**By Aseem Chhabra**
In 2010 I fulfilled a lifelong desire to attend multiple film festivals around the world. It was a newfangled strategy of just seeing films, sometimes reviewing, but mostly discussing them on Twitter. Even the New York Times’ A.O. Scott was amused by my plan to review films in one hundred and forty characters.
I started with Berlin in February; Green Mountain (Montpelier, VT) and Hong Kong Asian festivals (both in March); Tribeca in April; Silk Screen Asian festival (Pittsburgh) in May; Telluride and Toronto in September; New York in September-October; and two South Asian festivals in New York City in October and November.
One problem with seeing foreign films at festivals is that many do not get theatrical distribution in the U.S. Or as in the case of the 2007 Cannes best actress winner Secret Sunshine from Korea—the film opened recently in the U.S., more than three years after it had made the rounds of international film festivals.
On the last day of 2010, here is my list of the ten best international films released in theaters in the U.S. I do not believe in ranking films, so the listing is in the alphabetic order.
1) Animal Kingdom—Australia’s first time narrative filmmaker and screenplay writer David Michôd brutal thriller, captures the violent lives of a family of criminal brothers, told from the perspective of their seventeen-year-old nephew, who must learn to survive, while pretending to be a team-player. The family is held together—despite a few gruesome deaths, by a creepy mother, played by the terrifyingly brilliant Jackie Weaver. Until recently Weaver was unknown in the U.S., but she surely deserves an Oscar nomination in the supporting actress category.
2) Biutiful—Javier Bardem, in his career best performance, carries the weight of this very sad film on his shoulders as he walks around the streets of Barcelona, settling the lives of those around him. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fourth feature, Bardem’s character Uxbal sees his imminent death, but first he has to watch over his two children, his ex-wife, and many poor illegal immigrants from China and Africa who live underground and yet are vital to the economic engine of our western cities.
Despite Bardem’s best actor win at Cannes this year, there was no U.S. distribution house interested in the dark Biutiful until just before the Toronto International Film Festival. Many critics did not take to Biutiful and most so far have ignored Bardem’s performance. But it will be a huge injustice if the actor does not get nominated in the best actor Oscar category.
3) Carlos—Olivier Assayas’ three-part, five and a half hour long grand epic drama was made for television, but it ran in art house movie theaters in the U.S. which is the best way to watch it. Thirty-three year old Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez plays a sexy, seductive and terrifying Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, the notorious international terrorist who in 1975 took the entire group of OPEC oil ministers as hostage.
Assayas’ gripping film travels through continents, countries and language barriers. It is at once a lesson in our recent world history and the most fun anyone will have spending nearly the whole day in a dark movie theater.
4) Inception—The first of the two Hollywood films in my list, Inception was a visually fantastic, entertaining and yet challenging, dreams-within-dreams world from the creative mind of Christopher Nolan. One of the most talked about films of this past summer, Inception still baffles many film buffs—including yours truly. I can bet my first born that no one has really figured out what happened to the totem at the end of the film—still spinning or did it fall off the table?
5) Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Public Enemy No. 1—It took a couple of years for these two films to travel to the US. Vincent Cassel is terrific as the French gangster notorious for his numerous robberies and prison breaks. Cassel was recently seen in a much more theatrical and unconvincing performance in the overrated Black Swan. But in the two Mesrine films he charges like a French Robert De Niro. The films although made on a much smaller budget have the look and feel of Hollywood action thrillers. The two Mesrines are in French language and subtitled, which unfortunately kept them within the confines of the art house theaters in the US.
6) Mother—One of the darkest and perhaps the best film from South Korea in the recent years, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is tale of deep maternal love for a son who may have committed a heinous crime. Like in his 2003 thriller Memories of Murder, Joon-ho excels in creating a sense of tension, a haunting atmosphere and a dark mood that stays with the viewers long after the film is over.
7) Never Let Me Go—In this award season most critics seem to have forgotten Mark Romanek’s heartbreaking romantic film about youth, the desire to live and to have second chances in life—even for a short period of time. A contemporary science fiction piece based on a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go carries three stunning performances by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightly.
Two years ago, Fox Searchlight was able to convert the small Slumdog Millionaire into a global phenomenon. Hopefully the distribution house can at least get an Oscar nomination for the lovely Mulligan.
8) The Social Network—The Social Network reminds us of how good a Hollywood film can be if it is based on a tightly written by script by the like of Aaron Sorkin and then directed by a perfectionist such as David Fincher. The film plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy as twentysomething year old friends plot out a game of deceptions and intrigues. The audience is handsomely rewarded in this entertaining edge-of-a-seat film about how Facebook came to be the ultimate social networking site.
9) Udaan—The only Indian film in this list (have included a couple in the special mention section below), Udaan is a perfect example of the indie film revolution brewing within the confines of Bollywood. Udaan is the first Indian film to compete in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes in seven years. First time director Vikramaditya Motwane aided by his producer Anurag Kashyap, narrates a simple, yet compelling story of a teenager (a wonderful Rajat Barmecha) who seeks to free himself from the clutches of an abusive father. Udaan is small film. It barely played in a few theaters in India and abroad. But it has a big heart and deserves greater exposure.
10) Winter’s Bone—The last film I saw in 2010, Winter’s Bone is a stark, non-condescending look at rural poverty in America, through the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl (an Oscar nomination worthy Jennifer Lawrence) who holds her family together in search of her criminal father. A bleak film that grabs you by the throat, Winter’s Bone is American indie cinema at its best.
Special Mentions—127 Hours, Band Baaja Baaraat (the only Bollywood film listed here), I Am Love (Italy), Ishqiya (India), Last Train Home (China), Peepli [Live] (India), Secret Sunshine (Korea), The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3.
Copyright 2010 Aseem Chhabra
Aseem Chhabra is a freelance writer who has been published in The New York Times, Time Out, New York, and others. He is the host of The Aseem Chhabra Show, which features interviews with artists and other creative minds writing about South Asia or the South Asian Diaspora.