In 2006 when Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) and Richard Roeper reviewed the movie Half Nelson together, they spoke about how people complain that there is “no more originality in movies”. They explain that in fact films are as original as they ever have been, “you just have to look for them”.
In the modern age, post American Independent Renaissance of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and long after the New Hollywood of the 1970’s, Hollywood is now like Schrödinger’s cat – it’s certainly not dead, but it’s not very alive either. The United States still is and always will be among the very best nations when it comes to producing films.
However, for a complete experience in motion pictures, one must turn their view to other countries and discover what they have brought to the art of cinema. Countless foreign masterpieces from every age have not received their due recognition due to poor marketing, poor distribution, and more frustratingly, ethnocentrism.
It is now the responsibility of the viewer to exhume the hidden gems of cinema from tomb of irrelevance, and put them in their rightful place among the widely known classics. Without further ado, here are 10 Great Foreign Language Films You May Have Missed.
1. The Violin by Francisco Vargas (2005, Mexico)
The Violin is a criminally under-seen masterpiece, the best film of 2005, and, tragically, the only picture to come from its director Francisco Vargas. Mexican films have been responsible for some of the greatest cinematic treasures in the last decade and a half of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement.
Amores Perros (2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), among others, are all highly esteemed pictures, while their respective directors Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo Del Toro are all lauded as contemporary, master-class auteurs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for El Violin and Vargas, though there is no question that it deserves to be – Del Toro himself praising it as “one of the most amazing Mexican films in many a year.”
Don Plutarco, Genaro, and Lucio, a three-generation trio of traveling musicians, help to supply arms to a rebel faction fighting against an oppressive military regime. When they return to their village, they find that it’s been occupied by one of its regiments.
As Genaro plots his next move and tries to account for his young son Lucio, his elderly father, Plutarco, takes it upon himself to charm the unstable Captain with his violin, aiming to deceive him into thinking that he is a simple farmer who wants nothing more than to maintain his crops.
Once he gains the Captain’s trust and limited access to the village, he begins bit by bit to smuggle the munitions out from under his nose. Ángel Tavira, 80 years of age at the time the film was shot, turns in a truly captivating, attention-demanding performance as Plutarco.
Each shot of this silvery black-and-white film is masterfully constructed and gorgeously composed, making for a feel that is somewhere in between that of a documentary and a production.
This brilliant stylistic choice by Vargas crafts a unique juxtaposition which heightens the tension of the plot and the feelings of the characters in both a realistic and cinematic way. Critic Chris Hewitt may have said it best when he stated, “‘The Violin’ is so beautiful to look at, it almost wouldn’t matter if it had a story. But it has one, and it’s riveting.” – Available on Netflix Instant Streaming
2. Timecrimes by Nacho Vigalondo (2007, Spain)
Don’t let the cheesy name fool you – Timecrimes (translated from “Los Cronocrimines”) is one of the most creative and original science fiction films in recent years. Much like Moon (2009) and Her (2013), this film is another lo-fi sci-fi feature which concentrates more on its characters and their emotions than convoluted plots and long-winded explanations.
Hector moves into a new home with his wife and finds himself enjoying the new yard and lush wooded area behind it. While scanning the trees and foliage from his lawn chair with a pair of binoculars, Hector sees a young woman standing alone in the woods completely naked, and naturally, goes to investigate.
By the time he gets to her, she is sitting upright against a boulder and unconscious, and before he can process what is transpiring, he is stabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors by a man whose face is cloaked in bandages. He frantically flees into the woods and stumbles across a secluded laboratory and a scientist who hides him from the maniac in a large device.
Hector awakes, crawls out of device, and finds himself approximately one hour in the past. At this point he decides to return home, but finds that he is already there. The scientist regretfully informs him that he is now “Hector 2”. In order to get back to his normal life, Hector 2 decides he must recreate the events which led him to the laboratory for Hector 1so that he can take his place and return to his wife, but the plan doesn’t play out as smoothly as expected.
Timecrimes wastes no time dropping its audience straight into the story. It effectively blends elements of thriller and horror with science fiction to create a pulsating, fast-paced time loop story that breaks the genre mold with its sudden twists and shocking conclusion that brings the story arc full circle in the most unsettling of ways.
3. Still Walking by Hirokazu Kore-eda (2008, Japan)
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s approach to the construction of Still Walking is a deliberately passive, almost plodding one. It is a film which allows the viewer to take the time to absorb the little, seemingly insignificant family moments that normally go unseen in most pictures.
The meditation on the simplistic aspects of everyday life had led Roger Ebert to dub Kore-eda the “heir to the great Yasujiro Ozu” – much of the film concentrates on the ordinary, and yet nothing seems mundane.
This may be because the Yokoyama family has come together on this day, as they do every year, to remember the anniversary of the death of Junpei, who saved the life of a drowning man, only to end up drowning himself. His stoic father, a former physician, and his mother along with their other children and their families, join to eat, enjoy each other’s company, and reminisce of times with him.
At first it appears to be a normal family gathering, but when we learn the reason as to why the family is congregating, normal tasks such as cooking corn tempura, conversing lightly, sharing opinions on marriage, and updating each other on their respective lives, all have faint droplets sorrow presiding over them.
There is also tension looming overhead between family members that we suspect has existed for a long time, possibly even a lifetime, particularly between the surviving son and his father. It is apparent that this character feels insignificant in the eyes of his father and constantly in shadow of his preferred, and now martyred, brother.
This is no pressure-cooker family drama where tempers boil over into long-winded soliloquies and everyone finally shares what they all really think about each other. There are no theatrical outbursts we imagine were rehearsed in the minds of each character for years.
These sentiments, much like in life, stay buried under years of guilt and shame. When they flare up, they do so only momentarily and in painfully reserved ways. We watch this family for only a single day in their lives, and yet we come to understand the entire history of their existence together, more often than not, in ways unsaid.
4. Revanche by Götz Spielmann (2008, Austria)
Ex-convict, Alex, works in a brothel and maintains a secret relationship with Tamara, one of the prostitutes who works there. The two flee Vienna and their intimidating boss, Konecny, to begin a normal life together, seeking temporary refuge in a farm inhabited by Alex’s grandfather. Without any funds, and no future in sight, Alex plans to commit one final crime, a bank robbery, in order to secure enough money for their life together.
The plan makes Tamara extremely nervous and she insists she accompany Alex during the robbery, a suggestion which he immediately rejects. Though after some time, Tamara wears him down and he reluctantly agrees. Things, of course, do not go as planned.
A passing officer, who has no idea a robbery is taking place next door, happens to notice the getaway car in an alley with Tamara in the passenger seat. He approaches her to ask her to move the car just as Alex is returning. Alex forces the officer at gunpoint to lie on the ground, gets in the car, and speeds off as the officer unholsters his pistol and attempts to shoot out the tires. A stray bullet ends up striking Tamara.
The results of this botched plan set up the rest of the film – Alex’s internal struggle with his own poor life choices, with tragedy and loss, with an uncertain future, and ultimately, with some semblance of redemption. His personal journey ensues as he stays closed off and relatively isolated in his grandfather’s farm which is frequently visited by his neighbor Susanne. She is, incidentally, the wife of the officer who is now on paid administrative leave after being overwrought with the guilt of accidentally shooting Tamara.
The plot layers are a refreshing aspect of Revanche (meaning “revenge”) which is not your typical revenge film. It follows a character’s internal moral struggle in lieu of a warpath to retribution, and it isn’t always quite clear who or what is truly being avenged. Revanche is one of the most creative and appropriately handled films to ever tackle the subject of criminality, focusing not just on its external consequences, but its internal ones as well.
5. King of Devil’s Island by Marius Holst (2011, Norway)
Based on historical events which took place in Norway during 1915, the film takes place at the Bastøy Reform School – an institution built on an isolated fjord to rehabilitate “maladjusted young boys”.
The staff’s methods of rehabilitation, from the headmaster to the governor, are obscenely harsh, cruel, and in many ways counterproductive. Erling, renamed “C19”, is the newest addition, and upon arriving immediately notices the hell that is Bastøy and becomes determined to escape the first chance he gets.
One of the best aspects of the film is its strong cast; the great Stellan Skarsgård in one of his finest roles plays the governor of the “reform school” as a taut figure with a foreboding screen presence. Of course the performance by Benjamin Helstad as the young Erling deserves recognition as well, as does the acting by Trond Nilssen who plays Olav, or “C1”, Erling’s newfound companion.
Another noteworthy performance would include the supporting role of the sadistic headmaster who plays as a more immediate villain to the boys. However, the real star of the film may be its cinematographer, John Andreas Andersen, who captures the freezing detachment of the dreary fjord’s mood and landscape in deep blues and crisp whites.
What separates this film from most conventional prison dramas is that it is full of three-dimensional characters rather than merely faces. The boys at this detention facility aren’t there to take up space as extras, but to show that there is a vast array of individuals who are constant victims of this institution.
This not only makes the story and these side characters more interesting, but it makes the central characters and their experience in Bastøy feel more genuine. – Available on Netflix Instant Streaming