On this week’s Film Club, our critics A.A. Dowd and Katie Rife are creating a new tradition with the second annual edition of what we like to call the Mid-Year Awards. Last summer, Film Club ran an episode saluting the best performances, screenplays, direction, and films of 2020—a strange year for movies that turned out, despite all odds, to be a very good year for cinema as well. This year, with everyone from Vin Diesel to Steven Spielberg acting as cheerleaders for the return of the theatrical experience, our critics find themselves curiously underwhelmed with what 2021 has had to offer so far. But they push through, and reveal their picks for the best of 2021—a list that includes everything from Marvel blockbusters to African arthouse films.
You can hear the entire conversation in the episode above, or read an excerpt down below.
A.A. Dowd: We’ve talked about our favorite screenplay of the year. We’ve talked about our favorite performances of the year. Let’s move on to best director. Katie, who’s your choice for best director? Gun to head, you’ve got to pick today. Who are you going with?
Katie Rife: Maybe this is going to come a little bit out of left field, because we don’t generally talk about documentaries that much when we’re talking about something like a best director category. But I’m just really excited to talk about Questlove’s direction in Summer of Soul. The film has a lot of really compelling performance footage. It’s a music documentary about a festival that was held in Harlem in the summer of 1969 called the Harlem Cultural Festival that played host to dozens of legendary performers—in their element, in their pride. And it’s extremely invigorating footage. And I think a lot of documentarians would have just hung their hat on that.
A.A. Dowd: And why not? I mean, like, you have got amazing footage. It sort of feels like maybe your job’s done, and yet...
Katie Rife: Questlove’s best known as the drummer for The Roots. He’s been a musician for many, many years. First of all, he brings a musician’s sense of timing to the film, which really fits well with the subject matter. But what I thought was really interesting about his direction is he pulled techniques from a few different documentary directors. For example, there’s one technique that he uses. It’s kind of similar to what Errol Morris does with the Interrotron, where he films people watching footage of themselves. And you can see in their eyes the emotional reaction that they’re having to watching themselves. And then they turn towards the camera and tell a story, or they watch the footage while they’re telling the story. And I think that was an interesting way of getting an emotional reaction out of people. However, the reason that I really want to put him forward as a director is a technique that he uses where he would cut between different interviews, where he’s having a person who was in the audience talk about a performance, while the performer is talking about the performance, while you are watching footage of that same performance. And by putting all these different perspectives on the exact same moment, you see the moment in all of its complexity, by knowing everything that was going on in the background.
A.A. Dowd: Right. What it meant to the artist, but also at the same time, what it meant to the person in the audience watching. Any musical performance is about the person who’s on stage, but it’s also about the people who are experiencing it, too. And you’re right that Questlove understands that and makes that a focus of the film. Understanding how seismic this event was culturally and how much it meant to so many people, both in a macro sense, but also in the micro sense of even an individual moment, like a single song being played on the stage.
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