Best International Films Of 2021 — The Hamden Journal Critics – The Hamden Journal

As 2021 draws to a close, the film aficionados who make up The Hamden Journal’s International Critics Line crew have each chosen their to three titles of the year to hail from abroad. Some were world premieres at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice or Toronto, though not all are on the Oscar International Feature shortlist, nor are they each in a foreign language It’s also interesting to see some overlap, with a trio of films showing up more than once.

Here are The Hamden Journal critics’ top international films of 2021 (in alphabetical order by title):

DRIVE MY CAR

“Drive My Car”
Sideshow; Janus Films

Since its premiere in Cannes, where it won writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi the screenwriting prize, to its recent honors as Best Film from critics groups in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and more, the Japanese-shortlisted entry for the Best International Film Oscar has become perhaps the one to beat at the Academy Awards. With a three-hour running time, it might seem like Hamaguchi could use an editor. However, when I saw this film, alone on my couch, before Cannes even started, I never felt its length, only its passion and intelligence in the story of a screenwriter who, while dealing with his own personal problems and the death of his wife, travels to Hiroshima to direct a stage production of Uncle Vanya. Much is revealed during rehearsals as well as in conversations with his appointed driver in this exceptionally well-written film with sharp insights on love, loss, marriage, grief, truths on stage and off, and what we may — or may not — know about those closest to us. The cast is outstanding, with lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima so superb I would hope he has a Best Actor Oscar nomination in line. Drive My Car may take its time to explore its themes, but it is a trip well worth the effort. — Pete Hammond

***

Films adapted from literature are usually condensations, with sections of story excised and thousands of words approximated, with more or less success, by visual metaphor. This is the opposite: Ryusuke Hamaguchi has taken a brief, melancholy short story by Haruki Murakami, explored it and expanded it into a grand sweep of multiple perspectives, intellectual digressions and layered emotions. Drive My Car is a masterpiece. — Stephanie Bunbury

THE HAND OF GOD

The Hand Of God Contenders London
“The Hand of God”
Netflix

Paolo Sorrentino deservedly has an Oscar in hand for his stunning The Great Beauty, plus a filmography that includes triumphs in Italy, English-language movies and grand TV productions. But with The Hand of God, he has made undeniably his most personal and heartfelt movie yet. First and foremost, it is all Sorrentino, delivering a film that is wise and engaging from a director ready for the first time, in the cinema at least, to look deeply inward for inspiration. Basically this is the Paolo Sorrentino story, told through the eyes of a teenager named Fabietto (wonderful newcomer Filippo Scotti), who like Sorrentino growing up lived in Naples with a close-knit family, became soccer-obsessed when superstar Diego Maradona joined the local team, sadly lost both his parents in a tragic accident, and experienced life-changing moments that would eventually lead to a career in motion pictures. It is a coming-of-age story, Italian style, and one that resonates with universal recognition beyond Fabietto’s own world. Gorgeously filmed in Naples, we see a movie called The Hand of God that is also a lilting reminder that we are also in the hand of one of cinema’s modern masters. — PH

FLEE

A still image from 'Flee'
“Flee”
Neon

Flee does a superb job of intersecting genres to tell a well-rounded coming-of-age queer story. Amin Newabi escaped Afghanistan as a child, and from adolescence to his teen years, he spent time trying to seek asylum in Europe — which he did successfully, landing him in Denmark. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen combines hand-drawn animation with documentarian-style storytelling to captivate audiences. What makes this film so engaging is hearing Amin tell his own story, Listening to him go on an emotional journey as he recounts his life experiences inspires sadness, but also hope. The fight for freedom was life-threatening, but Amin found a happy ending with a man he truly loves. What a pleasure to watch. — Valerie Complex

I’M YOUR MAN

“I’m Your Man”
Bleecker Street

No film, in any language, delighted me more in 2021 than Germany’s Oscar-shortlisted entry. And indeed “international” is the word that best describes this effort from director-writer Maria Schrader, which features British star Dan Stevens, working in the German language as Thomas, a human-styled robot who arrives as the “perfect” man and partner for Alma (Maren Eggert). This is all designed for a three-week experiment to help Alma in her work, but in the style of classic romantic comedies it becomes much more. In fact Schrader, who co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg, was inspired by a short story by Emma Braslavsky and clearly many a Hollywood concoction, in particular George Cukor’s 1940 classic The Philadelphia Story. I’m Your Man has its bones in cinema’s past, but its beating algorithm is firmly in the future and, quite frankly, the present as this film was shot in and then released during a worldwide pandemic that forced us into isolation. It is also really about the very human need for connection, even when it has to be engineered to provide just that. Schrader has brought us that rare bird: a truly sophisticated and stylish romantic comedy in an era when a brilliantly crafted new-age “rom-com” that really works seems to be, in a sea of superhero movies, a thing of the past. — PH

***

Witty, playful and thought provoking, this AI comedy is the kind of story more usually seen in whimsical, male-centered U.S. art house fare such as Her — whereas this is not only German, but a woman’s story. Both factors make I’m Your Man a refreshing spin on the genre, as well as a smart meditation on love and longing in an age of both isolation and instant gratification. Berlin Best Actress winner Maren Eggert is wonderfully nuanced, while Dan Stevens is a revelation. With Titane overlooked for the Oscars shortlist, wouldn’t it be great if this unconventional, female-directed project went all the way? — Anna Smith

ONE FOR THE ROAD

One For The Road
“One For the Road”
Sundance

My favorite film at last year’s remote Sundance Film Festival was a staggeringly beautiful Thai road movie that, unfortunately, hasn’t been heard from since. This is a deep-dish movie-movie, one that’s constantly trading in matters of love desired, won and lost, of regret and shimmers of hope. Set on the highways of Thailand and the streets and of New York City, it’s a gorgeous account of love and lust shot through with hindsight poignance as it documents a dying young man’s efforts to bring emotional closure to his life as he tracks down women from his past and tries to make amends for his mistakes. The film is so lush, exhilarating and touching that I watched it three times, something I never do. Hopefully 2022 will provide an opportunity for this visual and emotional feast of a film to find an audience. — Todd McCarthy

PARALLEL MOTHERS

Parallel Mothers
“Parallel Mothers”
Sony Pictures Classics

This is peak Pedro Almodóvar — and what a lofty peak that is. Two single mothers share a room in a maternity ward. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a successful fashion photographer of 40, happily going it alone after becoming pregnant to her married lover. Ana (Milena Smit) is a terrified but resilient teenager with a fractured relationship with her own parents, her pregnancy forced on her. Janis met the father of her child, an archaeologist, while battling to get official permission to exhume a mass grave of men from her home village who were shot by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Her struggle to have that crime acknowledged, and the villagers’ grandfathers laid to rest, bookends the melodrama about motherhood. Only a storyteller of Almodóvar’s supreme skill and fundamental seriousness could find the parallels in these two stories while also reveling in a narrative peppered with the kinds of coincidences and revelations you might find in a soap opera. The result has a popping energy, reflected in the colors so famously beloved of the Spanish maestro. The women, as always in an Almodóvar film, are sensual, forceful and fully alive: Cruz, his regular muse, has never been better. Neither has Pedro. — SB

PETITE MAMAN

Petite Maman
“Petite Maman”
Neon

The two most mature 8-year-old girls you’ve ever encountered are the subjects of Petite Maman. Magnetically attentive to the serious “things of life,” as the French put it, Celine Sciamma’s 72-minute study of an intense brief friendship between the two prioritizes insight and emotional awareness over any artificial plot constructs. The result is a piercingly satisfying chamber drama with a lovely intimate feel. The grandmother of one of the girls has just died and the youngster has come with her parents to clear out the old woman’s small country house in the forest. Not much of great dramatic import actually happens except for the sharing of a critical moment that both girls will undoubtedly remember, whether they ever meet again or not. It’s a very rare and deep sort of experience that Sciamma delivers here, one with a distinctly Proustian inflection rare in cinema. — TM

***

Sciamma follows Portrait of a Lady on Fire with an equally extraordinary film that’s no worse for being smaller — in every sense, from its running time to the size of its stars. Nelly and Marion’s childhood connection is thoroughly absorbing, regardless of the plot points that go on to make it an even richer experience. To say much more would be to spoil this tiny treat: suffice to say that it merges several of my favorite genres, and I can’t wait to watch it again. — AS

TITANE

Titane
“Titane”
Wild Bunch

Julia Ducournau’s Titane is two-fold: showing that women can be violent without external reasoning, and that it’s possible for the irredeemable to be redeemed. The film asks many important questions, including on the separation of the genders and the perception of social violence, and who can inflict said violence. And while that violence is prevalent within the film, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner is about so much more than a serial killer with a car fetish. Titane is a story about transformation and rebirth. Sure, the lead character Alexis (Agathe Rosselle) is an absolute menace to society, but that doesn’t mean that psychopaths don’t also deserve love. — VC

TRUE THINGS

True Things
“True Things”
Le Bureau Sales

British director Harry Wootliff follows Only You with another sensitive relationship drama that premiered at Toronto. Producer Ruth Wilson also stars as Kate, a bored office worker who’s swept off her feet — very roughly — by Tom Burke’s ex-convict. Their relationship swiftly becomes sexual, but the path is far from smooth as the unreliable “Blond” blows hot and cold, refusing to let Kate know where she stands. It’s a relatable story told without judgment. And once again Wootliff’s intimate, observational style gives ample opportunity for nostalgia and self-reflection as it exposes the joys and uncertainties of fledgling relationships. Director of photography Ashley Connor does exceptional work in bringing us up close and personal with Kate, who’s beautifully portrayed by Wilson. — AS

WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SKY?

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”
Cercamon

The drainage pipe tried to warn Lisa that the Evil Eye was on her; so did a friendly security camera. Just as trees and rocks can have spirits in folk tales, everything on the traffic island near Lisa’s house in the Georgian town of Kutaisi is alive. Meanwhile, director Aleksandre Koberidze’s camera dances over his sunlit town like a sprite, fixing on tiny moments; an enchanted world of ordinary things. The central enchantment is a malevolent one. Lisa and Giorgi meet twice on a pedestrian crossing — going both ways — and laughingly arrange to meet properly the next day. But when that day dawns, Lisa, a pharmacist studying medicine, finds she is in a new body and can’t remember anything about medicine. Giorgi, a professional footballer, wakes up similarly transformed. If that sounds calamitous — not to mention hard to swallow — it never feels like anything but a serendipitous adventure, sparkling, fresh and entirely believable on its own terms. Lisa and Giorgi look for new jobs and end up unknowingly working for the same café. A wryly whimsical narrator then takes us the long way around to the expected happy ending, showing us all of Koberidze’s hometown in the process. I wanted to stay there forever. — SB

WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY

Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”
Film Movement

Ryusuke Hamaguchi is a master of character development. Even in the short duration of the segments of this film (completed alongside Drive My Car during the pandemic), the wants and desires of each character are accessible to the viewer. In “Magic (Or something Less Assuming)”, the selfish pursuit of love sees Meiko learn the meaning of selflessness. Despite her nefarious motives, Nao, in “Open Door,” finds someone she can be genuine with; and in “Once Again,” Moka finally expresses her true feelings for Nana. Their lives and situations seem simple, but Hamaguchi used these narratives to create fascinating and strongly written female characters. The writer-director knows how to give his women an unapologetic sense of purpose, which as a viewer, makes me feel empowered. — VC

THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

The Worst Person In The World
“The Worst Person in the World”
MK2

A sharp and poignant look at how one’s supposedly best years pass by so quickly you hardly realize it, The Worst Person in the World is loaded with freshly observed intimate moments that put a special spark in one’s life. Most of the way, director Joachim Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt keep this study of a smart, vibrant young woman alive with inventive scenes brimming with play and sex. The film loses its edge somewhat late in the final stretch with the rather mossy view that it’s basically all over by the time you’re in your 30s, but the sense of life’s evanescent nature is strongly and imaginatively conveyed. Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve is wonderfully vibrant as a 30-year-old who has everything going for her, and even if the film eventually loses some of its snap, Trier poignantly captures a sense fleeting time, of taking chances and making the most of opportunities — or not. — TM