The Best Foreign Films of 2014

Sophie Lowe in 'Autumn Blood.' credit: wegret.com

Sophie Lowe in ‘Autumn Blood.’ credit: wegret.com

Most years, I find that my favorite Foreign Film of a particular year doubles as my favorite overall for that year. 2014 is an outlier in that regard, as my favorite film of 2014 was, easily, the American director James Gray’s The Immigrant – sadly, Bob and Harvey Weinsteins’ distribution and promotion of the film was woefully, seemingly willfully, inadequate, and many people are surprised that a film starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, released in mid-spring, didn’t even register on their radar. I implore you to seek this film out, and watch it on as large a screen as possible. But, above all, watch it.

Otherwise, it was a very good year for Foreign Films:

9. Aglaya – Hungary (European Union Film Festival) – The colorful biography of Aglaya Veteranyi, raised as a girl and young woman by Eastern European travelling circus performers. “…a terrific film by a director (Krisztina Deák) who has a good eye for deep compositions and more than a little familiarity with the work of the great Max Ophuls. Enormous amounts of story, character and happenstance are packed into the film’s less-than-two-hour running time, and there isn’t a slack moment in the entire film.”

8. Beloved Sisters (Die Geliebten Schwestern) – Germany (Chicago Int’l Film Festival) – Dominik Graf’s lush, energetic and engaging period piece about Friedrich Schiller and the von Lengefeld sisters who loved him. “…Graf is a veteran German director of television and feature films, and his newest film…displays a sure hand in all aspects: his self-written script is detailed and well-structured…, the visual and technical elements are impressive but not showy or intrusive, and he elicits rigorous and genuinely moving work from his terrific cast of actors.”

7. We Are The Best! (Vi Är Bäst!) – Sweden (EUFF) – Lukas Moodysson’s fictional tale of teenaged punk resolve is more entertaining and convincing than many more earnestly-conceived films on the same subject, mainly because no one in this film has their tongue in their cheek, or thinks they’re ‘getting away’ with something. “ In many ways, thirteen-year-olds are the perfect vessels for genuine anarchy; they really don’t care about money or being famous, or even whether they’ll still be interested in doing this next week. They just wanna vent. Through amplifiers and P.A.s. In the faces of everyone they hate. And when the film nears its conclusion with them doing exactly that, it’s surprisingly cathartic, and honestly earned.”

6. Two Days One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit) – Belgium (CIFF) – It’s tough to get a less-than-superb performance out of Marion Cotillard these days; she’s been on quite a roll over the last year or two. This small but moving film by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a portrait of Sandra, a working-class mother in danger of losing her job unless she submits to the mercies of her fellow workers. “Cotillard’s profound acting chops are reason enough alone to see this film. But this single performance is only one of many elegantly orchestrated aspects of the Dardennes’ entire film. This is filmed storytelling craft of a very high order, with real emotion and thoughtful complexity.”

5. A Five Star Life (Viaggio Sola) – Italy (Music Box) – Maria Sole Tognazzi’s film featured one of my favorite performances of the year; Margherita Buy’s turn as Irene Lorenzi, a professional ‘mystery guest’ who judges high-end European hotels, and admirably navigates the vicissitudes of her own constantly-shifting life. “If there’s one thing her job has taught her, it’s the importance of standards. Not rules, but empirical standards. Irene is essentially the same person at the end of the film as she was at its beginning, and that’s an immensely good, and distressingly rare, thing.”

4. 1001 Grams – Norway (CIFF) – The veteran filmmaker Bent Hamer uses a somewhat rigid visual formalism to tell this very human story of loss and reconstruction, but the contrast is balanced beautifully, and never feels humorless. Ane Dahl Torp’s impressively self-contained performance helps immensely. “This is Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration, and I’m hoping it does well. It’s a modest gem of a film.”

3. Snowpiercer – South Korea / USA (Music Box) – It’s an English-language film, but Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host, Memories Of Murder) is uncorrupted by the American production – it’s hard to imagine an American director who could orchestrate this wide range of tones and still preserve the story’s relentless momentum. “(Snowpiercer) starts out, somewhat disappointingly, as a pretty ham-fisted dystopian allegory. But once the initial premise is established, Bong brings a wealth of eccentric ideas and details that enliven the proceedings, and the overall result is a pretty satisfying summer movie roller-coaster ride for any audience.”

2. The Strange Little Cat (Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen)- Germany (EUFF) – Of all of the films I saw this year, Ramon Zürcher’s eccentric, scrupulously detailed little family saga was the one that stuck in my head most insistently, and, to this day, I can’t specifically explain why. The everyday activities of an ordinary family become wondrous strange and fascinating, as if they’re all keeping their own little amusing secrets from each other (and us). “It’s a very unique, and, at times, genuinely amusing film that’s one of the damndest things I’ve seen in a while.”

1. Autumn Blood – Germany (EUFF) – Markus Blunder’s ferocious and hard-boiled alpine nightmare reminded me of Ingmar Bergman and František Vláčil, with echoes of Deliverance, Night Of The Hunter, and the original I Spit On Your Grave. Two young orphans must protect themselves against some of the worst aspects of their ‘respectable’ fellow neighbors, literally fleeing for their lives into the forest. It’s kind of a standard Western set-up – innocence matches up against greed and corruption, with Nature and Righteousness being the great equalizers. But Blunder brings an impressive sense of rite and ritual to the very mortal, very elemental and very violent edges of his modern-day story, and guides things to an uneasy but inevitable conclusion. This was the most powerful of the foreign films I saw this year, and I’m hoping it sees wider release in the new year.

Unseen by me, but well-reviewed:  Bird People, Venus In Furs,  The Way He Looks, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, Norte-The End Of History – I’m especially disappointed that I haven’t caught up with this year’s offerings from Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Takahata’s The Tale Of Princess Kaguya.

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