One of the great benefits of writing reviews and attending film festivals is the exposure to new, emerging talent before any hype starts. Of course, it can go both ways, and I’ve ended up stuck watching excruciating crap more than once, but it’s worth the effort (and occasional painful slog) when you find something truly special. Making up for a less-than-stellar lineup last year, this year’s AFI Fest was overloaded with notable foreign films, and I’m still behind on reviews 2 weeks later thanks to all the amazing films I couldn’t pass up. Below are two of the better foreign films at the festival this year, both from new, strong voices (1st or 2nd feature-film directors).
Bullhead (Rundskop – Belgium)
Easily my favorite film this year from a new director, Bullhead might be a hard one to get friends interested in. The story of a Belgian cattle farmer who uses hormones on both his animals and himself (and loosely based on real “hormone mafias” in Belgium in the 90s), Bullhead may sound like a lame historical procedural, so I’m forgoing the full synopsis because there’s a reason why Belgium decided to submit this slow-burning crime drama for the Foreign Language Academy Award: it’s extraordinary. First and most notably is Matthias Schoenaerts’ astounding performance as the lead, a character whose complex history causes ambivalence, shifting from judgment to empathy to terror. It’s the most compelling performance I’ve seen all year, both thanks to Schoenaerts’s dedication (his physical training alone was intense – compare pictures of him now and a year earlier, and he’s not recognizable) and first-time writer/director Michaël R. Roskam’s brilliant script. Other than some slight comic relief that feels off-key with the rest of the film, the story is well-written and developed, twisty without being overly manipulated. And Roskam’s sure-handed direction makes him feel like an old pro, especially in his collaboration with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. Lacking the shaky camerawork we’ve grown so accustomed to with new filmmakers, this is a steady film, with smooth tracking and long shots ensuring a tense, engrossing film. It also happens to be one of the more striking films this year, with the lighting being especially notable. There are so many shots in this film that could have been used on a poster, it’s almost impossible to choose a favorite (almost – there’s a red tinted close-up in a bathroom that floored me). This stunning debut is definitely one of the best films of 2011, and based on awards at both Fantastic Fest & AFI Fest and the buzz its few festival screenings have received, Bullhead shouldn’t be forgotten come awards season. See this in a theater.
Oslo, August 31st (Norway)
Like a Norwegian, masculine Rachel Getting Married, but with more existential angst, Oslo, August 31st is about Anders (performed by Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering drug addict who is allowed a leave from rehab. Consisting of a 24-hour period, Oslo, August 31st follows Anders as he travels around the city, visiting old friends, interviewing for a job, and just trying to figure out what he’s going to do next. Based on the short novel Le Feu Follet (don’t look it up if you’ve never heard of it, as the description may spoil the film), director Joachim Trier (whose first film, Reprise, is apparently a recent favorite due to the audience’s reaction to its mere mention) has crafted a contemporary film that stands on its own on multiple levels. While Borchgrevink’s effortless performance as the lead maintains emphasis on the story at hand, Trier’s direction of the film is almost simple and charming, creating a quasi love letter to the city of Oslo, despite the film’s complex subject matter and homage towards the original novel. Impressive sound design and locally flavored cinematography also deserve special mention, working together well to establish mood and setting. Oslo, August 31st was originally expected by many to be Belgium’s Foreign Language entry this, and the committee’s choice to submit Happy, Happy instead actually caused a bit of controversy. If Oslo, August 31st shows up in your local arthouse, it’s definitely worth checking out, and should play just as well at home if streaming/Netflix are your only sources for foreign films.