A Foreign Film Mini-Festival at Redbox!

by | Oct 31st, 2011 | 10:00PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movie Lists, Movies, Weekly redbox Picks

I’m the first to admit that as a film lover, my weak spot is foreign drama–and I’m sure I’m not alone in harboring a bit of xenophobia at the cineplex when it comes to reading subtitles. However, in recent years I’ve come to value carefully crafted meaning, character, thoughtfulness, and atmosphere in films over spectacle and cheap thrills–and in the process I’ve accidentally discovered the rich rewards of foreign-language movies.

The five films listed below are what you might think of as “typical” foreign films: heavy subject matter, often pensive pacing, and not always the most cheerful or conventionally uplifting films. But several of them are among the best films of the past year–two of them were nominated for Academy Awards, one of them won Best Foreign Language Film. All are stunning and thought-provoking–you won’t turn off the DVD player and walk away from them. Instead, for days you’ll be carrying around the ideas they explore and the emotions they evoke.


One of the best films of the year, the Oscar-nominated Incendies follows adult Arab-Canadian twins as they search their Lebanon-like native country for answers about their recently deceased mother’s past. They’re trying to find their still-living father (who they thought dead) and a brother they never knew they had. The narrative powerfully flashes back to the unspeakable horrors endured and brutal choices made by their mother (a brilliant Lubna Azabal) as an Arabic Christian raised in a Muslim country, and much of the film looks unflinchingly and disturbingly at the acts committed by both sides of a religious war. But at the heart of Incendies is a shocking mystery that digs painfully at how war upends and shatters families, communities, and moral society. And yet, like every film on this list, Incendies still offers hope from out of the darkness. Foreign-language or not, this is what great, emotionally challenging cinema looks like.

In A Better World

The 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign-Language Film comes wrapped in all the Lofty Ideas and Big Lessons you might expect. But it also serves up a gripping story, driven by stellar acting acting from its young stars. Markus Rygaard is Elias, a sensitive and lonely (but also weak and malleable) Swedish child of divorce who’s bullied in his new Danish school–at least until he finds a friend, protector, and uneasy idol in William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen’s Christian, who’s recently lost his mother. Elias’ father is an aid worker in Africa, providing In a Better World plenty of grist for its moral debate about pacifism versus defensive aggression. But the real problems are back at home, where Christian’s new-found philosophy of strength for “justice” leads the two boys down a foreboding and violent path.

Winter in Wartime

It wouldn’t be a foreign film fest without at least one movie about the Nazis. Luckily this captivating story focuses on Michiel, an adolescent boy (the excellent Martijn Lakemeier) growing up in a Dutch village occupied by the Germans, and helping hide a downed British pilot during the final months of WWII. Michiel’s loyalties are torn between his father the mayor–who he sees as weak-willed for his willingness to appease the Germans in order to protect his family and townspeople–and his uncle, a dashing, daring resistance fighter. Winter in Wartime paints a cold and snowy portrait of life under occupation (one where the Germans are not easy cartoon caricatures), but more importantly it takes us on Michiel’s coming of age journey (and loss of innocence) as he navigates the more complex waters of adulthood.

Of Gods and Men

This is a quiet but powerful dramatization of the true story of French Trappist monks caught in the middle of the ’90s Algerian Civil War between the government and Islamic rebels. As a vicious rebel leader closes in, the Roman Catholic monks must decide whether to turn their monastery over to protection from a government they disprove of, abandon the community of Muslim villagers they provide medical care for, or stay and face uncertain dangers and possible martyrdom at the hands of Islamist extremists who’ve been killing foreigners. Anchored by a deeply thoughtful and affecting performance from Lambert Wilson as the monks’ prior, in its first half, Of Gods and Men paints a lovely and idyllic portrait of monastic life and religious altruism. And yet, as events turn darker, the film’s themes of grace, love, and forgiveness shine even more beautifully and movingly.


Thanks to Javier Bardem, in its strongest moments, the Best Foreign Film nominee Biutiful takes us to unvarnished, unromanticized places we may not want to go, and yet makes the experience something enriching, cathartic, even uplifting. As a Barcelona street hustler with terminal cancer, Bardem gives an Oscar-nominated performance that’s heartbreaking and raw but also so nuanced and honest it seems to single-handedly reflect and define our collective fragile, damaged humanity. Biutiful asks us to sympathize with a character it would be easy to blame or ignore, and to see humanity and beauty in a world and life that too often feels dauntingly ugly.

5 Responses to “A Foreign Film Mini-Festival at Redbox!”

  1. Jen Sci Fi Friend
    Posted on November 1, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Locke – Thank you for highlighting and giving credit due to these gems and the foreign film industry in general. Remember I lamented the lack of creativity from Hollywood a few years back and found solace in foreign films. I hope Redbox continues to provide access to some very well done foreign films and hope you and Erika continue to highlight them.

    However, how can you say recent years you have come around? Triplets of Belleville is from years ago!

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on November 1, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    That’s a good point, Jen, and sure, I’ve always had foreign films I loved (I’m a huge fan of WINGS OF DESIRE and CINEMA PARADISIO), but in general I mostly prefered foreign-language films with some element of genre entertainment, humor, romance, or the fantastical. (Or martial arts or sci-fi.) TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE hardly disproves my point — it’s an animated bit of comic whimsy, and there’s barely any dialogue in it anyway.

    In the past, every few years I’d make a point to check out one or two of the really heavily lauded, much-ballyhooed foreign films that were on everyone’s “best of” lists. But what I’m saying is that in general in the past few years I’ve come to really embrace foreign DRAMA like the titles above–the heavier, more challenging stuff, more “real-world” stuff–in a much bigger, broader way.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on November 4, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I can’t believe winter in wartime was not even nominated for the oscar for best foreign film,redbox should release the algerian-french movie outside the law.

    Posted on November 4, 2011 at 12:28 am

    Hey winter in wartime is a dutch movie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on November 4, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Folladordeprostis, you are absolutely correct — my mistake, now corrected. Thank you for the heads up — I have no idea how I got “Norway” in my head while writing that.