The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia)
Is there such a thing as too much action? A SWAT team raids a criminal-filled highrise with the not-so-simple intent of arresting the lead bad guy, but when the mob boss sets the entire building against them the mission becomes far more deadly. Writer/director Gareth Evans delivers the action film of the year with this near non-stop barrage of martial arts, knife play and gun fights, and even if the story between the brawls is incredibly lightweight, the creative and continually exciting fight choreography makes up for it.
A Simple Life (Hong Kong)
Think of it as a platonic amour. Andy Lau stars as a successful actor who sees his priorities change when the woman who has been maid to his family for decades suffers a stroke. She insists on moving to an elder-care facility so as not to be a bother, but his affection and respect for her only increases. Lau does a beautiful job here, but it’s Deannie Yip who shines with her endearing and heartwarming portrayal of Ah Tao. True to it’s title the film is a straightforward look at a simple life made extraordinary.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) live at the base of a Swiss mountain that houses a popular ski resort during the winter months and get by on theft and menial jobs. Their world and relationship begin to fracture, and viewers’ hearts begin to crack. Director/co-writer Ursula Meier‘s film is a spiritual (but less hopeful) sibling to the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike (itself on of my best films of 2011) in its tale of a child essentially abandoned and forced to grow up too fast. Seydoux reminds that she’s not just a pretty face, and Klein proves that some child actors are actually damn good at what they do.
We Have a Pope (Italy)
When the sitting leader of the Vatican passes, the position is handed over to a very reluctant Cardinal. Unsure of his own worth and suddenly doubting himself and the church the new Holy Father brings in a therapist to help him through the transition. The result is the year’s smartest and most interesting examination of faith (suck it, Life of Pi) and a damn entertaining movie to boot. Michael Piccoli and Nanni Moretti bring life and curiosity to their roles as the Pope and the therapist respectively, and the journey for both men becomes a fascinating trip for us as well.
Honorable mentions: Alps (Greece), Chico & Rita (Spain), Holy Motors (France), Lee’s Adventure (China), Little White Lies (France), Neighboring Sounds (Brazil), Nobody Else But You (France)
Notable foreign films that hit US theaters this year but were were actually on my best of 2011 or 2010 lists: Headhunters, Kid With a Bike, Kill List, A Separation, Sleep Tight, Sound of Noise
Notable foreign films I haven’t seen yet: Chicken with Plums (France), The Day He Arrives (South Korea), Farewell My Queen (France), For Love’s Sake (Japan), In Another Country (South Korea), A Royal Affair (Belgium), Rust and Bone (France)
Check out my Foreign Objects column for full reviews of new and old foreign films.