The best films of 2021 — part five

I like the bookends: a director who flexes his ambitions with the ease of breathing and a film committed to to capturing the vaporousness of social media. I loved 2021!

4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy/Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

On a streak that rivals Hong Sang-soo and the late Manuel de Oliveira for excellence untainted by profligacy, Ryusuke Hamaguchi released a pair of two-hour-plus films whose ambitions he realizes with curiosity about their literary antecedents, affection for the often maddening subterfuges men and women employ, and a cinematographic approach that eschews the usual distances. I prefer Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy to Drive My Car because there’s a formalist pleasure to watching its complex parts snap into place, but I understand why the latter wowed colleagues besides recency: the tension between the shutters-closed-tight world of Murakami and Chekhov’s variegated tints of angst resulted in an adaptation sufficiently autonomous from its sources.

3. The Souvenir Part II (dir. Joanna Hogg)

“Late into The Souvenir Part II, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) emerges as the confident filmmaker we have wanted to see….Hogg’s sequel is a rarity: like Jan Troell’s 1972 The New Land, it adds shades and new dimensions to existing characters. Viewers with misgivings about Hogg’s cool acceptance of Julie’s upper middle-class background will watch a movie open about the degree to which financial security insulates Julie from disaster; it also, as a cinematic¬†Bildungsroman, shows the development of a female director who will have trouble finding an audience sympathetic to her particular approach.”

2. Summer of Soul (dir. Questlove)

“Interspersing this concert footage with talking head testimony from attendees, Summer of Soul documents an epoch in pop culture when despair over the hardening of racial lines had not quashed a belief in the completeness with which music could fill souls. ‘The goal of the festival may have been to keep Black people from burning the city in 1969,’ we learn, and brows may furrow at the appearance of Mayor John Lindsay, one of the last examples of the extinct subspecies known as the liberal Republican; but far from looking uptight Lindsay’s body language is loose, his smile warm. This wasn’t mass intoxication — it was mass indoctrination: art and religion and politics forming a tripartite pact.”

1. Zola (dir. Janicza Bravo)

“Glimmering and insouciant, Zola is one of the best black comedies of recent years. More importantly, it’s the only film I’ve seen that understands the ephemeral intensity of the bonds formed by social media. A new best friend will turn into the most essential person in your life…then turn expendable….”

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