The title of this list is slightly misleading in that not all of the films were released this year. The sad fact is that the vast majority of foreign language films never reach our shores, and the ones that do often appear a year or two (or more) later. So while all of the films below played in the US in 2012 (in some capacity) they may have premiered elsewhere in 2011 or earlier.
Three of the titles below are also featured in my list of the 12 Best Movies of 2012.
And because I know you’re curious, no, Holy Motors didn’t make the cut. (It is included in the Honorable Mentions list at the bottom of the page though!) I know every other critic loved the merde out of it, but I found it to be an occasionally engaging series of sketches highlighted by a love for cinema.
Now read on for what I think are twelve better films (in alphabetical order).
A notoriously cold Austrian filmmaker delivers his most humane film yet with this tale of an elderly couple, Georges and Anne, facing their impending mortality when she suffers an escalating series of strokes. That’s not to imply the film is awash with emotion as Michael Haneke keeps his tale simple and heartfelt, but that said, love and loss are undeniably in the faces and performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
This is “for better or worse” playing out before our eyes, and we can only hope we’ll face both sides of this sad, unavoidable coin with the same dignity and affection.
Black Out (Netherlands)
An ex-mobster wakes up the day before his wedding with no memory of the night before and a dead body beside him. Things go downhill from there. This is a genre film to be sure, and it’s none too subtle regarding its Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie influences, but the damn thing’s near flawless in its execution.
The expectedly twisted story is carried along with a wicked sense of humor, sharp violence and some crazy cool characters. Director Arne Toonen doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but he delivers an immensely entertaining movie guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
I Wish (Japan)
Two young brothers live hundreds of miles apart, separated by their parents’ divorce, but a childish belief offers them the promise of a permanent reunion. Yelling out your wish as two lightening fast bullet trains pass each other for the first time supposedly grants those wishes, so both boys and their respective friends set off on an adventure.
Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda offers a sweet glimpse into childhood when friendships were cherished and anything was possible. It’s a fantasy film grounded firmly in reality but magical all the same.
A wealthy quadriplegic hires a young man from the wrong side of the tracks to be his caregiver even as his advisers and family criticize his decision, but instead of leading to disaster it becomes the basis for a great friendship. This is a heartwarming, hilarious and occasionally tear-inducing film erroneously accused of falling under the “magical negro” sub-genre when it’s actually based on a true story. More than that, it’s simply about an unlikely friendship with race playing little to no part. Francois Cluzet manages emotion and intent using only his face while Omar Sy reveals himself as a charismatic and talented force of nature.
Masquerade (South Korea)
Korean emperors kept meticulous records throughout history, but fifteen days are missing during King Gwanghae’s 17th century reign preceded by a mysterious entry: “One must not record that which he wishes to hide.” Lee Byung-hun stars as both the emperor and his lower class doppelganger in this speculative look at one possible explanation for that missing period of time, and the result is a strongly affecting performance in an entertaining and lushly photographed period film. It’s not unlike Ivan Reitman’s Dave in the hope it brings to a system most of us have given up on.
“It’s so frighteningly everyday that it’s like being punched after a warm hug.” That’s the last line in Scott Beggs’ spot-on review of this quiet yet squirm-inducing little gem, and it sums the film up nicely. We meet an unassuming young man as he goes about his business just like anyone else before returning home, locking up and then molesting the ten-year-old boy he keeps prisoner in the basement.
Writer/directer Markus Schleinzer wisely leaves the worst imagery to our imagination and instead presents Michael’s life as a relatively mundane experience punctuated by hints of the unforgivable. It’s a too-calm, muffled nightmare beautifully performed by two people you hope aren’t method actors.
Nameless Gangster (South Korea)
An easily corrupted customs official (Choi Min-sik) climbs the ranks of the Korean crime syndicates through some unexpected methods, but even if he reaches the top will he be able to hold onto it? The answer seems to be a resounding “No” in this blackly comic mob film from South Korea.
Choi has been somewhat absent from cinema the past few years, but his return here shows he’s still at the top of his game as he delivers a performance that deftly moves from bumbling fool to ruthless bastard with the flick of his eyes. Yun Jong-bin‘s film is funny and violent, but it’s also a history lesson of sorts about the country’s relatively recent past and an exploration of identity through ambition and accident.
Oslo August 31st (Norway)
A young man leaves an institution ostensibly cured of the depression and addiction that put him there, but his next twenty four hours (and a failed suicide attempt just before leaving) hint that his greatest struggle is still to come. Director Joachim Trier has crafted an incredibly heartbreaking yet undeniably beautiful film about one man’s battle with an overwhelming sadness, and Anders Danielsen Lie delivers a performance filled with pain and angst. His genius, though, is in the brief glimpses of hope and happiness fighting to reach the surface. It will leave you broken. No other film has stuck with me as strongly.
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.