J. HOBERMAN’S BEST FILMS OF 2021

December 2021

J. Hoberman is a recovering film critic. His monograph on Duck Soup as an artifact of the ’30 and ’60s, an adolescent fetish, and a foretaste of Donald Trump, is newly out.





1 BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN (Radu Jude) The past eighteen months have been a blur, but the movie with the most relentless focus on the way we live now is this Berlin Golden Bear winner. Jude’s previous films mainly explored aspects of the Romanian past. Bad Luck Banging, a frenzied farce about a sex tape gone viral amid the pandemic, is a period piece about the present moment.





2 MEMORIA (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) The opposite of Bad Luck Banging—contemplative, elusive, oneiric, as well as playfully formalist—Memoria might have been scripted by Michael Snow. The protagonist (Tilda Swinton) is haunted by a recurring sonic boom, so this is a deeply aural movie, pondering the nature of sound.

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EXTERMINATE ALL THE BRUTES (Raoul Peck) An HBO documentary, Peck’s four-part meditation on the relationships between of genocide, colonialism, racism, and fascism is strong, essential medicine.

4 ON THE ROYAL ROAD: THE BURGHER KING (Elfriede Jelinek, Seagull Books) Nobel laureate Jelinek’s tragicomic satire, translated from German by Gitta Honegger, isn’t a movie, but it should be—a lengthy monologue delivered by the Muppet Miss Piggy, eyes bleeding à la Tiresias. Regarding the unnamed king: “He tells us that already earlier we thought like him that never thinks.”

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UNDINE (Christian Petzold) Speaking of fierce diatribes by Austrian women, Petzold’s latest modern myth draws on a kitsch classic of German Romanticism (the source for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid) as refracted through Ingeborg Bachmann’s scathing critique of the patriarchal order. Reuniting the stars of Transit (2018), Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, Undine has a similarly haunting indifference to logic.

6 PARIS CALLIGRAMMES (Ulrike Ottinger) The grande dame of avant-garde German cinema and eccentric documentary constructs a kaleidoscopic look back at her formative years in 1960s Paris. An unsentimental valentine, her visual poem is slyly ethnographic and altogether lovable.

7 “LOWER EAST SIDE TRILOGY” (Ernie Gehr) A city symphony in the people-watching, flaneuristic tradition of In the Street (1948/52) has the filmmaker hanging around Essex and Delancey Streets in New York, spotting reflections and proffering unexpected juxtapositions. New York’s Museum of Modern Art streamed it on its website for a month.

8 PATHS OF FIRE II (Neelon Crawford) Another MoMA presentation turns a 1976 film made by Crawford with Michael Mideke into an installation. Multiple layers of fireworks from some long-ago Midwestern July 4 are step-printed and superimposed to produce a vortex of light and color that, while not overtly trippy, is highly conducive to cosmic-pattern hallucination.

9 THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (Todd Haynes) More than a guilty pleasure, Haynes’s labor of love is a splendid example of vertical and horizontal montage, despite the occasional twinge-inducing moment, as when Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) is casually cannibalized on the altar of Lou Reed’s genius.

10 FIRE MUSIC: THE STORY OF FREE JAZZ (Tom Surgal) Not a great documentary but an effective reminder that, with due respect, the great avant-garde music of the 1960s came from neither the Velvet Underground nor the Dream Syndicate but from the New Thing—Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, et al. Just saying.