A REVIEW OF FILMS OF 2021
February 24, 2022
Many of the films that are nominated for awards in this season of recognition for the films of 2021 can be described as continuing the trends set in recent years, with however some new and different angles.
Let us look first at continuity
In most cases, continuity in films of 2021 is confirmed by the fact that they can be situated in the trends already set in recent years in their country or continent of origin. Thus, films from Western Europe often continue to treat questions that can be described as post-modern, in the sense that their themes are not so much concerned by questions of economic or personal survival and their related challenges, but more by the dilemmas of personal choice of lifestyles, in the context of societies that are quite prosperous. That is very much the case with Parallel Mothers, a Spanish film from veteran director Pedro Almodovar, which tells two stories, the first about women facing choices in maternity and birth-giving, and the second about the search for reconciliation with the horrors of the Spanish civil war of 1930-1940. The second story, about reconciliation, tied to the first story in the film, can only be relevant in a society that is above the rigors of immediate economic survival.
In the same spirit as Parallel Mothers, other films of 2021 look at individual choices in matters of partnership and marriage, such as The Worst Person in the World, in which the main character must make important choices in terms of the different lifestyles that are available to her. It is in this same pattern of individual choice, but this time in terms of career, that the film France tells the story of a star TV news anchor in France, as she is sometimes torn between her career, looking for the spectacular, and her intentions on still doing the right thing.
These films, that we call here post-modern, with all the risks of that characterization, are very much in the trend of recent films from Europe, like the film Another Round (2020), a film from Denmark that tells of the attempt of school teachers to improve their professional performances by drinking alcohol more regularly and more of it, or like Woman at War (2018), a sometimes comic story of a woman in Iceland trying to stop, by herself, an environmentally damaging electrical project. These are no doubt pertinent stories, but not on topics that would seem to be related to immediate and present dangers. We can say that the films just mentioned continued, each in their own way, the trend of recent European films to look at themes that go beyond traditional challenges. It was the case also with other films that preceded them in 2020, such as the Spanish film Rosa’s Wedding (2020), a film about a forty-year-old woman who decides to hold a wedding ceremony celebrating a marriage … to herself.
Certain recent European films sometimes describe some enigmatic themes, such as the death or disappearance of young children. It is the case this year with the French film Titane, and also with Parallel Mothers, referred to just earlier, continuing this theme of 2019-2020, with films like Koko-di Koko-da (2019), also Lamb (2020), and My Zoe (2019). The meaning of this theme is not entirely clear, even for those that make a point of understanding it, but a first step in interpretation is to notice a theme that is hard to ignore.
Joining themes that are less enigmatic and more immediate are films from Latin America, such as Prayers for the Stolen, a Mexican production that tells of the challenges of living in a village ruled by a drug cartel. In this case, we are far from the post-modern themes, and we are brought back to the immediate skills needed to survive, a theme present in other recent Latin American films, such as Bacurau (2020), a fictional story of a village that becomes a tourist site for aggressive visitors that come to hunt down the locals, or the story of Heroic Losers (2020), an Argentinian film that tells of the difficulties of a local community economic project that is blocked by corrupt local banking and legal elites. There are other examples of films from less prosperous continents or regions that speak to the day-to-day challenges of surviving in difficult social settings.
It is notably the case with Ashgar Farhadi’s most recent film, A Hero, about an Iranian citizen’s challenges with a sum of money he owes and which leads him to prison. He tries, unsuccessfully, to avoid that outcome or shorten its length through a series of unlikely events and adventures.
We are tempted to describe several films from the Middle-East as concerned about tensions resulting from contracts, and more generally contractual and commercial interactions and these are themes that seem to be present in Iranian films, maybe also in films from the Middle East, but it must be pointed out that this theme is mostly present in films from director Ashgar Farhadi, like some of his previous films such as The Client (2016), A Separation (2010)., and even in a film he directed in Spain, Everybody Knows ( 2018). In another recent Iranian film, from another director, There is no Evil (2021), the story was about promises made, but this time it was more about ethical questions, and not so much about the challenges of economic interaction. Behind these interpersonal challenges, there is probably the absoluteness and rigidity of the political authorities, which may contribute to interpersonal difficulties.
Still, within the theme of films that speak to the challenges of simply surviving, economically or otherwise, we can look at films from Eastern and Central Europe, that address the challenges of their countries in integrating more fully with Western Europe, with all the economic and social transformations that are tied to this increasing integration, as we can witness in the Romanian film Acasa, My Home, a documentary piece about a family living in a Bucarest suburb, faced with the choice between continuing a semi autarkic life or integrating into the more uncertain regular economy. This theme about the challenging integration into mainstream Europe was touched upon in several Eastern and Central Europe films, such as the Bulgarian Glory (2016), in The Whistlers (2019), and also in the Romanian film Collective (2019). Quo Vadis Aïda (2020) had told of the difficult, and even impossible, life in Serbian refugee camps during the Yugoslavian civil wars in the 1990s.
OTHER ELEMENTS OF CONTINUITY
Still, on the question of continuity of films of 2021, we can notice the themes of the continued advances of minorities or formerly excluded entities or groups. It was the case with Parallel Mothers, mentioned earlier, which looked at the choices that mothers can now make outside the constraints of tradition or religion. It is also the case with the American film King Richard, about the difficulties that the father of the Williams sisters experienced when trying to integrate his daughters in the world of tennis, a world reserved for white privileged elites. Those are just two examples for films of 2021 on openness and inclusion, but we can safely say that this is a regular theme of 2021 and there is every reason to believe that it will continue in the years ahead.
COMPLEXITY OF CHARACTERS
Of course, showing the complexity of characters and heroes has been a hallmark of many films across every period, possibly of most films, but 2021 has been particularly rich in this respect. What may be new is the fact that this complexity is illuminating a type of character that may be different or emergent. Such is the case with The Power of the Dog, a description of two brothers, owners of a large ranch, with the first of the two brothers being a dominating and cruel individual, but who evolves unexpectedly into a more complex character, even to the point of being generous and kind.
It is the same kind of complexity that plays out in Compartment no.6, a film that tells of a meeting between a Scandinavian female visitor-tourist visiting Russia and her train compartment companion, a rough and ill-mannered Russian male, who, as the film unfolds, is more and more seen as more complex and multifaceted than first thought. Through this character, it also our prejudices about Russia that are questioned.
In this effort to take into account the complexities of characters, women are, of course, no less complex than their male counterparts. In the film Benedetta, the story is about a nun of a 17th-century monastery where there are, intertwined, fights for power between males and females, but also between women, all of which are mixed with female homosexuality scenes, not scenes you would expect from a monastery of the 17th century. Of course, the world Guinness record for complexity in a film goes to the French film Titane, about a serial female killer who finds her ultimate pleasure by having intercourse with an automobile.
FILMS FROM AMERICA AND ELSEWHERE
When we seek really significant films for 2021, we can be somewhat surprised by the fact there seem to be relatively few American films, at least among the films that are mentioned for the end of the year prizes. Indeed, there are few equivalents, if any, to American significant films of 2020, such as Nomadland or Minari. There is of course Pig, a quite intriguing and significant piece about a reputed chef of gastronomy who retires into the wilderness, to search, alone with his faithful pig, for truffles and rare mushrooms.
Nominated for prestigious prizes stands the very American film Licorice Pizza, which follows an odd couple made up of a twenty-year-old young female adult and an aspiring businessman still in his teens, as they go through the evolution of the American culture through the 1970s in California. The film can remind us of American Graffiti (1973), of Forrest Gump (1994), and, more recently Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), as it follows the twist and turns of American life and culture of a given period, in this case, the 1970’s, with all its superficial ( waterbeds) and not so superficial events (the sudden gas price hikes), while following the personal experiences of the two characters. But the film does not seem to give way to really universal themes, and it seems to assume that the viewer has intimate knowledge of American popular culture, which can give the international viewer the impression that he has somehow been invited, by mistake, to a private party which he has nothing in common with. But it is a film that will no doubt please a wide audience from the USA.
The inward-looking posture of several American films of 2021 invites us to look elsewhere to find significant films of the year, those that are open to universal themes, such as Parallel Mothers (Spain), The Power of the Dog (New-Zealand), The Lost Daughter (Great Britain) or then again Belfast (Ireland), among the more interesting ones. These are films that are often nominated for prizes for 2021, while at the same time being significant, but their chances of winning are not necessarily great, because they are competing with more popular entries or films with technical budgets that are disproportioned, like Dune, a technical prowess, but a film that does not reach, at least in its film version, sensitive chords of our contemporary challenges.
2021, then, will have been a year of continuity, while giving way to some emerging themes, and it will be interesting to see how these themes will play out again in 2022.