Some of The Big Picture’s regular contributors share their choices for the best films of 2021. Part 4.
Benedetta (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
We should collectively thank the movie gods that Paul Verhoeven is still at it; with Benedetta, he brings more style, audacity, and wit to the screen than most directors half his age. As the titular nun in Renaissance Italy – one who is either a narcissistic psychopath or a proto-feminist martyr, or maybe both – Virginie Efira meets Verhoeven’s fetishistic excesses head-on, bolstered by fantastic supporting performances from Daphne Patakia and Charlotte Rampling. It would be all too easy to write the film off as pure titillation – or worse, as an example of an aging artist indulging all of his perverse fantasies. But to do so would overlook the film’s earnest critique of a religion which exploited its female devotees (many of whom joined for literal survival) while allotting its male leaders unchecked power. Jaw-droppingly frank, visually stunning, often hilarious, and quite possibly heretical, Benedetta is Verhoeven at his provocative best.
Azor (dir. Andreas Fontana)
Andreas Fontana’s Azor creeps up on you. I finished the writer-director’s assured debut – about a Swiss private banker visiting ‘80s Argentina to wrap up some business after his partner “mysteriously” disappears – with middling feelings, but it lingered in my mind longer than any other film this year. The narrative is slow and sometimes frustratingly opaque, but the cumulative effect is hypnotic. Exquisitely framed and featuring an eerie, stringed score by Paul Courlet, Azor (the title is a professional code word for “be quiet”) is the type of film where a character’s quick glance says more – especially upon rewatch – than any exposition-heavy monologue possibly could. I’m still not sure I understand why it unfolds the way it does, but then again neither is its protagonist, Ivan de Wiel (an inscrutable Fabrizio Rongione). Like one of the many drinks its characters enjoy, Azor goes down smooth before making you shudder. I’m still thinking about it.
The Witches of the Orient (dir. Julien Faraut)
With by-the-numbers documentaries inundating streaming services, Mubi’s release of The Witches of the Orient came as a much-needed adrenaline shot. Julien Faraut’s follow-up to the equally beautiful (and idiosyncratic) John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (2018) is an important reminder that documentaries can include much more than interviewees numbering in the double digits and made-for-TV quality reenactments. In retelling the meteoric rise of a Japanese women’s volleyball team from factory workers playing after hours to 1964 Olympic gold winners, he interweaves contemporary interviews with archival footage, industrial videos, animation, and all sorts of audiovisual tricks. Consider how he packages the team’s climactic showdown against the Soviet Union: slow motion accentuates a player’s elegant leap; the boxed aspect ratio (maintained for the film’s majority) expands into widescreen; and grainy black-and-white footage explodes into glorious color. It’s an exhilarating moment, one which solidifies Faraut’s position as one of the more exciting documentarians working today.