So far, this year’s movie peaks come from realizing that Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and John Singleton’s Baby Boy — both released 20 years ago — are remarkable and more necessary than ever now. Next-most-exciting was the four-hour Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a restoration of his studio-mangled film from 2017. These artistic reckonings prove that meretricious contemporary filmmakers can barely justify their own practices. As Hollywood chooses between content and communication following last year’s petrifying lockdowns, the 2021 Midyear Reckoning seems relatively paltry.
It’s fitting that the year’s best new film, Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, is also the subject of an affecting documentary, Being a Human Person (recently shown at Film Forum), which provides a personalized account of film culture. We see the stakes of Andersson at age 75 embarking upon About Endlessness, only his sixth feature film, while contending with shaky health, a drinking problem, and his mortality.
Andersson proclaims, “Art is important because it deals with the endless, the eternal.” Doc-maker Fred Scott details the filmmaker’s handmade process through his team of craftsman (who regard one another with sympathy and directness) building models and miniatures and creating the trompe l’oeil effects that distinguish his particular brand of cinema.
After buying and building his own atelier, Studio 24, in the Nineties, Andersson produced the meticulous films he describes as “short, short poems about existence — tragic, comic, everything.” They suggest adult versions of Wes Anderson whimsy, but Scott reveals their fine-art inspirations — from Breughel, Goya, and the 17th-century printmaker Jacques Callot to photographer André Kertész. Andersson also stays true to the guilty, spiritual ponderings of his great countryman Ingmar Bergman.
But Andersson lends a comic’s eye to what Martin Buber called “the atrocities done against the order of life.” Andersson adds, “But it is possible to repair this.” Andersson finds that possibility in art. He works in the rarefied manner of such visionaries as Disney, DeMille, Fellini, and Tati — maestros whose modern influence now wanes.
Here’s 2021’s best so far, in alphabetical order:
About Endlessness — A series of tableaux depicting mankind’s fragility and guilt, but Andersson’s Swedish neutrality steers clear of the self-destruction that comes with globalism. This is, instead, a moral, artistic tour de force.
Army of the Dead — Zack Snyder has taken up the mantle of conscientious pop that Spielberg has dropped. His zombie-movie extravaganza reflects the madness that has overtaken the millennium.
Coming 2 America — Eddie Murphy and Craig Brewer rectify Black Panther’s tribal childishness and the silliness of the original Coming to America with a creditable sequel about the crisis of African-American self-esteem. No other serious film has been as funny as this.
Dear Comrades! — Andrei Konchalovskiy’s recall of Sixties Soviet tyranny mirrors today’s autocratic zealots. Its heroine (Julia Vysotsakya, in the performance of the year) expresses personal regret about deadly government overreach, startlingly similar to the media’s insurrectionary hoaxes.
Georgetown — A sex and political farce about the treachery of the Swamp. Director-star Christoph Waltz boldly satirizes Washington, D.C., politicos, indicting the recent past and the scurrilous present.
Keep an Eye Out — Parallel to Waltz’s farce, Quentin Dupieux takes an absurdist look at law and disorder. This political charade shames Hollywood’s petty generic fare.
Shoplifters of the World — If The Smiths were the greatest group of the Eighties, this film about American teens’ heartfelt response, reveals the most intense longing for personal expression in the history of popular culture. Stephen Kijak creates one poignant, exultant scene after another.
Sin — Michelangelo Buonarroti’s artistic and political struggle complements The Smiths, but Konchalovskiy’s second 2021 release concentrates on visual finesse.
Sophie Jones — Jessie Barr’s coming-of-age film ponders a teenager’s battle with modern values. Which matters most: social acceptance or familial compassion? It’s minor but universal.
Sublet — Eytan Fox explores the self-importance of a New York Times elite via his connection with a foreign youth’s tribal need. A humanist view of globalist privilege.
Summer of 85 — François Ozon’s period love story depoliticizes the AIDS era; its beauty reproves ugly contemporary gender self-righteousness.
Altogether, most of these films say less than Scott’s doc clips of young, tall, handsome Andersson at his 1970 debut, which startlingly contrast with his frailty today. (When we think of artists being celebrities, we don’t allow them to be old or flawed or human.) It’s almost a paradigm of our current cultural condition. Maybe Andersson exemplifies what 21st-century Hollywood needs: more moral caricaturists.