As follow-up to my last installment on some of the more notable domestic films of this decade, I reviewed the comments that came back, which were most appreciated. However they also made me feel I should clarify the distinction between the generic term "the best movies so (or by) far" and the branded concept of "best movies so (or by) Farr".
The latter carries different attributes, tending to balance heavily marketed Hollywood films most everyone knows about with under-marketed, under-exposed, often less formulaic entries that merit more attention -- hidden gems.
Some of the domestic titles readers came back with are indeed on our site, but is it really useful to have one more writer tell you how innovative "Memento" was? Other suggestions -- like "Good Night and Good Luck" and "O Brother Where Art Thou" -- are very good films, but maddeningly, were not only over-hyped, but I think could have been better. George Clooney certainly deserves credit for aiming high in his choices of material (most of the time), but too often his execution falls slightly short of the mark. Many of course will disagree. (I did love his slick turn in 1998's "Out Of Sight".)
With the following international releases, please remember my caveat about what that extra "r" is supposed to mean. This time I also begin with the year 2001, as one math-inclined respondent noted correctly that the year 2000 was technically the end of the '90s, not the start of the decade. You learn-or remember-something new every day!
Now -- on to my international picks:
No Man's Land (2001) - After a blistering field-artillery salvo, two soldiers-Bosnian Chiki (Branko Djuric) and Serb Nino (Rene Bitorajac)--find themselves marooned in a trench together while another combatant lies atop a land mine that, if moved or jostled, will blow them to bits. Meanwhile, British journalist Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) and U.N. peacekeepers observe their harrowing plight from a distance. This dark, satiric Serbo-Croatian film won the 2001 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Built around the tense standoff between Chiki and Nino, we view their bizarre predicament not just as two enemies who must help each other survive, but also through the eyes of impotent U.N. representatives on the scene, and, of course, the omnipresent media. By turns bleak, frightening, and funny, "No Man's Land" is an ingenious piece of work, as it delivers yet another new and original slant on war's innate futility.
To Be and To Have (2002) - Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, we witness Lopez instruct, engage, and inspire several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives. Any parents out there should quickly lay their hands on the sublime "To Be," an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges's innate connection with the twelve children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) - Sisters Su-Mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-Yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) return to their father and stepmother's house after time away recovering from the trauma of their natural mother's death. Several ominous factors are quickly evident: one or both of the girls may have been in a mental hospital; also, there's animosity between the girls and their stepmother; and finally, their father's house may be haunted, perhaps cursed by the bizarre event that caused the death of the girls' mother. The plot only thickens from there, and the line between reality and illusion, sanity and insanity, blurs almost beyond recognition. South Korean writer/director Kim Jee-Woon's psychological horror tale is a chilling, unnerving puzzler. As layer after layer of the dense, twisty story gets uncovered, we gather another small increment of insight into what's behind all the mental mayhem. Visually arresting and extremely well played by the four principals, "Two Sisters" will raise those hairs on the back of your neck, but still, you won't want to take your eyes off the screen. Definitely not for the squeamish.
Turtles Can Fly (2004) - Set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraqi-Turkish border weeks before the 2003 US invasion, this intense drama trails Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a bossy, tech-obsessed 13-year-old who leads a scroungy gang of children and sets up TV reception for local villages awaiting news of the imminent war. Smitten by Agrin (Araz Latif), an orphaned girl newly arrived from Halabja, Satellite works to help her, but finds his authority challenged by her brother Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), an armless landmine survivor who can predict the future. Few films can match the dazzling visuals and heart-wrenching storyline of Bahman Ghobadi's unforgettable Oscar-nominated drama, which spins a tender, engrossing tale about the costs of war from the perspective of three Kurdish children. Newcomer Ebrahim is completely fearless playing the likable, charismatic Satellite, while non-pros Latif and Feyssal are devastating as war-brutalized siblings toting a handicapped, unwanted child born of rape. Harsh yet compassionate, "Turtles" is filled with potent images, including a blind toddler seated in a mine field, and the maimed Henkov defusing a mine with his teeth. An absolute must-see.
Tsotsi (2005) - Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) a young hood with his own small gang in the slums of Johannesburg, may look like a boy, but is brutal when crossed. After committing a violent car-jacking, Tsotsi discovers an unexpected package in the back-seat, one which inspires an equally unlikely attempt to forge some sort of hopeful legacy in a grim, unforgiving world. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, Gavin Hood's raw, searing film brings off a tricky premise with just the right balance of sensitivity and force, as the discovery of a baby rekindles in a supposedly hardened thug long-suppressed feelings of humanity and an instinctive desire for redemption. Chweneyagae's complex, astonishing performance provides the film's focal point, and this, combined with Hood's assured pacing and direction, helped net "Tsotsi" a richly deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Black Book (2006) - Dyeing her hair platinum blonde so she can pass as an Aryan, Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice Von Houten)-now calling herself Ellis DeVries-is dispatched by the Dutch resistance to seduce Gestapo chief Captain Muntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to access sensitive intelligence. But like Ellis, no one in occupied Holland is quite who they appear to be. Veteran director Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct") returned to his native Netherlands to film this riveting World War II adventure thriller, which seamlessly merges a Holocaust survival tale with breathless, Hollywood-style entertainment. To his credit, Verhoeven found a perky, self-prepossessing heroine in Van Houten; this lovely, uninhibited Dutch actress appears clearly destined for great things. German actor Koch ("The Lives of Others") has the charisma to match hers, so it's no huge surprise they fell in love on the set! From the suspenseful opening to the bittersweet finale, "Black Book" is chock full of twisty, edge-of-your-seat thrills.
Volver (2007) - Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is a smart, sexy, vivacious woman living in Madrid with adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and layabout husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre). Nearby lives Raimunda's younger sister, Sole (Lola Dueas), who works as a hair stylist and accompanies Raimunda on visits to see their elderly aunt in La Mancha, where the sisters lost their mother Irene (Carmen Maura) years ago in a house fire. After two tragic events shake up their lives, Raimunda and Sole begin to uncover the sordid truth behind their family past. Part mystery, part ghost story, and one hundred percent witty, estrogen-fueled fantasy, Almodovar's story of three generations of women is one of the fabled director's most exuberant films. Enamored of outcasts and oddballs, Almodovar here introduces an element of the supernatural to make an already compelling story of sex, lies, and secrecy even more intriguing. Channeling her inner Anna Magnani, the stunning Cruz is a force of nature, bursting with brassy verve and self-confidence, especially during her heart-melting solo rendition of the flamenco song "Volver." Co-stars Dueñas, Maura, and Blanca Portillo, playing a cancer-ridden friend of the family, make this moving, enchanting drama an irresistible ensemble film. Viva Pedro!