Looks like this is the fourth year I’ve done this now. Here’s my favourite and least favourite films of the past year (you can find the previous lists here). The rules are as follows. These are all new films that I’ve first seen this year, either in the cinema or as a pre-release press stream.
It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it? The first film I saw was at the end of June in the open air cinema. If I remember right, the normal cinemas opened on Independence Day, July 4th. I still managed to see more films than any previous year (155, compared to 154 in both 2019 and 2020).
I don’t think it was a classic year for film. The number that I saw was more to do with me trying to get out of the house than because of general excitement, but there were some belters. And good to see 9 German films in my top 20 (compared to 3 from Britain and 2 from the States).
At the end, there’s the films I hated. I do find it hard to hate on films too much, so there’s only 6 of these, but some did had it coming.
So, here we go. In order of greatness.
A film I put off going for a long time, because most German films about race end up being horribly patronising, and often quite Islamophobic. Be pleasantly surprized at this story of how a working class female Muslim law student deals with institutional sexism and racism. This is much more than just a “worthy” film though – it is intelligently written and shows a nuanced understanding of character. And it’s funny. The plot seems a little obvious at first, but this is used to question the clichés of what is supposed to happen in a film like this.
2. Je suis Karl
Another German film about race, and again one which subverts accepted wisdom. What happens when the victim of an apparent racist bomb attack enters the company of Neo-Nazi Identitarians? This is a film that treats the enemy seriously, and shows how they have moved on from just trying to recruit Sieg Heiling skinheads. Instead, they state a great deal of interest in saving the planet and women’s rights. They also profit from the Left’s inability to see any problems in the EU. Some people didn’t like it, as they felt that it sailed too close to the wind, and legitimized the Nazis. I think that these critics are missing the point.
If you’re looking for a date movie, you should probably steer clear of this drama based on the fall of Srebenica to Serbian nationalists. The plot largely consists of Aida, who works as a UN interpreter, doing her best to prevent her family from being massacred. I’m not entirely sure of some of the history and politics we are shown, but in general it rings true. While the film is not afraid to point out Serbian atrocities, it is also clear about the bureaucratic impotence of the UN “peace keeping” forces, who were more interested in saving face than anything like, er, peace.
4. Das Glück zum Leben / The Euphoria of Being
You are not going to see a documentary like this anywhere else. Éva Fahidi was a 90 year old Holocaust survivor. For some reason, choreographer Réka Szabó thought that it would be good idea to create a modern dance piece based on Éva’s life. Not only that, but Éva would perform in it, alongside a young dancer. This feels like something that feels like a good idea for about 5 seconds, and then should be rejected as impractical. But for whatever reason it really works. It is a testament both to the horrors of the Holocaust, and the possibilities of Art providing some sort of response,
5. Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller?
I had never heard of Alice Miller before I saw this film, but in her native Switzerland she was a famous psychologist and media personality. This is the pained story of her life, told by her son Martin, who had, let’s say, a difficult relationship with his mother. It’s a story which takes in the Holocaust, the Polish resistance, and Alice’s later public campaign against child abuse. We learn a lot about the often strained relationship between parents and their children, but we are left to make up our own minds about the individual cases that we view.
6. Judas and the Black Messiah
The film that the Trial of the Chicago 7 should have been. This is a much more accurate explanation of how the CIA tried to destroy the Black Panthers. Centre stage is Daniel Kaluuya as the ridiculously young Fred Hampton, who is an accomplished organiser with a gift for oratory. The parallel story of Bill O’Neil who was recruited by the Feds to prepare Hampton’s murder is just as interesting, though maybe not quite as inspiring. It’s surprizing that a film like this could be quite as mainstream as it was. And Daniel Kaluuya is compelling as Hampton.
Admission time. This is a film by friends of mine about a friend. But the story that it has to tell is incredible. Ramsis and Layla Kilani are the children of a Palestinian man who was killed during the bombing of Gaza in 2014. The film shows their attempt to gain justice for their father Ibrahim, or even acknowledgement from the German government that a German citizen was brutally killed. It also shows the personal development of the two siblings from tongue-tied kids to seasoned activists. This is, sadly, not an untypical story, but it is one which represents the experience of many German Palestinians.
This is a film that has gained more relevance following the recent Chilean elections. It is a story of three young female activists from Chile, Hong Kong and Uganda. The Ugandan activist Hilda, founder of the local Fridays for Future group, is the weak link on a political level – she is super-excited at getting a seat at a greenwashing panel at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Hilda serves as a counterpoint to Rayen and Pepper who are fighting police tear gas in Santiago and Hong Kong. This is not a film which offers solutions, but gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions.
What does the rise of right-wing authoritarianism have to do with domestic violence and murder against women? Dying to Divorce gives a nuanced view of how the increasing power of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has impacted the lives of individual women. But the real strength of the film is that it does not see this as being a particular problem of Turkey or Islam, but part of a trend which is strengthening across the world. We also see the people, mainly women, who are fighting back against this repression, so the picture is much less bleak than you might think.
10. Ivie wie Ivie
Another German film dealing with race, and again one which gets the balance right. This one is essentially about the different experiences of two Black women from cosmopolitan Berlin and Leipzig in the East. Although this sounds like the film could be worthy but dull, there is enough character development to avoid being too preachy. There are no spectacular events, no car chases, just people trying to get on with their lives, despite the pervasive institutional racism that they experience. On another level, it’s just another family drama, and none the worse for that.
Well, where do you start? A musical by Leos Carax, who often makes “difficult” films, with a soundtrack by Sparks (Carax and the Mael brothers all appear in the opening scene). An opera singer who falls in love with an Andy Kaufman-like confrontational comedian. Adam Driver trying (and largely failing) to sing. Marion Cotillard doing much better. And we haven’t got to their puppet baby yet. I met some friends last week, one of whom introduced me by bemusedly saying “he liked Annette”. I get the sentiment. Definitely not a film for everyone, but I had fun.
In which Kate Winslet plays a frumpy(ish) lesbian palaeontologist – and plays her very well. Mary doesn’t take much shit from anyone, till she meets Charlotte, a fragile woman who seems to be suffering from depression. Before you can say chalk and cheese, they’re at it like rabbits – till Charlotte has to return to respectable bourgeois society. On one level, it’s an inferior version of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but if you’re going to be a pale copy of an existing film, you may as well choose a stone cold classic.
13. Helden der Wahrscheinlichkeit / Riders of Justice
Mads Mikkelsen’s 2021 will probably be best remembered for his balletic performance in Another Round (which just failed to get into this top 20). But I believe that his performance in this film is even better. A story of social misfits planning revenge on a biker gang, it is sometimes a little too blokey, but this is mitigated by the characters not being the sort of blokes you see in most big films. It also rushes through a host of genres – a little action, a lot of comedy, and some philosophical musings on theories of probability. One for the underdogs.
I’m not even sure that this film got an official release – it doesn’t have an IMDB entry. I saw it in a free screening in a French pub followed by a Q&A with the directors. This is an honest history of the Yellow Vests movement, which means that it’s not afraid to show people making mistakes. The film is chaotic, but only because the movement that it is depicting is chaotic. Activists learn as they go along and are not fully united in what exactly they are fighting for. But as we see the protagonists learning from their experiences, we are ourselves confronted with important strategic and political questions.
15. Wem gehört mein Dorf? / Who owns my Village?
Gentrification was the big political question in Berlin in 2021, but this film shows the same subject in a quite different context. Göhren auf Rügen is an old tourist village on the banks of the Baltic in East Germany. After the wall came down, a generation left town. The people who stayed are now fighting rapacious property developers. For years, the parish council has consisted of the same old men who have nodded through the building of holiday homes, despite the threat to the environment. But one woman has had enough and is leading a fight to resist them.
One of the most anticipated Hollywood films after the cinemas reopened, Nomadland isn’t bad at all. Frances Macdormand and David Strathairn star alongside real nomads – people living on the edge of society in their own communities. There is a bearable amount of New Age hippie bollocks, and the beginning of the film is much too soft on the Amazon factory where Macdormand’s character works, but it shows a great deal of empathy, and Macdormand is, as ever, magnificent. And way to go for having lead characters who are older than 30.
Lo-fi directorial debut by Franka Potente who’s been out of the limelight a bit lately, but was German acting’s great hope last century after Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run). It is an accomplished film – unspectacular but none the worse for that. We follow Marvin who returns to his old home town after leaving prison, as he tries to reintegrate into a society that’s not too sure that they’d like him back. Kathy Bates does her thing as Marvin’s mother, but this is an ensemble piece about the lives of ordinary people with everyday problems.
A simple documentary about seven Trans men and women and their lives as bus and lorry drivers, social media junky and army colonel. Although the film does not hide from the difficulties of living in a transphobic society, it is generally upbeat and shows people to a greater or lesser extent coping with the problems that are flung at them. In a sense it is saying that Trans people can be normal too – some are fun, others can be irritating, you know, just like “real” people. It is a shame that films still need to make this point, but if one has to, it’s great that it’s done as elegantly as this.
Pretty much a run through of every one of Sparks’s albums, your reaction to this film will very much depend on how much you like the music. There are too many talking heads – semi-famous people, many of whom I’ve never heard of. But the main 2 characters – Ron and Russell Mael who are Sparks – are so hilarious that they more than make up for this. Ron is the one who looks like Hitler, but is surprisingly droll. Russell is the pretty boy who is an equally captivating speaker. Together, they are compelling. And very funny. The music isn’t bad, either.
20. Ich bin dein Mensch / I am Your Man
I’m always a bit suspicious of films which are based on a single concept – like what if science were able to produce a robot who was indistinguishable from a man, except that he understood what it is that women really want. Ich bin dein Mensch works because its main actors do not get too drawn into the gimmick. Maren Eggert as Alma is not interested in a relationship, Dan Stephens as the humanoid Tom, is ever so slightly unreal, though you can’t put your finger on exactly why. There’s a little too much sentimentality by the end, but it’s still worth a watch.
And here’s the list of shame of the 6 worst films I saw in 2021.
I went to see House of Gucci with a friend, and we disagreed afterwards about its level of self-awareness. Did it not realise it was that bad, or was it sending itself up? From the exaggerated Italian accents to the endless shots of rich people talking about money, you could argue that House of Gucci is making a point about the shallow inanity of the fashion industry by being itself inane. Either way, I predict that in a few years, it will be selling out “ironic” midnight showings where everyone chants along the banal dialogue, something like “The Room”. Even then, does anyone need 2½ hours of this?
Before looking back on what I’d seen this year, I’d completely forgotten about this one, a film which is not so much bad as insidious. Posing as a sympathetic drama based in the migrant community of Berlin-Wedding, its main take home message is “you know all these Muslims? They’re antisemitic fundamentalists.” Added to this, it focusses on the lives of boys in their mid-teens, who are never the most interesting characters in any context. Apparently this is “based on a true story”, but you need to be very careful to check who is telling the story you hear, and why.
3. Das Mädchen und die Spinne / The girl and the Spider
One of the advantages of Covid is the number of films from the Berlinale which have been shown in mainstream cinemas. I say this, but there is a certain sort of Berlinale film which seems to have been made for a very élite, insider audience. I just feel excluded and don’t get what it is trying to say, or why. Welcome to Das Mädchen und die Spinne, which received great critical acclaim, apart from one IMDB review which asked how so bad a film could have been made. That review spoke to my heart, and I fully approve. Pointless, meandering and boring.
Look, I know this is a taste thing. I find Marvel films superficial and avaricious, but understand that other people see qualities there which just don’t appeal to me. I should just accept this, go and see something else, and not complain. But I got hit by a perfect storm – a free cinema pass, nothing decent on that I hadn’t seen already and a film that had been released a day early to generate extra income. Also, great reviews, although Marvel films tend to get great reviews. So what was it like? Flashy and witless and everything I should have expected. The audience loved it though.
One of the great things of 2021 cinema is Mongay at the Kino International – LGBT films which are usually not in wide distribution or are pre-release. In general, they are better than most other films you see, because they’re not from the same old tired, straight perspective. I say “in general”, but there are exceptions. Occasionally, like Matthias & Maxime, they are dreary, self-indulgent stories from a dull subculture where gays and straights are equal in their vacuousness. It’s like spending time at a party in the company of people you detest – time that you’ll never get back.
When I first saw Nö, I thought that the problem lay with me, not the film. Maybe it was a perfectly good film with which I just couldn’t engage. The more I think about it, the more I reckon I was being too kind. A story of a professional couple, the film tries hard – much too hard. If it were an office worker, it would have a sign saying “You don’t have to be mad to work here … but it helps” on the wall. I can see a quite entertaining film which showed up these yuppies for the tedious narcissists that they are, but this one is far too kind to them. Just say Nö.