Monday, February 1, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Foreign Language Films

2009 was not the best year for foreign films. At the beginning of the year, Yojiro Takita’s Departures surprised everyone by winning the Oscar for best foreign language film, so I was anxiously awaited the film, but when I finally saw it, I was shocked by just how poor the film was. Yet, there are quite a few foreign films this year that I did like. Aside from the top 10, I admired the action movie, combines with politics in Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhoff Complex, had a blast with the Nazi-Zombie comedy and gore fest by Tommy Wirkola Dead Snow. I was engrossed and entertaining by the lovely Audrey Tautou in Coco Avant Chanel, one of the few foreign films this year that could rightly be called an audience pleaser. Legendry Swedish director Jan Troell made one of his best recent films in the family epic Everlasting Moments. Anne Fontaine’s The Girl from Monaco was fun and sexy, even if it took a strange turn at the end. John Woo returned to Hong Kong and made one of his best films in Red Cliff. Yolande Moreau delivers a wonderful performance as a famed artist in Marcel Provost’s Seraphine. Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov made a wonderful film about the dying days of WWII through the eyes of Hirohito in The Sun. Although Nuri Blige Ceylon’s Three Monkeys is not quite as good as his other recent films (Distant, Climates), it was still a wonderful modern film noir. Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum was a typically slow moving, beautiful mood piece that plays like great jazz music. Who would have guessed there was more juice to get from the old 12 Angry Men story, but Nikita Mikhalkov proved there was in his excellent film 12. I would have loved an opportunity to see Still Walking and You the Living, but those are the breaks sometimes. For the record, since most of these films will not be eligible for the Oscars (idiotic rules), I want to put in a few good words for A Prophet and Mother, two films that will not be released until 2010, but are eligible for the Oscars this year. These easily would have been numbers 2 and 3 (perhaps even 1 and 3) on this list otherwise.

10. Lorna’s Silence (Jean Luc & Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)
While Lorna’s Silence may not be among the best films the Dardenne brothers have made (that would still be The Son for me, followed by L’Enfant), this is still a meticulously detailed, engaging slice of neo-realism from the Belgian brothers. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, who has an arranged marriage with a drug addict (Jeremie Rennier) so she can get her citizenship, and then marry someone else so they can get theres as well. Things take a strange turn when she finds she actually cares for Rennier, and doesn’t want to see him killed. Combing elements of film noir, Hitchcock and Bresson together, the Dardenne brothers have made one of the most penetrating character studies of the year.

9. Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Like the Dardenne’s film this year, Broken Embraces is nowhere near the caliber of most of Almodovar’s recent output (Talk to Her and Bad Education being my personal favorites). But this lush, colorful movie is still a thing of beauty. Penelope Cruz stars as a sexy secretary who starts daring her millionaire boss to help get her father the care he needs – but then falls in love with a movie director who casts her in the lead of his movie. Almodovar’s film is part Hitchcock, part Sirk and all style – and I enjoyed every minute of it.

8. Thirst (Chan-wook Park, Korea)
The director of Oldboy, Chan-wook Park has finally put the subject of vengeance out of his mind, and returned with this vampire movie that functions as kind of the anti-Twilight. A priest travels to a remote location to volunteer himself as a guinea pig for treatment of a new form leprosy, but comes back a vampire instead. He hates the new cravings he has – both sexual and for the need for blood – but cannot control himself for either. He manages not to hurt anyone by drinking the blood of coma patients, but he cannot resist the allure of his friend’s wife – brilliantly played by Ok-vin Kim, who comes across as sad, before revealing just how twisted she really is. This is far from the romantic, naïve teenage vampire love of Twilight, and is instead a twisted, dark, bloody, over the top horror film that is more complex than most people gave it credit for. A wonderful film, and one of the best of all recent vampire movies.

7. Revanche (Gotz Spielman, Austria)
Revanche, a nominee at last year’s Oscars for Foreign Language Film, is a character study disguised as a thriller. An ex-convict working as a handyman in a brothel falls in love with one of the hookers, a recent illegal immigrant from Eastern Europe, and comes up with a plan on how to get them both out of their miserable lives – he’ll rob a bank. Things don’t go as planned, and soon he is staying with his grandfather out in the middle of nowhere, where his closest neighbors are the cop who tried to stop the robbery, with tragic consequences, and his wife. A meticulously crafted movie, that is quietly absorbing and features great performances by its cast. While it is quite at the level of The Class or Waltz with Bashir, also nominated last year, it is infinitely better than Departures, which won the Oscar. Austria’s best kept secret in Speilman (who has been making films for 25 years) is not a secret anymore.

6. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
It’s become extremely hard to get a read on director Assayas, who goes from very strange movies like demonlover and Boarding Gate, to this sublime family drama. Three siblings come back to their family home one last time to see their mother, who has spent her life maintaining it. When she dies, they need to decide what to do with the house. This drama – a surprise winner of the Indiewire poll for 2009 – is a meticulously observed movie about the dynamics in a family where everyone is an adult with their own problems. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the ending is just about perfect. A gorgeous film, and one that proves that Assayas can do just about anything he wants to.

5. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel has become one of the most interesting directors in the world. With just three films under her belt, she has already created quite a body of work. The Headless Woman is perhaps her best film yet – a movie about a woman who hits something in the road, and then just drives on. After this act, she gets a convenient case of amnesia, and lets the men in her life take over – her lover, her husband and her brother – all work to cover up the accident. Did she hit a dog, or a poor child? Does it matter? Not to these people. The Headless is a fascinating movie about the class system, and a patriarchal society that still allows women to play the helpless victim whenever it is convenient for them. It is also a rather entrancing movie.

4. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
Italy has long since had one of the best film industries in the world, and they have often turned the camera towards themselves and examined the hard truth about their own country. Director Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo is no different. The film focuses on Giulo Andreotti, who was elected Prime Minister of Italy 8 times over a 30 year span (the fact that he lost several elections in that time shows you just how often Italians go to the polls – they make us Canadians look like amateurs).Toni Servillo is amazing as Andreotti, a small, hunchbacked little dwarf of a man in Henry Kissinger glasses, Andreotti was corrupt to the core, with Mafia ties that helped to leave a trail of political rivals dead in the gutter. The scope of the movie is dizzying – good luck trying to keep up if you know nothing about Italian politics – as it weaves it web for more than two hours. But Il Divo is not just a look back at corruption in Italy’s past, but it looks directly at the corruption they are facing today under Berlusconi. A mesmerizing film.

3. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Romania has become one of the best countries in Europe for filmmaking in the past few years, and Corneliu Porumboiu is one of its leading, young filmmakers. Police Adjective is leaps and bounds better than his first film, 12:08 East of Bucharest (which was still quite good). This film is about a police officer assigned to a case he doesn’t want – determining if a teenage kid is selling pot. He follows the kid, and while he does see him smoke pot, and give the joint to his friends, he doesn’t seem to be distributing it. He doesn’t want to ruin a kid’s life by sending him to jail for 7 years over something he doesn’t even see as a crime. Porumboiu’s films is a hybrid of neo-realism, and wonderful black comedy (the cop analyzing a pop song for its meaning, his endless struggle with bureaucracy) and is yet more proof that Romania is a country whose films are getting stronger – too bad the Academy hasn’t noticed yet.

2. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the great Akira) has made a name for himself in film mainly by doing horror films, that are much more intelligent and creepy than most American ones (even when they remake them here). But Tokyo Sonata is a somewhat different film for him – a drama about a family coming apart at the seams because they cannot communicate with each other. Each member of the family is holding back crucial information from everyone else. In a way, this sounds like a modern Ozu movie, and it is up to a point. But Kurosawa imbues the film which a feeling of dread from the beginning of the film, and the film’s final act twist comes out of nowhere, blindsides the audience, and yet somehow perfectly fits in with the rest of the movie. This is Kurosawa’s best film to date – and really much better than Departures which won the Oscar last year for Japan, when they should have selected this one.

1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany)
I feel like I’ve already written about this movie so much, that I feel like I should keep this one brief. Haneke’s films is a masterful examination of life in small town Germany right before WWI, where the adults impose their strict moral code on the kids, and then are shocked when the kids try to hold them to the same code. The movie shows the roots of how something like Nazism, or fundamentalist terrorism, get started. The scope of Haneke’s film is massive – showing multiple families in this small town, all ruled by a patriarch who is defined by his job, and the kids who at some points look like they belong in Children of the Corn. But this film is much deeper than that simple level – a dense, disturbing masterwork by one of the greatest directors in the world right now.

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