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    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    Five foreign films that deserve a bigger audience

    Even today, in our supposedly global world, little letters at the bottom of a screen spell doom. Subtitles or even accents still pretty much guarantee a film's banishment to arthouse obscurity. For every year's few breakthroughs, its Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Life Is Beautiful, smaller films keep sneaking through the sieve. They quietly earn their money via a plugged-in audience, keep critics from killing themselves in the summer, and get out of the way by December when the Oscar bait invades. But with DVDs a near-given now, it's nothing to stress about, even if you live hours from an independent theater or video store. Here are some of my recommendations for films you might've missed and really shouldn't.

    Kontroll - Released here in the cruelest month of 2005, Kontroll deserved to make a much larger splash. Sure, it's as existentially bleak as a rainstorm in London and almost the entire film is set underground, but it's fun as hell too. It focuses on a team of misfit ticket inspectors in the Budapest subway system who are just trying to do their jobs. Along the way, they encounter everything from surly passengers to a surly rival team to a serial murderer pushing people onto the tracks. Throw in some romance, a narcoleptic, and a ticking clock and you have a funnier, more compelling thriller than Hollywood has produced in years.

    The Holy Girl
    - This Argentinian movie by rising star Lucrecia Martel doesn't turn the tables, it flips them over. Another small story that ends up resonating largely, The Holy Girl is about the titular character, Amalia, discovering her sexuality. That seems normal enough for a teenager, but her process is more complex than most. After a man rubs up against her one day, Amalia decides it's her mission to save him. Conflating her religious instruction and her confused desires, she tries to win him over even as her unaware mother becomes interested in him too. Martel's deft script keeps the action from turning sensational or lurid, leaving us with a film that is unsettling but always honest and powerful too.

    Games of Love and Chance - Okay, so Games of Love and Chance isn't exactly unknown, especially under its original title, L'esquive. It swept up four major Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, in 2003, including Best Film. Still, when I mention the movie to friends, they act as if I'm speaking a foreign language. (Pause for chuckles.) It's a small, seemingly simple film about a boy who likes a girl and tries to co-star in a play with her to win her over. But it's surprisingly relevant because it focuses on the underclass kids on the city outskirts. They use slang specific to their culture and interact in ways you'll never see in some crusty costume drama. Most importantly, an event near the end uproots everything else we've seen, giving the film a sudden gravity, revealing the kids who thought they were in the spotlight to just be bit players in a much larger drama.

    All About Lily Chou-Chou - Of all the recommendations on this list, this film is easily the most difficult and experimental. It tilts toward the three-hour mark and relies on storytelling through disjointed portraits. For stretches of it, I was lost and frustrated. It rewards your attention though, interspersing moments of loveliness with scenes of disturbing brutality. Reveling in portraying a rapidly changing Japan, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about growing up saturated in pop culture and pop music. It's about the terrors that come with that territory, and even at its most disorienting, it's never less than stunning to look at.

    Together - Lukas Moodysson is one of my all-time favorite directors, his first three films on par with Lars Von Trier's Heart of Gold trilogy in my mind. I can (and do) spend hours debating which Moodysson film is the best, and though it depends on my mood,Together usually wins. Like a kinder, more humanistic companion to The Idiots, Together portrays the daily life of a Socialist commune in Sweden. It has all of the personalities you'd expect, but every character is sketched out in full, loving detail. Like good Socialists, they let us share their arguments and inner workings, all the complications and contradictions of the real world intruding. And even when their philosophy fails, their stubborn humanity comes sparkling through.

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