The 25 Best International Movies of 2021

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The 25 Best International Movies of 2021

In our second year of highlighting important movies from outside the U.S., we’ve expanded our scope because, well, there are just so many good movies coming from outside the U.S. This list counts movies from over a dozen countries, spanning topics as diverse as horny lesbian nuns, truck-mating impostors and the expression of grief from two quiet folks in a car. If you can brave the one-inch barrier of subtitles for these incredible films, you’ll be vastly rewarded with a range of genres, styles and A-list filmmakers at the tops of their games.

Here are our picks for the 25 best international movies of the year:


25. The Worst Person in the World

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Millennials were born into a world that no longer demands much of young people, yet somehow expects even more of us. Not as long ago as we might think, it was the norm for adults in their 20s and 30s to have it all figured out. A spouse, a career, a gaggle of children—at least one of these things and even better if all three. Young people now are caught in this strange purgatory between child and adult. We are afforded more time to become who we want to be and there is more pressure than ever to do so. Enter Julie (Renate Reinsve, Dakota Johnson’s long-lost twin), a fickle Norwegian who has never stayed committed to one thing in her entire life. A teenaged overachiever, she dabbled in medicine before she discovered that she was more interested in matters of the soul than the body. So, she cuts and dyes her hair, dumps her med school lover and pivots to psychology pursuits before burning that all down too, shifting once again—this time to photography. But unsurprisingly, photography manages to bore Julie as well, and soon enough she’s off to the next new thing, next new hairstyle, next new guy in the adult coming-of-age film that is Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, the director’s follow-up to the 2017 supernatural thriller Thelma and his fifth film overall. Prior to this breakneck, whimsically-scored narrated montage of Julie’s life so far (edited with precision by Olivier Bugge Coutté and scored by Ola Fløttum), the narrator explains what’s going to happen: This is a film in twelve chapters, complete with a prologue and an epilogue. Thus, The Worst Person in the World functions like a fractured collection of moments in one person’s life as they strive for self-actualization. The chapters are never consistently timed, some lasting only a few minutes and others lasting the length of a television episode, creating an atmosphere in which we never know how much time has passed, and yet time is passing all the same—and quickly—for Julie. When we’ve finally caught up to her present, she’s entered into a long-term relationship with a successful, 44-year-old graphic novelist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), whose prosperous career has given her the stability to work a day job at a bookstore while she decides what she wants to set her sights on next. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is as indecisive as its endlessly curious heroine, but it is an invigorating, exceedingly kind portrait conveying that the journey is just as—if not more—crucial as the place we end up.—Brianna Zigler


24. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

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With little context beyond base place names and proper nouns, Jia Zhangke’s latest documentary charts China’s rapidly transforming identity over the past seven decades. From one to 18, amorphous chapter titles (“Sound,” “Journeys,” “Disease,” “Mother,” or just a name: “Yu Hua”) oneirically attend to some archetype or passing theme, but for the ignorant Westerner—in other words: me and many readers here—they provide emotional anchors as Jia increasingly merges the past with the present. Or, at least, as he struggles to. Beginning at a lit fest in Jia’s hometown province of Shanxi, where generations of writers come together to help remember China’s many changing faces, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue focuses on three prominent writers—Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong, each successively younger, their childhoods filtered through ever-altering shades of Chinese culture-connected by a literary tradition begun with Ma Feng, who wrote popularly of Chinese country life. As Jia interviews his subjects, their stories tell of coming of age during the Cultural Revolution or in the unrest that followed, simultaneously tragic and tickling, modern life typically intrudes. Occupying the real estate of every frame, phone screens scramble light, headphones in every ear and someone filming something; meanwhile, Jia juxtaposes shots from his earlier films with their current state, or catches old writers staring incomprehensibly at their younger counterparts. Whether Liang Hong’s 14-year-old son’s completely losing the dialect from the region where he was born, where his mother grew up, or a shot of a communal dining hall reveals rows of young people glued to their phones, the present always threatens to quietly extinguish the past. Nelson Yu-lik Wai’s cinematography captures the quotidian as an immersive depth of commotion and inner life, two chapters especially (“Journeys” and “Sound”) a showcase for montages that widen the film’s purview, presenting modern China as a mélange of contradictions and anachronisms. Swimming Out is something of a culmination of Jia’s work, then, a celebration of artists as those who, with the wisdom of time, preserve and presage history as they actively define it. He also wonders if they’re—and he counts himself here—doing a good enough job. Regardless, the sea is now clearly blue, no matter what text books once said. And Yu Hua can watch a Blazers/Nuggets game in public, on his phone, in peace.—Dom Sinacola


23. Censor

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If Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension had a kid and raised it on Vinegar Syndrome releases, that kid would grow up to be Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor. A demonstration of refined craftsmanship and a gleeful embrace of horror’s grimiest mores all at the same time, Censor is the ultimate “have cake, eat it too” film, being both exceptionally well-made and stuffed to the gunwales with everything that makes horror worth watching: Creeping dread, paranoia, gross-out violence and inspired fits of madness, with a side of smirking defiance for the conservative pitchfork mobs that have tried to pin all the world’s ills on the genre since always. Bailey-Bond’s film is in conversation with history, the era of Margaret Thatcher and cultural garment-rending over the proliferation of video nasties among impressionable Brits. Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor, fills her days watching graphically staged dramatizations of brutality, then cutting down their countless offenses to an acceptable size. One such picture too closely resembles a horrible incident from her childhood, one resulting in the disappearance of her sister—or more specifically, it’s the lead actress in the picture who too closely resembles her sister. The encounter sets Enid on a quest to recover her long-lost sibling, which takes her on a descent into insanity…plus a few choice gore shots. But as much as Censor connects with Britain’s past, it connects with horror’s past, too, in keeping with the genre’s tradition of self-awareness and self-critique. When social forces come together to blame horror for the existence of darkness, it’s because those forces can’t stand their own self-reflections. They need an easy way out, and moral panic is easy. Horror knows who the real villains are, and so does Bailey-Bond. Don’t take that as a warning sign, though: Censor isn’t stuffy or preachy, not at all. It’s the reason we go see horror movies in the first place.—Andy Crump


22. Flee

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“Flee.” It’s an imperative, a one-word title telling the audience what a person has to do to save themselves from cultural takeover by barbarians with too many guns: Get the hell out of Dodge. Run for your lives. Flee. Danish documentarian Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s new movie animates the truth of one man, Amin, Rasmussen’s friend, who for the first time in his adult life (and in his relationship with Rasmussen) has decided to open up about the time he and his family cut town when the Taliban took over Kabul. Being an everyday non-fundamentalist person in Afghanistan is hard enough with those lunatics in control. Being both everyday and non-fundamentalist and a closeted young gay man is worse. And that unavoidable bleakness softens and sharpens through the film’s presentation. Using animation to reenact Amin’s perilous journey from Afghanistan to Denmark, with stops along the way in Russia and Estonia, Rasmussen has a way of layering the stunning cruelty Amin endures and observes on the road to safety with an electric playfulness: Even the worst real-life images gain a certain exuberance when recreated by hand. But the film comprises Amin’s recollections, and human memory being what it is—simultaneously faithful, fuzzy and faulty—the casual alchemical qualities so intrinsic to animation as a medium pull those recollections into harsh relief. Maybe this is the only way Amin can face his past. Animation also has a way of feeling more alive than live-action, or alive in its own separate way, which makes Flee’s darkness all the darker. Most of all, Rasmussen is letting Amin tell his story his way. Animation only ultimately acts as a veneer. Even through the layers of artifice, what this movie shows us may be one of cinema’s most harrowing refugee stories.—Andy Crump


21. The Dig

There are many reasons The Dig might have piqued initial interest: First, it stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes and a fine cast of other notable actors; second, you could tell from the trailer that this is one of those British films, a period piece filled with silences and restraint; and finally, it’s based on a real-life historical event, the excavation and discovery of the Sutton Hoo site (an Anglo-Saxon burial ground) in Suffolk in 1939. Those were the reasons I’d decided to watch The Dig as soon as I saw the first windswept image of Mulligan, looking both determined and grim, much before I saw the trailer. But soon after I had settled into the couch, I found myself gradually immersed in the slow lyricism of the film. Right from the opening frame—which shows Fiennes sat on a rowboat, being ferried with his bicycle across a river; oars gently pulling through the lapping waters, birds in the sky, golden hour in the horizon—I could sense myself coming to a still. It felt like a balm. The Dig tells the story of Edith Pretty (Mulligan), landowner and widowed mother, who employs Basil Brown (Fiennes), a self-taught excavator/archaeologist, to dig up the large mounds of earth on her Sutton Hoo property. When Brown asks Pretty why she didn’t go through the usual route of contacting a museum, Pretty replies that she did, but the impending second World War means that resources are scant, and Brown was the best bet—even though he has been described as a challenging man, with unorthodox ideas. The war looming in the background adds a measure of urgency to the otherwise unhurried pace of the film. The drama lies within the interactions between these people who have come together for the project: Pretty and Brown, the team of experts from the British Museum headed by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and including Stuart (Ben Chaplin) and Margaret Piggot (Lily James), Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and Brown’s wife May (Monica Dolan). As the archaeological team digs deeper, they also unearth emotions and motivations within themselves and those around them. Stott is delightfully annoying as the overbearing British Museum veteran, sneering at Brown’s lack of credentials and spluttering when put in his place by Pretty. James is endearingly conflicted as a young wife and junior archaeologist, trying to find her place in her marriage and the work field—even in her attraction to the roguish Rory. The film beautifully brings the account of the people behind one of England’s most famous archaeological events to life. Even if there have been some artistic licenses taken, I know that when I go to the British Museum next—in the near future, one hopes—I will be making a beeline for the Sutton Hoo exhibit.—Aparita Bhandari


20. Belfast

In his early acting years, Branagh judiciously explored his Northern Ireland roots in theater. In the decades since, he hasn’t dipped back into his heritage on the stage or screen much since those plays or his autobiography. With Belfast, it feels like Branagh spent those interim years ruminating heavily on his past in the ways only time and distance can afford, and he’s poured those rich sense memories into all 97 minutes of this deeply personal film. Collecting some of his longtime acting collaborators like Judi Dench and Gerard Horan, and some of the best Irish actors working today including Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, Branagh forms them into semi-autobiographical versions of his family, friends and neighbors back in the day. They represent three generations of Belfasters, the backbone of his intimate snapshot of late ‘60s Northern Ireland, with Hinds and Dench as Pop and Granny, and Balfe and Dornan as Ma and Pa to young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill). Initially introducing audiences to a color-drenched montage of aerial views of Belfast today, Branagh’s camera then slips over a fence and back in time to a black-and-white past seen mostly from Buddy’s point of view. He exists in a seemingly carefree childhood, comforted by his tight knit community. But his peaceful play is quickly shattered by the Troubles invading his mixed religion, middle class street. Housing both Catholics and Protestants, the street becomes a literal war zone that erupts in the middle of the day as Protestants try to physically oust the Catholics from their homes. By following the mercurial, butterfly existence of a small child, Branagh is able to keep an innocence to this slice of life story as the bigger issues behind the Troubles are kept at bay. They simmer and threaten at the fringes of Buddy’s existence, an encroaching threat that is made understandable for audiences not seeped in the complexities inherent in Irish politics and religion. And by keeping the camera and the story kid-oriented, everything is more emotionally tangible, from the violent skirmishes that flare to the emotional meltdown of a child facing the possibility of leaving the only place they’ve ever known. Hill carries those moments on his little shoulders with weight and truth. And he’s supported by achingly intimate performances from Dench, Hinds, Balfe and Dornan. They portray couples who know and show love, disappointment, laughter, anger and frustration which adds a gravitas to the world hovering around Buddy. And it’s terribly refreshing not to see the film devolve into the oft-seen Irish clichés of alcoholism or bitterness within marriages. They have flaws, but try to sing and dance and sacrifice for one another with quiet nobility. Experiencing Branagh come full circle with Belfast is like getting an invitation to observe an artist come to terms with his roots. There’s the expected nostalgia, but also the graceful observation of the wisdom and clarity acquired with the power of hindsight. Buddy’s experiences feel infinitely relatable, but also inexorably tied to his Irishness, making him the rare conduit that connects us to ourselves while introducing us to a time and place only those born to it will truly know.—Tara Bennett


19. The Disciple

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Devoting your life to something—art, passion, religion—is sold to us as admirable, but often only if it fulfills our romantic ideals of what that life looks like. Is success, no matter how late or even posthumous, the justification for striving? Writer/director/editor Chaitanya Tamhane explores this idea through the life of classical Indian singer Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak), an earnest hardliner raised by his music-loving father and recordings of legendary singer/guru Maai (Sumitra Bhave). Will he be recognized for greatness, stepping out of the shadows? Or will he follow his father into tangential obscurity? Fascinating long takes resonating with the same kind of richness found in its myriad array of singers’ undulating taan allow us plenty of space to take in the music and the devotion on display; sharp, dark humor punctuates the contemplative film with jabs at pigheadedness. Modok’s excellent performance contains similar depth, all hidden behind a yearning tension and unwavering gaze. He embodies the unfulfilled artist, one who sees success all around him from fools and rubes—though he can’t consider what could possibly be holding him back. It’s a heartbreaking, endearing, prickly performance, and one that creates a truly winning portrait. Even when it rolls along as steadily and dispassionately as Sharad’s motorcycle, The Disciple contains warmth for its central sadsack artist and his dedication to never selling out.—Jacob Oller


18. Petite Maman

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A year or two ago, I asked my mom whether she feels like her age, or if she feels younger. I told her that I still don’t feel like I’m an adult, that I feel like a teenager disguised as a person in their mid-twenties. I wanted to know if my mom had ever felt this feeling, and if she had, if it ever goes away—if people ever reach a point where they know that they’ve finally, officially stepped into adulthood and shed their adolescence. She admitted that sometimes she does feel like she ought to: Like a woman in her early sixties. But most of the time, in every way that isn’t physical, she still feels like a kid. In Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French director returns with a much smaller affair by comparison: A compact, 73-minute (yet nonetheless affecting) portrait of grief, parenthood and the constant dialogue between our past and present selves. Following the death of her maternal grandmother, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) travels with her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) to her mother’s childhood home. By all accounts, little Nelly seems to get on well with her mother. During the journey from the nursing home, Nelly attentively feeds her grieving parent cheese puffs and apple juice from behind the driver’s seat, then slides her tiny arms around her mother’s neck in an embrace to comfort her as she steers the wheel. But grief is a concept largely foreign to a child wise beyond her years and eager to play pretend as an adult, yet still distant to the reality of death. In the wake of her grandmother’s passing, as her mother clears out her old family things from the house, Nelly laments with more annoyance than anything that she bid a farewell to her relative that wasn’t the right kind of goodbye. She would have given her a better goodbye if she had known it would be her grandmother’s last. “We can’t know,” her mother tells her, and the two of them fall asleep wrapped in each other’s arms. But when Nelly awakes the next morning, her mother is gone. It’s a discovery less crushingly felt due to an implied absence that Nelly is familiar with. And her spacy yet well-meaning father can’t give Nelly a straight answer as to where her mother has up and left, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about it. The grieving process is something he’s acquainted with, but something he’s reluctant to impart upon a young kid. So, Nelly, an only child, goes off to play in the woods by herself to occupy her time during this confusing interlude. It’s there in the wilderness behind her mother’s old house that Nelly discovers a little girl about her height, about her same hair color and face shape, who lives in a home exactly like the one just beyond the path in the woods where Nelly came from. A little girl named Marion (unsurprisingly, Joséphine’s twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz) who’s building a branch fort in the woods; the same branch fort that Nelly’s mother had once made when she was around Nelly’s age. With a gentle touch, Sciamma crafts a profound, easily digestible film that takes heavy themes and makes them bite-sized. She looks at the way we speak to one another, and to ourselves, at every age, and how these conversations are inevitably dulled in the schism between a child and their parent. Our parents only know one sliver of our own personhood just as time has robbed us of knowing our parents, their proximity to changing our diapers and teaching us to drive stunted by the lives we create as we become our own people, and as we grow to understand that our parents are people, too. Petite Maman is about this dialogue we create with our families that is just as meaningful, if often frustrating, amidst the fractures inherent to our relationship with them.—Brianna Zigler


17. Bergman Island

There is no place on Earth tied more firmly to a filmmaker than Fårö is to Ingmar Bergman. One cannot venture through the small island without being reminded of him at every turn: The rugged, ominous seascape that lurks in the background of Persona (1966); the carcass of a farmhouse that was burned down during the filming of Shame (1968); the seafront estate that the director called home for 40 years. And, of course, there’s the house where Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman’s wildly popular and subversive marital drama, was filmed. That’s where Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) plant themselves at the start of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island. The couple, both writers and directors, are participating in an artist’s retreat to see if being in the shadow of the Swedish filmmaking giant will help get their creative juices flowing. What begins as a straightforward story of two artists creating different projects ultimately turns into Hansen-Løve’s strongest argument for the inextricable nature of life and art yet. On both personal and artistic levels, Chris and Tony are besieged by Bergman’s ghost the moment they set foot on the island. The woman who shows the couple into their house, for example, makes sure to give them the dismal news that Scenes from a Marriage was responsible for a huge uptick in divorce rates upon its release. Still, the couple just can’t seem to hold back from persistently discussing the filmmaker’s achievements, and fighting over which of his films to watch on the island. (Anything but The Seventh Seal, of course, which Tony hates). But what’s so satisfying about Bergman Island is that it ultimately defies all personal and creative expectations placed on it by its association with Fårö. While on Fårö, Chris begins to dream up an idea for a new film, inspired by her own first love. As she narrates to Tony, the film comes to life: A young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) arrives at Fårö for a wedding and is reunited with her old lover Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie). Bergman Island’s film-within-a-film is an explosive reflection of Chris’s inner state as an artist. Amy and Joseph’s story is gracefully imbued with possibility, only furthered by Wasikowska’s tender, emotional performance. Their B-plot is told with the same nimble vigor as Chris and Tony’s story, but with more of a breezy, unrestrained edge. Amy dances to ABBA and skinny dips at night. Nothing feels forced about the two narratives: They are perfectly woven together both by Hansen-Løve’s subdued, effortless directorial style and Marion Monnier’s artful editing, until each feels like it could not exist without the other. When the two storylines melt into abstraction, it feels perfectly organic. Hansen-Løve’s films have always had such a strong overtone of humanity, with a deep focus on emotions and characters unafraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, that it only makes sense that her final statement in Bergman Island is that being an artist is a deeply, deeply personal thing. With the backdrop of Bergman, the film suggests that, additionally, it’s a powerful thing to be inspired by an artist. But what’s even more fulfilling is to be inspired by an artist and still reject their methods of creation in favor of your own.—Aurora Amidon


16. Moffie

“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite. Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there is tenderness—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive. Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.—Aparita Bhandari


15. Delphine’s prayers

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When we meet Delphine, though she’s in her early 30s and looks even younger, it feels as if she’s in the middle of her life too. In long monologues, punctuated by practiced puffs of one cigarette after another—lit by the film’s throughline, a bright orange lighter—she tells us who she is. Delphine’s prayers takes place in one room in one apartment, but it begins in poverty in Cameroon, director Rosine Mbakam’s storyteller stumbling in and out of pidgin, then French, then pidgin again, all depending on where the narrative takes her. Though Mbakam’s camera, and Mbakam herself, never leave Delphine’s cluttered Belgian flat, every moment is compelling. Delphine is a natural, and she seems to know that. She uses it, works with it—has earned it—and that influence extends to the director. If anything Delphine tells us is exaggerated, we understand the truth beneath the embellishment; if anything she tells Mbakam is fabricated, Mbakam at the very least appreciates how much the fabrication keeps Delphine’s story moving. From the first moments of Delphine’s prayers we can gather that Mbakam is old friends with Delphine, but eventually learn that they didn’t meet until they were both African immigrants in Europe. Otherwise, they would have never crossed paths at home in Cameroon, hailing from different social strata. Belgium equalizes them. There they are both outsiders, and that is all they are to many. Delphine describes becoming a sex worker at age 14 to make money for her family, then marrying a European to continue supporting her family and moving to Belgium, but still needing to turn tricks now and then despite her husband’s income—their marriage clearly loveless and her body still at the mercy of white sexual colonization. Then Delphine breaks into full-on religious invocation in the film’s final moments, breathless as she finally lets herself be vulnerable, begging for forgiveness. She must have done something to deserve this life. She’s sorry.—Dom Sinacola


14. Undine

Undine opens as a rom-com might. A lilting piano score, not without a shade of sadness, purrs quietly during the title cards. A tearful break-up presages a quirky meet-cute between industrial diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) and city historian Undine (Paula Beer), our new couple bound by the irrevocable forces of chance—and, in director Christian Petzold’s own mannered way, a bit of physical comedy—as the universe clearly arranges for the pieces of their lives to come together. Squint and you could maybe mistake these opening moments for a Lifetime movie—that is, until the break-up ends with Undine warning her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz) that she’s going to have to kill him. He doesn’t take Undine seriously, but the audience can’t be so sure. Beer’s face contains subtle multitudes. She could actually murder this guy. What once felt familiar now feels pregnant with dread. And that’s saying nothing about Christoph’s odds for survival. Anyone remotely familiar with the “Undine” tale knows that she’s not lying to her ex. Undine is a water spirit, making covenants with men on land in order to access a human soul (as well as a tasteful professional wardrobe). Breaking that covenant is fatal. Or so the story goes. When she meets Christoph, she’s revitalized, because she’s heartbroken but especially because he takes such interest in the subjects of her lectures. He too is bound to the evolving bones of Germany, repairing bridges and various underwater infrastructure—he may, in fact, be more intuitively connected to the country than most. He’s the rare person who’s gone beneath it, excavating and reconstructing its depths, entombed in the mech-like coffin of a diving suit he wears when welding below the surface. As in all of Petzold’s films, Undine builds a world of liminal spaces—of lives in transition, always moving—of his characters shifting between realities, never quite sure where one ends and another begins. Like genre, like architecture, like history, like a love affair—at the heart of his work is the push and pull between where we are and where we want to be, between who we are and who we want to be and what we’ve done and what we’ll do, between what we dream and what we make happen. In Undine, Petzold captures this tension with warmth and immediacy. Many, many lives have brought us here, but none are more important than these two, and no time more consequential than now. My god, how romantic.—Dom Sinacola


13. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

If you’re reading this, chances are that the festival circuit has already spoiled (or warned) that Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn begins with a full-blown unsimulated sex scene. Though it lasts only three minutes, it pretty much runs the gamut of typical sex acts: Fellatio, roleplay, masturbation, dirty talk, penetration, climax. Oh, and one more important detail: The intimate encounter has been filmed, shortly to be leaked on the internet and make its impression on the students and faculty at a private school in Bucharest, Romania. Yet none are more arrested by rabid moral outrage than the schoolchildren’s parents, who are horrified to find out that the woman who dons a pink wig and moans “I’m your slut!” in the video is none other than their kids’ history teacher. The woman who dares straddle the slut/school teacher binary is Emi (Katia Pascariu), who is truly just as horrified that her own private sexual proclivities are now the obsession of local self-righteous, upper-class parents. On top of that, the parents are demanding that the administration hold an informal tribunal to vote on whether Emi should be allowed to keep her job. Divided into three distinct chapters, the self-described “sketch for a popular film” is bookended with two segments following the trajectory of Emi’s plight, the film’s final segment having the pleasure of providing the audience with three wholly different endings for the film, each gradually escalating in its scale of crude cultural commentary. For those who wish to unravel the power dynamics inherent to sex, society and sensual pleasure while experimenting with what we as individuals are comfortable engaging with, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a masterpiece that stimulates emotionally and philosophically. For those who walk out, well—let’s just be glad they don’t stick around until the film’s final moments, when the prudish parents are forced to understand what it truly feels like having someone else’s morals shoved down their throats.—Natalia Keogan


12. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

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The awkward charm of coincidental encounters is what sets Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in motion, a collection of three short films about the unexpected outcomes of otherwise mundane interactions. Each segment lasts approximately 40 minutes, focusing on full-length casual conversations and the intense emotions they immediately provoke. The film’s anthology approach works as a compelling contrast to Hamaguchi’s other 2021 feature, Japan’s Oscar selection Drive My Car, which itself is a three-hour adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. Whether by weaving together standalone shorts or fleshing out an existing text, the director suggests that the subtleties of everyday exchanges often harbor strange secrets. Though none of the stories are connected—or even exist in the same ostensible world—there is a consistent throughline of analyzing performance. Whether it’s achieved through a character playing out imagined scenarios in their mind, communicating the vulnerable passion of sex or roleplaying to receive long-awaited answers to unquelled questions, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy demonstrates the benefit of inhabiting delusion. In fact, the film’s English-language title addresses this very fixation. The idea of fortune is not inherently bound to prosperity, but rather the more intangible and improbable intricacies of fated consequences. In this sense, the role of fantasy is to act as a salve for the often depressing mundanity of real-life obligations and social mores, whether through speculative daydreams, beguiling lies or invited deceit. Hamaguchi certainly possesses a fascination for depicting multifaceted women in his filmography (Happy Hour, Asako I & II and now Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy as well as Drive My Car), a trait that can surely be traced back to the filmmaker’s decades-long obsession with Cassavetes. This interest is compounded by his prominent focus on romance in women’s lives: In the case of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, these relationships range from doormat ex-boyfriends, unforeseen objects of seduction and long-lost loves. However, the women explored in each segment are hardly defined by their success in securing a happy union. Particularly due to the short films ranging from ending on a sour or slightly saccharine note, the characters are given much more room to be frustrated in their relationships—this theme of disharmony in otherwise functional relationships being another recurring motif in Hamaguchi’s films. Both Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car incorporate themes of the erotic thrill of crafting a narrative, the power in playing pretend, and the malleable and ever-transmogrifying nature of human relationships. Though his highly anticipated Drive My Car distills these musings in a slightly more meticulous manner, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy cuts to the chase in a way that’s quaintly quirky—and never dull to watch unfold.—Natalia Keogan


11. Labyrinth of Cinema

Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema might appear more maze-like than labyrinthine at first. An ostensible journey through Japanese cinema and how the practice of filmmaking has come to bear historic significance for the nation, the movie’s timeline-jumping and propensity for abstract tangents initially signal chaos, but eventually pan out as perfectly kaleidoscopic. A distinct central thought eventually emerges, enmeshed within the apparent frenzy: War is an unnecessary human evil, its incalculable horrors evident in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, on an equally nefarious plane, Japanese imperial efforts like the Japanese Boshin Civil War, Russo-Japanese War and World War II. As opposed to a fatalistic or anxious overarching tone, Obayashi’s principle thesis comes loaded with optimism and hope for the future. Labyrinth of Cinema is part magical realism, part film school crash course, part restoration of historical record. On the closing night of the sole movie house on the Onomichi seafront, a programmed all-night marathon of Japanese war films attracts a large and diverse crowd of movie lovers bidding adieu to the beloved locale. When a bolt of lightning strikes the theater, three young men named Mario (Takuro Atsuki), Dugout (Yoshihiko Hosoda) and Tori (Takahito Hosoyamada) are teleported into the films being shown on-screen. As they navigate their newfound celluloid landscapes and follow the beautiful Noriko (Rei Yoshida) between frames, a journey through Japanese cinema brings the men to specific points of historical significance, encouraging them to learn both about the events being depicted and the craft of recreating these moments on screen. The core of the Labyrinth doesn’t hold a destructive force, but rather a restorative one. In order to prevent future generations from perpetuating the same destruction as their predecessors, hands must turn to cinema, to preservation, to peace.—Natalia Keogan


10. About Endlessness

What’s confusing at first about Roy Andersson’s latest is that it’s not very funny. Known for his wry deadpan—he’s a master at crafting absurdist humor out of seemingly banal situations—the acclaimed Swedish writer-director, who turned 78 last month, is noticeably in a far less jocular mood for About Endlessness. You can find stray chuckles in this slim, quietly moving treatise on the utter futility of everything, but the laughs are overshadowed by the somber realization that Andersson’s typically bereft characters are left to their own devices even more so than usual. Rather than punchlines, we get glimpses of melancholy lives stuck in limbo. About Endlessness doesn’t appear to be that much different than Andersson’s earlier movies, but its tone is more funereal and compassionate. The people we meet aren’t oddballs or objects of derision—they’re struggling too much to be merely “quirky,” and Andersson’s heart goes out to them, even if he doesn’t give them a happy ending. (Truth is, most of them don’t get an ending at all.) If before you marveled at his tightly choreographed dioramas, here you look beyond the stellar precision of his filmmaking. The human beings are front and center. We meet a dentist (Thore Flygel) who, for unknown reasons, is having a bad day. A pair of lovers (Tatiana Delaunay and Anders Hellström) fly silently over a bombed-out city, wrapped in an embrace that’s more protective than warmly romantic. A priest (Martin Serner) has dreams of being crucified. A woman gets off a train, expecting that no one will be there to pick her up. A defeated army trudges through the snow to a prison camp. A man holds a dead, bloodied woman, a knife in his hand. Did he kill her or just stumble upon the crime? This might make About Endlessness sound like a joyless bummer, and yet what’s remarkable is how it produces its own curious form of exhilaration. Partly, it’s due to Andersson’s rigorous filmmaking style, which presents us with these gorgeous little jewel boxes as each mini-portrait plays out in front of his locked-down camera. But also, it’s the inventiveness of the scenarios: Andersson cuts to the core of myriad mundane human experiences in order to find something resonant about, say, an overattentive waiter or a random run-in with an old classmate. The observations are so trenchant that they keep sadness at bay. Yes, we are these people. Their problems are our problems. But they’re still alive, and so are we. Sometimes, we don’t need the patina of humor. We’re strong enough to accept Andersson’s unhappy worldview unfiltered. It’s a slow-burn stunner.—Tim Grierson


9. On-Gaku: Our Sound

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Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music. On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. As the film progresses through its musical numbers, Iwaisawa experiments with form (like expressive rotoscoping) as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest. In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Shintarô Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV. Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles.—Mary Beth McAndrews


8. Titane

Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) had an early connection with cars. Her insistence on using her voice to mimic the rev of an engine as a young girl (played by Adèle Guigue) while her irritated father (French director Bertrand Bonello) drove was so undaunted that one day she caused him to lose control of the vehicle. The accident rendered her father mostly unscathed, and Alexia with a titanium plate implanted in her skull. It was a procedure that seemingly strengthened a curious linkage between her and metal and machine, an innate affection for something hot and alive that could never turn away Alexia’s love. As the doctor removes Alexia’s surgical metal headgear, her father looks on with something that can only be described as disdain for his child. Perhaps, it is because he knew what Alexia would become; perhaps, Alexia was just born bad. Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning follow-up to 2016’s Raw crunches, tears and sizzles. Bones break, skin rips, libidos throb—the human body is pushed to impossible limits. It’s something that Ducournau has already proved familiarity with, but the French director takes things to new extremes with her sophomore film. Titane is a convoluted, gender-bending odyssey splattered with gore and motor oil, the heart of which rests on a simple (if exceedingly perverted) story of finding unconditional acceptance. Eighteen years following the childhood incident, Alexia is a dancer and car model, venerated by ravenous male fans aching to get a picture and an autograph with the punky, sharp-featured young woman. She splays her near-naked form atop the hood of an automobile to the beat of music, contorting and touching herself with simmering lust for the inanimate machine adorned with a fiery paint job to match Alexia’s sexuality. Pink and green and neon yellow glistens on every body (chrome or otherwise) in the showroom, but Ruben Impens’ cinematography follows Alexia as she guides us through this space where she feels most at home. Titane persists as a boundary-pushing exploration of the human form, of gender performance, masculinity and isolation; Ducournau’s script is surprising, shocking, titillating at every turn. And despite her cruelty, and the relative distance from and lack of insight into her character, Alexia remains an empathetic protagonist. This is in no small part thanks to Rousselle’s commanding portrayal which astonishingly doubles as her feature debut. Titane is not just 108 bloody minutes of bodily mutilation and perversion, but of blazing chaos inherent in our human need for acceptance. Ducournau has wrapped up this simple conceit in a narrative that only serves to establish her voice as one which demands our attention, even as we feel compelled to look away. Yes, it’s true what they’ve said—love will literally tear us apart.—Brianna Zigler


7. The Summit of the Gods

Based on Jiro Taniguchi’s early ‘00s manga, which added breathtaking environmental illustrations and sharp, shadow-intensive character designs to Baku Yumemakura’s 1998 novel, The Summit of the Gods is a testament to self-motivation through the intertwined stories of two men: Mountain climber Joji Habu (Eric Herson-Macarel) and journalist Makoto Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau). Director Patrick Imbert’s French anime sees the two cross paths thanks to a legendary Vestpocket Kodak camera belonging to George Mallory, the English mountaineer who may or may not have reached the top of Everest in the ‘20s. Fukamachi sees Habu with the camera, then loses him. Fukamachi wants a scoop; Habu wants to be left alone as he prepares for his own climb. In his search for the recluse, Fukamachi compiles Habu’s life, constructing his obsessive arc event by event through unearthed news clippings. With this intercut structure, The Summit of the Gods is both a great journalism movie and great mountaineering movie—each with a series of technical steps that contain emotional weight impossible to fully explain to an outsider. Why does one seek the peak? Why does one devote themselves to finding all the details of a story? These lonely goals are personal as much as professional. The end result is clear, but the reasoning behind it all quickly becomes murky and existential under scrutiny. The clarity of the animation backs up these large questions with simple answers. The majestic, hazy colors of nature—bright blues and purples—contrast against day-to-day living in condos, barrooms and city streets that’ve lost all romance. The latter are utilitarian in their detail, so richly filled with realistic stuff as to dull you with familiarity. Then the movie takes you out on the expeditions, through the eyes of the people who live for it. The climbing sequences feature shots so stark and layered with slurries and sunbeams that their painterly abstraction will leave your jaw hanging in the snow. And yet, on a moment-to-moment level, it’s a detailed crunch of piton into stone—of clever rope knots and the muscular friction of hands and feet—undertaken by characters that move with a deliberate intent, their animations weighty enough to leave footprints and mini avalanches of pebbles. The Summit of the Gods is a subtle movie, told in shades of white and degrees of silence, but its passion burns hot beneath the icy rime. Its complex storytelling and convincingly lovely vistas make its philosophical case well: Whether you’re risking it all to get to a peak, to get to the bottom of a mystery, or to create a painstaking piece of animation, you’re lucky enough to have something you love.—Jacob Oller


6. Parallel Mothers

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Set in 2016, Parallel Mothers follows Janice (Penélope Cruz), a professional photographer in her 40s who begins a casual fling with forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). Nine months after a particularly steamy encounter, she checks herself into a Madrid hospital’s maternity ward, preparing to give birth and raise her child as a single mother. As fate would have it, her roommate is in a similar position, save for the fact that she’s over 20 years Janice’s junior: Ana (newcomer Milena Smit) is also without a partner, her only support during labor being her self-absorbed actress mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). While Janice is thrilled that she’s been given the impromptu opportunity to become a mother, Ana is initially resentful of the circumstances that have led to her pregnancy. Yet the two women quickly bond, taking strolls down the sterile hospital halls in order to help their babies descend down the uterus. Coincidentally, they both give birth to beautiful baby girls, and exchange numbers in order to keep in touch as they embark on the journey of newfound motherhood. Though the film sets itself up as an straightforward examination of the peculiar perils of parenthood—particularly for women who raise children outside of the confines of conventional, heterosexual nuclear families—Pedro Almodóvar instead utilizes multiple generations of matriarchs to bring light to the families irreparably broken by the cruelty of Spain’s not-so-distant fascist regime. The initial reason why Janice approaches Arturo is to inquire if he could use his connections to organize an excavation of a mass grave in her hometown—one of the bodies buried being that of her great-grandfather. In many ways, Parallel Mothers is also an atonement on Almodóvar’s part for his own distancing from this period of Spain’s history, particularly considering that his own film career flourished after Franco’s decline. For a director who has never shied away from portraying society’s most controversial taboos on-screen—incest, rape, suicide attempts, pedophilia and even golden showers—the fact that it has taken him his entire career to explicitly incorporate the effects of the Spanish Civil War into his work demonstrates the country’s relative inability to reckon with it. Though Almodóvar has stated that none of his own family members were victims of fascist brutality, his dedication to the ongoing plight of the families of those who perished infuses the film with an almost uncharacteristic sense of levity and sorrow. While this is certainly a shift in the filmmaker’s melodramatic and outlandish sensibilities (though this has been shifting significantly since his 2019 semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory, followed by the deconstructive short The Human Voice), it never feels mishandled in his grasp, always remaining sensitive even while incorporating shocking twists and revelations. Particularly paired with Cruz’s knockout performance of a woman whose life endures the legacy left by the trauma of her family’s unresolved past, Parallel Mothers is a deeply political example of what is lost when we have forgotten—and what is achieved when we fight to remember.—Natalia Keogan


5. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s extraordinary new film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, God isn’t present, probably because the sheer volume of suffering visited upon its protagonist alone is enough to make Him feel sheepish. Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), a widow in the Lesotho village of Nasaretha—so named by missionaries who, ages ago, came through the region in blissful ignorance of its history—is alone. Her son, her last living relative, has died in a mining accident. Her husband died years prior, as well as her daughter, and her grandchild. Mantoa’s life is the definition of bereft. No amount of well-wishes or condolences can ease her pain. And then the Lesotho government decides to build a dam on her mountain hamlet and flood the place out. At least they have a plan to displace the villagers. (Your shock of the day: This is actually a real thing.) But they don’t put much thought into the bodies buried beneath the earth. The tally is so high and reaches so far back that the land’s true name is “the plains of weeping,” which, in the thinnest of silver linings, feels like an appropriate appellation given the atmospheric tragedy of Mosese’s film. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection holds nothing back: Not aesthetics, not performance, not tone or sensation. Mosese composes his film as one part tone poem, one part scathing political critique, one part dirge and one part memorial, because death is a complex beast. Saying goodbye hurts, especially when you’re the last one left, like Mantoa. But This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, in between the sound of grief that’s somehow inchoate and eternal, finds the space to celebrate life through the marking of death. There’s a Grecian quality to Mosese’s writing and filmmaking. He delicately links each scene together with narration from a nameless lesiba player (Jerry Mofokeng), who often makes himself known through monologues about history and the film’s current events, gently playing his country’s national instrument as punctuation to his words. Mokofeng is one of Mosese’s two constants alongside Mhlongo, who provides This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection with its steady, stoic heart. The film’s otherworldly near-surrealism, the product of the thought and intention driving it, is given grounding through their work. The fate threatening Nasaretha is unbelievable, even though history has a habit of driving people out of their homes, whether with water or highways. But Mhlongo, Mofokeng and Mosese make us believe—not in God, but in people, the highest power in a staggering movie about powerlessness.—Andy Crump


4. Days

Early in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days—in the second or third shot, in fact, so something like 10-15 minutes into the film—we’re left to ponder Lee Kang-sheng’s third nipple. In a soaking pool, at a bathhouse maybe or somewhere health-care-related, Kang (when he has a name, Tsai often refers to Kang-sheng’s characters as “Kang” or “Hsiao-kang”) silently, nakedly floats, the camera mostly consumed with his torso, our view of that third nipple practically sharpened by the pane of still water between us and his skin. He dozes, not for the last time. The water in which Kang is submerged reflects the essences of what lies outside of frame—reflecting his vulnerability by intimating much more vulnerable flesh just below our view—as much as it reminds us of Days’ opening shot, where Kang sits in a chair staring out a window, the window between us and Kang, watching a rainstorm pick up, the shadows of tropical trees shaking in the drop-littered glass. (Water too, usually flooding urban spaces, makes for a constant motif in Tsai’s films.) The longer we watch him, the more we feel as if he’s outside in the storm, or the storm is inside the room with him, watching itself rage. And the longer we watch this nipple, consider it and everything that lends it context, the more we’re encouraged to think of it within the world of Tsai’s previous feature films (Days his 11th). And the more we reminisce about all the films in which that third nipple was there, under Lee’s shirt or lost to the sumptuous grain of 35mm film, the more we see all of Tsai’s work as a slipstream, in which the “same” people live scores of alternate but intertwined lives, each film a brief but meaningful glimpse into how these lives meet—or don’t meet—skeins in the broad tapestry of loneliness and alienation that increasingly consumes us. The third nipple was there all along. Meanwhile, Days as a title pretty much represents the trajectory and velocity of our course. We look in on the quotidian of Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), sitting with him as he prepares dinner, takes a shower, eats, sleeps, wanders through markets. There is no story to this, only habit and survival and the soothing gestures of ritual. Days marks the point in Tsai’s filmmaking at which he’s reached his most empirical; if for each film, beginning with 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God, the Taiwanese filmmaker has gradually peeled plot from the gnawed bone of simply captured human experience, then in Days functionally nothing is explained. We’re not even afforded subtitles (on purpose, as an opening title card informs us) for the film’s few passing glances of dialogue. We’ll watch from across the street, buses and walkers occasionally obscuring our view, unable to hear if they’re talking, unable to make out if their lips have any purpose. All we know is for that long moment, they’re no longer alone. And after all this time spent in their company, that knowledge is more than enough.—Dom Sinacola


3. Benedetta

The power and body of Christ compel the characters of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which ruminates on the raunchy interiority of a lesbian relationship realized inside of the sacred confines of a convent in 17th century Italy. The carnal Catholicism which permeates the film is at this point to be expected from the 83-year-old Dutch filmmaker—but equally so is the film’s ability to utilize eroticism as a vehicle to examine pain, paranoia and power. Based on Judith Brown’s 1986 non-fiction book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, the same-sex relationship between Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and fellow nun Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) is patently portrayed in the film, but it does not restrict them—or any of the other sisters at the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, Tuscany—to the singular roles of martyr or zealot. Instead, Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke refuse to vindicate or validate the intentions of historical figures by today’s secular standards, confronting hierarchies that exist outside of the neat categories of “good” and “evil.” Suggested to possess a mystic ability from a young age, Benedetta first arrives at the convent as an eager servant of the Virgin Mary at just nine years old—her only worldly possession a wooden statuette of the Mother of God. It’s clear that her bright-eyed devotion grates the rigid demeanor of the abbess who runs the nunnery, Sister Felicita (a spectacular Charlotte Rampling), yet an incident on Benedetta’s very first night at the abbey immediately evokes the possible presence of divine intervention (though Sister Felicita wryly insists that miracles are often “more trouble than they’re worth”). It’s not until nearly two decades later that the events which lead to Benedetta’s fall from grace unfold, marked by the arrival of a young woman named Bartolomea, fleeing her father’s abuse. It’s the tension between their two backgrounds—one of life-long devotion sheltered within the abbey’s holy walls, the other motivated by self-preservation in the face of unspeakable sin—that powers the pair’s magnetic pull. Greater than the boundary between blessed and blasphemous is the chasm that exists between the Church and the citizens who follow it. Yet there is a tangible twinge of hopefulness present in the film: Shackles that are either imposed by individuals or institutions can be broken, even if only by way of speculation and imaginative flourish for a nearly forgotten figure.—Natalia Keogan


2. Memoria

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In eminent Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature, Memoria, central character Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a British expat living in Colombia, finds herself attending a last-ditch medical consultation. She explains to the attending physician that she hasn’t been able to sleep at night due to an increasingly persistent banging sound of indeterminate origin—and she wonders if a pill could be prescribed to calm her nerves? The physician all but refuses, offering two wildly different salves for her auditory predicament: She can either seek solace in Jesus, or the exquisite Salvador Dalí painting hanging in the building’s lobby. Both options register as ludicrous compared to the prospect of a nightly Xanax, however, the tangible presence of spiritual and surreal forces is an essential tenet of Weerasethakul’s work. Without divulging specific narrative details, the film’s unfurling is closely tied to the fact that Jessica’s sonic affliction is concurrent with the progression of a century-long project to bore a hole through the adjacent Andes mountain range. Although Memoria’s Latin American location, English/Spanish-language dialogue and big-city backdrop indicate a major shift in Weersethakul’s feature filmmaking practice, it remains emblematic of his penchant for applying the metaphysical properties of lucid dreams and inherited memories to otherwise quotidian human experiences. The politics of Memoria and Weersethakul’s broader filmmaking practice are intentional yet enigmatic, offering kernels of thought without immediately discernible exposition. This is what makes his films so ethereal and affecting—vivid and vague at once, it is facile to transfer one’s own subliminal anxieties, desires and hazy vision to seemingly sparse narratives. Memoria does feel like a significant departure from the director’s previous work—despite the director’s continued investment in withholding tangible resolution—by way of the film’s fantastical, exhilarating climax and comparatively linear mystery-driven storyline. There is still a sense of dreamlike suspension, just on the precipice of decipherable revelation. Time melts beyond its tangible limits when watching Memoria, resulting in an audiovisual trance disorienting in its peculiar placidity.—Natalia Keogan


1. Drive My Car

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The melodic rotating faces of tire rims and cassette reels keep the time in Drive My Car, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s languorous adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. The film’s meticulous commitment to unhurried emotional introspection might appear to be an overindulgence when considering its three-hour runtime, yet Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe gracefully unfurl Murakami’s original story into a melancholy meditation of pain and performance that remains ever-enthralling. Renowned theater actor-turned-director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) have what seems like a perfect relationship. Apart from sharing considerable marital bliss, they stimulate each other intellectually and sexually—oftentimes simultaneously. Oto will regularly weave narrative webs aloud while mid-coitus with Kafuku, reaching climaxes in literal and figurative senses. Despite the mutual adoration, both harbor a damning secret: Oto sustains a string of lovers as she hops around on productions, while Kafuku silently uncovers his wife’s infidelity without confronting her. Both maintain the facade of a remarkably happy couple that have been together for over 20 years, yet internally struggle with the emotional toll of concealing the extramarital affairs. The situation is only brought to a head years later, after Oto sustains a mortal injury and Kafuku covertly recognizes one of Oto’s past lovers at an audition for his forthcoming multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Simultaneously consumed by jealousy and intrigue, Kafuku casts his wife’s much-younger former paramour Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the titular role. The loneliness inherent in living through guilt-ridden grief is perhaps the most palpable aspect of Hamaguchi’s latest drawn-out feature. However, it is also the open embracing of this desolation that eventually yields the most tender and subtly exuberant results. It is through communal mourning—for lives (and lovers) shared or for the unknowable misfortunes of others—that ultimately binds us as human beings.—Natalia Keogan