music friday: judy collins, 55 years ago today, my first concert
film fatales #133: ascension (jessica kingdon, 2021)

drive my car (ryusuke hamaguchi, 2021)

While the Oscars are not always a good way to judge the quality of a film, sometimes you can learn something from the nominations. Does anyone think "I want to see Four Good Days because it got a nomination for Best Song"? But the four Oscar nominations for Drive My Car are not only appropriate (in that a win in any or all of its categories would be deserved), but informative: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature. Given nothing other than the Oscar noms, it's probably safe to assume that Drive My Car is at the least a better movie than Four Good Days (which I admit as of this writing I have not seen).

Start with the screenplay. Ryusuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe are adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami, but you could argue they are also adapting the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. The lead character, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is a theater actor and director (the film is filled with the atmosphere of the theater). He directs an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, to which he applies an interesting twist: the various actors speak in different languages, including one who uses sign language. At first, the actors don't always understand each other, but as they become connected to their characters, they can apply what they know about the other characters in their responses to those others, even when different languages are being used.

Hamaguchi manages to create a three-hour movie that gently brings us along for the ride (pun not intended). There are no slow or unimportant moments or scenes. We gradually learn about the characters in depth, and their relationships quietly change the better they know each other. Hamaguichi and cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya work to offer a combination of beautiful scenery, interiors where the play is being prepared, and long sequences in a car, which requires lots of closeups. Part of the communication process is non-verbal ... while people talk in the car, we see their faces filling the screen, and we interpret the dialogue through those faces.

The key relationship is between Yūsuke and the driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), hired to chauffeur him around during the production of Uncle Vanya. They seem to have little in common ... he is old enough to be her father, and she performs her job efficiently but mostly silently. Over time, though, they reveal parts of themselves to the other, and find they have a shared humanity that touches them and touches the audience. (Thankfully, this never turns into a romance.)

Drive My Car is never confusing, even as it blends so many different elements. The acting, especially from the leads, is excellent. Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay? I've seen all the Director candidate movies, and Hamaguchi or Steven Spielberg are the best, plus Hamaguchi's film is better. The adaptation(s) is unique and it works. I wouldn't be upset if it won Best Picture ... my favorite movie of the year (Summer of Soul) did not get nominated, and other than that omission, there are no 2021 movies that are better than Drive My Car. Whatever might have kept you from watching (it has subtitles, it doesn't have superheroes, it's 3 hours long), get over it. Drive My Car is an instant classic.


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