TL;DR: One masterpiece, Michel Franco's New Order, a few very good movies (2-6), the rest was more or less average.
Disclaimer: for the very first time since I started these lists, I have not watched a single entry in a movie theatre. My 2021 cinema viewing is, therefore, non existent. Hence, a) "cinematic experience" is a bit of an oxymoron, b) this list is missing some key "theatrical releases". At any rate, I realized I don’t miss the so called "movie going experience" that much. My only regret is for the apparatus itself: the huge screen, the immersive, cavernous room, the sensuous darkness, the overwhelming sound system, the bigger-than-life experience that allow puny mortals to vicariously project themselves onto a different self as reality itself is rotting away. What I certainly don’t miss are the “social” elements: the obnoxious millennial doomscrolling her way through the entire screening, the peanut gallery commenting every scene aloud, the latecomers and the “early leavers”, the compulsive popcorn munchers etc. Virtual cinemas, online festivals, MUBI: that's all you need in the post-cinema age. Well, almost.
By the way, I totally agree with Mac, trolling his way up in this debate about the state of cinema:
MIAs (Dec 31 2021): Petit Maman (Céline Sciamma, France), The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK), France (Bruno Dumont, France), Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodovar, Spain), What Do We See When We Look at The Stars (Alexandre Koberidze, Georgia), Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Colombia), Liquorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson), C’mon, C’mon (Mike Mills), Red Rocket (Sean Baker, US), Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, Romania/Luxembourg/Czech Republic/Croatia), Neptune Frost (Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, USA/Rwanda), The Cathedral (Ricky D’Ambrose, USA), The Sacred Spirit (Chema García Ibarra, Spain/France/Turkey), The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz, Argentina), The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway), The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal, USA).
Intensely disliked: Annette (Leos Carax, France), El Planeta (Amalia Ulman, Spain), Anne at 13,000 ft (Kazik Radwanski, USA), Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, Australia… Best movie of the year for The Guardian… Seriously?), Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve, USA), the latter is 2 hours of sheer stupidity.
Most Overrated Movie of the Year: Oh boy, where to start? Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Germany/Belgium/Sweden)? Titane (Julia Ducournau, France)? Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond)?
Worst Movie of the Year: The one-star list is endless... Two good candidates are Coda (Sian Heder, USA)
So unbearably Apple TV+. So despicably Professional Managerial Class. So pathetically Hallmark Channel. It can't get more repulsively midcult than this. Makes Glee look like Dostoevsky. No wonder Coda won big at a subpar feelgood film festival like Sundance which is to cinema what Eurovision is to music. Tasteless. Earnest. And so wrong. *So wrong*. File under #NPRcinema, alongside Nomadland. So wrong. Just wrong.
and The Matrix Resurrections (Lana Wachowski, USA).
Ten minutes of meta fun, followed by two hours of excruciating nonsense, kung fu and shooting. Exactly like the original Matrix. This reboot-remake feels like an endless cutscene with the most mind numbing expository dialogues in the history of cutscenes. A mortifying experience, even for die hard fans who spend their days producing hyper detailed diagrams, six-hours live-stream explainers, and million page wikis.
Made in Italy: I've only watched The Hand of God. Definitely not Sorrentino's best.
Thanks, but no thanks: Wes Anderson.
A FEW COMMENTS
New Order: Mexico is the future. The future is autocratic, fascistic, feral, vindictive, with a dash of China's social credit system. The future is class warfare, curfews, and mass executions. The "orden" is not really "nuevo": it's about replacing an élite with another élite. The useful idiots are cannon fodder, and so are the poor. The future is Mexico. The future won't take long. The future is green paint.
Everybody is comparing Franco to Pasolini, Haneke, even Petri (Todo Modo). But when I was watching New Order, what came to mind first was another recent Mexican film, Workforce (2019) by David Zonana, which he produced.
The idea that New Order is a reactionary film is not only weak, but plain wrong. Just because Franco's portrayal of the subaltern does not conform to the expectation of liberals, does not mean that that his vision is devoid of any value. The fact that he had to publicly apologize is truly mortifying. Also, some reviewers are accusing him of being ambiguous. Since when art must be explicit and didactic? What's wrong with ambiguity? On this note, Justin Chang's review is especially pernicious. Franco's film is "nihilistic". Wow, that's so reprehensible! Do all movies need to be "comforting"? Portray the marginalized as immaculate and pure? What if we all are, indeed, replaceable and interchangeable cogs in a large narrative that we do not understand, let alone control? Entertaining such an idea is so bad that it should be censored or repressed? Why does a director must provide a moralistic closure, some reassurance that #everythingisawesome? Do the viewers need a badge, a trophy for having experienced a film? Such a prescriptive, intellectually lazy approach is an expression of the worst kind of critical "wokeness" that plagues what remains of American mainstream film criticism. If there's something that deserves contempt is Chiang's review. So pedantic, so "Professional Managerial Class", so NPR cinema. Can you imagine Pasolini issuing an official apology for Salò, today?
New Order is Brazilian Death Squads plus Mexican Narcostate plus North American conspiracy theories culminating in violent insurrections that are dismissed by one half of the country as "tourism", plus France Yellow Vests' riots plus Italy's Red Brigades plus Argentinian desaparecidos plus former Yugoslavia's Muslim massacres, see Srebrenica (Quo Vadis, Aida?). Franco made a compelling case that,as William Gibson put it, the future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed. 1973 Chile was the test-lab for Made in America Neoliberalism: get the democratically elected President killed, replace him with a military dictatorship and introduce "free markets" and "American Freedom". Then, apply the same formula in the West, with marketing campaigns, think tanks and smiling former actors (and palazzinari) turned presidents. Cut taxes for the rich and rant about "trickle down economics". Impose austerity. New Order introduces the next logical step, which is slightly more dystopian than the current system. But far from improbable.
Unlike Chiang, Adam Nayman on Cinema Scope provides useful insights: "New Order means to map the shaky foundations of Mexican (and global) hegemony and visualize its precipitous collapse, and yet it’s been made in a way that all but guarantees it will be misinterpreted—or maybe understood all too well—by an art-house audience hardwired (and, frankly, encouraged) to identify with the attractive, monied characters being held at gunpoint."
Azor: I was hoping for a New Order moment during the gala scene, alas, the forceful removal of the 1% did not happen. It would have been historically inaccurate anyway. No vindication, no redemption, only Neoliberal bleakness. Azor is an unsettling horror film which relies on environmental storytelling. The abject is offscreen, for the most part. The monster is Capital and Swiss private banking is notoriously great at feeding the beast.
Pig: The unofficial sequel to Gunda is a touching story of grief imbued with surreal touches, a foodie messiah, underground fight club, pre-apocalyptic vibes, phonies with Gucci belts and flashy cars. Nicolas Cage the truffle hunter is a monumental hero for a society that worships Molecular Gastronomy. Pig is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of 2021. Kudos to Sarnoski.
Lamb: 2021 was the year of Pig. 2021 was the year of Lamb. Bela Tarr + Noomi rapace: killer kombo. I love how the duo trolled the multiplex/netflix audiences whose patience and attention span is measured in milliseconds. A raised middle finger to the fans of James Wan and other generic Hollywood directors. Lamb is an insta-classic, a proto-cult, the mindfuck of the year.
Limbo: A mix of Aki Kaurismaki slash Roy Andersson, magic realism and absurdity. Stuck in purgatory, a man who put his artistic practice on standby searches for meaning and community in a world devoid of both. The film comprises a set of vignettes - bittersweet, tragic, surreal, funny - that are both charming and utterly depressing. Art is the only antidote to bureaucratic hell, ignorance, and violence. This is why is so devalued today.
Mosquito State: Michael Burry (Christian Bale) from The Big Short shapeshifts into The Fly, or rather, The Mosquito: an apt metaphor indeed, as Wall Street traders are bloodsucking parasitic insects. Best selling Cassandra Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a cameo, too. This is one of those movies whose entire narrative arc is illustrated in the title sequence, which wisely uses Italian text, unintelligible for most viewers. Like economy itself.
The Man Who Sold His Skin: Ruben Östlund's The Square meets Guido Hendrikx' Stranger in Paradise courtesy of Wim Delvoye, the true catalyst, the real Mephistopheles.
Saint Maud: Martyr.
Friends and Strangers: A shapeshifter. Truly different. Most critics' reviews focus on the first twenty minutes and they overlook the juicy parts, e.g., at one point the sound design takes over, messes with your head, changes the tempo. Definitely not your average mumblecore. Actually, not mumblecore at all. Not a comedy. Not drama, either. Some horror, juxtaposed to absurdism. Rohmer? Nah. Bujalski? Nope. It's a genuine James Vaughan. With Azor, the most significant debut of the year.
Undine: "Progress is impossible". You are doomed to rewatch the same movie, over and over. Iterations. Variations on a theme. But if the vicious loop features Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, it just does not matter. The repetition is soothing, like the fort-da game. The transit-ion is apparent, and that's ok. Progress is more of the same.
Promising Young Woman: Escapist fantasies of fairness and closure offer symbolic relief for the sheer rottenness of reality. But the film wants to have it both ways: it's up to individual to fix a situation inherently broken because institutions are either unresponsive or deliberately hostile (e.g. a fascistic US Supreme Court, pervasive police brutality) AND, at once, the cavalry will take care of the bad guys and restore "the order of things". Too easy.
The Feast: The reassuring fantasy of élites being slaughtered by the subaltern is the predictable reaction to deliberate political inertia, corporate greed ("Euros"), greenwashing to climate change. Reassuring because it suggests that there will be some kind of retribution in the end. A fantasy because it is Boris Johnson and the CEO of BP who are ravaging the land, literally and metaphorically. The Feast belongs to several genres and subgenres at once: rape revenge, home invasion, folk horror and fairy tales. It is, above all, a story of environmental justice: the real monsters are punished for their gluttony and greed by the pure child. The eco-horror genre is delusional but comforting. I see the Fridays for Future Ecohorror becoming a dominant genre in an age of climate change inertia and denial.
Quo Vadis, Aida?: While blasé European technocrats are on vacation on the Cote D'Azur thousands of civilians are massacred by the fascists. If you need further proof that the European Union is a joke and the (Dutch-led) UN contingent inept at best, look no further than the war in the former Yugoslavia. Only when the Americans decided to carpet bomb Serbia, the so called European Parliament woke up from its torpor. It will happen again. The carpet bombing, that is.
I Care A Lot: A superb documentary on the American Dream. Blakeson perfectly captures the essence of a society that has made exploitation and scamming, greed and manipulation its guiding principles. It's also a pretty damn accurate portrayal of the US sickcare system and rotten legal industry. Institutional violence, bureaucracy, and the cult of the entrepreneur: it's the American way. Pike is great at performing capitalism.
Los Conductos: cryptic, but intense and mesmerizing. a cult film about cults, a commentary about social and political decay. a revolutionary agenda can be funded with the sale of counterfeit t-shirts and stolen copper wire. restrepo sees the looming apocalypse, the end of things, the inevitability of addiction. most people are narcotized, but restrepo sees it clearly, he has a 20/20 vision restrepo knows what's coming. Oh yes. restrepo.
PVT CHAT: The Phantasmatic Subject of Technology faces The Plague of Fantasies. Also Anna Khachiyan discussing the "failure" of the Occupy Movement. And Dasha Nekrasova delivering red scares. Keep oversharing, Ben, we enjoy the abuse.
The Trouble With Being Born: An extremely grim version of Spielberg's A.I.. Truly disturbing but at the same time much more believable than anything that Hollywood has produced so far. The future is like today, but (even) worse: more late capitalism, non-places, pervasive loneliness, depression, anomie, emotional abuse and physical cruelty. Forget Asimov and his three laws. TTWBB is the sci-fi movie that Michael Haneke never made.
Enforcement: A complex, multifaceted narrative that creatively repurposes a shitload of good cop-bad cop cliches. Definitely not Shorta of ideas in that department... When it works, Ølholm and Hviid's film evokes Assault on Precinct 13/The Warriors/La Haine in a brutalist/ballardian Danish context. When it does not work, well, it's still highly enjoyable.
Zeroes and Ones: The ugly side of Rome, the prevalent side of Rome, without tourists and constant "chiasso", graffiti, pervasive trash in the streets, homeless people as background decoration. So gritty. So pixelated. So dark. There's a spy movie somewhere but it doesn't really matter. "Incomprehensible and opaque: every scene screams genre (war film or spy film), and yet nothing adds up to a discernible narrative." (Steven Shapiro). Google it.
MY FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE YEAR (2010-2021)
2021: New Order by Michel Franco, Mexico
2020: Possessor by Brandon Cronenberg, Canada
2019: Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho, South Korea
2018: First Reformed by Paul Schrader, United States
2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece
2016: Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade, Germany
2015: The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece
2014: Borgman by Alex Van Warmerdam, The Netherlands
2013: The Wall by Julian Polser, Austria
2012: Holy Motors by Leo Carax, France
2011: Melancholia by Lars Von Trier, Denmark
2010: The Temptation of St. Tony by Veiko õunpuu, Estonia