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

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

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Yoav Donat, left, & Zohar Strauss in LEBANON (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Recession? What recession? The economy certainly didn’t slow down the number of film screened last year, whether you’re talking about wide or limited releases. Many companies actually increased their output, even though, as usual, only a handful of non-studio films made a splash at the box office. (Music Box Films was helped in no small part to the adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s crime saga, starting off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)

There was a lot to choose from. Other movies that could have made this list include Eyes Wide Open, Harry Brown, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Last Train Home, Restrepo, A Room and a Half, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, White Material, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, and Winter’s Bone. Choices were based on a loose give-and-take consensus of the site’s writers and in light of a few recent trends.

Hard to believe, but it was only in 2000 that a South Korean film (Chunhyang) was chosen to compete at the Cannes Film Festival (as good a barometer as any of international recognition). Now, it’s rare when such a film doesn’t feature prominently at a major international event. The two selected below are excellent examples of rich, well-constructed scripts with out-of-control characters that don’t fit into any mold. Another duo shows off how French filmmakers have invaded, conquered, and reinvented the gangster genre. And although He doesn’t get any billing (or make a CGI-inspired appearance), God co-starred in and permeates another two selections. Admittedly, given that many of these movies came and went in theaters, the following could also be called the best and most-overlooked of 2010. Kent Turner

Exit Through the Gift Shop is credited as “a film by Banksy,” the notorious and perhaps most widely acclaimed street artist (and premiere provocateur). Yet this credit is something of a lark; he’s never directed before, and the bulk of the documentary was shot by Thierry Guetta, a former clothing store owner, who supposedly started videotaping whatever was around him, leading him to follow various LA street artists. Eventually, he spurred himself on to become the “artist” “Mr. Brainwash.” The results of his trip to his winning acclaim are hilarious and deranged, and the film could be a hoax, a mockumentary that’s so clever as to fool everyone. But if the film’s a fraud, it’s brilliantly executed, though my instinct is to believe that truth ultimately is stranger and funnier than fiction. Jack Gattanella (Now available on DVD and Netflix streaming video)

Both the title character and André Téchiné’s vibrant film, The Girl on the Train, are enigmas, yet they both shed enough light to reveal the circumstances and consequences of one whopping and outrageous lie that sparks a national lightning storm. This French film has a forward, out-of-control momentum, fitting for Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne), who’s first seen as a carefree roller girl. The layered drama also showcases Catherine Deneuve at her matronly best as Jeanne’s mother. For a dissection of an insecure and a (perhaps) delusional young woman, forget Black Swan, this is the year’s perplexing psychological puzzle. KT (DVD and Netflix video)

Director Samuel Moaz makes an extraordinarily assured debut with the purely visceral and chaotic Lebanon, the most succinct war film of the last decade, and that’s including Letters from Iwo Jima and The Hurt Locker. The entire film takes place within the claustrophobic confines of an Israeli tank during the first day of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, much of it from the limited (and disorienting) point of view of the gunner’s viewfinder. A scene involving an Israeli soldier and his wounded Syrian prisoner of war—a discomforting microcosm for the Middle East—gives new meaning to the words “helping hand.” KT (DVD out on January 18, 2011)

Faith and logic are at odds in Jessica Hausner’s deliberately-paced, mysterious, and thoughtful Lourdes, set in the French village where the Virgin Mary is said to have performed several miracles. Among a host of other thoughtfully-etched characters, Sylvie Testud’s performance as a wheelchair-bound young woman hoping for a divine miracle is phenomenal. The moral questions the film raises should stay with audiences for a long time to come. The film hints that faith should exist wholly without physical proof, though for the thousands who flock yearly to Lourdes’ curing waters, that evidence is precisely what many seek. Michael Lee

Vincent Cassel & Ludivine Sagnier in MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 (Photo: Music Box Films)
You may never have heard of Jacques Mesrine, the most-wanted French criminal of the 1960s and 1970s, but you will never forget him after seeing
Vincent Cassel’s vivid and enthralling portrayal of his bloody rise and fall in Mesrine. The two-part crime epic blazingly re-creates his “Man of a Thousand Faces” saga across four continents. Mesrine is first a brutalized soldier in Algeria; then a daring bank robber; a canny prisoner, who escapes again and again (and again); a thrill-seeking lover; and a master media-manipulator. Mesrine even brazenly wrote an autobiography that inspired the very-close-to-the amazing-facts script by Abdel Raouf Dafri, who then created a fictional counterpart in A Prophet (Un prophète). Cassel exults in making the eventful route to his violent death (shown in the very beginning) charismatic and suspenseful. Nora Lee Mandel

You’ll be craving a glass of white wine while watching the micro-budget, no-fuss Italian charmer Mid-August Lunch. Devoted 50-something son Gianni (Gianni De Gregorio, also the writer/director) reluctantly takes in elderly matrons abandoned by their families during the August vacation. (He badly needs the money from their sons to pay off debts.) Three headstrong women join Gianni and his frail, though domineering, 93-year-old mother for the weekend, with the bachelor waiting on them hand and foot. You could call it mature mumblecore, though with a simple yet graceful script and lived-in, vivacious performances, miraculously from a non-professional cast. Raise a glass to friendship, even if it’s fleeting. KT (DVD and Netflix video)

Renegade acupuncturist, amateur detective, or avenging banshee? All you need to know about the twisted Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) is that she will do anything to exonerate her mentally-impaired son from a murder rap. Imagine the emotional combination of Barbara Hershey’s clinging neediness in Black Swan and Jacki Weaver’s unnerving determination in Animal Kingdom. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho films his script as a widescreen epic, despite setting it in a mundane backwater. The shots are beautifully composed, though often askew, either in the framing or because they’re from the point of view of this peculiarly high-strung mother. Although sequences vary in tone, they all add up to a consistently intriguing and wrenching black comedy. KT (DVD and Netflix video)

In a year stuffed with exceptional documentaries, Mugabe and the White African stands out as both a powerful piece of advocacy and a gripping film. Seventy-five-year-old Mike Campbell, a white farmer in Zimbabwe, challenges his national government’s land redistribution policy, which singles out white-owned properties, by taking his case to an international court. (The country’s long-entrenched president, Robert Mugabe, proudly embraces comparisons to Hitler.) Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson solidly prove that a well-shot film can be made clandestinely in a country with severe press restrictions and under the threat of violence, even on the run.

In the prickly Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener pits compassion against self-interest. The comedy/drama explores the materialism, rather than spiritualism, of death (among many other things), with sharp performances by Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, and the delightfully normal Rebecca Hall. Husband and wife Kate (Keener) and Alex (Platt) run a vintage furniture store stocked largely from the goods of the recently deceased, and they covet the space of their elderly next-door neighbor, who stubbornly refuses to die. Throw in two granddaughters, one a softie (Hall), the other hard as a tack (Amanda Peet), and you get conflict, (some) change, and the challenge of whether charity begins at home in upwardly mobile New York. Lisa Bernier (DVD) 

Tahar Rahim as Malik in A PROPHET (Photo: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics)
A student of the great filmmakers, Jacques Audiard fashions a mini-epic in A Prophet (Un prophète). The star performance by previously undiscovered Tahar Rahim is magnetic. Malik starts out as a frightened new inmate scrambling to preserve both his life and a modicum of pride. He ends up as the charismatic leader of a drug cartel. Exciting from the start, this film displays a craft of storytelling as fine as any this year. Audiard earlier remade a James Toback film with The Beat That my Heart Skipped, and this time he clearly builds on the Godfather legacya timeless and memorable piece of cinema. ML (DVD)

Secret Sunshine is many films in one: social satire, a low-key crime drama, and full-on revenge drama. A young widow, Shin-ae, faces an unbearable tragedy and then finds solace in religion, before angrily taking on God. The film veers in many directions, but director Lee Chang-dong never loses hold of the narrative. There’s a payoff for every twist as he takes the viewer, moment by painful moment, through her psychologically brutal transformation while explicitly and sincerely addressing a paradox of Christianity. Like Lourdes, it tackles an age-old question with intelligence and without cynicism. Star Jeon Do-yeon stands out in a complex role that any actor would be lucky to get his/her hands on. KT
January 9, 2011


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The Best of 2007

The Best of 2006

The Best of 2005

The Best of 2004

The Best of 2003


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