Amrita, co-writer of The Boutique Bollywood Actor: The best thing I watched in 2021 was Showgirls of Pakistan, a VICE documentary available for free on YouTube. It was the perfect pandemic watch – short, interesting, trippy, and fierce. Director Saad Khan utilizes the kitschy aesthetic of vintage Pakistani masala movies to tell the dramatic story of three women who dance for a living in Pakistan. I found myself rooting for these women as if they were friends of mine. They battle deep rooted misogyny, casual violence, and institutionalized exploitation while trying to live their best lives. One gets to see an intimate version of Pakistan that is never seen otherwise as these women come into conflict with government bureaucracy, religious opprobrium, patriarchal entitlement and a society that needs their services but disdains them for it. Using found footage, mostly shot by the subjects themselves, Showgirls of Pakistan is a ticket to another world. Don't miss the interview with Khan at the end where he discusses the difficult process of constructing this project and then finding a market for it.
Showgirls of Pakistan
Amlan, writer of Life, After Death: Sarpatta Parambarai, Pa Ranjith’s nosedive into the boxing culture of late 20th century Madras, has to be my favourite watch of the year. The underdog sports drama film as a genre usually has a very defined structure and outline, but Ranjith manages to tell a fresh and original story while also staying largely true to the conventional outline. His characters are rooted in their reality, the story is loaded with political context and social commentary, and not once does the almost-three-hour-runtime feel like a burden. The film is a statement of both Pa Ranjith’s skill (the long boxing-less sequence post Kabilan’s accident makes the viewer truly anxious about him and his surroundings) as well as his style (no one can forget those training montages, or Shabbeer Kalarakkal’s Dancing Rose). The production design of the film as a period piece is impeccable, and its universe is built with great detail. It is hard to think of a single dull performance or character, and Pasupathy’s restrained act as coach Rangan Vathiyar shall remain etched in my mind for a long time.
Ankur, writer of Being Yorgos Lanthimos: The Worst Person in the World (Norway, 2021), by Joachim Trihe – The Worst Person in the World is a simple film. I was trying to come up with ideas for what to write here but watching this film, all I could think of was just how human this film was. It felt like it was a part of everyone’s life at some point, it felt like it was my own film. The film is about Julie – a medical student who chooses her own life path and thinks that she takes all the rational decisions but somehow ends up miserable in all these scenarios. She is plagued with fear and self-doubt. She is searching for something to complete her. Terrified of not being able to reach her full potential of not living her life “the right way”, the film’s depiction of this fear that inevitably ruins a lot of relationships is not at all detestable.
Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay employs a chapter structure that starts with a prologue, followed by twelve chapters, and an epilogue. This breakdown of the entire plot in these chapters makes us feel like we are visiting the protagonist’s life in parts. This is the third instalment in Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, which consists of Reprise (2006) and Oslo, 31 August (2011). I hadn’t seen either before watching this film but now I am intrigued about them. Renate Reinsve is a revelation of the year – her performance is one of the year’s best and worthy of the Best Actress she won at Cannes this year.
The Worst Person in the World
Utpal, writer of Mitchell Camera of Jyoti Chitraban: A Nomad River (2021), by Aditya J. Patwardhan – An extra-wide long shot of a dried-up river and vast barren land is how the film opens. The rough texture and dried brown colour of the dry soil simultaneously reminds one of a line from T S Eliot's poem The West Land – “The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf clutch and sink into the wet bank.” The story depicts the personal struggles of four young men and women who arrive at a critical moment in life – an actress, a television journalist, a refugee, a cleaner. Conventional structure of a screenplay is absent here because the film does not apprise to a traditional story. The writer-director assembled typically scattered stories from the life of these four people, and led all four narratives to a common goal, as a river flows to its destination, the sea. The film is an incredible blend of beauty and craftsmanship, recreating some actual events and fictional scenes. After all, life is nothing but a river that flows to a destination, but sometimes, the river gets lost during the journey.
A Nomad River
Prasanna, writer of the Auteur Theory Series: That Midnight Mass comes from a place of personal honesty is evident from the fact that deliberately crafting it as per screenwriting rules is a writer’s nightmare. Here’s the task:
Take a few excellent actors. Give them all weighty, emotional scenes, at least one with each of their co-actors. Ensure that these one-on-one sequences build plot and drive character development. At the same time, they should also be micro lessons in theology or philosophy. All the scenes must be powerful and punchy enough to qualify as their awards’ nomination clip, if they get nominated, that is. Then string together the compilation of such evocative, passionate, and honest monologues to form the show. Don’t worry about realism. Oh, and yes, the genre is horror. Make it unsettling, creepy, and chilling without relying on jump-scares. It should make them feel afraid of no ghosts, but of their own gullibility and insanity. And also give them an ounce of existential crisis. Overall, the story must be familiar or even predictable, but it should keep viewers hooked on till the last episode. Make it like Stephen King but improved.
Send it over next week?
As demanding as that is, Midnight Mass accomplishes all of it with beautiful imagery and production design and is by far the best thing on TV I have seen in a long time.
Pranav, writer of Reel Money: There are quite a few amazing things I have watched this year.
Generation Kill – HBO miniseries from 2008 from the David Simon-Ed Burns ragtag, is arguably my favorite thing that I have seen all year. It’s one of the finest dissections of the American military in the Bush era: accountability, politics, masculinity, ethics, racism. Memorable dialogue and fun characters (although one might find it a little skimpy on development because of the miniseries format), the plot is just soldiers facing random situations on duty. Absolute 10/10 for me, especially if you love David Simon's work and politics.
Last Chance U
Last Chance U – I might have a bias for basketball, but the docuseries is heartbreak, triumph, disaster, loneliness, and teamwork all rolled into one. And shot while the high school team in question was going through their season (the ending will break you), in a way it was all filmed “live”. Netflix has really juiced it out of Last Chance U, but as a sports fan, especially basketball, this is unmissable. Plus, great soundtrack.
Ted Lasso – I think the show speaks for itself, especially with breaking down the "hyper-positive outside, dying inside male dude" trope. Season 2 was a great leap from Season 1, which was great anyway.
Possibility of me changing this list – Yes, Succession after the finale will likely take over my favorites list for 2021, as I would expect it to. (Author note: It did)
Memorable mentions: Invincible, Insecure, The Shield
Succession: Season 3, Episode 9
Tulika, recurring writer on Incurato: Microhabitat (2017) by Jeon Go-Woon – the film traces the life of Miso, a former musician but now housekeeper, in South Korea. She lives in a tiny apartment and takes pleasure in a small glass of whiskey, a pack of Esse cigarettes, and spending time with her partner. As the cost of everything starts to increase, Miso gives up her apartment and revisits her old bandmates, whom she had helped out through difficult times in their younger days. As Miso travels from friend to friend and home to home, we get a glimpse into how lonely city life is, and how estranged capitalism makes us feel, to the point that pleasure seems like a narcissistic act, and not aspiring for materialistic things, almost criminal. It made me feel sad and angry, but incredibly touched, to know that there exists a Miso who doesn't go the way the world forces her to. It reminded me of another beautiful film that I watch every year, Frances Ha, her confusion, her kindness, her lightness of perceiving things. Microhabitat is also a portrait of the consumerist culture of Korea and how uninhabitable city life actually is for most people, and that in the end, we are all just trying to find micro habitats to spend our days in, without pressure, or unkindness, with friends and with some love.
Debasmita, Editor-in-Chief, Incurato: I watched some insanely amazing comedy this year, a lot of it on Dan Harmon’s maverick sitcom, Community (2009-14), about a group of alleged ‘losers’ in a community college. Bullied into it by my friends and Twitter memes, I don’t regret binge-watching it twice in the same year. Filled to the brim with one-liners, running gags, callbacks, and meta references, the show’s biggest strength, humour-point, surprise element or whatever one might call it, is the complete subversion of expectations of what could happen in any scene or episode. Eccentric characters walk the hallways of Greendale Community College, and we happen to follow around six of them. A lot of it is reminiscent of the early 2000s comedic goldmine, Arrested Development, which isn’t surprising considering the Russo brothers served as directors on both shows (yes, the Avengers Russo brothers). Sample: a scene where the school’s fake Spanish teacher-turned-Music student-turned-security guard tries to pout at the dean to get off being reprimanded after he goes on a self-induced side adventure of tracking down a conspiracy involving a mannequin’s leg and matchboxes.
Special Mention: Mare of Easttown for giving us tidy-haired Evan Peters and Kate Winslet being brilliant, as always.
Mare of Easttown