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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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The 10 best foreign films of 2010

35.jpg"35 Shots of Rum."  Two couples live across the hall in the same Paris apartment building. Neither couple is "together." Gabrielle and Noe have the vibes of roommates, but the way Lionel and Josephine love one another, it's a small shock when she calls him "papa." Lionel (Alex Descas) is a train engineer. Jo (Mati Diop) works in a music store. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) drives her own taxi. Noe (Gregoire Colin) claims only his much-loved cat is preventing him from moving to Brazil.

The four people are in and out of both apartments so readily, we sense they're a virtual family. One night they head out together in Gabrielle's taxi for a concert. The taxi breaks down, it rains, they shelter in a Jamaican cafe, there's good music on the juke box, they dance with one another. During the dancing and kidding around, it becomes clear to them, and to us, what must happen for the parts to fall into place.

Claire Denis, who has two films on this list, has long been interested in the former French colonies of West Africa, and in those who immigrated to France. She has no agenda except interest. You can live in a movie like this. She's not intruding, she's discovering. There's not a conventional plot, and that frees us from our interior movie . We flow with them. Two are blessed, two are problematic. Will all four be blessed at the end?

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"Biutiful." Javier Bardem at his most soulful, a man with a good heart doing illegal things. He traffics in the work of illegal immigrants to Spain, Chinese who sleep in a cramped basement and labor in sweat shop. His character isn't doing this to them; they are both cogs in the same machine. He sees them, he cares for them, he has big problems of his own. One of them is that he is dying.

The man, named Uxbal, has two children he loves tenderly, and a wife who loves them not enough. He moves in unsavory circles but is not unsavory. The undertext of the film is that in this economic world all life is hard and sad, and inhumanity is in the air they breathe. The director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams," "Babel,""Amores Perros") has left behind his usual interlinking crossplots and focuses on the life and approaching death of this man.

Bardem had a face that can easily show sadness. Some actors risk looking strange when they want to communicate sadness. He has scenes here, one in particular, when hsi grief is almost frightening.

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"Cell 211."  Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), is a serious young man His wife is pregnant, and his new job will be a big help. Knocked unconscious in an accident, he is carried to a bunk in an empty cell--Cell 211--and then a violent prison riot breaks. He boldly passes himself off as a new prisoner admitted only shortly before. The rioting prisoners are desperate. They're led by a brutal strongman, a lifer with nothing to lose, named Malamadre (Luis Tosar). Juan reads the situation immediately and instinctively he takes the role of a man siding with his fellow prisoners. When he makes canny strategic suggestions, he seems to prove his worth.

This is a thriller all the more ingenious because Juan's actions are based on desperate calculations and fast thinking, not on heroics. The game he plays is crafty as chess, as he must somehow seem completely plausible on the inside and yet signal his thoughts to police watching every move on closed circuit TV. Director Daniel Monzon generates a lot of suspense but avoids many prison movie cliches. His parallel story lines inside and outside the prison are are well timed and build together.

The term "mounting tension" is an overused cliché. To use it here would be appropriate. Little by little, one development at a time, the situation becomes more critical and the options for Juan and Malamadre grow more limited. And Juan's life always hangs in the balance. There is a moment, indeed, when he says something on a walkie talkie that would have betrayed him if anyone had been listening. "Cell 211" won eight Goya awards, the Spanish Oscars, this year. It has been optioned for a Hollywood remake.

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"The Chaser."  An expert serial killer film from South Korea and a poster child for what a well-made thriller looked like in the classic days. Its principal chase scene involves a foot race through the deserted narrow nighttime streets of Seoul. No exploding cars. The climax is the result of everything that has gone before, and not an extended fight scene. This is drama, and it is interesting. Action for its own sake is boring.

The film is a police procedural with a difference: The hero is an ex-cop named Jung-ho, now a pimp, and not a nice man. He is angered because a client of his call-girl service has been, he believes, kidnapping his girls and selling them. When another girl disappears, a phone number raises an alarm, and he sets out to track down the client--who didn't give an address but arranged a street rendezvous.

What we know is that the client is a sadistic murderer. The girl is driven in his car to an obscure address which she is not intended to ever leave alive. It is a characteristic of South Korean films that they display the grisly details of violence without flinching; the rights to this film have been picked up by Warner Brothers, and it's dead certain the violence and the shocking outcome itself will be greatly toned down. Let me simply note that Young-min's tools of choice are a hammer and a chisel, for reasons a police psychiatrist has much to say about.

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"Father of My Children."  We meet Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a plausible human being. A French film producer, an honest hustler, a loving father and husband, confident of his powers, enjoying his work, making films he believes in. "The Father of My Children" will watch this man come to pieces. It will not be dark melodrama or turgid psychology. It will simply be the story of a good man, well-loved, who runs into a dead end.

He is plunging into debt while producing an obscure project of a temperamental auteur not a million miles distant from Lars Von Trier. He loves his wife and three daughters. Their country house evokes quiet family togetherness, which is the idea, but his mind is often elsewhere, trying to find a way out of his troubles. Gregoire's office is also a family, in a way, and his employees share his vision. When calamity strikes, even his wife pitches in to help salvage his dream. The second half of the film is the most touching, because it shows that our lives are not merely our own, but also belong to the events we set in motion.

Chiara Caselli, as the producer's wife, is, like many wives of workaholic men, better-informed on his business that he can imagine. She believes in him and therefore in his hopes, and touchingly relates with the members of his office family as they all try to move things along. And the film gives due attention to the children, particularly Clemence (played by de Lencquesaing's own daughter), who negotiate unfamiliar emotional territory with their mother. The title (in French, "Le père de mes enfants") is appropriate.

The story is said to be inspired by the life of the real-life producer Humbert Balsan, who made Lars Von Trier's "Manderlay" (2005). Balsan had considerable success; making nearly 70 films, including three by James Ivory, and even acting for Bresson. He committed suicide when his business imploded.

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"Home." There are two questions never answered in "Home." How did this family come to live here? And why does the mother fiercely refuse to leave, even after a four-lane freeway opens in her front yard? As the film opens, they live in a small home in the middle of vast fields and next to the highway, which hasn't been used for ten years. So much is the road their turf that the story begins with them playing a family game of street hockey on its pavement.

Then the work crews arrive to prepare for the road to be re-opened. The opening of the highway isn't a surprise for them. Maybe they got the house cheap because it was coming. The heavy, unceasing traffic is a big problem. The two younger kids always ran across the bare pavement to cut through a field for school. Dad parked on the other side. Now even getting to the house is a problem.

The movie stars Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet, two dependably absorbing French stars, as the parents. Madness overcomes them. Something will have to give, and it does, as the movie grows more and more dark. It's the skill of Ursula Meier, the director and co-writer, to bring us to those fraught passages by rational stages. What happens would not make sense in many households, but in this one it represents a certain continuity, and confirms deep currents we sensed almost from the first.

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"Life, Above All" Oliver Schmitz's film, which hasn't and may not open here, was the best heart-warmer and tear-jerker at Cannes 2010. I use the term "tear-jerker" as a compliment, because this is a hardened crowd and when you hear snuffling in the dark you know it has been honestly earned. The film is about deep human emotions, evoked with sympathy and love.

"Life, Above All" takes place entirely within a South African township, one with moderate prosperity and well-tended homes. It centers on the 12-year-old Chanda, who takes on the responsibility of holding her family together after her baby sister dies. Her mother is immobilized by grief, her father by drink, and a neighbor woman helps her care for two younger siblings.

Suspicion spreads in the neighborhood that the real cause of the family's problems is AIDS, although the word itself isn't said aloud until well into the film. Let me particularly praise the performances of young Khomotso Manyaka, in her first role as Chanda; Keaobaka Makanyane as her mother, and Tinah Mnumzana as the neighbor. The film's ending frightens the audience with a dire threat, and then finds an uplift that's unlikely enough in its details to qualify as magic realism.

"Life, Above All" must have been particularly effective in South Africa, where former president Thabo Mbeki long persisted in puzzling denial about the causes and treatment of AIDS. This contributed to a climate of ignorance and mystery surrounding the disease, which in fact increased its spread. By directly dealing with the poisonous climate of rumor and gossip, the film takes a stand. But in nations where AIDS has been demystified, "Love, Above All" will play strongly as pure human drama, and of two women, one promptly and one belatedly, rising courageously to a challenge.

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"Mother."  The strange, fascinating film "Mother" begins with what seems like a straightforward premise. A young man of marginal intelligence is accused of murder. A clue with his name on it and eyewitness testimony tie him to the crime. His mother, a dynamo, plunges into action to prove her son innocent. So there we have it, right? He's either guilty or not, and his mom will get to the bottom of things. Or not.

The mother of the title, played by a respected South Korean actress named Kim Hye-ja, is a force of nature. In a village, she runs a little shop selling herbs, roots and spices. Her sideline is prescribing herbal cures. Her son Do-jun (Weon Bin), in his late 20s, lives at home and they sleep in the same bed. He's a few slices short of a pie. Early in the film, he's saved from death in traffic when his mother races to the rescue.

Did he do it? We can't be sure. Mother marches tirelessly around the village, doing her own detective work. She questions people, badgers them, harasses the police, comforts her son, hires a worthless lawyer. We learn everything she learns. It seems she's getting nowhere. And it's at this point that the movie might become upsetting for a mass audience, because "Mother" creates, not new suspects from off the map, but new levels in the previously established story.

"Mother" will have you discussing the plot, not entirely to your satisfaction. I would argue: The stories in movies are complete fictions, and can be resolved in any way the director chooses. If he actually cheats or lies, we have a case against him. If not, no matter what strange conclusions he arrives at, we can be grateful that we remained involved and even fascinated.

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"Vincere."  The image of Benito Mussolini has been shifted over the years to one of a plump buffoon, the inept second fiddle to Hitler. We've seen the famous photo of his ignominious end, his body strung upside down. We may remember his enormous scowling visage trundled out on display in a scene from Fellini's "Amarcord." What we don't envision is Mussolini as a fiery young man, able to inflame Italians with his charismatic leadership.

That's the man who fascinates Marco Bellocchio, and his "Vincere" explains how such a man could seize a young woman with uncontrollable erotomania that would destroy her life. She was Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), at first his lover, later his worst nightmare. When she first saw him before World War One, he was a firebrand, dark and handsome, and she was thunderstruck. For Ida, there was one man, and that was Benito (Filippo Timi), and it would always be so.

Was she mad? The term is "erotomania," defined by the conviction that someone is in love with you.It is not delusional if that person was in love with you, held you in his arms night after night, and gave you a son. The fascists instinctively protect Mussolini when she tries to accuse him of abandoning wife and child. When Ida appears in public places, she is surrounded and taken away without Benito even needing to request it. Finally, shamefully, she is consigned to an insane asylum, and the boy locked up in an orphanage. She becomes a familiar type: The poor madwoman who is convinced the great man loves her, and fathered her child. She writes letters to the press and the Pope; such letters are received every day.

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"White Material."  The second film on this list (after "35 Shots of Rum") by Claire Denis, and the second starring Isabelle Huppert (after "Home"). Huppert plays Maria Vial, a French woman running a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. The land has fallen into war, both against the colonialists and among the insurgents. In an opening scene, a helicopter hovers above Maria and French soldiers advise her to evacuate quickly. This she has no intention of doing. As it becomes clear that her life is in danger, she only grows more opaque. Huppert's approach is valuable here, because any attempt at a rational explanation would seem illogical. I believe her attachment to the land has essentially driven her mad.

They try to be reasonable with her. Yes, it will be a good crop of coffee beans, but there will probably be no way to get it to market. Anarchy has taken the land. Child soldiers with rifles march around, makeshift army stripes on their shirts, seeking "The Boxer" (Isaach De Bankole), a onetime prizefighter and now the legendary, if hardly seen, leader of the rebellion. When Maria is held at gunpoint, she boldly tells the young gunmen she knows them and their families. Her danger doesn't seem real to her. There is no overt black-white racial tension; the characters all behave as the situation would suggest.

This is a beautiful, puzzling film. The enigmatic quality of Huppert's performance draws us in. She will never leave, and we think she will probably die, but she seems oblivious to her risk. There is an early scene where she runs in her flimsy dress to catch a bus, and finds there are no seats. So she grabs onto the ladder leading to the roof. The bus is like Africa. It's filled with Africans, we're not sure where it's going, and she's hanging on.  

"35 Shots of Rum," "The Chaser," "Mother" and "Vincere" are playing on Netflix Instant. Trailers to others and related films are below Facebook.  

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