As you may’ve already heard, I saw 160 films in 2015. And thanks to some seriously geeky tracking, I can tell you that a whopping 73 of them (46%!) were foreign films. By that I mean they were produced in a country other than the US and are most likely not performed in English (though some, of course, are – I’m calling UK and Australian films “foreign” here).
I’ve never understood a resistance to subtitles in films. I find them a sort of thrilling secret between the filmmaker and the audience. While our characters are on screen going about their business, little do they know whole unanticipated audiences are able to peek into their stories thanks to those translations at the bottom of the screen.
For all the foreign flicks I took in this year, I’m hard pressed to come up with a list of 10 best, mainly because the majority of what I saw was for acquisitions purposes at festivals or on screeners, films that (unfortunately or not, depending on who you ask) may never see the light of day. Among the several dozen, though, a few gems did break through.
I’ll start with two films I saw in 2015 that should find their way to you in 2016; consider it a Foreign Language Film preview of sorts.
The Club – Nominated for a Golden Globe, Pablo Larrain’s latest project finds its way to U.S. theaters in early February (I should know), and it’s likely one of the most challenging films you’ll see all year. A sort of darkly-comic response to the polish of Spotlight, Larrain (already Oscar nominated for No, which is also worth a look!), it’s Larrain’s commentary on a lot of what is so very wrong with the global Catholic church. Watch the trailer
Bang Gang – A personal favorite from TIFF, I’ve not heard that anyone has picked up this coming of age story for distribution, and it’s a shame given the recent success of Blue is the Warmest Color, Breathe and Mustang (read on). A French film, it’s the story of privileged teens and the racy trouble they get themselves into during unsupervised parties fueled by booze and sex. Building off that seemingly shallow premise, though, the film ultimately becomes an intimate and sincere story of two young as they discover what friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness all look and feel like as their relationships mature. Watch a trailer
The rest of the list is sorted in order ending with my favorite, though with just seven films included its fair to say each one of these is an accomplishment in global filmmaking this year.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem – It’s no mistake that this is the second of 2 films on this list distributed by Music Box Films. Even if I didn’t work there, I’d still be keeping an eye out for the company’s releases such is the quality of our slate, and GETT is a perfect example. One of last year’s Golden Globe nominees, the film is perhaps the best courtroom drama since Twelve Angry Men, as it follows one woman’s exhaustive efforts to secure a divorce from her husband in Israel’s rabbinical courts. Confined to the courtroom for most of its runtime, it nonetheless manages to be broad in its story and character development, driven mainly by the expert performance of lead Ronit Elkabetz. Watch the trailer
Breathe – Just as I was leaving Film Movement to return to Chicago, the company acquired this French film from actress/director Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds), a smart move if a bit delayed – it premiered in Cannes in 2014 and didn’t hit theaters until Fall 2015. The timing may’ve worked in its favor, though, as this female-driven drama about two friends whose relationship goes off the rails arrived just as Mustang was building momentum, too. Though the latter is ultimately the better film, there’s an eye for dramatic tension in Laurent’s film that doesn’t disappoint (keep an eye out for the film’s final shot). Watch the trailer
Timbuktu – A film that saw most of its attention at the beginning of 2015 as it was an Oscar nominee out of Mauritania (Mauri-where?), Timbuktu deserves every word of praise its received. The magic of film and its ability to transport audiences to new worlds is nothing new, though we’re used to seeing it showcased in intergalactic blockbusters or wizarding worlds of make-believe. In Timbuktu, life on the other side of the world is brought stunningly to life, including all the universal human desires and injustices of a part of the world we’ll otherwise never know. Watch the trailer
Far from the Madding Crowd – I didn’t see this one until months after its release, and I’m not sure why, considering it boasts everything I typically look for in a period piece. Once I did finally get around to it, I was not disappointed. Carey Mulligan is a gem, as ever, and entirely carries the Tom Hardy adaptation on her (and her character’s) capable shoulders. Awash in rich colors and broad landscapes, the bucolic scenery is as much a player in this romantic drama as the four involved in the central storyline, making it all the lovelier to take in. Watch the trailer
Phoenix – Easily the biggest surprise of the foreign film landscape this year, Phoenix is a noir post-war period piece about a woman who returns from a concentration camp unrecognizable to all who knew her, including her husband. This slick drama channels all the sheen of a classic noir alongside a heavy storyline that pays off on your investment. It went on to gross $3M at the U.S. box office, making it one of the highest-grossing foreign films of the year. Watch the trailer
Mustang – Feminist or not, Mustang is a must-see for anyone who has daughters, sisters, female cousins or friends who’ve come through that perilous journey of puberty, navigating the transition from child to woman under the watchful eye of family and society. This ensemble piece follows five care-free sisters whose lives are stolen from them when their grandmother and uncle put them under house arrest in order to prevent any untoward conduct. This, of course, only spurs on these young women to fight for their freedom ever more fiercely, some more successfully than others. It’s all wrapped in a coda that deftly recalls the opening scenes of the film, leaving the viewer on exactly the right note after a roller coaster of a story. Watch the trailer
Son of Saul – For all the movies I see, there are only a handful that I will never willingly watch again. Some because they are so, so, so bad. Others, though, for quite the opposite reason. Because they are so masterful, so well-crafted and so evocative that I cannot possibly subject myself to those images and those emotions a second time around. Son of Saul is the debut feature from a filmmaker who’s clearly been honing his craft for years; the precision of filming, the choice of perspectives, the sound design – every frame of this powerful film is perfection. A heartbreaking Holocaust story, it is not for the faint of heart. But it is undeniably worth seeing. Watch the trailer