Some of The Big Picture’s regular contributors share their choices for the best films of 2021. Part 1.
Annette (dir. Leos Carax)
The tone of this film is set in the opening sequence, with shots of director Leos Carax and the Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, who wrote the film score. Annette is a highly self-reflexive film. Containing many references to film history as well as elements of the supernatural, it constantly blurs the borders between reality and illusion. The film’s never-hidden artificiality is supported by its musical style, and it has only a few spoken dialogues. The soundtrack is as multi-faceted as the narrative and the iconography, including opera arias and rap songs. Music becomes a means to express deep and somewhat painful emotions and to approach complex topics such as love and death. Reflections on truth and lies are a central focus of the film, and its self-reflexive approach could be a challenge as it requires careful attention on the part of the viewers. They are, however, rewarded with fireworks of images, sound and also emotions, the latter expressed marvellously in strong performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
It is a challenge to adapt one of the multi-layered works of Haruki Murakami. In Drive My Car (Doraibu mai ka), inspired by the famous writer’s eponymous short story, Ryusuke Hamaguchi succeeds marvellously in creating an original work. His film offers a deep exploration of human feelings and the nature of artistic creation. After his wife’s sudden death, actor and theatre director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is faced with a life of solitude, and Hamaguchi’s film is a complex portrayal of existential grief, making Yusuke’s solitude the main protagonist and very palpable for the viewer. This highly nuanced narrative about loss and emptiness is accompanied by a discourse on artistic creation for which Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya provides a subtext. It is a production of this famous play by the Russian writer that Yusuke is trying to direct while facing his suppressed feelings about his wife and her death. The subtle approach to the topic of artistic creation is a highly appropriate foil to the film’s sensuality, which is also expressed by the camera work – when Yusuke is driven through the streets of Hiroshima, the city takes the appearance of a living being.
Prisoners of the Ghostland (dir. Sion Sono)
In his English-language debut Prisoners of the Ghostland, Sion Sono plays with a great variety of narrative and iconographic elements, constantly crossing genre boundaries. Jidai geki meets the Western; the horror film is there, too, alongside elements borrowed from gangster films. The setting and props reveal a blend of items from present-day life and references to pre-modern Japan and Frontier America. Like most of Sono’s films, Prisoners of the Ghostland is marked by excess and extravagance and provides exhilarating and exuberant moments. This may sound like chaos, but most of the time it is well-ordered chaos in which illusion is revealed as such. Addressing topics such as sexual exploitation and the nuclear threat, the Japanese director’s first American production also alludes to problems in present-day Japan. Instead of offering thoughts on the mechanisms behind film and other media, Prisoners of the Ghostland reflects on the state of mind of ordinary people in the post-industrial era – their anxieties and desires but also their energy, which often has to be suppressed.