Movies

The Celebrity-Turned-Director Who Blew Me Away This Year

Questlove, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Hall all directed their first movies in 2021—but one left me truly agog.

Stills from Summer of Soul, Passing, and The Lost Daughter
Summer of Soul, Passing, and The Lost Daughter. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Searchlight Pictures/Hulu and Netflix.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 9.

Dear Comrades,

For the first time in the years I’ve been running Slate Movie Club, we’ve decided to cut our conversation short after just three rounds. Usually we go four, and for a couple of gonzo years in the mid-2010s we hung on, popping back to make just one more point, for a full five. But as we write this over Christmas week of 2021, everyone’s holiday plans, early-2022 schedules, and cognitive functioning have been scrambled by the rapidly unfolding chaos of a new COVID wave.

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For this final round I’m going to make like the Ghost of Christmas Present, seated on a mountain of gifts with his cornucopia of treats, and pour out the images and ideas that come to mind when I think of the movies in 2021. Take them and do with them what you will, maybe by responding with your own o’erflowing horns of plenty.

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One gift was the phenomenon of artists known for their work in other fields making bravura directing debuts: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, Rebecca Hall’s Passing, Questlove’s Summer of Soul. Of these three, Summer of Soul was probably the one that had me the most agog. The narrative pacing and the director’s control over an emotional tone that went from soaring to searing and back again were so masterful it was like discovering the Roots co-founder and late-night bandleader has been hiding a secret identity all these years. But both Gyllenhaal and Hall have also, just like that, entered the arena of directors to watch out for.

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I will confess that Passing was so exquisitely assembled and shot it sometimes felt emotionally remote to me, as though it were taking place in a vintage snow globe. For all Tessa Thompson’s and Ruth Negga’s beautifully wrought performances, the film’s script was so allusive and spare I often found their scenes together ending just as things were getting interesting. This isn’t something you heard me saying a lot in a year when every film seemed to be obeying some mandate to be two hours and 40 minutes long, but the sylphlike 99-minute Passing could have used another dramatic beat or two in the last act. Still, Hall’s meticulously composed frame, her attention to the (here, figuratively as well as literally) white spaces between characters, her ear for music and for period dialogue, all augur incredibly well for her filmmaking and our film-watching future.

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Black-and-white movies had a real moment this year, a confluence I won’t try to endow with any broader cultural meaning (you’re welcome), but will just use as a chance to note how much I love when contemporary filmmakers explore the possibilities of that limited but infinitely expressive palette. Bilge, I think I liked Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth more than you did, and one reason was its considered use of black-and-white cinematography: the stark geometric patterns of light on the castle floor, the silvery water that fails to clean Frances McDormand’s bloodstained hands, the pale gray shroud of fog from which Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary three-witches-in-one character appears. It had, at times, the quality of an old woodcut, a simplicity of line that helped to tell the story.

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Coen’s high-modern adaptation doesn’t succeed in every detail; some of Macbeth’s main speeches are filmed so as to emphasize some visual concept or other at the expense of letting us see his face. And much as I had been dying to see him in the role, I’m not sure Denzel Washington makes sense as Macbeth, or maybe I should say makes sense of Macbeth. There’s something in his relaxed, almost offhanded line delivery that remains immutably Denzel-ian, and the moral vacuum the audience should sense in the character by the time of the ruined king’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech is not the subjective state he’s the most suited to conveying, even if he was unforgettable as a much more committed nihilist in Training Day. Coen makes a lot of what my daughter’s acting teacher would call “strong choices,” and regardless of whether every one of them works or not, I was surprised and thrilled that, making a solo film for the first time, a Coen brother would want to swerve so far off the fraternal track as to make a starkly designed black-and-white adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy.

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Gaby Hoffmann in Mike Mills’ also black-and-white family drama C’mon C’mon may have been my favorite female supporting performance of the year, and that’s in a year that gave us Martha Plimpton’s raw emotional nakedness in Mass and Tiffany Haddish’s screwball-worthy comebacks in The Card Counter.* Hoffmann plays the mother of a live wire elementary schooler (the delightful Woody Norman) who leaves him with her brother (a refreshingly low-key Joaquin Phoenix) while she deals with her ex-husband’s acute mental illness. Hoffmann’s beautifully lived-in performance reminded me at times of a character Gena Rowlands might have played in a John Cassavetes film, one of those fragile but resilient women contending with the rigors of motherhood and early middle age.* The interviews with real-life kids and teenagers that are laced throughout C’mon C’mon ground it in contemporary political reality; yes, this is a tenderhearted portrait of a family in crisis, but it’s also a stark if stubbornly hopeful look at the bleak world we have left to Generation Z.

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By way of emptying the horn of plenty before I go, here are a few movies this year that one or more of you swooned for and I enviously wished I had loved as much: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, or Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, a movie that my entire Valley Girl–memorizing history should have predisposed me to love, but that I found almost unremittingly phony despite an all-in-as-always performance from national treasure Nicolas Cage. If I shake these titles in a heap into your lap, Odie, can you tell us what you see when you hold them up to the light?

Let me roll it to you,

Dana

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.

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