Overlooked Foreign Features: 2011 Edition
This mysterious romance, from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, has become an absolute darling in certain circles, praised for its mysteries, graces, and powerful performances. The film stars William Shimell, one of Britain's most accomplished operatic baritones making his feature film debut, as James Miller, a British writer who, on a trip to Tuscany, meets a gallery owner named Elle. The two hit it off immediately, but there's a puzzling air to their proceedings, leaving the audience uncertain as to where the two actually stand. Beautiful to witness, poignant in its observations, and featuring a terrific performance from Juliette Binoche as Elle.
She might not be in the Best Actress race this year, but that doesn't make Jeong-hie Yun's central turn in Poetry anything less than magnificent. Yun, a formerly massive star in her native Korea who came out of a 16-year retirement to be in the film, stars as Mija, a grandmother who decides to take up a poetry class on a sort of whim. As Mija searches for the beauty needed to fill the stanzas, extreme trauma enters her life, throwing off the balance of both her existence, and that of the surly grandchild (Da-wit Lee) who lives under her care. Mija's trials are heartbreaking, and that's because Yun knows just how to sell them, her bright enthusiasm for life written all over her face for the film's first half, slowly dissolving into blank, deadened eyes. Writer/Director Chang-dong Lee captures the whole thing with an intoxicating minimalism, stripping down elements of craft, lingering on beautiful images until they seem to change meaning right before your eyes. Even better, he coaxed Yun's performance, which is simply one of the best of last year.
What exactly does Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives mean, you ask? Honestly, I could hardly tell you. Like a Taiwanese preface to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee is a movie that glides languidly through forests and subtle conversations, a magical unknown always lingering just behind the corner. It tells the story of Boonmee, a cancer-stricken man who becomes surrounded by friends, family, ghosts, and spirits as he transitions from life into death. In terms of literal, overt sense-making, Boonmee is a perplexing piece, content to move at its own languid pace, and explore its surreal, etherial themes with unselfconscious relish. To call it trippy or weird would only be to observe the obvious, and those in need of a pronounced plot will be left cold. This isn't a movie about understanding; It's about feeling, letting the rhythms of the jungle take hold, and marveling over this strange, strange dream.
This British romance stars Tom Cullen as Russell, a twenty-something Lifeguard who's not quite ready to come out of the closet. One night, he manages to bring home a bed-fellow named Glen (Chris New), an openly gay fellow with a knack for asking provocative questions. What starts out as a one-night-stand evolves into the sincere consideration of something real, something lasting. Writer/Director Andrew Haigh is positively enamored with realism, and he'll except nothing less from his actors, who match him every step. It's a knowingly small piece, filled with silly, natural dialogue, able to notice and capture expressions and moments too microscopic to be observed by your average film. It discusses a hot-button issue without over-doing it, thanks to a real focus and affection for character development, and a yearning to ring true at every turn.