Favorite Films of 2021, Part 1

I know, I know. My top 20 list of films from 2021 is very late. Several that I wanted to see before compiling the list didn’t come to a theater near me until after the Oscar nominees were announced . . . But better late than never, right?

I’m breaking up the list into two separate posts.

I am counting films as from 2021 if they were released in the US in that year. If the film is available for free through a streaming service to subscribers, I will mention that at the end of the description; most of the others can be rented online for a fee, or you might also try checking your local library for a DVD.

Note: Several of these films are rated R, and for a variety of reasons. If you want to avoid specific types of mature content, I suggest you consult the Parents’ Guide on the IMDB page of whatever movie you’re considering watching.

If you’d like to see my top 20 films of 2020, click here.

Belfast film still
The joy of cinema is one of the themes in Kenneth Branagh’s semiautobiographical film Belfast, as all three generations of Buddy’s family enjoy going to the movies together. In this still, they react to the flying car riding off the cliff in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

1. Belfast, dir. Kenneth Branagh. Drawn from writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s own childhood, Belfast takes place in 1969–70 in a working-class neighborhood in the Northern Ireland capital, at the beginning of the thirty-year period of political violence known as the Troubles. This conflict was between (mostly Catholic) nationalists seeking independence from Britain, and (mostly Protestant) loyalists who saw themselves as British and thus sought to preserve Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. The focus of the film, however, is on family, not politics, as all the events of the year are filtered through the perspective of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill). He sees his dad, for example, who refuses to participate in the riots, as a hero in the vein of his favorite western film characters.

Belfast is poignant and nostalgic and not at all the worse for being so. The “Everlasting Love” scene near the end is euphoric—and well earned!—and made me cry. In the wake of a death and amid financial debt, impending displacement from what has been their family’s hometown for generations, and other marital strains, Pa (Jamie Dornan) sings a pop song to Ma (Caitriona Balfe) from a lounge stage and pulls her into a dance, creating a moment of pure celebration, love, and defiant survival. The film’s highlight for me is how it holds together life’s joys and struggles, sorrows and laughter. Branagh, who moved with his parents and brother from Belfast to Reading, England, at age nine to escape the violence, dedicated the film to “those who stayed, those who left, and those who were lost” in Belfast.

2. The Power of the Dog, dir. Jane Campion. An adaptation of a Thomas Savage novel, this film subverts the traditional image of the western cowboy, exploring male virility, vulnerability, and agency. What is required to protect those you love? Is it muscles and bluster and a “gloves off” sort of grit, or a courage rooted someplace else?

Set in Montana in 1925, the film centers on the macho-posturing Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs a cattle ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). When George marries the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she and her impressionable teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) settle at the Burbank estate. Phil is set off by Peter’s “sissiness”—his willowy frame, his slight lisp, his delight in crafting paper flowers for his mother—and he reacts with incessant bullying. He is cruel, mocking, and emotionally abusive not only to Peter but also to Rose, whom he resents for layered reasons.

The ending makes us see one of the characters in a completely different light and therefore prompts us to reread some of the emotional dynamics we have witnessed. The title comes from Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog” (KJV).

Streaming on Netflix.

3. The Lost Daughter, dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Ambivalence toward motherhood is rarely explored on screen. We see onscreen mothers overwhelmed and exhausted, even stifled, but the sacrifices they make in those roles are always portrayed as ultimately worth it for the profound love and joy they experience as a result of being a mom. Because we’re conditioned, culturally and religiously, to view children as an unmitigated blessing, to express any kind of regret about having children is taboo (we’re only allowed to regret not having children). Women are expected to relish their role as mothers and to find their deepest fulfillment in that role, and if they don’t, they’re branded as “bad” or selfish.

I can already hear the alarm bells going off with my readers right now. “Children are a gift from God! How dare we be anything less than grateful for them! Women are designed to bear and nurture life! What could possibly be more fulfilling than living out that design?” One of the great things about films is that they often help us to enter into other experiences and perspectives, to access the feelings of another and, through that, our own. That doesn’t mean we forsake our beliefs and convictions, but we open ourselves up to a story that could challenge our sometimes overly simplistic thinking. One doesn’t have to reject the Bible to acknowledge that motherhood is messy and that for many women it requires them to confront (or else bury) darker pulls and emotions. Contrary to what we’re often told, motherhood does not come naturally to everyone! There’s much more I could say about this, but let’s get to The Lost Daughter:

First-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, who herself has two daughters, wanted to make a film that explores all the complicated, unresolved emotions surrounding motherhood, which can include terror, anxiety, doubt, annoyance, and despair. An adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same title, it follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-age literature professor on holiday in Greece. One day on the beach she encounters a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson), who triggers Leda’s memories of her own two daughters, now in their twenties. We see flashbacks to Leda’s life as a struggling twenty-something mom (played by Jessie Buckley). She loves her children but feels plundered by them. And so she does something “aberrant,” as Gyllenhaal put it in an interview, which we find out about halfway through the film.

The film neither punishes nor condones its protagonist’s behavior. To what degree Leda feels guilt, regret, or satisfaction, and about what specifically, is largely left to the viewer to interpret, as she’s a hard one to read. (Colman gives us a very interior performance, which I think is to her and the film’s credit.) She is obviously troubled by past decisions, as her dizzy spells and thievery would suggest. There is also quite a bit of open-ended symbolism at play throughout.

Streaming on Netflix.

4. Drive My Car, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The forty-minute prologue of this three-hour film establishes the relationship between theater actor-director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Within this pocket of time, she dies of a cerebral hemorrhage—after Yusuke finds out about her having an affair but before he confronts her about it. Roll opening credits.

Based loosely on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car is about grief, intimacy, betrayal, forgiveness, self-knowledge, and communication across barriers. Two years after his wife’s death, Yusuke participates in a residency in Hiroshima, where he has been invited to direct a multilingual stage production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, about a forty-seven-year-old man who is so world-weary that he wants to die. Yusuke’s concept is for the actors to act in their native language—Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Korean Sign Language—feeding off their dialogue partner’s tones, speech rhythms, body language, and facial expressions, while subtitles are projected on a screen for the play’s audience.

Yusuke’s emotional healing comes through his work on this play (“Chekhov is terrifying because his lines drag the real out of you,” he says) and through the friendship he develops with his assigned driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a young woman who also carries a private grief. The two help each other come to terms with loss and regret and learn how to live again.

Streaming on HBO Max.

5. Flee, dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen. This animated documentary chronicles the refugee experience of Amin Nawabi (not his real name), who fled from Afghanistan to Russia with his family in 1992 when he was eleven to escape the Mujahedeen attacks that became more frequent in Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal. He sought asylum in Europe for the next few years as an unaccompanied minor and eventually settled in Denmark, where he attended high school in Copenhagen and became friends with classmate Jonas Poher Rasmussen, now a filmmaker. More than twenty years later, he is telling his story for the first time, and it is Rasmussen he has entrusted it to.

The use of animation, a rare but not unheard-of choice for a documentary, has several advantages. It enables the subject to remain anonymous for his own safety. It allows for the re-creation of scenes from Amin’s childhood that were not, and could not have been, captured on film. And it enhances the expressiveness, tone, and meaning of certain scenes. The animation is supplemented, sparingly, with archival newsreel footage that gives historical veracity to some of Amin’s memories. And an important link to “the real” is forged by the use of Amin’s own voice in the animated interview sessions, conducted over several years, and sometimes in voiceover in the flashbacks. (His younger self is voiced by actors who capture him at two different ages—nine to eleven, and fifteen to eighteen.)

Throughout the film, Amin works to integrate his past and present and to make a home (“someplace safe, somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on”) with his fiancé, Kasper, whom he has not yet spoken his traumas to.

Streaming on Hulu.

6. CODA, dir. Sian Heder. Sure, this film follows a predictable narrative arc and hits all the notes you would expect. But it’s so good! Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her family (CODA = child of deaf adults). Before school each day she works on the family’s fishing boat with her dad (Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant), while her mom (Marlee Matlin) runs the business side of things. But she finds herself increasingly drawn toward singing as a career path, and she starts to consider applying to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The conflict is a familiar one: follow the plans your parents have laid out for you, or chase your own dreams, your own calling. Ruby needs to find her identity apart from being her family’s interpreter. But how can she honor the talents she’s been gifted with and her family obligations? Ruby’s parents slowly learn to accept and support her ambitions, even though they revolve around an auditory art form that is not accessible to them, and even though it means she’ll have to leave home. A turning point comes when they see her sing a duet at a school concert. In what is the most moving scene in the film, they experience the performance through watching the reactions of others in the audience.

Streaming on Apple TV+.

7. The Killing of Two Lovers, dir. Robert Machoian. A stylish arthouse drama set in rural Utah, this film follows David (Clayne Crawford), who’s desperately trying to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi). He refuses to accept that the marriage is over. Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and with lots of long takes, the film is raw, potent, unflinching. And I love where it ends up.

Streaming on Hulu.

8. The Truffle Hunters, dir. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. This documentary made me smile more than any other film I saw last year. It’s so tender, and so gorgeously shot. And it’s got to be my favorite dog movie!

Truffle hunters are typically a secretive bunch, but the filmmakers got access to several of these elderly men from northern Italy who forage the forests with their trusty dogs, seeking out the edible fungi, a gourmet delicacy, to sell at high-priced auctions or on the black market. There are no interviews, no voiceovers—just a quietly observant camera. Despite the high prices truffles fetch, the hunters live simple lives in their Piedmont villages. And each has his own personality.

There’s a heavy focus on the relationship between the men and their dogs. They share meals with them, take baths with them, sing “Happy Birthday” to them, bring them to church. Aurelio, who is single and has no children, looks for someone to take care of his dog Birba when he dies; his chatter with Birba, and his expressions of love (like baking her a cake for her birthday), is the most endearing part of the film. It was also precious to see Titina, Carlo’s dog, being blessed by a priest—to use her gift of scent to serve others, to bring joy, as her finds will end up being used to make delicious dishes.

9. The Father, dir. Florian Zeller. Because of the COVID-19 extended eligibility period for Oscar submissions last year, this film was technically part of the 2021 Academy Awards, even though it was released in February 2021. Anthony Hopkins, who won Best Actor for this role, plays Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. As he loses his grip on the things and people around him, he becomes easily agitated and resists the care of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman).

Zeller said he wanted the audience to feel as though, like Anthony, they’re “groping their way through a labyrinth,” so he wove a complex narrative that mixes reality with Anthony’s memories. We are made to feel his confusion, terror, frustration, and disorientation, in part by the use of multiple actors to portray a single character, such that we’re also not sure who’s who and what’s going on. Kudos to editor Yorgos Lamprinos and production designer Peter Francis for their work, as both those skills are key in pulling off this kind of storytelling.

The film is heartbreaking—the biggest downer on my list, for sure, especially with its climactic scene where Anthony breaks down and cries for his mommy. But by inviting us into Anthony’s suffering, The Father develops our empathy for those whose brains stop functioning properly in old age, for whom the world no longer makes any sense—an incredibly fearful thing.

10. C’mon C’mon, dir. Mike Mills. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist who travels the US asking kids big questions about life. When his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) is forced to deal with a mental health crisis her ex-husband is experiencing, Johnny becomes the caretaker of her son (Woody Norman) for an extended period. The uncle-nephew bonding that follows constitutes the core of the film. Unlike The Lost Daughter, C’mon C’mon paints a bright and affirmative portrait of parenthood. It acknowledges the challenges of raising children while also celebrating the many small, beautiful moments of connection that are possible between adult and child.

Read part 2.

Roundup: Grief work, kintsugi, “The O in Hope,” and more

INTERACTIVE PERFORMANCE ART: DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In by Cara Levine: Last month artist Cara Levine led a weeklong collaborative project in which she invited those in and around Malibu to join her in digging a hole to visualize the depth of grief being experienced right now in response to personal losses as well as national and global crises. Carried out on a property owned by the Shalom Institute, the project was inspired in part by the Jewish ritual of shiva, the seven-day mourning period following the burial of a family member, during which the bereaved discuss their loss and accept comfort from the community.

“Whatever one is grieving is welcome—be it the loss of a loved one, or more nuanced and subtle grief—the grief that comes with aging, with watching children grow, loss of friendships, habitat, completions to other life cycles, opportunities, loves, that one won’t see flourish, and so on,” Levine wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.

Levine, Cara_Dig a Hole to Put Your Grief In
Cara Levine, DIG: A Hole to Put Your Grief In, August 14–21, 2021, Shalom Institute, Malibu, California. Photo: Nir Yaniv.

“Part of the act of inviting others to share in the digging, is an invitation for the collective to lift the burden of the individual. I think digging together, expressing the depth and weight of the grief all around us, can be a shared burden.”

At week’s end the hole was filled with water and transformed into a mikvah (ritual bath) for a ceremonial hand washing, before being refilled with the original dirt. As arts writer Matt Stromberg reported, participants were invited to write down what they were grieving on sheets of paper embedded with flower seeds, which were then buried in small pots that could be taken home, while native seeds were scattered in the hole, a symbol of renewal. Though I, living on the opposite coast, didn’t participate, it sounds like it was a meaningful time of healing and of giving and receiving support.

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VIDEO: “Mending Trauma” by Makoto Fujimura: In this video from the 2019 Theology of Making series from Fuller Studio, artist and author Makoto Fujimura describes the Japanese art of kintsugi (literally “golden seams”) and how it reflects the beauty that can emerge from our own fractured hearts and lives.

“Kintsugi theology,” he says, is the theology of the new creation, and it’s embodied by Jesus himself. His resurrection body retains the wounds of crucifixion, but there is light flowing through them, suggesting how our traumas will be carried into the new creation but wholly transformed. Like broken bowls mended with gold.

Check out the three other videos in the series:

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SONG: This video, taken in June 2015 by someone from the Free Burma Rangers humanitarian service movement, shows an Assyrian Christian woman in Kurdistan lingering behind after church let out, singing a praise song to Jesus alone in a pew. She had recently returned home after having fled an ISIS attack. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW BOOKS:

>> The O in Hope by Luci Shaw, illustrated by Ned Bustard: “Combining a joyful poem from the much-celebrated poet Luci Shaw with playful cut-paper art created by Ned Bustard, The O in Hope helps us experience the goodness of God’s gifts of hope and love.” I found out about this recent release from IVP Kids at a Zoom event, where Shaw [previously] read the poem—it’s so delightful!

>> First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament: “Many First Nations tribes communicate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. The First Nations Version (FNV) recounts the Creator’s Story—the Christian Scriptures—following the tradition of Native storytellers’ oral cultures. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonates in the hearts of First Nations people.

“The FNV is a dynamic equivalence translation that captures the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Native storytellers in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament.” The project was carried out by an eleven-member council selected from a cross-section of Native North Americans (elders, pastors, young adults, and men and women from different tribes and geographic locations) and overseen by Ojibwe storyteller Terry M. Wildman. Here is Wildman reciting the FNV translation of the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospels, accompanied by his wife, Darlene, on cedar flute:

Album recommendation: Mercy by Natalie Bergman

Much has been written about Natalie Bergman’s debut solo album, Mercy, which she self-produced and released May 7 through Third Man Records. Described as “a psychedelic spin on vintage gospel-soul” (Brooklyn Vegan), it comprises twelve original songs that combine praises and intercessions to God with expressions of grief over the recent, sudden death of her dad in a car accident. It’s excellent, and I wish I had time to write about it in more depth. Instead, let me just share four of the music videos Bergman created to coincide with the album, and commend to you the interviews she did with Aquarium Drunkard and Hero magazine, both in which she discusses her Christian faith, her visual and musical influences, and the impetus behind the album.

Natalie Bergman, Mercy

Chicago-bred and Los Angeles–based, Bergman formed a band with her brother Elliot after high school, the psych-pop duo Wild Belle; they eventually signed to Columbia Records, and have toured internationally.

In October 2019, when Wild Belle was getting ready to go onstage at Radio City Music Hall, the siblings learned that their father and stepmother had been killed by a drunk driver. To process her grief, Bergman retreated to the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico’s Chama Valley in February 2020, where she spent time in silence and going to chapel, where the resident monks prayed the Divine Office seven times a day, starting at 4 a.m. The seeds for the album were planted there, as she talked to God and listened.

As evidenced by comments on social media, some people are incredulous that a singer of this status and level of artistry would choose to sing about Jesus in a nonironic way, from a place of genuine faith. Could contemporary Christian music really be this beautiful? Could a sung spirituality that straightforwardly proclaims things like “Jesus is our friend” and “Oh, I need you, Lord” really have a broad appeal, one that extends beyond churchgoers, as Bergman’s music does?

Unwilling to take her new music at face value, some have even suggested that Bergman’s videos are making fun of Christianity, or that she’s using the name “Jesus” as some kind of metaphor. Bunk!

In addition to referring to Mercy as a gospel album, Bergman speaks openly, in secular media, about her love of “traditional praise music” and her desire to share “the good news” and her “testimony”—of hope in the midst of sorrow, of the companionship of Christ, of a Love that calls us home.

  • “I have my own poems that I want to sing about God and about my father . . . my own Psalms.” [source]
  • “I’m a Christian fighting the good fight, and I want that to be the message. I want the message to be love and the goodness of the creator and why we were created.” [source]
  • “I think that God has given me this platform to praise his name in a loving way. I would love this music to work through people and become a sort of healing agent for others.” [source]
  • “I need my art and I need my faith. . . . Faith has become my greatest consolation, and it’s really allowed me to see the light. I think that the relationship between music and faith go hand in hand—one needs the other.” [source]

Because Mercy completely defies the expectations set by the contemporary Christian music industry, on the one hand, and alternative music on the other, it has confounded some listeners. Music podcaster John J. Thompson—rightfully, I think—sees the album as in line with the countercultural Christian music (sometimes referred to as “Jesus Music”) of the 1970s, an association Bergman embraces.

(Related post: “Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres”)

I see Mercy as a gorgeous (and groovy!) example of moving through grief with hope, clinging unabashedly to God’s promises and inviting others to do the same. Whereas doubt and cynicism seem to be the order of the day in US culture, Bergman demonstrates a trust in the Divine that is childlike but not childish, simple but not simplistic. She confronts the pain of loss while also consenting to the uplift that God brings. She sings praises in the valley, plays in puddles.

Not only do I love Bergman’s sound; I dig her style too! You’ll see what I mean in the music videos below.

Purchase Mercy on Bandcamp, or wherever else you get your music.

“Talk to the Lord”

This is my favorite song on the album, and the video is so enchanting! Bergman designed and made by hand her wardrobe as well as the set pieces. The blocks were inspired partly by Sister Corita Kent, a sixties pop artist and nun, and the banners were prompted by Bergman’s memory of the liturgical banners her mother made for their church growing up.

Bergman also made the kite in the video, which she yokes to her back—a reference, I’m assuming, to Matthew 11:28–30, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In other video segments Bergman dances in the grass wearing a black leotard and a black cardboard cutout around her face with white stripes projecting outward like flower petals or rays of light. This recalls lines from the song: “He who makes the flowers face the sun / And all the creatures sing / He can make the heavens rain . . .” Her mourning is turned to dancing as she lets in the Light.

You can also watch Bergman perform “Talk to the Lord” with the Chicago Children’s Choir as part of GRAMMY.com’s Positive Vibes Only video series. What joy!

“Shine Your Light on Me”

This music video was filmed in 4:3 on television cameras from the 1960s, with an aesthetic inspired by a 1967 performance by Diana Ross and the Supremes. Bergman performs in a beehive hairdo and a vintage mirror dress that reflects the light (“light is the inherent message behind this music,” she says), on a set designed by Hanrui Wang.

The song includes contributions from Elsa Harris and the Larry Landfair Singers, whom Bergman previously sang with at her father’s funeral.

I Will Praise You”

This one has a reggae rhythm.

Home at Last”

“Home at Last” was filmed in and around the historic Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in the Montecito Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, a Carpenter Gothic and Queen Anne–style building from the turn of the century that is now part of the Heritage Square Museum. Footage of the band inside the sanctuary is intercut with shots of them relaxing in a green space, eating fruit and enjoying one another’s company—a vision of paradise. They’re all dressed in white, per Revelation 7.