Seventh Row’s editors pick the twenty best unreleased films of 2021 so far, from CODA (Sian Heder) to I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader) and more.
At Seventh Row, we pride ourselves on seeking out the best hidden gems that nobody’s talking about to ensure that our readers never miss a great film again.
Yesterday we published our list of the twenty best films released so far in 2021. But that list alone felt like an incomplete portrait of the first half of our movie year. 2021 has been full of virtual film festivals, from the big (Sundance, Berlinale, HotDocs) to the mid-size and small (Visions du Réel, Frameline, BFI Flare, IFFR), and despite the pandemic, the films have been as exciting as ever. We’ve chosen twenty of the best of them for this list, the criteria being any film that world premiered in 2021 but is yet to be released in Canada or the US. The list is dominated by world, arthouse, and independent cinema, and features almost 50% documentaries.
Before the main list, here are some honourable mentions, all of which are well worth seeking out: Archipelago (Félix Dufour-Laperrière), Everything in the End (Mylissa Fitzsimmons), The Healers (Marie-Eve Hildbrand), In the Same Breath (Nanfu Wang), Luzzu (Alex Camilleri), My Place is Here (Michele Aiello), Night Raiders (Danis Goulet), Passing (Rebecca Hall), The Pink Cloud (Iuli Gerbase), Pleasure (Ninja Thyberg), A Sexplanation (Alexander Liu), Stop-Zemlia (Kateryna Gornostai), Teenage Emotions (Frédéric Da), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun), What do we see when we look at the sky? (Aleksandre Koberidze), Who We Are: Chronicle of Racism in America (Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler), and Writing with Fire (Sushmit Ghosh, Rintu Thomas).
20. Daughter of a Lost Bird (Brooke Swaney)
From our review: “Daughter of a Lost Bird opens on Kendra, a young woman in her thirties, sitting on her floor as she nervously makes an important phone call. She leaves a message: ‘Hi April, this is Kendra Potter, your birth daughter.’ Shortly after, April calls back, and mother and daughter hear each other’s voices for the first time.
Documentarian Brooke Swaney tracks Kendra’s journey over several years as Kendra reconnects with her long-lost family and her indigeneity. Swaney is careful to contextualise Kendra’s identity crisis within the traumatic history of adoption in Indigenous communities in the US. As a result of the Indian Child Welfare Act, both Kendra and her mother were adopted out of their birth families, separating them from their Indigenous communities by two generations.” Read the full review.
Daughter of a Lost Bird is still seeking distribution.
19. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
The winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s festival was Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a left field choice because of just how bizarre it is, but predictable in the sense that it’s very much a “film of the moment”. Still, it’s certainly a statement for the jury to award top honours to a film that begins with an extended unsimilated sex scenes. The scene in question is an extremely OTT, comical homemade porn video made by the film’s main character, school teacher Emi (Katia Pascariu). When it accidentally leaks onto the internet, the parents at her school call a parent-teacher meeting to subject Emi to their moral-panicky rage and attempt to get her fired.
It was filmed during COVID and incorporates COVID into the world of the film. Poor mask wearing becomes an indicator of moral failure, such as when an indignant parent claims she’s “trying to do what’s best for the children” while wearing her mask under her nose. It feels cathartic to watch Jude relentlessly mock anti-maskers. It’s also incredibly anxiety-inducing, as the film reflects how little people care about actually protecting others, preferring to focus their outrage on an innocent woman’s sex life.
In the hilarious middle section of the film, Jude presents a series of visual jokes and puns, many of which relate to shameful parts of Romanian history. This vital piece of the film’s puzzle serves to place selfish, unsafe responses to COVID as just the latest in a long line of corrupt behaviour in Romania (although this behaviour is certainly recognisable in other parts of the world, too). Of course, it’s not long before the parents’ facade of polite concern is “unmasked” to reveal virulent anti-semitic and sexist tirades. Orla Smith
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn will be released in the US by Magnolia Pictures, in Canada by Mongrel Media, and in the UK by Sovereign Film Distribution.
18. One of Ours (Yasmine Mathurin)
From our review: “The family at the centre of Yasmine Mathurin’s One of Ours is a maelstrom of complex dynamics governed by settler colonialism. Mathurin specifically follows Josiah Wilson, a Black twentysomething born in Haiti where he was adopted by a pair of Canadians — a white mother and an Indigenous father — who were living there at the time, and soon brought him home to Calgary in Canada. Having grown up as a member of the community of his father’s Heiltsuk Nation, Josiah is culturally and legally Indigenous. But as an adoptee, and a Black man, he looks like he’s out of place in this community. This also means he’s part of the African diaspora that was first torn from their homeland and brought to Haiti, hundreds of years ago, only to be once again torn away from his homeland by the Canadian family that adopted him.” Read the full review.
One of Ours is still seeking distribution.
17. Aristocrats (Yukiko Sode)
From our review: “Tokyo’s compartmentalised. You only meet people within your class.” This casual comment, made by Hanako’s (Mugi Kadowaki) friend as they hang out by the city’s waterfront, is explored and challenged in Aristocrats (Anoko wa kizoku). What happens when people of different classes cross paths in class-conscious Tokyo? Yukiko Sode’s film, which is adapted from a book by Mariko Yamauchi, is particularly concerned with how class impacts women’s freedom. In Sode’s film, the higher a woman’s class, the loftier the expectations they have to live up to, and the fewer options available to them.” Read the full review.
Aristocrats is still seeking distribution.
16. CODA (Sian Heder)
From our review: “Siân Heder’s unabashed crowd-pleaser, CODA, is the kind of film that, in any other year, would have had the entire Eccles Theatre on its feet with rapturous applause. Although this year’s virtual Sundance meant that the response trickled out, instead, through social media, it’s no surprise that the film picked up four awards — and not just because the US Dramatic Competition was so weak — including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best US Dramatic Feature, Best Directing (US Dramatic), and a special Best Ensemble Prize. Despite a plethora of coming-of-age story cliches, CODA still feels genuinely original, nuanced, and important because it has thoughtful, sensitive storytelling where it counts: in the depiction of disability and family, even as the film centres the only non-disabled family member.” Read the full review.
CODA will be released worldwide by Apple TV+ on August 13th.
15. North by Current (Angelo Madsen Minax)
From the introduction to our interview: “For filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax, returning home to rural Michigan meant confronting his demons and helping to rebuild a fractured family unit. For years, he kept his distance from home, moving to the big city where he could embrace and explore his transgender identity away from his Mormon upbringing. About ten years ago, the death of his young niece, Kalla, changed everything. Minax returned home to support his grieving sister and parents. He was also there to fight against his brother-in-law’s prison sentence: his brother-in-law was accused of killing Kalla, a sentence which was later revoked when it was exposed that the police had covered up evidence. From this trying time, the project of making North by Current was born.” Read the full interview.
North by Current is still seeking distribution.
14. Boy Meets Boy (Daniel Sanchez Lopez)
From our review: “The premise of Daniel Sánchez López’s Boy Meets Boy is nothing new. Two strangers wander a city, chatting, laughing, and making out, whiling away the hours until one of them has to fly out of the country. It’s notably similar to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, because both films chart the budding connection between two gay men, plus Haigh’s film is set in Nottingham, from which Harry (Matthew James Morrison) in Boy Meets Boy also hails. The twenty-four-hour time limit and exploration of an iconic European city (in this case, Berlin) is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. I couldn’t help but laugh when, early on, Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) asks Harry if he prefers sunrises or sunsets.
There’s been no shortage of cheap, mumblecore knock-offs of films like Weekend and Before Sunrise — filmmakers seem to think they can just shoot two people chatting in a vaguely naturalistic style and become the next Linklater. Boy Meets Boy is made of stronger stuff. It stands out from the crowd for the genuine chemistry between its leads, as well as the specificity of both its characters and the questions they’re asking themselves. Harry and Johannes may be in suspiciously similar circumstances to Rusell and Glen in Weekend, but they’re also younger, and of a younger generation. They’re grappling with career uncertainty, Grindr hookup culture, and the reality of being a young gay man in a culture and place that’s more accepting of queerness than ever. Unlike Russell and Glen, they don’t have to worry about being physically affectionate in public, but they’re still grappling with societal expectations and internalised homophobia that runs deep.” Read the full review.
Boy Meets Boy will be released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures.
13. Searchers (Pacho Velez)
From the introduction to our interview: “Searchers is a documentary about online dating in New York, made during COVID, although the pandemic is barely brought up, and only noticeable because of shots of New Yorkers on the street wearing masks. “The stuff about COVID was the least interesting,” director Pacho Velez told me. “At the end of the day, looking for love and looking for connections has been going on since the dawn of time. It’s going to continue. The obstacles are different, but the search is pretty much the same.” Because Velez avoids explicit discussions of the virus, Searchers is less a cheap attempt to make a ‘relevant’ film, and more a sweet, wholesome, and empathetic examination of finding love.” Read the full interview.
Searchers is still seeking distribution.
12. 1970 (Tomasz Wolski)
From our review: “Tomasz Wolski’s fascinating documentary 1970 is probably the most formally inventive film I saw at Visions du Réel, rightly taking home the prize for the International Feature Competition. When Wolski stumbled upon real-life recordings of telephone calls between Polish dignitaries discussing their strategy for dealing with the 1970 workers’ rebellions, Wolski knew he had to build a film around them.
To help us follow the conversations, he created puppets of each of the characters on the phone call, and used stop-motion animation to take us inside their homes and board rooms. Working with a limited budget meant the puppets could only move so much, so Wolski moved the camera, as well as creating mood lighting and period-accurate settings, to make us feel like we’re really there with them. You forget you’re watching animation, and feel like you’re really watching these events unfold.” Read the full review.
1970 is still seeking distribution.
11. Miguel’s War (Eliane Raheb)
From the introduction to our interview: “I realised that Miguel’s War was going to be a boundary-pushing documentary as soon as the film’s subject, Miguel Alonso, responded to a probing question from director Eliane Raheb by laughing and exclaiming, “What a horrible bitch!” Raheb tells the story of Miguel, from his childhood in Lebanon, to his participation in the Lebanese Civil War, to his life in Spain, where he lives today, as an out gay man. But she’s just as interested in exhibiting the difficult process of getting Miguel to open up as she is recounting the facts of his life. This is a film about trauma — how it distorts and represses memory, and makes it hard to be honest with yourself and other people. For Raheb, it was just as important to include takes of Miguel (jokingly) calling her a bitch, declining to answer questions, and struggling to recall the truth than it was to include his eventual honest answers.” Read the full interview.
Miguel’s War is still seeking distribution.
10. Mr. Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth)
The three-and-a-half-hour length of Maria Speth’s documentary, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, might make you think of the work of Frederick Wiseman. But Mr. Bachmann is less interested in institutions than it is in character growth. Over the course of one school year, Speth follows Dieter Bachmann, a soon-to-be-retired school teacher, and his last class of pupils.
In the small and rural city of Stadtallendorf, Germany, many of the pupils are immigrants or children of immigrants, and for some, German isn’t their first language. In an education system that might otherwise cast these children aside, Bachmann carves a space for them to grow. His unconventional teaching methods — allowing naps during school time, holding musical jamming sessions with the pupils — nurture the kids. He encourages open dialogue in his classroom as a way to teach his kids empathy and to persuade the higher achieving amongst them to help those who are struggling. It’s a film that, I’m sure, will encourage many people to become teachers, because it shows how much of a difference one teacher can make if they’re willing to fight for their students. OS
Mr. Bachmann and His Class is still seeking distribution.
9. Ninjababy (Yyngvild Sve Flikke)
From the introduction to our interview with Yngvild Sve Flikke and Kristine Thorp: “Rakel (Kristine Thorp), twenty three, is a bit of a mess — but joyfully so. ‘She’s really just enjoying life,’ said Yngvild Sve Flikke, writer-director of the delightful Ninjababy, of which Rakel is the main character. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s going to be. If she wants sex, she’s having sex, and she doesn’t really remember who she had sex with.’ Her hair is permanently greasy, hanging loose or pulled back into a functional ponytail, and her clothes are mismatched and oversized (although enviably comfy). In short, she hasn’t quite figured herself out yet, but she’s in no rush to. A spanner is thrown in the works when an unwanted pregnancy threatens to catapult Rakel toward responsibility, right at the moment in her life when she was revelling most in irresponsibility.” Read the full interview.
Ninjababy will be released in Canada by Mongrel Media in 2021.
8. Fabian: Going to the Dogs (Dominik Graf)
Based on the 1932 novel Fabian or Going to the Dogs by Erich Kästner, Dominik Graf’s film adaptation transports us to a 1931 Berlin. It looks a lot like the present day, but with period clothing, Nazi pamphlets (and brownshirts), and the occasional period footage of the nightlife. Mixing Super 8 footage with digital to capture the characters, and occasional archival footage to evoke the time, Graf’s dynamic film is vivacious, unpredictable, moves at a clipped pace, and is never boring despite its three-hour runtime. While the sets and costumes are period-accurate, the performances are entirely modern, without any affects of the past, which is just one of many smart ways Graf connects the 1931 action to our present day reality.
At the centre of the story is Fabian (Tom Schilling), an unhappy copywriter with a PhD in English, who falls in love with a woman (Saskia Rosendahl) he can’t afford to love, loses his job amidst a sea of unemployment, and suddenly finds himself out of place as a moralist in an increasingly amoral world. Over the course of the film’s three-hour runtime, we get to know Fabian, his aspiring actress girlfriend, his activist best friend (Albrecht Schuch), and his lovely mother. At first, we watch them enjoy the pleasures of the Weimar Republic, but soon, they face increasing despair in a world where Nazi ideology is becoming more mainstream and having convictions is a luxury. At once a love story, a coming-of-age story, and the story of a society going to the dogs, Fabian is vibrant, funny, depressing, ultimately horrifying, but always intellectually involving. Though somewhat episodic in its structure, it is a character drama through and through, and it’s always a pleasure to spend time in the company of these characters, even as they go through despair. Alex Heeney
Fabian: Going to the Dogs will be released by Kino Lorber in Canada and the US.
7. Brother’s Keeper (Ferit Karahan)
From the introduction to our interview: “In Brother’s Keeper, eleven-year-old Kurdish boys are treated more like prisoners than students at an Eastern Anatolian boarding school. They’re not allowed to joke around and express themselves; instead, they are expected to remain emotionless. If they break the rules, cold showers and public shaming are common punishments. When a student really misbehaves, the school parades him in front of everyone and shaves a bald patch down the middle of his head. This reverse mohawk is akin to a scarlet letter: it lets everyone else in the community know who is persona non grata. In this environment where even innocent fun is outlawed, it’s no surprise that students are afraid to speak up when real problems arise. Everyone is so afraid of being reprimanded that preventable issues spiral out of control in the face of silence. Kids are afraid to be friendly with each other for fear of eventual betrayal.” Read the full interview.
Brother’s Keeper is still seeking distribution.
6. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
From the introduction to our interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: “A young woman discovers that her best friend went on a date with her ex-boyfriend, which makes her wonder if she’s still in love with him. An aimless woman in her thirties half-heartedly attempts to seduce her old college professor, at the request of the younger man she’s sleeping with. A middle-aged woman attends her high school reunion in the hopes of reuniting with an old flame, but finds an unexpected connection, instead. Three short stories, loosely connected by coincidence, make up Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. The film just won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale — the festival’s second-most prestigious award — and deservedly so, as Hamaguchi’s beautifully written, elegantly crafted triptych is a melancholy delight.” Read the full interview.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is still seeking distribution.
5. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen)
Flee, the Sundance World Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, is told almost entirely through animation in order to preserve the anonymity of its subject. Amin is an Afghan refugee living in Denmark after migrating there from Moscow twenty-five years earlier. He’s also one of documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s best friends, and together (with Amin narrating and Jonas directing the animation), the pair tell Amin’s story for the first time. Animation isn’t just a necessity in Rasmussen’s film; it allows him to bring Amin’s memories to life in full colour and detail, and to fill in the blanks that Amin is too traumatised to state in words. But importantly, Flee is just as much about exploring how Amin copes with and recovers from his trauma today as it is about recounting his horrific past experiences as an asylum seeker. OS
Flee will be released in the US by Neon and in the UK by Curzon.
4. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers)
From the introduction to our interview: “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens on a herd of buffalo grazing against the gorgeous landscape of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta. As we watch a mother and child buffalo nuzzle against each other, the soundtrack mingles a gentle score with the sounds of a woman speaking to a newborn baby. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s Kímmapiiyipitssini is a documentary about the opioid crisis ravaging Tailfeathers’s own community of the Kainai First Nation. It’s fitting that a film that approaches that topic with such empathy and humanism doesn’t begin with sensationalised imagery of harm, but images and sounds of parental love and caring.” Read the full interview.
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy will be released in Canada by the NFB.
3. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz)
Ana Katz’s black-and-white slice-of-life dramedy is a series of vignettes in the life of a man who doesn’t quite fit into common perceptions of masculinity: he’s sensitive and a bit directionless. The film follows him as he loses his job in order to be able to stay home with his dog who suffers from separation anxiety. He makes a foray into farming, falls in love, has a child, and finds a new lease on life.
Shot over three years, the film is full of ellipses, offering little slices of what each stage of his life might look like — a dance at a wedding that forms the courtship for an important romance, a short time spent struggling as a new father, and more. The film is, at turns, quietly moving, as when we see him in wide shot with his dog, playing in the field. It’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious. What’s most impressive though is how much the images stick in your mind with perfect clarity, even weeks after watching the film. It’s just disappointing that the best film at Sundance had to screen at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in order to win an award. AH
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet is still seeking distribution in Canada and the US, although it is already available in the UK via Curzon.
2. I’m Your Man (Maria Schrader)
From our review: “How big is the gulf between what we think we want from romantic relationships and what we actually need or would settle for? Is part of the joy of a relationship the knowledge that you’re needed? Is a flawed partner more attractive because they make you feel less alone for also being flawed? How do we change to suit our partners in a relationship? Wouldn’t it be convenient if you could store your partner in the spare room with the vacuum cleaner and the exercise bike? These are some of the many complex questions at the centre of Maria Schrader’s Berlinale competition film, I’m Your Man. In the film, cuneiform researcher Alma (Maren Eggert) is asked to test out a new AI robot, Tom (Dan Stevens), who has been designed to be her perfect man. For three weeks, he’ll live with her and learn from her, and at the end, she’ll write a report about the experience, evaluating what he’s like as a partner.” Read the full review.
I’m Your Man will be released by Curzon in the UK on August 13th and Bleeker Street in the US on September 17th.
1. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma)
From our review: “In Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature, Petite Maman, getting to know your mother is like chasing after a ghost. Parents are elusive, in life and death, living in an adult world that, as a child, you only ever get to visit. The disconnect between parent and child is in the constantly moving camera of the opening scene, which follows eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) as she says goodbye to the many women in the hospital where her grandmother recently died, chasing the goodbye she didn’t get to have with her own grandmother. And in the first moment of stillness, when Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), looks out the window of her mother’s room, at the grass and trees below, exhaustedly resting on a table, as if she might find her mother outside. As the camera pulls back, we feel the weight of Marion’s grief — and Nelly’s absence from the frame. They’re both experiencing loss, but it’s not quite a joint experience. Mother and daughter are moving at different speeds, in different rhythms. The camera reveals Nelly’s perspective, watching from behind, aware of her mother’s slumped physique, but unable to reach it.” Read the full review.
Petite Maman will be released soon by mk2 in Canada, Neon in the US, and Mubi in the UK, Ireland, and Turkey.
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