My Top 20 Film Discoveries of 2021!

Another year, another new crop of cinematic discoveries! Now five years into sharing MMC!’s annual list of favourite first-time watches, it’s interesting how each year manages to bring forward its own character. Our inaugural list in 2017 boasted far-flung films with audacious choices while the 2018 selection seemed to specialize in pervading fashions of low-key dread. MMC! pivoted toward dense and daring cinema in 2019 and 2020 seemed to retreat into Japanese cinema and experimentalism. This year offers something of a return to more classical narrative forms in its globe-hopping. Egyptian master Youssef Chahine joins Yasuzo Masumura, Ulrike Ottinger, and Toshio Matsumoto as an MMC! discoveries list double-entrant, and this list sees returns by Frank Perry, Frederick Wiseman, and Yuzo Kawashima. In keeping with our capricious standards, this list treats Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Dekalog as single entries, yet chooses to include only one part of The Marseilles Trilogy and Chahine’s “Alexandria Trilogy.” What can we say? It’s our list and we choose the rules.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

“Such an exceptional film. Murnau is in full command of the silent form here, pushing it in cleverly imaginative ways – novel framings, sloped sets, superimpositions, collages, miniatures, unusual title cards, and always those silent film close-ups. And the film hops tones and genres with alacrity, swaying from tragedy to comedy and back again, dabbling in dance and slapstick and adventure along the way. An improbable culmination of the silent era that arguably shouldn’t work, yet is a masterpiece.”

FannyFanny (Marc Allégret, 1932)

“This worked much better for me than Marius. Perhaps it was the lesser presence of the childish Marius or the less stagey look of the film. More likely, it was the inflated personalities and rapid-fire pontificating of these Marseillais, the use of the city and its geography, and the general goodwill and self-sacrifice of the characters. I can understand anyone who feels that the film’s overblown melodrama is too much but, for me, the heightened pitch elevated the material and made for a more emotionally engaged experience. Chew that scenery but leave enough left for César!”

The Best Years of Our LivesThe Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

“Homer remarks ‘I have my elbows; I’m lucky’ and I’m lost. Milly wonders at ‘how easy’ they had it and I’m lost. Fred sits in a junked dome gunner, his dad’s voice quivers as he reads a citation, and Gregg Toland’s deep focus finds me spying watchers and lost souls on the film’s periphery and I’m lost. The Best Years of Our Lives is stunning in how honestly melodramatic and how frankly realistic it treats the plight of returned servicemen and of those around them, all facing a seismic cultural shift with head down perseverance and some jaundiced idealism. The fact that 1946 embraced this film as it did is stunning.”

A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)

“A swooning vision of mad love. Clift is hypnotic playing a human-shaped knot of anxieties desperate for love and acceptance and finding his true love a few months too late. Taylor is improbably magnetic as Miss Right, while Winters is gratingly sympathetic as Miss Right-Now. A Place in the Sun delivers its verdict on a karmic scale, in thought and heart if not in act, and with the game board tilted decidedly in fate’s favour. Wish too long and you just might get what you wanted, even if you changed your mind. This film verges on being a revelation.”

The Human ConditionThe Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959)

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love – “Kobayashi’s anti-war epic begins. Bleak, dwarfing landscapes play impassive, sometimes pathetic witness to one humanist’s efforts to bring compassion and respect to a brutal Manchurian mining facility and a collection of POWs enlisted into the labour camp. Nakadai and his doe-like eyes, gazing shocked and appalled, hold down the fort, struggling to navigate the chauvinism and cruelty of the Japanese war effort. And still, there remains another six hours grind Nakadai further under Japan’s wartime boot.”

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity – “Kaji’s faith in humanity and his belief in compassion is put to the test as he is conscripted into the military marked as a communist. The result is a brutal parade of barking shouts, windmilling slaps, and sneering masculinity. Kobayashi’s camerawork remains impressive here, always ready to find sweeping horizons and Nakadai’s big, emotive eyes. The final battle is stunning and leaves the film questioning how much of anything really matters, generosity or punishment, in the face of an advancing tank and a scant supply of bullets. Now for the long march home.”

The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer – “Kaji marches toward his wife and home and the world under him tilts, taking him through swamps and forests, farms and settlements, battalions and POW camps. Kobayashi’s Odyssey moves Kaji farther from himself and closer to his essence as the demands of survival hollows him. Repeatedly stripped of his faith in humanity and leaving him with only a singular, devoted love to march toward, The Human Condition reaches ever more desperate ends and cements its place as cinema’s anti-war epic.”

Black GravelBlack Gravel (Helmut Käutner, 1961)

Black Gravel should be a classic of global noir, a biting, West German exploration of American economic imperialism and military enforcement, of black market double-dealing, and of old romances and older prejudices emerging out of the past. The film is cleverly shot and lit, full of over-determined frames and building paranoia. Fate intervenes again and again in Black Gravel, layering misunderstandings against desperate reactions, leaving its characters dangerously returning to incriminating sites of old loves and recent crimes. It’s hard to remember a bleaker ending than the one offered here.”

A Geisha's DiaryA Geisha’s Diary (Yuzo Kawashima, 1961)

“The always stunning Ayako Wakao plays a geisha drifting from benefactor to potential benefactor, constantly casting her lines for opportunities and finding mixed fortunes. Her manipulations are low-key but obvious, and her relationships, set against a subtly portrayed change of seasons, remain impermanent. Kawashima’s direction is mathematically precise, cleverly shot, and deceptively impassive, remaining somewhat at arm’s length from Wakao’s Koen despite her central role. Some pointed moments of diegetic sound and the unnerving appearance of a foreboding musical motif describe the subtle sophistication involved in Kawashima’s portrait of a woman making the most of limited options. High marks to that bluntly abrupt and silently loaded ending. A slyly understated near-masterpiece.”

The Merry World of Leopold Z (Gilles Carle, 1965)

“A snowplow driver juggles the demands of work and home on Christmas Eve in this thoroughly charming film. Beautifully shot, cleverly assembled, and a wonderful document of wintry Montreal, the film makes sly fun out of economic struggles, commercial demands, and the battle of the sexes, though never relinquishing its easy charisma. Add The Merry World of Leopold Z to my Christmas canon!”

The Night of Counting the Years (Shadi Abdel Salam, 1969)

“A disquieting, dreamlike exploration of history both recent and ancient. Abdel Salam’s direction is magnificently composed, beautifully and arrestingly portraying the real life trade in Egyptian antiquities with conspicuously theatrical stagings. In the process, the film explores the obligation owed by the present to respect and preserve the past, particularly when pasts compete with each other for the loyalty of the present, between those who would preserve history and those who would follow a more recent tradition of selling it. A mesmerizing classic.”

Diary of a Mad HousewifeDiary of a Mad Housewife (Frank Perry, 1970)

“A stunning, caustic, hilarious, and maddening profile of a housewife enduring the abuse and gaslighting of her fastidious, social-climbing husband and her aggressively arm’s length lover. Carrie Snodgress’ performance is captivating, consistently walking a line of being more clever than her outward placating appearance describes yet not outright certain or assured with her instincts. Richard Benjamin is perfectly punchable as the immaturely avaricious husband while Frank Langella’s lover exudes a compelling negative charisma that hides the truth that he is little better. Perry’s closing credits sequence is absolutely stunning, confronting the audience’s likely perceptions of our mad housewife with off-putting explicitness. The expression ‘roll in the hay’ may forever make my skin crawl.”

The Land (Youssef Chahine, 1970)

“Having already been thunderstruck by Chahine’s Cairo Station, my expectations for The Land were managed, not expecting it to actually live up to its stellar reputation or the standard of the earlier film. Once again, I am in awe of Chahine. The Land adapts a popular Egyptian novel about the oppression and exploitation of a peasant farmers in 1930s Egypt. The film is packed with individuals, often with broad characterizations and occasionally abandoned altogether, yet it is remarkably sophisticated in mapping their loyalties, allegiances, frailties, and harms. These farmers faithfully devoted to the land struggle against layers of self-interest from local mayors, lords, government authorities, and colonial interests. The story is melodramatic in the best sense, bravely sincere and punishingly tragic in a way only achievable by a truly optimistic artist. There are quibbles to be made about details of The Land, but they pale in comparison to the film as a whole. It is gorgeously composed and shot and provides a clear call for revolution’s collective spirit. All praise to Chahine.”

WelfareWelfare (Frederick Wiseman, 1975)

“A crushing film that depicts the grinding down of welfare workers and recipients under the weight of paper and bureaucracy. Individualized problems are forced through a black box of interviews and letters and referrals in hopes that a cheque will be received while an address still remains valid. It’s like watching sausage get made except the meat is humanity and frustration might be all that is produced depending on the turn of the crank. Another astonishing portrait from Wiseman.”

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Bruno Barreto, 1976)

“Discovered thanks to the MUBI Podcast! This classic from Brazil studies the nation’s oppositions through the competing figures of Dona’s successive husbands, contrasting Catholicism with spirituality, propriety with sensuality, predictable comfort with uncertain dynamism. Dona chooses it all, sacrificing nothing of her own comfort and pleasure. With a wonderful soundtrack, a transfixing central performance by Sonia Braga, and a compelling mix of manners and compulsions, Dona Flor deserves its place as a Brazilian favourite.”

ScalpelScalpel (John Grissmer, 1977)

Scalpel gives heavy TV movie vibes, but its story is so strong and the acting is so solid that there are no criticisms to be made of its stylistic approach. Midway through the film, the plot’s various possibilities seem nearly unlimited and the twisty Southern nonsense that follows is cold-blooded genius. Ah do declare, Scalpel was an unexpected treat of soapy duplicity and smarmy psychosis.”

Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)

“Such a fascinating film all around and so shockingly underrated. Hoffman is locked-in as an ex-con ready for a fair shake at a square life and unprepared for parole’s restrictions post-incarceration. M. Emmet Walsh, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, Harry Dean Stanton, and Theresa Russell are each wonderful, particularly Russell whose plain dealing with Hoffman laying out the parameters of their relationship makes for a gripping scene in its directness. The film’s latter half tracing Hoffman’s criminal vengeance on the system’s indignities is captivating but ultimately tragic, ending as a sober discovery of his own delusions where he is literally and figuratively left holding the bag. Criminally neglected as a masterpiece of ‘70s crime cinema.”

Alexandria… Why? (Youssef Chahine, 1979)

“Chahine’s Alexandria… Why? is an epic, over-stuffed, Fellini-inflected portrait of a young man and an old city subject to the vagaries of others and searching for a self-determined future. Today, this would easily be an 8-hour mini-series, but Chahine wonderfully jumbles it together – coming-of-age story, queer romance, straight melodrama, political resistance film, putting-on-a-show musical, dream cinema, multi-media experiment, World War II desert opus – into a barely more than two-hour stunner. The film leaps around in time and space in a manner that is disorienting in the most enjoyably gripping way, creating a brilliant picky tea of genre and form and a much needed view of WWII from a North African perspective. Another Chahine winner.”

Pixote (Héctor Babenco, 1981)

“What starts as a risky bit of indulgent cine-slumming quickly resolves into a portrait of Brazilian street kids that this utterly enthralling. Without ever excusing the brutal and criminal actions of everyone involved, including those of his young subjects, Babenco’s film manages to remain humane and sympathetic to its characters and their circumstances, showing a society premised on exploitation and cruelty from its top down and which leaves the young and marginalized at the bottom and wallowing in punishment. Moments of connection and joy are infrequent but transcendent, with young stars like Fernando Ramos da Silva and Jorge Juliao shining bright throughout. A harrowing film for those looking to move beyond City of God.”

Buddhas PalmBuddha’s Palm (Taylor Wong, 1982)

“I love these wacky, special effects-laden, HK fantasies – hand-knife-shuriken-shaped energy blasts; Monty Python laser-boots; gold dragon-dogs; lightsabers; acid tumours; and way, way too many characters! Glorious nonsense!”

The Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)

“Taken all together, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by The Dekalog. Fate stands up for faith, moving pieces and denying those the opportunity to wriggle free when not addressing their faults and complicity sincerely. Shabbiness conveys weariness throughout, encouraging temporary gratification and convenient solutions when more is otherwise needed. Ultimately, everyone has their own cross to bear and while episodes resonate with differing characters and qualities, the series as a whole is a stunningly mature, methodically careful, quietly profound masterpiece.”

Rat Film (Theo Anthony, 2016)

“Rats and maps. Experiments and experimentalism. Segregationist urban planning, behavioural sink, and the decaying history of Baltimore. Rat Film is an edifying and terrifying interrogation of class and race in a city designed to collapse, told through an unnerving arrangement of tangents and creating not a city symphony but a city elegy. It was always a people problem.”

Of course, 2021 was full of other wonderful discoveries outside of cinema as well. Great reads were had with Jerry Frissen’s various luchador comics, Riff Reb’s Classics Illustrated Deluxe edition of The Sea Wolf, I.N.J. Culbard’s Lovecraft adaptations, Marvel Comics’ The Immortal Hulk, and André Loiselle’s Cinema as History: Michel Brault and Modern Quebec. MMC! went down YouTube rabbit-holes with The Iron Boot Scrapers, an Edwardian rock band famous for its cover versions of popular songs, and Blayne Smith, BangerTV’s affable host ready to make a metal fan of anyone who listens. Bob’s Burgers, The Muppets, Tiger Mask W, and Travel Man graced our small screens, while our ears were entertained by the post-metal melodies of Russian Circles, the futuristic heroics of Deltron 3030, the cheeky joy of The Important Cinema Club podcast, and season one of the brilliant MUBI Podcast. Maybe most importantly, MMC! happily bent an elbow for Vimto, Asahi Mitsuya Peach Soda, Grace brand Peanut Punch, and Schweppes Lemon Mint. Lastly, MMC! rounds out our other favourite discoveries of 2021 to an even list of 20 with another shout-out to Gold Ninja Video, the “Criterion of Public Domain Bargain Bins” and our latest boutique label to obsess over.

Before MMC! signs off for 2021, we should take a moment to extend our great thanks to The Magic Lantern, Ericca Long and Cole Roulain’s wonderful movie podcast which will be winding down shortly. Originating in August 2015, The Magic Lantern has brilliantly taken on the task of close-reading the alternating movie selections of its hosts and it has held a consistently great standard for itself, always managing to be thoughtful, playful, personal, and magnificently composed. TML’s archives remain up, so be sure to check out their library of episodes – MMC! has always loved best their year-end, “Ants in the Pants” discovery episodes! Thanks again, Ericca and Cole, and ….

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

2 thoughts on “My Top 20 Film Discoveries of 2021!

  1. moviefanman December 30, 2021 / 10:20 am

    Very cool list there MMC. I’ve got the Masters of Cinema Blu Ray of Sunrise I still need to check out, heard a lot of great things over the years. Also have to pick up copies of The Human Condition and Dekalog too, I’m running behind. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and enjoy New Years Eve. See you in 2022.

    • spinenumbered December 30, 2021 / 12:34 pm

      Thanks and Happy New Year to you too!!!

      (Sunrise was a big blind spot for me and proved to be quite unlike what I expected!)

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