Best Foreign Films of 2012

BARBARA  Regie Christian Petzold

Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld in ‘Barbara.’ credit: ©Christian Schulz

Film criticism, for me, is, unfortunately a part-time job. I missed a few films that will surely appear on others’ lists, and have included a few films that I saw but couldn’t review at the time. But these are all splendid alternatives to the Hollywood mainstream, and I encourage you to seek these wonderful films out.

Holy Motors – no film this year was more wildly inventive than Leos Carax’s dark carnival ride through the ‘appointments’ of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant). At times it’s profoundly moving, at others utterly baffling, but you’ve never seen another film like it. Those who need to make absolute sense of things will be disappointed – the rest of us, surrendering to the ride, will never forget it.

Headhunters – this was the most thrilling movie of the year. A high-powered corporate executive moonlights as an art thief, and can’t resist acquiring a priceless Rubens, even though it’s owned by an equally resourceful high-tech surveillance expert. The film starts as a slick psychological caper thriller, but soon plunges down the rabbit-hole into a genuinely disturbing, blackly hilarious and fiercely intelligent examination of the elemental values of objects, reputations, friendships, loves and lives – others, and our own.

Letters To Angel – my favorite from this year’s European Union Film Festival, auspiciously held every spring at the Siskel Film Center. Estonia’s Sulev Keedus’ fever dream may be happening in real time, or it all may be entirely inside the head of Kirotaja, a soldier-of-fortune who has returned to his ramshackle hometown from Afghanistan, after twenty years, to find what’s left of what he’s left behind. But what he finds there now is just as compellingly odd and haunting as his recent wartime past. It’s a film that’s not too far from Holy Motors’ M.O. – a seemingly realistic narrative structure that serves as a launching point for some wildly creative and surreal psychological wonders.

Barbara – it seems to have had only one 2012 Chicago screening, at Northwestern’s Block Cinema in November, but it’ll be back, trust me. It’s Germany’s Foreign Oscar submission; if there’s any justice, it’ll make the final five. Filmmaker Christian Petzold has been making wonderful films these last five years or so (Yella, Jerichow, one of the Dreileben trilogy), and his frequent collaborator, actress Nina Hoss, is working with him on an astonishing level of filmed storytelling craft. Barbara Wolff is a talented doctor who made the mistake of applying for an exit visa out of East Germany in the early 1980s, and has been banished to a small provincial hospital in the middle of nowhere by the Stasi for her trouble. Petzold crams an astounding amount of political, personal and emotional information into his otherwise calmly measured story, and Hoss is an actress you need to see every chance you get. Utterly fascinating professional filmmaking of high intelligence and heartbreaking honesty.

I Wish – Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda wills himself inside the minds of two boys who are contending with the separation of their parents who have some idealistically novel ideas on how to get them back together. “Koreeda doesn’t gloss over the trials and tribs of growing up in the modern world, but he’s far more interested in the elemental inventiveness and unbowed high hopes to which children almost instinctively aspire. It’s one of the smartest, most well-structured and gently entertaining films I’ve seen in a while…”

Chinese Take-Away – to the ever-growing list of world-class actors that America doesn’t get to see nearly enough of, it’d be criminal not to add Argentina’s Ricardo Darin. Darin has instincts that put him in Cary Grant’s league – he can play nonsensical slapstick, heartwarming melodrama or minimalist character-study, and you’ll forget you’re watching an actor five minutes into whatever story he’s part of. He’s effortless, which of course means that he works his ass off. “Watching Darin work this performance is like watching a great jazz musician wring out everything memorable, in his-or-her own unique way, from a standard ballad you’ve heard fifty times before. But it’s not showy or histrionic; like that musician serving the song rather than his own chops, there’s an egoless integrity to everything Darin does.”

Modest Reception – if you haven’t been paying attention to the astonishing array of films coming out of Iran lately, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Mani Haghighi’s film was my favorite from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, and wreaks genuine havoc with the viewer’s sense of privilege and fairness throughout. Haghighi and Taraneh Alidoosti are a brother and sister (or are they?) handing out money to total strangers in the Iranian countryside. Is it charity? Is it cruelty? Are they teaching valuable lessons, or having dark fun at the recipients’ expense? It’s surprisingly funny, but Haghighi never loses the seriousness of the overall conception. I could watch this film six more times, and find something new on each viewing.

We Won’t Grow Old Together – Maurice Pialat’s 1972 film was only released here this year, but it deserves a place among classics. Yet another dissection of a slowly-but-surely failing marriage, Marlène Jobert and Jean Yanne give messy, warts-and-all performances that are disconcerting in their honesty – we know these people, or people just like them, and Pialat has no interest in tucking in their sharp edges or saving them from their own awkward jokes. They love each other profoundly, but it’s not going to work anyway. A great film.



the Luis Buñuel project – Susana & El Bruto

Luis Buñuel’s eventual success with Los Olvidados enabled him to make a comfortable living in Mexico directing a series of popular melodramas and star vehicles throughout the fifties. He, in fact, lived there the remainder of his life, travelling to Europe for the films he shot there in the sixties and seventies.

Susana (aka The Devil and the Flesh) (Mexico, 1951) is a seemingly standard moral melodrama – a fetching delinquent woman escapes from a reformatory, ensconces herself on the ranch/estate of Don Guadelupe (fifties matinee idol Fernando Soler) and proceeds to corrupt the males of the household: the scholarly son, Alberto (Luis López Somoza), the ranch foreman, Jesus (Víctor Manuel Mendoza), and finally Don Guadalupe himself.

Obviously a cautionary tale on how susceptible even the noblest of men are to temptation, Buñuel stacks the deck in some slyly subversive ways. We first meet Susana (Rosita Quintana) as she’s being thrown into solitary confinement at the reformatory, a howling incorrigible who has exhausted the patience of her tenders. She prayerfully pleads with God to save her from her squalid fate (“Dear God, you made me the way I am!”), the aging bars of the cell window give way, and Susana escapes into the rain-soaked night, her prayers apparently having been answered. She makes her way to Don Guadalupe’s home and is rescued from the storm, even while the family’s cloyingly devout housekeeper Felisa (María Gentil Arcos) warns that the storm has brought the devil into their house.

Rosita Quintana in 'Susana.'  credit:

Rosita Quintana in ‘Susana.’ credit:

Don Guadalupe’s wife, Dona Carmen (Matilde Palou) takes her under wing, giving her household chores and fresh clothes. But Susana understands who’s really in charge here, pulling her blouse down past her shoulders and showing her legs every chance she gets. Buñuel even subtly morphs the house itself to emphasize Susana’s annihilating carnality – the chicken pens in the barn where she fends off Jesus, and the bookshelves in Alberto’s room, are directly against solid walls, yet Buñuel continuously shoots their exchanges from the wall side, through the shelves and pens. The physical walls of the ranch, and the resolve of the addled men, are vaporizing before us. The house’s dining room – the traditional gathering place of the happy family – is shown in some scenes as close and cozy – in other shots it’s cavernous. And Buñuel delights in Freudian visual puns – Don Guadalupe lectures her on her revealing wardrobe while he’s cleaning (fondling, really…) his long rifles, and Jesus’ rough flirting in the barn results in broken eggs streaming down the front of Susana’s skirt.

Fernando Soler and Rosita Quintana in 'Susana.'  credit:

Fernando Soler and Rosita Quintana in ‘Susana.’ credit:

Most of the testosterone-fueled escalation is predictable, but when Dona Carmen catches Don Guadalupe en flagranté with Susana, she does what any ranch wife (and devout Christian) would do – she gleefully flogs her with a riding crop. Finally, the reformatory people and the police arrive to take Susana away (dragging her out on her back by the hair, of course); the family forgives each other and they all live happily ever after, despite Buñuel’s straightforward illustration that they’ve learned absolutely nothing about themselves.


A closer match to the clear-eyed reportage of Los Olvidados, El Bruto (The Brute) (Mexico, 1952) deftly combines sociopolitics, melodrama and the dark intensity of good film noir. A prominent but flinty landowner, Don Andrés (Andrés Soler) must evict a group of poor tenants from a large courtyard building he wants to sell. They’re good tenants – none of them owe him back rent – but he wants to cash in nonetheless, and rid himself of what he sees as riff-raff. The tenants defy the police and court orders and defiantly stay. Don Andrés’ opportunistic wife, Paloma (the wonderfully malicious Katy Jurado) suggests he hire himself some muscle, and Don Andrés recruits the earnest but slow-witted Bruto (aka Pedro) (played by another superb Mexican actor, Pedro Armendáriz). Don Andrés convinces him to leave his job at the slaughterhouse, and puts him up in a deserted storefront wing of his home. Paloma, of course, arranges his living conditions, and faster than you can say ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ Paloma and Pedro become surreptitious lovers.

Katy Jurado and Pedro Armendáriz in 'El Bruto.'  credit: blog.

Katy Jurado and Pedro Armendáriz in ‘El Bruto.’ credit: blog.

Don Andrés points out the ringleader of the tenants’ ‘rebellion,’ a hardworking single father named Carmelo (Roberto Meyer). Pedro roughs him up a little bit, but he’s sickly and overworked, and the beating is inadvertently fatal. Hunted down by the other tenants, Pedro takes temporary refuge with the kindly Meche (Rosa Arenas), and falls in love with her. When Don Andrés follows through with the demolition of the building, Meche moves in with Pedro, who now can afford his own place. Unfortunately, that place is still visited regularly by Paloma, seeing to her needs with Pedro, and when the three of them collide one night, Paloma tells Meche that Pedro, indeed, is the man who killed her father.

In many ways, the film is a formulaic potboiler, but it’s elevated by Buñuel’s gorgeous and straightforward visual compositions (with veteran cameraman Agustín Jiménez), and superbly complex performances from Armendáriz and Jurado. Buñuel doesn’t manipulate the visual narrative here as much as he insists on his trademark tone of bemused irony. Armendáriz’ Pedro is a good-hearted mope who is easily manipulated to others’ own benefit, and he acts as enforcer for Don Andrés far more out of loyalty to his longtime benefactor than out of meanness or personal gain. We genuinely root for him to turn his life around with Meche, but we know too well that his blundering past will catch up with his present good intentions. Paloma’s marriage to Don Andrés is her second, and Don Andrés hints at some presumed squalor concerning her first – he’s coldly philosophical as to why Paloma’s with him now, but he’s still a richly-deserving cuckold. Paloma’s opportunism is relentless and guiltlessly self-serving, but Buñuel isn’t unsympathetic with how she became that way, either. This performance preceded her impressive turn as Helen in High Noon, but, despite her obvious talent, intelligence, and earthy beauty, she never got a leg up on becoming a genuine star – Hollywood just wasn’t ready for her, to their shame.


Katy Jurado in ‘El Bruto.’ credit:

More superb Mexican films from Buñuel next time as well.