2014 saw a large number of foreign films invade the Western film market whether it be through the prolific film festivals of Toronto, SXSW, New York, along with many others, or the boom on the home video market, as well as many who had a harder time seeping into the limelight due to any number of reasons.
With more films being made today than ever before and more accessibility to many different styles of films, the exploration of international and experimental filmmaking is essential to the understanding of modern film technique and history.
Featured below are 10 of the author’s favorite foreign films from last year that range from more high-profile, even commercial fare to more experimental and highly political, contextual, and intellectual works by some of the greatest filmmakers working in the medium today. Please note that these films are ranked in no particular order.
1. The Clouds of Sils Maria by Olivier Assayas – Germany/France/Switzerland
French stalwart Olivier Assayas’s new film The Clouds of Sils Maria is a story that blurs the lines between theater and life, the impression of the stage and the tactility of real settings, and acting and reacting through powerhouse performances by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart as well as a screenplay penned by Assayas himself.
The framing revolves around an established middle-age actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) who was made famous by starring in a play and film called Maloja Snake when she was 18 about the relationship between a young and middle aged woman and how it eventually drove the older woman to suicide. She is now approached to star in the play once more, this time as the elder, which she accepts.
What follows is a rumination on death, love, and the blending of fact and fiction in the theater as Maria prepares for her role with her assistant Valentine (Kristin Stewart) that ultimately questions their own relationship through the defining work of Maria’s career.
2. Force Majeure by Ruben Ostlund – Sweden
Force Majeure is not only one of the most nuanced and ambiguous critiques of the modern family to come out last year, it’s also a revolutionary force (majeure) in the use of CGI special effects in an age where many would argue the techniques overuse.
As the young family of husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and daughter and son Harry and Vera (Vincent Wettergren and Clara Wettergren respectively) are having a leisurely lunch outside at the ski resort they are vacationing at, an avalanche starts barreling towards them off in the distance.
As the avalanche reaches the deck where they are dining Ebba grabs Harry and Vera to protect them while Tomas grabs his phone and runs off inside, effectively abandoning his family. As the white snow engulfs the entire frame it marks a catalyst in the structure of the film as well as the aesthetics of the particular scene.
A truly insightful and ambiguous work not help to a two-sided argument but rather opening up the many possible interpretations to the viewer themselves, Force Majeure is one of the most challenging and rewarding films of the year.
3. Goodbye to Language by Jean-Luc Godard – France/Switzerland
In this writers’ opinion, Goodbye to Language is not only one of Godard’s best works in some time but also one of his very best aesthetic experiments (films in which his own playful experimentation of various techniques such as the use of video technology in King Lear outweigh the cinematic pretense of story driven narrative).
A piece of spectacularly framed and shot 3D cinematography coupled with some of the directors most passionately composed exposes on love and French life (this time in a specific French speaking region of Switzerland) coupled with his trademark inclusion of philosophical and theoretical rhetoric and techniques to further expand upon the viewers perception of film and cinematic storytelling tendencies.
Also, while officially called Goodbye to Language in the west, adieu means both goodbye and hello in French.
4. Hard to Be A God by Alexei German – Russia
Hard to Be A God is the posthumous swan song of Russian director Alexei German, a name prolific in his native country but unfortunately far more obscure overseas here in America. Based on a Russian novel of the same name by authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film follows a group of scientists sent to the planet Arkanar in order to help them advance as a society out of their own medieval times.
The stark black and white photography coupled with what might be the most viscerally queasy and down right disgusting mis-en-scene and set design make Hard to Be A God one of the most visually unsettling movies I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. It is also a life-affirming movie of monumental measure and one that saw German spending most of his adult life attempting to realize.
5. Horse Money by Pedro Costa – Portugal
IMDb has Horse Money listed as a documentary (as of March 2015), an interesting and often fairly true representation of Pedro Costa’s work examining the marginalized people of Portugal, specifically those that are residents of the Fontainhas ghetto in Lisbon.
In fact, Horse Money is not a documentary but an examination of a recurring character from Costa’s last film Colossal Youth, Ventura. A mid-70’s Cape Verdean immigrant, Ventura serves as the polemical basis of the films free floating narrative, focusing more on flashbacks and a detailed series of vignettes the ultimately examine how the military of Portuguese government are viewed in the eyes of those living in the slums rather than a traditional three-act structure.
Horse Money is one of the most irreverent films of the past five years (one could effectively make the argument that it is based more in the ideology and narrative structure of still photography rather than the cinema at times) but is also a truly confounding and exploratory work of cinema.