Style with Purpose: The Best Scenes of 2021
The cinema of 2021 was filled with a lot of empty formalism – as every year should be. Because to attempt true visual storytelling is to risk falling flat on one’s face. With streamers expanding and the pandemic accelerating the great elision of film and television, that there remain so many cinematic moments made to be seen on a big screen – made so that they can be felt and understood without dialogue – is a minor miracle in itself. So forget the failures. Let’s celebrate the successes.
My best shots of the year were those that drew attention without drawing focus. They spoke volumes, with or without dialogue, and they flexed form without sacrificing function.
The Art of the Close-up
Pig (DP: Patrick Scola; Dir: Michael Sarnoski)
If you’ve seen Pig – or if your breathless friends have seen Pig – you probably just know it as “the scene,” or maybe “you know, that scene.” If you google “Pig scene,” it’s the first result, despite the lack of an actual pig in the scene.
It’s a simple scene. It opens with a standard two-shot of Nicolas Cage’s Robin and Alex Wolff’s Amir sitting at a fancy restaurant, and remains that way as the chef, played by David Knell, approaches the table. Sarnoski slowly peels back the layers here, and as the focus shifts toward the chef and Robin, the visuals change slightly, though still fairly standard, as Sarnoski and Scola rely on a series of over-the-shoulder shots. The visuals reflect the same patience that the scene as a whole does – a rush to the close-up would undermine the deliberate pace at which Cage approaches his eventual revelation, the steady speed of the chef’s emotional breakdown.
As the emotional, stomach-flipping drop approaches, the camera approaches the close-up in a way we don’t even notice. First, it cuts out the shoulder of the other person – just a tiny movement closer to the speaker (or, occasionally, the listener). Then, as we watch, it moves in ever so slowly, waiting until the conversation has us fully engrossed so that we don’t even notice the slight movement – it doesn’t zoom, it just sways slowly forward, as if the other person, or perhaps the audience, can’t help but inch closer. Suddenly we’re up close, and the blunt-force emotional impact that feels so sudden is actually the result of a purposeful, slowly-building intimacy from the director and cinematographer.
No single technique here is revolutionary. It may seem pedestrian. But it serves the scene – the most important scene of the entire film – perfectly. And with a series of small, unshowy decisions, Sarnoski and Scola create something monumental.
The Long (Shot) Goodbye
Hit the Road (DP: Amin Jafari, Dir: Panah Panahi)
Hit the Road, Panah Panahi’s intimately epic debut, is a Russian nesting doll of goodbyes, layered together in a near-perfect family odyssey across the harsh tundra of Iran.
Late in the film, the family says goodbye to their eldest son – just a quick goodbye on a hillside, a prelude to the final farewell that is to come the next morning before he is hustled out of the country. If you’d picked up on Panahi’s rhythms thus far, you might realize that the final farewell won’t come; it’s the sugar coating, the lie everyone agrees to tell just to make the real goodbye a little bit easier – a bit like when an entire family tells itself that its dog is going to a farm upstate. This entire hillside scene is played out in ultra-long-shot. Reminiscent of another hilltop sequence suffused with horizontal movement in his mentor Abbas Kiorastami’s Where is the Friend’s House, the distance settles in like an oppressive comfort, like waking up in the middle of the night in your own bed feeling like you can’t move a muscle.
The younger brother wails while tied to one tree at the top of the hill. At the bottom, the eldest says goodbye to his parents. His mother has forgotten something – she runs back up the hill, desperately pleading for them to wait. She trips on her way back. Through all of it, Panaha and Jafari maintain their distance, and the scene takes on the form of a tableau. It is a microcosm of everything we’ve learned about this family, with the cramped confines of their car exchanged for the open air of the countryside. Everything so carefully held in place during the film’s first two acts is let loose in this scene; we realize it was all so tenuously held together in the first place. The decision to shoot this scene entirely in a long-shot turns it from the emotional fulcrum of the film to its defining shot – one that looks backward as well as forward. That it comes from a debut filmmaker is all the more impressive.
The Gift of Restraint
The Card Counter (DP: Alexander Dynan Dir: Paul Schrader)
Like many Paul Schrader films, The Card Counter seeps with repression. Much of the dialogue is clipped. Oscar Isaac’s posture remains rigid throughout – he’s the film’s emotional center, which for much of its runtime, appears nonexistent. Or at least papered over, much like Isaac’s William Tell covers the furnishings of each new motel room he stays in. The way Schrader and DP Alexander Dynan handle the flashbacks hint at this approach to repression: they hit Tell out of nowhere, often painted in surrealist strokes with anamorphic lenses, bursts of strong emotion fighting to escape before he shoves them back down again. By pen or by pocket aces, Tell always returns them from whence they came.
If you’re familiar with Schrader’s work, you may be expecting a slow build-up to a violent catharsis – and while The Card Counter tracks in a similar direction, it subverts and surprises Schrader’s past work with an atypical coda. William Tell is in jail, but with his body repressed, his mind frees itself of the strictures of regret and self-flagellation, allowing him to seek some sort of absolution, and, ultimately, find love. In a moving but nearly motionless shot, Tell and Tiffany Haddish’s La Linda imitate Michelangelo’s famous The Creation of Adam fresco, their fingers nearly touching through the pane glass of a prison visitor’s booth.
That’s a lot of build-up before I’ve even described the scene, but that’s exactly what makes the scene so effective. The mounting dread of The Card Counter makes this closing shot more powerful. It’s not a love story consummated; it’s a tale of forgiving yourself, and the permission that gives you to accept the love of another. The shot lingers longer than any other one in the film, and it burrows its way inside your mind, nagging at you in the weeks after seeing the film. It shows a softer side of the aging Schrader – not just a release from the growing tension of his latest movie, but from the build-up of negative emotion that spans his oeuvre.
A Split-Level Nightmare
The Humans (DP: Lol Crawley, Dir: Stephen Karam)
The Humans wears its cinematic flourishes on its sleeves. It has to, really – as a famous Broadway play created and adapted by Karam, it is subject to that particular brand of critical scrutiny that assumes a stage-to-cinema adaptation will “feel like a play” before the movie even comes out. Slow zooms; close-ups on the cracking façade of a dilapidated Manhattan apartment; a clanging sound design that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, both mundane and ethereal all at once.
And yet, after over 100 minutes of making this story confined to a single two-level apartment feel more like a movie than a stage play, Karam returns to his roots for a haunting final sequence. Erik Blake (a broken Richard Jenkins) slumps at the downstairs kitchen table. The rest of his family has fled this Thanksgiving from hell, but the silence seeps into Erik’s pores and weighs him down, anchoring him to his seat and paralyzing him. His daughter Brigid (beanie Feldstein) returns through the upstairs hallway door, calling for her father. Richard’s heartache is unbeknownst to his daughter. Together in an apartment, they are separated by a thin, hear-through floor, pent up family frustrations, and decades of evolving cultures and social mores.
Crawley’s camera moves up and out, distancing the viewers from this family breakdown once and for all. Darkness encircles them. Our alienation mirrors their feelings toward each other – despite physically pulling away, Crawley and Karam bring us closer to the Blakes by recreating their intimacy impotence within us. It’s a knowing wink to the film’s origins, but more importantly, just like this masterful film, a purposeful use of cinematic techniques that elevates the material.
The Circle of Life
The Green Knight (DP: Andrew Doz Palermo, Dir: David Lowery)
Except for die-hard David Lowery fans, most theater-goers likely showed up to The Green Knight excepting a fairly straight-forward medieval adventure – especially with the A24 drama’s midsummer release date. Lowery’s epic journey is instead fused with ruminations on time, heroism and fragility, and man’s relationship with nature – though as if understanding the likely audience for a film titled The Green Knight, Lowery eases audiences in. We’re close to an hour in when Gawain (Dev Patel), robbed, bound, and gagged in the middle of a dense forest, lies prone to await his inevitable death. The camera inches into a 360-degree pan – Lowery and DP Andrew Doz Palermo’s camera often moves at a glacial pace, forcing viewers into a certain amount of self-reflection – and as it returns to Gawain, he’s barely more than the skeletal remains of a once heroic figure.
The camera swings again, and by the time we return to Gawain, he’s been gifted his flesh and blood back. But we’re left wondering – what was this? A premonition of sorts? And what-could-be or what-could-have-been? Gawain eventually escapes and resumes his adventure, but this meditative bit of ghost-story-cum-fantasy is a primer for the rest of Lowery’s film, which uses his journey merely as a backbone off of which to explore the dark recesses of Gawain’s mind and body. The moment takes our breath away only to restore it with a warning and a promise: be prepared for anything. This is not the story you think it is.