In the Year of the Pandemic II we attended many film festivals – remotely, of course. It’s not a bad way to get around in a crowd. We didn’t even have to create an avatar to send to the fests. In this no longer so new, new world, we just sat slouched and comfy on our couches and peered at the outside world through a pinhole. It’s a very nice pinhole, but it’s a pinhole, nonetheless. The thing is, you can see all the colors in the spectrum through a pinhole, and this tiny point of light easily pierces our brains forever locked in our dark, windowless skulls and pries them open just enough to fully illuminate our ever curious minds – if you let it.
What follows is but a fraction of the 2021 film and television offerings we had hoped to experience this year. But if you missed these you’ll want to seek them out too and bask for a while in their bit of light – or their enveloping darkness.
The mysterious narrator at the opening of The Alleys warns us that stories spread like wildfire, and “every son of a bitch has his way with it, so by the time it reaches your ears, they’ve spun a web of it.” He tells us to “believe half of what you hear and two-thirds of what you see.” Jordanian director Bassel Ghandour’s thriller opens with music that recalls the paranoid tone of spy thrillers, complementing the air of suspicion the narrator stirs. From the opening scene, The Alleys creates an uneasy tension about how what is seen or overheard in this tight-knit community of tight alleyways and streets could decide the fate of its characters.
The Alleys has an unmistakable sense of fate about it. Ghandour uses this sensibility to create an entertaining thriller empowered by its themes and ideas. Similar to how negative emotions such as anger and hate can be energising, the story patiently waits and begins to explore how these feelings betray us. – Read Paul Risker’s full review here.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head
Creator: Adam Curtis
Since Pandora’s Box (1992), his first fully-formed documentary series, Adam Curis has been exploring the forces that shape society: science, finance, psychology, and more. He’s also using the vast BBC archive as a resource, digging through this Reithian residue, turning up rare and strange moments, and making increasingly bold aesthetic choices. Curtis’ documentaries don’t present themselves as neutral reportage; they are beautifully aestheticized essay films that put across a particular argument.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head is an ambitious and, at times, overwhelming documentary series that charts the ‘emotional history of the modern world.’ The extended iPlayer format has also given Curtis the space to do what he has presumably always wanted: allow some of the unusual fragments he unearths from the archives to play out in full, slow cinema style. Curtis wants to dazzle, to overwhelm, but ultimately to get viewers thinking. We might feel compelled to research some obscure historical figure he’s informed us about and begin to link and reassemble the fragments for ourselves. – Read John A Riley’s full review here.
The Card Counter
Director: Paul Schrader
In The Card Counter, legendary American writer/director Paul Schrader, supported by an always extraordinary Oscar Isaac, brings a tale of regret and trauma caused by systemic violence, as seen through the eyes of a former soldier. What would have been nothing more than a pretentious attempt at social critique in the hands of a less experienced and knowledgeable author, we have instead a fully captivating yet meditative piece on individual and collective freedom – and its costs. It finds Isaac at his mercurial best and presents yet another triumph of the writer/director’s tongue-in-cheek cynicism.
While Isaac’s marvelous performance keeps us in the dark about most aspects of his motivation, historical determinism – potentially even fatalism – is heavily hinted at, revealing Schrader once again as an unapologetically cynical, yet superbly engrossing filmmaker. By the time the bitter end arrives, we know what we’ve already suspected: you can’t beat the USA. – Read Ana Yorke’s full review here.
Director: Mike Mills
Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon is about a radio documentarian named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) who brings his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) on a cross-country work trip while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) attends to her ailing husband. Uncle and nephew get to know each other on an intimate level, pushing each other’s buttons, learning life lessons, and developing a bond that neither of them knew they so desperately needed.
Many of the scenes pull directly from Mills’ relationship with his son, making the story authentic. Nervous to share that part of his life with the world, he went into the film’s first festival circuit screenings not knowing how audiences would react to, essentially, scenes from his life. He was moved and relieved to find that his quiet little film had a powerful impact. – Read Bernard Boo’s interview with director Mike Mills here.
Director: Craig Gellispe
Craig Gellispe’s Cruella uses jaw-dropping fashion with stunning ingenuity to tell this classic tale of descent into madness. Even if there are some derivative points in Cruella, the latest in Disney’s mining of its vaults for live-action renditions of its animated classics, the film is an excellent crime caper and origin story of the iconic titular character. Taking its cues from the original source material, The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith as well as Clyde Geronimi’s 1961 animated feature, Gillespie’s vision is far darker and stylized – an homage to 1970s London when high fashion and punk slammed into each other, making the city the fashion epicenter of the world.
This a pitch-black comedy that plucks inspiration from disparate sources like Carol Reed’s Oliver (1960), David Frankel’s Devil Wears Prada, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986). Once the plot’s major twist is unveiled, we’re watching a duel between Emma Stone as Estella and Emma Thompson as the Baroness, and the two divas revel in their roles, chewing scenery and striking dramatic poses and just being super fabulous. – Read Peter Piatkowski’s full review here.