[Apologies for the lateness of the post. I’ve been fairly preoccupied this month…]
To try and shore up an area where I’ve been almost criminally negligent, I dedicated February to foreign films, ones that were largely chosen at random. Almost all of them were terrific, and admittedly, a little safe. But you have to crawl before you can walk. Most importantly, all of them were tremendous entertainment and most of them carried a considerable impact. Consider my appetite seriously whetted for more.
Here we go:
Tell No One (France, 2006) dir by Guillaume Canet
A deftly executed genre exercise about the Innocent Man on the Run with a wonderfully modern feel. It’s as good—or better—than anything similar Hollywood has generated in years. (It’s a product of Luc Besson’s factory.) Anchored by a believable, humanistic turn by Francois Cluzet. Like with any good thriller, you can guess the twists, but the fun is getting there. And look, what’s Kristin Scott-Thomas doing here? (Showing off her command of French.)
The Trip to Italy (Britain, 2014) dir by Michael Winterbottom
A welcome sequel to The Trip with with Brydon and Coogan in fine form, and Coogan a little more likeable and tolerant this time around. The food and scenery, naturally, are gorgeous and now I must visit Genoa. I’d be happy if they made one of these every few years. Maybe they can take their Caines to Spain?
Under the Skin (Britain, 2014.) dir by Jonathan Glazer
An unforgettable experience. Scarlett Johansson, literally, as you’ve never seen her before, complete with skin suit. She’s begun to make very interesting choices in an already fine career. It’s a throwback to the “smart” science fiction of the 1970s. It’s essentially a study in, first, the experience of being human and, second, the experience of womanhood. As a bonus, it serves as reminder to all you men out there: If she’s too into you, there might be a catch. (And if that catch involves an inky black pool, get out while you can.)
Legendarily a template for Lucas’ Star Wars. (The first one, A New Hope or whatever the hell they call it now.) You can see it if you try hard enough, particularly in the wipes that Kurosawa uses, but you’d likely never think about it if you aren’t preloaded with the idea. It’s probably Kurosawa’s lightest—and therefore most accessible—film. At this point, I’d watch Mifune grocery shop (John Belushi thought so, too). A scene of him on horseback comes straight out of John Ford.
Journey to Italy (Italy, 1954) dir by Roberto Rossellini
One of those dramas that feels overly familiar because it’s been copied and studied in so many ways (Bergman, Allen, etc. And it feels very much like an influence on Hiroshima Mon Amour and another favorite, 2010’s Certified Copy.) At essence it’s simply about how a spouse can, over time, become almost unrecognizable. And how certain kind of thoughtlessness can amount to cruelty. It’s no accident, by the way, that Brydon and Coogan in the similarly named Trip to Italy end up in the same Napoli catacombs visited in this film by Ingrid Bergman.) 
The Battle of Algiers (Italy, 1966) dir by Gillo Pontecorvo
One of those must-see’s that I had yet, not seen. Revolutionary and tremendously informative as portrait of how an oppressed people can be driven to insurrection as well as the dangers posed by conflict escaltion. It feels enormously relevant amidst ongoing upheaval in the Middle East and the threat posed by Islamic extremism. It’s an incredible fusion of style and subject, an uprising captured through guerrilla, faux-documentary filmmaking.
WATCH: Five directors discuss the film’s influence:
Carlos (France, 2010) dir by Olivier Assayas
A revelation. It was so good that I was angry that I had decided to watch the three-hour version and not the five-hour miniseries version. (Believe me, as someone for whom running time is often a deal-breaker, this never happens.) Edgar Ramirez is incredibly charismatic as the titular Venezuelan terrorist—and the film provides tremendous insight into the conflicts of the time (especially concerning Europe) as well as the conflicts of the now. (Carlos trains in Yemen and hides in Sudan.) If anything, the truncated version robs the work of some of its epic scale, leading to some awkward flights of time. (At one point, more than 10 years pass in a blink.)
Predestination (Australia, 2015) dir by Michael and Peter Spierig
Kind of a cheat, since it’s basically a U.S. indie film, but it’s a winning example of one of my favorite tropes—the Let’s Go Back in Time and Kill Hitler genre. Ethan Hawke is basically a discount version of JCVD’s TimeCop. As with most time-travel paradoxes, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. But it’s tremendously fun—a perfect Saturday afternoon movie. (Hawke travels through time by using a guitar case. Yes.) Sarah Snook’s performance, however, is the backbone of the film. To say anything more would be to spoil it.
As Tears Go By (Hong Kong, 1988) dir by Wong Kar-Wai
Basically, a super-sized episode of Hong Kong Vice. This film looks more a product of the 80s than anything the U.S. ever produced, even, say, videos by Quarterflash. Notable largely as an early film by the stellar Wong Kar-Wai, it’s the story of a gangster who tries to keep his friend out of trouble while also falling in love with his cousin. Get it? Good. It’s the kind of movie that features a Cantonese version of “Take My Breath Away” and no way does it use it ironically.
A Separation (Iran, 2011) dir by Asghar Farhadi
Want to watch a two-hour film about a Muslim couple struggling though a marital crisis in modern Iran? Me neither. But I made myself watch it and, man, after a slow start, I was riveted. The story is about a free-thinking wife and her duty-bound husband, yes, but it’s much more than that. It’s a meditation on tragedy, religion, justice, and equitable relief. It sheds light on a theocratic bureaucracy that Americans likely don’t quite grasp. It provides a wealth of sympathetic characters—so much so, that your sense of identification seems to be constantly shifting. In one sense, it’s a mélange of Voyage to Italy, Rashomon, and Anatomy of a Murder, and in another, it’s entirely original. (It almost seems like it couldn’t be a coincidence that star Leila Hatami looks so much like a red-haired Ingrid Bergman.) A stirring achievement.
Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014) dir by Ruben Ostlund
Thematically related in subject to A Separation if the context couldn’t be more different. An affluent Swedish family takes a vacation in the French Alps and a father’s decisions under stress shift—perhaps irrevocably—his children’s perceptions of him. Both films are about how families, particularly parents, engage in deception, both toward the outside world and their own kin. At root, it’s about that universal moment when the child begins to perceive the parent as the flawed person he or she is rather than omnipotent being they had fashioned. The difference is that the Swedish film is much lighter in tone—at times it seems like an out and out comedy—while going deeper to explore the façade of masculinity. It’s also beautifully shot.
Blow-Up (Britain, 1966) dir by Michaelangelo Antonioni
So, this is basically one-stop shopping for everything people dislike about European art films. Long stretches of ennui-driven anti-narrative, characters who speak in ellipses, when they speak at all, ruminations on the nothingness of human existence, and, of course, mimes. Yes, there are bloody mimes—or to be fairer, I guess, theatre students in makeup—who bracket the film and give it now a certain eye-rolling quality that we associate with pretentiousness. It’s a thriller without thrills, a noir without night, a film that barely has the energy to ask questions, much less provide answers. It’s also fucking great. I’ve been wanting to see this for years, and although the languid pace and the absence of conventional A-B-C plotting jarred me for a bit, I adapted. I remembered this was Antonioni, the Italian master who couldn’t care less about your cinematic expectations. As the story of a fashion photographer in mod London who may have witnessed a murder (or not), it’s remarkably specific in terms of time and place and purposefully slippery otherwise. While the fashions and attitude may make it seem dated, the matter at hand—the subjective nature of observation, makes it more vital than ever in an age where anyone with an iPhone can be David Hemmings. 
 Somehow the Criterion version I streamed had been dubbed in Italian with English subtitles. I thought it was strange at the time. Turned out it was filmed in English. I don’t understand how I ended up with an Italian version of a Italian film that features English-speaking actors.
 It didn’t occur to me until looking at stills from the film that it had to be a major influence on Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. James Spader in that film is even styled to look like Hemmings.