Thursday, January 20, 2022

Best of 2021

Film year 2021

was if anything more confused than 2020. The previous year we went into lockdown; last year we emerged  only to go back to lockdown due to Delta, partially re-emerge, partially go back in response to Omicron--a chaotic state. I think the best films didn't reflect that confusion so much as express themselves despite, raising their collective yet distinct voices above the turmoil. Hence:

17. House of Gucci (Ridley Scott, 2021, showing in Philippine cinemas Jan. 19) - Scott takes a peek behind the facade of one of fashion's most prestigious brands is rewarded with a vision of hedonistic excess, corporate skullduggery, family backstabbing, and-- yes-- murder. Refreshingly unwholesome entertainment.  

16. Belle (Mamoru Hosoda, 2021, to be released) Hosoda takes inspiration more from Disney than Cocteau unfortunately; fortunately we can compare the film to Disney instead of Cocteau, and find Hosoda's latest clearly superior-- sumptuously animated, emotionally nuanced, focused on other things than falling in love with the next pretty boy to stumble along. 

15. Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time (Hideaki Anno, 2021, on Amazon) - Anno after a TV series, a two-part expanded finale, a three-part reboot of the series, at last reveals his ultimate design: that the revisions expansions reboots are really his way of resolving Shinji Ikari's knobby father complex, allowing the boy to finally grow up. Ambitious fare for what after all is said and done is supposedly mere mecha anime.
14. Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2020, US commercial run 2021, on Hulu or Amazon Prime) - Hilariously profane, possibly the greatest film ever made from a tweetstorm. 

13. Licorice Pizza - As someone noted, what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood should have been. A period recalled, reenacted, fondly remembered, with a live-wire cameo by Bradley Cooper as an off the wall Jon Peters, and Alana Haim driving one of the best action sequences of the year.

12. The French Dispatch, (Wes Anderson, 2021, on Apple TV or Amazon Prime) - Anderson's intricately snipped-out valentine to The New Yorker is written, shot, and directed to look and feel like an elaborate pop-up version of the magazine. 

11. Candyman (Nia DaCosta, 2021, on Amazon Prime and Vudu) - Black man with hook for hand preys mainly on the colonizing white upper class. Urban gentrification was never this seductively stylish. Or bloody. Or disturbingly funny.

10. West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021, may stream on either HBO Max or Disney Plus) - Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's classic musical about racism in New York's West Side, as directed by a real filmmaker.

9. Annette (Leos Carax, on Amazon Prime) - Again musical theater (lyrics and melodies by Sparks) only stranger: about a standup, a soprano, their marionette child.

8. In the Earth (Ben Wheatley, 2021, Amazon Prime and Hulu) - A scientist and his guide looking for a lost fellow scientist encounter a crazed camper and a cloud of hallucinogenic spores. Then things get weird. 

7. Titane (Julia DuCornau, 2021, Amazon Prime and Google Play) - Serial-killer female gets pregnant by lowrider Cadillac, seeks refuge with an aging drug-addicted firefighter. Bizarre, but even more bizarre is the fragile bond that forms between man and adopted daughter.

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021, in theaters) - Coen without his brother, serious as in No Country for Old Men but this time more successful. His three witches are brilliant reflections of the brilliant Kathryn Hunter, his realm the realm of Herman Melville's terrible whiteness, his King and Lady of an age when ambition is less an affliction than a last desperate attempt. 

5. Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, 2021, in theaters, soon to be streaming) - Del Toro describing not the horror of monsters or demons but the shape of a man's life, and its inevitable downward spiral.

4. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021, on Netflix) - Campion's maddeningly compelling slowburn story of psychological abuse and elliptic payback, set in turn-of-the-century west. 

3. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021, Amazon Prime, YouTube) - Schrader's latest version of his God's Lonely Man, the constant protagonist of his films-- this time a Guantanamo prison guard haunted by memories of tortured prisoners, now living the monastic life of a professional cardplayer. An austere gem. 

2. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021, in theaters) - this three-hour adaptation and conflation of Haruki Murakami short stories "Drive My Car" and "Scheherazade" is a little bit Chekov a lot Murakami--sensual and enigmatic. The ending (as noted by former film critic David Edelstein) relies too much on the poignancy of Uncle Vanya but there's enough meat here-- Yusuke Kafuku's grief over the passing of his storytelling wife Oto; his combative-collaborative relationship with young Koji Takatsuki, Oto's former lover; his developing bond with Misaki Watari, the girl hired to drive Kafuku's Talladega Red 1990 Saab 900 Aero Coupe-- to enjoy the picture, regardless. In short: it's the journey not the destination. 
1. History of Ha (Lav Diaz, 2021, further screenings to be announced) - Diaz traces the Filipino fascination with fascists to the sudden death of President Ramon Magsaysay in 1957, offering in response this four hour narrative about bodabil legend Hernando Alameda and his wood-based companion, Ha. 

SEEN IN 2021:

9. Appreciated - Revolution Knows No Gender (Joselito Altarejos, 2020, available on KTX.PH) - I admired the laser focus of Altarejos' previous Jino to Mari, about a pair of sex workers lured then forced into performing a live show together. This film felt both more scattershot and more ambitious, the story of a gay filmmaker and his troubled relationships morphing into said filmmaker's political awakening--the latter half being less strident and more powerful than the former. 

8. Favorite sequel - The Matrix Resurrections (2021). Lana Wachowski on her first solo effort returns to the well one more time and (like Zuckerberg) turns the Matrix meta. This time it's more entertaining, with the film sneakily poking at the franchise, though I miss the lyrically coherent action filmmaking the sisters crafted for Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Junky fun.

8. Favorite sequel (the sequel) - The Suicide Squad (2021). James Gunn bigger and louder and funnier than ever. Peacemaker tho is if anything a better sequel to this sequel.  

7. Favorite mainstream - Chloe Zhao's The Eternals (2021). Worst Zhao so far, best MCU to date. What more to say?

6. Favorite Public Service Announcement - Adam McKay's Don't Look Up (2021, on Netflix). No it's not Dr. Strangelove but perhaps the end of the world comedy we deserve: crude (so that right wingers know who's being targeted), lewd (to make the medicine go down), and not a little sentimental (to--hell I don't know--make the whole exercise that much more challenging).

5. Also on Netflix (and favorite Queen of Sensual Cinema) - Isabel Sandoval's Lingua Franca (2019). Beautifully understated story of an undocumented trans woman's struggle to stay in Trump's America.  

4. On Criterion - Mitchell Leisen films. His Midnight (1939) touches the comic highs of Renoir, his No Man of Her Own (1950) plumbs the depths of Cornell Woolrich, his Kitty (1945)--as David Melville somewhat extravagantly puts it--compares with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Maybe an auteur, maybe an artist, definitely a lot of fun.  

3. ABS CBN restoration - Pio de Castro's Soltero  (1984). An unlikely but ultimately necessary treatment on loneliness in Philippine society, with an unforgettable performance by the late Jay Ilagan. 
2. On Facebook - Celso Ad Castillo's Virgin People (1984). A cross between The Book of Genesis and the Playboy Channel, lyrical filmmaking in the service of ambitious softcore.  

1. Free and available on Mike De Leon's Citizen Jake Vimeo site - Susana de Guzman's Lupang Pangako (Promised Land, 1949). Incomplete but delicious: spoiled socialite (Mila del Sol) forced to marry to collect her parents' fortune, picks a man with a heart condition (Leopoldo Salcedo); when the man lingers past his expected expiration date, he torments her with politically radical ideas on how to spend her hardly-earned money.  

First published in Businessworld 1.7.22

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