Best Foreign Films of 2017
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Carr, Reid Ramsey and Nathan Smith
**NOTE** These are not in ranked order.
After the Storm (2017) by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda makes movies about our fears. This is not to say he makes horror movies or any kind of spooky movie to watch with your friends on Halloween. His films are of a slow-mixing, family reunion, “lazy susan" variety of fear and worry. They are about the disparate space between the trudging forward of life and the stagnancy of family.
What Kore-eda’s quiet, fear-filled movies have that modern movies often lack, though, is a genuine sense of hope. Grace and hope persist to drown out the droning of summers past, meals eaten alone, and ever-present mistakes.
After the Storm follows Ryota (Hiroshi Abe, one of the great faces of modern movies), a writer whose luck has found him picking up a job as a private detective to make ends meet. Ryota’s wife has left with their son, and he is forced to wilt through this apparently meaningless time in his life alone. As the archetypal man-baby, Ryota is for the most part incapable of taking care of himself and finds himself spending much of his free-time with his mother. This tendency towards the immature also leads to him making catastrophic choices for the money he does manage to make.
Despite the dread with which Kore-eda fills After the Storm, the heart of the film lies in the atmosphere: the unassuming but wonderful cinematography, the delectable food made by the mother for her children, and the grace-filled rain that hearkens back to a more pure childhood. These moments of grace don’t always last forever, but everyone comes out on the other side better for having worked through the pain.
Kore-eda, whose masterpiece food-epic Still Walking stands as one of the all-time great studies in both grudge-holding and compassion, finds his niche yet again with After the Storm, making a movie that speaks to the generational fear of the meaningless mundanity of adult life while also breathing life into hopeless characters. At the end of the day, my favorite movies will always be those that give a character a reason to live, and Kore-eda has mastered that stroke. — Reid Ramsey
Blade of the Immortal (2017) by Takashi Miike
What words can I use to describe Takashi Miike’s 100th film? Stylish, bloody, and weird are all words that come to mind. Blade of the Immortal might not be Miike’s best film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a damn good time. What the film lacks in a concrete philosophical exploration, it makes up for with action-packed samurai fight sequences. The hair department really had their work cut out for them with this endeavor. From a spiky hairdo obviously inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog to a take on the pompadour hairstyle with an added ponytail, there isn’t a shortage of interesting things to look at.
All the moving parts of this film come together to create a weirdly entrancing 2 hour and 20 minute cinematic experience that I couldn’t forget even if I tried.
Our journey with Manji (Takuya Kimura) ,a samurai, begins with a battle of epic proportions. Manji is forced to fight a giant wave of men all by himself. The pacing of this movie is kind of all over the place from start to finish. The opening feels like it could be the climax, but then you have 2 more hours left in the run-time. Manji makes it out of the battle, but he is wounded and on the brink of death. A hooded nun appears out of nowhere and implants Manji with “sacred bloodworms” making him immortal. Years later he is given new purpose when a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) asks him to help her avenge her father’s death. From there, we follow the pair as they complete their quest to exact revenge.
The real emotional core to this film for me was the relationship between Manji and Rin. They make an interesting pair and I found myself invested in what would happen to them. As for the main thematics this movie presents, I don’t think there was enough focus put on one central theme. I do think it is purposeful that the audience is worn down with fight sequence after fight sequence. This helps you feel what Manji feels as someone who cannot die. He is consistently worn down by years and years of life on earth. But the film should’ve been able to go a little deeper.
Still, I loved getting to see classic Miike horror elements in Blade of the Immortal. Severed limbs and plenty of gore help set this apart from other samurai movies no doubt adding an entertainment factor for me. Audition will always be my favorite, but you better believe I’d pay money to see Miike’s 101th film. — Jessica Carr
Kedi (2017) by Ceyda Torun
It is easy to be cynical about the concept of a documentary seeking out stories of the people in a city and the cats they interact with daily, but there is something much deeper and richer in Kedi, the film directed by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, that transcends the instant meme-ification of the plot.
Not to say it doesn’t follow initial conventions, Kedi chronicles the stories of stray cats in Istanbul and how they’ve created a fully-realized life and story for themselves in their daily interactions with the humans around them.
There is something so pure about each person relaying their daily rituals — and how that intersects with the cats. One story follows a feline that comes to a local restaurant each day looking for a daily meal. The restaurant owners are used to seeing the animal pawing at their door so they’ve devised a small bit of delicacies for the cat to ingest each day. But not without any hitches, the cat seemed to reject some of the meats they’ve offered, and, as cats do, made a request for more turkey offerings — putting it on a strict diet.
Another man discusses his run-ins with the cats when he put all of his money into purchasing a new boat to use for work. A terrible storm tears away the vessel, and when he returns to see the damage, he notices a cat standing next to a wallet on the docks. When the man retrieves the wallet, he finds a bit of money stored inside — a welcome reprieve after the sea swept away all of his own.
He repays this kindness from the animal by taking care of kittens and cats that he comes across — showing this as he feeds young kittens some milk in their makeshift home.
Kedi is successful because it takes place in a rich and cultured environment like Istanbul — a place that has seen the rise and fall of many empires and religions over its thousands of years of existence. The cats, which of course, hold a degree of religious iconography, feels like totems to the past, and the people of the city seem them as such.
In the film, they discuss how the city and its urbanization has begun to make less room for these feline friends, not yet to epidemic proportions but enough to worry those who are so accustomed to their presences. In this way, Kedi works as a reminder of the importance of totems of that nature, and how the tiny details of a daily ritual hold much richer results than meets the eye. — Zach Dennis
Antiporno (2017) by Sion Sono
Exactly what it says on the tin, Antiporno is a film that sets out to subvert the beguiling effect of pornography. And in case that sounds like a buzzkill, please know that the route that Japanese director Sion Sono takes in getting there is...wild, to say the least.
Sono’s previous films include Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (which includes a swordfighting scene that replaces blood with rainbows) and Tokyo Tribe (a slap-happy rap opera / action movie driven by the maxim “teenie weenies gotta die”), and he brings the same manic energy here.
First, the film constructs a porn set-up--a buxom woman wakes up in a mod apartment, greets an attractive female visitor, and seduces her--but then the scene’s believability gradually unhinges until a literal wall comes down, revealing a male-heavy camera crew and director who intrudes to critique the woman’s performance, breaking the illusion. The film’s relationship to a single concrete reality grows more and more tenuous from there, with a dizzying sense of chronology and constant uncertainty about whether characters are being their authentic selves, simply performing a role, or doing some combination of the two.
The film spins out into many directions--always into problematic territory, and usually recklessly--so who knows where your feelings will land by the end of its short runtime. But I think the film ultimately lands as an unexpectedly empathetic portrait not of a lady, but a very troubled girl, screaming at the world to value her as a fetish object because she’s received the obvious signals that this is where her value lies (see: the Japanese schoolgirl’s uniform as a fetish outfit; see also: my blurb for Perfect Blue, which looks at the same idea in the context of anime culture).
Antiporno doesn’t handle its controversial ideas with any delicacy--which may bother some viewers--but I admire its absolute audacity and its commitment to finding the broken humanity of supposedly smooth surfaces. Andrew Swafford
The Human Surge (2017) by Eduardo Williams
In the past two decades, the divide between online and off has become increasingly blurred, with an ever growing part of our lives lived logged on. Cinema has tried to tackle the question of the Internet time and again in every form, from Pulse to Unfriended, but only a limited number of these films seem capable of actually saying anything interesting about our digital world.
Even fewer of those look good while doing it.
One member of that lucky bunch is The Human Surge, the first feature film from Argentine director Eduardo Williams. Williams’ film is one of networks and hyperlinks, a three-headed narrative strung together by webcams and anthills. It occurs in parts of the world where, despite its ability to connect across networks neural and natural, the Internet is still often tethered to a physical place. We see the film’s characters attempt to log on more than we see them actually logged on; wi-fi becomes like an elusive peacock in a crystal forest, always slipping out of reach. For each passage of the film, Williams uses a different style: for the first section, about bored and horny teens in Argentina, 16mm film; for the second, about migrant laborers in Mozambique, 16mm film played back on a computer screen and re-recorded with a primitive digital camera; for the third, about a woman on the hunt for an Internet café in the Philippines, crisp high-definition video. Williams’ cinema displaces us from space and brings us closer to it. His is a cinema of geography, both the decaying and dilapidated spaces we see his characters moving through, little visible but the backs of their heads, and in the more abstract sense, referring to new landscapes that exist in the digital realm.
But as the film’s coda reveals, even this new digital ethereality is founded on a material base produced by human hands in corners of the world that, at least in the West, seem far off and easy to forget.
Above all else, perhaps, The Human Surge shows us not of the power of the Internet but the power of labor; Williams’ film is a much-needed reminder that there is as much blood, sweat, and humanity in our microchips as there is silicon. — Nathan Smith
On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) by Hong Sang-soo
From what I’ve seen to this point, the films of Hong Sang-soo feel otherworldly. Sure, there are elements that seem like of our stratosphere, but overall, they feel like they take place in an alternative reality — one of melancholy, emotion and tension.
On the Beach at Night Alone is no different, but what does separate it from the other works of the famed Korean director is how actively it engages with this other sphere — almost welcoming its cool comfort like the film’s star, Kim Min-hee, welcomes in the cold embrace of the story’s sadness.
The film follows Young-hee, an actress who has entered the news lately for her highly publicized affair with a director (something that mirrors that real relationship between Kim and Hong). The movie follows as Young-hee maneuvers her way around a small town, favoring the titled beach, as well as interacting with friends in an undisclosed city in Germany.
Much like the waves at the beach, tensions and emotions rise and recede in the film, and this push and pull of your insides works in the story’s favor. There seems to be a sense of melancholic dread within Young-hee and this almost indescribable concept is so perfectly personified by the acting work by Kim Min-hee.
Her sullen face as she looks out onto the waves, basked in the gray glow of the ocean is despondent and sad, but also kind of warm and alluring? It seems odd to put all of those words together, and I’m not sure if they truly make any coherent sense, but this film, and the other works of Hong do this to you.
We leave, not necessarily happy from watching the movie, but much more open and vulnerable to what we are feeling and what the characters are experiencing. In this way, Hong’s films carry the essence of cinema — working as tools of empathy — and On the Beach at Night Alone is another masterful notch in the filmmakers’ proverbial belt. — Zach Dennis
The Untamed (2017) by Amat Escalante
Imagine this character constellation: woman A is married to man A, who is cheating on woman A with woman A’s brother (man B), who additionally finds himself in a maybe-romantic relationship with woman B, who is also regularly having sex with a space octopus.
The Untamed is a surprisingly low-key affair set along the Mexican countryside (with not quite as much tentacle-monster as you either fear or hope) that still manages to be a strong exploration of carnal desire with a provocative premise and unforgettable images. For most of its run time, Amat Escalante’s film patiently observes a spectrum of romantic relationships in varying states of bliss and discomfort, as their individual players ricochet around like pinballs. Escalante’s characters hunger for intimacy and acceptance, but the pleasure principle is perhaps the film’s most powerful force.
The slimy beast at the film’s center takes the movie’s obsession with lust into horror film territory, as the aforementioned space octopus also happens to provide the greatest pleasure humans can experience--and a certain scene sells the euphoria pretty effectively, evoking a sense of otherworldly, all-over stimulation that is simultaneously deeply erotic and deeply terrifying.
The dilemma at the heart of the film (in Kanye’s words: “why everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good?”) is the same one that destroys loving relationships and fuels deadly addictions, and I’m thankful we have horror movies to investigate such a universal darkness. — Andrew Swafford
The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017) by Masaaki Yuasa
This film contains an epic bar crawl, a used book fair, a spicy food eating contest, guerilla theater with musical numbers, and a mini-world war inside a guy’s head all taking place in ONE NIGHT.
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl feels like a love child between Amelie and a Sion Sono film. It feels like you are watching a year take place only to find yourself still following the girl with black hair during the course of one single night. It is an adrenaline fueled cinematic experience leaving viewers delirious but also supremely delighted.
Director Masaaki Yuasa is known for his wild freeform animation style. There are so many colors, shapes, and textures found in each shot of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. It seems like there is so much to take in and so little time to do it. This feeling is also found in the plot of the film as Senior chases the girl with black hair, who he thinks is the love of his life...she just doesn’t know it yet. He tries to find ways to run into her throughout the night so that she thinks the “red string of fate” is trying to bring them together. However, extreme high jinks ensues as Senior gets his underwear stolen and various other obstacles stop him from walking on his path to the girl’s heart.
Although Senior seems to be in the forefront of the plot, we are actually following the titular girl as she goes from activity to activity throughout the night. She is unhindered by criticism and literally seems to be marching to her own beat. Truly her character is lovable and seems to be an animated version of Sally Hawkins’ character from Happy-Go-Lucky.
With lovable characters, hilarious scenarios, and delightful visuals, there is a whole lot to love about this film. It makes me hopeful that one day the “red string of fate” will drop Koi fish on me and my future lover’s heads at the same time. Wouldn’t that be something? — Jessica Carr