Of all the mysterious objects engineered by Apichatpong, Memoria may be the most enigmatic—and, through a masterstroke of sonic design, the most transfixing. Jessica (Tilda Swinton), an expat living in Colombia, finds herself afflicted by a curious aural hallucination, a blunt metallic womp suggesting the impact of a phantom orb against the surface of... her skull? The cosmos? The cinematic apparatus? What follows can only be described as Apichatpongian: mischievous narrative game-play; personages who phase-shift through multiple realities; bliss-inducing detours and divertissements (an extended musical jam session that Jessica wanders into ranks with the supreme pleasures of the director’s oeuvre); the patiently calibrated and marvelously confounding evanescence of time and space. The genius of Memoria resides in its auditory premise: even more than Jessica, the spectator is riveted by the intermittent, unpredictable detonation on our tympanic membrane. What does it all mean? No thoughts, just vibes—but riddle me this: if a memory falls in the mind, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?—Nathan Lee
The vehicle at the whirring heart of Drive My Car bears a sly anomaly: the steering wheel is on the left, rather than the right, where it should be in Japan. Cars are already liminal spaces—to travel in one is to be both inside and outside, moving and still—and this aberration makes the red Saab 900 of the film, and the tale that winds around it, feel even more like a miracle of mechanics. Taking as chassis a thin Haruki Murakami story about a widowed actor who opens up to a young female chauffeur about the infidelities of his late wife, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi engineers an elaborate narrative contraption that holds control and contingency in equal poise: the film’s voluble dialogue and intricate moving parts draw their power from the mysteries—human, vehicular—that neither speech nor plot can explain. It’s a conceit brought out thrillingly in the film’s central set piece, a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya, in which language becomes a chasm rather than a bridge, refracting the experiences of the characters with nearly blinding clarity.—Devika Girish
Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir ends with the director’s on-screen surrogate, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), gazing out the massive door of a student-film studio at a gray sky—an image that could suggest freedom. But, as The Souvenir Part II makes clear, it is one of intense ambivalence. Now that her private education with an older, cultured man is over, Julie must return to a place (and form) of learning that’s far more bracing and practical: film school. Through the excruciating process of actually doing the thing—and facing the questions and reservations of those around her—we see Julie becoming an artist, a self-actualization that almost drives me to tears. The other central conceit—seeing a fictional version of Hogg attempt to direct a film about her life within the film we are watching about her life—is as coolly lush as Nico’s “Sixty Forty,” the song woven throughout this sequel.—Violet Lucca
Though Leos Carax’s gesamtkunstwerk teeters and sways under the weight of its many contrivances, it somehow, against all odds, manages to take flight. Annette is a singular work: part rock-opera, part celebrity satire, part pop-art mindfuck, part dissection of the ties that bind. Roping together all these disparate elements—from Adam Driver’s brooding performance as a sociopathic stand-up to the elaborate set and character design to Ron and Russell Mael’s relentlessly peppy tunes—is the same overwhelming Romanticism that has saturated Carax’s work since Boy Meets Girl (1984). And yet, Annette may be the Carax film with the lightest touch. A movie this morose and self-involved shouldn’t be so fun—or so profound. As the final scene makes clear, animating all the artifice, from the fake island to the crooning puppet that plays Baby Annette, are an understanding of human frailty and a sincere love for the flawed creatures that, corny as it sounds, compel Annette to sing.—Clinton Krute
There is the singular day—a bounded measure of hours—and then there’s days, the hefty, formless accrual that makes up a life. What better name for Tsai Ming-liang’s first narrative feature in almost a decade? Tsai remains interested in time without story, though the durational centerpiece in Days is new: the slow atrophy of muse Lee Kang-sheng’s ailing body. Once a novel affliction in The River (1997), Lee’s pain has since lapsed into the common fate of aging. Seeking reprieve, his character chances on Anong, a young Laotian migrant worker in Thailand, and the two share a moment of tender synchrony. The scene coaxes us into surrender: some rhythms are better felt than seen. Still, midway through Days, when faced with a long, static take of a sun-strobed wall, I instinctively sought out movement—a lizard, a quivering leaf, any motion to index change. And so I missed, until the last second, the fact of a darkening sky. The gift of Tsai’s cinema is this encounter with time as a feeling. Night falls slowly, then all at once.—Phoebe Chen
At the heart of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a perilous shortsightedness, embodied in the ambiguous silhouette of a hungry dog that only some can see in the jagged contours of a Montana mountain range. The wealthy Burbank brothers are especially burdened by such poetic myopias: the malicious Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who revels in the filth and machismo of ranch life, only respects the ultramasculine; and for all his gentleness, George (Jesse Plemmons) cannot quite see his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) floundering under his brother’s torment. Rose’s effeminate teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is perhaps the most opaque of all, albeit the least disguised, surrounded as he is by adults caught in the patriarchal grasp of stifling, all-too-familiar roles. The film, too, is in disguise, revealing itself in an unexpected finale to be a meticulously mapped erotic thriller, begging for a second viewing to appreciate its ingenuity.—Kelli Weston
2021 was another rotten year, though perhaps not for Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who asserted his status as one of contemporary cinema’s key figures with two much-celebrated features. Whereas Drive My Car is the more polished of the two and derives from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a work no less ambitious, comprising three discrete yet thematically continuous stories. The first will feel the most familiar to Hamaguchi fans, tracing the fraught and secretive resolution of a love triangle; the second, about a plot to set a honey trap for a macho creative-writing professor, conjures Philip Roth in its portrayal of desire’s unpredictable contortions; but it is the third, an obliquely postapocalyptic lo-fi sci-fi about a case of double mistaken identity, that feels the most now. Heterogeneous, unstable as a matter of principle, and utterly reactive to a world gone chaotic beyond the frame: few moral tales feel as modern as this.—Dan Sullivan
Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a film of curious propositions. On a bridge in the Georgian city of Kutaisi, passersby are invited to hang for two minutes from a pull-up bar and win a nice dinner. (Later incentives involve cash and cookies.) The bar is charmingly off-kilter, much like the curse that keeps apart would-be lovers Giorgi and Lisa, who, after two chance meet-cutes, wake up in new bodies. The bar is also a frame: it offers us a way of viewing the lives that pass through it, including those of Giorgi and Lisa, who, having lost everything, encounter their city as though it were new. Koberidze voices the narration, at one point pausing to consider the violence of our era before returning to his characters. Their eventual reunion is no less a feat of cinematic magic than the everyday rituals of the schoolchildren, pharmacists, and multispecies soccer fans who make their home in this ancient city.—Genevieve Yue
Ambition, delusion, and ecstasy mingle in the story—inspired by real events—of Sister Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century Italian nun who claims to experience mystical visions of Jesus and is put on trial for her sapphic liaison with the younger, alluringly feral Sister Bartolomea. Male-gaze naysayers miss the point: in this tale of pestilence and politics, Paul Verhoeven delves into the power of spectacle and the spectacle of power, affirming his place as one of cinema’s greatest social critics. Benedetta may be set during a plague long ago, but it is a film for our own sick times, concerned as it is with the hypocrisy of governing institutions and the worldliness of those who claim to be guided by higher principles. It depicts a universe, all too familiar, in which good-faith attempts to distinguish between truth and lies are forever frustrated by leaders who play by different rules. Sure, the CGI is a bit laughable—but isn’t subtlety sometimes overrated?—Erika Balsom
Undine (Paula Beer), the water nymph whose earthly existence depends on a faithful lover, is cut loose early in Christian Petzold’s beautiful and mysterious reworking of the European myth. During an intense breakup initiated by her boyfriend, she quietly, fatefully declares that she will have to kill him. In an ongoing interplay between legend and reality, Undine works as lecturer in a museum dedicated to the different incarnations of pre- and post-unification Berlin. Her twist of fate comes in a stunning scene, both comical and magical, when in the spillover of a shattered aquarium she meets the man who is clearly her destiny, an underwater diver (Franz Rogowski). The city of Berlin, shown in both its gleaming real-life surfaces and elaborate mock-ups, gradually gives way to a more fluid, ethereal realm—the watery underworld where Undine and her beloved diver can coexist, forever faithful in their own way.—Molly Haskell
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn’s central conceit—the leaking of Emi’s tape—displaces sex from its context of private pleasure. As the film unfolds, Jude brings into view a world where sex is made public in pernicious ways: not just commercialized but actively weaponized. In the film’s final chapter, Emi is put on trial by her students’ parents and the administrators of her school. Though opprobrium abounds during this carnivalesque town hall, it is never quite clear what Emi has done wrong. She is not to blame for the video being available online, nor for students watching it. Once this is established, the parents—all caricatures: a priest, a military general, an overtly patriarchal pilot—begin to make their true reservations known. For the crimes of ‘cocksucking’ and doing it ‘doggy-style,’ as the parents put it, Emi is a whore, and must be punished. "
People didn't have to literally sit through Empire to discuss how it challenged the conventions and assumptions and orthodoxies about what art is and how we define the duration of artistic experience. We knew we wanted to trace these ideas in The Velvet Underground and make them as visual as possible, but for me, it wasn't until hearing La Monte Young’s drone music set to these images from the Warhol films, where the sound and the image created your recognition of the idea, and you feel like you made the connection yourself as a viewer. That was always our goal in this film, to let the images and the music lead, not the words, not the oral histories—although we had amazing stories from our subjects—but to feel like you were discovering the music, and the ideas that were circulating and swapping from artists to artists during this time, yourself. "
This explicit conjuring of film’s reflexive power is a winking gesture toward Hansen-Løve’s own mode of unambiguously personal filmmaking. Much has been made of how her films refract and resonate with details of her biography, and how a philosophy of filmmaking as a therapeutic process informs her methods. Throughout her career, Hansen-Løve has used cinematic invention as a means to explore personal histories from a wistful remove. Here, she’s interrogating this reputation with a deceptively playful, utterly assured act of introspection into her own artistic practice. If Amy is a fictional projection of Chris, then Chris is a projection of Hansen-Løve. Amy’s struggle to exorcise a past love—the one that got away—mirrors Chris’s efforts to coax a new film out of the raw material of her private experience. The function of Hansen-Løve’s art is to suggest that the two pursuits are one and the same. "
It's an obvious parody of certain kinds of exchanges that take place in the media industry, but that sense of affectation that the movie has feels reflective of what the characters are doing—which is putting on an affectation to not really come to terms with the fact that they are poor and in crisis. There's a real sense of tragedy to that performance that is very moving. [. . . ] It makes me think of the capitalist expectation imposed on people who work thankless jobs in this world that you just smile and swallow it and keep grinding till you get somewhere. Ulman really conveys the emotional toll of that. "
Nothing in a record as fine as Women in Music Pt. III can prepare you for this Woman in a PTA Movie. If Cooper Hoffman is serving neophyte Jason Schwartzman vibes minus the hipster stylings, Alana Haim grips the screen with a magnetism approaching the nouvelle vague advent of Anna Karina. She radiates a steely self-presence that crackles with tough-minded, sharp-tongued confidence even as it coils back on itself with the doubts, uncertainties, and aimless vagaries of a quarter-life crisis. Her performance is both savvy and unaffected, technically precise and radically instinctual. She abounds, for lack of a better phrase, in that ineffable form of fascination called ‘screen presence.’ "
There’s just such a lightness to the film, and an associative logic that it moves through. Hong has done this before—most recently in On the Beach at Night Alone, which depicts sociality between women—but that is the entirety of this film. Men only appear twice. And what’s missing here, in a good way, is self-loathing. The characters have their resentments, but this is not a film of revelations. There’s no need for soju-coaxed moments of soul-baring here, which means that some of the conversation isn’t even that interesting. It is genuinely small talk. They’re talking about nothing, really. But it’s that sense of sociality… I’m able to effortlessly occupy that space between two friends who’re filling the air with talk and slowly warming their relationship again. "
By making Oscar Isaac’s professional gambler a former Abu Ghraib torturer, Schrader extends the character’s existential affliction and his need for redemption to the entire nation. The windowless, interchangeable casinos where most of the film takes place function as a perfect purgatorial synecdoche for a United States that has yet to atone for the War on Terror. That Schrader would once again rip off the finale of Bresson’s Pickpocket was inevitable, but with its winking knowingness and cheesy abandon, this umpteenth iteration is his most sublime yet. "
Enthusiasts and scholars of Pedro Almodóvar’s work have learned to read his oeuvre as a flaming immersion in the troubled waters of desire, a theme that recurs even in the titles of his films and the name of his production company, El Deseo. This inclination to highlight the filmmaker’s eye for existential entanglements and rapturous passions has overshadowed the other pillar of Almodóvar’s universe: the search for truth, understood as the fuel for the most extraordinary personal journeys, but also as a matter of social and historical justice. The latter operates as the driving force of Parallel Mothers, the new feature from the filmmaker of La Mancha, and probably his most openly political film to date. "
Ms. Ducournau—promoted to Competition after her 2016 Critics’ Week breakout Raw—petrol-bombed the Debussy into stunned submission last night. Titane is a wild, wild ride, in which Ducournau, via fearlessly embodied newcomer Agathe Rouselle and ferociously against-type veteran Vincent Lindon, investigates queerness, dysmorphia, body modification, and the efficacy of the Macarena as a CPR teaching aid, in images acrid with neon and diesel. "