Despite the unfortunate sense of déjà vu as another long pandemic year draws to a close, 2021 has offered plenty of cinematic respites from the outside world. Many delayed 2020 films and new releases have provided an escape route from Marvel / Disney hegemony on the big screen. While many masters of form came up with new projects that were as wonderful as you’d expect, there was also an exhilarating groundswell of documentaries that expanded old notions of what a non-fiction film should be. This year’s Top 10 celebrates directors who explored new spaces and didn’t just recycle old intellectual property.
10. “The Green Knight”
While some quibbled over his loose take on the Sir Gawain mythos, give credit to a director who takes a big bang and actually hooks up. Even if the movie doesn’t go into all of the pieces, at least David Lowery’s vibrant and atmospheric 14th-century tale never reminds you of a group brainstorming meeting. Lowery knows all the ingredients he needs to be successful: the dashing knight of Dev Patel facing off against a very sick-looking royalty, psycho-sexual tensions with Alicia Vikander, a frightening woodland creature voiced by Ralph Ineson, and a cunning fox.
9. “Małni – To the ocean, to the shore”
This debut feature documentary by artist and filmmaker Ho-Chunk Sky Hopinka, who has directed a remarkable series of short films exploring indigenous life, centers on two Chinook peoples, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier. They fondly talk about their lives in a lush Pacific Northwest setting, with ocean waves mingling with lush green forests. Via an associative montage carried by a subtle narration through lines, “Małni” alternates between breathtaking sequences of natural beauty and intimate and unglamorous shots. Hopinka, who did the filming, sound work and editing, as well as the narration, generates a rich visual poetry that perfectly blends the deep lines of his subjects: “We will meet somewhere between now and nowhere.
8. “The Voyeurs”
Finally, we got a new movie in a naughty Hitchcock vein. More than her acclaimed HBO television roles, this film best exploits the busty helplessness that has become Sydney Sweeney’s hallmark. “The Voyeurs” shows how the supposed love of his life just becomes less interesting than watching sexy people having sex in the apartment across the street. This film highlights what real voyeurs already know: Even when your whole life has been spent and your binocular lens shatters in a highly symbolic way, you still have to look through them. Obsession never sleeps.
7. “Faya Dayi”
This documentary is a breathtaking collective portrait of a rural Ethiopian community whose life is centered around the culture of khat, a culture of exhilarating cash. Jessica Beshir’s narcotic debut feature promises incredible filmography to come. It depicts the very laborious process of bringing khat from the field to the market in haunting sequences of call and response songs of birds and humans mixed together under the scorching sun. It systematically punctuates the striking black and white photography with a few simply virtuoso shots, as when we see the eye of God emerging from a whirlwind of smoke. The overlapping portraits gradually turn into socio-political commentaries on the struggles of people who chew little other than khat in their lives. Meditating on the long and dangerous journey to Europe, one reaper whispers to another: “We should not have to perish in deserts and seas to change our lives.
6. “The French dispatch”
While the appearance of a Wes Anderson movie is always a happy occasion, the subject of it was quite on the nose – a story that captures the creation of an issue of a new-type weekly. Yorker. But Anderson responds to the limits of print media with his most outrageous display of wall-to-wall pictorial play. Watch “The French Dispatch” closely to capture all the jokes, not only in the dialogue but also in the edit. The film also features one of the maestro’s finest directorial films when Tony Revolori, the actor playing the role of a painter in his youth, hands over the artist’s identification string to Benicio del Toro, who takes over the role. All transitions should be this rich, instead of a crossfade. Adopt filmmakers like Anderson who, with every new movie, do a thing or two that you’ve never seen before.
Director Rodrigo Reyes executes an exceptional concept in this documentary. At the dawn of the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, he has an actor in the costume of a conquistador retrace the steps of Hernán Cortés’ men from the bridgehead to the capital. Along the way, he meets the current victims of the country’s relentless cycles of violence. The conquistador (who looks like the haggard protagonist of Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama”) testifies with us to a powerfully varied cast of interviewees. And the trip from the shores of Veracruz to Tenochtitlan is surely one of the most beautiful in the world. We see why the Spaniards constantly referred to this land as Eden, and how Reyes captures modern-day Mexico with an invigorating effect.