by InRO Staff Featured Film Year in Review

Top Films of 2021 — 20-16

December 28, 2021

InRO‘s Best Films of 2021 train keeps chugging, today checking in with #16-20. All films, even if we previously covered them, have been revisited with new words and new writers. Check back tomorrow for #11-15, and keep up with our full Best Films coverage (including our Honorable Mentions) all week long.

Credit: Amazon Studios

20. Annette

Right after a brief voiceover intro that immediately breaks the fourth wall, Leos Carax’s Annette cuts into the opening — or more appropriately, the overture — where we see the French director himself (alongside his real daughter, Nastya) in the control booth of a recording studio while Ron & Russell Mael (famously known as the duo, Sparks) prepare to begin playing a song. As this overture grows into the ebullience of “So May We Start”, the recording crew jaunts outside the studio into streets of a neo-noirish L.A. (depicted both tangibly and abstractly, beautifully dreamy and nightmarishly dark) where they’re quickly joined by the film’s main troupe of actors. It’s here made clear that the film to follow will not only be an ecstatically bizarre one, but a deconstructive one, and so, from this very beginning, Annette shapes itself as a peculiar meta- or even counter-musical which can be regarded as personal and auto-reflective for both Carax and the Maels: for the French maverick cineaste, who also lost his actress partner Yekaterina Golubeva a decade back, it’s something of a long-held dream project that he desired to make in the U.S., while for the influential cult pop/rock group, it represents the duo’s opportunity to at last compose a soundtrack for a movie, their Jacques Tati collaboration left forever undone.

Indeed, establishing genuine originality in this team-up is fundamentally essential, as Annette is a pop-rock opera that also deals with the primordial ideas of artistic creativity, grand questions of creation, and later — as the plot revolving around the cursed relationship of Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry (a misanthropic standup comedian) and Marion Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux (an introverted, self-denying opera soprano who dies for her audiences) unfolds — (self-)destruction. The improbable relationship of Henry and Ann gives birth to a strangely miraculous marionette-like child (who gives the film its title). And indeed, it’s not hard to see how Annette (the film) is born from the marriage of kitschy pop and prestigious high art, from the copulation of comedy and tragedy, emerging from classic and new(er) filmic origins: Annette, whether through explicit reference or a series of implicit tributes, lands somewhere within a lineage of Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals (i.e., Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon) melded with the likes of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Japanese ghost folklore like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, and even Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, Ken Russell’s Tommy, and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (not to mention the conceptual inspiration shared with the works of the Italian futurist director Marco Ferreri).

But the imaginative powers of Annette indeed lie beyond these mere nods or symbolic allusions — merging notions of Darwinism (Henry is dubbed the “Ape of God” and is often chewing bananas) and evangelism (Ann, an Eve-like figure, biting apples) bestow the film a puckish quality. In fact, the absence of a taut narrative affords Carax enormous cinematic liberation, and with the help of Sparks’ compositions, the director leverages this freedom to depict outbursts of energy, magic, and mystery. It can be understood that Carax does not care much about the concrete interiority of his characters here, but he does something even more challenging in delineating both their physicality and abstract emotionality, most clearly achieved through the creation of spaces and even mise-en-scene that play with notions of objectivity and subjectivity, as if each scene were played out on an autonomous stage (an extension of what’s visually and lyrically established in “So May We Start”).

Highly dynamic and continuously mutating, Annette is a madcap, shapeshifting experience wherein the caressing hands of Henry in “We Love Each Other So Much” can soon turn into threatening, jealous weapons during the film’s boat scene, or near the end, a stadium sequence somewhat mirroring the initial studio-set opening, with Driver looking ever more like Carax. But for how assertive and assured Carax’s previous films have been, Annette still surprises as a statement on the need for innocence and authenticity in art, without ever trading in mere shock or intellectual perplexation. Carax seems to argue that, as is best for the strange child born in Annette — and despite the obvious vein of influence that feeds his latest film — art too needs space to express and evolve outside the suffocating effect of “legacy.” In this sense, Annette is a film with a child’s curiosity in its eyes, defiantly looking toward the future. Ayeen Forootan

Credit: Oslo Pictures

19. The Worst Person in the World

Of all the new phrases to emerge into the online vernacular, one of the most useful has to be “main character syndrome.” Describing the phenomenon of behaving as though one were not just the main character of their own life, but of everybody else’s too, the phrase implies a level of disdain for those who romanticize or narrativize their own lives. Condemning the instinct for storytelling as something only the self-absorbed and entitled would do, main character syndrome is joyfully flipped in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, forgiving the myopic narcissism in favor of embracing the universal, genuine, human experience of not only being your own main character, but also your own main villain, antihero, love interest, and side character. Julie, played by Renate Reinsve, is in her twenties, largely aimless and on the tail-end of several faded obsessions. Having fallen into a relationship with comic writer Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), Julie is confronted with the reality of her situation, as her desires collide with Aksel’s and her flighty nature catches up to and untethers her. As Julie sifts through the mess of Trier’s prologue, she encounters Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) — unlike her previous lovers, who all seem to represent something glamorous and new that Julie desires, Eivind instead reflects her back at herself. They quickly build an intimacy so intense, bolstered by the romance of coincidences, that Julie is pushed to write a whole new story for herself and, in doing so, perhaps finally take control over her life.

In InRO’s initial review of the film, staff writer Daniel Gorman wrote of the parallels between Trier’s film and the work of Joan Didion, citing the essay “Goodbye To All That”; when I watched The Worst Person In The World, I too was reminded of Didion, and the idea she famously expressed so concisely that it almost now feels like cliché: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Julie is surrounded by conventional stories — in her own and her boyfriend Aksel’s writing, in the bookstore she works at, even in the very form of the movie she inhabits (twelve chapters and an epilogue) — and even though her story is an erratic one, the deliberate imposition of narrative is what allows her (and the viewer) to make sense of the chaos, and to tease some meaning out of Julie’s wilderness years. Trier’s magical-realist flourishes, which are perhaps the only element of the movie that feel occasionally misguided, nonetheless bring a certain theatricality to the proceedings that work to emphasize Julie’s writing and rewriting of her own story, and Reinsve’s captivating performance glides across Trier’s smorgasbord of genres with ease. Equally flawless work from Danielsen Lie complements Reinsve perfectly, contributing a sense of melancholy as to balance Julie’s own turmoil, and delivering some of the most genuinely heartbreaking scenes of 2021 with quiet ease. When Julie’s story does reach its “conclusion,” it’s almost certainly not an ending; in many ways, it’s rather a beginning. Instead of being dictated by something as insignificant as the “outside world,” Julie’s story concludes when she decides, when her identity is finally stable and within her control. Undefined by men, love, motherhood, ambition, or any other such external determinants, Trier and Reinsve have here crafted not only what may be the definitive portrait of millennial womanhood, but also a love letter to storytelling itself, one that resonates equally within the artifice of the medium and through the veracity of emotions it incitesMolly Adams

Credit: Heidi Hartwig

18. The Card Counter

In a time of corporate sameness – in which films operate based on formula that are formally and structurally identical and guaranteed to deliver to audiences’ narrative and beats which satisfy expectations encouraged and habituated through cultural saturation – comes Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, a film that will feel quite familiar to those acquainted with entries in its auteur’s filmography of the last decade. Much like directors as varied as Pedro Costa and Hong Sang-soo, Paul Schrader’s approach harkens back to past masters such as Ozu, Bergman and Bresson, known — in the manner of his contemporaries — for variations on form and theme that mine and reprise repetition in a manner some have considered similar to contemporary filmmaking practice. While perhaps superficially justified, this utilization of similarity is better read as wholly distinct in deployment and purpose. Schrader’s transcendental style, as he refers to it, functions in what might be termed an “unnarcotizing” fashion, wherein repetition and the ruptures it contains and emphasizes challenges rather than placates or sedates; images underline and bring to bear concept and idea through cinematographic patience and inter-filmic reference. Much like the filmmaker’s celebrated First Reformed, The Card Counter showcases an auteur thinking with and through film history so as to underscore parallels and breed deviation in terms of a fracture of the known.

In this 2021 work, we are introduced to and guided through the precision of tortured living, in body and soul — each present as the reified and rareified relation of calculation and chance that occupy the gambling protagonist and Abu Ghraib torturer, William Tell (Oscar Isaac). Schrader’s study of this correlation is immaculately crafted and deeply politicized, as he excavates and excoriates the reliance on the blind and the bluff as intrinsic and peculiar to a distinctively American cruelty only legible — and even then, barely so — in blowback. While this writer knows little of gambling, the notions of concealment and estimation inherent in poker and blackjack enumerate all that is wagered in the “all in” of committing oneself to a trajectory of national and personal violence that cost everything for the perpetrator, and all the more for victim. In this way, The Card Counter elucidates the fallout of a world in which many gave everything to a nation with their own lives serving as chips, and found the winnings to be blood on palms and scars on hearts. The film’s world is one in which vapid celebrations of American exceptionalism underscore and describe behaviors of individual and systemic vengeance and self-barbarization, while monied parties offer less than what’s wagered to those who played their hand. If The Card Counter could be said to be less existential than First Reformed, it is the precision of its images and their elisions that underwrite in similarity and variation the gaping wound of a post-9/11 rabidness that seethes in the hearts of the many who wrestle with a barren, imprisoning existence; one that seeks connection beyond the memory of the screams extracted from the permanently traumatized or dead for secrets that meant nothingMatt McCracken

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

17. The French Dispatch

On its surface an ode to disappearing print journalism and the power of a good editor, The French Dispatch finds Wes Anderson using non-cinematic art forms to enrich and energize his cinema after a seven year stretch without a live action feature. The film’s literary aspirations are obvious, but throughout Anderson finds ways to incorporate theater, the comic strip, and even culinary arts into his filmmaking to somehow top the astonishing stylistic ambitions of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The narrative machinations of the anthology are necessarily slighter, but it is anything but minor. Indeed, Dispatch finds Anderson at his most political, expansive, and adventurous: every frame is as meticulous as ever, even as they break new thematic ground. It might not be his best film, but to instead call it the most Wes Anderson movie shouldn’t be a cudgel but a cause for celebration.

Each section — styled like a long piece in a New Yorker–style magazine — is stuffed with activity, constantly changing aspect ratios and color, which keep the pace fleet even as Anderson makes each successive moment denser than the last and continually surprising. The first major portion, in which Benicio Del Toro’s imprisoned artist has a love affair with his prison guard muse (Lea Seydoux) is as erotic as it is hilarious. The final stretch, where a career-best Jeffrey Wright plays a black American expatriate in Paris (okay, he’s playing James Baldwin), combines food criticism with a police caper comedy and dazzles with trips into hand drawn animation. Even the film’s relatively weakest portion, which imagines the student protests of May ’68 as a series of chess matches between Timothée Chalamet and the government — accusations of Anderson burying politics under twee affectation are not totally off base — is filled with touches, like a brief stage play aside, that stick in the mind. Amid all this are some of the best actors of this generation in marginal roles, making the film an obituary not just for print media but also for ensemble comedies filled with movie stars.

The final section’s postscript, in which Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts to Bill Murray’s Arthur Howitzer Jr., his editor, how he cut a private aside he had with Stephen Park’s Nescaffier only for Howitzer to insist upon its inclusion, is among Anderson’s finest moments: It’s both a reflexive nod to the filmmaker’s own complicated role as an artist that expands outward to consider melancholies normally outside his purview and a riposte to years of lazily repeated criticism that the director’s films are “too white.” Like so much in The French Dispatch — the theatrical stagecraft, the extended Hergé style animated sequence — this exchange feels like a new step forward. After 25 years of increasingly ornate stylization, the director refuses to stagnate: each new film adds new formal and thematic wrinkles while remaining immediately recognizable to the layman in a way few artists this century can even dream of achieving. Chris Mello

Credit: TIFF

16. The Disciple

The burden of tradition makes itself felt throughout Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature, The Disciple. The story template is familiar: that of a striving artist — a young Indian classical musician, Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) — haunted by the prospect of turning into his bitter failure of a father. But Tamhane’s meticulous, measured direction keeps our sense of the character and his own self-awareness ever out of sync. The film’s visual style — extreme wide-angle long shots and slow, near-imperceptible push-ins — gives every scene a certain autonomy, while maintaining a cool distance from the characters. Likewise, Tamhane finds a number of ways to unsettle what would otherwise be a too-neat trajectory, continually preventing us from uniting our expectations for Sharad’s life with his own outlook on it. After the film’s most (deliberately) generic scene — a quasi-dream sequence in which his greatest fears are voiced aloud — these perspectives come apart altogether.

If we previously felt we had a grasp on Sharad as a character (allowing for comedy), that impression becomes untenable, and he becomes progressively more inscrutable (allowing for tragedy). But it’s only during a very late, boldly placed flashback, to a music critic essentially shattering Sharad’s youthful illusions, that this becomes fully evident. Placed where it is, the scene brings into question all our previous judgments of Sharad, making it difficult to distinguish between a life of passive inertia and hard-won belief. For the viewer, any future interpretations of his actions can now be only tentative; it becomes impossible to regard him with comic or ironic detachment any longer. When the film leaps forward one final time, we find Sharad now married and a father, having abandoned his musical career to launch a company devoted to promoting North Indian classical music. It would be too simple, though, to take this conclusion as merely ironic. For us to distinguish despair from peace, resignation from quiet contentment, would be to make a judgment — one that no longer seems to have a place in the film. So while The Disciple starts out as a seemingly easy story about the futility of creative pursuit, it ends closer to the territory of John Williams’ Stoner, approximated by cinema’s naturally externalized viewpoint. Lawrence Garcia