The year got off to a slow start even in the international scene, though things erupted with a bang! so to speak, with the release of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper in early March. I’m speaking of the blackout ending, of course, perhaps the most satisfying moment of the year. The film is a reunion of the stylish French filmmaker—who tied for Best Director at Cannes in 2016 for it—and Kristen Stewart, following Clouds of Sils Maria, and, as such, marks the difficulties in delineating what precisely is a foreign-international or English-language production. I put Assayas’ film in the former category because, although just one of several international filmmakers who’s reached out to American and English-speaking stars, he’s so indelibly linked to the French film industry and …Shopper was, typically for him, internationally financed. Though marred somewhat by a lurid melodramatic murder subplot that reminds one of his international intrigue thrillers from the previous decade, Demonlover and Boarding Gate, who can resist a good ghost story, especially one involving twin siblings? Bang!
Speaking of …Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche arrived the following month alongside personal fave Fabrice Luchini in the deliberately outrageous Ma Loute—drably renamed Slack Bay here—from another film stylist, Bruno Dumont. The colorful, absurdist hijinks along the scenic seashore barely mask an unsavory undercurrent to the disgusting, dissolute display by the one percent, and sure enough, the stark subversion of class distinction and privilege breaks through but never totally obscures the fun, which includes satiric scenes of classic cinematic eroticism involving the young lower-class lovers (Brandon Lavieville, Raph). Dumont does a nice job mixing and juxtaposing the all-star and totally unproven cast to great effect, also getting great mileage with the always popular satire of the French police throughout. Cahiers du cinéma named the film the fifth best of the year, which, lo, is right where I have it.
In addition to The Zookeeper’s Wife, the Holocaust remains the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. Celebrated Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher brought together two excellent young actresses, Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar, to play modern sisters literally slapped from complacency into looking into their father’s (Doran Tavory, the steely invasive Israel defense minister in Lemon Tree) murky past in Past Life. This is a genre favorite, and you just know what they’ll find—or do you? Arriving in November and blowing most all of the competition away, Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török’s beautifully done 1945 summons an astonishing, in-your-face act of redemption as if from a predawn séance through the solemn and dignified arrival of two Jewish outsiders (Iván Angelusz, Marcell Nagy) into a small, postwar, Russian-occupied Hungarian village of self-interested, eccentric conspirators. Shot in B&W with slow tracking shots and odd angles and like a 1940s Henri-Georges Clouzot French noir or a midcentury western, every gesture and movement in this expertly crafted piece of expressionism counts. Drenched in irony and symbolism, the film comes full circle with the strangers exit with billowing smoke from the locomotive evoking scenes of the final journey from a nation that under Germany in years just previous took the lead in outsourcing its peoples to Auschwitz.
More a post–WWI romance than an examination of the origins of the next European conflagration, another intruder’s (an excellent Pierre Niney, A Perfect Man, Yves Saint Laurent) murky identity nonetheless plays a large part in his acceptance or no at the hands of a German couple and their daughter (Paula Beer) grieving their lost son and brother and more amid rising nationalist tension in François Ozon’s period mood piece Frantz. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment) has dedicated much of his feature film professional career wrestling with his country’s notorious past and arrived with another such depiction, 13 Minutes, involving the compelling reenactment of a nearly successful assassination on the Fürher early on by an inspired musician-turned resistance fighter (Christian Friedell, Amour Fou, The White Ribbon) unnerved by his country’s takeover by a wave of Nazism, intolerance, and industrial militarism. Hirschbiegel takes a typically direct and professional approach to the daring November 1939 event, which, after all, if successful, could’ve prevented the deaths of some 55 million people, including some 6 million European Jews, reminding one that if all is fatalism, there is still much left to chaos and chance. Still, there are moments of idyll in the plot’s progression, and in Georg Elser’s sometimes unhinged derangement one is reminded of Sean Penn’s Samuel Bicke in the underappreciated 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Nixon may not have been quite as prolific as Adolf Hitler, but he and war-crimes cohort Heinz Alfred Kissinger did pave the way for the torture and disappearance of more than 40,000 Chileans under Augusto Pinochet and in what the Vietnamese call the American War, estimates of 1965-74 deaths—Nixon assumed the presidency in ‘68—range from University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Guenter Lewy’s prescaled 1.35 million to The BMJ’s 1.7 million—with The BMJ’s 3.1 million to 3.4 to more than 4 million from the Socialist Republic itself for the entire affair. Too bad, really, but, as you know, heroism is not always defined by success. Just look at the movies.
One would like to think such holocausts—hydrogen cyanide–saturated labor camp showers and the suffusive aerial strafing of an entire nation with napalm—were over, or that these people didn’t die all in vain. Besides Past Life, another Israeli film, Foxtrot, arrived here late that I was fortunate to see presented by its director, Samuel Maoz (Lebanon), at AFI Fest in Hollywood in November. Sweeping several Awards of the Israeli Film Academy—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—winner of the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at Venice, and the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Language Film, the avant-garde, often absurdist, Kubrickesque antiwar film contains perhaps the most indelible image of the year: that of an occupied car being completely buried under, and bulldozed over, the land adjacent to an Israeli checkpoint. A war veteran—who isn’t in Israel?—Moaz presents a repressed architect, husband, and father (Lior Ashkenazi, Norman, Yitzhak Rabin in 7 Days in Entebbe) crumbling under the weight of his responsibilities amid the aftereffects of a tragedy involving his son (Yonaton Shiray, A Tale of Love and Darkness), whose checkpoint posting with his peers accounts for the Kubrickesque. American armchair conservatives, none of whom appeared to be in attendance amid the modest faithful at the afternoon screening, may be surprised—or maybe they just don’t care—at the toll the Palestinian occupation is taking on the psyches of those wearing, and who have worn, the boots on the ground. All this, and the film didn’t even make my top ten.
Neither did Loveless, another celebrated film from Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan), a solid, creative effort artistically shot by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and well-acted by principals Aleksey Rozin, Maryana Spivak, and Matvey Novikov, who’s gone early but gets in a few appropriately surly and sullen scenes. The film shines a light on the frightful circumstances of Russian runaways and deliciously skewers the aspiring bourgeoisie, who appear to have lost themselves in their smartphones—who hasn’t?—with Spivak’s Zhenya’s shockingly brusque attitude toward her on-the-outs husband and neglected son tempered by self-centered selfies and such, as if when she looks upon the glass of her phone it is as if she were Narcissus looking into a gleaming pool. Karl Marx would certainly be spinning in his grave upon a viewing—who knew an opiate of the masses would be so cool and sensational?—but then again, they’ve been used by the voiceless from Iran to Egypt to recent protests by American schoolchildren to light the fires of revolution.
Standout actress Bérénice Bejo is equally severe—how could she be otherwise?—in After Love, a French-Belgian production you probably didn’t see but perhaps may’ve liked to. I saw the film at AFI Fest the previous November. It was in Santa Monica for a week in August, a cruel inequity for a more vibrant depiction of a deeply estranged couple with children present that recalls the power of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s certainly one of the best of its kind in the subgenre since, and one I think Americans would appreciate. After Love flows with the rhythms of life so typical of French films; it becomes a study in domestic repair when the estranged couple must endure the finality of their uncomfortable relations together due to the husband’s (terrific French triple-threat Cédric Khan) ill fortune. Bejo’s luminous forbidding gaze softens a bit—the witch of all domestic witches, and yet who wouldn’t want to be under her spell?—and as if the drama wasn’t enough, the couple’s warmer moments with their children deliver a reward that the lost Russians of Loveless just can’t.
Speaking of Russia, and its former occupation of Hungary, two films arrived that took place in adjacent former satellite states Czechoslovakia and Poland; one was, IMO, the international film of the year. In Jan Hrebejk’s (Divided We Fall) The Teacher, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s pre–Velvet Revolution, the petty favoritism and manipulative, unscrupulous self-interest of “Comrade Teacher” Mária Drazdechová (a nice Zuzana Mauréry) serve as a glass reflection of the punitive, corrupt socialist state at large. The story is framed by an administrative meeting called to give semideluded, played-upon parents a voice in the teacher’s potential transfer, as if she were an abusive priest, once the jig is up: the return of favors for the children of parents who reward her and scoldings and downwardly adjusted grades for those whose don’t. The meeting plays out like a heated episode of season one of HBO’s Big Little Lies; though the emergence of an abusive father (sleeping giant Martin Havelka, who needs to be discovered by Aki Kaurismäki) of a delinquent son (Oliver Oswald) into her romantic sphere is surprising. The film, despite its sometimes intense exchanges, plays in a light, ironic sheen overall, and while mediocrity is indeed rewarded in such totalitarian societies—nevermind the organized bullying of noncompliant actors—it’s been known to in democracies as well.
The film is a jewel to Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, and it’s one Polish avant-garde constructivist artist Wladystaw Stremiński might’ve appreciated as well. Stremiński is the subject of the iconic Andrej Wajda’s (Walesa, Tatarak, Katyn) stirring, invigorating swan song, Afterimage, which depicts a similar society post–WWII in more drastic and desperate tones. The film begins with a pastoral scene of Stremiński (the drastically underappreciated Boguslaw Linda—his only recognition outside Poland for the film was a fifth-place Best Actor finish at the Seattle International Film Festival—in a performance for a lifetime) and his loyal, dedicated art students that might not have been out of place in The Sound of Music and ends in utter horror. Stremiński’s penetrating and popular lectures on vision theory at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Lodz are just beginning to stir the free-thinking youth when Minister of Culture and Art Wlodzimierz Sokorski (Szymon Bobrowski) stomps in to put a damper on them. Stremiński’s objections to demands that the visual arts school service communist ideology eventually cost him his teaching position; his party papers soon follow, exiling him from virtually everything, to the point where he cant even purchase paints at the party-owned co-op. The proud artist, whose own works are purged from the modern and contemporary Museum of Art in Lodz and his person erased from history, advises his concerned, outraged students that the “wind of history” will soon pass, but he miscalculates the storm that’s enveloping him. His plight is in part self-inflicted, and not just because he dared take a stand, which can mean personal ruin in just about any society at any time. A multiple amputee who lives on a steady diet of work, cigarettes, and the absence of sunlight, he rejects his estranged daughter’s (Bronislawa Zamachowska) entreaties to assist, and otherwise treats the runaway a little shabbily. For the consumed painter, it’s indeed pride before the fall; after fighting for food stamps, he soon rejects those as well. Wajda lets the audience decide for themselves about the man, whose quiet, dignified reserve and relaxed, assured cadence and demeanor can’t bear the weight of history. Whatever you decide, his devastating descent seems tailor-made for anti-communist Americans, though it, and the film itself, a gripping tearjerker, is one for the ages. The Academy missed a final chance to honor Wajda, who won an Honorary Oscar for five decades of extraordinary film direction in 2000—his first film, A Generation, about Polish youth coming of age during the German socialist occupation, came out in 1955. He perished at 90 just a month prior to Afterimage’s premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. You couldn’t write a more perfect script, but I understand A Fantastic Woman was all the rage, and old white European men are passé.
Speaking of Russia and film, it’s hard not to get around Andrei Tarkovsky these days. Criterion is in the midst of remastering his work for both theatrical and home-video release, and the May limited release—I saw it the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles—of Stalker, his absolutely mesmerizing 1979 dystopian sci-fi masterwork, was, IMO, the film event of the year. The new 2K digital restoration further crystallizes its entrancing aural and visual delights: an industrial symphony of dripping water on pans, creaking wood floors, broken glass, positively transfixing extended slow-pan close-ups of cast-aside religious relics and iconography submerged under shimmering water. Masterful scene setup and shots, sound design, atmospherics—it’s arthouse cinema to the nth degree. The terra firma sci-fi—ruined cars, strewn streets, poisoned water, industrial decay, a woman’s (Alisa Freyndlikh) breakdown, its hopeless, radioactive apocalypse a premonition of Chernobyl—evoke Lars von Trier’s early The Element of Crime, which would come five years later. The Stalker (Alexsandr Kaydanovskiy) at the center lives life on the edge, toiling for himself and his family, a distressed common soul with a wolf-like connection to a stray dog he’ll adopt, a proletarian model to the loquacious idleness of Pisatel, the writer (Anatolly Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) waist-deep in the mud of their own absurdity. The film is quite dialogue-drenched in the metaphysical and existential, with its hopeless search for meaning amid ruin, and Pisatel can be a real turnoff, but its rewards are too stunning to ignore. If the climax collapses into utter uselessness, as if into a black hole, the finale is riveting, its final image a searing indictment not only of the bourgeoise intelligentsia, but of the military and bureaucracy of a government of a stifling society devoid of spirituality and mysticism that thoughtlessly leaves its children and next generations to suffer the oppressive consequences. It dawned on me what a loss it is to lose Tarkovsky at such a relatively young age—he was 54 when he perished in exile from lung cancer, likely attributable to damage he sustained filming Stalkerin a poisoned industrial setting on a drawn-out shoot. If critics fawned over Loveless, it just can’t touch a film like Stalker, and this is the legacy we miss.
I typically don’t fret with animated films when doing a top ten—I don’t see many anyway and they’re not truly feature films, but two absolutely phenomenal such films arrived from foreign shores that just could not be ignored. Loving Vincent, from writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who should receive free lifetime memberships to the Louvre, is an innovative creative gift to fans of Vincent van Gogh—who are basically all of us. Animation is achieved, appropriately enough, through painterly effect—painted frame after painted frame after painted frame in the artist’s swirling, effusive, color-burst late-period style suffused over the actors’ scenes and into the backgrounds. If that’s not enough, the well-researched screenplay is a much-appreciated examination of the artist’s final days in Auvers, dramatically depicting one of the most unbearably wretched sagas in the annals of art history, which has seen many. If it isn’t bad enough we lost Tarkovsky too early, losing van Gogh in his prime, especially in this sordid fashion, is deeply depressing. Of course. back then, the Impressionism star whose more renowned paintings fetch nine figures was a nobody, really, an outcast of not only the Parisian art scene but of humanity itself, and this film is an ode to a sympathetic man who deserved better. The pathetically ordinary, but still extra…, plot commences when a postmaster’s (Chris O’Dowd, The Cloverfield Paradox, Molly’s Game) son, Armand Roulin (a nice Douglas Booth, The Dirt, Mary Shelley) reluctantly agrees to deliver a dead letter from Vincent to brother Theo, only to find himself sucked into the artist’s confounding demise himself to the point of attachment. The animation features an excellent supportive cast of English actors, including Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette, Poldark) as hotel proprietress Adeline Ravoux, personal fave Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones, Ripper Street) as Dr. Gachet, and Helen McCrory (Their Finest, Penny Dreadful) as Gachet’s bitter housekeeper Louise Chevalier; it-girl Saoirse Ronan also appears as Gachet’s unsympathetic daughter, Marguerite. It’s a colorful case Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would’ve enjoyed, and you should too. The Breadwinner, meanwhile, from Irish animation filmmaker Nora Twomey (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) is a true animation, and one of the most artistically aspirational films you’ll see. Written by writer-director Anita Doran (The End of Silence) from the children’s book by Canadian author/activist Deborah Ellis, the screenplay is a paean to the Afghan storytelling tradition, with 11-year-old heroine Parvana (Saraa Chaudry) not only rising up to rescue her Taliban-abducted father (Ali Badshah) from under the cloak of oppression, but also undergoing a mythical journey of her own. The film itself is a dynamic expression of Afghan culture, and the film’s audio-visual artistry a nice recompense for a people who have endured and experienced too much. It too has an excellent cast, from veteran television guest-star Laara Sadiq as Parvana’s mother, Fatana; Shaista Latif as her sister, Soraya; Kawa Ada as market benefactor/protector Razaq; Soma Chhaya as co-conspirator Shauzia; and Noorin Gulamgaus as Taliban bad-boy Idrees. Considering this country and culture has inextricably been linked to our own for the past three decades or so, with our military presence there going well into its second, this is a film every American should see, and take their children to see; the least we can do for this besieged nation is to see a 95-minute cartoon celebrating its culture and people. I unfortunately missed an afternoon family outing to see Coco, but it must have been something else to beat these two films to an Animated Feature Film Academy Award. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.
(This post continues below with my 2017 international/foreign language film award favorites.)
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours