For the second year in a row I have decided to forego a ten best list, since I didn’t see nearly enough of the movies released in Japan in 2021 to make any sort of authoritative judgment on which were the best. Though most of the local distributors have gotten back up to speed with press screenings despite the stubornness of the pandemic, I have apparently been dropped from several lists and though I tried to see as many films as I could after they opened in theaters, I don’t live in Tokyo and the number and type of movies available to me where I live is limited. I have become more used to watching movies online, including quite a few screeners from distributors and publicists who have caught on to the idea that they can get more media attention that way, and while I don’t think my opinions about the movies I see online are any different for having watched them online, the net impact of watching them on a smaller screen and in an environment where distractions are inevitable is certainly different. I might, for example, have concluded that Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog was the best movie of the year had I seen it on a big screen, but like most people I watched it on Netflix while my partner and the cats continually passed through my fields of vision and (more significantly) hearing.
I also missed both of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s movies, which won lots of awards overseas. One of them, Drive My Car, may very well pick up an Oscar. As I’ve said here before, except for those by a handful of directors, I haven’t had much interest in Japanese movies made after 1990, and I wasn’t greatly impressed by the only Hamaguchi movie I’ve seen so far, Asako I & II, so I didn’t seek the two new ones out. I’m sorry I didn’t, though I’m sure they’ll be available for streaming relatively soon. That said, probably the best movie I saw that was released this year was Japanese, but it was a documentary: Kazuo Hara’s Minamata Mandala, another deep dive into a controversial public health issue that the authorities have tried their best to ignore. At more than six hours, it was even longer than Hara’s last movie, which was about citizens’ lawsuits against the government for asbestos-related illnesses, and I think it’s better since Hara was able to pull together all the disparate arguments that surround Minamata disease into a cohesive statement about the real social effects of industrial pollution and the attendant negligence. Coincidentally or not, it was released in Japan only two months after Minamata, the American feature film with Johnny Depp playing W. Eugene Smith, the photographer who brought the Japanese environmental crisis to the world in the 1970s, and while it was far from a perfect movie, it did a fair job of highlighting the conflict between the affected public and a large corporate entity that relies on the government to protect its interests, even when those interests lead to illness and death. In that regard I would recommend anyone interested in public health issues to see both, though I know that’s asking a lot considering the length and complexity of the former film and the fact that you will have to put up with Johnny Depp playing a drunk in the latter.
Hara’s film was certainly representative of my view of 2021 in terms of movies since most of the films I found to be memorable were documentaries. I am still haunted by the Romanian movie Collective, about the local media handling of a devastating night club fire that killed scores of people and its equally devastating aftermath. Like Minamata Mandala, Collective addresses government responsibility for the exacerbation of a tragedy, but also goes further in showing how the press fell under the sway of those in authority who were trying to cover up widespread malfeasance and corruption. That this failure to uphold basic journalistic standards was reported by a tabloid only goes to show how corporate mainstream media outlets have become organs of justification for the powers-that-be, which to me as a media critic is as universal a theme as you can find in 2021. In this regard, the exception that proves the rule was the always reliable Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, which attempts to show how adherence to the notion of public accountability is still possible. Wiseman spends a few months hanging around the halls of Boston’s municipal government watching as bureaucrats and elected leaders alike take their jobs seriously, or, at least, attempt to. But it isn’t a feel-good study of American democracy in action; more like a treatise on the impossibility of full public service that satisfies everyone, and though Wiseman, as usual, doesn’t pass judgment, he captures many moments that fall somewhere between failure and success in doing the right thing, and that includes how the media conveys these matters to the public.
A subset of docs that was particularly engaging was those associated with music. Certainly, the most significant movie event of 2021 was Peter Jackson’s Get Back, which not only once again made the Beatles the biggest pop group in the world, but reconfigured how we watch documentaries. If the three-part, eight-hour film, which documents in granular fashion how the Fab Four made what would eventually be their final released album, Let It Be, had been about any other group, people would have dismissed it out of hand as being too long. Who needs to see four rich young white guys noodling endlessly in a studio while bickering and indulging their privilege? But because they’re the Beatles and their music for better or worse helped define the late 20th century, they command our attention since our understanding of them as human beings who eat and breathe and love and shit has always been overshadowed by their music and media image. Jackson gets at the magic of their craft by simply showing how they worked, and what’s startling about the overall production is how timeless it feels. Though recorded in January 1969, the footage provides no temporal disconnect, except when it occasionally goes outside the studio and we see what Britain was like in 1969. The actual power of the film is inherent in its casual approach, which shows through repetition and long stretches of relative inactivity how creativity is not pure endeavor. It’s often boring and contentious, and that’s a truism that’s always relevant.
Conversely, Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, about another 1969 event, the Harlem Cultural Festival, presented creativity as the end result of concentrated effort spurred by the need to assert one’s dignity despite a social order designed to neutralize it. The soul and blues and jazz on display is the film’s irresistible hook, but the modern day testimonies of participants put these amazing performances in a context of struggle that is undeniable and moving. It was only a little more than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and while the bitterness and resentment had not dissipated, it was channeled into performances that showed its audience how Black culture would always prevail, and, counterintuitively perhaps, in a way that invoked joy. Amazing Grace, another documentary of long-lost footage, did something similar but in a more personal vein, showing Aretha Franklin return briefly to her gospel roots in 1972 with a church service (held, appropriately enough, in an old movie theater) meant to not only encourage her Black fans to seek redemption in a higher authority, but to give herself a reason for being while she was at the height of her fame as a pop star. That Aretha often seems aloof from the proceedings, which successfully convey the full-on musical energy of an inspired Black church service, is what gives the film its special power, not unlike the power of Get Back, though for a very different reason. While both films looks at hallowed artists from a more personable angle, the Beatles are revealed to be who they are in all their woolly spontaneity, while Aretha is cloaked in an impenetrable self-possession that makes her dynamic singing even more earth-shaking than it would be otherwise. Other notable music docs were Todd Haynes’ extremely subjective take on the career (rather than the music) of the Velvet Underground; that weird and somehow wonderful study of the success of saxophonist Kenny G; and The Jazz Loft, which starts out as another ode to W. Eugene Smith, specifically his late-50s residence in a broken-down Greenwich Village loft above a space where visiting jazz musicians jammed, but ends up as one of the most penetrating studies of mid-century jazz music and attitude ever committed to film.
The fiction features I thought the most of this year didn’t have a lot in common. Even the three Korean films that made the biggest impression were as different as can be. The most crowd-pleasing was The Book of Fish, which extrapolates from a brief acknowledgement in the introduction of a 19th century guide to sea life to an imaginary rendering of what the author, an exiled scholar, owed to the fisherman who helped him with his research in a bid to rise above his station. The movie trades in the sentimentality that fuels popular entertainment in South Korea, but the historical sidelights are more engaging than they usually are and jibe perfectly with the heartrending dramatic arc of the script. It’s also the most beautiful black-and-white film of the year, Passing notwithstanding. As usual, Hong Sang-soo’s annual Japan release was a highlight for me. The Woman Who Ran was not only funnier than Hong has been in recent years, but even more structurally playful. I want to see it again, but it came and went so fast. However, my favorite Korean movie was Moving On, another poignant study of childhood in flux, telling the story of a family of four that moves from the city to the father’s family home in the suburbs, a house with its own ghosts and pockets of mystery that spur the adolescent girl at the center of the narrative to assert herself as the agent of her own maturity.
The other fiction features I liked were rooted in social issues that didn’t overwhelm them. I found the Oscar-winner Nomadland completely engaging while I watched it, but the problems of a white woman who voluntarily gives up creature comforts in late middle age in order to feed her wanderlust didn’t pique my social consciousness and faded from memory quickly. On the other hand, the multi-national, multilingual production, Quo Vadis, Aida?, while aesthetically rather rough, drove home its point about the impotence of international goodwill when confronting implacable evil, in this case as represented by a Serbian army intent on turning centuries of hatred toward the Muslims in their midst into action. The aforementioned Passing, on Netflix, which parsed the tendency for some light-skinned Black people to try to get by as white, was only compromised by its framing—New York City in the 1920s—but it still made plain the fear and resentment that all Black people feel in the presence of the othering gaze the film described so powerfully. And while I enjoyed Candyman mainly for its inventive take on classic horror movie jokes, its subtext as a tale of revenge for past racial sins only intensified the thrills. In any case, the metaphors were hardly subtle. But the movie that affected me the most was Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s road movie about a pair of Pennsylvania teens who travel to NYC so that one of them can get an abortion without her parents finding out. This is a movie where the emotional payoffs are indistinguishable from the socioeconomic particulars that govern the lives of the principals. It’s harrowing in the most direct way, because you know that thousands, probably millions, of girls have gone through the same thing, and others will continue to go through it in the future.
Other recommendations: Little Girl (refreshingly understated French doc about a transsexual 8-year-old), The Power of the Dog (come for the Cumberbatch-in-cowboy-drag, stay for the bizarre power games), Jallikattu (indescribable, phantasmagorical Indian action film), Gunda (pigs being pigs), and The Disciple, my favorite film from 2020, which finally received an official release in Japan, if only on Netflix.