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The Best Foreign Films of 2013

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Last year’s list was 8, and, for no reason in particular, I ended up at 8 this year, too. I’ve listed them 8 through 1, but those certainly aren't hard boundaries – the order of 3 through 8 is more feel than heartfelt fact. But 1 and 2 are the real deal, and should be hunted down and seen.

I must also add my usual disclaimer: “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.”

8. Sister (France / Switzerland, 2012) – it was a good year for the impressive French actress Léa Seydoux, but the real star here is the younger Kacey Mottet Klein, a teenager keeping himself and his sister out of the jaws of abject poverty by running his own personal black market out of a cushy Swiss ski resort. “(Ursula) Meier has a lot to say about these particular characters, and the world we share with them; the nobility, or anonymity, that hard work can confer, legitimately or illicitly, and the various ways families are formed, sometimes lovingly, sometimes desperately. Simon’s daily trips from valley to mountaintop are a stark metaphor for the world we all live in today – he (and we) travel the distance between in isolation, in midair, with firm footing far, far away from us.”

7. Tabu (Portugal, 2012) – there’s a reverence in Miguel Gomes old-fashioned black-and-white cinematography (shot by Rui Poças) that has more on its mind than just simple nostalgia for that style (my big problem with Pablo Larrain’s No; visually interesting? Sure. Germane to the actual story being told? No.) “Gomes’ reverse-juxtaposition – a man’s ritualized fall into a sorrow-fueled limbo, followed by the small, everyday existences of a group of people in present-day Lisbon, followed by a tale of white colonial privilege and forbidden love not too far removed from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Marguerite Duras – continuously echoes back on itself, and the final third enriches what has come before in profoundly resonant ways.”

6. Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube) (Austria, 2012) – the second of Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy of three related women and the moral and cultural extremes to which their otherwise normal lives have led them. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), in this film, is a relentless proselytizer for the new love of her life, Jesus Christ, and takes her crusade to some hard-to-watch extremes. The uninvited appearance of her ex-husband, a paraplegic and devout Muslim, adds more stations-of-the-cross for her. But Seidl has no intention of presenting a freak-show put-down of Anna Maria’s choices – in fact, there’s something like real admiration here. “Seidl knows that the gradual path to what we might view as extreme behavior is paved with the same quotidian cultural forces and experiences that every one of us encounters in our own lives, and that we may draw very different lines and boundaries from these characters… Anna Maria has fashioned a shape and structure to her life that protects and consoles her – Seidl isn’t specific about the events that have channeled her into this extraordinary existence, but we have enough information to understand that her life experiences aren't all that different from ours. He’s unapologetically explicit about the details of where these women’s lives have led them, but his empathy is just as explicit.”

5. In The House (Dans La Maison) (France, 2012) - François Ozon’s film isn’t just a good looking, tricky wish-fulfillment soap opera; it’s a pretty engaging examination of the power of storytelling, and how willfully we’ll suspend our disbelief, and the shapes of our lives, in service to the stories and cultural mythologies that affect us, for better or worse. And it’s a pleasure to see real acting pros at work; Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigneur, Kristin Scott Thomas and the young Ernst Umhauer are all very happy to work their asses off for Ozon here.

4. The Returned (Les Revenants) (France, 2012) – Back in 2004, there was a pretty lousy movie released in France called They Came Back (Les Revenants), which suffered the inconspicuous banishment fate of many failed variations on a particular horror theme. But a very talented writer and director, Fabrice Gobert, took the intriguing premise of this lousy film and created an astonishingly good television mini-series. The series opens with a tragedy in a smallish rural town – a school bus full of teenagers plunges off of a cliff, with no survivors. But, four years later, one young girl emerges from the forest embankment, walks home, raids the fridge and says hello to her dumbstruck mother. She’s not a ghost, or a zombie, or a spirit; she’s simply Her, picking up where she left off. And so is another young man who committed suicide on his wedding day, ten years ago, now knocking on his fiancée’s door. And so is the small boy, ‘Victor,’ murdered with his family thirty years ago by home invaders. And so is Serge, a cannibalistic serial killer buried alive by his brother seven years ago. How can all this be happening? And why? This is smart, wonderful and genuinely frightening stuff, and there’s a serious list of superb French actors participating here: Anne Consigny, Celine Sallette, Clothilde Hesme, Frédéric Pierrot, Guillaume Gouix, Jean-François Sivadier... It’s been showing on the Sundance Channel, I suspect its Netflix availability is imminent, and production on a second season has been announced. Welcome to your new TV series addiction.

3. The Grandmaster (Hong Kong / China, 2013) – For the geeks, there’s a pretty thorough presentation of how martial arts traditions, and particular fighting styles, developed in the early twentieth century; for the romantics, there’s the thread of unrequited love and admiration between two passionate artists fighting against the forces of history and tragedy; and for the cinephiles, there’s Wong Kar Wei’s impossibly gorgeous and evocative visual compositions and editing rhythms. Seek out the 130 minute Chinese version, rather than the 108 minute Weinstein-ified American release, and go swimming in the delicious cinematic luxury and intelligence that Wong Kar Wei has been dishing out for years.

2. The Hunt (Jagten) (Denmark, 2012) – it’s been a good year for Mads Mikkelsen, too, Léa; his impressive turn in the best-foreign-film-nominated A Royal Affair was shown here in February, and he was an STFU rejoinder to the question “Why would anyone make a Hannibal Lector TV series?!” But his killer performance here happily coincided with director Thomas Vinterberg’s inclination to back off of some previous stylized heavy-handedness (2003’s It’s All About Love had the admirable services of Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Strong and Sean Penn, and it’s still damned near unwatchable). Vinterberg wrote this script with Tobias Lindholm (who also gave us the impressive A Hijacking, a far better film than Captain Phillips), got Mikkelsen, and then efficiently and mercilessly served the story, and all three of them delivered the second-best film of the year in the world, English-speaking and otherwise. A mild-mannered-but-nobody’s-fool schoolteacher faces down accusations of child sexual harassment in Denmark, but this meticulous and harrowing film is dead-on relevant for us, too.

1. Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2) (France / Belgium / Spain, 2013) – as important a cinematic cultural signifier in 2013 as Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris was in 1972. But, these days, there’s no Pauline Kael around to tell us how important this film really is. (I can’t help but wonder what Roger Ebert would have thought of this film – I indulgently suspect he would have found it as rapturously-yet-resolutely-earthbound as I did.) I didn’t mind the few critical negative reviews – it’s not a film for all audiences – but Drew Hunt’s glib dismissal of the film in the Reader as “a dressed-up, overlong installment of Emmanuelle” may be the most tone-deaf piece of film criticism I’ve read in years. I worship this film, even if the Academy Awards isn’t going to go anywhere near it. Adèle Exarchopoulos makes, as John Updike might say, a “Tiger Woods-ian debut” as a girl surveying the treacherous terrain of young love, and suffering a loss that she’ll feel for the rest of her life (as have we all). The fact that it’s same-sex young love is wildly overrated; straight people of all ages and temperaments will understand, and empathize, with everything that happens here. And, trust me, the nine or ten minutes of fairly explicit sex is not a dealbreaker in this well-spent three hours. It’s a mind-blowing film for me, but, then, so is Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife Of Angels (France, 1998), and not very many people bothered with that one, either. Do your part to save this film from art-house obscurity, please.

P.S. - Blue Is The Warmest Color will be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, January 10th to 16th.

Sorry I missed, but worth checking out: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin, Claire Denis’ Bastards, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone In Love, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds.

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