The ever-indecisive staff picks a few of our favorite watches from the past year…
I saw Titane in October 2021 as part of the New York Film Festival, and although there were countless more films to see during the remainder of the festival and the year, I knew that it would be my favorite of the year. I just had such an intense visceral reaction watching it unfold on the screen — wanting desperately to shut my eyes, but also being completely unable to look away. As the lead actors noted during a Q&A at the screening I attended, director and writer Julia Ducournau left no room for improvisation — everything was meticulously planned and choreographed, and there were no surprises for the cast. Yet there are plenty of shocks and discoveries for the audience, as this bold body-horror film has surprisingly tender moments of finding familial connection in the most unexpected places. This is a film about transformations and transitions, about leaving the family you were born into for a family you make. Ducournau uses many of the same gestures she used in Raw, but deepens her exploration of the themes of transformations and evolutions, metamorphosing to find one’s true form. Love or hate the admittedly out-there subject matter, Titane is the work of a filmmaker fully in command of her craft, and Julia Ducornau leaves me anxiously awaiting what comes next.
I have already written up my worshipful thoughts on Rebecca Hall’s Passing, and I am delighted to report after two more viewings post-Sundance 2021, her radiant film remains my number one of the year. My second choice is also something I’ve written on before, and having watched Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody at least three times this year I also still admire that film’s unrelenting bombast and winking efficiency. My other favorite of the year has to be the absurdly tongue-in-cheek House of Gucci, which, despite some major drawbacks in certain casting and makeup choices (you know who I mean), is a delightfully shameless soap opera of eye-catching style, robust silliness, and effective performances. It’s truly a matter of a team understanding the assignment brilliantly (for the most part), including my frontrunner for comeback-of-the-last-half-decade, Mr. Al Pacino, doing marvelous work combining a newfound cuddliness with his classic, beloved gravitas. He even roars! Major shoutouts to my close fourth and fifth choices, two swiftly-plotted, wonderfully-acted empathy-generators: Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point and Jon Pollono’s Small Engine Repair. And finally, even beyond Nobody, economic pulp yarns did well this year, from Guy Ritchie’s amusingly restrained, well-composed Wrath of Man to Potsy Ponciroli’s tightly-wound hidden gem Old Henry. Check ‘em out. Good stuff.
As each passing year comes to a close, I look over the list of movies I’ve enjoyed throughout its run and am met with a crisis every time about which films I’ve loved the most. However, a resounding “number one” tends to find its way to my heart, and this year that was Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. The film is perfectly crafted as it slowly unravels the tightly wound rope it has around the audience, until the final frames reveal what has been there all along. It is truly spectacular, and a tremendous return from Campion after her 10-year absence from cinema. My extremely close second pick is the debut feature of Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby. Ever since the film was released in the first half of this year, it has not left my mind. The single location set dark comedy is so wonderfully written and paced that despite the never-ending feeling of disaster, it is certainly a joy to watch. The final film that cracked my top-tier rankings of 2021 is, yes, the worm movie. Dune is just so beautifully made, with so much love for the source material and the craft that it is hard to not be astounded by the final product. As a fan of the book, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation is utterly sublime, creating a digestible world that is true to the book as well as standing on its own as a cinematic piece of art. I would feel bad not to mention a few other standouts from the year, particularly Benedetta – which is a blast – and C’mon C’mon, which made me cry multiple times and want to move to New York. Despite another hard year, 2021 was still a knockout for cinema. On to the next one!
Michael Sarnoski’s Pig – For your first watch, Pig is enjoyed best by knowing as little as possible. On each subsequent watch, Pig is about finding something new to resonate with — regarding grief, or love, or food, or the shifting and sometimes impossible nature of both forgiveness and justice. At one point our protagonist, ex-chef and widower Robin Feld, offers a nugget of haunting wisdom: “We don’t get a lot of things to care about.”
Pig takes unexpected, twisty, heart-cracking-open turns, all centered upon the few things that Robin has got to care about. It’s a cinematic experience perhaps most succinctly distilled up by a mid-film monologue performed in a sterile restaurant by a waitress with an uncanny smile: “We all have a set of held beliefs about the world around us. To challenge them is to acknowledge our foundation is sand, but it opens us up to something greater. To pure connection. To true life.” Pig is about pure connection and true life — it’s about the delight and horror of accepting that one may find and potentially lose the things we get to care about, and about the love, connection, and mercy that withstands in spite of it all.
The Medium: From the makers of The Wailing and Shutter comes this under-appreciated, blood-soaked gem. It’s a found-footage horror about a shaman in Northern Thailand whose young niece begins showing signs of what she (the shaman) believes is an inheritance of the gift of shamanism. But things slowly, almost imperceptibly, take a turn for the worse and it becomes clear that something sinister is possessing the young girl. Exploring intergenerational trauma, motherhood, and testing familial ties, all as it asks the question of whether there is goodness or godliness in the world, The Medium is a terrifying, unrelenting look (we can’t but bear witness) at what it means to be a good woman. This is a truly underrated gift that 2021 gave us.
Having premiered at TIFF, Huda’s Salon is the filmic equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beginning in occupied Palestine inconspicuously and at a snail’s pace with inane salon chatter, which in hindsight seems a respite, the film swiftly turns into a thriller so taut it holds your throat in a vise grip for the rest of its duration. Simultaneously exploring the everyday effects of war, how it ravages a psyche, and its ideological inanity and effetism, Huda’s Salon is powerful and heartbreaking, ultimately the most unique film to have emerged from 2021’s TIFF.
Another horrific gem, The Night House is a showcase of Rebecca Hall’s delicate deftness as an actor. About a woman in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, her discovery of his increasingly disturbing secrets, this film asks us what we miss when we’re caught up in our own spiraling minds, all as it charts the taboo contours of depression and suicidal ideation. A stunning modern-day take on the haunted house trope, this film is like a puzzle box that rewards with every subsequent visit, even if every rewatch takes a bit of your soul with it.
FILM DAZE FAVORITES
House of Gucci
Small Engine Repair
Wrath of Man
The Power of the Dog
The Night House