Heightened Anticipation: 15 Foreign Language Films for 2016

It should be clear from my list of English language releases to look forward to this year that 2016 is already shaping up to be proof (if proof was needed) that we live in a golden age of cinema. More filmmakers have access to funding than ever before, and a wider range of film distributors make more and more diverse and exciting films available to the viewing public with every passing year. So what have we to look forward to from the new year's foreign language output?

New films are expected on the 2016 festival circuit from Belgium's premiere social realists the Dardenne Brothers, the maddeningly young Quebecois prodigy Xavier Dolan, Iranian maestro Asghar Farhadi and the incredible Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. Not to mention the latest from Lav Diaz and Mia Hansen-Løve, which will premiere in Berlin next month. I'm also still holding out hope that Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer's latest half-animated, half-live-action oddity will emerge from its chrysalis this year. But I have no room on this list for speculation, so (apart from one notable exception) I'm sticking with titles already slated for release in 2016, either in the UK or the US.

Let's get to it.

ARABIAN NIGHTS VOLUMES 1 - 3 (a.k.a. AS MIL E UMA NOITES, Portugal/ France/ Germany/ Switzerland, dir. Miguel Gomes)

Do you have room in your life for a six-and-a-half-hour Portuguese epic? If your answer is ‘Yes’ then this year you will have the pleasure of a UK release for Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, a grand political statement on the state of modern-day Portugal, structured around the skeleton of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Gomes’ lyrical magnum opus was keenly awaited by critics after his 2012 success Tabu, and promises an unforgettable experience. The film was already released in three parts in the US, all of which will play in the UK in the spring. After the ginormous Russian epic Hard To Be A God last year, I’d say I’m ready for another challenging, absurdly long film. Mercifully, this one will be presented in bite-sized chunks: Vol. 1 - The Restless One (UK release on 22nd April) Vol. 2 - The Desolate One (UK release on 29th April) and Vol. 3 - The Enchanted One (UK release on 6th May).

THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (LE TOUT NOUVEAU TESTAMENT, Belgium/ France/ Luxembourg, dir. Jaco van Dormael)

Jaco van Dormael’s fourth film is a high-concept comedy that posits that God is not dead — he lives in Brussels with his daughter. On top of that, he is a complete arse. When God's daughter tires of his ill treatment of her and of humanity at large, she takes it upon herself to sabotage his cruel torture of the human race. God is played as a mean-spirited schlub by Benoît Poelvoorde, the charismatic, mugging psychopath at the centre of Belgian classic Man Bites Dog, and Catherine Deneuve hops into bed with a gorilla. Colour me intrigued. The trailer over-eggs the film’s broad comedy a little too much for its own good, but the promise of Van Dormael’s film is that it doesn’t begin and end merely as a series of crazy gags: beneath the surface is a story about a young girl challenging the behaviour of her father and forging her own sense of morality à la une farce majeureUK release on 25th March / US release TBA

CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR (a.k.a. RAK TI KHON KAEN - LOVE IN KHON KAEN, Thailand, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethacul)

First, watch the trailer above — WOW. Thailand’s premiere cinematic auteur, nicknamed 'Joe' for the sake of the foreign press, follows up his Palme D’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with another mysterious story rooted in the spiritual mythology of Thailand. Atmospheric, stimulating and layered with narrative and psychological meaning, Weerasethacul’s work stirs thoughts and feelings that few filmmakers can reach. Jenjira Pongpas stars as a woman caring for soldiers afflicted by sleeping sickness, who falls in love with one of her charges. Lyrical, sinister and peculiar in all the right places, if the trailer is anything to go by, then this is likely to be a contender for my best of 2016 list (if someone would just hurry up and set the UK release date). UK release TBA / US release on 4th March.

EL CLAN (Argentina, dir. Pablo Trapero)

Pablo Trapero has the Ricardo Darín Stamp of Approval (the director and star worked together on critical hits Carancho and Elephante Blanco). Frankly, that’s good enough for me, but Trapero is also one of Argentina’s most celebrated living filmmakers and it is comforting to see that his work is returning to UK cinemas. El Clan is based on the true-life crimes perpetrated by the Puccio family, who became serial kidnappers in 1980s Buenos Aires. Beyond extorting money from wealthy families, the Puccio family’s crimes extended to murdering their victims after the ransom was paid. A strong cast of Argentinian stars and a stylish, politically vocal writer-director like Trapero make this yet another enticing release from Latin America’s largest film industry. (Sorry, no English subtitles on the trailer above). UK release on 27th May / US release on 29th January.

EL CLUB (Chile, dir. Pablo Larraín)

Also on its way from Latin America is the first of four forthcoming films from Chilean provocateur Pablo Larraín. The success of his knock-out 2012 film No and TV series Prófugos for HBO Latin America has clearly paid dividends by leading Larraín to two new productions in Chile (El Club and Nerruda, which will hopefully pop up on this year’s festival circuit), as well as attention from Hollywood in the form of the Natalie-Portman-starring Jackie Onasis biopic and the modern-day remake of Scarface. Admittedly these last two films sound a bit dodgy, but there can be no doubt that any new release from a talented left-wing firebrand like Larraín is a must-see, and El Club has a particularly great hook. Four priests have been hidden away by the church in a remote community in Southern Chile to ponder their quite considerable sins, which include child abuse and baby-snatching. Into this group comes a fifth man, who forces the priests to relive the past and assess whether or not they are truly repentant. Larraín is an uncompromising filmmaker and a master of suspense in scenes that pit adversaries against each other with only words as weapons and no armour whatsoever. Though it is modest in its scale, it would probably be sensible to brace yourself for El Club. UK release on 25th March / US release on 5th February.

CROCODILE GENNADIY (USA/Ukraine, dir. Steve Hoover)

Much to my disappointment, this is not a big-screen outing for the characters of Roman Kachanov’s delightful Cheburashka (Чебура́шка) shorts, but a documentary about the controversial Ukrainian pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko. The pastor does indeed compare himself to the wise crocodile, Gena, who befriends the peculiar little creature Cheburashka, and there is an obvious significance in this metaphor, given that Gennadiy Mokhnenko is known for his uncompromising methods of rehabilitation for teenaged drug addicts in Ukraine. These methods enter vigilante territory with the abduction of homeless youths from the streets of Mariupol and their forced enrolment in the pastor’s rehabilitation programme. Crocodile Gennadiy debuted to glowing reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and comprises years of footage shot by documentarian Steve Hoover. Executive Produced by Terrence Malick, scored by Atticus Ross and examining Mokhnenko’s activities from a close vantage point, Hoover’s documentary is sure to be a thought provoking portrait of a remarkable public figure, but let the title serve as a warning. “Crocodile” does not merely refer to a cartoon character known to children throughout the former USSR, it is also the street name for the flesh-eating designer drug Desomorphine, that has spread like wildfire through Russia and Ukraine, and is the substance that Mokhnenko is attempting to help many teenagers kick by any means necessary. Delightful, it ain’t. UK release on 10th June / US release TBA

DHEEPAN (France, dir. Jacques Audiard)

Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a celebrated playwright and novelist in France, where he found political asylum in 1993. In his first leading film role Jesuthasan draws on his own experiences as a child soldier with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers for the story of an ex-militant, who moves to the Le Pre-Saint-Gervais housing project in northeastern Paris. In order to do this he must adopt the identity of a dead man, Dheepan, and take with him a woman and a girl, whom he barely knows, in the roles of Dheepan's wife and daughter. In the concrete jungle of Le Pre, Dheepan finds himself compelled to encourage peace by the introduction of no-conflict zones, where the criminal gangs of the deprived community are forced to tolerate each other. Dheepan took home the Palme D'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, a gratifying success for Jacques Audiard, whose highly regarded crime classic Un Prophète (one of my most egregious cinematic blindspots) received the Grand Prix (second place in the main competition) in 2009. Reviews have been almost universally positive for Dheepan, and praise for Audiard's highly cinematic depiction of Le Pre certainly whets my appetite for a dynamic slice of contemporary French social realism. UK release on 4th March / US release TBA

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE, Colombia, dir. Ciro Guerra)

I have been singing the praises of this film ever since I saw it at the London Film Festival last October (you can read my full review here) and it is worthy of inclusion on this list, not only as a film that I believe every self-respecting cinephile should see, but also as a film certain to reward its audience with repeat viewings. I could care less about seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the cinema again, whereas Embrace of the Serpent is a film I am anxious to mark on the calendar (no UK release date is yet set). Quite deservedly the film is also on the shortlist of candidates for the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar category and it would be a crime for the Academy to overlook this incredible cinematic achievement. Interpreting the true-life story of two scientists, who travelled to the Amazon jungle in search of the sacred yakruna plant, Embrace... takes as its protagonist a native shaman, who encounters both scientists at different stages in his life and is compelled to help each of them in their quest for the yakruna. Embrace of the Serpent confirms Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra as one of the most distinctive film artists working today, on par with Roy Andersson, Werner Herzog, Yorgos Lanthimos and Lucretia Martel. UK release TBA / US release on 17th February. 

GOODNIGHT MUMMY (a.k.a. ICH SEH, ICH SEH, Austria, dir. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

This nasty-looking barb from Austria opened in the US in September last year to strong reviews and much praise as a creepy, nightmarish horror. The trailer does a lot to support this, setting up the concept of a horror film about two identical twin boys, whose mother returns from cosmetic facial surgery and begins to display unhinged behaviour. As she becomes increasingly cruel and threatening towards her children, the two boys begin to suspect that she is not, in fact, their mother. Boasting not one, but two kinds of creepy masks, plus creepy twins, plus creepy-crawly insects, plus creepy head shaking antics in the woods, Goodnight Mummy looks like a vile treat for horror fans. UK release on 4th March.

JULIETA (a.k.a. SILENCIO, Spain, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Pedro Almodóvar is back in the rich dramatic territory of films about women. Shot in Madrid and multiple locations in Andalucia and Galicia, Almodóvar's twentieth film charts thirty years in the life of the titular heroine, Julieta, played as a young woman by Adriana Ugarte and as an older woman by Emma Suárez. According to Almodóvar's recent interview with the Financial Times the film was originally titled Silencio "because that's the principal element that drives the worst things that happen to the female protagonist." In November Almodóvar retitled the film in order to avoid confusion with Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film Silence, an interesting peccadillo that draws attention to the joyous fact that we have new films from A-list auteurs Pedro Almodóvar and Martin Scorsese likely to drop in the same year! (Sorry, no English subtitles on the trailer above). UK release on 26th August / US release TBA

MUSTANG (Turkey/France, dir. Deniz Gemze Ergüven)

Turkish director Deniz Gemze Ergüven's debut film is another must-see from Cannes 2015, which has already garnered plaudits from critics on its Stateside release. Beginning with an incident drawn from her own adolescence, Ergüven's film tells the story of five sisters, whose deeply conservative family punish them for an afternoon's innocent tomfoolery with some school boys by locking them away and confiscating any objects likely to "pervert" the girls, such as mobile phones, make up and revealing clothing. From there the family begins the process of forcing each girl into an arranged marriage. Praised for the performances of its five unknown young stars, who shared the Sarajevo Film Festival Award for Best Actress among them, Mustang is pitched as a vibrant depiction of adolescent sexuality and educated young minds being literally imprisoned by the arcane morality of religious conservatism. As the only debut film on my list this year, Mustang will hopefully announce the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker to European cinema. UK release on 13th May.

NO HOME MOVIE (Belgium/France, dir. Chantal Ackerman)

On 6th October 2015, French newspaper Le Monde made an unconfirmed report that the sudden death of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, aged 65, was suicide. Ackerman's death is undoubtedly a profound loss to the world of cinema, as her career encompassed groundbreaking films like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), I, You, He, She (1976) and Nuit et Jour (1991) and influenced the work of filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Michael Haneke. Her last film, No Home Movie, is the product of several recorded conversations between Ackerman and her mother, Natalia, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland, who settled in Brussels after World War II. Ackerman's film unfolds on consumer-grade video, navigating conversations both banal and revealing. The film was booed by some members of the press during its premiere at last year's Locarno Film Festival (surely continental Europe is the only place where booing is a part of the festival experience) but has since gained traction among many critics' circles. In a film that is bound to be reminiscent of her portrait of housewife Jeanne Dielman, Ackerman has chosen to pay tribute to her mother, who died aged 86 in 2014, and it seems inevitable that Ackerman's own sudden death will lend a new contextual dimension to the experience. UK release TBA / US release on 1st April.

RAMS (HRÚTAR, Iceland/Denmark, dir. Grímur Hákonarson)

I freely admit that an Icelandic black comedy about two elderly shepherds is going to be a hard sell, but hear me out. Rams won top honours in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and is pitched as a dry comedy about two estranged brothers, who must help each other to prevent the slaughter of both their flocks of sheep by the local health authorities. Scandi/Nordic region films that make the crossover to British and American theatres often represent the finest work from a region blessed with a history of exceptional filmmaking, where what might at first appear to be a quirky deadpan comedy is often only the upper layer of a far deeper, richer experience. UK release on 5th February / US release on 3rd February.

SON OF SAUL (SAUL FIA, Hungary, dir. László Nemes)

The most talked about foreign film of 2015 is finally coming to UK cinemas. It would seem that the next Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language is Son of Saul’s to lose after a run of overwhelmingly strong reviews that began with the film’s premiere in competition at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix last year. Son of Saul also received accolades from Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah and Last of the Unjust, who praised the film’s accuracy in depicting the living hell of the Jewish Sonderkommandos — inmates of concentration camps, who were forced by the Nazis to dispose of the bodies of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. Son of Saul adopts the viewpoint of a Sonderkommando, who believes that he has found his dead son, and spirits the body away so that he might find a rabbi willing to give the boy a proper Jewish burial. Critics of all stripes have drawn attention to the way in which director László Nemes and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély use the camera to simultaneously lock the audience in with the emotional numbness of their protagonist and comment on the very inexpressibility of the inhumanity that took place during the Holocaust. It would seem that a film such as this simply has no need of a trailer, and yet, somehow, one exists. UK release on 1st April.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (a.k.a. 思い出のマーニー OMOIDE NO MĀNĪ, dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan)

The Secret World of Arrietty, Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Mary Norton’s book ‘The Borrowers’, announced the arrival of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who would supposedly succeed Hayao Miyazaki as the principal creative force in Japan’s most beloved animation studio. The future of Studio Ghibli has been in doubt for some time now, and its founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both retired on high notes with The Wind Rises and Tale of the Princess Kaguya, respectively. It is uncertain whether or not Yonebayashi’s second film as director is going to be Studio Ghibli’s swan song or the first step towards a new era, but it is a comfort to know that there is at least one more Ghibli film coming to UK screens. When Marnie Was There adapts one of Hayao Miyazaki’s favourite children’s novels, written by Joan G. Robinson, and tells the story of Anna, an orphan, who is sent to the coast in the hope that the sea air will soothe her asthma (a strong parallel with the human boy in Arrietty). There she strikes up a friendship with Marnie, an otherworldly girl, whose absent parents leave her in the care of their unkind servants. IMDB lists the film as having an unspecified limited release in the UK and Ireland in 2016. I have included this film here by way of proffering a plea to the powers that be: let us, the great unwashed of Britain and Ireland, see this film in the cinema! Please! For fuck’s sake! Why films from one of the most respected animation studios in the world are not released to British theatres in the same year as they are in Japan is beyond me, and highlights the short shrift given animated films by UK distributors. If When Marnie Was There interests you at all, and appears at a cinema near you, then vote with your pounds and go see it in the cinema! Take a friend, for that matter — perhaps one who doesn’t mind you blubbing on their shoulder. UK release TBA

Click 'Older' below to go to my list of 2016's most promising English language releases and, as always, say 'YES!' to going to the cinema in 2016!