Ciao da Venezia!
Sorry for the delayed send here, I had a full day of sightseeing yesterday that led me to absolutely collapse in bed in the evening when I thought I’d finish banging out the newsletter. But now we’ve arrived at the official mark of 2/3 of the way through 2021 with the clock striking August 31, so … yeah. Make of that what you will. So, again, the timing just seemed to magically work out once again.
My guess is that many people have just not seen much that has been released in 2021 at all. Between the Oscars extending their eligibility window to February 28 for the ceremony this year, most distributors holding back their prime products until fall 2021 at earliest, and the overall production slowdown, it’s just been a really odd year.
But I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of great movies that are already available to watch from home that came out this year, some of which I saw as long ago as TIFF 2019. Full disclosure: between Venice prep and the bustling New York repertory cinema screen, I haven’t been quite as plugged into more recent releases like The Green Knight and Pig or even Luca and No Sudden Move. Nonetheless, it was still easy to find 10 titles ripe for a recommendation from this movie year.
Coda, Apple TV+
This was the breakout hit of (virtual) Sundance this year, winning a stupid amount of prizes from the jury and audiences alike. Coda, an acronym standing for “child of deaf adults,” is the kind of feel-good story that almost feels reverse-engineered to triumph at a film festival. And while it’s possible to take that more cynical view from a distance, the film’s emotional coming-of-age story totally envelops you in its sentimentality while you’re watching it. I was fully aware of the ways in which it was pushing my buttons, and I didn’t even care. I willingly surrendered to its charm.
This is the movie of the year for me, and it has occupied a special place in my heart since I squeezed it into my schedule at last year’s virtual Toronto Film Festival. As an elevator pitch, think of this like a Wes Anderson movie about serious humanitarian issues. This aesthetic yet wholly empathetic look at the refugee experience is just so special — serious, sensitive, sweet. I’d encourage you to read my review for The Playlist because it’s the rare occasion when I feel like I’ve truly done justice to a film I love to this extent.
Saint Maud, Hulu
Religiously themed horror flicks are extremely my jam, so Saint Maud was so incredibly up my alley. A24 really had no idea how to get this film into the world, which is a bummer — I got to see it at a screening in January 2020 a few months before they planned to release it, and they ended up just kind of dumping it in theaters at the peak of American COVID cases. This story of an increasingly zealous young nun driven to terrifying levels of self-mortification absolutely thrilled me down to its gasp-inducing final shot. It’ll have you saying OMM — Oh My MAUD. (Sorry!)
Shiva Baby, HBO Max
I guess, in its own way, Shiva Baby also falls under the “religiously-themed horror” banner if you consider that hell is other people. This claustrophobic comedy about a floundering Jewish twentysomething whose past, present, and future all collide at a shiva ceremony was the breakout hit of New York’s theatrical reopening — playing for 12 weeks at the Quad Cinema. It’s the kind of movie that proves sometimes the most culturally specific stories can be the most universal, as anyone who knows the benefits and drawbacks of an insular community can see themselves reflected here.
Some Kind of Heaven, Hulu
You might be familiar with Florida’s retirement community The Villages, if for no other reason than it became an epicenter of reporting in the 2020 presidential election. (That was my introduction to it, at least.) Some Kind of Heaven takes a penetrating gaze at the residents and their lives from a perhaps unlikely source: documentary filmmaker Lance Oppenheim, who was in his early twenties when capturing the film’s footage. He approaches the subjects and location with compassion but from an appropriate distance as well. The result is something like a Yorgos Lanthimos absurdist lens on The Villages as Oppenheim tries to process the strangeness of it all.
When people talk about movies they don’t make anymore, they’re talking about things like Stillwater. This is the kind of adult drama that rarely gets made anymore — and if it does, it’s probably as a prestige mini-series on premium cable. I’m not entirely sure if the whole film holds together given some of the twists and turns it makes through various genres, but I was entirely hooked throughout this moral drama about a father seeking answers and action in regards his daughter’s European imprisonment. Matt Damon is really spectacular here, too; I think we take for granted just how talented and versatile a performer he is.
Summer of Soul, Hulu
This is the party of the year right here. QuestLove managed to put together footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, affectionately known as a Black Woodstock, much of which was previously unseen or unreleased to the public. The assemblage in Summer of Soul is both the all bops, no stops playlist you need and a contextualization of how and why this explosion of Black joy came about in the first place.
Together Together, Hulu
Fans of nice-core comedy, you’ve found your next movie night. Together Together is just a lovely, gentle story about an aspiring single father (Ed Helms) and the surrogate he hires to bring his baby into the world (Patti Harrison). Thankfully, the film instantly puts the kibosh on any romantic aspirations you might project onto this odd couple and focuses solely on their strange path to friendship. We have so many movies about men and women falling in love. How nice it is to have one that just focuses on them becoming friends.
Wet Season, rental
I have to put at least one non-English language title on here! There’s not a huge production scene in Singapore (at least that I can discern), but I hope director Anthony Chen can change that. He’s become the national cinema’s breakout star, and his sophomore feature Wet Season really cements that he’s one to watch. Watching him develop a tender on-screen bond between a teacher struggling with infertility issues and one of her introverted students just melted my heart.
No film of 2021 has burst with ideas and ingenuity quite like Janicza Bravo’s Zola. While I was initially a bit skeptical about the gimmicky idea of adapting a Twitter thread for the big screen, Bravo and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris do more than just translate a social media text for cinema. They bring the very experience of being online, specifically within social media apps, alive by exploding the grammar of cinema. This wild, raucous adventure into the dark heart of Florida is the summer movie that lodged into my brain the longest.
I just wanted to note that this list was not at all sponsored by Hulu, in case you were wondering why such a disproportionate amount of the selection was on that platform. That said, Hulu, if you’re listening…
WHAT I WATCHED
Again, nothing but Venice prep. As you might have guessed, I’ll have some writing soon about the filmographies of Denis Villeneuve and Edgar Wright once I see their latest films premiere at the festival. (I feel like I’m really flying the “dudes rock” flag here.)
Also, will probably have more to say on both The Measure of a Man and At War later once I see the third film in Stephané Brizé’s trilogy of economic dramas, Another World. But if you’re the kind of person who digs social realist cinema, these movies absolutely need to be on your watchlist. For films that are so often about their content more than their form, I was blown away looking at the subtle yet powerful ways Brizé wields his camera to add dimension to the storytelling.
(Also, sorry but I can’t say anything about The Card Counter until Thursday when it premieres here. Shhh!)
WHAT I HEARD
Last week’s random earworms:
I also finished Bryan Raftery’s podcast mini-series Gene & Roger (hosted on the feed of The Big Picture) and quite enjoyed it. Highly recommend if you want something that’s not entirely inside baseball about why these critics made such an impact on the very way we conduct public discourse, not just about movies.
WHAT I READ
Not enough of Dune, I fear, to be finished in time for the screening I just booked a ticket for!
Here’s something I really enjoyed reading — the ever contrarian Richard Brody of The New Yorker throwing some cold water on the hit arthouse film of the summer, La Piscine. (Devoted readers may recognize this from my recommendation at the beginning of the month.) I think I liked the film more than he did, but I do agree that it’s not so peerless that it fully deserves the long run it’s gotten at Film Forum this summer.
WHAT I WROTE
As I wrote this before the movie was shown to the press, I would love for anyone to tell me if these are correct! Or at least scratch some of the same itches, I suppose.
Arrivederci for now! I’ll be back in your inbox later this week with 8 (1/2) Italian films to watch since, sadly, I could not fit you all in my suitcase.
As a reminder, the next Thursday email will be the last one sent to all subscribers. Starting next week, free sign-ups will only receive emails on Monday. Make sure you don’t miss a thing by subscribing today!
Yours in service and cinema,