I begin my top 30 films of 2015 with a countdown of 15 must-see foreign language films released in UK cinemas this year.
But isn't every language foreign to someone? .... errrmm ... yes, but that's besides the point!
15. Phoenix (Germany, dir. Christian Petzold)
Taking place in 1940s Berlin, when Holocaust survivors are returning from the camps, Nina Hoss plays a survivor recovering from facial reconstructive surgery in Christian Petzold's seventh feature film. Mistaken by her husband for a stranger with a strong resemblance to the wife he presumes is dead, she must learn to be the woman she was before the war so that she and her husband can collect her substantial inheritance. Petzold's use of colour and music to elicit his characters' past is seductive and moving. This luscious, Hitchcockian narrative is the kind of thought provoking meditation that digs into your mind to continue developing long after the projector has stopped running – thanks in no small part to a complex, severely beautiful performance by Petzold's regular muse, Nina Hoss.
14. Wild Tales (Argentina/Spain, dir. Damián Szifron)
Composed of six short stories, Relatos Salvajes takes a leisurely joyride through tales of vengeance, class warfare, masculine frustration and the wedding from hell. The unconnected stories are remarkably consistent in quality and the script has acerbic wit to spare. Relatos Salvajes satirises the etiquette that separates we law-abiding citizens from the animals of the wilderness and takes as its theme the characters' use of violence in reaction to the deficiencies of their own self-image. Immensely watchable and sharp as a floor covered in broken glass, Relatos Salvajes will not disappoint cinephiles with a dark sense of humour.
13. A Girl At My Door (South Korea, dir. July Jung)
One of the most understated gems to sneak into a limited theatre release this year is a magnetic story of abuse and alienation in a disenfranchised Korean fishing town. First-time writer-director July Jung eschews sentimentality and outrage in favour of quiet analysis of her characters' actions and a matter-of-fact condemnation of a society that would permit the abuse of a child. Prestigious Korean stars Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron play the two sore thumbs in their community: a disgraced, homosexual city slicker and a mentally ill, victimised teenager. The Korean society here portrayed is one incapable of protecting victims of abuse because of its instinctual desire to cast them out into the cold. Read my full review here.
12. Timbuktu (France/Mauritania, dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)
Celebrated African filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako delivers a deeply beautiful portrait of the Malian town of Timbuktu during its occupation in 2012 by the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, whose men imposed Sharia law on Northeastern Mali. Rather than portraying Sharia law merely as a brutal, archaic system, Sissako uses his precise form to hammer home the banal absurdity of the jihadist regime. The film's collection of stories pays subtle homage to people's natural impulse to live and express their passions. The film's wry wit and essential humanity creates tremendous impact during a scene in which three jihadists happily ignore a local woman, as she flaunts her disdain for Sharia law, so that they can finish their earnest discussion over who is the greater footballer: Lionel Messi or Zinedine Zidane.
11. Salt of the Earth (France/Brazil, dir. Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
Wim Wenders' latest explores the history of one of our greatest living photographers quite literally through his photographs. By placing Sebastião Salgado in front of a transparent screen, where he can view his photos from one side and the camera can view him from the other, Wenders captures the weight and pride of a career spent documenting the epic desperation of mankind on the photojournalist's face. Wenders, his co-director Juliano Salgado (Sebastião's son) and their editors cut together a marvel of documentary storytelling, and transform the usually hagiographic talking-head-profile format into something watchable, expressive and personal for participants on both sides of the camera.
10. Microbe & Gasoil (France, dir. Michel Gondry)
The latest from handmade movie wizard Michel Gondry is a modest, delightful Boy's Own adventure, highly recommended for anyone who spent their adolescence sketching cartoon boobs when they should have been doing their homework. When two 14-year-old boys build their own car from an old lawnmower engine, they decide to do a road trip across France, and to avoid the unwanted attention of the traffic cops they disguise their car as a garden shed. Shot through with the exhuberent creativity and handmade delights that Gondry is known for, Microbe & Gasoil is one of the most unabashedly sweet and enjoyable films of 2015. Read my full review here.
9. Blind (Norway, dir. Eskil Vogt)
An endlessly inventive and entertaining rendition of the creative process from within the author's head, Blind celebrates the therapeutic effects of storytelling. A woman attempts to cope with her sudden blindness by inventing fantasies of her husband's infidelity and the people that cross his path outside the safe haven of their home. With a sparse soundtrack and abundant flair in the cutting room, first-time director Eskil Vogt (regular writing partner of Joachim Trier) makes a compelling case for cinema as an ideal medium through which to explore the perceptions and relationships of those who are blind, as well as those who are simultaneously isolated and set free by their creativity.
8. Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Japan, dir. Isao Takahata)
In 2013 Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement and rumours abounded that his colleague Isao Takahata's Tale of the Princess Kaguya might be Studio Ghibli's last film. More recent reports indicate that this is not the case and Studio Ghibli's most recent film, When Marnie Was There (2014), will have a limited release in the UK next year. But if Kaguya had been the studio's swan song, then what a conclusion it would have been! This story of an unearthly princess raised by a humble woodcutter and introduced to polite society in Japan's Edo period is a product of generations of spoken folk-tales and stories told with paint and ink. As a result it is a deeply-affecting poem, valiantly setting out to capture the vitality of a young woman in love with the sensation of human emotion.
7. Force Majeure (Sweden/France/Norway, dir. Ruben Östlund)
Sweden's last submission for the Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language is a disaster movie of just-missed set pieces and invisible wreckage. A near miss with an avalanche in the Alps causes a middle class Swedish family to crumble under questionable notions of respect, fidelity, masculinity and the importance of the family unit. Like an airborne virus, this picture-perfect family’s discord infects everyone around them. Writer-director Ruben Östlund has said of his acidic black comedy that he hopes it will lead to an increase in divorce rates. Don’t take that comment with a pinch of salt. Take it head-on, take a deep breath, and watch Force Majeure in the company of someone you trust and (preferably) love. Though distressing and cynical, this film has more compassion for humanity in all its pathetic frailty than any number of heart-warming family dramas that whore out the indomitability of the human spirit in exchange for a happy ending.
6. Hard To Be A God (Russia/Czech Republic, dir. Aleksey German)
Adapting Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's 1964 sci-fi novel, the late Aleksey German's crowning achievement is a formal tour-de-force that grabs its audience by the scruff of the neck and frogmarches them into the blood, bile, piss, puss, shit and spit that humanity leaves in its wake and torches the fallacy of the Reluctant Messiah. On a planet not far from our own, scientists discover a medieval society that destroyed its own renaissance by persecuting its wise men, inventors and intellectuals. The scientists that have arrived from Earth have set up their own fiefdoms and battle to retain a grip on their sanity as they realise that their superior knowledge over the locals gives them no power at all to change the brutal, fascistic society that surrounds them. Defying those in search of a traditional narrative arc, Hard To Be A God is a film to write home about – an immersive sensory barrage of faces, voices, steam, mud and fetid biological material made over the course of fifteen years with an army of extras and full-scale physical sets captured on black and white 35mm. Think of it as a superior dark inversion of Avatar, then hold your nose, and jump in (you still won't be ready).
5. The Look of Silence (Denmark/Finland/Indonesia/Norway/UK, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & anonymous contributors)
Starting with The Act of Killing in 2012 and concluded with The Look of Silence, the documentary diptych that Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous co-directors have created of the far-reaching effects of the Indonesian killings of 1965 is a startling achievement in every respect – one that renders words of praise hollow and banal. Oppenheimer finds a remarkable protagonist in Adi, a patient, educated man, whose brother was murdered by militants before he was born. He goes around his community, giving eye exams for elderly residents and, during the exams, questions the perpetrators of his brother's murder on their view of the killings. In The Act of Killing the perpetrators of the mass killings in Indonesia lived out their dreams and their nightmares. In The Look of Silence the surviving relatives of the victims remain tethered to reality in its most merciless, protracted state, and watch the murderers of their friends and neighbours live in freedom and comfort just a stone's throw away. The only equaliser in this conflict of bitterness and denial is old age, but it is clear that neither old age, nor death, nor time can be commandeered as forces for justice.
4. The Dance of Reality (Chile/France, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Bona fide enfant terrible, Alejandro Jodorowsky has always brought a deeply personal part of himself to every project, but nowhere more so than in this anarchic account of his childhood in Chile and his relationship with his father, played here by his son, Brontis. Shooting in his childhood hometown of Tocopilla with a mostly non-professional local cast, Jodorowsky guides us through one vivid tableaux after another in search of the root of his fears and insecurities, leading eventually to a redemption of both father and son. Jodorowsky's penchant for playing fast and loose with arresting imagery is here in full force, along with quirks of character both humorous and sincere, such as having Pamela Flores sing every one of her lines in an angelic soprano tone because his real mother always wanted to be an opera singer. There is no right place to start with Jodorowsky but watching this film (with my own father, no less) after loving El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre for so many years made me feel like a member of the Jodorowsky family, listening to my beloved Uncle Jodo tell a beautiful story only previously heard in half-remembered fragments, surrounded by the people he loves.
3. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden/Norway/France/Germany, dir. Roy Andersson)
Try saying that title with a mouthful of porridge! (Keep a cloth handy if you do). Roy Andersson brings his Living Trilogy to a close with an exhibition of images and stories that will remain burned into the viewer's mind forever. Andersson's meticulous construction of massive interiors and lifelike facsimiles of the outdoor scenes have allowed him to create his own finely tuned limbo, in which various characters suffer the ludicrous, exquisite cruelties of life through situations that are banal and unremarkable as often as they are dramatic and surreal. Andersson is a deeply compassionate critic of humanity and with his actors' deadpan delivery, flawless production design and his camera's unblinking wide-angle shots, Andersson is able to repackage day-to-day reality (and surreality) in such a way as to invite maximum scrutiny of life's inherent absurdity. Frequently hilarious and with some distinctly un-Anderssonian characters (People without grey skin? Happiness? HUGGING?) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a poignant tribute to the act of being alive.
2. The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi)
This extraordinary feature debut is an arresting, icy slap in the face of institutional corruption. The criticism here is not something cosy that can be shrugged off as "what goes on over there" – it is a parody of the inevitable corruptibility of any institution and an indictment of society's contented ignorance of the neglect and exploitation that lies at the root of youth criminality. Set in a boarding school for deaf pupils, who communicate throughout the film in un-subtitled sign language, Slaboshpytskyi's shocking slice of a young man's life of crime is awesome to behold. Each scene is played out in a single, unbroken tracking shot (hats off to cinematographer/editor/producer Valentyn Vasyanovych) that denies Slaboshpytskyi the grammar of conventional cinema. This leaves the telling of the story in the hands of the deaf-dumb teenagers in front of the camera, as they smoke, drink, kick, punch and fuck their way through the elementary mafia system within their rotten boarding school. It's a tough film to stomach at times, but it is riveting, innovative cinema with a message both contemporary and timeless that should be easy enough for anyone to understand if they are willing to keep their eyes wide open.
1. Jafar Panahi's Taxi (Iran, dir. Jafar Panahi)
After four years under house arrest Jafar Panahi was eventually released into the streets of Tehran and found himself an inmate in a prison without walls. This is Panahi's third film since Iranian authorities imposed a lifetime ban on him making films and, with his relative freedom, he has chosen to transform a humble taxi cab into a mobile, covert film studio, which he drives himself. The resulting film, set over a single day, has the appearance of a documentary, but the delicious narrative invention in Panahi's script is unmistakable. Every new passenger in Panahi's cab unwittingly reveals a new observation, a new insight into the hopes and passions of the people of Tehran, how they choose to take or ignore the complex decisions in their lives. When Panahi picks up his niece, Hana, she grills him on the technique of a good filmmaker so that she can make a film for her school project. When life does not unfold in front of Hana's compact camera in accordance with the national censorship guidelines her teacher laid out, she must take to directing the people in the street to be more heroic and suppress the "vulgar social realism" of their lives, so that she can screen her film at school. True to form, Panahi spoils his audience with an abundance of wry humour, his flair for multi-layered storytelling and a lightness of touch when spinning us around with a nifty twist. Packed with loveable characters, enough dramatic irony to sink the Titanic, and a chilling coda to remind us of the government espionage used to enforce the ban on Panahi's filmmaking, this "unscreenable" film represents "vulgar social realism" at its most expressive and most vital. Taxi was awarded the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and the award was collected by Hana in lieu of her uncle, who is prohibited from travelling outside Iran. It is tempting to suppose that a well-meaning jury might award Panahi such an honour merely as a show of solidarity against the Iranian authorities, but to come to such a conclusion is to sell the film short. There are cameras everywhere that Panahi's characters go – cameras rigged inside the cab, cameras being used on mobile phones, cameras recording wedding videos, cameras watching our homes in case of intruders. In his exploration of life's non-conformity to the regulations of Iran's puritanical censors, Panahi has made an argument for the purpose of filmmaking and the value of his own defiance of the ban on his work. Filmmaking is everywhere and storytelling is not merely the way we come to understand existence, it is the very fabric of existence itself.