6. Tulpan by Sergey Dvortsevoy (2008, Kazakhstan)
Along with The Violin, this film is one of the most frustratingly overlooked movies of the last ten years. Tulpan is not only just an amazing film, it’s one of the best films of the 21st century.
Documentarian Sergey Dvortsevoy’s debut fictional effort is an all-around masterpiece which tells the story of Asa – a sailor who moves in with his sister and her husband in the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan after being discharged from the Russian navy. This is a barren desert devoid of any sights or landmarks, for as far as the eye could see, there is only sand.
Those who inhabit the Hunger Steppe survive by raising and herding sheep, which in recent years have caused concern by increasingly giving birth to stillborn fetuses. In the words of Roger Ebert, Tulpan “shows such an unfamiliar world, it might as well be Mars.”
The title of the film comes from the name of the only bachelorette within miles of Asa who knows he must marry her if he wants a life of his own in the steppe. The film starts with him attempting to impress her family with stories of his adventures during his time in the navy. He fails, and throughout the film he will persist in order to impress not only her and her family, but his judgmental brother-in-law as well.
However, the picture is about much more than its basic premise. It is a fully engrossing coming of age story which is truly one of a kind. These characters and their world are so foreign to us, and yet we thoroughly identify with them on an emotional level.
Dvortsevoy’s background in non-fiction filmmaking proved to be absolutely vital to this picture, in fact, he claims that 80 percent of the film was re-scripted on the spot due to the exceeding circumstantial conditions that arose while filming. The flawless camerawork involving long handheld master shots are encapsulating and complement the non-professional actors’ incredible performances.
Coupled together, you would swear you were watching real Kazakh yurt dwellers, especially when Asa, or rather actor Askhat Kuchinchirekov, literally assists in birthing an infant sheep for one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Not only is the scene unspeakably tense, but it is technically ingenious, having been done in one masterful unbroken take.
The film not only works on the level of a documentary style drama following Asa’s struggle of discovering his niche in life, but also as a deadpan comedy with its multitude of charming moments (usually involving Asa’s libidinous driver friend). Simply put, Tulpan is something that must be seen by all lovers of cinema. It is criminal for an admirer of film to deny themselves the indescribably astonishing experience of watching it.
7. I Saw the Devil by Kim Jee-woon (2010, South Korea)
Much like what the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement has done for Mexico, in recent years the South Korean New Wave has rocketed the small country into one of the world’s most renowned film industries.
Dozens of films including Oldboy (2003), Memories of a Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Secret Sunshine (2007), and Mother (2009) raised some serious awareness as to prowess behind Korean cameras, especially in directors such as Chan Wook-Park, Bong Joon-ho, Ki-duk Kim, and Lee Chang-dong.
Though it has stirred up quite a bit of buzz, one of the films you may have missed from Korea was Ji-Woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil. This is most likely due to the film’s extremely graphic content.
There are gruesome scenes of murder, sexual violence, and cannibalism, but make no mistake, this is not your typical mindless torture-porn flick. If you have the stomach to sit through it, the film can be appreciated for its artistry and effectiveness as one of the best horror films of the last 25 years.
The film is also the second revenge picture on this list and can be considered the antithesis of Revanche (2008). While Revanche was the more meditative examination of the moral question of retribution, I Saw the Devil is the blunt explosion of raw emotion riddled with turmoil and bloodshed in the protagonist Agent Soo-hyun’s hunt for Kyung-chul (played by Oldboy protagonist Choi Min-sik), the serial killer that murdered his fiancée.
Instead of arresting his fiancée’s killer, Soon-hyun chooses to stalk and relentlessly torment him both physically and mentally, instilling within him a constant sense of fear and forcing him to live in a perpetual waking nightmare.
However, the unexpectedly cunning Kyung-chul ends up gaining the upper hand in Soon-hyun’s materializing fantasy and turns the tables on him by exacting some revenge of his own. The final act of the film spirals into an out of control cat-and-mouse chase that ends in an ironic and horrific finale.
While the two approaches of these revenge features are wildly at odds, the more heavy-handed approach was the suitable one for I Saw the Devil. This is not to say that these characters are flat or that the film never ponders the consequences or selfish nature of revenge.
These are highly realized characters who are constantly struggling within themselves as well as their environment, but a majority of the picture deals with the chaotic fire and brimstone that often comes with vengeance. If you can sit through the challenging aspects of this viewing, I Saw the Devil is well worth your time. – Available on Netflix Instant Streaming
8. Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino (2010, Italy)
The inclusion of this film can almost be considered a cheat in a list of foreign language films. It is an Italian production which takes place in southern Italy with Italian speaking characters, but, much like The Triplets of Belleville (2003), no one utters a word for the entire 88-minutes of this tonal poem.
This philosophical piece is based on Pythagoras’ four stages – the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and the intellectual. In the spirit of these four stages, the film is relayed in quadrants, starting with a herd of goats, then one particular goat, then the tree it seeks shelter under, and then the industrial fate of the tree.
Much of the movie consists of long takes, sometimes as much as 8 minutes, where the camera often acts as an observer to everyday life. Shots of the village as animals roam freely through it, of an old herder drinking a remedy made from dust swept from a church floor, a dog following a truck in the street in one shot for minutes on end, smoldering heaps of coal – these are just some of the seemingly random images that comprise the film.
The complete void in any explanation for the action, or inaction, we see onscreen leaves the viewer up to his or her own interpretations of a film heavily saturated in symbolism and ambiguity. Though more so than what is happening onscreen, it is the cinematography and the composition of each frame that will keep your attention.
This picture may not be for everybody. For some, Michelangelo Frammartino’s film may seem disengaging, but many others will find a real cinematic treasure in Le Quattro Volte. Even those who won’t appreciate the full experience will at least appreciate its ambition and the experience of seeing a film like no other. – Available on Netflix Instant Streaming
9. The Turin Horse by Bela Tarr (2011, Hungary)
People have said that it’s films like this that are nostalgically reminiscent of the pictures of the old days, but simultaneously bring with them something completely new. This is absolutely true of The Turin Horse, a deeply profound experience from Béla Tarr, the celebrated director behind Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and Sátántangó (1994).
The film begins with a voiceover on a black screen recounting the beating of a horse that was witnessed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, an incident that has been frequently attributed to his mental decline.
The voiceover concludes: “he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.” The first shot fades in, opening in rich black and white with the horse and its owner being followed by a gorgeously haunting, Touch of Evil-rivaling tracking shot.
Much of the remainder of the film mainly catalogues the daily routines of the man, his daughter, and the horse. Every morning the daughter helps to dress him, fetches pales of water from the well, and they sit down for their one meal – a single salted potato.
These scenes are comprised of long master shots, of which there are only 30 in the 143-minute feature, and they repeat with slight variation throughout the film. These slight alterations begin to build on one another, forging a darker atmosphere which becomes more eerie as days become shorter, temperatures start deteriorating, and the winds becomes stronger. It is the beginning of the end of times.
The tone of the film, set by its direction, cinematography, atmosphere, and brilliant score by longtime Tarr collaborator Mihály Víg, lends a completely immersive experience to the picture. Though some have criticized The Turin Horse for its monotonous and repetitive aspects, they are an essential part of the film’s experience.
Similar to Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker), Béla Tarr is a filmmaker whose work requires some patience, but that patience is thoroughly rewarding. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The Chicago Reader explains, “through Tarr’s meticulous vision, these ordinary hardships take on cosmic weight; this is tedium vividly rendered.”
10. Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier (2011, Norway)
Oslo, August 31st is one of the most powerful films to deal with drug addiction since Requiem for a Dream (2000). Instead of the intense melodrama of the latter film which portrays the destruction of several lives through addiction, Oslo opts for a more sympathetic and observant view of an addict trying to piece his life back together.
The film begins on the morning of August 30th when Anders is let out of rehab for the day to go to a job interview at a magazine publication. He visits familiar sights and finds familiar faces in the hours before his scheduled meeting. He knows this city and the people in it like the back of his hand, but he now looks at everything as if they were completely different, he has developed a difficulty with basic interaction and an aversion to the general aspects of public life.
In a particularly incredible scene, he sits alone in a café absorbing the conversations around him trying to recall what it is to have a normal life. He is charmed by these people and their carefree existence, but nothing is the same for him, his world has moved on, and it is impossible to pick up where he left off – Anders is a broken man.
Anders equates his one day out of rehab as a dry run for the future. Though it is clear that he desperately longs to shed his past and start over fresh, the new set of eyes he sees the world through are tinted with a dull shade of gray. Fleeting glimmers of hope arise as the day progresses, but he begins to wonder if it is already too late.
Has he fallen too far? Is he past the point of no return? After a long night of soul searching, the next day inevitably comes; it is August 31st and Anders has made up his mind.
This is only the second feature to come from Joachim Trier whose career shows promise after both of his successful films (this and 2006’s Reprise), and Anders Danielsen Lie, who plays the lead, turns in one of the great performances in recent years. What may be the most exceptional element of Oslo, August 31st is that it’s a brutally honest film which challenges the viewer to see themselves in a person they may have never known they could understand. – Available on Netflix Instant Streaming
Author Bio: Zachary Caruso is a film buff and collector with an interest in writing and critiquing. He was inspired from a young age by the films of Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, and Wes Anderson. Other directors he appreciates are Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Richard Linklater, and Vittorio De Sica.