Let’s look on the rosy side of life and hope that later in 2021 something near normality returns. If it does, the 25 films collected here stand a good chance of coming to screens – big as well as small – over the coming year. Most of them have been completed and many are eagerly awaiting the dual roll-out of vaccines and festival red carpets. In the meantime, dust off your diary and dream about your next cinema trip with these enticing titles from all corners of the world.
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The eccentric US pop duo Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, once came tantalisingly close to working with Jacques Tati, but now get to work with another French visionary, in what is described in the publicity material as “a film all in songs”. The brothers provide the songs and the story, with Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as the parents of a very unusual child.
Baby, Box, Broker
Japanese auteur Koreeda Hirokazu’s follow-up to his French-language debut The Truth is his first Korean-language feature. The film, based on the phenomenon of ‘baby boxes’ that allow people to anonymously hand over their child for adoption, will star Song Kangho (Parasite) and Bae Doona (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). Shooting is due to start early this year.
Terence Davies is used to jumping through hoops to get his films made, but his upcoming feature, Benediction, hit an unexpected snag last March: the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown. “We were three days from principal photography when we had to shut everything down,” the director says in a phone interview. “And that was hard, because I thought, what if it doesn’t come off at all?” But fans of Davies’s work needn’t worry: the film resumed shooting last autumn and is currently in post-production.
Starring Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi, Benediction explores the life of the English soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon. Decades ago, it was one of Sassoon’s poems that got a young Davies into drama school. “You had to do one Shakespeare and one candidate’s own choice for the audition,” Davies says. “I chose ‘Concert-Interpretation’ by Sassoon, which is about the first performance of The Rite of Spring in this country.”
So when Sassoon’s name came up in a conversation with Ben Roberts of the BFI (one of the financers of Benediction) some years ago, Davies was immediately interested. He read three biographies to research the poet’s extraordinary life and found much that struck a personal chord. “He was gay, like I am. He converted to Catholicism, which astounds me, because I was brought up Catholic. And the biggest thing was that he was an outsider, and I tend to be drawn to people on the outside, like Emily Dickinson.”
The director, who has also written the screenplay for the film, says that he responded most strongly to Sassoon’s search for redemption and salvation. Sassoon was deeply affected by his experience fighting in World War I and was best known for his anti-war poems, which describe the realities of the trenches. To do justice to those horrors, Davies decided to use war footage sourced from the archives of the Imperial War Museum and the 1964 BBC documentary series The Great War.
“We only had a budget of about £3.5 million. But no matter how big the budget, you just can’t recreate what it was like in the trenches. That’s why I said from the word go that I’ll be using footage from the war. It’s incredibly powerful, and despite the horror, some of it is extremely beautiful. We move in and out of the footage throughout Sassoon’s life.” When asked if there’s anything he wanted readers to know about the film, Davies says, “I have put some humour in it, so I do hope people laugh at the jokes.”
— Devika Girish
Australian director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007) takes on Joyce Carol Oates’s mammoth roman à clef about Marilyn Monroe, with Cuban actress Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, Knives Out) starring as the tragic ‘Norma Jeane’ (sic). Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale play the writer and the baseball player in her life; Oates herself, on seeing a rough cut, hailed the film as “startling, brilliant, very disturbing and… utterly ‘feminist’”.
With the murder of Indigenous rights activist Javier Chocobar as its starting point, Lucrecia Martel’s first nonfiction feature takes on the history of hegemonic white culture in her native Argentina. Covid-related production delays inspired a rewrite, so that it now examines the discriminatory state response to the pandemic.
Decision to Leave
The director of the Vengeance trilogy (200205) and The Handmaiden (2016) is soon to start shooting a Korean-language detective thriller about a potential murder and a burgeoning romance between investigator and suspect, co-written by his frequent collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong. Set to star are Chinese actor Tang Wei (Long Day’s Journey into Night) and Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder).
Denis Villeneuve’s hotly anticipated and repeatedly delayed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi epic is due to be taken out of cold storage in 2021, with a release set for 1 October. Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, as galactic nobleman Paul Atreides and his concubine Chani, lead an all-star cast on a hero’s journey through space.
ear for eye
debbie tucker green
British playwright and director debbie tucker green follows her 2014 Second Coming with a screen version of her acclaimed play about generations confronting racial oppression in the US and the UK. Returning from the stage cast of ear for eye – lower case, like her name – are Lashana Lynch (No Time To Die) and Doctor Who regular Tosin Cole.
There is no straight story coming anytime soon from David Lynch’s closest filmmaking heir, Lucile Hadžihalilović. Her new film, which she is currently editing – also her first in English – is an adaptation of British artist and author Brian Catling’s novella Earwig. British actor Paul Hilton (Lady Macbeth) plays the titular middle-aged WWI veteran, named for his extraordinary hearing and who is responsible for the care of a 10-year-old girl. Here comes the rabbit hole: every day Earwig must make and replace her teeth, which are made of ice.
It was the image of these teeth that made Hadžihalilović want to adapt the book when she first read it: “Teeth are linked to vitality but here are combined with the fragility of the ice that melts; it’s a stunning combination.” She continues: “The mystery and the ambiguity of the characters and of the events also fascinated me. As with every piece of art that you don’t fully ‘get’, it stays in your mind.”
Having just one main setting – Earwig’s apartment – proved helpful for shooting amid Covid restrictions. (The film was due to shoot in April 2020 but production only started in November.) A huge house in central Brussels served as both the set and the production base. Hadžihalilović describes the apartment on film as “a kind of maze, with interior stairways and many doors. [The location] already possessed an atmosphere of secrets and loneliness, and the faded charm I was looking for.” A challenge in adapting the book was that in the story the apartment’s shutters always remain closed. So to stay true to the book’s eeriness, Hadzihalilovic only used natural or in-source lights.
After Innocence (2004), a gothic horror set in a boarding school, and Evolution (2015), about a young boy undergoing strange medical tests, what made her again return to another dark fable about children? “The fairy tale form is very well suited to telling coming-of-age stories. They are deeply linked to the unconscious, and maybe children are still more connected with these forces – at least this is what I imagine. [Fairy tales] allow me to be more easily poetical and metaphorical and to express underlying or hidden motives in a freer, more direct way.”
However, this time she explains, the protagonist is an adult: “It’s as if I was adopting the reverse angle from my previous films and this was also very appealing. Earwig is not so much a coming-of-age story (although there is an element of that in the film) but an awareness of something that has been repressed: the story of a haunting and – perhaps – of deliverance.”
— Isabel Stevens
If there’s a filmmaker 2021 needs to lift its spirits, it’s Baz Luhrmann. From Romeo + Juliet (1996) to The Great Gatsby (2013), he knows how to throw a party on screen. Elvis is one of many music biopics coming out in 2021 and will surely be the most lavish. Luhrmann’s portrait of the King stars Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and spans 20 years in Presley’s life.
Claudia Llosa’s latest project is an adaptation of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, co-written by the author and director. The Peruvian director of The Milk of Sorrow (2009) and Aloft (2014) is teaming up with Netflix for this film, a dark fairytale of impending crises set in a rural Argentinian community.
You win some, you lose some. Claire Denis’s much-awaited The Stars at Noon, with Robert Pattinson, was stalled by the pandemic, but the French auteur has used the hiatus to write and direct a new feature. Written with Christine Angot (her co-writer on Let the Sunshine In, 2017), Fire embroils Denis regulars Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon and Grégoire Colin in a love triangle.
Fanny Liatard, Jeremy Trouilh
One mark of magic realism is that it transforms the everyday into something rich and strange. In Gagarine, the feature debut of French directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, a housing estate on the outskirts of Paris is turned into a space station.
The recently demolished Cité Gagarine was named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and inaugurated by him in 1963. Learning the estate was condemned, Liatard and Trouilh decided to celebrate its final days – and its very diverse population – in a story about a technologically minded young resident (newcomer Alséni Bathily, pictured above) who holds out against eviction by building a futuristic survival unit in his vacated block.
The directors wanted to present an image of France’s much-disparaged cités, at odds with the customary dystopian presentation. “It’s about cités in general – we wanted to see their beauty and everything that’s positive about them.” Hence an ensemble cast featuring numerous local residents, plus the ubiquitous Denis Lavant (Liatard and Trouilh say that Leos Carax, long associated with the actor, is their biggest influence among French directors).
The duo were able to film at Cité Gagarine, with demolition in progress: “There were asbestos removers in spacesuits working on one part of the building, while we set up our studio in another.” The film’s magic lies in their ability to find sci-fi imagery in ordinary corridors and lift shafts – but they also attended a course at Paris’s National Centre for Space Studies to bolster the realism. Flamboyant and unashamedly big-hearted, Gagarine – set for UK release on 16 April – is a boisterously auspicious debut from a duo aiming for the stars.
— Jonathan Romney
The Harder They Fall
Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country, 2020; The Last Black Man in San Francisco, 2019) plays a formerly enslaved African-American cowboy out for revenge in Jeymes Samuel’s feature debut. Samuels (also a musician under the name The Bullitts) has recruited an experienced cast including Regina King, Delroy Lindo and Idris Elba to tell the true story of a Black Wild West hero.
The Italian director returns to the Calabrian mountains that were the setting of his sublime Le quattro volte (2010), but this time goes underground. A 1961 caving expedition may not sound cinematic but Frammartino says “those who love cinema know very well that the off-screen space, the invisible, represents our deepest ‘substance.’”
Paris, 13th District
The French title Les Olympiades refers to a well-known Parisian housing estate. Based on stories by the American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, this recounts the lives and loves of three women and a man. It’s co-scripted by Audiard, Céline Sciamma and director Léa Mysius (Ava, 2013), and stars Noémie Merlant (from Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and singer-actor Jehnny Beth.
The Perfumed Hill
Mauritanian filmmaker Sissako reunites with Kessen Tall, who co-wrote his singular tragic fable Timbuktu (2014). Their latest is described as a love story set in Africa and China. From the filmmaker who tried the IMF in a courtyard in Bamako (2006), expect insightful political commentary as well as breathtaking visual lyricism.
Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) has a title, but little else has been revealed except that it revolves around two eight-year-old girls – returning Sciamma to the childhood terrain of her 2011 drama Tomboy – and that it reunites the writer-director with Portrait cinematographer Claire Mathon.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s return to the big screen is an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about two wealthy but diametrically opposed rancher brothers in 1920s Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the graceful, brilliant but cruel Phil who is angry when stolid and gentle George (Jesse Plemons) secretly marries local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst).
Guillermo del Toro
William Lindsay Gresham’s novel was successfully adapted in 1947, but del Toro’s version should be very different: he’s fascinated, he has said, with the way the novel jams psychoanalysis with “the occult powers of the Tarot”. Bradley Cooper plays a crooked carnival worker conspiring with a ruthless psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett). A stellar cast includes Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe and the indispensable Ron Perlman.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s next is a 1970s-set drama with an eclectic cast. Starring Cooper Hoffman, son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a high-school student who becomes a famous actor, Soggy Bottom also features Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie and Alana Haim (one third of the band HAIM).
The Souvenir: Part II
The sequel to Hogg’s exquisite doomed romance explores protagonist Julie’s experience as a film student. “I enjoy films like François Truffaut’s Day for Night and [Federico Fellini’s] 8½ very much” she told S&S in 2019. “But I want the story to be interesting to someone who doesn’t know anything about cinema or how you make films.”
Three Thousand Years of Longing
After a lengthy delay in shooting, production began on the Mad Max director’s latest film in November 2020. Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba star as a lonely woman on a trip to Istanbul and a wish-granting genie. Details are scanty, but Miller has described the film as the antithesis of his brash apocalyptic franchise.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen’s first solo film seems unlikely to be your standard Shakespeare. Shot in black and white by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, it has the three witches – conceived, says Coen, as “battlefield scavenger birds” – all played by stage phenomenon Kathryn Hunter. Expect show-stealing from British actor Harry Melling (The Queen’s Gambit).
Triangle of Sadness
The Swedish director of Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017) spoke over the phone about his latest film, which he is currently editing. His first in English, it features an international cast spearheaded by Woody Harrelson.
Thomas Flew: You’ve moved from a Square to a Triangle with your new film. What gives this film its title?
Ruben Ostlund: It comes from a term in plastic surgery. When you have a little wrinkle between your eyebrows it’s called a ‘triangle of sadness’; you get it from having a lot of trouble in your life. It relates to the film’s environment [of the] fashion and beauty industries, where beauty is a currency.
I’ve read that the film explores gender power dynamics. What is it about?
These two models are on a luxury yacht, which goes under. The billionaires [on the yacht] and the models end up on a deserted island, with a cleaning lady from the yacht who knows how to fish, so she ends up at the top of the hierarchy. It’s dealing with the flip-over of this patriarchal society into something else.
What was it that made you want to make a film set in the world of fashion?
When I met my wife, who is a fashion photographer, she told me so many stories. It’s an interesting world because I’m both scared of it and attracted to it. I thought it was interesting that it’s one of the few professions where men earn less than women. [Male models] have to constantly manoeuvre around powerful men that want to sleep with them. So it is like a mirror-image of the patriarchal world.
How did you find shooting during a pandemic?
It was super stressful! But I think it brought people together. We created our own little family [on set].
Where Is Anne Frank?
The diary of Anne Frank is the source for this animated feature by Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir, 2008), which uses the device of an (invented) imaginary friend to tell her story. Folman, the child of Holocaust survivors, was approached to create the film by the charity set up by Anne’s father Otto Frank.