Almost every critic I know laments the annual task of Top Ten lists – filmmaking should never be a competition – but, as a foreign film critic, it gives me an opportunity to once again champion films that don’t get very good distribution. Scour your On Demand listings and Netflix pages for these gems. Some may get further screenings when the Foreign Film Oscars are announced on January 25th – the Music Box Theater is already planning on this February 10 – 16. As usual, these are only the films I’ve actually seen (and I’ve noted where they were screened when I saw them; I urge you to make a point to patronize these venues, as well as U. of C.’s Doc Films, Facets Multimedia, Northwestern’ Block Cinema, the Northwest Chicago Film Society, the Goethe Institute, the Italian Cultural Institute, and Alliance Française of Chicago. Don’t let these valuable organizations follow bookstores and record shops down the capitalist drain).
10. Sarah’s Key (France) – an admirably structured narrative succeeds in demonstrating how a historical mystery can shape current events, and our present-day moral choices. It’s a frequently-used motif, but director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, and veteran actress Kristin Scott Thomas, do the material proud. And I always like seeing Aidan Quinn getting good work. (Landmark Cinemas)
9. Senna (Brazil) – a great sports documentary on Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna, told exclusively with actual at-the-time footage of his driving career, his interactions with business partners and family, and the other charitable work he did in Brazil that made him a genuine national hero. It may be one of the best sports docs ever. (Landmark Cinemas)
8. Silent Souls (Russia) – a quiet, urgent, reverent, bawdy, delicate and moving road trip movie. Two men commit to seeing off a dead loved one in their own solemn fashion, but there’s an enormous amount of hard-won joy here as well. (Gene Siskel Film Center)
7. The Mill And The Cross (Sweden / Poland) – The Passion is transported to the Spanish Inquisition in a landmark painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Lech Majewski animates the actual people, and humanized moral stakes, of the painter’s concept with astonishingly successful mastery of modern filmmaking techniques. It’s one of the most visually beautiful movies I saw this year. (Music Box Theater)
6. House Of Pleasures (France) – another gorgeous film that doesn’t shy from its darker aspects, here chronicling the last days of a turn of the 20th century brothel in Paris through the eyes of its workers. A rock-solid ensemble of actresses, and Bertrand Bonello’s sense of echoing nostalgia, canny social politics and contemporary perspective make this a beautifully haunting, cruelly matter-of-fact, uniquely involving film. That this wonderful film never got a Chicago screening is truly baffling.
5. The Artist (France) – an unapologetically unoriginal but masterfully executed celebration of the things we elementally love about movies, and how much of that has been neglected by our present-day corporate movie mills. This’ll be an easy one to see over the next few months – the Harvey Weinstein Oscars-marketing-machine is full-speed-ahead, and Jean Dujardin may give us a Marion Cotillard-like upset in the Best Actor race. (Now playing at the Landmark Cinemas, but it will later expand to many outlying theaters, I’m sure)
4. Le Havre (Finland / France) – Aki Kaurismäki’s uniquely stylized, eccentrically funny films aren’t for everyone, but this is easily his most accessible, and gracious, comedy. A resilient, browbeaten hero helps a young African boy find his way to a new home, with some help from his friends and foes. Kaurismäki draws from Keaton, Chaplin and Marcel Carné in mixing sentimentality with skepticism, but you can just enjoy it as a funny movie with a happy ending. It’s also one of the favorites for Best Foreign Film. (Music Box Theater)
3. Certified Copy (France / Iran) – Abbas Kiarostami has created a puzzle we’re happy to never solve – as long as we get to stay in the company of these two fascinating characters. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell create a couple that is vastly greater than the sum of its two parts, and their conversations in the lovely Tuscan countryside they’re exploring are sometimes enlightening, sometimes argumentative, sometimes downright illogical, but always engaging. And your own conversations after the movie will be just as rich, I guarantee. (Landmark Cinemas)
2. Mysteries Of Lisbon (Portugal) – a flat-out gorgeous historical epic with real Dickensian complexity and liberal dashes of Buñuelian surrealism, it’s a 4-1/2 hour film you’ll wish was twice as long. It follows young Pedro da Silva across his own specific family history, and ripples out across a number of profoundly interlinked generational adventures and intrigues concerning monastics and pirates, noblemen and beggars, nuns and libertines – sometimes as separate characters, sometimes the same person, cleverly, opportunistically disguised. This film is one of the best novels you’ll never be able to read. (Music Box Theater)
1. Love Exposure (Japan) – another long-form masterpiece, and my favorite film this year, combines the reckless abandon of youthful rebellion with black-market voyeur porn with profoundly spiritual introspection in a breathlessly engaging plot that Voltaire, or even Mary Doria Russell, would have been proud to have imagined themselves. How director Sion Sono could juggle this much transgressive hilarity with this much fervent religious extremism and still have a transcendently moving love story come out the other end is one of those honest-to-God filmmaking miracles that only happen once a decade or so. It’s not nearly as explicit as it sounds – it’d have a hard time earning an ‘R’ rating for anything you see, I suspect – but the subversive audacity of its ideas is thrilling. (Gene Siskel Film Center)
Honorable Mentions: Amer; Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame; The First Beautiful Thing; Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life; I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You; Miss Bala; Nobody Else But You; Poetry; Point Blank; Shame; A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas; Undertow (Contracorrientes).
Unseen by me, but worth checking out: A Separation; Bullhead (Rundskop); Declaration Of War; Pina; Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story; The Skin I Live In; Special Treatment (Sans queue ni tête).