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The best foreign films Missoula missed

Even the advent of digital film projectors and their seemingly endless promise of enhanced distribution didn’t change the fact that a ton of lesser known, critically acclaimed movies missed our neck of the woods last year. These six offerings were so far below the radar they didn’t even hit the Wilma, and somehow slipped under our very own supersensitive “New on DVD” aesthetic detection. But, lo and behold, just in time to relieve the doldrums of winter break and any post-New Year’s malaise, we offer our second annual roundup of the movies that Missoula missed, this time focusing exclusively on foreign fare.

Away from Her
(dir. Sarah Polley)
Followers of Canadian cinema have long known that Sarah Polley is more than just the pretty face adorning the 1999 Tarantino-knockoff Go!, and her directorial debut should confirm it to the rest of the world. At a time when more Canadian directors are starting to distance themselves from tired American production models and steady work on American “offshore” productions a la Capote, Polley succeeds in making a movie that is both defiantly Canadian and excellent by just about any standard. Julie Christie (wow, where has she been?) and veteran Gordon Pinsent star as a couple struggling with Christie’s descent into Alzheimer’s—like a ship going down with all its lights, to quote another Canadian screenwriter—with strong supporting performances by Olympia Dukakis and Wendy Crewson. The music is Canadian (lots of Neil Young). The wariness of its big southern neighbor is very Canadian. It’s taken a long time for this cinema to find a direction, and here’s hoping it stays the course. (AS)

Triad Election
(dir. Johnny To)
The best film of 2006 was Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Not even close, if you ask me. And if that film’s complex characters and dense drama enthused you, The Departed’s source material, Infernal Affairs, a Chinese film directed by Wai-keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, was a worthwhile discovery. Along the same societal and stylistic lines, compatriot Chinese director To’s Triad Election presents an engrossing, Godfather-like gangster study that absolutely sizzles with scandal and strategy. (And, like The Godfather, is part of  a series, this being the follow-up to 2005’s Election I, also available on DVD.) The action is muted and real, calculating and workmanlike. The actual election that dominates the plot—a battle for leadership of China’s most powerful criminal triad—develops into a fascinating, intricate and bloody battle, where every cause and effect ripples on the screen. And the fully crafted characters help create the palpable underworld reminiscent of a classic. (SB)

The Wind that Shakes the Barley
(dir. Ken Loach)
What was I thinking? I rented this one expecting a lush green, sweeping historical epic with soft brogues and betweeded partisans, an easily digested period piece about the early days of the IRA and a relaxing night of sentimental viewing with the wife. Guess I didn’t bother to look who the director was. Lush and green, yes, but The Wind is intense and jarring from the very first scene, and all the more distressing because it offers no safe distance between righteous freedom-fighters and brutal oppressors. This ain’t Braveheart. The British treat the Irish horribly, but barely worse than the Irish treat each other after the establishment of the compromised Free State in 1922. There are plenty of contemporary echoes to the torture scenes, and no reprieve from, as a Guardian reviewer put it, the sickening realization that “a client state, at once enfeebled and bellicose, can be prevailed upon to carry out violent acts in the shadow of a greater power.” Up the ’Ra, indeed. (AS)

This Is England
(dir. Shane Meadows)
Shane Meadows’ look at skinheads circa 1983—based in part on the director’s own life—delivers the sort of grimy gut punch that makes you want to immediately turn on “Friends” reruns for solace. I mean that in a good way. Meadows is unrelenting and blunt in his portrayal of 12-year-old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose), a kid who desperately seeks acceptance—but resorts to kicking some serious ass in the mean time. Turgoose’s sad eyes and weary stature, masked by his skinhead duds and stone-faced expression, elicit sympathy. We know this kid deserves better, but better is not available. His strategies for coping with that reality turn into a tough, frustrating and poignant story.
This Is England does turn a wee bit political and preachy (Maggie Thatcher gets ripped repeatedly), but not to the point of undermining its main character’s plight. As long as you’re prepared for the weight of the story—and the abrupt tone of the storyteller—it’s bitterly affecting. (SB)   

The Italian
(dir. Andrey Kravchuk)
This Russian film about resilient orphans has a way of growing on you. I blame Kolya Spiridonov, another precious child actor cast as a character who must deal with an impossibly precarious position. Spiridonov is teddy bear adorable, and perhaps the only precious thing set against the gray, cold backdrop of contemporary rural Russia. Director Kravchuck goes to great lengths to portray his homeland in a bleak light—desperate and desolate. The mood is contextual for the unsettling fact that the export of children to rich foreigners, peddled like dry goods, is major trade.
Adopted by a wealthy Italian couple who travel all the way to this stark nowhere to meet the boy, Spiridonov’s character is one of the lucky ones. But while the paperwork is being processed—it takes two months—circumstances compel him to resist his new beginning and wonder whether his real mother might some day find him again. He’ll rest at nothing short of locating her, just in case she still wants him.

Though superficially just a standard Dickensian tale about a stubborn boy, The Italian also seems to manage a subtle commentary on contemporary Russia. Issues with unregulated capitalism? Perhaps a waning sense of place? Reconciling new promise and a rich past? Somehow Spiridonov captures all of that conflict. (SB)

Paris, Je T’Aime
(various directors)
A throwback to the indie vogue of the latter ’90s, Paris Je T’Aime is not one single movie but 18 smaller movies, each with a different director, and each one a five-minute slice of life in the most romantic city on earth. Yawn. Not much here to raise the pulse: lots of name-brand appeal in directors (Tom Tykwer, Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven) and actors (Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Elijah Wood, Barbet Schroeder, Ben Gazzara, Maggie Gyllenhaal), a couple chuckles involving mimes, but only a few really memorable segments, plus a really bothersome sameness of look the whole way through. Natalie Portman is annoying as ever. The Coen Brothers phone in a limp subway skit with Steve Buscemi. The one with Nick Nolte has a clever last-minute twist, hooray! The one with the vampire is just dumb, but it’s still funny to watch Elijah Wood in a mock horror role recycling faces from The Lord of the Rings. I’m all like, dude, that’s the stab face from Weathertop! Rent Lumière and Company instead, or the collected short films of the Lumière brothers with commentary by Bertrand Tavernier. (AS)
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