It’s been a particularly horny year for films. Perhaps not unnaturally; having been cooped up indoors while the viral blizzard howls outside, stoked by political and moral sterility, people more than ever yearn for the communal experience of theater-going, visiting the contemporaries and revisiting the classics of cinema, engaging with the world in richer, more malleable fashion than the stale biscuit-boxers of pandemic VODs and shameless cash-grabs would permit. The films themselves have waited for their turn, listless in the dark; pent-up visions of human society, sexuality, and sensation are finally, this year, being unveiled to a worldwide audience (and with more to come). Remember when Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta was teased to premiere alongside Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, until the former director’s hip injury postponed its completion (and then COVID dealt a historic blow to Cannes as a whole)? Or when the studios finally answered the calls of fans to reassemble Justice League, this time supervised in polarizing monochrome by Zack Snyder himself? As Twitter and the many platforms of unsupervised, unmediated noise churn out obscene amounts of content-bits each vying to dominate the Discourse, we at InRO hope to temper the exorbitant expectations set by PR sexbots by offering a more judicious (but no less exciting) curation of the year’s notable and noteworthy works, that we can review and reconnect with these oft-reduced cultural images (Porno wins big at Berlin! Frenchwoman fucks a car!) in anticipation of those to come in the next.
Admittedly, there’s quite the affinity between the writers at InRO and the programmers over at the New York Film Festival. Fifteen in our list of the top 20 have screened at FilmLinc, with eight of them playing at this year’s edition of NYFF. In particular, Alexandre Koberidze’s entrancing second feature What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? wowed us unanimously, as did Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria and both of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films (although our Editor-in-Chief has proven the curious exception to 2021’s adulation of automobiles). We also trawled through the world premieres of yesteryear, many of which only received official theatrical releases in the States this year (Tsai Ming-liang’s Days and Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog are two such standouts). But lest we be written off as exclusive shills for aesthetic elitism, InRO also dug the new Spielberg, the new (Old?) Shyamalan, the Schrader, the Snyder, and have also produced heated civil war within our ranks over controversial titles like Bruno Dumont’s France, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, Leos Carax’s Annette, and Abel Ferrara’s Siberia. In short, a lack of consensus is the one true consensus, and to that effect we’ve tapped into our diversity of opinion for renewed takes on most releases, including five new write-ups in a list of fifteen honorable mentions below. The only regret yours truly has is not having the balls to neuter his veto on the otherwise Pick of the Year, Walt Becker’s Clifford the Big Red Dog.
This year, our publishing schedule for the best of 2021 will be as follows, starting next week: 21–25 on Monday, followed by 16–20 on Tuesday, 11–15 on Wednesday, 6–10 on Thursday, and our top 5 on Friday. Morris Yang
Leave it to Sean Baker to direct poverty porn. After the much-celebrated The Florida Project, a fantastical if somewhat aestheticised survey of America’s destitute through the eyes of a young child, Baker returns with Red Rocket, a thoroughly compelling — and disgustingly so — character study of the land of freedom in all its libertarian and hedonic glory. This time, however, poverty is indeed porn, and vice versa; Mikey (Simon Rex), a washed-up ex-pornstar, returns in disgrace to Texas, reunited after much pleading with his estranged wife and her mother. Sporting facial injuries and spouting sympathetic stories of his successes and sorrows from a once-glorious L.A. career, he epitomizes first the bravado, then the cockiness of street-smart hustlers, as Lady Luck bestows upon the man a second chance at personal and professional redemption. Frequenting a donut shop, Mikey befriends, and then grooms, its young and yet-to-be-legal waitress Strawberry into his girlfriend and potential starlet, consistently manipulating her and the other women in his life for economic and sexual benefit; all this, while he deals weed for the neighbours to pay the rent, passing his money off as hard-earned cash from heartfelt, honest work.
“It’s part of the game,” he states to his friend Lonnie, another shaggy ne’er-do-well who gets himself into altercations over stolen valor, and then some. This just minutes after he fucks Strawberry and tells her he loves her, before he pitches to Lonnie her potential to be the next AVN winner. Red Rocket is rife with unapologetic sleaze; at points, its messaging almost threatens to hammer home the point. But Baker tempers his scorching, almost perverse rom-com with a realism that’s hard to resist, primarily courtesy of Rex’s patent commitment to his narcissistic character (modeled, perhaps, on the actor’s own background). It’s this realism that searingly confronts the viewer’s own moral high-ground, begrudging us of our consumption of, and hence complicity in, the misogynistic and exploitative complex of the adult entertainment industry. Where many are likely to take Red Rocket’s pre-2016 election setting as unequivocal commentary on Trumpism and all its manifest evils, Baker really depicts through Mikey’s unrelenting selfishness a larger and more virulent psyche of cutthroat, parasitic individualism; more than the sunny squalor of backwater Texas and its ostensibly right-wing voter base, consumerist America realizes the production of this voter base’s (and of others’) basest desires in the palm-tree valleys of liberal California, and an entire cultural nexus (personal and professional, like the ramifications of Mikey’s every action) finds itself hence under caustic scrutiny. Exploitation of teens, tolerance, and tragedy are a neoliberal nation’s defining qualities, and Baker — unlike his comparatively milder previous efforts — goes in for the kill with his eponymous metonym, a bulbous prick of a man who acts for charity and the camera, adopting and shedding his various vacuous identities in pursuit of the next paycheck and joint. Just like the many holes present in the film (donuts and otherwise), contemporary American mores are thoroughly vacated and violated; the triumph of Red Rocket lies in how earnestly it shoots its piping load straight through their empty pretensions.. Morris Yang
It’s Christmas, the time of miracles, and there’s been no greater cinematic miracle this holiday/award season than the fact that Paul Verhoeven was allowed to make another movie. And a miracle of a film it is: a nunsploitation movie that delivers, as Verhoeven always does, on all the salacious pleasures and hot sacrilegious action one could ask for from such an exercise. But it’s also a deeply clever riff on the possibility of miracles, the power of faith and belief, the dangers of hypocrisy, and the threat of plague. A perfect film for our cynical, disease-haunted time.
Benedetta is a young woman of apparently devout faith living in medieval Italy. She manifests miracles at a young age: a bird to shit on a threatening bandit, a statue of the Virgin falling on her but rather than crushing her, offering her a tasty breast. That these could be simple coincidences seems beside the point: Benedetta surely seems to think they are real evidence of her divine favor, and she grows up sure of her Chosen One status, a celebrity among her fellow nuns. And as with all successful people, Benedetta believes her own hype, to the point that as she grows up, she appears to begin to take an active role in the creation of her miracles. She also, thanks to her special personal relationship with God, comes to see her every action as divinely inspired: if she’s favored by God, then anything she does (like, say, embarking on a passionate, borderline NC-17 affair with a fellow nun) is God’s Will and therefore Good. QED.
The usual authority figures eventually have enough of Benedetta (despite the economic boon a living saint would bring to their town), and unexpectedly perhaps, call in the Inquisition. There follows gruesome tortures and lofty theological arguments. Is Benedetta a witch, faking stigmata to lead the people astray into the demoniacal pleasures of the flesh? Or is she the true instrument of God, provided by her creator with the shards of pottery she needs, at just the time she needs them, to convince the fearful and unbelieving crowds of the purity and holiness of her sex-positive vision of Love? Verhoeven, true to form, has it both ways. The sacred and the profane, two sides of the same coin. You’d think he can’t just keep getting away with this. But, joy of joys, he always does. Sean Gilman
A quick glimpse at the one-sheet for Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon doesn’t inspire much hope. A black-and-white flick with both auto- and metafictional elements about a precocious kiddo bonding with his filmmaker uncle, courtesy of an American independent filmmaker pretty blatantly now making movies with an eye toward distribution from the likes A24 — bonus points if you can count the correct number of red flags in the first half of this sentence — C’mon C’mon surprises as a more focused study than the director’s previous twee affectations might promise. Though in fairness, perhaps it should only be that laundry list of portents that raises alarm; after all, Mills survived the homogenous mid-aughts indie scene intact (Thumbsucker), and has proved to be an interesting authorial presence even at his soppiest (Beginners). Still, it’s noteworthy when a film built upon such flimsy foundation, angled toward awards glory and subsequently primed with an early-November release date, succeeds against the odds.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, the aforementioned (documentary) filmmaker, who at the film’s start is working on a project that has school-aged children articulating ideas about the world. After stepping in as surrogate parent for his quirky nephew Jesse when his sister (an excellent Gaby Hoffmann) has to travel to California to aid in her ex’s (Jesse’s father’s) recovery, Johnny finds himself ill-equipped for the demands of total care. But what initially seems a fairly prosaic odd-couple bonding narrative — a pair of losing-the-kid-in-the-crowd moments, some “difficult” conversations, etc. — opens up into a far sturdier look at how we actualize as people through language. Johnny’s efforts with his young documentary subjects fold into his relationship with Jesse, where discourse ebbs and flows, finding mature footing in one scene while just as often fading into the primitivity of screams, repetition, and nonsensical babble. This dynamic is the key to C’mon C’mon’s entire aesthetic: The film’s cinematography, for instance, isn’t mere texture, but instead a reflection of Jesse’s still-binary world — love and hate, presence and absence — as well as a reflection of childhood’s heightened experiential state. And the film’s continuous dissonance of image and sound, Mills frequently rupturing their interplay, loosely mirrors Jesse’s evolving fear that he won’t remember this period of life, his growing awareness that something essential will inevitably be lost to time. It’s in this thread of memory — and the literal intergenerational dialogue that acknowledges this in the film’s emotional climax — that C’mon C’mon realizes its essential melancholy vein, and if the film is still occasionally littered with overly cutesy or on-the-(thematic)-nose instances, Mills carefully balances all of this with a delicate realism that speaks to the spectrum of age. In making study of the adult-child relationship, Mills here moves closer toward a poetic sensibility than he ever has before, upsetting cinematic trope in order to demonstrate that such a relationship is — not only, but also — one with our own past, nothing less than Whitmanian song of the self. Luke Gorham
After the WWII-set Phoenix (a production so emotionally taxing it seems to have severed the relationship between the director and his long-time collaborator Nina Hoss) and the historical dystopian Transit, which manipulated temporal signifiers to portray the fascism of the past encroaching upon and swallowing up the present day, it’s no wonder Christian Petzold set his sights on a (deceptively slight) flight of fancy like Undine, retelling the myth of a water nymph who falls in love with a human, but who curses their lover to death if they are ever unfaithful. The film begins with Undine (Paula Beer) being dumped by her beau, whom she immediately threatens to kill. Unswayed by this emotional threat, the man leaves. But soon Undine meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski), and a new love affair blossoms. It’s a bizarre meet-cute, as a nearby fish tank explodes and showers them both with water and broken glass. Intimations of violence abound, as small flecks of blood soak through Undine’s white blouse; later, spilled red wine stains a wall and becomes a portentous metaphor that haunts this fragile relationship.
Haunting is the operative mode here, with hints of the supernatural hovering around the margins of the narrative while an otherwise straightforward romantic drama plays out. Petzold is no stranger to genre; Yella is a fairly faithful remake of the classic ghost story Carnival of Souls, while Hitchcock’s seminal Vertigo (a different kind of ghost story) informs Phoenix. And indeed, one of Petzold’s earliest films is simply titled Ghosts. Petzold is also one our key chroniclers of a particular kind of contemporary malaise, that of a modern world that came through World War II, the rise and fall of Soviet-style communism, and the reunification of East and West Berlin only to become mired in a neoliberal new world order. He’s fascinated by the hollowed-out liminal spaces that speak to the scars of late-capitalism — banks, hotels, industrial parks, etc. Here, Undine is a historian of urban developments at a Berlin museum, giving guided tours of scale models representing different periods of German history. At one point, directing a group toward a model of a divided Berlin just before the Wall fell, she says that it “represents an idealized self before its collapse.” While the dialectic between these history lessons and the film’s romanticism is sometimes opaque, Undine seems to represent both an idealized romantic relationship and its inevitable, even violent, collapse. Regardless, it’s a dizzyingly romantic film; Beer and Rogowski have an electric chemistry beneath the otherwise calm veneer of Petzold’s precise compositions, a playful physicality that pulsates with raw emotion. Ultimately, Undine fully embraces its mythic origins, eventually making literal what was before merely suggested. Love and loss are part of the same cycle, and like history, one must move on and build something new out of the ashes of the old. Daniel Gorman
Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the Los Angeles area of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: It’s about California in the early twentieth century. Magnolia moved the timeline into the ’90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love in it, at least for now.
And it’s also about that boy (Cooper Hoffman) and girl (Alana Haim) growing up, about how they’re always moving through their world — often laterally, tracked by long camera movements. Sometimes they walk, more often they run. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have run on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the ’70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. The kids meet a vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allowed to discuss openly. Theirs is a world where all the cultural norms are completely wrong: a world where men are either debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man can only go so far in his political career without hiding who he really is and who he really loves.
A coming of age film set in such a world ultimately becomes a story of integration, and thus a tragedy. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds or pinball machines or making campaign commercials, whatever the hot new fad is. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything. But most of all he believes in Alana. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it. He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, Anderson lets us live for a while in that space right before our innocent heroes become corrupted. The movie ends while there’s still hope. Sean Gilman