Pandemic Or Not, Films Rule Our Hearts; We Bring You The Best 20 Of 2021

Published by
Shaibal Chhotray

We all love to make favourite films list. But the one thing cinema teaches anyone is that no list is sacrosanct and no list is profane. Anything can be a movie. Anything. Art is subjective and if everyone liked the same stuff, life would be boring. The second successive pandemic year didn’t dampen the prospect of a lot of weird, interesting, trippy, breathtaking, crappy, crazy films and filmmakers. The heart of Indian cinema’s creative peak certainly lies (currently) in the two southern most states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. If you live in India though, the avenues for watching foreign films are a diminished prospect. So this list is bereft of a lot of acclaimed films including India’s Oscar entry simply because there is no possible way to watch them. Still it was a great year, like every year.

Honourable Mention: Coda

Coda is a very realistic portrayal of the deaf and mute community. Director Sian Heder does not try to paint them as objects of sympathy or patronise them but show them as people who curse, show anger, are funny, who make mistakes and who possess all the other features of being human. All the actors playing deaf are also deaf in real life, something our country’s directors should aspire to learn.

20. Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby is Emma Seligman’s delightful debut feature of a young Jewish girl who falls into one embarrassing situation after another at a family event as she runs into her parents, her sugar daddy and a former lover. Rachel Sennott as the awkward and nervy Danielle is brilliant. The film works because the tension and uneasiness of family gatherings is always held to a boiling point but never allowed to burst.

19. Petite Maman

Petite Maman (literally Little Mom), technically a sci-fi film, is a calming, meditative reflection on childhood, loneliness and how our perception and memory of our parents changes with time. What if you could time travel and meet your mother when she was a child? Celine Sciamma has not lost form after the absolutely superb Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

18. Jai Bhim

Justice Chandru’s real life heroics in helping a family of the Irula tribe get justice is brought to screen with effervescent direction by T.J.Gnanavel and a larger than life portrayal by Suriya. The film had faults in not probing too deeply into India’s anti-caste discourse but still is a moving depiction of an important part of Tamil Nadu’s history.

17. The Card Counter

This is familiar Paul Schrader territory – a solitary, tormented man fighting his inner demons in an unsympathetic world. The Card Counter is not a film about revenge or retribution but seeking atonement for past sins through self-contemplation. Extra props for handling a delicate matter like the Abu Gharib prison torture story without the typical American exceptionalism and self-pity.

16. Together Together

Nikole Beckwith breaks stereotypes about parenthood, surrogacy and friendships, and does it with an easy-going charm and unhurried, carefree mood that is very relaxing to watch even though it is totally unfamiliar territory. Ed Helms and Patti Harrison’s chemistry is fun and believable and the movie delivers one of the most perfect endings of the year.

15. Titane

Don’t you love films that make you want to throw up and yet can’t let your eyes drift away from the scene? I mean a woman has sex with a car. What could go wrong? The most mind-bending, erotic, f’ed up movie of the year somehow also manages to be quite sweet and poignant. Julia Ducournau’s raw and no-holds-barred depiction of a psychopath is brilliantly played by Agatha Rousselle. Vincent Lindon’s unnerving grieving father holds his own against her.

14. The Power of the Dog

A brusque and uncultured ranch-owner takes under his wing the shy and effeminate son of his brother’s wife as their relationship unravels deep seated feelings. The Power of the Dog is at once a Western drama, a slow-burn suspense and a patient critique on masculinity. Jane Campion is a master at building simmering tension and the emotional strain of all the four principal characters is stretched in successive layers.

13. The Father

There are few things worse to witness than seeing your parents grow old and frail but what if you witness mental illness from the perspective of the one with the disease, from inside the mind of the suffering. This psychodrama by Florian Zeller about dementia is accentuated by Anthony Hopkins’s superlative display of the aging and irritable protagonist as his illness gets progressively worse. The continuity between many scenes will not make sense and that is exactly the point.

12. The Green Knight

A hypnotic, mysterious, almost Biblical story of a zealous knight in King Arthur’s court and his quest to settle a wager and prove his mettle. The Green Knight subverts every traditional tale of knightly valour and chivalry, and questions the very idea of bravery without being preachy about it. The dream-like and magical story-telling nature of David Lowery’s direction is both enchanting and terrifying.

11. Drive My Car

Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Drive My Car is almost three hours long but the longevity is rarely felt as Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s world of anguished characters with unresolved trauma and resentment disentangle themselves through mutual catharsis. A recent widower and playwright forms a quiet but natural bond with his young female driver as they drive around Hiroshima. The car itself is a character in the film and Hamaguchi is totally confident in using long pregnant pauses as effectively as the intermittent dialogues.

10. About Endlessness

What is a movie? Does every movie have to have a coherently flowing narrative style with a beginning and an end? Can a collection of scenes about the everyday vignettes of life but with almost no relation with each other be called a film? Roy Andersson of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence fame paints every scene with meticulous visual composition. This film about the human condition lingers long in one’s head once the credits roll and even makes occasional appearances in unbidden thoughts.

9. The French Dispatch

As Wes Anderson himself put it, The French Dispatch is a “love letter to journalists”. More specifically, it is a love letter to The New Yorker. A fictional newspaper in a fictional French town loses its founder to heart attack and prepares to publish its final issue through its most prolific writers. Like every Wes Anderson film, the colours, lighting, production designs are as much part of the narrative as the zany dialogues themselves. Even the way the characters deliver their lines are trademark Anderson cadence. The cast is a huge ensemble and Jeffrey Wright is a natural addition to Anderson’s usual stock of actors.

8. Test Pattern

Shatara Michelle Ford is very assured about the way she wants the audience to feel when they watch her superb debut this year; a mixture of rage, helplessness, numbness as they watch a black woman, alongwith her caring but clueless white boyfriend, search for a rape-kit in a post-racial American society that is designed to fail a sexual assault survivor and moreover a black survivor.

7. Pig

One of the best films of not just this year but of past several years on the unbearable grief of loss and how one copes with it. Pig is the anti-John Wick of our times and it does that effortlessly. Casting Nicholas Cage as the lead was also very clever because he just recently made a revenge film (Mandy). As the tension builds, you feel Cage going on a blood-spree blinding rage of retribution but the film subverts every revenge fantasy.

6. The Disciple

The rigors of Indian classical singing are explored in painstaking detail as the protagonist loses himself in hours of lecture of the ways of Indian music from a late guru. The Disciple is a patient contemplative comment on mastering art and if success is truly dependent on raw talent or just being the best version of yourself. Chaitanya Tamhane is a rare Indian prodigy.

5. Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s psychological thriller about the suffocating and oppressing nature of religious dogma through the perspective of a fanatical nun is absolutely engrossing from start to finish (especially the finish). I am naturally biased towards films that take on religion.

4. Quo Vadis, Aida?

Close to 8000 (mostly men) Bosnian Muslims were killed in the Srebrenica massacre as the UN Peacekeeping forces helplessly surrendered to Ratko Mladić’s forces. Seen through the eyes of a UN interpreter who tries to save her husband and two sons, Jasmila Žbanić’s breathless direction and pace makes for a harrowing view.

3. Karnan

Karnan is based on the 1995 Kodiyankulam violence but it’s much and more than that. Mari Selvaraj is not interested in representing the depressed classes as meek and surrendering to generate sympathy. They are aspirational and audacious as Dhanush becomes the embodiment of all the simmering rage of generations of oppression. The soundtrack is truly something to behold. I mean who could have thought you could infuse EDM inside a movie about caste atrocity and police violence so seamlessly. The recent resurgence of anti-caste pro-Dalit Tamil movies from the likes of Pa. Ranjith, Vetrimaaran and Mari Selvaraj is a welcome change.

2. Identifying Features

A mother embarks on a solo cross-border search mission to rescue her missing son as he was trying to immigrate to the United States from Mexico. The ominous feel of the dangerous life changing decisions that immigrants take is ever present even though, or perhaps especially because, there is not much dialogue. The cinematography is stunning and the under-acting by the cast is haunting. The ending is an absolute gut-punch.

1. The Great Indian Kitchen

Chantel Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman is an almost 3 and a half hours of laborious and painstaking detail of the daily life of a homemaker. The Great Indian Kitchen is not as wearisome in scope but Jeo Baby is a master of his craft as he depicts the everyday grinding and grueling life of a Malayali housewife which could be the story of millions of women throughout the country. The husband and father-in-law are not the actual antagonists but mere vehicles for the real villain of the story – systemic patriarchy and religious orthodoxy. Infact the subtext of the Sabarimala issue makes me wonder how our Censor Board and Union Ministry passed the viewing of this film without much opposition. Even if you are naturally inclined towards depressing movies, the ending is extremely satisfying to watch.

Shaibal Chhotray

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