Thursday, December 23, 2021

Best Films of 2021

After a global shutdown in 2020, including that of Cinema, it was widely expected that a reopening would happen in 2021. Society did open in varying degrees in 2021, film festivals did happen in actual cinemas, but things were far from normal. Delayed 2020 movies were finally released in 2021 including many new productions. However, many cinemas remained closed in some countries and numerous film festivals took place in a hybrid manner (virtual + physical cinema) while some stayed completely online. As 2021 progressed, it became clear that big studios would still prevail and be able to dump their product whenever they wanted and in whatever fashion. Meanwhile, independent and foreign films suffered as they were not able to depend on film festival buzz to gain traction. To complicate matters, some distributors insisted on purity of cinema and only wanted to show their film in physical cinemas. That immediately put many cities out of reach, including my city. So as 2021 is about to end, it is crystal clear that it is becoming very very difficult to legally see quality cinema while there is no shortage of means to see Hollywood films.

Still, it was heartening to see that good films continued to be made even though it was tougher to see them. I am fortunate enough to have seen the following films due to my various film programming roles or through online film festivals (thank you Fantasia, TIFF, Festival du nouveau cinéma). I truly hope that some of these films are widely released in 2022.

Top 10 Films of 2021

1. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021, India, Jeo Baby)

As the title indicates, there is food in the movie which will cause one to get hungry. The food preparation and techniques are shown in incredible detail but it becomes apparent that the film is more than about food. And the kitchen is more than just a space to make food. The difference in roles of the husband and wife are emphasized as are the expectations of a woman in some segments of society. Even though this film is rooted in South India, aspects about marriage and treatment of women are applicable to many other patriarchal societies around the world. Credit to the director Jeo Baby of how this depiction is shown, by repetition of the same tasks, which definitely produced a visceral reaction in me.

2. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021, Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

The first of the two Hamaguchi films released in 2021 is pure cinematic delight. The playful structure, including abrupt zooms, reminds of Hong Sang-soo’s cinema but the honesty and mature stories are a continuation of what he explored in his earlier Happy Hour (2015). Another lovely surprise is the inclusion of an element that reflects our current pandemic world.

3. Întregalde (2021, Romania, Radu Muntean)

There are no vampires in this contemplative film set in Transylvania yet there are elements of morality and ethics that are relevant to our world today. Those elements centre around doing good for others at the expense of one’s needs.

4. The World After Us (2021, France, Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas)

A charming Parisian film that balances the sweetness of romance with the bitterness of a writer’s struggles.

5. A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, India, Payal Kapadia)

Payal Kapadia’s beautiful poetic film shows that despite decades of progress, many things haven’t changed in India (or the world in general). In fact, some things are regressing including basic human rights.

6. Fire in the Mountains (2021, India, Ajitpal Singh)

A remarkable film which derives its power with a smart mix of dry humour and plenty of heart. In the hands of another filmmaker, this could have been a completely dramatic film but Ajitpal incorporates many light hearted touches and that elevates the film.

7. Faya Dayi (2021, Ethiopia/USA/Qatar, Jessica Beshir)

An immersive, hypnotic and poetic journey to Harar! With a photographer's soul, Beshir lovingly captures the myths and rituals around Khat along with its growth, sale and consumption.

8. Aleph (2021, USA/Croatia/Qatar, Iva Radivojevic)

Smartly uses a Jorge Luis Borges short story as a spring board to explore diverse stories in Buenos Aires, Greeland, Kathmandu, New York City and the Sahara. Easily one of the most creative films of the year!

9. Pebbles (2021, India, P.S. Vinothraj)

The film depicts the harness of the main character in an unfiltered brutal manner especially how he treats his son and wife. There is another aspect to this film which may not be apparent early on. It has to do with the impact of climate change on the environment, leading to extreme heat and lack of water. If this point isn’t apparent at first, it is hammered home in the final scene of the film which in a beautiful manner shows how bad things truly are in some parts of the planet.

10. Ancient Soul (2021, Spain, Álvaro Gurrea)

As most of the world shifted to comfortable online remote working, Gurrea’s film shows us the brutal reality of dangers some people face in their jobs. Ancient Soul shows the life of Yono, a sulphur miner in Java, as he navigates his dangerous job while dealing with the complex questions around why his wife left him. The mine shots evokes Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death while some of the spiritual themes have a touch of Apichatpong’s style to them.

Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):

Ahed’s Knee (2021, France/Israel/Germany, Nadav Lapid)

Azor (2021, Switzerland/France/Argentina, Andreas Fontana)

The City of Wild Beasts (2021, Colombia/Ecuador, Henry Eduardo Rincón Orozco)

Straight to VHS (2021, Uruguay, Emilio Silva Torres)

Taming the Garden (2021, Switzerland/Germany/Georgia/Holland, Salomé Jashi)

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