When those calendars flip from December to January and the manic list making subsides, the conversation between cinephiles often shifts to the dreaded winter release schedule. Each year a drought in quality is expected, and when it comes to Hollywood releases this thesis is often validated, excluding the "Haywire"’s and "Wonder Boys" of the world.
But the first quarter often holds bountiful gifts in the foreign film department. It’s a time of year when many of the boutique distributors and mini-majors decide to unveil the festival holdovers from the previous year for general audiences. The early months of 2014 seems especially rich when it comes to international cinema, showcasing a strong lineup of festival award winners and critical darlings.
Georgia’s Oscar entry "In Bloom" (NYC Jan. 10, L.A. Feb. 7) is the perfect example of a lesser-known festival film finally expanding for wider audiences to enjoy. Well, “enjoy” might not be the operative word, since this film about two teenage girls facing a suffocating wall of limiting social traditions and violence doesn’t shy away from the contradictions plaguing their experience. Directors Nan Ekvtimshvili and Simon Gross’s astute narrative is a small but powerful cinematic grenade lobbed at male insecurity and archaic gender roles.
Another coming-of-age film, at least in a sense, is Horakazu Koreeda’s "Like Father, Like Son" (Jan. 17), except the person growing wiser is a successful Japanese businessman whose life is upended when he finds out his biological son was switched at birth. In typical Koreeda fashion, this melodramatic scenario is handled with a measure of grace and a dash of sentiment, a perfect balance of tones. The lead performance by Masaharu Fukuyama displays a range of vulnerabilities and virtues that coincide with his weaknesses as a modern man hobbled by a warped sense of familial priorities. Read our interview with Koreeda here.
Alain Guiraudie’s striking "Stranger by the Lake" (Jan. 24) will finally make its theatrical premiere in New York City before expanding to other cities later in February. We can all thank Strand Releasing for giving this excellent French neo-noir the larger audience it deserves. Set at a gay cruising spot near a crystalline body of water, the film explores the rhythms, codes, and hierarchies of a lifestyle banished into nature’s corner. Even more crucial is how these factors grow increasingly complex when a string of murders begin to draw outside attention. While click-bait headlines will surely focus on the film’s explicit sex scenes, it’s Guiraudie’s tension-generating direction that is worthy of serious critical attention.
If "Stranger by the Lake" explores the process of self-actualization by way of Hitchcockian menace, Denis Cote’s equally ambitious anti-thriller "Vic + Flow Saw a Bear" (Feb. 7) only moves farther away from epiphany as it progresses down a dark and seedy country road. A recently released convict and her lover hold up in a seemingly innocuous family cabin only to realize that the wind in the trees and the chirping of birds is a sure-fire sign of reckoning on the horizon. The film’s audible density and ambiguous narrative structure are vital to its deconstruction of a genre founded on deception.
Class manipulation and trauma also reside at the heart of Calin Peter Netzer’s Berlinale winner "Child’s Pose" (NYC Feb. 19, L.A. Feb. 21). This tight Romanian character study focuses on Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), a well off middle-aged woman from Bucharest who manipulates the wheels of justice to keep her son out of prison after he runs over a teenage boy in the countryside. Social privilege and arrogance are immediately on display as Cornelia compromises the truth during each conversation. The horrific accident happens off-screen, but so many different interpretations of it are presented that the event itself - and the boy’s tragic death – begin to fade into the background. That is until the devastating final scene, where her family’s pattern of deflecting responsibility becomes a useless weapon against the finality of pain and death.
Similar themes pop up in Yuval Adler’s "Bethlehem" (Mar. 7) a kind of Middle Eastern variation on James Marsh’s "Shadow Dancer". An Israeli Secret Service agent tries to turn a teenage Palestinian informant on his terrorist brother, only to see the situation spiral out of control and into a whirlpool of tragedy. More procedural than political allegory, the film nonetheless is quite critical of the hierarchical systems in place on both sides of the conflict.
If "Bethlehem" both utilizes the archetypes of the classic thriller genre to inspire a discourse on themes of ideological manipulation, Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated "The Missing Picture" (Mar. 19) deconstructs the animation film to examine a lost moment in Cambodia’s traumatic recent history. Using stop motion and clay figurines, Panh recreates critical memories from his childhood before and during the Khmer Rouge regime that left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead. It’s a haunting example of minimalist art filling the void left by totalitarianism run amok.
Finally, one would be remiss not to mention the release of Lars von Trier’s two-part "Nymphomaniac" (Mar. 21, Apr. 4). Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-professed sex addict recollects her early experiences in the first half then finds herself falling even deeper down the rabbit hole in the second. If anything, von Trier’s epic will surely be evocative and infuriating enough to inspire dozens of critical think pieces, maybe even on this website. Here’s hoping.
The next three months also bring official releases of Sebastián Lelio’s "Gloria" (Jan. 24), Claude Lanzmann’s "The Last of the Unjust" (Feb. 7), Hany Abu-Assad’s "Omar" (Feb. 21) and Hayao Miyazaki’s "The Wind Rises" (Feb. 28), Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner’s "Ernest and Celestine" (Mar. 14), and Gareth Evans’ "The Raid 2" (Mar. 28).
So stop complaining, people. There are plenty of intriguing movies out there in the dredge of winter. You just have to look in the right places.