The Golden Globes’ racist disqualification of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s American-made Minari from its Best Picture categories will not be the last debacle from the embarrassing awards body—one that shouldn’t be given the time of day by anyone that enjoys movies nor screen time on a major network—but it does at least provide a jumping-off point to highlight the best movies of the year that were actually produced outside the United States.
Though, of course, all genres were well-represented this year in the global film industry, documentaries from around the world should be given special consideration. After all, in a year when virtual cinemas, streamers and online festivals overran traditional theatrical moviegoing, docs saw increases in audience and distribution possibilities. You might note that our larger Best Documentaries list features more non-U.S. entries than any other of our 2020 film lists. Yet, in a larger sense, international movies found similar traction across the board stateside thanks in part to the indie, arthouse feel that define many that reach the U.S and the distribution methods that accompany that style of film. They might not have made as big an initial splash as if they’d hit the theater in a normal year, but incredible achievements in drama (Martin Eden), animation (The Wolf House) and horror (La Llorona) surely benefited from Americans that might not normally venture outside their comfort zones finding themselves scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through any new movie offerings—regardless of nationality.
Isolation and trauma provided a throughline for the year’s global films, which made the small bright interpersonal connections fighting past them resonate even more deeply. Here’s hoping that 2020 expanded some horizons and, perhaps, kicked off some newfound and loving addictions to international cinema.
Out of context, “accessible Quentin Dupieux” is oxymoronic, like “jumbo shrimp,” “bittersweet,” and “compassionate conservative,” but Deerskin, though every bit as strange as is to be expected from the Parisian DJ-cum-electronic musician-cum-filmmaker, makes sense without undercutting the qualities that define Dupieux’s body of work. It’s entirely unlike every other movie presently enjoying a last-minute VOD release, being a well-made, proudly weird, genre-agnostic commentary on themes ranging from middle age male vanity to navel-gazing, self-obsessed independent cinema. Unlike Dupieux’s prior work, à la Rubber, Wrong and Reality, Deerskin’s determination to explain itself as little as possible is complemented by its internal logic. The delight the film takes in the script’s eccentricities is inviting rather than alienating.
Restraint, even in a black comedy laced with charm and gory carnage, is a virtue, and it’s Deerskin’s best merit. Coming in a very close second is Jean Dujardin’s performance, simultaneously low-key and commanding: He keeps his cards close to the fringe vest, an inscrutable presence in a story hanging on his every move. Georges makes no secret of his dream (or is it the jacket’s dream?) to be the only person in the world to wear a coat. It’s the motive that’s elusive. But the elusion is part of Deerskin’s pleasure, and Dupieux’s filmmaking persuades viewers to embrace the inexplicable. Fashion is worth suffering for. Here, it’s worth killing for.—Andy Crump
Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov’s Cannes hit Beanpole is as harrowing and moving as its title is disarming. The Leningrad-set story of two women ravaged by World War II is disturbingly intimate, rife with personal failure and grief. There is a lack of nutrition, housing, jobs, clothing, heat—you name it, they lack it. But the absence of these physical necessities (elegantly shown through production design) only masks the greater gaping wound lurking higher atop Maslow’s hierarchy: The dearth of fulfillment, even the illusion of such, is deadly. The towering Iya AKA Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and her anti-aircraft crewmate/friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) throb like toothaches in every colorful frame. Perelygina is particularly good as a woman who loses, then seeks, a child. Pain plays around the corners of her tight, always-smiling lips as the tension therein threatens to shatter her whole facade…eventually doing just that. The build-up and breakdowns in Beanpole turn what could’ve simply been lush misery porn into lyrical studies of exhaustion and despondency derived from PTSD and other side effects of full-scale war. It’s all in the performances. Compassion lurks beneath the surface, particularly in lovely scenes featuring a quadriplegic soldier (Konstantin Balakirev), but Beanpole is quick to remind you that the trauma persists and everything—and everyone—is wartorn, even if they don’t quite look it.—Jacob Oller
Beyond colorful figures and fantastical tales, folklore often serves to transmit sage advice or words of caution from generation to generation. But what happens when there is a widespread, organized attempt to snuff out the intergenerational structure that allows for these stories and cultural traditions to thrive? In La Llorona, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente posits that when the national narrative refuses to recognize the atrocities its own country committed against an entire ethnic group, weaponizing popular legends in order to convey horrifying reality is perhaps the most effective rallying cry—alongside the anguished wails of a tortured mother. La Llorona centers on the family of General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who stands trial for decades-old war crimes perpetrated against indigenous villages in Guatemala. Though found guilty, much like Efraín Ríos Montt, Monteverde’s conviction is ultimately overturned, causing mass demonstrations that are eventually localized outside of Monteverde’s lavish estate.
Bustamante’s La Llorona is less concerned with eliciting genre conventions than it is ensuring that the visceral terror felt by those who were persecuted is given a global platform. There is no need for gratuitous jump-scares or bone-chilling monsters when flesh-and-blood boogeymen walk among us, their sadism justified by the country’s highest order and international courts. In fact, the struggle for indigenous liberation is so ingrained in the film that Rigoberta Menchú, whose advocacy regarding the oppression of her native K’iche’ people in Guatemala (and indigenous struggles globally) earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, was involved in the film’s trajectory and even has a brief cameo.—Natalia Keogan
We know where this is going: A neo-noir shot through with romantic fatalism and impressionist hints of ultra-violence—think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Gosling duology without the primordial fear of sex—Chinese director Diao Yinan’s fourth feature may feel only surface-deep, but oh the inevitability that thrives beneath its rain-soaked neon and pouty protagonist. Noir tropes abound (wreaths of cigarette smoke pumping from the lungs of hopelessly beautiful riff-raff; rain; double- and triple-crosses; helplessly saturated colors obscuring post-industrial collapse) as the fate of gangster Zhao Zhenong (Hu Ge), linked inextricably to sex worker Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), avoids both a happy conclusion and, somehow, Chinese censors. We know where this is going, but we’re seduced regardless by the director and cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s oneiric mise-en-scene. A brawl among bikers in a dingy cellar plays out like a forgotten memory, images hewed down to their bones and lit with second sense; a chase through a zoo feels like a prelapsarian hallucination, animals appearing to stare blinklessly on the follies of man. Another man loses his head quite brutally, a punchline too grisly to find funny. In The Wild Goose Lake’s starkest moments, silliness shakes hands with tragedy, betraying the desperation at its heart. We know where this is going; we’re unable to turn back. —Dom Sinacola
In Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Another Round, camaraderie starts out as emotional support before dissolving into male foolishness cleverly disguised as scientific study: A drinking contest where nobody competes and everybody wins until they lose. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a teacher in Copenhagen, bobs lazily through his professional and personal lives: When he’s at school he’s indifferent and when he’s at home he’s practically alone. Martin’s closest connections are with his friends and fellow teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), who like many dudes of a certain age share his glum sentiments. To cure their malaise, Nikolaj proposes putting Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s blood alcohol content theory to the test: Skårderud maintains that hovering at a cool 0.05% BAC helps people stay relaxed and loose, thus increasing their faculty for living to the fullest.
As one of the day’s preeminent screen actors, Mikkelsen finds the sweet spot between regret and rejoicing, where his revelries are honest and true while still serving as covers for deeper misgivings and emotional rifts. Sorrow hangs around the edges of his eyes as surely as bliss spreads across his face with each occasion for drinking. That balancing act culminates in an explosive burst of anger and, ultimately, mourning. Good times are had and good times always end. What Another Round demonstrates right up to its ecstatic final moments, where Mikkelsen’s sudden and dazzling acrobatics remind the audience that before he was an actor he was a dancer and gymnast, is that good times are all part of our life cycle: They come and go, then come back again, and that’s better than living in the good times all the time. Without a pause we lose perspective on all else life has to offer, especially self-reflection. —Andy Crump
Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s Spanish-German language film The Wolf House is equal parts surreal, tragic and disturbing, due to both its uncanny stop-motion animation style and the real-world inspiration from which it draws. The film follows the perilous journey of María (Amalia Kassai), a young German woman who has narrowly escaped the jaws of a Nazi cult but must now outrun a hungry wolf hot on her trail. The cult María flees is based in Southern Chile, making it an evident parallel to Colonia Dignidad, a German sect established in Chile in the early ’60s by a man named Paul Schaefer, who was about to go on trial for child molestation in West Germany before he was granted sanction to enter Chile. As the wolf draws nearer, María stumbles upon a small house in the middle of the woods. She quickly makes herself at home. The house is ostensibly abandoned, save for two small pigs living in squalor in one of the bathrooms. María vows to raise the pigs as her own children, naming them Pedro and Ana. She clothes them, feeds them the little unspoiled food remaining in the house and excitedly tells them that she will teach them “everything that she knows.” But María finds it difficult to navigate what the cult has imparted on her, and complicated feelings surrounding pleasure, punishment and eugenic aesthetic ideals begin to find themselves seeping into her lectures to Pedro and Ana.
Accordingly, The Wolf House can feel sickening at points, mostly due to the ever-morphing vessels that serve as avatars for María, Pedro and Ana. Their corporeal forms emerge crudely shaped from clay, ooze onto the walls and windows as painted figures, grow bloated and disjointed as paper-mache, stitched together and dressed with felt and plush. The titular lycanthropic abode was a real house that the filmmakers utilized to create the film’s uncanny, human-scale dioramas, the diligent craftwork of the years-long undertaking captured in the finished product’s every frame. By confronting the state-sanctioned violence in Chile’s recent past, Cociña and León construct a physical space to reflect the emotional space one must inhabit to process these traumas and to confront the evil figures that may still live within them. —Natalia Keogan
Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look at Kysilkova’s work. In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too. —Andy Crump
If black defines the visual tone in Vitalina Varela, stillness provides the picture’s structure. Portuguese master Pedro Costa shot Vitalina Varela using an aspect ratio close to the Academy ratio (1.33:1 instead of 1.37:1); the result is a movie almost squarely framed, and from that comes the feeling of being hemmed in. There’s very little room to breathe, much less move around; the images do move, but so slowly and so haltingly that they practically read as still anyways.
Life in Lisbon’s utterly devastated Fontaínhas shantytown is a parade of smothered humanity. Residents march, shamble and occasionally lie prone on the ground, faith depleted, energy drained. Why anyone would return here after spending decades away is a question Costa answers within its first 10 minutes, when the title character, named for the actress who plays her, touches down on the tarmac and is immediately met with bad news. “Vitalina, you arrived too late,” one of the airport workers serving as the welcome wagon tells her. “Your husband was buried days ago. There is nothing in Portugal for you.” Vitalina’s angry. She’s heartbroken. For 40 years, she lived alone in Cape Verde, her husband, Joaquim, having abandoned her. Now, at long last able to reunite with him, she finds that she’s inherited the mess—worldly and spiritual—he left with his passing: the house he built for them, but also the demons he collected over the course of their separation. Each person who comes to Vitalina’s door has demons of their own, too, and no one the audience meets is free from grief, the emotion for which the movie’s pervading darkness functions as an avatar: There’s nothing here for Vitalina other than the task of reconciliation. Withstanding the procession of Vitalina Varela’s suffering requires patience and endurance, but maybe the way Costa and Varela explore grief’s every nook and cranny will yield unexpected relief from our own. —Andy Crump
Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelle’s Bacurau begins with a woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) being driven down a winding mountain road with sweeping swathes of lush greenery below. Suddenly, a splintered wooden casket appears in the middle of the asphalt. After the driver swerves to avoid it, there is another one. And another. Soon, broken caskets litter the entire road. The cause of the coffin calamity is revealed when Teresa sees that an open-back truck transporting caskets has collided into the mountainside, killing its passengers. The scene is oddly pleasant, though, as opportunists have quickly begun selling off the least damaged goods to a line of passersby, both seeming giddy about the exchange. Death is pervasive in the film, but it is often funny, and coincidentally Teresa is on her way to a funeral. Her grandmother—the beloved matriarch of Bacurau, a small Brazilian village where she grew up—has died. The entire town mourns her death, oblivious to the fact that their little village is slowly, literally, being erased from the face of the earth. Here, what has seemed like a horror film morphs into a weird Western that incorporates psychoactive flora, a seemingly benign history museum, and even an apparition or two. That’s not even counting the UFO. Bacurau is wildly creative, and its hilarious, Dadaist aura provides an uncanny comfort despite ample bloodshed. This is not to say that it’s without heart-wrenching loss and tearful contemplation of a world on fire. It’s clear that there is no space for moral ambiguity in this film. In reality, the Amazon is ablaze, rampant inequality festers and indigenous populations are displaced all for the net benefit of the ruling class. Bacurau is a long overdue neo-colonial revenge fantasy. —Natalia Keogan
Martin Eden, Jack London’s 1909 novel, finally got an adaptation worthy of its author from Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello. The wide-ranging, painterly and dense evolution of a sailor-turned-author (here played in alluring, heart-wrenching, ultra-charismatic form by Luca Marinelli) from his blue collar roots to the upper echelons of the in-vogue is a stunning drama with a lot on its mind. Eden’s infatuation with learning is linked to his equal infatuation with the upper-class Elena (Jessica Cressy), and the combination of the two stop his primal ways (signified by one-night stands and humorously nonchalant fistfights) in their tracks. Marinelli’s earthy confidence and swaggering sex appeal are ogled by everyone—he’s a burly, good-natured sailor after all—but it’s his ideas that shout out London’s railing commentary on class inequality. As the film’s complex politics (made more resonant through the setting change to Italy) debate messily imperfect socialism and the mercenary bootstrapping tactics of individualism, Eden embodies this ideological journey through an impressive physical transformation, turning waxen, weak and washed-up as his literary ambitions find the exact wrong kind of success. Marcello’s Martin Eden is akin to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in its majestic beauty and society-spanning saga of a story, but with a meaner humor and rawer sense of criticism. The ex-documentarian’s penchant for slipping back and forth between old home movie-esque footage and his high art compositions make the dueling philosophies of the film even clearer. Somehow most impressive of all is Martin Eden’s success at making an exciting, engrossing film about a writer in which the writing process is actually fun (and beautiful) to watch. Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci work London’s words into wonders.—Jacob Oller