That was the year that wasn’t: 2021

In early 2021, I started a draft blog post for the end of the year, in which I’d note down all the culture that had come out during the past twelve months that stood out to me: films that I loved, TV series that surprised me, books that I hated so much that they somehow defined 2021 for me.

I started that draft, and then I never touched it again. And here we are.

It’s not that nothing good (or momentously bad) whatsoever came out this year. It’s more that, like 2020, and in some ways perhaps even more so, the shape of this year wasn’t defined by films and books and whatever culture made its way through my eyeballs and eardrums and ended up in my brain. Other things happened. The ongoing pandemic, certainly, but to some extent that’s simply been the constant background noise, the sociomedical constant tinnitus roaring in my ears. It’s been an emotionally exhausting, even draining year, and while films and TV (and, more rarely, books, since these days they take more of an upfront investment of energy and engagement than I sometimes had available at the end of a day) did distract and entertain and engage me, the underlying note has still been one of “… what now?” Culture simply wasn’t as dominant for me as during other years, whereas during the first year of this whole COVIDery it had a more active part in keeping me busy and keeping me sane by giving me a refuge. In 2021? Not so much.

There were definitely things I enjoyed quite a bit: we watched the first season of For All Mankind, which I’ve come to like a lot. There was Steven Spielberg’s film version of West Side Story, my favourite of the director’s films since… this isn’t set in stone yet, but I think I liked West Side Story better than any of Spielberg’s films since the 1990s. There were other films that I found memorable in one way or another, such as Servants, a gorgeously filmed historical drama about a theological seminary in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Soviet regime, like The Last Duel or Dune (I didn’t like it quite as much as my fellow sci-fi geeks who podcasted about it, but it is an example of consummate craftsmanship) or The Green Knight or First Cow.

But the thing is: I have to check on Letterboxd what we even watched this year, because it’s all fuzzy and difficult to grasp and other things come to mind before the movies I enjoyed in 2021. Going through my list, though, there are some definite standouts, and I want to write a little about those.

Petite Maman

I’ve already written about Céline Sciamma’s most recent film, Petite Maman, so I’ll keep it relatively short here. On the surface, it’s a very different work from Sciamma’s amazing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, depicting a wondrous, childlike realm, where Portrait was about a more immediately adult world. Scratch the surface, though, and there are similarities: both films focus on female characters that find a temporary refuge in a place that differs from the outside world and its conventions and challenges, where they can exist freely with others similarly set free. The protagonists are allowed to enter, for a short while at least, something of a female utopia, to engage with the others there in ways that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. And they emerge having learnt things they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Both films are magical in their own ways, but in ways that resonate. What is unique to Petite Maman, however, is how Sciamma works with her actors, the twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, both less than ten years old, without a trace of sentimentalism or a single self-consciously cutesy element. We believe the characters they play every single moment of this film. There are few directors as adept at directing children – Hirokazu Koreeda is one of the very few that come to mind – and based on the strength of Petite Maman, Sciamma must be numbered among the best of these.

Titane

Let’s stick with female French directors – but Julia Ducournau’s Titane, which Wikipedia describes as a “body horror film”, could hardly be more different… or could it? There are definitely some themes that resonate with Sciamma’s work: gender identity, family, and especially parents and children. finding one another. But as much as those themes, it’s the style, energy and sheer originality of Titane that made it a bloody, constantly surprising breath of fresh air. Like Ducournau’s Raw, it’s by no means the kind of film – which is most films, really, even many that are quite good – where you know five minutes into it where you’ll end up. There was a bit of a critical backlash against Titane after it won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, but I think that accusations of Ducornau’s film being style over substance – as if such style was anything to sneeze at to begin with! – were shortsighted: there are fascinating, and not rarely hilarious, scenes sending up conventional masculinity that in and of themselves already hint at much more going on than just in-your-face punk posturing. And the ending, as weird and incomprehensible it is in some ways, is one of the more absurdly poignant scenes I can remember in recent cinema.

The Underground Railroad

Barry Jenkins’ ten-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad is a wonder. It was made for Amazon Prime, to be watched on TV screens, tablets and phones, but it never once feels anything other than cinematic, as much as Jenkins’ Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It is unflinching in its depiction of the cruelties of slavery, but it establishes a feel that goes beyond just harrowing: there is anger, mourning, relief, even (very rarely, and only briefly) triumph. The elements of magic realism – mostly, but not exclusively, focused on the titular Underground Railroad, which Whitehead literalises in his story – are strange but intriguing, and they don’t distract from the historical truth that most of what we see, and probably even worse, happened in some shape or form throughout the centuries of slavery in the United States. And the cast is incredibly good, especially Thuso Mbedu, who plays the main character Cora. The series never loses its focus on its black characters, it never feels like the production company felt that a bone had to be thrown to the white audience out there. There have been a number of interesting, entertaining, engaging TV series in 2021, but none have struck me as this much of an accomplishment from beginning to end, in every aspect. For anyone with even the slightest interest, but with reservations about subscribing to yet another streaming service, I would suggest getting a free trial and checking out the first two or three episodes.

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