Goddamn I’m sick of making lists. Thankfully this is the last one of the year for me, and even better it’s the one I find most important. Foreign movies don’t always get the attention or the exposure they deserve, so it’s nice to have the chance to highlight the ones I think are the best. And while some folks believe the term ‘foreign films’ should only apply to foreign language films I’m tired of that artificial restraint, so this list is open to movies from any and all countries outside of the US. (Except Luxembourg of course. They know why.)
In addition to the language question ranking the year’s best foreign releases can be a major pain in the ass thanks to multiple other factors… most foreign films actually released in 2009 haven’t reached US screens yet, many of the movies that did get a domestic release did so in an extremely limited number of theaters or possibly just a festival screening, and many more made their US debut on DVD. So what guidelines do I use when compiling this list? Who the hell knows. Here are my fifteen favorite foreign films released in and around 2009!
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, Denmark)
Von Trier’s entry into the family film genre comes complete with a happily married couple, a cute little boy, and furry woodland creatures. But this is Von Trier, so the couple quickly goes batshit crazy, the kid dies, and the fox spouts anarchistic catch-phrases. Less of a great film, more of an oddly fascinating one.
Breathless (Yang Ik-joon, South Korea)
I’ve been pushing this little Korean drama since seeing it at Fantastic Fest, and I recommend to anyone who likes scrappy, independent movies with strong central characters. And violence. And drama. And dark humor. And more violence. A powerful and affecting look at domestic violence and the cycle of abuse, an incredibly personal debut from Ik-joon who also stars in the lead role.
Bronson* (Nicolas Winding Refn, UK)
Biographical films are often dry and predictable, but this look at one of Great Britain’s most violent and most well-known criminals gives new meaning to the word ‘unconventional.’ Wild editing, occasional stage-like scenes, and one of the year’s best performances (Tom Hardy) make watching one this an engaging and kinetic experience.
The Class* (Laurent Cantet, France)
Not since Jim Belushi played The Principal has a movie shown such a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the troubled world of the public school system. But seriously, this French flick gives a sobering look at what teachers world-wide have to endure on a daily basis. How do you handle the good kids, bad kids, and all the lost ones in between?
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, UK)
Is this the funniest movie of the year? It just may be, and unlike The Hangover which successfully utilized gags and ridiculous plot turns for much of its humor, In the Loop relies only on razor sharp and brutal as hell dialogue. Peter Capaldi is amazing as a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, callous bastard of a government official. I’m still waiting for a video mash-up between his character here and Hans Landa. That’s a conversation I would love to see.
Martyrs* (Pascal Laugier, France)
This brutal, bloody, and occasionally terrifying movie also made Robert Fure’s Best Horror list, and it most definitely deserves the honor. A young girl is traumatized and grows up thirsty for revenge. But is she targeting the right people? And who’s the razor-wielding woman haunting her every night? The ending loses a bit of steam with a questionable revelation, but the movie rocks in spite of it.
Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
After the spectacle of his blockbuster monster movie The Host, Joon-ho scales it back and returns to the dark and moody procedural territory of his best film to date, Memories of Murder. His hero here is a mother whose mentally-challenged adult son is arrested for a brutal murder. The police see him as an easy conviction, so she takes up the investigation herself in a desperate attempt to prove his innocence and return him home. Devastating and redemptive, and grounded with an incredible performance by Kim Hye-ja.
Ong Bak 2* (Tony Jaa, Thailand)
Film School Rejects called this the greatest martial arts film ever, and while I myself prefer to avoid the hyperbole I will agree that it comes pretty damn close. Tony Jaa’s directing skills are lacking at times, but the incredible number and variety of fight scenes will leave you wide-eyed and drooling. The last thirty minutes or so is one long battle between Jaa and a rotating army of jungle hoodlums. Amazing stuff here.
Pontypool* (Bruce McDonald, Canada)
Who would have thought Canada would be the ones to bring an original spin to the zombie genre? Not me, but after watching this very cool flick set almost entirely in a radio station you may just never doubt our brothers to the North again. (Of course you will, at least until the sequel comes out next year.)
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France)
This movie won big at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it lost out on the biggest prize to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon… which is a shame because this film is better in every way. It follows an unassuming Arab-born Frenchman as he serves prison time for a minor relatively crime. He’s abused and treated with scorn by his fellow inmates both for his status as fresh meat and his race. But as the weeks, months, and years pass we watch his transformation into something much bigger. Prison isn’t rehabilitating him as much as it’s training him. Fantastic acting, a strong narrative, and an oddly positive ending make this a must-see.
[Rec]* (Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, Spain)
I feel silly including this movie here seeing as it’s actually from 2007… but it didn’t receive a legitimate US release until this year so I guess it counts. It’s a “found footage” film, the kind that is shot entirely from a POV perspective, but it’s the best of the bunch (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity). Some absolutely terrifying sequences including a final few minutes that will have your anus clenching in fear and a very cute lead actress who you want to hold and protect combine for a fantastic horror movie.
Revanche* (Gotz Spielmann, Austria)
This is a slowburn revenge film about a bad guy who decides to rob a bank so he can afford to whisk away his girlfriend from her life of prostitution and abuse. Things don’t quite go according to plan and soon he finds himself plotting the murder of a local policeman. Like I said, the movie takes its time building but you’re fascinated by the characters, the drama, and the suspense. Fantastic movie due for a Criterion release early next year.
Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, Mexico)
Cole Abaius loved this movie which automatically made me suspect, but the ginger bastard got one right this time. Fukunaga’s debut film follows two teens south of the border… she’s hoping to immigrate into the US to start a new life, and he’s just hoping to stay alive. A gang he used to belong to is hunting him down, and when he takes it upon himself to help shepherd her to the border the two of them find themselves on a race against time.
Thirst (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
Best vampire movie of the year right here, and there’s not a single sparkle or piece of glitter to be found anywhere. Chan-wook brings his beautiful visual style to the supernatural and it’s a perfect fit. A priest who only wants to help humanity becomes a vampire instead and finds new and dark desires building within. Bloodletting, murder, and crazy sex ensue. Highly recommended for fans of horror films and black humor.
Tokyo Sonata* (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Kurosawa trades in his penchant for horror and instead focuses his eye on a family in distress. A father who loses his job worries his respect and self-worth are lost along with it. A mother finds herself floating aimlessly. And a young son is trapped between their expectations and his own interests. A fascinating character study, a heartfelt family drama, and a sweet and well-earned finale.
Honorable Mentions: The Baader Meinhof Complex, An Education, Not Quite Hollywood, Red Cliff, The Square, Tokyo!, Van Diemen’s Land, The White Ribbon
What was your favorite foreign film of the year?