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The Best Foreign-Language Films of 2009

By Phillip Stephens | Guides | January 18, 2010 |

By Phillip Stephens | Guides | January 18, 2010 |


Sergei Dvortsevoy created an impressive coming-of-age tale with this majestic treatment of life on the Kazakh steppe, following the return of Asa, a young sailor eager to make a place of his own in the traditional nomadic lifestyle. But to do so he must woo and marry the only available woman for miles - an elusive and almost entirely symbolic girl named Tulpan, whose unambiguous rejection gives his life its first meaningful hurdle. The bleak, hardscrabble life endured by the protagonists, implicitly vied with by modern civilization’s hedonistic pull, gives this allegory impressive, romantic, and heartbreaking dimensions.


Götz Spielmann’s arthouse noir is a deft and entertaining treatise on life in the margins of late-capitalism, a pitch-dark European take on The Postman Always Rings Twice. The bleak, predictable ending to a heist meant to bring two people away from the venal desolation of life in the city gives Revanche its initial momentum, but the latter half quietly arcs into troubling ruminations. This is definitive noir: existential and thrilling in equal and often quiet measures.

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke may be the most cynical filmmaker alive; his films aren’t the angry, romantic gestures of Lars Von Trier, but completely evenhanded, bitter deconstructions of every institution we consider sacrosanct. Haneke isn’t merely interested in dissecting our conventions, he also has to use clever narrative deployments to implicate us in the process, an act he considers empowering. Fittingly, his Palme d’Or winner portrays a German town rotting with abusive power relations and plagued by a mystery he won’t solve for us. Haneke’s critics have the easy job of despising a director who seems to do exactly that to his audience; at least The White Ribbon has a stark, formalist beauty to match its bleak ponderings.

Summer Hours

A slow, sparsely-plotted family drama which displays an exquisite cinematic formalism, Summer Hours is about the indiscernible violence that is coping with change. A high-minded haute bourgeois family deals with the minutiae of estate management after its matriarch passes away. The adult children, most of whom have moved away, find it relatively painless to part with their childhood home, save the eldest son, who correctly sees their mother’s house and possessions as the last domino of their ebbing familial bonds. This is a sad but not hopeless meditation, impeccably filmed and acted with grace. Watch this when you’re in a patient mood, ready to be moved.


Martin Provost’s biography of lesser-known painter Séraphine Louis is, in addition to being an exquisite period piece, a fascinating meditation on the polarities of the art world, of class bias and the thin line between insanity and creative brilliance. Art collector Wilhelm Uhde discovers a talented artist (the quirky Yolande Moreau) living as an impoverished hand-to-mouth servant. Uhde’s patronage is interrupted by World War I, but the two are later reunited in a successfully collaborative relationship. Success seems to ruin her, however, as her barely-reined emotional instability gives way to mania.

35 Shots of Rum

The films of Claire Denis are like none other; elliptical narratives and impressionistic scenes that form a whole less substantial than its mesmerizing parts. One would be hard-pressed to describe 35 Shots of Rum in a précis: the film is about a man and his grown daughter, enduring the warmth and occasional frustration of a close relationship. Little in the way of narrative happens; we’re given scenes composed of unspoken tact and quietude and left to make up our own minds why they are important. This is certainly high art, but unpretentious in its intent and composure.

The Beaches of Agnès

Agnès Varda has been at the forefront of French cinema for more than 50 years. Her documentary features are unapologetically subjective and quirky — The Beaches of Agnes is one of her finest. Varda has always injected her own sense of playfulness and personality onto so-called documentary realism with fantastic results, but never has it felt more appropriate than in a story of her own life. Varda, now 81 years-old, takes us through her story, from the French New Wave to husband Jacques Demy to the radical sixties and into her cheerful senescence, all with vibrant bonhomie and rich cultural swagger.

Lorna’s Silence

The latest from dynamic Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes is not their strongest, but a fine film in its own right. Once again the filmmaking brothers turn their eyes to society’s margins: Albanian immigrant Lorna is involved in a number of scams - she has married a junky for Belgian citizenship while those organizing the scheme are planning to kill him so she can marry a Russian mobster for his citizenship. Lorna grows a conscience, however, and tries to save her sham husband’s life, resulting in a film both suspenseful and strangely touching.

The Headless Woman

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel takes a page from Michael Haneke in this highly politicized mystery about a wealthy woman who may or may not have killed a young boy in a car accident and her friends who may or may not have covered it up for her. The socio-political implications of the upper-class, lighter-skinned bourgeois of Argentina, if not all greater South America, in the (willful or not) violence against lower-class mestizos are powerful, but like Haneke, Martel never gives us all the answers, just some of the clues in this dark, enigmatic mystery.

The Sun

Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2005 film, finally given an American release, is an absolute tour-de-force in every way. The Sun is a slow, quiet chronicle of Emperor Hirohito during the occupation by American forces. A sheltered, brilliant, twitchy and utterly strange man, Hirohito is faced with his country’s humiliating defeat and occupation by American troops and figureheads ignorant or disdainful about his divine nature. His gradual confrontation of the world at large and eventual decision to renounce his divinity and call for Japan to make peace signals the end of an era. Issei Ogata’s performance is remarkable; Sokurov’s direction is restrained and elegant; The Sun is a quietly devastating modern classic.

Still Walking

Seldom has the influence of Yasujirō Ozu on Japanese cinema been as marked as in this film by Hirokazu Koreeda, a bittersweet glance at a quietly unhappy Japanese family over a single summer day. The story centers on a family reuniting to mourn the anniversary of a favorite son’s death by drowning. The stern and crankily backwards-glancing Yokoyama family discharge their pain and unspoken disappointments onto their remaining grown children, particularly the son who has offended tradition by marrying a divorced woman with a son. Unhappiness lurks just below every surface, and that’s where it will probably stay, but Still Walking is not a dark film, rather, a sagely confrontation of lonely human truths.

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