In any case, on the strength of Cleo I understand why Varda has a reputation as a great filmmaker. This is a great film. Everything is perfectly judged. From the beginning, we feel that we are in the hands of a master, leading us step by step through several busy hours of self-discovery for Cleo. The extent to which the central character arc is told visually is fascinating. Cleo is played by Corinne Marchand, a striking beauty whom I was eager to see more of, but it seems that apart from this film she didn’t do much of note.

I am surely not the first to note that it really ought to be called Cleo from 5 to 6:30.

***

The Ascent
(Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

Another Russian war film, and another great one: an incredibly powerful depiction of the physical and psychological trauma of war. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a colder movie; the first half must have been awful to film.

The film offers much to ponder in the difficult decisions these people must make, under conditions of unbelievable hardship. Volunteer for the mission? Return for the wounded comrade? Admit the soldiers who appear at your door? Hide them or betray them? Tell the truth or lie? Appear to co-operate or refuse outright? On and on it goes.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?

Schnittke’s score is minimal but effective.

The title of the film is mysterious.

***

Winter Sleep
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

Based on Chekhov, and it shows. The film is driven almost entirely by the interpersonal dynamics between its principal characters, and from those specific ingredients it produces a rich, satisfying stew.

People are complicated. They may have good intentions, and still create problems for themselves and those around them. They want to do good, but can’t see a path forward. There are things they feel they can’t say.

It is a long film, and it rests largely on several very long domestic scenes of conversation, masterfully done. They are like miniature dramas, with character arcs of their own. The actors do a remarkably wonderful job with them. They are absorbing and wholly convincing.

If the film has a defect, it is, for me, that, like its characters, it feels stuck and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. Maybe this is a strength, the form following the content.

Despite its humble domestic settings, the film is ravishingly shot and gorgeous to look at. And the music, built around haunting chords from one of Schubert’s sonatas, is marvelous.

***

Tokyo Twilight
(Yasujirō Ozu, 1957)

Tokyo Twilight is an unusually turbulent and wrenching drama from Ozu, whose films are famous for their understated drama. It is still, of course, quiet on the surface, but troubled in the depths, and masterful at every level.

The story is about a father and his two daughters, one of whom has returned home because of marital problems, and the other, in her late teens, who is unmarried and, unbeknownst to her family, pregnant. Their mother abandoned them many years ago, but now turns up unexpectedly. It’s a real tangle of knots to wrestle with, and the stakes are high.

It is a film that would not be made today on account of the way it treats abortion and divorce and fatherhood and motherhood. We are lucky — very lucky — to have it.

***

Our Little Sister
(Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

It’s a sweet, slight tale about the affectionate relationships of four sisters who live together. The film is remarkably understated: no big drama — unless you count a squabble over who can wear a sweater; no bad guys — unless it’s their deceased father, whose problems still influence their lives. These four are generous and kind to one another, living their lives as best they can, looking to the future and wondering how things will turn out.

The craftsmanship of the film is exquisite. Everything is subtle, but just right: excruciatingly slow pans and zooms, long tracking shots that are as un-flashy as such things can be, but so wonderful! It has been very carefully judged and deliberately made. I feel about it as I often do when I see such care taken: if the filmmaker loves his story enough to lavish that kind of attention on it, I can love it too.

****

As usual, I didn’t go to see any films at the theatre this year, and so at year’s end there are a few acclaimed films yet unseen, notably those from Joel Coen, Denis Villeneuve, Paul Schrader, P.T. Anderson, and Wes Anderson, among others. I’ll catch up with those in the new year. In 2022 I’m looking forward to new films from Terrence Malick, Damien Chazelle, and Robert Eggers, and I’m sure there will be others too.

***

Finally, some trivia about the films I watched this year:

Watched again: Inside Out (2015), A Serious Man (2009), In the Loop (2009), Match Point (2005), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Lion King (1994), Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), The Princess Bride (1987), Ran (1985), Back to the Future (1985), The Third Man (1949).

Abandoned unfinished: Annette (2021), La Flor (2018), The Killer (1989), Mishima (1985), Possession (1981), A Touch of Zen (1971).

Disappointments: Wolfwalkers (2020), L’Argent (1983), The Big Chill (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Newest films: Power of the Dog (2021), The Green Knight (2021), The Invisible Man (2020).

Oldest films: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Design for Living (1933).

Multiple films by same director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (4), Frank Capra (3), Krzysztof Kieślowski (3), Yasujiro Ozu (3), Martin Scorsese (3), Sam Raimi (2), Agnes Varda (2), Ernst Lubitsch (2), Billy Wilder (2), Coen Brothers (2), Brian de Palma (2), Kenji Mizoguchi (2), Zhang Yimou (2).

Best pandemic viewing: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Nobody Knows (2004), Parasite (2019).

Quod linguam dicent? French (13), Japanese (12), Mandarin (5).

4 Responses to “Favourites in 2021: Film”

  1. Vince Says:

    Congratulations on the twins! Here I thought you spent all of your spare time reading. As someone whose energy is being exhausted by his two-year old – too exhausted to invest much time in a book, other than children’s books – I am continually amazed at the variety of good media you are able to take in. Thank you for all the reviews you write. There are just too many good books to read. Perhaps I should cryogenically freeze myself when my kids are old enough. That way, I can extend my life span so that I can read all the books on my wish list. And that’s after I re-learn all the undergraduate and graduate school physics I used to be extremely familiar with (and which I miss). There are too many physics-related things to be abreast of on the Internet. How on Earth do you do it? I have to learn to stay focused.

    • cburrell Says:

      Great to hear from you, Vince, and congratulations on your little one! I always say that having one child is the biggest transition, with each subsequent one being a smaller and smaller perturbation. We have six now, and the eldest is old enough to be a big help with the twins, so we roll on, taking it day by day. The twins have been amazing.

      I, too, wish I had more time to read substantive physics books, but we can’t have everything… Maybe one day…


  2. Your annual film list is my favourite in the Catholic blog / mediasphere. I look forward to it every year. Wonderful picks!

    Regarding Agnes Varda – I feel a certain duty to defend The Gleaners and I. Varda was one of a handful of filmmakers who embraced digital cameras for what they were – extremely visually limited but mobile and convenient to use – not for their potential to match or mimic 16 or 35mm’s resolution, colour depth, or texture (which the new medium could not possibly do in 2001). She understood that it was its own medium and that its tools unlocked new possibilities for more personal, smaller-scale filmmaking. Seen in the context of her career, which oscillated between fiction and essayistic films, the Gleaners strikes me as a wonderfully humble and humane work of the latter category, with more than a hint of the spirit of the beatitudes in its attention to the gleaner as a type of sojourner.

    All of which isn’t to say that your reaction to it wasn’t accurate, but I would propose that it may have been incomplete. Much of the imagery can be described as “frumpy, casual, artless, and cheap-looking” because that is simply to describe the limitations of DV cameras in 2000 / 2001. But I would also say that there are unique opportunities for beauty that are now virtually gone from the filmmaking landscape because standard definition video sensors have long been superseded. Kiarostami’s film ‘Five According to Ozu’ is also challenging (and sometimes frustrating) in this same mode – low resolution, etc – but it also gave me an opportunity to see a kind of blue I’ve never seen before – an image of the Caspian Sea captured through this particular sensor at a particular time of day in winter. There are glories we will never see again because we’ve moved forward with high res sensors towards other kinds of beauty.

    Anyway, I would be curious to see what your response to it would be after seeing more of Varda’s filmography. Happy watching in 2022!

    • cburrell Says:

      I appreciate that background on Agnes Varda, and your defence of the merits of “The Gleaners and I”. I didn’t much like it, but I can see how, in context, it has something valuable to say. I was puzzled by the praise I’d heard given her, but I took a chance on “Cleo” and was stunned by how good it was. I definitely intend to explore more of her films. If you can suggest a title, I’d be happy to take it under consideration.

      And thank you for your kind words. I will admit to being surprised, but I definitely appreciate the encouragement.

      All the best to you in 2022!


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