New York Critics and British Indies

Lady Gaga in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (2021)

Introducing her list of the ten best films of 2021 in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis looks back to the summer and her first indoor screening after sixteen months of streaming movies at home. She watched Matt Damon “sing the white-guy blues” in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater, “one of the most mediocre movies that I’ve seen this year—and it was glorious.” She had been missing “really, really big bright images and I missed the rituals, including the quick search for the most perfect seat and the anticipatory wait for the movie to begin, for someone to hit the lights and start the show.”

The NYT’s A. O. Scott bookends his top ten with music documentaries. Summer of Soul (his #1 and Dargis’s #4) is Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s reconstruction and recontextualization of television producer Hal Tulchin’s footage shot during a series of concerts in Harlem in 1969 that featured such artists as Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone. “It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters—and what it can do—in times of conflict and anxiety,” writes Scott. His #10 (and Dargis’s #3) is Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, which also “revisits the music of the 1960s,” but “in a spirit that is more historical than nostalgic.”

Scott’s #7 is Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, “an understated, multilayered meditation on the complexities of human connection.” Dargis has Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy at #9 and puts Drive My Car, a “masterpiece about life and death and art from one of the most exhilarating directors to hit the international film scene,” at the top of her list. The film “draws from theater and literature—a splash of Waiting for Godot but mostly Uncle Vanya and the [Haruki] Murakami short story that gives the movie its title—to create a work of pure cinema.”

Drive My Car was voted best picture of the year when the New York Film Critics Circle convened last Friday. Most agree that the group made solid choices across the board. Three awards went to The Power of the Dog—director (Jane Campion), actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), and supporting actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—and Paul Thomas Anderson won best screenplay for Licorice Pizza. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter was named best first film; Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, best nonfiction film; and Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, best foreign-language film.

One award did spark a flurry of questions and exclamations on social media, though. Lady Gaga won best actress for her performance as Patrizia Reggiani, the Italian socialite who married into the fashion dynasty and arranged to have her husband murdered, in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. Guy Lodge, for one, was “genuinely tickled by this choice.” The week before, he’d written: “There’s a tendency in contemporary film viewing to equate great acting with naturalism . . . but what of great acting that looks and feels like acting, that draws on the performer’s own outsize persona, that lands on the screen larger, lusher, and more lavish than life? That’s gone slightly out of fashion, and is all the more delicious for its rarity.” In House of Gucci, Lady Gaga “proves her Cher-like instincts for taking up space on screen: her Patrizia is no lady, fully gaga, and locks eyes with the camera like she’s about to engage it in combat.”

As for the film itself, drawn from the 2001 book by Sara Gay Forden, the verdict has been mixed. As much as they have been enjoying Ridley Scott’s press tour—the man just turned eighty-four, has made at least two stone-cold classics, and understandably feels zero need to observe junket protocol—some critics have been thrown for a loop. “Is it a multigenerational family crime saga in the tradition of The Godfather, a comparison that has been suggested by co-screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna?” asks Slate’s Dana Stevens. “No, maybe it’s a campy mid-twentieth-century melodrama—Douglas Sirk by way of Luchino Visconti—with an operatic (if nonsinging) lead performance by the twenty-first century’s reigning multimedia diva, Lady Gaga. Wait—or is it a dirt-dishing business drama about sneaky chicanery behind the scenes of the high-end luxury industry? House of Gucci is all these things and more, plus, very possibly, a floor wax, a dessert topping, and a portal to another dimension.”

Across the Atlantic, the British Independent Film Awards were presented on Sunday evening, and the clear winner was Aleem Khan’s first feature, After Love. Khan won best director and debut director as well as best screenplay. Joanna Scanlan won best actress, Talid Ariss was named best supporting actor, and the ceremony wrapped with the crowning of After Love as the best British independent film of 2021.

As Kahn told Sarfraz Manzoor in the Guardian this summer, Scanlan’s Mary is very closely modeled on his mother, a white English woman who married a Muslim man. He had his mother teach Scanlan how to cook saag paneer and sent the two women out shopping together. The story, though, is not his mother’s. “I took my real mum and put her in a fictional scenario and in jeopardy,” says Khan. When Mary’s husband dies, she discovers that he had been living a double life, one in Dover and another across the Channel, in Calais, where he had a lover and a child. Khan knows all about keeping a secret. Raised as a Muslim, he realized at the age of sixteen that he was gay. After Love is “a deeply political film for me, but the politics in the film are quite quiet,” says Khan. “It feels like my whole life is in this film.”

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