One of the main reasons I rarely blog is that most film blogs I come across have a diary style that is a lot weaker than the type of strong, formal film criticism found in a rare film magazine such as Cineaste. Since I don’t venture out to movie theaters again just yet, it would be difficult for me to fairly make a list of the best new films I saw in 2021 so instead I’ll go for the diary route after all and mention some of the films and books that stuck with me this year, many of them not being 2021 releases.
This year, I read several ‘making of’ books including Steven Hyden’s funny, depressing (for its observant candor about our polarizing, tech-dependent last two decades) Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Glenn Kenny’s also funny, warm (for its clear affection for Martin Scorsese and his Goodfellas team) Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch. Of the three, Stratton’s book feels the most dense with history, covering the director Sam Peckinpah’s biography, the making of his film The Wild Bunch, the Mexican Revolution, and the film’s lasting influence on American cinema.
I also read Tom Shone’s thoughtful but very subject-interview-focused book on Christopher Nolan, The Nolan Variations. In terms of books on a single director released this year (and read by me), Adam Nayman’s recent David Fincher: Mind Games was the strongest, most accessible, and most intelligent. I also read David Thomson’s book on violence in film and its potential/obvious negative impact, Murder and the Movies, and his overview of important filmmakers, A Light in the Dark. While these book premises may suggest Thomson has run out of ideas, he is as sharp and provocative as ever, and like Kenny, Hyden, and Stratton, he is able to look at texts from the past with today’s culture and mores in mind while also finding value within the texts for what they were at the time they were released. His age (eighties) and experience do give him a deserved place in film criticism. My partner gave me the hefty Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, and while its team’s thorough list of entries are fascinating (preferring the nearly unheard of The Zodiac to Fincher’s Zodiac) I longed for Thomson’s seductive writing style while reading it.
Few new film releases really struck out at me this year. The most memorable new releases were two very different music documentaries. One, The Velvet Underground, was by the hip, smart, and provocative Todd Haynes, and unsurprisingly covered the hip, smart, and provocative band The Velvet Underground. What made this film feel fresh was that most of the interview subjects were individuals who were either in the band (such as John Cale, who is still living) or knew the band intimately or at least were part of the same circle they ran in (i.e. the film critic Amy Taubin). This is sadly a strong contrast to the tendency in recent music docs to make the ‘talking heads’ be a long line of sycophant famous fans.
On that note, Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G is also unique. What starts off as a documentary about the world’s most successful instrumental jazz musician quickly becomes a portrait of how profoundly hated Mr. G’s music is in the serious jazz community. A lot of Lane’s interviewees are professional music critics who are politely astonished by Mr. G’s success despite his bland music and clear cultural appropriation. What’s even more fascinating about the documentary is that Kenny G, who also interviews with Lane, comes across as earnest, considerate, hard-working, grateful, and kind to his fans and friends even as he seems oblivious to why people would take issue with his music and its wide appeal.
Unwilling to venture into movie theaters, I did watch several older films through The Criterion Channel and sometimes through Mubi. Being able to watch a curated series of films starring the American actor Robert Ryan on The Criterion Channel including Bad Day at Black Rock, Crossfire, Caught, The Set-Up, On Dangerous Ground, and Odds Against Tomorrow illustrated how fortunate any film fan with Criterion is and how much more accessible classic film is now with many streaming services.