Despite the pandemic, it’s been a good year for feature films, especially if you like films that venture a bit off the beaten track. In fact, it was a particularly good year for non-Hollywood films: home viewing is a great equalizer and makes it easier to experience the films without regard for the amount of money spent to promote them.
Drive My Car: Director Ryusuke Hamaguche uses the familiar setting of an automobile interior to create first the solitude of an artist, then intimacy among strangers, in a film based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. As the bright-red two-door moves through Japan, so do widowed actor/director Yusuke Kafuki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his assigned driver Misaki (Toko Miura) pass through levels of memories and deceptions and misunderstandings to arrive at their destination.
The Hand of God: The title of Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film has many meanings, not the least of which refers to a certain goal scored in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup that might have been more suitably rewarded with a red card. Football aside, The Hand of God is a stunningly beautiful film (cinematography by Daria D’Antonio) that draws on the director’s memories of his youth in Naples. Filippo Scotti, in his first leading role, won Best Young Actor at the 2021 Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of the director’s avatar.
The Harder They Fall: A revisionist Western in which all the principal characters are Black, Jeymes Samuel’s film is amazingly entertaining and also serves as a reminder that the Wild West in reality was not nearly as White as it is usually portrayed in movies and on television. A strong cast (Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo) and a great soundtrack (also by Samuel, a.k.a. the singer/composer/music producer The Bullits) make this one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Last Night in Soho: Edgar Wright’s latest film, starring Thomasin McKenzie as a fashion student and Anya Taylor-Joy as her unexpected muse, is a marvel of fluidity (highlighted in a scene in which the two actresses effortlessly swap places, again and again) that mixes a murder mystery set in the 1960s with scenes from London student life in the present day. It’s also a film that is remarkably sensitive to the lived experience of women, and the dangers therein, which is a new focus for this director.
The Lost Daughter: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut features Olivia Colman in a very Olivia Colman performance as Leda, a professor who, despite her accomplishments and apparently conventional life, is uncomfortable in her own skin. Leda’s hopes for a quiet working holiday are interrupted by a noisy and aggressive family, but it’s not all a loss, as she forms a friendship with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) who reminds her of her younger self. Gradually, the film becomes an exploration not just of Leda’s character, but of the experience of motherhood itself.
Memoria: Tilda Swinton plays the central character in Apichatong Weerasethakul’s latest film, a Scottish woman working in Medillin who hears loud, disturbing sounds imperceptible to everyone else. It’s not the kind of film in which you should expect a straightforward plot, but it’s an amazing experience all the same, aided in no small part by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography.
Petite Maman: Celine Sciamma hits all the right notes in this small-scope drama that blends straightforward naturalism with the timelessness of a fairy tale. As is the case with several of Sciamma’s films, it centers the perspective of children, in this case eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz), and a mysterious little girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Josephine’s twin) whom she meets in the woods.
The Power of the Dog: Jane Campion’s masterpiece of slow burn deconstructs assumptions about the American West, and American Westerns as well. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is stunning, Johnny Greenwood’s music is absolutely perfect, and Campion makes good use of a starry cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
There is No Evil: Mohammad Rasoulof’s film is a masterpiece of invention due to necessity: banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government, Rasoulof constructs a feature film out of four separate but thematically interwoven short films. All were shot in secrecy, and all touch on the subject of capital punishment and its consequences for Iranian society, most specifically on those who must carry it out.
The Worst Person in the World: Renate Reinsve deserves every acting award possible for her performance as Julie, the central character Joachim Trier’s latest film, which is set primarily among the young, bright, and privileged of Oslo. Julie could be anything she wants, but is having trouble choosing and sticking to a path, and the marvel of Reinsve’s performance is that she makes the character likeable, even for adults who have long since made their compromises with the world.
Honorable Mention: Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn, Belfast, Bergman Island, Cyrano, The Green Knight, Mass, Passing, Prayers for the Stolen, Slalom, Titane | Sarah Boslaugh