It was not a great year for foreign films. In America, that is. Or, more exactly in that America between New York and Los Angeles. Distributors, even those specializing in indie films, have grown shy of movies that look like tricky sales, and with the economic downturn, the situation has grown more depressing. I saw subtitled films that would be great in any year, however, and they are on this list.
Although I missed Cannes this year, I did attend the Toronto festival and saw good foreign films that will not open until 2009, including the Cannes winner "The Class," "O'Horten" and "Waltz with Bashir." Of those that did open, all are terrific entertainments, which is probably why they won distribution. Looking over my earlier list of the year's 20 best, I see no thrillers nearly as exciting as "Tell No One" and "Transsiberian." Indeed, I see no thrillers at all. There is only one human comedy to rival "In Bruges" and no vampire film even remotely as good as "Let the Right One In."
These best 10 are arranged alphabetically; all should be considered on a par with the earlier 20, and can be described as "one of the year's best films" (the only real value of such lists is to help worthy films finds audiences).
"A Christmas Tale": Unlike any movie you can imagine about a dying mother (Catherine Deneuve) and her extended family at Christmastime. Director and co-writer Arnaud Desplechin gracefully moves among the family members, all of whom seem to be more preoccupied with their own troubles than hers. What shines through the movie is the mother's serenity. Desplechin's playful approach subtly shows more than one way to handle this material.
"The Duchess of Langeais": About two elegant aristocrats whose compulsions eat them alive. They're bull-headed to the point of madness. Guillaume Depardieu plays a famous general who sees the duchess (Jeanne Balibar) at a ball, and begins a courtship that seems to have no end. Jacques Rivette, now 80, shows their fruitless romantic duel as a series of conversations that drift away from the passion of sex and into the passion of winning, in a series of almost hypnotic tableaux. Sadly, Guillaume, son of Gerard, died at 37 in October after mounting health problems.
"The Edge of Heaven": Surprisingly powerful for a movie telling interlocking stories, which sometimes go astray. It involves an old Turkish man in Bremen, Germany, a middle-aged Turkish prostitute he meets there, her daughter and his son in Turkey, and the strands they may not realize connect them. It works so well not because of those strands, but because of who they are, and how writer-director Fatih Akin understands them.
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days": A harrowing, yet sometimes strangely comic, Romanian film about an utterly clueless young woman (Laura Vasiliu) who begs her roommate (Anamaria Marinca) to help her find an abortion. The roommate does everything but have the abortion herself. A journey of frustration, stupidity, duplicity, cruelty and desperation, set against a background of a nation where, in the late 1980s, if it weren't for the black market there would have been no market at all.
"A Girl Cut in Two": The latest from Claude Chabrol, 78, another New Wave director still in top form. His film plays like a triangular romantic comedy, until we discover that all three of the lovers are hurtling headlong to self-destruction. Even then it's comedic, in a macabre Hitchcockian way. Ludivigne Sagnier as the girl, young and ambitious. Benoit Magimel as an insufferably spoiled rich kid. Francois Berleand as a famous author but older.
"I've Loved You So Long": Kristin Scott Thomas may win an Oscar nomination for her performance as a long-imprisoned woman who returns to her family but still lives with a cloud of shame and secrecy. Acting in French, she warms, is more free with emotions, more easily reaches joy and sorrow. Watch her at a dinner party as a guest takes sadistic pleasure in asking her questions it is clear she can not answer. Written and directed by Philippe Claudel.
"The Last Mistress": An astonishing performance by Asia Argento, playing the most famous courtesan in Paris, who loses her lover (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) to marriage, and does everything she can to win him back -- not for love, but for her reputation. Directed by Catherine Breillat, famous for her explicit eroticism; a film of shocking psychological combat, somewhat similar in period and theme with "The Duchess of Langeais," but its emotional opposite.
"Let the Right One In": A powerful reminder that vampires, if there were vampires, would not be a joke. They might have been victimized young, stuck at that age into immortality, be poor, be lonely. A boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), shared between indifferent parents, is befriended by the kid next door named Eli (Lina Leandersson). "Are you a vampire?" he asks. Yes. But one who likes him and is protective, in a poignant and sometimes blood-drenched story. Not for fans of "Twilight."
"Tell No One": Spellbinding. Deserves comparison with Hitchcock. A man goes on a midnight swim with his wife, he is struck unconscious, she disappears, suspicion hangs over his head, and several years later, he begins to receive e-mails that could only be from her. The scene of their planned rendezvous in a park is masterful. Starring Francois Cluzet, Marie-Josee Croze and (again in French) Kristin Scott Thomas, and directed by Guillaume Canet.
"XXY": Starring Ines Efron as Alex, born with both male and female sex organs and, at 15, a high-spirited tomboy who broods privately about the choices ahead. During a summer holiday on an island, Alex meets both a surgeon who may have suggestions, and the surgeon's son; they are attracted to each other. Not a sensational telling of this story, but a sensitive and romantic one, well acted. From Argentina, written and directed by Lucia Puenzo.
One: Although I have long defended celluloid projection over video, the time has come for me to relent. Video projection is now excellent; it was not in earlier years, even though its proponents claimed it was. I still prefer film, but I think the time is approaching when the original promise of video can come true. If distributors of foreign and indie films are able to beam a video signal directly to theaters, the cost savings on the manufacture and distribution of prints would be enormous, and allow wide simultaneous openings even in smaller cities. It's clear something has to be done, and maybe this is it.
Two: I am sure to get complaints pointing out that "The Band's Visit," one of the films on my other list, is a foreign film, having been made in Israel. Yes, that is true. But the Egyptian and Israeli characters in it do not speak a word of each others' languages and are forced to communicate in English. In a decision of remarkable stupidity, the Oscar academy said the movie had too much English dialogue to qualify as a foreign film. So I am observing their ruling as a sort of protest.
That leaves "In Bruges," on this list, as a film of English speakers in a foreign land. Another fence-sitter. So it gets the Jury Prize, because, like "My Winnipeg," it falls outside easy categorization. If you think my reasoning is goofy, let me say I agree. But there would have been an Internet uproar of titanic proportions if I had issued two lists, one with 11 titles and one with nine. The anal retentive enforcers of movie critic rules become hyperactive at annual lists time. So maybe one of my motives is to demonstrate my belief that ranking movies in lists has only one point: to honor good films I hope you would admire.