Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Moritz Bleibtreu in THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (Photo: Vitagraphs Films)

Directors Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh all returned this year in top form, with possibly their best work yet. Overall, last year’s output was very good, with strong films released throughout the year—and not just in the last few months for awards consideration. (Most of the films on the list below were released before September.)

Despite the recession, the number of releases remained steady, even though many distributors have disappeared or been downsized. But miraculously (considering the still-overwhelming odds of, say, a foreign-language film finding a large audience outside of the art house), many distributors have regrouped or debuted on the scene (welcome Paladin). And hats off to such stalwarts as the Cinema Guild and Kino International, which have brought audiences some of the best films decade after decade, downturn after downturn.

The best-of round-up was limited to movies released in the U.S. during 2009noteworthy films only seen at festivals were excluded. Though in the next three months, keep your eyes out for upcoming releases The Girl on the Train, Lourdes, and Mid-August Lunch. Based on those films alone, 2010 will be off to a promising start. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here’s a look back on the previous year:

Though The Baader Meinof Complex covers the rise of the West German Red Army Faction in the ’60s and ’70s, this thriller/docudrama joins the list of post-9/11 films, bluntly depicting the roots and off-shoots of terrorism. Director Uli Edel’s incredibly convoluted film takes a broad and operatic view of political violence, emphasizing the title’s fourth word. Edel offers a psychiatric diagnosis for the insular, fervent, and paranoid groupthink led by an impetuous wannabe Messiah. Filmed through tear gas and broken glass, Edel graphically depict the horrific violence (the group was responsible for nearly 30 deaths) while equally layering in substance. Kent Turner (DVD out in March; streaming video available now on Netflix)

In her drama about poet John Keats’ romance with Fanny Brawne, Jane Campion’s Bright Star presents the relationship from Fanny’s point of view, and reveals the two to be far more than just a doomed poet and his muse. Abbie Cornish, that rare actor who burrows into the souls of her characters without any over-emoting or artificiality, plays Fanny so unguardedly and unaffectedly that when she doubles over sobbing in physical pain after hearing of Keats’s death, it’s emotionally gut wrenching. Aided by luscious visuals (courtesy of Greig Fraser’s impressively tangy cinematography), Campion tells an adult love story with penetrating intelligence. It’s her best film since An Angel at My Table, her 1990 Janet Frame biopic. (Maybe Campion should stick to real people.) Kevin Filipski (DVD out on Jan. 21, 2010)

Agnès Varda, now 81, stars in her own cinematic diary, The Beaches of Agnès, which playfully chronicles how her eventful life has been shaped through the prism of shifting artistic and personal sands. Simply name-checking the celebrities with whom she crossed paths—her future husband, director Jacques Demy; Jean-Luc Godard; Harrison Ford; Jim Morrison; and the Black Panthers, to name several—only hints at the depths of this self-effacing, often hilarious, and ultimately poignant memoir, full of telling and witty observations on the intersections between art and life. After her equally bracing The Gleaners and I (2000), Beaches confirms Varda as one of the great documentarians. KF (DVD out on Mar. 2, 2010)

A scene from CORALINE (Photo: Laika, Inc.)
Escaping into a fantasy world is nothing new for most moviegoers, but the consequences are rarely as terrifying or as vivid as in Coraline, where a girl discovers what looks like a perfect world on the other side of a mirror. Like its maternal villain, the film turns from playfully quirky to nightmarish so subtly that you never think to brace yourself. Scottish terriers become red-eyed bats, limbs turn to sand, and motherly love curdles into cold and murderous hunger. This trippy fantasy is as close to magic as we’re likely to get. Russell Brandom (Out on DVD)

In the vivid war film The Hurt Locker, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) defuses bombs in Iraq with what you’d call a death wish—if the man thought he was actually going to die. Kathryn Bigelow discovers a fascinating gray area between boyish bravura and real adult fear. Always a staff sergeant, never an officer, James is of the Nietzschean brand of working class, a man for whom his work ethic and an acceptance of life and its inevitable end are the same thing. He charges into the bombsites with determination, which may not be the best way to survive the war physically, but in terms of morale, it’s essential. Bigelow isn’t giving us a misanthrope. She’s giving us a hero. Michael Lee (DVD out on January 12, 2010)

In a mind-boggling performance, Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a complex, bipolar whistle blower who inadvertently exposed himself as a criminal while taking down his employer. But for all of the brilliance of The Informant!’s deceptive narration and the comedic reactions of the supporting players (especially Joel McHale and Scott Bakula as FBI agents), it's Damon's show. He's already shown he can play characters who lead double lives (The Departed) or a blank slate (the “Bourne” movies). Here he looks like a guy who just wants to do good, but also someone who has become so embedded in white-collar crime that you're not sure what he'll do next. In a scene late in the film, when Whitacre is caught in a horrible lie, watch and listen—this might be Damon’s most sophisticated acting to date. Jack Gattanella (DVD out February 23, 2010)

Brad Pitt in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Photo: Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company)
In Inglourious Basterds, a band of marauding Jewish GIs butcher Nazis and eventually blow away Hitler in a hailstorm of submachine gunfire and incinerate the rest of the Nazi high command. Throughout the film, the Basterds play second fiddle to their nemesis, the SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), whose multilingual menace borders on (and then plows through) farce. Not only is the story fantastical, its also meandering and sometimes even more off-color than you'd expect for a film that treats World War II with such audacious irreverence. Quentin Tarantinos careful staging—some scenes, taken alone, are more inspired than most of the years films—makes this a dazzlingly idiosyncratic masterpiece.
Stephen Heyman

The Coen brothers have been circling around the theme of meaningless existence their entire careers, but by placing the question in the most banal circumstances possible, they’ve finally managed to connect it to everyday experiences, presenting a world where cause and effect have only a vague relationship. It would be easy to call A Serious Man nihilist, except that almost every turn in the movie calls forth sympathy and a sense of wonder. There’s sympathy for a misfit brother and the protagonist, a good man trying to hold it all together in the face of an indifferent world. And for wonder, there’s a dentist finding “help me” printed in Hebrew on the inside of a goy’s teeth. Would that we could. RB (DVD out on February 9, 2010)

Many films last year fell under the moniker of neo-neo-realism (probably the year’s most overused term): low-budget, minimalist, melancholic slices of life, such as Treeless Mountain or the very little seen Lake Tahoe from Mexico. A religious (and universal) fable, Majid Majikis heartfelt The Song of Sparrows from Iran harks back to the glory days of Italian neo-realism, with its mix of sentimentality and melodrama as well as for the uphill battle of its Everyman, an itinerant farmer succumbing to avarice in traffic-clogged Teheran. Star Reza Naji is an indefatigable modern-day Buster Keaton, or perhaps a Captain Ahab, with a wily runaway Ostrich as his Moby Dick. KT (DVD out on Feb. 9, 2010)

There’s been no shortage of family reunion movies around the world filled with heavy sentiment or recriminations or revelations, but Hirokazu Kore-edas Still Walking may be the quietest and the most suffused with regret. A prodigal son reluctantly brings his new wife and stepson to a weekend at his elderly parents’ home and falls into all the old patterns with them and his visiting sister. Past sorrows, dashed dreams, failed expectations, sibling rivalries, and resentments gradually play out over meals, strained conversations, and rituals. From this idiosyncratic portrait comes a delicate universal appreciation—you won’t be able to resist matching up the characters to your own relatives. Nora Lee Mandel (Streaming video available now on Netflix)
January 5, 2010


The Best of 2008

The Best of 2007

The Best of 2006

The Best of 2005

The Best of 2004

The Best of 2003


Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us