Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” has won Best International Feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The Japanese film is only the second film from that country to win this prize competitively, following 2008’s “Departures.” Japan previously won three Honorary Oscars before the (previously named) Best Foreign Language Film category was instituted for films from 1956. Those honorees were Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “Gate of Hell,” and Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto.”
“Drive My Car” was far and away the the favorite to win Best International Feature this year, and it stands as not just one of the most acclaimed international features of the year, but one of the most acclaimed films full stop. It was up against Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated Danish submission “Flee,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” (Italy), Bhutan’s entry “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” by Pawo Choyning Dorji, and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” by Joachim Trier.
Hamaguchi’s film was a sensation from the moment it debuted at Cannes 2021, where it picked up Best Screenplay (for Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe), the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. It won Best International Feature at the Gotham Awards, Best Film outright at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and the National Society of Film Critics. (It is only the sixth film ever to top all three of the NYFCC, LAFCA, and NSFC groups, after “Goodfellas,” “Schindler’s List,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “The Social Network.”) Plus Best Foreign Language Film wins at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and BAFTAs. And Best International Feature at the Indie Spirit Awards.
“Drive My Car” is also nominated in three other categories at the Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director for Hamaguchi, and Best Picture.
The three hours of “Drive My Car,” which is adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami in his 2014 collection “Men Without Women,” fly by as fast as any three-hour movie you’ve ever seen. Two years after the death of his unfaithful wife, theater director Yusuke Kufuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) takes up a residency in Hiroshima to stage a new multilingual production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” One of the actors who auditions is the former TV star (Masaki Okada) he knows had an affair with his wife. And the organizers behind the residency insist that he be driven to and from the theater each day by a hired driver, so as to avoid any liability. The young woman they hire, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), is like one of Howard Hawks’ professionals taken to their natural extreme: defined entirely by her job, with a dead affect that indicates a history of trauma.
It’s a slow burn about how people can connect even after events in their lives have forced them to close down. And a powerful testament to how fiction can help people access parts of themselves they might not otherwise.
“In my opinion,” Hamaguchi told IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “fiction is the only kind of lie that society allows to exist, and it’s only allowed to exist because there’s a clear end to it. But in the short period of time before that end arrives, people are allowed to express something real about themselves.”
It’s impossible to imagine “Drive My Car” any shorter than its three-hour runtime, which is just the right length to let the character “breathe” and for viewers to feel like they’ve gotten to know them.
“I do have a little bit of a plan when it comes to making this work,” Hamaguchi said, about how he doesn’t tell his financiers exactly how long his movies will be. “No one thinks they’re paying for a three-hour or a five-hour movie, but when I’m ready, I say: ‘Please just watch the edit that I have, and then we can discuss.’”
“Drive My Car” feels like the kind of literate, novelistic cinema “they don’t make any more.” But overall it was a strong International Feature Category this year. And it wasn’t the only International Feature nominee to score other nominations. “Flee” was also nominated for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature, while “The Worst Person in the World” received an Original Screenplay nod.