Halfway through our Top 25 Films of 2021 countdown, today with an eclectic crop of films that placed #11–15 in our writer’s poll. All films, even if we previously covered them, have been revisited with new words and new writers. Check back tomorrow for #10-6, and keep up with our full Best Films coverage (including our Honorable Mentions) all week long.
15. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
When the long-rumored director’s cut of Zack Snyder’s aborted 2017 feature Justice League emerged on HBO Max this March, it was, upon release, among the most improbable blockbusters in recent memory. The movie’s journey from rumored laptop file to TV screens, and the heated discussions about ethics in fandom that surrounded its release, are themselves events worthy of a movie, and Justice League (2021) stood out in a recent past characterized by its dearth of maximalist blockbusters. Arriving as if out-of-time, oblivious to this ambient noise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a logical counterweight to the director’s previous full-length feature, 2016’s delirious Batman v. Superman, presenting heroes united in common cause instead of divided against themselves. The haunted, fascist Batman who emerged from the events of Batman v. Superman exorcised here becomes our globalist protagonist, making it his life’s mission to create this Justice League which will protect Earth from further extra-terrestrial incursions. This pursuit, which animates the early chapters in Zack Snyder’s Justice League subsumes and further purifies Batman, who appears seemingly absolved in the movie’s final scenes. To the extent that Snyder himself can be read onto the Batman of this film — as many viewers did with the Batman of Batman v. Superman — the parallel narrative of Snyder’s struggle to create his ultimate version of Justice League is an undeniably legible throughline of the film. The results speak for themselves; the Justice League emerges victorious, Earth is (momentarily) saved, and a director’s cut of a three-and-a-half-year-old movie is one of the signature new film releases of our ongoing Covid era.
Despite being comprised of footage which largely pre-dates the much-ballyhooed “Snyder Cut” era, the narrative engine of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) — grief over the loss of Superman, and the complicated relationships the members of the Justice League have with their respective parents — has nonetheless been deepened by the tragic loss of Snyder’s daughter Autumn, which motivated Snyder’s initial departure from the film in 2017. The circumstances are eerily reminiscent of those which surrounded Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s 2016 album Skeleton Tree, another work unintentionally colored by the loss of a child, whose penultimate track “Distant Sky” is excavated here in a needle drop of un-paralleled synchronicity, an immediate highlight in a filmography characterized by bold soundtrack selections. The film’s four-hour runtime features no shortage of similarly self-aware, unbound moments, awash in homage to sword-and-sandal epics and video games alike, and generously proportioning moments for our heroes to attack and defend gracefully and viscerally; this is certainly Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Other allegations regarding the Joss Whedon-directed re-shoots of Justice League (2017) merit acknowledgment, but this Justice League exists apart from these current events and even the recent past, a glimpse at an alternate future never realized. Whatever the probability of continuing further into this Snyder-verse may be, the existence of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on its own terms is a myth fulfilled; a maximalist, personal work, fittingly dedicated to Autumn in its closing moments and confirming itself as a monumental labor of love. Mike Doub
14. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)
To talk about C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is to talk about its basic qualities: The film is eight hours long — as if to resemble the average work day — and is derived from 27 weeks’ worth of shooting taken across 14 months, depicting a village of 47 people in Japan over five seasons, briskly paced for something this gargantuan, with the average shot said to last roughly 18 seconds. And over the film’s runtime, it maintains a steady, metronomic rhythm, observing the life of Tayoko Shiojiri as she tills the surrounding land and tends to her ailing husband Junji. Near the film’s end, during his funeral, we hear: “Junji’s life was about jazz and drinks,” as if to provide a neat summation of his existence. And similarly elemental descriptions could be said of anyone when they die. But the reality is that life cannot be fully represented through any medium, and so The Works and Days honors such impossibility through an approach to filmmaking that doubles as an avant-garde treatise.
Of course, to represent “life” is a slippery ordeal, because it never exists as an isolated person or event. Winter and Edström understand that, so they create — in their lived-in filmmaking process — a work that isn’t exactly the community portrait in the manner of, say, Frederick Wiseman or Noriaki Tsuchimoto; the numerous, patient depictions of personless locales disrupt that notion. Moreover, extended passages of people musing on life never allow the trees or fields to take as immense a hold as they would in a typical landscape film. Death is seen as both undramatic conclusion and the culmination of histories, and everything is partly understood via stories and conversations, the people and spirit of a space, the way light hits and transforms a hill, the moods and memories that define beauties and regrets, the labor inherent to survival and how it stretches back countless generations. There are passages that decouple image from sound, as if to reset our methods of hearing and looking, to encourage audiences from settling into the delusion of comprehension. The Works and Days’ greatest feat, then, is in bringing us closer to understanding nothing less than life — both in the micro of what’s actually depicted, and in the macro of existence writ large — through an instructive embrace of unknowability. Joshua Minsoo Kim
13. Can’t Get You Out of My Head
“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
Emblazoned on trademark, stark title card, these words from late activist David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules bookend Adam Curtis’ massive 2021 essay film Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. A sweeping eight-hour nonfiction epic split into six chapters, Graeber’s quote is a surprisingly neat summation of Can’t Get You Out of My Head (and, arguably, Curtis’ whole body of work), courtesy of a filmmaker who has danced around such explicitness in the past. But these are severe times, and Curtis, more popular now than he’s ever been in his 40+ year career, has found his work (particularly 2016’s Hypernormalisation) scrutinized to a fanatical degree recently, so much so that it might be more shocking were this latest not fashioned as a culminating work.
Tracing out a narrative that runs through significant swaths of the 20th century and deep into the 21st (concluding somewhere around Joe Biden’s inauguration, one month prior to the film’s release), Can’t Get You Out of My Head tackles a near impossible question with a grand, convincing story that wrangles unruly history and transforms it into something not just digestible, but actively invigorating. Beginning from the broad, ubiquitous observation that contemporary culture is more politically divided than ever, Curtis then invites us to interrogate what that actually means and whether or not this phenomenon is passive or, to some extent, intentional. In search of these pressing answers, we’re introduced to major historical players like Gang of Four mastermind Jiang Qing, Illuminati conspiracy originator/prankster Kerry Thornley, activist/grifter Michael X, pharma villain Arthur M. Sackler, Afeni and Tupac Shakur, and so many more, their stories strung out across these six chapters in novelistic fashion, with some asserting themselves as “main characters” and others providing illustrative tangent.
The resulting tapestry is impressive not just in scale, but in its elegant construction, with Curtis’ editing as skillful as ever, able to move between personalities and time periods without losing sight of his thesis or broader continuity (plus some expectedly iconic music/image juxtapositions, like Johnny Boy over Taliban training footage). Of course, these same tools and narrativization devices often form the basis of the arguments against these films (contextually tasteless, too much editorializing, etc.), but Can’t Get You Out of My Head answers its critics directly, recasting Curtis as “storyteller” as opposed to “documentarian” or “journalist,” his monologues more personalized and upfront about their subjectivity than in projects previous. Maybe a slight overcorrection for a filmmaker whose work was already plenty legible, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is, nevertheless, better for it, and Curtis’ most moving work to date, empowering in a way totally absent from the otherwise contemporary. It’s not just one of the best films of 2021, but perhaps the only film with a wholly credible understanding of the present, and an actual vision for the future. M.G. Mailloux
Oft-explained as an homage to the mechanical body horror of David Cronenberg, Julia Ducournau‘s surprise Palme d’Or winning follow-up to Raw is too often defined by its wildfire reputation. Where Raw showed how fine the line between woman and animal was, Titane charts the kinetic exploration of masculinity’s performative nature, swirling in the gray space between man and machine. Ecstasy is at its heart, whether in the inky fluid that leaks from a round of hands on a hard (hot?) body, or in the machinations of men allowing themselves the reprieve of dancing, just for one night. Sex, violence, violent car sex — we’ve seen that before, so what’s new here?
While the introduction to our year in review may have, like many, referred to it as the “Frenchwoman fucks a car!” movie, what’s far more interesting is the loosening traditional structure of family. The relationship between Vincent Lindon’s father and our protagonist is one of surrogate fatherhood, sure, but it is also a second chance. A photo of Vincent’s missing son in a dress is a realization that Agathe Rousselle’s androgynous runaway hardly needs to hide an ever-expanding belly. Fatherly love isn’t conditional on blood, but on guilt — guilt at not having done his last child right. Rousselle is stellar in and out of disguise, playing to both the physicality and ensuing steely vengeance of alienated erotic dancer Alexia, as well as undercover, stoic, guarded Adrien. Androgyny is less a tool for literalism, existing here to construct a binary of how violence is received in gendered constructs; though the mechanizations of the pregnant body are taken literally, its symptoms melding with those of a malfunctioning machine. In a way, Titane can hardly be termed a transgressive film, given that its gritty, grotesque body horror (which some less accustomed audiences claim made them faint) functions more potently as a twisted realism, and this precisely because the body is not a genre trick for scares, but a fact of life. Sarah Williams
11. Her Socialist Smile
Helen Keller is one of those historical figures whose legacy has been so white-washed by history that it has become a kind of cornerstone, warm-and-fuzzy American “triumph over adversity” mythology while bearing little resemblance to who Keller actually was, personally and ideologically. While it’s true that Keller was indeed deaf and blind, and that she learned to read and write via the efforts of her caretaker Anne Sullivan — a story every American school child is familiar with, and which has been ingrained in the popular culture at large thanks in no small part to the play The Miracle Worker and its subsequent film adaptations (most notably its 1962 iteration, which won stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively) — Keller’s legacy reflects so much more than her sensory deprivations. Indeed, those extra-inspirational elements are the very legacy John Gianvito‘s riveting documentary, Her Socialist Smile, seeks to reclaim.
Keller was deeply involved in radical left-wing politics throughout her life, aided in no small part by Sullivan, often acting as her companion and interpreter. A member of the American Socialist Party, Keller was a leading figure in the American left in the early days of the 20th century, speaking publicly for the first time in 1913 and fighting alongside prominent leftist figures like Eugene Debs for a popular socialist movement in the United States. It was Keller’s own disability that awakened the upper-class woman to the struggles of the marginalized, and informed her activism throughout her life, a causality which Gianvito explores via her own words. And while the documentary is narrated by poet Carolyn Forché, Gianvito often exhibits Keller’s own words silently as white text upon a black background, forcing the audience to hear them just as she would have. As there is no film footage of Keller’s speeches, Gianvito is forced to rely on a collage of photography that depicts Keller’s surroundings in order to piece together the essence of her life, for which her words provide the glue. The effect is spellbinding, a truly radical documentary about a radical figure whose authentic legacy has been sanitized into an American bootstrap mythos that undercuts the spirit of its subject’s work on behalf of the marginalized, work that made her more than a few powerful enemies during her lifetime. It’s an injustice of breathtaking proportions that her voice has been stolen from her once again by the pages of history, but Her Socialist Smile boldly reclaims her legacy so that when we finally do hear her actual voice, the effect is galvanizing. Her Socialist Smile is nothing less than the year’s finest documentary, and Keller’s true life’s work has never felt more urgent or more essential than it does now. Mattie Lucas