In surveying some of the best foreign-language films of the year, it’s become clear that many have common themes. Some are about the primacy of family and crises in masculinity, while others center on rehabilitating the past and finding spiritual meaning in the secular world. But all of these films follow characters whose basic needs — familial and romantic stability, sexual fulfillment, and creative expression — question just how progressive modern society really is. Here are ten essential international films from the past year.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish period drama, shot by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski (My Summer of Love, Margaret) in rich, stark, black-and-white photography, lends an uncommon gravitas to a young nun’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. Set in Poland during the early 1960s, the film follows its titular protagonist, Ida Lebenstein (a tremendous performance by Agata Trzebuchowska), as she seeks new information about her Jewish parents — both murdered during the Holocaust. Zal and Lenczewski’s rapturous cinematography gives a stunning texture to mundane objects and settings, from snow falling on cedar trees to watery broth in a bowl, and makes Ida one of the year’s most engrossing films.
The Dance of Reality
In May, Flavorwire spoke with Alejandro Jodorowsky about his first film in more than two decades, The Dance of Reality:
The saga of Jodorowsky’s alienated adolescence is explored through a surreal evocation of myth, poetry, and personhood. It begins with Jodorowsky as a boy (Jeremías Herskovits), naive and sensitive in a hypermasculine world. Torn between pleasing his cruel father (played with riveting intensity by the filmmaker’s son, Brontis) and distant mother (Pamela Flores, who sings her lines in operatic verse — the real Sara Jodorowsky dreamed of a career on the stage), young Jodorowsky is every bit as much of an outsider as the amputees littering the streets — his otherness defined by his Jewish-Ukrainian heritage, taunted for his long locks and circumcised penis.
The tale shifts from son to father for the second half of the picture, in which Jodorowsky Senior is propelled through a Christ-like transformation. Heightening the meta-reality further is the director himself, who acts as a spiritual guide, observing from the village’s scorching cliffs, cradling his younger self in his arms, nurturing the psyche of the familial trinity.
Two Days, One Night
A single mother’s desperate attempts to keep her job after suffering an emotional collapse becomes the center of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s latest moral tale, Two Days, One Night. The Dardennes are typically sensitive to their actors’ performances — and Marion Cotillard’s agonized, nuanced portrayal of a working-class woman is the fruit of this naturalistic collaboration. Slumped and worn, we know Cotillard’s Sandra through the weight of her bag strapped to her too-fragile frame, rather than her words. The filmmakers make us complicit in Sandra’s struggle as she desperately approaches her co-workers, who have chosen to take a pay bonus that would force her out of a job, for a lifeline. Their pockets are empty, too — leaving us reeling in Sandra’s tense spectrum of emotions.
The Strange Little Cat
Ramon Zürcher’s directorial debut choreographs a scene from life, revealing its wondrous familiarities. The Strange Little Cat is an unsentimental, near-magical-realist portrait of a single family gathering — a well-observed look at each individual’s influence upon the other, evoking a chain of reactions that take us from domestic rituals, like tending to the family pets, to the subtle shift our personalities take amongst kin (here, at a small apartment in Berlin). “I wanted to make something that didn’t have many time jumps. I wanted to make something that was real-time storytelling, to create a space which is close to theater, and which doesn’t have a normal way of creating time, building time,” Zürcher told Film Comment. “And I didn’t want to tell much of a story. It would have hidden stories under the surface. I wanted to create a certain atmosphere and mood in the apartment, to build sculptures of the psyches.”
Ruben Östlund’s wry dramedy tears its male protagonists’ stunted egos apart at the seams, questioning the social relevance of the alpha male. The quiet disintegration of a nuclear family — wife, husband, daughter, and son — begins after patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) selfishly flees from a disastrous situation at an Alpine ski resort. Östlund’s observations highlight the fissures in the relationship, and how Tomas’ incredulous wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and friends only serve to deepen his crisis of masculinity. Fellow husband-in-distress Mats (Kristofer Hivju) shares Tomas’ fears about familial roles and expectations — and the men try to come to grips with their irrelevance in a progressive society that simply doesn’t need them anymore. Come for the provocative discussion about gender roles, stay for the hilariously awkward pillow talk.
Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard has exhaustively explored the notion that cinematic language is, or always was, corrupt. Film socialisme (2010) and In Praise of Love (2001) rebelled against the hold that Godard believes images have over filmic language. Goodbye to Language dismantles this with the use of 3D technology, which degrades and decomposes scenes from an archetypal couple’s (essentially Adam and Eve’s) relationship. But the deceptively simple narrative is not the focus for Godard. It’s a path to make tangential observations about the history of cinema and the limitations it has placed on creative expression — a betrayal that the auteur finds alternately disheartening and amusing.
A contemporary fable that reimagines the Book of Job set in modern-day Russia, told through the misfortunes of an ordinary family, Leviathan earned director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Banishment, Elena) and co-writer Oleg Negin the Best Screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mechanic who must protect his home and land from the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov). Zvyagintsev’s characteristic kitchen-sink realism and the film’s biblical themes create a tragic character arc that is grand and startling. The balance between explicit character expression (dialogue, performance) and what is implied off-screen is consummately precise.
Argentinian anthology Wild Tales, from Damián Szifrón, feels like a refashioned version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue in the farcical style of Pedro Almodóvar. Each character in the five-chapter tale can’t help but behave badly. Perhaps it’s because no good deed goes unpunished — as in “The Rats,” when a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) tries to save the life of a customer who previously wronged her. The unkind patron thwarts her best attempts in a most disastrous way. But Szifrón also indulges the morally bankrupt in his folly of ethics, evidenced in “Until Death Do Us Part” where a disillusioned bride gets her just deserts.
The Missing Picture
Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh gives voice to the millions of genocide victims that the Khmer Rouge silenced in the 1970s. Using an elaborate set of clay figurines, intercut with archival footage, Panh stages scenes from everyday life in oppressive work camps. A personal counter to the propaganda-filled documentaries that slavishly promoted the virtues of Communist ideology, Panh’s detached voice-over narration shares harrowing memories of the senseless torture endured — emphasizing his surreal relationship with his adolescence. Part historical narrative, part autobiographical elegy, Panh’s film is a long, hazy dream of escape that has clearly haunted the filmmaker for decades.
Venus in Fur
Writer/director Roman Polanski imbues David Ives’ stage play Venus in Fur, an adaptation of the 1870 Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel Venus in Furs, with surreal touches and dark subtleties, dimming the broad humor of the two-person production with sophistication and cruel jokes. A dry, self-mocking personal statement on the way an artist’s prejudices and traumas inevitably take on a life of their own, dominating their working life, it’s no mistake that star Mathieu Amalric — who plays jaded theater scribe Thomas — bears a striking resemblance to Polanski. Co-star Emmanuelle Seigner’s Vanda is more demure than Ives’ iteration of the savant actress with ulterior motives. A teasing relationship between the two ensues. He shows her how to read her lines; she fascinates him by reading them better, getting deeper inside his head. The muse reveals herself to be her creator’s true master.