[VoxSpace Selects] Year End Round Up 2019 : Best International Films Of The Year (Non-English)

Celebrating World Cinema

There has never been a more beautiful time for world cinema in its purpose of representing a singular voice and vision towards issues plaguing our society. From crippling class-divides to divisive gender politics, from intricate introspection to glorious newness, from vivacious progressive conversations to brooding regressive repercussions world cinema has never been more similar in what it stands for. Below is our handpicked selection of world movies which have provoked us to think, enticed and finally moved us to enough to think of a greater collective future full of promise and hope…

One Cut of the Dead (Japanese)

One Cut of The Dead is a Japanese zombie comedy film written and directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda. The film follows a film crew who are filming a zombie film, while at the same time a real zombie outbreak happens. The humor comes into play when the director insists on not cutting but continues to film. We see this play out in one long almost forty-minute-long expertly choreographed take.

The film then jumps back in time and gets way more meta than any film I have seen in a long time. While at first sight, it might look like a ‘so bad its good’ kind of film, I promise you it’s not. This is a super fun thrill ride that is also extremely subversive in exposing the way we consume entertainment in everyday life. Made on a budget of a measly 25000 dollars, this is a cinematic achievement that needs to be witnessed to be believed.

Birds of Passage (Spanish)

Birds of Passage is a sprawling tale of a drug empire that spans 20 years to examine the corrosive effects of greed on a society. This is the second feature from Colombian director Ciro Guerra after his 2015 masterpiece Embrace of The Serpent. Split into five sections spanning 1960-1980, and set in the country’s northern La Guajira region, the film details the disintegration of a Wayuu community thanks to enterprising Rapayet (José Acosta), who marries the daughter of imposing matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martinez) and transforms everyone’s fortunes by smuggling weed procured from relatives.

The tension between tradition and progress is almost as taught as that between mercy and brutality, as the clan’s rise to drug-running prominence comes at a catastrophic cost. Mr. Guerra shares his directing responsibilities with wife Cristina Gallego on this film to bring a decidedly female gaze to a male-dominated genre of films about drug trafficking. From the matriarchal courtship dance that opens the film to the bold color symbolism woven throughout, the film seems absolutely fresh and has something to say.

Climax (French)

If there is one filmmaker in the world whom I admire more than I like, that honor definitely goes to the French auteur filmmaker Gaspar Noe. He is best known for extreme cinema and is credited to making some of the most viscerally provocative films made in the last two decades. From the gritty rape-revenge fantasy told in reverse in the form of Irreversible to the two-plus of a mind-fuck head-trip that is Enter the Void to the almost three-hour-long porn film called love which he filmed in 3D. He is known for his extremely provocative and sometimes off-putting cinematic outings. But with his latest film, I feel he outdid himself. Climax is a claustrophobic nightmare of a film that follows a group of extremely talented dancers who are practicing for their next gig. They have underlying issues with each other like any other troupe who has worked together for some time, but the problem arises when someone laces the fruit punch with LSD.

What starts off as a nice movie about the art of dance turns into an orgy death, rape, decapitation and a seemingly unending nightmare that will have your jaw on the floor. While the film might seem like a gimmick at first, you quickly start seeing the political implications and insinuations that he is making to the current state of unrest in France and the reasons for them. If nothing else, you need to watch the film for the last 30-40 minutes where Mr. Noe lets loose and shows off what he can do with a brilliant cinematographer and some cool effects. It is a sight to behold.

Pain & Glory (Spanish)

Pain & Glory is a semi-autobiographical film from the prolific Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. The film tells the story of a filmmaker in Madrid who is suffering from a creative block that he has not been able to escape. Over the next few days, we follow him as he tries to make amends for certain things that he has been responsible for over the years. While he does so, we are privy to certain parts of his childhood that are responsible for his sexual and spiritual awakening that have left long-lasting effects that he has not managed to fully comprehend. This is languid yet captivating meditation on youth, art love, and innocence.

The film beautifully touches on Almodóvar’s most prevalent themes like desire, passion, family, and identity. While this might seem like a heavy film the way I describe, it never feels that way. The cinematography feels very energetic and almost floaty, reflecting a sense of how memories feel. The production design is similarly aesthetically pleasing with contrasting bright colors. And the film has some of the year’s best performances in the form of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, for which Mr. Banderas also Best Actor at Cannes this year. Please do check out this summer breeze of film that is a lot deeper than it seems on the surface.

Atlantics (Wolof)

Atlantics marks the feature film debut by young Senegalese director Mati Diop. This dark yet vibrant film tells the story of Ada, a 17-year-old girl who is abandoned by the man she loved after escaping along with other workers toward a better life in Europe. Ada ends up being promised in marriage to another man against her will, but some fantastic happenings start to change everything in the life of the young woman. The film is as much a love story and a ghost story, is elusive and hypnotic, certainly showing the confidence of a filmmaker to pay attention to for years to come.

The film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes this year and deservedly so. The film while dealing with extremely serious and pressing issues like the migration crisis and religious dogmas uses elements of magical realism to give content to the narrative. Do watch this film for a bold new voice to look out for in the form of Mati Diop.

Ema (Spanish)

I have been following Pablo Larrain’s work for some time. The first I learned about the Chilean was when I came upon his disturbing spiritual masterpiece The Club. The film followed a group of disgraced priests and nuns who had to face the demons of their past. I have gone back and seen his satirical biopic No and was bowled over by biopic on Jackie Kennedy called Jackie. So, I was excited to see his next venture, but I was absolutely not ready for the experience I had while watching his latest film Ema, that defies categorization.

Ema is a highly stylized musical drama, that follows A couple dealing with the aftermath of an adoption that goes awry as their household falls apart. The film pushes traditional boundaries with sexuality, family, the atmospheric and hypnotic music, dance and more. The film toys with notions of what is feminine and masculine in a way that I have never seen before. If I talk too much about this aspect, I would be revealing too much. If you liked Lorrain’s previous work on films like The Club and No, do watch this film for its sheer audacity.

Bacurau (Portuguese)

I was not very familiar with the cinema that came out of Brazil and only knew peripherally about the political upheaval that is taking place there. Bacurau is an aggressive, urgent portrait of a country at a turning point. The film baffled Cannes audiences and made them keep talking about it ever since the May 2019 premiere. The film revolves around Bacurau, a small town in the Brazilian sertão, which is beset by strange happenings following the death of its matriarch at the age of 94. It was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. It’s a visceral picture that spirals out of control, deliberately disarming audiences to thrust them into the heart of the violence. If you’re unfamiliar with the conflict there – or if you’d rather see it from a more delirious angle – this is a must-watch.

Monos (Spanish)

Monos is a war drama film which is also the official Columbian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and has been creating a lot of buzz ever since. But nothing could prepare me for the trippy and disturbing mood piece that I witnessed when I watched it. This metaphorical tale takes place on a remote mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow.

The film’s protagonists serve as a metaphor for Colombia as a nation searching for its identity. The film with its minimalist presentation works more allegorically than as a straight-up narrative. This kind of hypnotic and otherworldly feeling is extremely well complemented by the ethereal sounds that emanate from Mica Levi’s mesmerizing score. Do check this movie if you are in the mood for some disturbing yet thought-provoking cinema from a bold new voice in the form of Alejandro Landes.

Les Misérables (French)

I heard of this film for the first time when it was selected as the French entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. I was absolutely baffled because I could not understand why this was selected over so many other eligible films. I had this impression because of the number of times the Les Misérables has been made and how familiar people are with the melodramatic tragedy. But then I watched the film and I immediately got it. This version is an updated version of the old story keeping in mind the political climate of France in the present year. This a film that feels immediate and relevant while working with the universal overarching story of the original. While the politics of the film are a little on the nose and almost preachy, the thrilling and infectiously energetic third act transcend the film beyond just the theatrics and make it a must-watch.

The Burial of Kojo (Twi)

The Burial of Kojo is a 2018 drama film set in Ghana, written and directed by Blitz Bazawule. Filmed entirely in Ghana on a micro-budget, with local crew and several first-time actors, the film tells the story of Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), who is left to die in an abandoned gold mine, as his young daughter Esi (newcomer Cynthia Dankwa) travels through a spirit land to save him. This is a story of longing that uses magical realism to talk about reunion, loss, and reconciliation. The film is brimming with mesmerizing and though-provoking imagery that is juxtaposed with the inherent tragedy of the piece. The film feels like a beautiful looking sad poem about parental abandonment and reconciliation.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 French historical drama film written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or and won the Queer Palm at Cannes, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the award. Sciamma also won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes. This stunning, decadent period romance took the festival circuit by storm and happens to be my favorite movie of the film. The film revels in its rebellion against everything that is traditional narratively and thematically.  The story takes place on an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, where a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman. The film takes this quiet and tranquil set up infuses and it with enough drama that you are left mesmerized by the end of this slow burn of a narrative.

Parasite (Korean)

In one of the most definitive pieces of dialogues written in the now global phenomenon and this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, a destitute man by name Kim Ki-taek (played ever so reliably by Song-Kang Ho) turns to his wife, Kim Chung-sook (played with wild elegance by Jang Hye-jin) and praises about their employer’s generosity by saying – ‘They’re rich but still nice’. To this the wife replies almost dismissively – ‘They’re nice because they are rich’. These lines become the core of a film which relies on simplistic yet echoingly profound narrative to tell the story of the engrained class-divide existing in progressive nations across the world. Bong Jo Hoo, the master storyteller from South Korea, flourishes with glorious strides reminding one of his critically worshipped sagas like Memories of Murder, Madeo and The Host. Parasite, unlike its predecessors constricts itself within its character philosophies and is captivated within a literal spatial framework; such a story-structure carving Parasite to be one of the most intimately told tales, which as if magical means balances a sense of fantastical and skin-pricking realism.

Parasite at a superficial level seems like a commentary about the bread & bun family structures and financial confines within which they are to find livelihood by any means possible. However, like a well-woven story, as one dwells deeper it becomes a specimen of cultural and class differences, showcased as a power-struggle between two sets of families. Petty humiliations, witty counter backs, wiley schemes, eccentric ambitions and cleverly orchestrated character setups make Parasite not just the most meaningful movie of this year but also ironically the most entertaining one as well. No surprises then that Parasite became only the second movie to get a unanimous vote for the Palme d’Or and the first Korean movie ever to be coveted with the honor.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (Korean)

The Korean action thriller by Lee Won Tae, is as absurd as it sounds in its English title. You have a tooth-grinding Gangster, a morally skewed Cop and well, a psychotic serial killer on the loose. Mix these three elements, and you have a highly inflammable thriller which unfolds at such relentless pace that the whole movie feels like a sword fight atop the Kyoto bound bullet train. The premise, absurd as it may seem, serves well in establishing Ma Dong-seok’s Gangster, who is the midst of a turf war but is suddenly and literally attacked out of the blue by Kim Sung-Kyu’s deranged killer. This makes Ma Dong-seok turn the city upside down to find the perpetrator. At this point Kim Mu-yeol’s arrogant to the core ethically ambiguous detective comes into the picture. His motivation in catching this serial killer lies in his innate inability to gather requisite resources from the department to nab the criminal. And thus, The Gangster and The Cop come to an agreement hiding daggers in their sleeves to catch The Devil. What follows are juicy twists, double betrayals, elaborate fight sequences and brilliant car chases.

The movie a thoroughly enjoyable fare is shouldered by its two main protagonists. Ma Dong-seok, with his trademark sullen eyes and an overpowering demeanor (not unlike his roles in Outlaws) contradicts himself by being a stickler for ethics and morals. He is countered by Kim Mu-yeol, who brings his usual tomboyish buffoonery to stifle around criminals however slowly showing a grayish interior making him a joy to watch. All this is blanketed by the creepy serial killer, who follows no patterns or philosophies to perhaps predict his moves. He kills on whim, thus making him the most volatile substance in this mixture. For anyone who likes action-thriller, this one deserves to be in your watching list.

An Elephant Sitting Still (Chinese)

Often times when a movie’s runtime crosses the two-hour mark, it is automatically categorized into either a tale of epic proportions or a meandering gaze of a storyteller at a philosophical proposal. It is rare then, that we come across a movie which serves as an amalgamation of the above stand points. An Elephant Sitting Still, which premiered at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, is an ambitiously made 4-hour long movie, which succinctly packages the moral conundrums faced by three men trying to escape their spiraling down lives for a utopic relief in a mythical town called Manzhouli. While the movie is as much about these men, it unravels a societal story at a comfortable pace, never feeling lazy or lost in its pursuit and sticking to acute character studies which both entice and excite.

Tragically though, the movie remains the first and only accomplished feature of Hu Bo, an acclaimed Chinese novelist best known for his works, Huge Crack and Bull Frog. Hu Bo committed suicide at the age of 29, on 12th October 2017, two years before the final version of the film even released. An Elephant Sitting Still thus is a testament of Hu Bo’s intricate understanding of life, which reflects thoroughly upon the screen, speckled with generous amounts of unriddling romances, provocative imagery and deeply derived psychological portraiture. A poignant tale of sociopolitical architecture, embedded within human critique, An Elephant Sitting Still is an essential watch for its misty dewed pathos.

Transit (German)

An emotional marmalade stoked with moral conundrums, ironical conflicts and passionate expositions, Christian Petzold’s Transit evokes the vocally deep-stringed character study that was the feature of Anna Segher’s 1944 novel of the same name. Transit finds its protagonist in Georg (a measurably prolific Franz Rogowski), a runaway Nazi operative awaiting a safe passage to Mexico in the war-torn port town of Marseilles. Georg’s objective of his halt at this French stoppage is to deliver a manuscript of a recently deceased leftist writer, George Weidel to his wife. What seems as a simple delivery favor, takes an interesting turn when Georg voluntarily takes up the identity of the writer, and his transit papers, unbeknownst to the grieving wife. In waiting for his extradition, Georg has to now befriend the writer’s son and play out a detached disliking of Marseilles in order to be considered for the passage.

In setting up the world of this story, Christian Petzold never resorts to detailing of Nazi principals nor of their tiptoed alliances. The world although set in 1940’s takes an apolitical standpoint, sporadically using the fascist overrunning as an overall impediment to the normalcy of societal life. Transit thus feels equal measures relevant and contemporary tale, bound to the periodicity only by its lead character’s principal pathos. Although dressed up as a character study, the film is essentially a thriller which revels in layered reveals of intentions and ambitions. Paula Beer (playing the widow of the writer, Marie) presents an enigmatic anti-thesis to Georg who presents his prepositions on the sleeve. Articulation in abstractedness, makes Transit a revered pondering of a time but with a tang urgency of a detailed thriller.

Thus, we wish that this list never ends in future and all hail storytellers..!!