Gianni Damaia’s Top Ten Favourite Films of 2021
Hello and welcome to my Top Ten Favourite Films of 2021 as presented by Movie Burner Entertainment!
PLEASE READ THIS DISCLAIMER
As has now become an annual tradition, these are my top ten favourite films of the year. As is also a seemingly annual tradition, it is likely to exclude films that should definitely be included on it. Every year, it would seem, I finalise this list, and almost immediately after I do, I watch a film (like Blindspotting, Blaze, Nomadland, or The Father to name only a few) and lament that I have no opportunity to praise them on this year-end review. It’s always a shame, but hey, that’s what the Oscars are for (unless you’re a genre film. In which case: that’s what film Twitter is for.). This list will not feature films notably in contention for the 2020 Oscar season (i.e., we ‘normal folk’ may have all seen Nomadland this March, but it’s a 2020 film for all intents and purposes according to the majority of critics [*cough bastards*] who were able to see it when it was showcased.). Notable names I have not yet seen as of writing this are The Tragedy of MacBeth, Drive My Car, and West Side Story among many others. I have seen over 50 new releases this year! It’s just never enough, is it? *takes long drag of cigarette*
It is also worth noting that this is a list in which I write, somewhat aimlessly, in a gushing and often unnecessarily embellishing way. You will read a brief and often vague synopsis, perhaps an overly expository editorial about my association with the film in question, and a broad overview of my critical thoughts. I rate each of the films I list. You may notice that films occasionally have ‘higher ratings’ in conjunction with a ‘higher spot’ on the list (e.g., The Shaggy Dog may be a critical 4/10, but it could also be my number 4 favourite! Whereas alternatively, Zoom is a 5/10 but may rank as my number 8 favourite…these are not actual examples by the way…they’re just Tim Allen movies…I feel the need to stress that…). The point of this is tied to one of my long held, personal beliefs about film. Your favourite may not always be what you would consider the best. You may disagree with that sentiment, and if you do, I hope you take it to Twitter and be as loud and as vocal about it as you can. Because apparently any press is good press. Thank you for your time in reading this prelude. Now, enjoy the list!
Wait, one more thing: This list is generally spoiler free, but if you’re entirely unfamiliar with the film mentioned, then I’d recommend skipping my commentary and watching for yourself before reading the editorials in their entirety.
These are the movies that are just barely outside of my Top Ten this year. They’re fantastic in their own right, and on any given day they could easily be included in this Top Ten.
Several others could likely be mentioned here. But these five picks are virtually interchangeable with any number you’re likely to see next. I hope you check them out if you haven’t seen them already. Without further ado, here’s the list…
10. Spider-Man: No Way Home
Far be it from me to keep the super conglomerate that is (Disney) Marvel off a list of my favourite films of the year. Spider-Man: No Way Home is the final entry in a trilogy of films while also existing as the 30-something entry in an ever growing, continuous franchise spanning a multitude of different characters in a variety of different world ending, universe ending, existential crises in which heroes are destined to inevitably succeed after their god-like trials and tribulations. It is a long-hailed criticism that films of this nature have become too predictable, their stories plugged into a machine that produces universal products for maximum audience consumption. Truthfully, I do not believe it is for this critic to say. To levy a criticism that encompassing would be to dismiss films as an individual experience, and were I to do that, I would be forced to consider the wider implications of such an action (I may never see a Star Wars film again! Are all western movies the same as well? Friday the 13th is no longer enjoyable because it treads familiar ground? The anxieties of such a decision!). I prefer to appreciate all manner of films, and no matter how money hungry producers may seem behind the scenes, it cannot discount that No Way Home is nothing short of a stellar accomplishment as a sequel to a trilogy, a sequel to a franchise, and a sequel to two other franchises (…my god, okay, perhaps this is getting a bit too large. But I digress!). No Way Home introduces an unlikely sort of plot, the kind of magical, accidentally multiverse-opening jargon one could expect from a film this ambitious. But if there is one thing we have learned in years of watching films like this, it is that the plot works best as a backdrop, a set piece for which to detail poignant character discoveries and intimate details of interpersonal communication with inherently high stakes, and on this front No Way Home inarguably succeeds. Relationships are central to the highlights of the film as well as the core theme, and each progression in the plot reflects an internal conflict raised within our beautifully relatable protagonist. Perhaps the most impressive idea in No Way Home is how remarkable it is to craft a hero that could almost instantaneously alleviate the central conflict for himself but refuses in an effort to promote a greater good and how easily the audience is able to understand that decision. It must be said about the aforementioned machine churning producorial component that No Way Home is debatably the most satisfying display of fan service ever put to screen, offering a myriad of brilliant acknowledgements, rewarding fans for investment in years of blockbusters and improving upon occasionally lacklustre material from films past. No Way Home is miles away from a perfect film. Once the hype-haze leaves the mind, a crystallised acknowledgment of the plot’s numerous holes begins to fill its void. Contrived elements of selecting characters at arbitrary times in their universes brings the world building to question, and the science jargon—while already taxing in its gimmickry—does dampen the stakes on several preceding films in the franchise. But creatives likely knew these pitfalls which is why their focus instead is to redirect audience attention to the emotionally vibrant performances, the always-in-focus theme, and the exceedingly excellent visual effects that maintain the suspense that our heroes may fail making it all the more satisfying when they succeed. And in the rare occurrences when they don’t succeed, the reverberations of consequences from No Way Home are destined to have lasting impact on the titular character as well as the world around him, and I for one am excited to see it. 8.7/10
9. The Power of the Dog
At University, I remember vividly our studying of Jane Campion’s The Piano. On the surface, it’s a relatively simplistic prestige drama. It has grounded performances (particularly groundbreaking in the case of Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter) and an earnest love story to smooth the edges of its often thick atmosphere. But beyond the veil, The Piano disquietingly unearths a primal sexuality, a fierce understanding of insatiable lust and the pressurised culture that permeates such yearning. It’s a film that expanded in meaning and scope the more I looked within it. Such is the case with Campion’s return to feature films, The Power of the Dog. It takes time and patience for The Power of the Dog to truly reveal itself in all of its splendour, and in this regard, I would argue the film’s biggest pitfall is its inaccessibility upon first viewing. Questioning each moment makes one feel as though they missed something, and context in Campion’s film is often left unsaid only to be determined by clues left later. It could even be argued that the film is the antithesis to our infatuation with easily accessible stories. The modern age has provided such a blank slate for which we can digest media, less time intensive and easier to comprehend, that it seems almost marvellous The Power of the Dog can exist at all. But every year, it seems, there are art films this methodical, this spacious and looming, that invokes deep rooted emotions without us even having the capacity to necessarily comprehend why. Some of these films posture in their artistry, using illusions to influence their momentum without actually working to get there. But The Power of the Dog is tried and true. It is a film rewarding in its experience beyond any conventionally satisfying ending, beyond any emotional flash or violent bombast, beyond anything we can expect in the modern age of mainstream cinema. Instead, The Power of the Dog rewards upon the unravelling of its characters, and its true impact is felt long after the credits roll when you lie awake thinking of what each calculated moment meant in the stack of cards that threatens the very nature of the people who inhabit the film. Award-worthy performances liter the picture, but chief among them is Kodi Smit-McPhee who crafts a perfectly nuanced portrait rich with delicate sensitivity and a fierce, sexually provocative undercurrent. Indeed, The Power of the Dog succeeds chiefly on its ability to weave through minefields of sexual tension without hardly a kiss. It is a movie about the pressurised containment of toxic masculinity, and the power of sexual promiscuity. Campion’s film was designed to be an indulgence, one in which the viewer is meant to seep each and every mindful detail out of its rich atmosphere. The beautifully captured Australian plains are cast and feature as a wholly realised character in the mountainous Montana fields. Campion’s watchful eye calculates each visual as its own unique puzzle piece in a bizarre and twisted story. I caution viewers to experience The Power of the Dog with a clear mind eager to absorb the rich vastness that is depicted, for if you do, you will be unambiguously rewarded in the film’s final third where all that it appears to be is subverted in an orchestra of small, calculated brilliance. 9.3/10
I likely surprise no one in my immediate circles, nor may I surprise distant readers, in telling anyone that Dune is one of my favourite films of the year. A dense science fiction epic with masterful effects and cinematography is sure to get praise enough from a host of observers, but beyond the initial scope lies the added bonus of Villeneuve’s brilliant attention to detail. Readers of the source material may marvel at the succinct introduction of key concepts, big-brained focal points that may seem relatively innocuous until revealed to be part of a larger picture. This opus succeeds on the strength of its script balancing heady ideas on a plate of visual splendour. The shift in aspect ratio at the end of the first third captures the grandeur in both the spectacle for the audience and the imposing endeavour presented to the characters, keeping the humans in the forefront of what is destined to be a new odyssey in the grand scope of cinema. It becomes difficult to offer much else. Some may be wary to allot themselves the freedom to be uncertain, as many of the film’s elements are presented methodically over time. And it goes without saying once the title card first appears that Dune’s greatest fault is its inability to tell the totality of the story, building to a climax that is best left for subsequent films. But Dune does what so many other adaptations fail to do. It remains faithful. It trusts in the beauty of storytelling that Herbert once mastered. It expands on his ideas only so much as to offer the audience a better glimpse as to the possibility beyond them, gearing them for their glorious purpose yet to be fulfilled. As the sequel begins its production, I remain a fan as optimistic as ever. Even knowing the book’s latter half carries the brunt of its zaniness, I have the upmost faith that the totality of Villeneuve’s vision will leave a lasting impression on film for years to come. 8.8/10
It’s hard to quantify a life. Is the value of our life dictated by the money we accumulate? The family we’ve left behind? The legacy of our work, our imprint placed upon the planet like a hand in wet concrete, leaves us often sitting dreading the day that legacy is washed away from the ones who could have known us. It may seem odd to consider Val Kilmer in relation to legacy—at one time, movies seemed to succeed by mere association with his presence, yet at other times some may argue they would succeed in spite of him. A Juilliard graduate, the star of Tombstone, Heat, and even Batman, but most of all a human, and in the more recent years of his life, a cancer survivor. Seeing Kilmer in the present day may be a shock to some unfamiliar with his condition. I had discovered Kilmer’s current state after the profile by the Times, but the viewers I watched Val with seemed to gasp in awe and even lower their eyes with a feign glimpse of pity for the once legend now plugging his throat just to speak. Yet Val is not a film designed to pity its topic. It’s not a film that yearns to get you to understand the titular character’s eccentricities, nor is it a film that wants you to empathise with his reputation following his divorce, nor is it a film that wishes you would give him another chance at doing what he loves. Val is a self-portrait. It is a culmination of Kilmer’s life using archival footage he often took himself over the course of his years on this earth. It’s breathtakingly earnest, and even shockingly vulnerable at times. The film is perhaps long winded in moments, even scatterbrained and unfocused despite its rather linear method of storytelling. It is the curse of all documentary films to be burdened with too much footage, but despite having more compiled videos than anyone could possibly know what to do with, Val suffers surprisingly less than most. It’s a film just as unafraid to show Kilmer moo-ing with delight at the sight of cows as it is to show Kilmer’s depression induced by the commercialisation of his profession. He laments in the height of his career that the things he loved about the work, the actual acting, was such a fractional component of what he actually had the pleasure of doing. The legacy of Kilmer’s work suddenly takes new shape as we watch the moments of brilliance (his final scene in Tombstone remaining a true treasure for any aspiring actor) hidden under the minutiae of making Kilmer into a star. Val shows a man fighting to love his work, to love his life, and being pulled from that love in ways all too relatable. It’s a film for the film buffs (even the most middling cinephile is likely to gush at the staggering mess that produced The Island of Doctor Moreau) just as much as it is a film for those of us curious about the legacy of life. It is likely that you may see Val unaware of just how wide a breadth of work our subject has accumulated (to date, he has 105 acting credits on imdb, a staggeringly high amount for any A-List actor). His legacy is likely to be condensed into a mournful tale, a once-great cut down at the beginnings of a new surge (a Mark Twain related piece that is too rich to spoil), but if anything, Val shows so much more. It demonstrates the reverse of our expectations, a vulnerable portrait of true genius as Kilmer navigates life in the way he wants, not the way he is expected to. It’s a showcase of life and truth, a desire to be grateful for the modicum of happiness afforded to us in the time we have. I would love to see Kilmer on the screen again, vocal tribulations and all. Because the passion he shows for his work and life in Val can only bolster the generosity in his work moving forward. I’m likely not to get that wish. I hope I’m wrong. 9/10
6. The Harder They Fall
So often, I feel the aim (and often “the miss”) in most films is to find material that feels truly unique, to uncover a stone not yet turned over in the ever-expanding lineage of stories. Yet, I believe it is often in the reinvention of the conventional, the seemingly ‘predictable’ narratives, where artists are able to illicit the best responses from an audience. Instead of unique story, we have unique storytellers. Such is the case with The Harder They Fall, and this is no doubt why it succeeds. The story is a relatively conventional western revenge tale: a child left orphan by a relentless outlaw vows to hunt his tormentor no matter the cost. He’s accompanied by his Robin Hood-esque gang of thieves and a marshal to boot. The villain is surrounded by imposing threats each with idealistic desires of their own. And the face off comes to a head in glorious and bloody fashion. The Harder They Fall is a bit of historical fiction taking real life heroes, villains, and the characters somewhere in-between, and embellishing their escapades to tie together in an epic tale about the quest for vengeance. The Harder They Fall is never trying to fool you, necessarily. It is unabashedly the story it appears to be bolstered by a truly stellar ensemble mainly encompassing some of the most illustrious black actors working today. The heroes are truly heroic in often gruesome, and occasionally blundering ways, and the villains are truly villainous, but only as a perfect reflection of their heroic foe counterparts. “One bad day away,” is a phrase that no doubt comes to mind. With stylish direction that pays as much homage to Ford as it does to Tarantino, and a script that allows for the musings of life in the West just as much as the dark undercurrent of hatred boiling beneath the surface, The Harder They Fall is no doubt the biggest surprise of the year. So endeared was I to the characters and brilliant performances that I allowed myself to be completely blindsided by the film’s reinvention of its narrative, a devilish third act reveal that completely redefined the story that had made me so accustomed to ‘a simple western tale’. Critics may scoff at The Harder They Fall’s conventions, lamenting that the narrative takes too many diversions into a burgeoning romance and contrives excuses to keep that romance alive. And that is a valid complaint. But The Harder They Fall proves, unmistakably, that a storyteller makes all the difference. No one is ever truly bothered by predictable narratives considering how much time we spend re-watching our comfort classics in place of new material. And sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective, someone painting with a brush that’s just a little bit broader on an already delightful canvass, for us to marvel at a picture all over again. 8.7/10
5. The Last Duel
It’s, perhaps, a bit ageist to acknowledge that Ridley Scott is 84 years old and still making movies with this much vitality, but rather than point out his age as the operative, I’d like to instead draw attention to the legend’s illustrious career before speaking on (one of) his latest works. Ridley Scott helmed two of the greatest science fiction films of all time in Blade Runner and Alien. He essentially introduced Brad Pitt into American stardom with Thelma and Louise. He’s been nominated for best director 3 times and has 3 times as many movies in which he is deserving of that same accolade. Scott is a living master in every sense of the word. It’s not his age that is impressive. It’s his track record. An illustrious career showing no signs of halting in quality or quantity in his production, not to mention the literal hundreds of commercials he directs on a yearly basis, Ridley Scott is a true marvel in every sense of the word, and with The Last Duel, he may have made one of his best films to date. The Last Duel is an epic, based on a true tragedy, but told in a harrowing three act structure in which each piece of the puzzle reveals untold truths in perception. Whereas lesser scripts may aim for cheap shocks in the subversion of individual subjectivity, The Last Duel entrenches itself in universal truths. It uses its framework ingeniously to build more specific portraits of the characters at its centre, not only to present how others see them in the often harrowing interpretations, but also to present the ideal way in which they see themselves. The characters—the men specifically—bask in the pride of their storytelling and cement themselves as undisputed heroes of their tales, making the reveals in alternative perceptions all the more intricate. In the film, we are shown a period of time stretching over several years in which two soldiers once friends come to a decision to duel to the death for the honour of the lady Marguerite (Jodie Comer), Jean de Carrouge’s (Matt Damon) wife who has claimed a sexual assault against her person by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). But again, though the film alternates perspectives to showcase the unreliable narrators, it is still a story of objective truths. It defines the men as characters in tandem with the world they live in: a place of boastful aristocrats more concerned with material property than emotional sincerity. And it defines Lady Marguerite as a woman far more capable than the pressurised confinements she is subjected to. The Last Duel is a film stuffed to the brim with violence, but in examining the wilful violence of men, it becomes readily apparent that nothing can ever be as boorish and barbaric as the world Marguerite must navigate. Though the film speaks powerfully and brutally about sexual assault, Marguerite is a woman whose very identity is assaulted long before men ever began putting their hands on her. In terms of possible faults, the accent work—or more accurately, the lack thereof—may grate on some. The passage of time is often unclear, and the few uses of title cards to cue the audience as to years and locations feels arbitrary in its compromise to catch us up on the action. But the subtly in editing is triumphant and ingenious, drawing attention to the most minute differences in moments as simple as the way a slipper falls to the floor or which man walks first in a demonstrative stride to another. The violence is bloody, carnage filled, and chaotic with beautiful attention to detail paid in the stunning choreography that highlights the messy movements in even the most triumphant warriors. The performances are uniformly excellent, each of them taking on new specificity in their attributes over the course of the three-pronged story, but it is Comer who shines so brightly in the picture designed to idolise this innocent beauty only to subvert the expectation of her womanhood and give her agency beyond the comprehension of the men who aim to keep her in a trophy case. The three perspectives so clearly established in the film by the three writers only speaks to further the audience understanding. Whether it is the symbolism of a horse misused and locked away, or the declaration of a man’s insistence that sexual violence against a woman he ‘loves’ is a scorn against him, The Last Duel embraces its horror undertones. It uses genre to liven its experience and reveal that not all is as it seems. 9/10
4. Liquorice Pizza
Call me crazy, and many are sure to do so, but I believe Liquorice Pizza would have been better served by its original title: Soggy Bottom. As is dictated in the movie, ‘Soggy Bottom’ is something that simply elicits no sexual response, completely in conducive to sales. It is two words that when put together cause a repulsive response—two things that simply should not work together: something that is soggy…on your bottom. Sure, you could say liquorice and pizza don’t go together either, but it’s not quite as charming or sexually charged as ‘Soggy Bottom’. I only spend so much time on this vague and underreported detail because it is essentially my only gripe with a film that delighted me to such an endless extreme that I find myself smiling just simply reminiscing on its musing moments. In high school, I was given Days Are Gone—the Haim sister’s first album—and spent many nights driving and belting to ‘My Song 5’ (not exactly their best received work, but I simply adored it). To discover upon the anticipated release of their second album that my favourite director of all time was working on their music videos was essentially a brain overload for this music loving film nerd. This is likely more information than is needed, but I feel it necessary to set the stage for just how nervous I was that the Haim sisters were not only featured in Liquorice Pizza, but that Alana Haim was also its star! Would my love of Haim be perverted by film twitter ragging on another performance given misguidedly to a musician? Would my love of Paul Thomas Anderson be tainted by a plagued casting decision? Am I being overdramatic in these anxieties? No, no, and yes, as it turns out. Liquorice Pizza is not only a stellar redefining of the romantic comedy, but it’s also bolstered by—and even carried on the back of—Alana Haim, a performer with an almost envious quality to demonstrate a beautiful understanding of empathy, to allow her character (known to the audience as ‘Alana’, using her own namesake) to make chaotic decisions that are uniquely understandable. The angst and aimlessness of a twenty-something, the passion and fervent love for her friends, but with the steady undercurrent of questionable morality in the fear of one’s own maturity. The supporting cast surrounding Alana, and a steadily charismatic performance from Cooper Hoffman, all infuse the film with a variety of eccentricity. But this is a love story at its heart. Perhaps even frustratingly so. It may grate on the viewer the lack of characterisation for our male lead, Gary. Indeed, Gary is a bit pluralistic. We’re meant to see him as no more than a kid, an idolised idea of how love will shape his life with no real understanding of the world, yet the plot hinges on Gary’s ability to beautifully understand the world around him and conquer it consistently and successfully as an aspiring entrepreneur. But when the story focuses on its main anchor, the brilliance of Alana Haim, it becomes a stunning take on the coming-of-age tale telling us that perhaps getting older is overrated in the end. It’s a film that perfectly captures our strong pull to be taken seriously in tandem with our inability to take anything seriously in the world around us. It is a film that is passionately about love tied down by the frivolity and discomfort associated to sex. It’s a film that is unafraid to pull its characters frustratingly apart time and time again only to have them find their way back to each other. Because love is hard to come by. You may think it’s easy. But love is bitter like Liquorice. It’s filling like a pizza. It’s uncomfortable and messy just like a combination of the two. Okay, perhaps I do like the name after all. 9/10
By virtually all metrics and standards, CODA is destined to be the emotional heart of award season and the filmic cure to what has been—no doubt—an exhausting year. Child of Deaf Adults, the title stands for, and while the hearing audience may not be altogether familiar with this world, CODA wastes no time in acclimating us to the lives of Rubi and her family as she dabbles in a potentially life altering dream—a desire to sing, something her family cannot understand. Another take on the coming-of-age high school drama is birthed new life within CODA’s expert script, masterfully adapted from French film La Famille Belier. The central difference between the two films lies in the casting in which CODA takes to feature real deaf actors who convey a poignant level of realism. But even beyond the believability of the circumstances, Rubi’s family is fleshed with vibrant performances, both hilariously relatable and often uniquely earnest, that showcase some of the best work of the year. You will likely hear about Troy Kotsur in his magnetic display, his character, Frank, a father and the pivot point for some of the film’s most crucial drama. But even beyond Troy, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, and lest we forget the anchor Emilia Jones each coalesce to create the single greatest acting ensemble of the year. Yet beyond the casting, CODA succeeds predominantly in the story it aims to tell. A delicate first act that subtly weasels its way into your home, a poignant inciting arc with a dense central conflict, and at the most crucial moments when the future of these characters who have wormed their way into your heart is in the balance, CODA decides to rip you to emotional shreds. First, there’s an auditorium scene, so perfectly directed to give both hilarious and heartfelt understanding to the most essential points of view. And then a scene by a car. A scene so perfect in its writing, performance, and its direction—beginning first from a distance and allowing us, along with the characters, to grow closer over the course of its intimate journey. And almost immediately after, a climax so rich in its scope that one could almost forget the numerous contrived conveniences that are allotted just for its emotional impact. CODA may not be a perfect film. It certainly uses our love of these characters to its advantage in ways that may seem exploitative to the actual grounded foundation of the plot. But the point is deemed moot as the final scene plays in all its magnificent glory, a scene in which a line—a single word—is enough to make you cry. 9/10
If performance is the metric by which you select your favourite films of the year, Pig is likely to be the very top of your list. Nicolas Cage has had a rather eccentric career. As a long-time fan, I’ve found myself gushing at many of his committed, and heartfelt performances in Leaving Las Vegas, Joe, and Raising Arizona. I’ve cringed at the dramatic highs of films like Deadfall and Vampire’s Kiss. I’ve chuckled at the mystifying Face-off. And I’ve yearned for more in films like Knowing and National Treasure where he has been no doubt charismatic, but clearly restrained. It wasn’t until I saw Mandy that I began to consider Nicolas Cage as one of my all-time favourite actors, and even then, the enjoyment in that film is likely hidden for most mainstream viewers under a cacophony of ambitious, bold, and bizarre imagery. Pig is the first Cage performance in a post Mandy world where I feel he has finally shown what longtime fans knew had been there all along. A twisted undercurrent to his stalking persona, in Pig we see a man carved and laid bare, a vulnerable splaying of trauma and a fight for the survival of his own cognitive wellbeing. It’s a subdued performance. For many who are unfamiliar with his breadth of work, it may even seem an anomaly. But Cage’s performance as Rob is no doubt a triumph, one of the finest of the year, one of the finest of an illustrious career, and surely to be one of the finest of this new decade. But a stellar central performance can only carry a film so far. Pig succeeds with so much more. Whether it be the emotional powerhouse script from debut feature writer/director, Michael Sarnoski, with the three act structure clearly delineated and brilliantly reflecting the central character as well as a core thematic motif, or the stellar unraveling of grief, the film taking its depiction of tragedy to such a depth so as to come to new conclusions about what it means to lose someone. Pig is not merely about grief, but it is about the trauma of grief, the way it can play to our psychological detriment, and how acceptance is no doubt the hardest part of the journey—a sentiment Indiewire.com astutely covered this year. It’s no secret how Pig uses Rob as a means to talk about the dissociative undercurrent of grief, the way we as people can detach from our reality, both literally and figuratively, as a means for coping. Rob alludes to how he sees the world, a simulated environment destined for predictive failure in our effort to appease the ones around us, and it is in this world that Rob shows his true strength. Rob is a giant to the people around him, yet in his mind he remains anonymous, a searcher in the wind desperate for a lifeline to the few things in life he is emotionally capacity to care about. The first act is a stack of cards, and it is here that we introduce the film’s core downfall which is its ambitious world building that occasionally stretches beyond our ability to grasp the breadth of its implications. But at the end of the day, when all is left but a lonely man and his pig, it grows hard to care about such trivialities as a ‘best films of the year’ list. Unless, of course, you do it for you. And you do it for the people who may smile and remember that one meal or nugget of wisdom that they hold with them today to lift them out of the mud. 9.5/10
Bo Burnham, who I believe to be the quintessential sad clown of the digital age, has long fascinated me. From the bizarre and almost incessant focus on his own juvenile embellishments (the joviality of masturbation seems to have a long-standing relationship with his work), to the poignant and nuanced poeticisms underlaying his self-study, Burnham has made his career as a comedian more focused on deconstructing the medium than embracing it. Following Burnham from his grass roots as a ‘meme-oologist’ of sorts (I once knew every word to ‘I’m Bo-Yo’ as, I’m sure, did many a reckless, white teenager at the time) had never taken me past the line of my own self-revelation until the discovery of his 2016 special Make Happy. Burnham’s follow-up, Eighth Grade, ranked as one of my favourite films in 2018. And upon Inside’s announcement, I anticipated another entertaining, perhaps pretentious, if not quietly brilliant portrait of a man’s isolation. What I got instead, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “what I got in addition,” was a visceral depiction of depersonalisation, a revelatory examination into the inner workings of a high functioning mind, and my single favourite film to release in 2021. Burnham’s Inside features the meta-textual development of the character, Bo’s, comedy special as he manages to deconstruct ideas within pop culture and modern politics while trying to maintain a lifestyle that caters to his creative indulgences and simultaneously keeping sane. The ‘special’ doesn’t merely denote grief in isolation, but rather it makes the astute connection that the modern age of technological advancement has placed an entire generation in a condensed echo chamber of comfortability; that the most isolating event spurned by a global pandemic was merely an amendment to the already pressurised containment of our everyday lives. Burnham has long spoken about the under-acknowledged horrors that accompany a life behind a screen, the nostalgia and anxiety we feel for events that have not yet come to pass, and the desire to occupy our minds with the endless streams of content provided to us by corporations who have commodified clicks at the expense of thousands of fragile minds and lives. It may seem odd to casual viewers, particularly older viewers with a different relationship to technology and mental health, that a comedy special highlighting goofy songs about stereotyping the social media lives of white women or the hardships accompanying modern sexual fantasies in the digital space would garner such praise so as to be someone’s favourite film of 2021, and I don’t blame skepticism in that acknowledgement. But I caution and encourage readers and potential viewers to look deeper. Because beyond the aesthetics, the stylised lighting choices to highlight a more vibrant theatricality in such a confined environment, there lies an endless array of metaphorical subtexts, of ideas both internalised and expressed onscreen, about the feelings that lie dormant within us, the questioning of our own machinations that addict us to a life of esoteric suffering. If you’re a fan of Inside, you’ve likely gushed about the ‘All Eyes on Me’ sequence, the spiral of a mind upended by their own manifestations of mental anxiety climaxing in a heart wrenching reveal as our perspective is quite literally turned and shaken to uncover a deeply disturbing isolation. It’s a moment as if to say our personal relationship to this film has been taken for granted and the protagonist has been distorting our perception of his wellbeing until the opportune moment where he shows instead that this is merely a finished product that we get to digest whereas he experienced it as a creative agonising over every facet. But, for me, I knew Inside was my number one film this year as soon as I listened to ‘That Funny Feeling’. The sequence itself is relatively innocuous, and perhaps for some viewers it may even be dismissed as one of the film’s more blasé playoffs. The camera simply and slowly pushes in and out on Burnham over the course of an unbroken four minutes. The backdrop is an unassuming colour highlighting Burnham in a faux-firelight to give a better offering of the (illusion of) intimacy, and our hero quietly plays a somber, Buffet-esque acoustic piece that frames several bizarre ideas of everyday life as instigations of a ‘funny feeling’ within the lyricist. It was here that I was introduced to dissociation as a concept, something with which I am acutely aware of despite having never heard the term before. And it was here that I realised Inside’s central allegory (one of many that can be interpreted, and surely my favourite): That those of us who relate to the Burnham character in this piece know all too well that we were always taming the voices in our heads, keeping them distracted to look away from the horrors or anxieties lurking in the shadows behind them, and for us to be isolated together in a pandemic—together yet apart—is merely more of the same. The film’s biggest knock is its inability to speak to everyone as succinctly as it spoke to me. To call it a comedy special is a disservice that sets an expectation for the ‘knee-slapping observations’ to unfold (we will leave the title of ‘Best Comedy Special’ to Michael Che for the year), and viewers with such an expectation are destined to be a bit perplexed by the introspective piece they no doubt got instead. Inside is a film about being inside. It is a film about the people inside who will watch it. And it is a film about the ones inside our heads clamoring for an opportunity to make a joke when no one is laughing in the background. 9.5/10