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.



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