From Ali & Ava to Miguel’s War, Seventh Row’s editors pick the best unreleased films of 2021.
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We published our list of the thirty best films of 2021 this Wednesday, but a survey of the year in film wouldn’t be complete if we left it at that. That list abided largely by North American release dates — but as scouring the film festival circuit has taught us, some of the best films of the year take a long time to get released, or in some cases, don’t get distribution at all.
Here are thirty films, in alphabetical order, to look out for in 2022, either through theatrical/VOD release, or on the festival circuit.
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.
Ali & Ava (Clio Barnard)
From our review: “Save for London, it’s rare to see British cities portrayed on screen in all their specificity. It’s always a delight when a film like Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) comes along and captures Nottingham with such a vivid sense of place. Or the work of Ken Loach, who has recently been telling stories about working class people in Newcastle (I, Daniel Blake, 2016 and Sorry We Missed You, 2019). Watching Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, I was delighted to realise that all four of her features (The Arbor, 2010; The Selfish Giant, 2013; and Dark River, 2017) are set in the county of Yorkshire, where she was born. All but Dark River take place in the city of Bradford. Ali & Ava may be a love story between the eponymous characters, but it’s also a love letter to Bradford.
“I love this city,” Ali (Adeel Akhtar) tells Ava (Claire Rushbrook) partway through the film. As British cities go, Bradford is oft-maligned or forgotten, especially by those who live in London and in the south of the country. In her films, especially Ali & Ava, Barnard takes the time and care to show us the heart of the city, exhibiting why the people who live there, like Ali, might love it. She portrays Bradford as a small and tight-knit community: we see Ali make a cup of tea in his kitchen, then carry the mug outside to the next house over, where his mum lives. Later, when Ali is stuck in a traffic jam, he spots a group of funeral goers and rolls his window down to ask who died; there’s a good chance it’s someone he knows, even just in passing. Everyone knows each other here, and in turn, everyone is always helping each other, whether it’s Ali constantly offering people lifts in his car, or Ava regularly babysitting her neighbour’s daughter.” Read the full review.
Anaïs in Love (Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet)
Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier in top form) bursts into Anaïs in Love at a run, exiting a flower shop with a bouquet and rushing home to change for a party and meet her landlord. Her landlord wants to have a discussion about the late rent; Anaïs, meanwhile, is concerned with getting ready for the party and simultaneously talking at the landlord about the difficulties of finding love and a relationship. As her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend describes it, she’s like a bulldozer: always moving and running over whatever you might think a scene or conversation is about. She can be frustrating, but it’s hard not to be charmed by her insistence on walking up sixteen flights of stairs to avoid the claustrophobia of an elevator, or how she asks every single person she meets about whether she’s made the right choices in her love life. Anaïs in Love is a coming-of-age film in which Anaïs has multiple relationships, none of which are necessarily long term, but all of which get her closer to figuring out what she wants out of life and a relationship.
After breaking up with her boyfriend, she falls into a relationship with an older man (Denis Podalydès) only to discover she finds his partner, Émilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), much more interesting and attractive. So she goes to great lengths to put herself in the path of Émilie, including blowing off a symposium for her work as a graduate student to go to another symposium where Émilie is, and charming her into a friendship and later seduction. Along the way, Anaïs deals with procuring an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, her mother’s cancer recurrence, her ambivalence toward her thesis and career, and the societal pressures to cohabitate with a romantic partner no matter how emotionally (and physically) stifling that might be. “I don’t want to meet interesting people; I want to be interesting,” she tells her father. And she certainly is interesting, but she isn’t quite yet sure what to be interested in.
Throughout the film, Anaïs is breathlessly trying to make the most of her life, “moving mountains”, as a paramour later describes, but perhaps not necessarily going anywhere. She can figure out what she wants in the moment and make it happen, but struggles with the bigger picture. She’s also regularly changing her mind, and changing course to pursue what she wants. The camera, likewise, follows her in these changes of path, racing to keep up with her when she runs (and Anaïs never walks), whip-panning to change the shot’s focus as Anaïs’s own focus shifts, and just generally moving with energy as Anaïs bulldozes through her life. The sharp editing by Chantal Hymans also keeps the film moving at Anaïs’s clipped pace, eliding any tediousness to show us just how quickly Anaïs keeps going. Alex Heeney
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.
As in Heaven (Tea Lindeburg)
From the introduction to our interview with Tea Lindeburg: “Early in As In Heaven, a scene of Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) play-fighting with her sister comes to an abrupt end with a hard cut to her father’s (Thure Lindhardt) arrival, who gives Lise a task worthy of an adult: collecting debts from their neighbour. Throughout the course of the day in 1880s rural Denmark, Lise’s carefree childish pursuits will continually be interrupted by adult responsibilities over which she has little control. Whether it’s taking care of her younger siblings or something else, Lise is expected to act more and more like a grown up without gaining access to any of the privileges of being an adult, including being admitted to the room where her mother is going through a difficult labour.
‘I’d never read anything where the [mother’s] labour is actually the frame of the story,’ first-time writer-director Tea Lindeburg told me. It’s that fateful labour that will, over the course of one intense and stressful night, change the course of Lise’s life. At the beginning of the film, she has so much hope for the future, already packing her bag to go away to school in the near future, crushing on a boy, and excited for a life that she thinks and hopes awaits her. But a portentous dream in which the sky pours down blood instead of rain is the first sign that this Lise’s path won’t be smooth. Little by little, her hopes are chipped away, as she starts to lose everything that matters to her, and faces the threat of losing her mother.” Read the full interview.
Brother’s Keeper (Ferit Karahan)
From our review: “During the opening scene of Brother’s Keeper, I wondered, am I watching a dystopian film? A windowless shower room, filled with pre-teen boys stripped down to their underclothes, offers no clue of period or setting. However, the way the boys are treated seems alien to basic ideas about how we should treat children. In fact, Brother’s Keeper isn’t set in the future or the past. This is modern day Eastern Anatolia, Turkey, and inspired by writer-director Ferit Karahan’s own childhood experiences at a boarding school for Kurdish boys. In the press notes, Karahan explains, “The number of boarding schools exceeds thousands, especially in regions where Kurds are densely populated. I studied at a boarding school in the early 1990s. When I started looking for locations, I realized that nothing had changed except the small details.”
This boarding school seems more like a prison camp, both in its design and in how the teachers discipline their students. The rooms themselves are purely functional, devoid of character and warmth, and not particularly well kept. Dozens of children shower together in cramped spaces, deprived of privacy. The kind of boisteriousness that is inherent to pre-teen boys is not tolerated: in the opening scene, a group of boys playfight as they shower, and they’re caught in the act by a teacher, who roughly scolds them and demands they bathe with cold water for the rest of shower time. Watched over by the bath prefect, who’s barely older than themselves, the young boys shiver in the icy water — made all the worse by the fact that it’s -35°C and snowing outside. Among them is Memo (Nurullah Alaca), a small and skinny boy whose body isn’t built for harsh conditions.” Read the full review.
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.
Everything in the End (Mylissa Fitzsimmons)
From the introduction to our interview with Mylissa Fitzsimmons: “At Sundance in January, two films premiered that eerily predicted the pandemic, despite being shot before the pandemic: The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet and The Pink Cloud. Now, joining their ranks is Mylissa Fitzsimmons’s contemplative feature debut, Everything in the End, although its echoes of the pandemic are more spiritual than literal. Fitzsimmons drops us in rural Iceland, by the sea, where a young Portugese man named Paulo (Hugo de Sousa) wanders alone through the gorgeous landscape. He’s on a trip that he and his mother were meant to take together, but after her passing, he’s come alone. Paulo, who is quiet and withdrawn, is often framed as a lone figure dwarfed by a majestic landscape. There’s an emotional and physical distance that exists between him and everyone around him. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, Everything in the End feels healing to watch during a pandemic, rather than depressing, because we watch Paulo do what we are all longing to do: make connections with other people. The film is structured around a series of conversations Paulo has with people he meets in the surrounding area, many of them strangers. Paulo and the strangers pour their hearts out to each other. They talk about life, death, regret, and what might have been. Slowly, as a viewer, we start to realise that something surreal is going on.” Read the full interview.
The Gravedigger’s Wife (Khadar Ayderus Ahmed)
From our review: “In Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s first feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife, which premiered in Semaine de la Critique at Cannes, the great irony is that Guled (Omar Abdi) earns his living by waiting for people to die, but is desperate to make extra cash to save his wife’s life. The film introduces us to Guled and his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), through small, intimate moments — giving Nasra a bath, making meals, crashing a wedding together — to give us a solid, observed relationship worth rooting for. Set in Dijibouti City, Somalia, Ahmed’s wide shots drop us into this world, letting slices of life seep into the frame in the shanty town where they live. You can feel the beat of the sun, the dirt on the road, and the warmth between the family members.” Read the full review.
Him (Guro Bruusgaard)
In Him, a depressing but cathartic look at toxic masculinity in Norway, three men of different ages grapple with their anger at the world around them, often misdirected toward women. There’s sixty-year-old Petter, a film director struggling to obtain funding for his next project, who chalks this up to nobody wanting to support projects by and about white men anymore. There’s Emil, age thirty, an unemployed man who’s been let down by the system, yet takes it out on innocent and unsuspecting women. Finally, there’s eleven-year-old Harald, a young, withdrawn outsider who is being disciplined at school after lashing out, due to his fractured home life.
Him traces the brewing of toxic masculinity across generations. We see Harald being taught to toughen up when his family doesn’t offer the emotional support he needs, and learning from his mother that he doesn’t need to feel remorse for his bad behaviour. Still a young boy, Harald isn’t inherently malicious, but we see the seeds planted that will grow him into the kind of toxic men that Emil and Petter now are. With Emil, we see an adult man who is facing problems with the welfare system that make him rightfully angry, but because misogyny has been taught to him from a young age (like Harald), his anger manifests as aggression toward women. The final evolution is Petter, a man so set in his misogynistic ways that there’s no changing him; he makes everyone around him uncomfortable, his wife is miserable, and so is he. This isn’t a film simply intent on reprimanding men; it’s a cry to rethink how we raise them, for the sake of everyone’s mental health and physical safety. Orla Smith
Miguel’s War (Eliane Raheb)
From the introduction to our interview with Eliane Raheb: “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.
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
Murina (Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic)
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic’s debut feature, Murina, transports us to coastal Croatia where the sea is sky blue, the sun is shining, and the beaches are sandy. It seems like paradise, but for Murina (Gracija Filipovic), it’s a living hell because she lives under the thumb of her abusive father. Set over the course of a week, the film follows Murina as she starts to hatch a plan to escape her father with the help of her father’s visiting friend — a hopelessly idealistic plan but one born out of desperation. Much of what happens in the film works more on a metaphorical level than a literal one, including a long sequence where Murina is locked inside a boathouse by her father and tries to escape. Murina’s one great love is diving, and there are gorgeous sequences of her capably diving, in her element, and finding a freedom in the water that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
The film is carefully observed in the relationships between the characters, especially as it relates to how abuse is carried out and overlooked. Early in the film, Kusijanovic establishes the relationship between Murina and her father and Murina and her father’s friend through two dances with each of them as partners: one starts joyful and ends violently, the other is a carefree respite from tyranny. Murina’s view of her situation is sometimes simplistic, wondering why her mother doesn’t just leave. But Kusijanovic hints at why her mother is trapped in this marriage and how she’s become complicit in the abuse of her daughter — both from fear and because she benefits. The kindness Murina’s father’s friend shows her is such a rarity that Murina overlooks — though Kusijanovic never lets us — how his concern for Murina’s well-being, in private, never actually translates to him standing up for her in public. AH
A Radiant Girl (Sandrine Kiberlain)
From our review: “In Une jeune fille qui va bien, The Nazis are only ever referred to as ‘them’. No swastikas appear on screen. But their influence is seen and felt: in the red “Juive” stamped on the characters’ identity papers, and later, the yellow star of David sewn into their clothing. Unlike Transit and Fabian: Going to the Dogs, Une jeune fille qui va bien isn’t really about the Nazi occupation; instead, it’s a standard coming-of-age story of a Jewish girl told against the backdrop of the Vichy state, where its influences encroach more and more on her life. It’s why the French title — which translates to “A young girl who is doing well” — is much more à propos than the English one: things are going well for Irène, until they aren’t. The increasing extent of the psychological toll of the occupation is gradual; before Irène realises it, it’s too late.” Read the full review.
Run Woman Run (Zoe Leigh Hopkins)
From our review: “On a shoestring budget, Zoe Leigh Hopkins has crafted a feel good film about learning to care for yourself in the wake of tragedy and trauma. Set in the Six Nations in Ontario, Beck (Dakota Ray Hebert) is a thirtysomething single mother who lives with her father and shares a bedroom with her pre-pubescent son, Eric (Sladen Peltier). When she gets diagnosed with diabetes, she has enormous trouble making lifestyle changes (taking medication, improving her diet, and starting to exercise) because she’s gotten so used to putting herself last, ever since her mother died by suicide, and there was her father (Lorne Cardinal), sister, and son to care for.” Read the full review.
Searchers (Pacho Velez)
From the introduction to our interview with Pacho Velez: “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.
Through short interviews with various New Yorkers, we get to intimately observe the way people interact with dating apps, whether they’re judging other people, or curating their own profiles. Velez shoots each interview in the same way: in a closeup and with the subject looking directly into the lens (over which Velez fitted a teleprompter with the app screen on it). The app they’re looking at is superimposed, out of focus, over the screen we’re watching. We have some idea of what the subject is looking at, but our focus is on their face. Velez presents each interview in a single, unedited take, so we get to watch them thinking, and observe how long they take to consider before deciding to swipe left or right.” Read the full interview.
A Tale of Love and Desire (Leyla Bouzid)
From our review: “In Leyla Bouzid’s second feature, A Tale of Love and Desire, things get complicated for eighteen-year-old Ahmed (Sami Outabali) — the Parisian child of Algerian refugees who has never been to Algeria — when love and desire become intertwined. Bouzid’s thoughtful, sensitive, and sensual first feature, As I Open My Eyes, was the story of a young Tunisian woman coming up against patriarchy and government oppression as she tries to find her place in the world; A Tale of Love and Desire is a much more internal story. That’s not to say that Ahmed doesn’t face casual racism and classism or the pressures to conform to two different standards of masculinity — a French, sexually liberal, cosmopolitan ideal and a more conservative but virile Arabic ideal. But none of these forces are actually stopping him from getting what he wants when it comes to love and desire. They’re just causing immense inner turmoil.” Read the full review.
Titi (Ida Panahandeh) and Zalava (Arsalan Amiri)
Married Iranian filmmaking couple Ida Panahandeh and Arsalan Amiri had two films this year that centred around ‘Gypsy’ characters: one largely realist film told in a realist setting (Titi) and one genre-ish film in a rural setting (Zalava). Though ‘Gypsies’ are found throughout Iran (and indeed all over the world), their stories have rarely been told on screen. Panahandeh and Amiri co-wrote both films. Panahandeh directed Titi (which Amiri edited), and stepped out of the director’s chair for Zalava, which was Amiri’s directorial debut (Panahandeh produced). Both films centre marginalised characters to create parables about discrimination, oppression, and dogma.
Titi is the story of an Iranian Roma woman, Titi (Elnz Shakerdust), who works as a cleaner in a hospital where she meets a physicist with a brain tumour, accidentally picks up some important proofs he wrote (thinking they are trash), and ends up in a difficult situation when he comes to find them (and Titi’s fiance withholds them). Titi is an uneducated, poor woman, who spends the film trying to help others while being taken advantage of by men within an already patriarchal system. She is carrying a surrogate baby, and it’s suggested she suffered from postpartum depression after previous surrogate pregnancies. Throughout the film, she discovers that misogyny is everywhere she looks, even if it’s sometimes dressed up in a nice suit and fancy job. She tries her best to do good in an unjust world where doing good is often punished. Read the full review.
Zalava is set in a remote town populated by, as the film calls them, “gypsies”, in northern Iran, where a demon has purportedly possessed a girl, causing her to jump to her death. It’s 1978, just before the Iranian revolution, and the townspeople are worried that the demon will jump into someone else’s body. An exorcist arrives (Pouria Rahimisam), especially conspicuous in his western-style suit. He goes into the house where the demon is supposed to be, and comes out with a sealed glass jar which he claims now contains the demon.
The townspeople rejoice; the local sheriff (Navid Pourfaraj) thinks it’s bullshit. His solution is to arrest the exorcist, but there are unintended consequences. Will removing this beloved potential charlatan incite a riot? Should he let the exorcist be to calm the townspeople or should he avoid giving so much power to someone who could misuse it? These are the central questions of Amiri’s directorial debut, Zalava, a horror film that is firmly rooted in reality, with a touch of black comedy. Read the interview with Amiri and Panahandeh. AH
Yuni (Kamila Andini)
From our review: “Kamila Andini’s coming-of-age story, Yuni, follows the eponymous seventeen-year-old Indonesian girl on the cusp of adulthood as she figures out who she wants to be. Having seen friends her age get unhappily married, Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) wants to go to university, but there are strong pressures on her to get married and many suitors calling. Much of Yuni’s life is easily recognizable to western audiences: she hangs out with friends, goes to see a band play, lusts after boys, poses for Instagram, and discovers just how female masturbation works. But the patriarchal norms in her small town are strong; her suitors talk to her parents about the value of Yuni’s virginity, which Yuni only overhears by peeking through closed doors. At the same time, men hold the keys to her education: a male literature teacher stands between her and top grades, and she needs the help of a male student to succeed.” Read the full review.
Zero Fucks Given (Julie Lecoustre, Emmanuel Marre)
From our review: “Late in Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given, Cassandre (Adèle Exarchopoulos) does an online interview for a job as a flight attendant at a private plane company in Dubai. It starts out innocuous — she’s asked to explain how she’d manage certain difficult situations — but it gets increasingly creepy and invasive. How does she stay fit, the disinterested man asks, not because the job requires fitness but because the looking hot part of it does. Before making his final determination about whether she’d be a good fit for the company, he asks her to parade in front of the webcam, and turn around — making sure she looks the gorgeous, feminine part. It’s harrowing and the most explicit objectification that Cassandre faces in the film, but hardly the first case.
The enforced performance of femininity among flight attendants — from the mandated shaved legs to the training in smiles — is central to the job and to Cassandre’s complicated feelings about it. On her days off, she walks around with her unwashed hair in a rats nest, deliberately eschewing the physical appearance standards her job requires. On work days, she puts on bright red lipstick, neatly pulls her hair back, and squeezes into a tight, form-fitting skirt-and-blazer uniform. There’s a particularly funny and grotesque scene in which Cassandre and a group of female flight attendants go to CPR training while in uniform. Their tight skirts and high heels are, to say the least, hugely inconvenient for performing this potentially life-saving task.” Read the full review.
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