The title of this post is pretty self explanatory, so no introduction is really needed here. But… I do feel compelled to point out the same thing I point out every year. Nailing foreign releases down to a particular year isn’t an exact science. Obviously every film has an actual date of initial release, but most foreign titles don’t hit our shores until the following year, if at all. I try to go by original release date whenever possible though which means some of my choices have yet to be screened in the US outside of film festivals and import DVDs.
And because I know someone will ask, yes, I did see Certified Copy.
The Artist (France)
A silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) meets and falls for a young starlet just as her talkies start making his silent films obsolete. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a loving homage to the early days of cinema with wit, creativity and charm to spare. The story is a simple one and while it’s far from the best film of the year (that some people are touting) it’s still a sweet and fun piece of entertainment made with dedication and love. Hazanavicius commits to his subject so The Artist is almost exclusively dialogue free and instead is accompanied by a lush and lively score from Ludovic Bource.
The Flowers of War (China)
The city of Nanking, China has fallen to the Japanese, and a morally bankrupt American (Christian Bale) is all that stands between the barbarian invaders and a group of Chinese schoolgirls. Zhang Yimou moves his eye for action and art a bit closer to the present day with this powerful look at what happens when mankind’s most vile nature comes face to face with its kindest. The film is visually stunning as it moves between intense battles, emotionally devastating scenes that wrench the heart and moments of true beauty found in faces, fabrics and architecture.
Haunters (South Korea)
A young man with the ability to control other people’s minds uses it for malicious and selfish purposes, but when he finally meets the only person capable of resisting his control the two enter into a psychic battle that leaves carnage and destruction in their wake. I count myself as a fan of Unbreakable, but folks who loved that film’s plot while hating the pacing should seek out this Korean gem. It’s a a dark and twisted battle of wills filled with solid action and suspense as well as some deliciously wicked laughs and visually exciting set pieces.
Roger Brown is a successful corporate headhunter with a beautiful wife, house and life, but he also moonlights as an art thief. His double life catches up to him though when he’s caught red handed, and winds up neck deep in murder, deceit and fecal matter. This adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s novel is fantastically entertaining in regard to its suspense, action and dark comedy, but the main draw is Aksel Hennie’s lead performance. Brown is a cocky and smug son of a bitch early on, but as he falls further and further into the rabbit hole he becomes a sympathetic character who viewers want to see succeed and survive the mess he’s gotten himself into.
The Kid With a Bike (Belgium)
Cyril’s (Thomas Doret) father gives up one day and leaves him at an orphanage, but the boy refuses to accept this hard truth and instead makes efforts to find him. A local hairdresser (Cécile de France) begins to foster Cyril on weekends, but unresolved issues with his dad and the influence of a local thug threaten to permanently derail his adolescence. There’s no way to make this synopsis exciting, but I promise you the film is an emotionally suspenseful must-see that warms and wrenches your heart in equal measure. Doret gives an award-worthy performance as a boy determined to keep standing no matter what. His enthusiasm and excitement are infectious, and you can’t help but fall for him even as his actions tempt fate.
Kill List (UK)
A retired hitman finds the role of husband and father to be far more difficult that that of assassin, and when the offer to temporarily trade in his failed domestic bliss for one more job comes along he jumps at the chance and the payday. The assignment gets progressively stranger, and soon he discovers that bills, barbecues and a nagging wife are the least of his worries. Ben Wheatley’s violent thriller subverts genre expectations by going to some unexpected places. Try to avoid reading or seeing anything else about this movie, and just watch it cold for the maximum effect.
John McGill is a good kid in a bad situation, but as he enters his teen years he slowly but surely falls victim to the darker pressures at home and at school. Writer/director/actor Peter Mullan’s third feature sees a child metaphorically thrown to the lions and forces us to watch as he attempts to make his way out of the den alive and intact. Like The Kid With a Bike above, NEDS is about what it takes to survive when both family and society fail. John is faced with temptations and challenges, and while he rarely makes the right choice his good heart teases a light at the end of the pathos, frustration and despair. But the odds are not in his favor.
A Separation (Iran)
A couple sits before a judge discussing the terms of their impending divorce. Simin wants to move her daughter out of Iran to improve the girl’s future, but Nader refuses to leave his Alzheimer-stricken father. The divide is further complicated when an incident occurs between Nader and a female housekeeper that raises questions of a ‘he said/she said’ nature. Peyman Maadi is fantastic as a man whose every action and motivation becomes suspect in a country where the lines separating men from women, the religious from the secular, and justice from the rule of law aren’t always clear cut as director Asghar Farhadi follows up his equally excellent About Elly with another enlightening and fascinating look at the veiled country of Iran.
Sleep Tight (Spain)
César (Luis Tosar) works as the front desk man in an apartment building where he treats the tenants with kindness and respect all throughout the day. At night though, he hides beneath their beds and… well, he’s not so kind anymore. Director Jaume Balagueró is one half of the team behind the REC films, but he goes solo here and proves himself more than capable of delivering the goods. The film is wonderfully creepy and atmospheric, and Tosar gives a memorable performance as a really bad man who seems so damn nice. It’s difficult to focus a film around a truly despicable character who the audience will willingly follow around and maybe even root for. Even if they do check under their bed when they get home afterwards.
The Source (Belgium/Morocco)
Some women in a small Middle Eastern village unite when one of them miscarries while fetching water from a distant well. They demand the town elders, all males, get a running water system installed for future use, and they agree to withhold sexual favors until the men follow through. Religious culture being what it is though, the men become enraged because sexual relations are viewed as wifely duties granted to them by God. Conflicts erupt, some humorous and some tragic, while principles and common sense go head to head with doctrine and tradition. The beauty here, in addition to some gorgeous visuals, is the way the film treats women, men and the Muslim faith with respect while still addressing serious issues.
The Yellow Sea (South Korea)
A man finds himself wifeless and in serious debt, so when the opportunity to find his wife and solve his financial dilemma arises he jumps at the chance. Of course, he’ll have to travel from China to South Korea and then kill a man… but while the plan seems simple things quickly get out of hand. Soon he’s running and fighting for his life with both the authorities, gangsters and a bad ass, hatchet wielding wacko hot on his trail. Director Hong-jin Na follows up his butally awesome debut, The Chaser, with another tale of the grey area that sits uncomfortably between good and evil. Spectacular fights scenes, both armed and otherwise, erupt several times throughout, but it’s a twenty plus minute chase/brawl that you’ll remember months later.
Honorable mentions: Attack the Block (UK), A Boy and His Samurai (Japan), Certified Copy (France), City of Life and Death (China), Kshay (India), The Skin I Live In (Spain)
Awesome movies that you think I’ve missed that were actually on last year’s list: I Saw the Devil (South Korea)
Notable films I haven’t seen yet: Le Havre (Finland), Poetry (South Korea)
Check out my Foreign Objects column for full reviews of new and old foreign films.