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2021: Critics’ Picks

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021)

The Berlinale announced today that it will present an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement to Isabelle Huppert and screen seven films she stars in during its seventy-second edition in February. Huppert is on the cover of this month’s Vogue France, and inside, the editors ask her not only about the films that have meant the most to her over the years but also about her favorites this year.

Her list: Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Leos Carax’s Annette, Bruno Dumont’s France, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, and Joachim Lafosse’s The Restless. With the possible exception of Lafosse’s film starring Leïla Bekhti and Damien Bonnard as a couple struggling with his bipolar disorder, Huppert will find plenty of support for that list from critics around the world.

The Atlantic’s David Sims has put The Worst Person in the World at the top of his ten, calling it Trier’s “masterpiece” and “an acidly self-aware story about the perils of turning thirty and not quite knowing what to do with yourself.” The AP’s Jake Coyle hasn’t “yet worked out whether it was the movie’s warm, exuberant humanity or the experience of seeing it on the big screen in a theater with other people that moved me to tears.” Annette is not only John Waters’s favorite movie of 2021 but Bilge Ebiri’s as well. Carax and Sparks’s “insane” rock musical is “one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen about the cruel paradox of creation,” he writes at Vulture.

In France, Léa Seydoux plays France de Meurs, a popular television news personality enduring an emotional crisis in front of an audience of millions. Introducing her interview with Dumont for the Notebook, Beatrice Loayza observes that the film is “less a satirical critique of the contemporary media than an exploration of the modern condition, wrought as it is by the smoke and mirrors of digital technologies, mechanisms of spectacle not unlike the cinema itself.”

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Amazing Year

Counting down the top fifty films of the year, the staff at Slant puts Drive My Car at the top of its list. “Diving deep into the recesses of memory and imagination, Hamaguchi mounts a classic—one of the greatest of all movies concerned with the creation and delectation of the lifeblood of art,” writes Chuck Bowen.

In Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, “the death of his wife leaves an experimental theater director—played by Hidetoshi Nishijima with a stoicism that conceals complex depths—to process his grief through art with a multilingual staging of Uncle Vanya,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “But it’s in the deepening bond he forms with a guarded young woman assigned as his driver, and the shared sense of loss that emerges during their rhythmic daily journeys in his beloved red Saab, that this symphonic exploration of the mysteries of human connection reveals its shimmering truths about forgiveness.”

Drive My Car “initially brings to mind a less paranoid version of a Jacques Rivette movie,” suggests Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “But Hamaguchi’s take on art, life, loss, healing and forgiveness is its own beast, and one of the richest, most rewarding examples of how to turn simple human interactions into compelling cinema.” Hamaguchi’s other film of the year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, tops Chicago filmmaker and critic Michael Smith’s list and shares the #1 spot on Adam Nayman’s at the Ringer.

While Drive My Car “chugs along with brilliant linearity—leaping across weeks and years to chronicle an artist’s struggle to turn grief into inspiration—Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy turns curlicues about chance, fate, and heartbreak,” writes Nayman. “It’s made up of three miniature forty-minute dramas, each featuring sexy, existentially angsty characters; each with a delicious twist; each whirling away in succession, one after another, like a perfect little anthology of short stories. No movies this year took more pleasure in the architecture and engineering of narrative.”

Campion, PTA, and Gyllenhaal

IndieWire has conducted a poll of 187 critics and journalists from around the globe, and the “landslide victor,” reports Christian Blauvelt, is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. This “gorgeous, sinewy western, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is a movie as big as the open sky—but also one where human emotions are distinctly visible, as fine and sharp as a blade of grass,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. The Power of the Dog has swept the awards presented this year by the Chicago Film Critics Association and tops the lists from the critics at the Austin Chronicle and RogerEbert.com.

First up for Sean Burns at WBUR is Licorice Pizza. “Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose, loopy tale of teenage adulation in 1973 is the director’s most endearing picture, an episodic ramble through fading fashions, ephemeral fads and memories that endure,” he writes. “I didn’t want this movie to end.” The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey and the critics at the Playlist agree. For Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt, “Anderson's tender, funny ramble captures all the hope and absurdity of adolescence, one wild polyblend rumpus at a time.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “stunning directorial debut” The Lost Daughter “has a clarity of vision that borders on cruel, capturing the vulnerability of being a middle-age woman traveling alone and trying to cut loose while being acutely aware of how she’s perceived by everyone around her,” writes Vulture’s Alison Willmore. “No other film this year feels so ruthlessly, breathtakingly grown-up.” The AP’s Lindsey Bahr and WBUR’s Erin Trahan agree.

Singular #1s

It’s always fun to come across a list with a surprise at the top. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is going with A Night of Knowing Nothing, which won the Golden Eye, the award for best documentary at Cannes, when it premiered this summer in the Directors’ Fortnight. “Secretive, intimate letters between two students in Mumbai turn up in a box at school, after violent protests break out,” writes Phillips. “The letters are the invention of director/cowriter Payal Kapadia; what she does with the relationship behind that fictional correspondence flowers into a wondrous, trancelike, politically driven narrative, driven by archival footage of contemporary India, dealing with race, caste, class, political struggle and the ache of young love.”

For Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi “demonstrates, visually and sonically, the might of what film offers as a medium; it pushes the form of documentaries in intriguing directions; and it made me reconsider the bonds of family and communal responsibility.” Faya Dayi comes in at #9 on the list put together by Hyperallergic contributors and staff members. Their #1 is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. “Appropriately for a story about a woman plagued by multiple possible sensory illusions, it is finely tuned to every facet of its soundscape, its images patient and indelible,” writes Dan Schindel. “Rarely have the real and unreal melded so seamlessly.”

Variety’s in-house critics are also anointing #1s that appear further down other lists—if they appear at all. As Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, Kristen Stewart “takes the audience on a flesh-and-blood journey in a movie that’s at once a diary, a soap opera, a horror film, and a rigorously speculative drawing-room biopic,” writes Owen Gleiberman. In Clint Bentley’s Jockey, Clifton Collins Jr. plays a loner confronted by a younger rider who claims to be his son. “A gifted character actor with more than seventy credits to his name, Collins has waited his entire career for an opportunity like this,” writes Peter Debruge, “but instead of overplaying such an emotional part, he reins it in for even greater impact.”

At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson’s “pick for the year’s best movie is entirely a product of personal aesthetic taste and thematic obsession, but that’s just how it should be.” Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island is “a layered and lovely film about the tension between making art and living real life, and how the two feed one another.”

In Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Matt Singer’s #1 at ScreenCrush, cowriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo are “sensational” as “a pair of cloistered gal pals” who “both get the hots for a gorgeous mystery man (Jamie Dornan, fearlessly mocking his own image as a hardbodied Lothario) who happens to be part of a plot to destroy the town through scientifically-modified killer mosquitos. (Yes, that old cliché.) Wiig and Mumolo are sensational in the leads, riffing on such topics as Tommy Bahama clothing and the magic of the name Trish, and the script will be quoted until the killer mosquitos come for us all.”

Barb and Star also appear on Dana Stevens’s alphabetical top ten at Slate, but let’s focus for a moment on West Side Story. “Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s ravishing update of the 1957 Broadway musical-turned-Oscar-winning-if-now-racially-unsettling 1961 movie is a demonstration of the magic that can happen when a skillfully wielded camera meets a skillfully wielded pen,” writes Stevens. “I’ve seen this movie twice now, and I still have trouble coming up with a single choice I would have made differently, from the casting (Rachel Zegler and Mike Faist in particular should have been movie stars yesterday) to the choreography (with Justin Peck updating and adapting the groundbreaking work of the show’s co-creator Jerome Robbins) to the impeccable costume and production design.”

If you read just one full review of West Side Story, make it Stevens’s, an informative yet succinct primer on the history of the musical and the first adaptation codirected by Robbins and Robert Wise and a well-grounded appreciation of the second. A somewhat late entry in this year’s list-making and awards season, the new West Side Story has been championed by many and panned by some, and so far, it isn’t doing all that well at the box office.

Whether it recovers or carries on sinking, any list of recommended reading would have to include Guy Lodge’s piece for the Guardian on the 1961 film, Daniel Wortel-London’s backgrounder on composer Leonard Bernstein’s politics for Slate, the debate between five critics conducted for the New York Times before Spielberg’s movie opened, and A. O. Scott’s outstanding profile of Kushner.

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