It’s a 2021 Year in Review extravaganza! Hosts Gemma and Slim open the Letterboxd Hotline to experts on the three highest-rated films of the year: Matt Singer (Spider-Man: No Way Home), Juan Barquin (Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time) and Bintang Lestada (Yuni)—all of whom take a moment to plead for justice for Barb & Star, woefully ignored in the Letterboxd 2021 Year in Review. Senior editor Mitchell Beaupre and London correspondent Ella Kemp also join for a discussion on Year in Review favorites. Topics include: unabashed crowd-pleasers, rethinking Andrew Garfield, how to comfort a hedgehog, movies and mental health, recency bias, the power of stills photographers, the 2021 film that bypasses Slimfluence, an update on Ella’s relationship status, feelings as a genre, our love for Mike Mills, the influence of The Beatles on 2021 fashion, Gemma’s favorite George Harrison moments, and how Summer of Soul saved us all.
Two Filipino indies lead the Letterboxd Top 25 at the 2021 halfway point, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to shake—and reshape—the film industry. Jack Moulton and Gemma Gracewood take stock.
Cleaners, Glenn Barit’s photocopied, hand-colored, stop-motion feature about high schoolers in the northern Philippines city of Tuguegarao, is the highest-rated 2021 film on Letterboxd at the halfway point of the year, with a weighted average of 4.3 out of five stars. Ode to Nothing, by Barit’s fellow countrywoman Dwein Baltazar, is in second place, and Shaka King’s two-time Oscar-winner Judas and the Black Messiah rounds out the top three.
Last year was a transition year in many ways: for the world, a pandemic-led move away from cinema screenings to at-home virtual theaters and streaming-first releases; for Letterboxd, a move away from US-led release dates in our annual calculations. This has opened the way for notable films from around the world to be included on our lists far sooner than their oft-delayed American releases (which had resulted in, for example, Brazil’s Bacurau not making the 2019 Letterboxd Year in Review).
Both of these factors help to explain why we have two Filipino independent features leading our midway Top 25. “Cleaners and Ode to Nothing are exactly the kind of small Filipino films that would have struggled to get national distribution in theaters in the before times, despite the buzz that they garnered,” writes Manila-based film critic Philbert Dy in his companion essay to the Top 25, in which he explains how the Philippines’ particularly long and harsh Covid lockdown has “led to smaller, quirkier films being made accessible to more Filipinos, whose consumption of cinema were once beholden to the whims of conglomerate cinema owners”.
When we shared the good news with him, a delighted Cleaners director Glenn Barit specifically shouted out his nation’s film lovers: “It is a testament to a vibrant Filipino film community still actively watching and supporting films of our own. Especially with a film like ours set in a small city far from the capital, it is amazing to read in reviews that it resonates with a lot of people (sometimes even outside our country).”
From this year forward, our mid-year rankings include films that have been released in any country, with at least a limited theatrical, streaming or video-on-demand run, and a minimum of 1,000 views on Letterboxd. These new rules allow us to celebrate the love for Katie Found’s lesbian romance My First Summer—released in Australia in March—without having to wait for the US to catch up. It joins indie highlight Shiva Baby, Michael Rianda’s animated hit The Mitchells vs The Machines and Heidi Ewing’s swooning romance, I Carry You With Me, on the Top 25 in putting young, queer characters on the screen.
As expected, many films on the list have suffered pandemic delays. We use premiere dates to mark the year of record for each film, so A Quiet Place Part II will always be attached to its March 2020 red-carpet screening, despite the fourteen-month hibernation that followed. This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection by Mosotho director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese screened at 2019’s Venice Film Festival and had a very long festival run until Mubi picked it up for streaming in the UK this year. The film’s lead, Mary Twala, passed away a year ago, July 4, 2020 (see her also in Beyoncé’s Black is King). Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Our Friend—one of the eight women-directed films on the list—went to TIFF, London, and AFI before being released this January without screening once in 2020.
More than half of our Top 25 films are directed by BIPOC directors, nearly a dozen of whom are of Asian descent, illuminating a key benefit of the new eligibility system. Challenging the US for the most represented country is India with five films in the list, taking advantage of Amazon’s distribution deal and creating greater accessibility for Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam-language films at home and abroad.
Also among the Asian directors making the list are legends Tsai Ming-liang and Sion Sono. Tsai’s Days recently received a limited run in Spain (it will be brought to the US by Grasshopper Films this August), while Sono’s Red Post Post on Escher Street had a quick VOD run in February courtesy of Japan Society Film.
Produced in the US and directed by Japanese-Brazilian Edson Oda, Nine Days qualifies due to an exclusive run at the Singapore arthouse theater The Projector in May—it’ll be released in the US later this month. Finally, Asian American director Jon M. Chu makes the list with his adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. We are also happy to see a couple of Letterboxd members in the halfway 25: Cleaners’ Barit and Chad Hartigan (Little Fish). If you’d like to discover more 2021 releases by our member-filmmakers, we have a list for that.
The Top 25 is, of course, solely made up of narrative feature-length films. On the documentary front, Flee is currently the highest-rated non-fiction feature of 2021. Neon is expected to release the film in the US for an awards run later this year, but it’s eligible now due to a release earlier this month in director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s homeland of Denmark.
Fellow Sundance Film Festival winner Summer of Soul (or… When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is currently the year’s highest-rated documentary in general, but was 48 hours shy of eligibility for the halfway list, releasing in theaters and on Hulu on July 2. The runners-up are: Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, directed by the notorious football manager’s son; David Attenborough’s The Year Earth Changed, directed by Tom Beard; and rock-docs TINA and (in his doc-directing debut) Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers.
In other categories, It’s a Sin is the highest-rated narrative miniseries at the midway point, Can’t Get You Out of Our Head by Adam Curtis is the highest-rated documentary miniseries, Bo Burnham: Inside is the highest-rated comedy special, Blackpink: The Show is the highest-rated music film, Save Ralph is the highest-rated animated short film, and Four Roads, by Alice Rohrwacher, is the highest-rated live-action short film.
With Cannes underway and more festivals to come, it is still a long road to the 2021 Year in Review for these films—but given the journey most of them have already travelled, it is pleasing to celebrate the filmmakers’ success. Ang galing ninyong lahat!
On top of its meticulously bonkers production process, our highest-ranked film, Cleaners, had a long journey to its first theatrical distribution, and it’s far from over. The film premiered at the QCinema International Film Festival in October 2019, to raves from Filipino Letterboxd members, and it still holds a firm grasp on its high rating nearly two years later. Ultimately, the first non-fest release for Cleaners occurred when Singapore’s Asian Film Archive screened it for a week in April, thus qualifying the film for our 2021 lists.
Ode to Nothing has been on an even longer journey. The film also debuted at the QCinema Festival, but in 2018, and finally arrived on local streaming services iWantTFC and KTX.PH earlier this year.
Being celebrated by their countryfolk on Letterboxd is one thing, but how can those of us outside the Philippines see these top two films? Perhaps we need to give our local distributors a nudge. As Cleaners director Barit explains: “We are a team of three first-time filmmakers and producers. We are still learning the ropes of film distribution and marketing—and it’s been very hard. I just want to shamelessly say that our doors are wide open for distribution and acquisition; we are not yet available on any streaming platforms locally or internationally [winks nervously].”