March madness continues!

If you missed Parts One and Two, catch up! 

I’ve been asked by the critics at two different podcasts to name my favorite film of 2021, and it’s been difficult to answer.

At Seeing & Believing with Kevin McLenithan and Sarah Welch-Larson, I narrowed it down to one… but then fell back into doubts and second-guessing soon after I named my choice. Listen here:

Then, on Veterans of Culture Wars with David Lester and Zach Malm, I gave a very different answer. You can listen to that conversation here:

Working on this list for publication here at Looking Closer, I wrestled with possible outcomes again. It may be that I will, in time, change my #1 pick. I’ve done that before. But for now, I’ve made a decision quite unlike any I’ve made in nearly thirty years of list-making. Let me know what you think, and feel free to share your own favorites.

For this first-draft of the list, I’m including 27 films. But that will change as I catch up with other great films of the year that I’ve missed. So, next time you come back, there might be 30 or more.

Here’s are the annual fine-print disclaimers:

This list, like all of my film lists, is a work in progress.

Of course it is. The temptation to pronounce judgments on works of art is great — more than ever in this culture of “rating” things with “Like” or “Dislike,” “Fresh Tomato” or “Rotten Tomato.”

But great movies are like city parks: They are designed by human beings, but they contain all kinds of natural world sights and sounds that carry their own mysteries above and beyond the intent of the artist. They invite you to explore, and your first exploration is just the beginning. Your first experience has as much to do with your own choices and preferences as it has to do with the park’s design. The circumstances of your experience play a role too: Weather, for instance, and who else happens to be there at the park on that specific day. Go back again on a different day, in a different mood, and your experience will be different.

Does that mean it’s a waste of time to bother with questions related to the quality of the park’s design and condition? Of course not. But it’s ridiculous to think we can pronounce a judgment on any work of art. Too much is conditional. Better to share impressions, keeping an open mind so we can be surprised and have that distinctively human experience of changing our minds.

I’ll probably expand this list over the next few months as I catch up with films that got away. For example, I haven’t had an opportunity yet to see The Souvenir, Part II, but other critics who have found access to it have praised it as one of the year’s greatest achievements. Others — Encanto, Procession, and even the popular Don’t Look Up — are films I haven’t watched yet for reasons related to timing, mood, or rental prices. I’ll get to them soon. I’ll go on revising the list as my appreciation of these films changes. I recently updated my lists from the 1970s!

I watched more than 180 movies in 2021, and have added many to that list in the first few months of 2022 — eagerly pouncing on new films, happily revisiting personal favorites, and making new discoveries from decades past.

This is a list of films that found wide release — and which I could access in Seattle — in 2021. It’s a celebration of a year in which movies gave me hope, informed my conscience, and strengthened my faith. 


26.
Judas and the Black Messiah

directed by Shaka King | written by King and Will Berson

My review of Judas and the Black Messiah was published in February 2021. You can read it here.

Uh-oh…


25. – 24. (tie)
West Side Story

directed by Steven Spielberg | written for the screen by Tony Kushner
based on West Side Story by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein,
Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents

and

In the Heights

 directed by Jon M. Chu | screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes |
based on In the Heights by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Only one qualifies, by my standards, as great cinema — an extraordinary work of big-screen artistry. But the other, a solid work of crowd-pleasing entertainment and social commentary, made me care and made me want to turn around and take the ride again right away.

Put another way — one is a movie I want to study; the other is a movie an album of pop bangers that I could count on to break up the heavy clouds of a depressing year.

I published my full review of In the Heights here at Looking Closer way back in June of 2021. You can read that here.

My first impressions of West Side Story were previously published here in an installment of “The Weekender.” You can read them here.


23.
Flee

 directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen | written by Jonas Poher and Rasmussen Amin

As Amin Nawabi recalls and relates the harrowing secrets of his lifelong search for a home — fleeing Afghanistan as a child, enduring the terrors of human trafficking, and arriving rather accidentally in Denmark — we can hear him reluctantly reliving the trauma, but we also hear him speaking truths that he has kept bound up in fear and distrust. In doing so, we can hear him finding some measure of freedom. Listening and then transforming into animation what he has received, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen delivers a revelation that just might ignite empathy for refugees and outcasts in the hearts of audiences around the world.

This is the only animated film of 2021 I’ve seen so far that has really captured and held my attention beginning to end. It’s clearly a labor of love. I’m impressed that all of its disparate elements—the interview, the animation, the historical footage—cohere so gracefully into what becomes a shining example of filmmaking as an act of compassion.

As my teaching schedule prevented me from writing a full review of this film, I refer you to the great Alissa Wilkinson at Vox.com for wisdom and details. Alissa writes,

[W]e interact with Amin’s life as if it’s in the grand storytelling tradition, a tale with meaning that stretches beyond the simple facts.

Amin fears being hurt, losing his family, being alone, and being rejected for being gay — and most of his fears come true. He longs for safety and for home, a place where nobody will come to take him away. And yet, when he finds it, he can’t quite believe it. By the time Rasmussen and Amin discuss his history, it’s almost 20 years in the past, but for Amin, it’s as if it happened yesterday. He’s become educated and successful, reconnected with most of his family, and found real love. But even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present.

There’s a deep meaning to Amin’s story beyond the specific facts of his life. All over the world, people are forced to flee their homes. If they’re very lucky, they might resettle in a place where they’ll be able to live some kind of better life. But that doesn’t mean the trauma subsides. By the end, it seems telling his story — saying it out loud in a safe space, at last — may have helped Amin heal a bit more. Perhaps sharing it with audiences opens the same space for others, too.


22.
Bergman Island

written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve

My notes on Bergman Island were published previously here at Looking Closer in an installment of “The Weekender.” Read them here.


21.
Passing

written for the screen and directed by Rebecca Hall | Based on Passing by Nella Larsen

I reviewed Passing here at Looking Closer back in November 2021. Read the review here.


20.
The Father

directed by Florian Zeller | screenplay by Zeller and Christopher Hampton |
based on Zeller’s play Le Père

Don’t be confused when they call the main character Anthony. It’s distracting, yes — but that’s who Anthony Hopkins is playing.

And don’t worry if you feel like Anthony’s increasing dementia is contagious and it’s starting to affect you. The filmmakers aren’t playing fair: They’ve cast, in the roles of two women who the old man keeps confusing for his daughter Anne, both of Britain’s great Olivias. That’s just Zeller and Company messing with us.

Now… if you could swear that you saw Rebecca Hall walk in and play a scene or two, confusing things further — that’s just you, and maybe you are getting old. Or maybe you just haven’t been to the movies for a long time and you aren’t as sharp on names and faces as you used to be. I’m not saying this for any reason in particular.

And no, we’re both wrong. Those fleeting opening credits didn’t say “Edited by Yorgos Lanthimos,” although the challenges that the film poses to the audience might make you wonder. It said “Edited by Yorgos Lamprinos.” See what I mean? This movie seems made to mess with us.

Note: Somebody needs to bring Rufus Sewell back to the movies and give him something better to play than a heartless bastard. He’s very good at it — and he’s good at it here, as usual. Still.

Another note: This may not be the movie for you if your spouse’s mother is in a memory care center and often doesn’t know who she is anymore. But then again… it may be the movie for you because screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Carrington, Dangerous Liaisons) will assure you that these soul-crushing ordeals are actually quite common and that you are not alone in trying to figure out how to navigate such brutal, faith-shaking circumstances.


19.
Licorice Pizza

written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

My relationship with every Paul Thomas Anderson film changes over time. I’m usually enchanted or awestruck from the start, and then my admiration deepens into rewarding endeavors of interpretation. But not always. I admire Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, but I don’t particularly enjoy them the way I do Phantom Thread or find anything personally resonant in them as I do with Magnolia.

My relationship with Licorice Pizza is off to a rocky start.

I admired a great deal about it as it played: production design, performances, surprises.

But, unlike Punch-drunk Love and Phantom Thread, the other two PTA romances, both of which I’ve fallen madly in love with, this movie — in its jarringly episodic nature, in its rough and grimy aesthetic, and in its web of alarming and exploitative relationships — I can’t say I ever settled into enjoying this one. I wasn’t enchanted; I was on edge and often aggravated. It has some fantastic sequences. It’s glowing with passion, full of scenarios that could only have been inspired by personal experiences. And it’s a circus of “Spot the allusion!’ and “Note the influence!” (you’ll probably think of Robert Altman films, Taxi Driver, Almost Famous, Rushmore, The Graduate, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and PTA’s own previous films). But I was so often annoyed by the characters that I found myself checking my watch at the 90-minute mark and a little itchy to get out of town.

Every relationship in this movie is fractured by an imbalance of power — Alana (Alaina Haim) is too old for Gary (Cooper Hoffman), Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins) is disrespectful to his wives, Wachs (Bennie Safdie) has to confine his lover to save face with voters. And then there’s the way a movie star (Sean Penn) can so easily exploit a lonely and uncertain young woman’s longing for affirmation.

Everyone is faking expertise in something — Alana fakes her skills and spoken languages in talent interviews, Jerry Frick fakes speaking Japanese, Gary fakes knowing how to to drive, Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) is just a complete and total fake, etc.

So I find it strange that any critic would single out a particular character or relationship dynamic as inappropriate or singularly cringey. Everything about this world is unfortunate and inappropriate and more than a little cringey. It’s a hall of mirrors, this web of relationships; that appalling Frick and his Japanese wife (either one) are Gary and Alana… are Joel Wachs and Matthew. Fakery and abuse seems to be the standard in this context of 1973 showbiz. Everyone’s being mistreated, and those doing the mistreating are obviously buffoons (at best) or monsters (at worst). Sex has become so toxic in this context that the story focuses instead on the idea that a love affair can flourish without it — and, in some cases, might only exist so long as they abstain.

Perhaps the title, beyond its direct inspiration (the record store glimpsed in Fast Times, is a reference to two things that shouldn’t go together and yet it will work for one or two people out there. Have you ever had a relationship in which there is a certain and singular sexual tension, and you both know you’re a little bit in love, but you also know that it can only exist in that state, and any “step” would cause a stumble and a fall? There’s something like that happening here. Gary and Alana can’t bear the thought of anyone else becoming the other’s confidant and intimate, and they’re jealous to see each other with anybody else, but they also know that they’d better remain more platonic than erotic together. I get that.

And in that context, if a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old young woman discover some kind of inexplicable connection or chemistry — it’s not Harold & Maude, but it works for them (even if Gary’s as surprised by it as Alana is unsettled by it) — maybe we should be more inclined to hope that they can develop some kind of helpful and meaningful relationship in the madness, rather than just have an attack of age-gap cooties. (Something tells me that those who object to the age difference here haven’t complained about Emma Thompson’s casting in Sense & Sensibility, in which the gap between Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet is far more substantial.) Gary’s idealism and irrepressible industriousness are strangely appealing to the bored and insecure young Alana, and Alana’s proximity and availability and loneliness make her an appealing prospect for Gary’s eager attention-seeking.

And so, the enterprising boy and the affirmation-seeking girl need each other — that can’t be too hard to understand. No, it’s not a healthy relationship — they’re dishonest with each other, disrespectful, selfish, unfaithful, and often downright mean. I’m not inspired by either of them. But maybe this isn’t a story about inspirational figures or swoon-worthy love stories. Maybe it’s about growing up in a chaotic and cruel world and lunging for whatever kind of relationship drug is going to bring out a better version of you and save you from the types of relationship drugs that are sure to wreck you. Maybe it’s about how, when all avenues that the world offers us prove to be fraudulent and dehumanizing, we have to dream up a place of our own to figure things out. In that sense, there might be a little Moonrise Kingdom happening here, too.

Unlike Sam and Suzie in Moonrise Kingdom, Alana and Gary aren’t a couple whose company I enjoy, and I won’t be eager to revisit them. But they make me hope they can find a way through seasons of awkwardness, misfortune, hormonal chaos, and a sorry dearth of options. They need each other, and I’m glad they have each other. But I do hope they find better tomorrows. To borrow a line from Rowlf the Dog — “I hope that somethin’ better comes along.” For both of them.


18.
No Sudden Move

directed by Steven Soderbergh | written by Ed Solomon

I reviewed No Sudden Move here back in August 2021. Read the review here.

17.
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself

directed by Frank Oz | written by Derek DelGaudio

A performance-art magic show made of humility, confession, wisdom, and love.

And it moves us because it reminds us of what is True. We are known. We always have been. We are loved. We always have been. And when the Truth of that is spoken in love, we are undone.

I went straight from watching this to reading Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!


16.
Quo Vadis, Aida?

written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić

I reviewed this film back in August 2021. Read the review here.


15.
Mass

written and directed by Fran Kanz

I reviewed Mass at Looking Closer in November. Read the review here.


14.
Identifying Features

directed by Fernanda Valadez | written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero

When Magdalena, a Mexican mother venturing into dangerous territory to find her missing son, comments to another boy that he resembles her son “from behind,” the boy replies with words that resonate at the conclusion as we think back through the whole film: “We all look the same from behind.”

It’s an enigmatic moment that might comment on how the rest of the world seems unconcerned about the countless missing and dead in Mexico’s drug wars. Or it might comment on how so many young Mexican boys and men come to the same dead end — vanishing into a darkness that it would arguably be unwise to investigate, a field of flames from which no one returns without scars.

This is a quiet, nerve-wracking journey reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy ventures into blood-soaked wildernesses, where what you imagine you might discover there will only teach you that your imagination is not large enough to fathom the wickedness wreaking havoc in the world. As one memorably un-subtitled scene impresses upon us, our vocabularies are not powerful enough to communicate the deeds that the devil is doing in the darkness.

As we follow Magdalena into a wilderness that resonates with the same sense of evil I remember from watching Eggers’ The Witch, we know she may never return. We know that she is more than likely to find her boy’s body mutilated or burned… or both. We can sense this isn’t going to be a story about a miraculous rescue. But what is it about then?

It feels like a lament, one that cries Things are so much worse than we thought.

I can’t say more without robbing you of the chance to discover some of the most haunting moments I’ve experienced at the movies in years. This isn’t a film that is going to tell you that love conquers all. But it might test your faith and challenge you with a question: Is the love you believe in more powerful than what the devil is doing right now — in Mexico, at the hands of the drug war’s soldiers; in Ukraine, at the hands of the Russians; and even in America, in the plans of those who do not really believe in “liberty and justice for all”?

If the prayers earnestly raised early in the film had been reprised during the end credits, I can tell you this: I would have prayed along with them.


13.
Annette

directed by Leos Carax | story and music written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael with Carax

I watched Annette twice — enthralled, baffled, and frustrated. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it. And my conversation about the film with film critic Evan Cogswell (who loves this film beginning to end) was rewarding. You can listen to that here.


12.
Spencer

directed by Pablo Larraín | written by Steven Knight

As much as this movie laments the constraints of tradition and the suffocating nature of being a living symbol, we aren’t watching this if it isn’t for the extravagance of the royal family’s opulence — the clothes, the cars, the cuisine… right? So it’s hard to deny that, by showing up, we’re still enchanted by, and somewhat complicit in, the stubborn resilience of the Royal Fantasy — the same one that closes its jaws around Diana, chews her up, and then, when she fights, spits her back out with contempt. The director and the cinematographer are certainly spellbound — they’re enamored of this architecture and finery. This movie is a luxury to look at. They know what they’ve got: a chance for one of the most interesting actresses in cinema to dance and snarl and sob her way through a costume party.

And yet, all hail Kristen Stewart, who gives her finest performance yet here. I was skeptical when Assayas crowned her the next Juliette Binoche, but this finds her fulfilling that promise: this really is Binoche-level stuff from her.

And the film’s intriguing tone, which involves metaphors so heavy-handed that screenwriter Stephen Knight couldn’t possibly expect us to take them seriously, feels less like a biopic and more like a campy psychological horror movie. From the opening scene, it’s often quite funny. Sure, references to The Shining are as obvious here as Dune‘s distracting adulation of Apocalypse Now — but they’re a good hint as to how we’re supposed to take this whole thing. Subtlety would have seemed out of place. This is a movie about high emotion, a metaphor for finding yourself suffocating in a world of hypocrisy, an opera about trying to escape a trap without losing your one friend and your two children. And Stewart plays it perfectly.

The great Timothy Spall’s energy here is fascinating. He could have been merely dour, a specter of foreboding assigned to prevent Diana from having any room to breathe, but he manages to give us glimpses of a complicated human being inside the carefully tailored costume and the scowl that looks like its been stretched to its limit by some internal drawstring. What a gift Spall is to cinema.

But I really want to talk about Sean Harris: Between his King Arthur in The Green Knight and his Chef to the Queen here, this dude is having himself a year.

And Johnny Greenwood … well, is there anybody more reliable scoring movies right now?

 


11.
Azor

directed by Andreas Fontana | screenplay by Fontana and Mariano Llinás

“Imagine if Graham Greene rewrote Apocalypse Now….” – Nick James, Sight and Sound.

Exactly.

I’d have to look back a long way to find a film that gave me this particular buzz of “Wow — finally, a movie for adults who enjoy thinking.” The tension in this film is exquisitely cultivated. It’s particularly scary because it feels so true to life, refusing to ever provide expository dialogue or dumb things down to explain itself.

This movie made me feel ignorant in a way that I’ve come to find thrilling: It made me want to learn more about situations, politics, vocations, and paradigms I now little to nothing about, but that I know are more important and more influential than 99% of what makes headlines. I don’t know much (okay, anything) about the power games at the highest echelons of the Swiss banking world, or how they influence ongoing colonialist oppression and corruption in regions I’ve never studied or visited. (I know, for example, embarrassingly little about the history — or the present, for that matter — of Buenos Aires.)

But this movie made me want to understand its social-political quandaries, even as it threw fuel on the fires of my existential dread about an encroaching age of unprecedented tribulation in a world terrorized by “beasts” (to borrow this film’s term). Imagine Michael Mann directing his subtlest, quietest film about a criminal underworld, with a script by Cormac McCarthy, and you’re in the ballpark. The films I thought about most were The Counselor and No Country for Old Men. This is probably the scariest movie of 2021, partly because I believe its warnings and revelations are True.

It’s also one of those rare and powerful films that exemplifies the “less is more” principle, one that is almost always true in cinema.

And Fabrizio Rongione is fantastic.


10.
Drive My Car

directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi | screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe |
based on “Drive My Car” by Haruki Murakami

Or, Vanya on So Many Hiroshima Streets.

A film far too talky, thematically layered, and complex for me to post immediate notes about it. It may be that its reach exceeds its grasp, but if so… still, what a reach! And it may be that the most affecting moments have more to do with Anton Chekhov than Hameguchi, but if so, they’re well played. It’s too early for me to say.

So I’ll just say these three things:

1. I’ll be watching for more leading performances by Hidetoshi Nishijima, who, it turns out, already has experience in that most difficult of niche genres: big-screen adaptations of Murakami. (He was the narrator for the great Tony Takitani.)

2. I kept finding myself thinking “This movie keeps forgetting about cinema and devolving into just cameras aimed at people talking or driving,” and then, suddenly, there would be a shot so inspired that I’d feel like we were in the presence of a master.

3. Besides the other Vanya movie, the film I was reminded of most during this one was Columbus, and that’s a good thing.

4. This film introduces us to a married couple who, as supporting characters, are so much more interesting to me than the two leads that it distracts me.


9.
Dune

directed by Denis Villeneuve | based on the novel by Frank Herbert
and adapted for the screen by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth

An epic as grand as Dune deserves an epic review. My review of Part One is exactly that. 


8.
The Power of the Dog

written and directed by Jane Campion | based on The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

I am the only human being to have watched the first half of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs at home, interrupted it, rushed to the local cinemas to see Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, and then returned home to finish Isle of Dogs.

Both films have haunting whistled motifs!

Strong performances, particularly from Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch (with a jarringly inconsequential supporting turn from Thomasin McKenzie, suggesting she had a larger role in the initial screenplay). Beautifully shot. With a stellar score from Johnny Greenwood — the second great score he’s delivered in a month’s time (Spencer).

This whole film felt like Campion revisiting The Piano, but the variations are interesting.

We’re in a wilderness of a landscape, where forces of nature are always and obviously (as they often do in early Peter Weir films) overwhelming the people making trouble in the foreground.

We have a Mother (Dunst) and Child (Smit-McPhee) — Mother carrying some trauma that keeps her from expressing herself, Child playful and curious and fearful and fiercely bonded to the mother. Theyr’e caught between The Good Man (Plemons), who represents the highly mannered charades of the civilized, and The Wild Man (Cumberbatch) who seems half-absorbed by the natural world, wiser than the Good Man in some ways and cruel in others.

There is also a piano, gifted to the Woman as a sign of love and a symbol of sophistication, but ultimately a symbol of some unreachable transcendence, an ideal that the cruelty of the world makes unattainable.

In this variation of the story, while The Good Man seems loving and conscientious but also rather useless in the face of serious threats (like a misogynistic brute or alcoholism), the Wild Man has split in two, half of him a monster obsessed with control and with punishing others who are still striving for sophistication, the other half living in a hell of confusion, shame, masturbatory fantasy, and self-loathing. The Wild Man hates the piano just as he hates the wealthy city people (represented by the Governor and his wife); he likes disappointing them, disrupting their parties, mocking their facile “order” made of simplistic binaries, but he also grumbles and resents that they seem to have some measure of a peace he cannot have.

The film’s exploration of sexuality is much more complex than I’d anticipated, suggesting that masculinity of the Toxic variety is like a tumor, a manifestation of a cancer made of fear and shame. The Wild Man’s hatred (of others, of the self) stems from (pun intended) the fact that sexuality is frighteningly complicated and will not be tamed or organized. While the Child — in this case, a young male taunted by those trying to be “masculine” cowboys for being gay — seems to be withdrawing from the world of sex in despair, his Tormentor lives in a private hell of pornography and erotic nostalgia, imprisoned by memories of the older man who shaped him with both tenderness and abuse.

Ultimately, as is typical for a Campion film, the film ends up being a parable about how illusory our “civilizations” really are — systems that flatter our sense of control and confidence — while we are really far wilder, far more mysterious than we want to believe. But it’s also about how that wildness, when suppressed, leads to distortions that are even more threatening than the insufficient architectures of order. The Wild Man is a human being, with real longings, powerful intelligence, and impressive skills born of experience — but he is also a menace, his secrets and lies inclining him toward the destruction of Love, or of whatever semblance of Love we can clumsily manage in this wasteland. We tend toward extremes that end up trying to kill each other, which seems inevitable since it is so very, very difficult to find a way of life in the land of Ambiguity in between.

[MAJOR SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.]

But I’m still struggling to understand the significance of certain things — like what I’m to make of Rose’s alcoholism, and if I’m to believe that it might have been overcome in the end; and whether I’m to interpret the conclusion as a triumph of good over evil, or a tragedy of one world striking a blow against the other. Whatever the case, the last moment plays in a way that makes me think I’m supposed to be glad about how things have turned out, but the film’s deep dive into the tragedy of Phil’s torment makes me resist any suggestion that this is a “happy ending.” It looks more like a failure — human beings settling for order at the cost of the life of someone who saw through its hypocrisies.


7.
The Lost Daughter

written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal | based on The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

See, when you cast two great actresses who are just similar enough to play the same character at two different ages, you don’t need to do distracting makeup or subtle CGI enhancements. It doesn’t matter. It works. I completely accepted Jessie Buckley as Leda at 20-something years younger than Olivia Colman’s Leda. They found a seamlessness of performance and voice, but one that wasn’t showy and distracting. That’s why it worked. They trusted us to accept what we were given instead of breaking the spell with fakery. That’s why it worked.

Wow, what a stressful film. Gyllenhaal knows just how to turn the screws. There are a couple edits here where a sound from the next scene — a door opening, or a sudden stumble — is heard a heartbeat early, during the last moment of the present scene, and because you aren’t expecting it, you think for a split-second that it might be happening now, breaking into Leda’s moments of unsuspecting quiet, and you nearly jump out of your skin, because everything has led you to fear a sudden intrusion or shocking violence. Thus, when some kind of chaos does come crashing into Leda’s guarded solitude, it’s even more upsetting than it would have been.

And for Leda, it’s the disruption of the only self she’s comfortable with, the person she knows she can be and wants to be — a contemplative, inspired intellectual respected for her insight — that she fears most. No wonder she’s presented as a scholar of Auden’s poem about “the dread of invasion.” She lives in fear that, in a desperate attempt to save her true self from an all-consuming force that she is herself responsible (well, half-responsible) for bringing into the world, she only made things worse, and now might have fractured all versions of herself forever. I like how Sean Burns puts it: “[Gyllenhaal] makes visceral the fears and shame of mothers who feel themselves unfit, and the guilt that comes with wanting to keep a little piece of your life to yourself.”

On a personal note: There may not be a type of character I find more intolerable than the one played here by Peter Sarsgaard — the predatory intellectual who knows just how to exploit an ambitious young person’s need to feel admired, desired, and affirmed. I wanted to crawl out of my skin watching Sarsgaard’s Professor Hardy here in his transparently opportunistic ploy to seduce Leda. I’ve seen such things happen, and that kind of self-serving exploitation upsets me more than almost any other kind of villainy. So, I guess that means he’s perfectly cast?

Give Maggie Gyllenhaal whatever she needs to make more movies, please.


6.
The Worst Person in the World

directed by Joachim Trier | written by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier

More than any other movie I can think of right off the top of my head, this is a movie that will quickly divide audiences into moviegoers who judge a complicated character and moviegoers who are curious about and capable of empathizing with a complicated character.

Julie is a character whose decisions hurt people all around her, behavior I was taught to condemn. But Trier’s film draws us into such intimacy with Julie that eventually it becomes possible to see just how much the world she’s in has been harming her, starving her, depriving her of being seen and known (especially by herself). The fact that she ends up harming most another complicated, imperfect human — who,I believe, loves her and knows her better than most — is a shame. But people who are neglected and disrespected and made to feel unvalued from childhood run on deeply fractured software, and loving them as they find their way through the wreckage of their hearts and minds is costly. I’ve seen it happen in so many relationships. I’ve been in those relationships. I’ve been impatient with and dismissive of people like Julie. And, frankly, I know that anyone who dares to love me is in for some rather disappointing revelations — so there are moments when I recognize my own most-alarming behaviors in Julie.

The trailer made me think that this was the kind of movie that makes me furious and I end up wishing I hadn’t seen. There is nothing more aggravating for me than a story that takes infidelity lightly and that champions the libido as faultless, as the guiding moral compass, as an appetite that must always be prioritized. But that is not at all what this movie is. It’s one of the most thoughtful movies about human nature — and one of the most thoughtful about a woman — that I’ve seen since the peak of Kieslowski.

Renate Reinsve is extraordinary and should be alongside Olivia Colman as the Oscar front-runner. But everybody who sees this is talking about her. We should also be talking about Anders Danielsen Lie, whose performance is every bit as three-dimensional; he really moved me. With this and Bergman Island, he had quite a 2021.

And, in a year of enigmatic closing moments, this rivals The Green Knight for the most provocative and surprising.

Minus a star for the magic-mushrooms sequence which, while audacious, was just way too stylistically jarring and — worse — too on-the-nose. It’s basically one of those unfortunate “Dream Sequence as Psychological Diagnosis” sequences. I’ve never tripped on shrooms, but I doubt that the illusions one suffers are as painfully obvious in their symbolic significance as this one. (It reminds me of some of the inadvertently hilarious dream sequences of the past: Vertigo, for example, or even Babette’s Feast.)


5.
Summer of Soul
(…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Critical (g)race theory.

If we are to love our neighbors, we must see our neighbors, attend to their laments and their longings and their joys. This music festival has been buried in the basements of American music history, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has rescued it — like Indiana Jones bringing the Lost Ark back into the light — so that we can reckon with the truth of it. This documentary is a parade of essential performances by great American artists for the most relentlessly persecuted population in America. It is imperative that all Americans recognize how much of the DNA of great American art comes from the fundamental Gospel of Black American music. These lives mattered then, and they were neglected (at best), abused, and erased. These lives matter now.

Republicans and evangelicals across America, in a flagrant campaign to feed the flames of racism and hatred, are ignorantly re-defining the term “Critical Race Theory” to dismiss anything that enables us to attend to, respect, love, and make amends with those our nation has so relentlessly tortured. For me, there is no peace so long as I am not using my considerable privilege to try and rectify this injustice. Summer of Soul is as sacred as any church service: a record of a persecuted people, the children of God, gathering to love one another, release their righteous anger, express their faith and hope, and celebrate their birthright of beauty. Bearing witness of this, I am ashamed of American Christians who have contributed to their suffering, and I repent of any ways in which I have contributed to those injustices.

May Summer of Soul be a refining fire in the minds and hearts of all who see it.


4.
The French Dispatch

written and directed by Wes Anderson | story by Anderson, Roman Coppola,
Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman

I published Part One of a two-part review of this film back in November, and I still haven’t published Part Two. Soon, perhaps? Anyway, you can read the first review here.


And now…

Will you accept this? Is it just a cop-out? Or this what I really mean?


3. – 2. – 1. (three-movie tie)
The Green Knight

written and directed by David Lowery

My full review of the film is still in the works.

But here are the first impressions I posted at Letterboxd:

My impressions and feelings about this one are likely to change as I read, reflect, and see it again, which I will sometime in the next week. It’s refreshingly complicated. Here are some first impressions:

1.
The movie I thought about most in the hours after seeing this: The Lighthouse. I get that it finds its narrative template in The Last Temptation of Christ, but this feels more like Eggers’ gothic nightmare in that it combines moralizing, near-horror violence, an archaic dialect, relentless intensity (it’s almost camp), chapter breaks, divine judgement, and (with respect to General Ripper) “precious bodily fluids.”

2.
I’ve seen two films in less than a week that reference Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan from Willow. Not surprised to see Lowery admitting that Howard’s film was an influence. I am surprised, though, to learn that he had The Dark Crystal on the brain, too. I wish more directors had The Dark Crystal on their minds.

3.
Patel is a compelling lead who looks like he could age into the big screen’s greatest Quixote someday. But I’m more excited about the supporting cast. Barry Keoghan is one of the most interesting actors in movies today. He was the life of the party that was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and he steals the show again here to such a degree that I spend the movie missing him once he’s gone. Joel Edgerton is so reliably good. He makes every movie he’s in better.

4. I might have to go all the way back to Michelle Pfeiffer in the mid-80s to think of an actress that cameras love as much as they love Alicia Vikander. I mean… it’s just scary how good she is in this.

5.
Moviegoers around me were audibly frustrated with this film, and they started leaving about halfway through. One group left at about the halfway point, and then the couple sitting in front of me left with five or ten minutes left in the film! The guy sitting to my right snorted in disgust at the last cut to the end credits. What was frustrating them? I don’t know but it was probably some combination of Lowery’s decisions that I found compelling and exciting:

– his refusal to make this an inspiring hero story;
– his commitment to translating and preserving a kind of strangeness and inscrutability that feels familiar to me from my undergrad studies of Celtic mythology; this exploration of character, destiny, and fate seems so foreign that it may be inscrutable to contemporary American audiences (and that’s fine; they would feel that way about reading The Mabinogion or the early Arthur tales too, right?);
– his refusal to serve up a single moment of “satisfying” violence;
– his insistence on denying any satisfaction to the one character who might be interested in anything like “true love” (this movie is going be a downer for most who see it on a date);
– his casting of the irrepressibly charming Dev Patel as a complicated, flawed character who makes only a couple of moves in the whole thing that are, arguably, admirable.

6.
I’ve heard that the film is so dark visually that it’s often hard to know what’s going on. Maybe that’s poor projection? The whole thing looked beautiful to me, but then I like it when I’m leaning forward into gradations of shadow instead of wishing I’d brought sunglasses for the blazing intensity of so much contemporary digital projection.

7.
As interesting as the movie is, and although it’s my favorite David Lowery film yet, The Green Knight has for me a quality about it akin to all of Lowery’s previous films: It’s unconventional enough to command my attention and admiration, and it inspires a lot of post-viewing conversation, but it never really suspends my disbelief — I’m always thinking about the director’s decision-making instead of the film. I’m not sure what the problem is, but I suspect it has something to do with directorial control: Everything here seems so carefully calibrated, so designed, that it rarely achieves any sense of spontaneity or play. Only the supporting actors find ways to strike sparks of unpredictability and real danger: Keoghan, Vikander, and Edgerton spice up their characters with idiosyncrasy and wit.

8.
I’m relieved to find this version of the myth is a resounding critique of masculine vanity — and one that serves up that critique without ever seeming preachy about it.

9.
I’m glad I stayed through the credits. There’s a memorably enigmatic bonus at the end.

Okay… so, if it didn’t suspend my disbelief, why is it tied for first place on this list?

Because I saw it again. And here’s what I wrote the second time:

Second time’s the charm. I lost my head for it this time.

And I’m pretty sure my reading of the film is not the one Lowery intends. But then, how often do we find that artists’ interpretations of their own work are not always the most rewarding readings?

Nor is my current reading of it one that is shared by my favorite critic. You can read Steven Greydanus’s epic exploration of the film’s theological implications at Bright Wall Dark Room. (My response to The Last Temptation of Christ was quite different than his as well. It’s okay. We’re still good friends.)

Alas, it’s going to take a while for me to build my argument in writing….

– –

Oh… can we launch the Best Supporting Actress campaign for Alicia Vikander right now?

And then I went back for thirds:

It’s a rare occasion that I see a film three times in the theater during its initial theatrical release. It’s even rarer that I come away from that with a greater appetite to see it again.

My review of this film is becoming more and more complicated, and the prospect of writing it proves more and more daunting.

Especially now that I realize there’s yet another film that I find essential to the conversation: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. There was a particularly familiar feeling I had watching this film the first two times, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. This time, it hit me: As Joel Edgerton’s character “The Lord” spoke with a strange and knowing detachment, I suddenly knew where I’d heard that voice before, and I think it will be rewarding to consider the correlation between “The Lord” and Richard Dreyfuss’s “The Player” in Tom Stoppard’s singular existential-crisis comedy. Also, the last moments — and last words — in both films make for scintillating comparisons.

I suspect I’m not the first to catch this similarity, but as I haven’t seen any reference to Stoppard’s film in the reviews I’ve read so far, I’m excited about exploring that.

(I’m also intrigued this time by the fact that we see King Arthur affectionately stroke Gawain’s cheek with his thumb, and then later we see the Green Knight do the very same thing. Hadn’t noticed that the first two times.)

There’s just so much to write about here. That’s why my official review has become an essay I haven’t finished since I saw this film eight months ago. Keep an eye on the Looking Closer home page. It’ll be here soon.


Pig

directed by Michael Sarnoski | written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block

I reviewed Pig here at Looking Closer back in July 2021. Read the review here.


C’mon C’mon

written and directed by Mike Mills

The great Russia filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky who said, “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”

What kind of art would I like to see much, much more of in the world? What kind of art do I believe can make a significant difference?

Art that is curious. Art that is attentive. Art that has eyes wide open, concave like a satellite dish for catching and discerning beauty in the world. Art that listens to it people and its places. Art that is a document of the filmmaker’s search for something meaningful, a document of discovery — rather than a delivery of messages or a working out of agendas. Art that is unflinchingly truthful. Art that is at play with the mysteries of the world, improvisational rather than overly controlled.

But above all, I want to see art that loves the world. I want to see art that invites us to see human beings — all ages, colors, all genders — through eyes of love.

In short, art that loves.

In 2021, C’mon C’mon, written and directed by Mike Mills (who made Beginners and 20th Century Women), was the film that best fulfilled this description for me. It’s not a “feel-good” movie. It’s not sentimental It’s not escapism, ignoring the hard truths about its real-world context. But somehow, it offers an unusually heartening vision of generosity, love, and reconciliation without compromising.

C’mon C’mon takes place in an America divided between those favoring authoritarianism and those favoring democracy, those favoring white supremacy and those favoring “liberty and justice for all,” those embracing “alternate facts” in self-interest and those attending humbly to the sobering facts of clear and present danger.

Nevertheless, it’s a joyful film.

We follow Johnny, a 40-something radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix in what I will argue is his finest performance since The Master) who agrees to take care of his 9-year-old nephew Jesse (the very impressive Woody Norman) while the boy’s mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman, in an award-worthy supporting turn) is drawn away to care for her bipolar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) in a crisis. It tracks the uncle/nephew relationship as they travel from L.A. to New York, pursuing the interviews essential to Johnny’s work, and then back again.

This relationship between Johnny and Jesse is unlike any I’ve seen at the movies before. And I think I know why it impresses me so much. For so many years I’ve been struggling with fatigue and frustration over American cinema’s dangerous and disgusting ideas about what makes a man admirable. The template for toxic masculinity still thrives on the big screen, as the movies glorify physical strength, violence, glamour, promiscuity, and vigilantism. Here, the courage we see in Johnny is his willingness to serve a nine-year-old boy and the boy’s mother, even though it will complicate his day job. His heroism is in his kindness and generosity. His superpowers are in his attentiveness, his tenderness, his patience, and his devotion to young Jesse. Watch how he wields a big fuzzy microphone instead of a sword or a shotgun, and how he draws out the testimonies of young people, documenting their fears and dreams. Watch how lovingly he listens, without discrimination, to such a diverse array of children. Watch how closely he listens to his nephew, how he enters into the boy’s imaginative charades, how he knows how to be playful without being immature. I like how Carlos Aguilar puts it at The Wrap: “[H]e enters the rascal’s kingdom of unbound thoughts.”

It’s predictable to see a great actor relish the opportunity to play a monster like The Joker. It’s a wonder, though, to see an actor of Phoenix’s talents embrace this opportunity to show us what a modest and responsible family man can be, what a difference that man can make in attentiveness to and engagement with a child — even and especially during difficult times. With this film, I can say without a doubt that, in the absence of Daniel Day-Lewis, Phoenix is my favorite actor working today. And this is my favorite of all of his performances. His chemistry with young Woody Norman is convincing, largely because the youngster is so good at seeming both improvisational and oblivious to the camera, and because Phoenix seems to be enjoying their connection.

Johnny’s not a miracle-worker. He’s not Mary Poppins, swooping in to the rescue as a Manic Pixie Dream Babysitter. But he’s not a mess who a miracle child is going to repair. Their relationship is far more nuanced, far more human. And the movie isn’t just about them, either: Mills takes the rest of the family just as seriously. All along the way, the inexperienced uncle relies on phone calls to Viv for counsel about how to manage this high-spirited boy. In doing so, we watch two adult siblings — who became estranged during a painful season of losing a parent — fumble their way toward a subtle reconciliation.

Mike Mills is slowly and steadily rising toward the top of my list of favorite American filmmakers. I love his passion for stories of multi-generational families. I love his passion for cherishing the possibility of love in a context that the movies so commonly treated with cynicism. Seeing the world through his eyes is always a healing experience for me.

What is going on with black-and-white films in 2021? Passing. Belfast. The Tragedy of Macbeth. And this — the stunning cinematography of Robbie Ryan in C’mon C’mon, which gives us so many moments suitable for capturing, printing, and framing. I don’t understand the trend… but I am loving it. And here, the choice helps merge the naturalistic drama and the documentary-style footage of actual interviews.

Rarely do I see a film after which I sit there until after the credits have rolled, not wanting to leave the theater. Rarely do I find myself thinking, “I want to give the world experiences like this one.”

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