It seems a good moment to reflect on this second year of my absence from cinemas and what I’ve managed to see online (or broadcast) during the year. Here’s my list of twelve films available in the UK for the first time either in cinemas or broadcast/catch-up/streaming during 2021. The titles are in no particular order and I’ve chosen them for all kinds of different reasons, some of which are noted below, but perhaps most importantly because they represent films from all parts of the globe. There is also a blog post on this site on each one:
Adolescentes (France 2019)
One of two documentaries on the list, I found this on the ‘My French Film Festival’ stream earlier this year. Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz, it belongs to the small group of films that try to trace the development of two young people over several years, in this case two girls from the ages of 13 to 18.
There Is No Evil (Iran-Germany-Czech Republic 2020)
I watched this film on the Borderlines Film Festival online stream and it has now had a UK cinema release. There is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2020. It was written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, one of the film directors banned from filmmaking in Iran who has found ways to complete a film and show it to the world.
The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (India 2020)
One of the major frustrations of the pandemic has been the impossibility to see recent Indian releases, so I’ve leapt on any opportunities to see independent Indian films in festivals. This unusual film by Pushpendra Singh was a highlight of the Borderlines festival.
Moving On (South Korea 2019)
I was slightly underwhelmed by the much-celebrated Korean-American film Minari in 2021 and this family melodrama by first time filmmaker writer-director Yoon Dan-bi was for me the film I had hoped Minari might be. This was one of the MUBI films of the year and further evidence of the strength of the output of young female filmmakers in South Korea.
First Cow (US 2019)
Another Borderlines FF offering, this was eventually released in cinemas by MUBI and then streamed. Kelly Reichardt can do no wrong for me. First Cow has many layers of commentary on American history and colonialism/racism.
Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020)
An unusual film in many ways, this ‘sports film’ doesn’t deliver a conventional narrative but offers us an intimate view of an Olympic swimmer, acted by a current Olympic swimmer and directed by Pascal Plante, a similarly accomplished ex-Canadian swimming team member. The film is strangely out of time because of COVID which meant that the Tokyo games were delayed until 2021. This title was on MUBI.
Undine (Germany-France 2020)
As with Kelly Reichardt, Christian Petzold is another director whose films never disappoint me and often inspire. This was on MUBI, complementing a retrospective of Petzold’s work and I also enjoyed the earlier Petzold films, The State I’m In (2000) and Jerichow (2008) in MUBI’s Petzold strand. Undine returns Petzold to Berlin and I was fascinated by a narrative that literally melds myth, fantasy and architecture.
Billy (Spain 2020)
Shown as part of the annual ¡Viva! film festival of Spanish and Latin-American films in Manchester, this short documentary by writer-director Max Lemcke reveals the story of a notorious Francoist police spy turned investigator and torturer during the 1960s and 1970s. It is remarkable how the history of the Franco dictatorship still needs to fully understood and how filmmakers are trying to help contemporary audiences to understand how the legacy of fascist policies still lingers.
Tove (Finland-Sweden 2020)
I didn’t know very much at all about the Moomins and their creator Tove Jansson before I watched this film (via the BFI Player online offer). Unlike many cinephiles, I’m not at all averse to biopics of various kinds, especially when it means learning about such a fascinating creative figure, marvellously portrayed by Alma Pöysti in Zaida Bergroth’s film.
Limbo (UK 2020)
This was a film I was looking forward to and I wasn’t disappointed. Given the xenophobia towards asylum seekers in England it was wonderful to find a Scottish film with such an intelligent take on contemporary refugee stories. Director Ben Sharrock seems to be a ‘global Scot’ in terms of his vision. His film has won several prizes around the world and deserves more I think. I’ll be looking out for his next one. Again this was viewed on MUBI.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Japan 2021)
It has been a good year for Japanese cinema online, aided by the decision of the Japanese Foundation UK film tour to move online. It is scheduled to return to cinemas in 2022, but I hope it considers putting some titles online as it is difficult to see all the films spread across a range of venues. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is one of two films released by writer-director Hamaguchi Ryûsuke in 2021. It’s the other one, Drive My Car, that has won more prizes. I wonder if that is partly because that film is an adaptation of a Murakami story? Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was screened by the London Film Festival online and offers three short narratives in a two hour film (short for Hamaguchi). I thought this was a masterclass in writing and directing.
Azor (Switzerland-France-Argentina 2021)
This was one of the few films I saw in 2021 close to the time of its cinema release thanks to MUBI. I was amazed to find that the Swiss director Andreas Fortuna was a début feature filmmaker and that he was making a film in a country he did know but not as a native. He made the film in Spanish and seemed to have such impressive control in a story about politics and finance during the military dictatorship in Argentina.
My main source of new/recent films has been MUBI. I suspect I might make more use of BFI Player as well in future. Otherwise I am dependent on online festivals and I fear that there may not be so many in 2002, despite the fact that the pandemic is still not under control in the UK. There are a host of interesting-looking film titles from major directors in 2022. I hope I get to see some of them, probably online as I hope that some of the festivals do maintain their online screening plans. The one bonus of the forced move to streaming is that it has actually made film festivals more accessible and arguably widened the horizons of audiences who can’t attend big city festivals, either because of the cost or the difficulties of travel. Whatever happens, let’s hope film flourishes in all its forms in the year to come.
Not seen any of these, I am afraid, although at least three or four were available to me to watch in the cinema as is my preference. The return of Leeds Film Festival to a number of venues, including what used to be the notorious Plaza but is now part of Howard Assembly Rooms, did give me my two favourite films of the year both seen at Vue : ‘Paris 13th District’ and ‘Compartment no. 6’.
The latter was my best film of the year by some distance and, as so often at LIFF my best pick was set in Russia (albeit a four-way co-production between Finland, Russia and another couple of countries that elude my memory now).
In previous years my top picks have been ‘Loveless’ and ‘Beanpole’. I did enjoy ‘Minari’ by the way, but agree it might have been over-praised in these lean times.
Very impressed by this and the range of films is great. I can’t make the switch very readily to watching films on a small screen though I did a couple of times in the first lockdown. But our local Curzon is virtually empty in the early afternoons so I go there. And of course I watch a lot of television!
I think Curzon did show two or three of the films in this list during 2021 and the new Camden cinema has five screens. Curzon might have shown a couple more on its Home Cinema service but it would struggle to manage the whole twelve as two or three of them haven’t so far got any form of UK distribution. In the end, I need to get access to festivals. But good luck with Curzon!