Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Another weird year, with many movies still unseen. But it’s time for a list, so here are nine best of 2021, leaving room for future considerations, along with quotes from reviews I wrote or notes made along the way or something added just now. 2022, we are rooting for you.
1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksander Koberidze, George/Germany). “I gave the game away with the word ‘enchanted.’ This movie is a spell, an enchantment sustained; what we see when we look at the sky will change after watching this movie, because it’s one of those films that show you how to see.”
2. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA). Glorious, defiant, funny, daring you to misread it, which many are. Let me roll it.
3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan). “The stories are full of droll observations and weird, tilted humor, yet the blade being wielded is exceptionally sharp. Hamaguchi gets at universal truths, but he’s also very much of the moment; these stories come out of the here and now, not some kind of vague daydream.”
4. Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan). “The film is built around people keeping secrets but also telling the truth in straightforwardly emotional moments, whether at rehearsal, or sitting at a bar, or confined to that curiously charged space that is the interior of an automobile. These moments bloom into radiant life because the characters deepen with understanding and distinctiveness as the film goes along, but also because Hamaguchi … understands the seismic power of suddenly, subtly changing a camera angle in the middle of a conversation, or a brief cutaway to a pair of eyes in the rear-view mirror, registering a moment.”
5. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, USA/Australia/New Zealand etc.). Impeccable technique, curious tightrope-walking tone, the way of looking at the world with a frame around it; “It’s so nice not to be alone.”
6. Herr Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany). A three and 1/2 hour study of a charismatic teacher and his group of 13-ish-year-old students, most of them children of immigrants – the Wiseman technique much in place here.
7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, Romania). The director of Aferim! creates a uniquely-shaped essay/drama, somewhat geared around a teacher’s misery when her homemade sex tape goes online. Made of the pandemic (everybody wears masks) and yet even more of the moment than that. Slashing, zany, merciless.
8. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes). “What Haynes is really conjuring here is a kind of utopia, a realm in which art is devoured and created and shared, complete with its dark sides (the movie doesn’t ignore the anger and addiction that coursed through these lives) and its absurdities, as when Warhol, one of the most celebrated artists in the universe, is putting on a rock show in a rented hall and calling out to the assembled throng, ‘Who knows how to work the lights?’ What I really love about the movie is that Haynes, in his own postmodern, quotation-marks-around-everything way, has fallen hard for all this—and so he doesn’t merely describe that cauldron, but blissfully re-creates it on a screen. Who knows how to work the lights? Who cares? Just turn on.”
9. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway). “A really pretty lovely account of a few years in the life of a young woman, Julie (Renate Reinsve), as she navigates uncertainty and men in Oslo. The different sections of the film – a long sequence in which Julie crashes a wedding, for instance – are vivid and detailed, and if some things seem familiar, the approach makes them fresh.”
Many other good ones: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II is lovely, even if I feel a falling-off from the first film, and Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran comes close. I appreciated the pure-cinema joys of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, even if I had reservations, and a group of top filmmakers came through with fine offerings (in no special order): Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move, Mohammed Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero; and other films, if “off” a little to my eye, still delivered something: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, David Lowery’s The Green Knight, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman. Great titles from newer filmmakers, too: Luzzu, Pig, Lamb, Shiva Baby, Agnes, Titane. But really, many others, too—so, thanks.
December 31, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.