By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 9, 2014 at 4:13PM
Palm Springs International Film Festival (running through January 13) excels in its foreign cinema selection, offering up the must-see buzzy titles, but also the lesser-known, equally worthy entries. By this point everyone knows that, say, Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises" or Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" can't be missed. But what are some international films a bit more off the beaten track? Cine-List has five selections, from Kazakhstan to Argentina:
1. “In Bloom." Jean-Luc Godard said that all a movie needs is a girl and a gun. Georgian Oscar entry “In Bloom” centers on two adolescent girls and a gun that moves back and forth between them for increasingly complex reasons. Eka and Natia (Lika Babluani and Mariam Bukaria) are both fourteen, and best friends living in 1992's war-tattered former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Their lives are about to take drastically different turns: Natia is swiftly married off to a man she doesn’t love (in an instance of "bride kidnapping"), while the quieter Eka stays in school, wondering about her father, who’s behind bars for another man’s murder. Both young leads are superb, their performances set off against a background of malevolent male dominance, in a culture with sociopolitical and personal legacies of violence. Skillfully and beautifully wrought by filmmakers Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß. (Hits theaters January 10, via Big World Pictures.)
2. “Harmony Lessons." The revenge-on-bullies narrative is one we’re familiar with, particularly stateside. But this artful film out of Kazakhstan is something else entirely. Led by a remarkably strong cast of teen actors, Emir Baigazin's “Harmony Lessons” follows a seething loner as he meticulously crafts a brutal attack on the class kingpin, who’s humiliated and shunned him. With a Haneke-esque sense of shot composition and pacing, the narrative moves toward its unsettling third act, which melds police procedural with nightmarish adolescent fantasy. The film is particularly impressive given it’s a debut feature -- the first ever to be accepted into the Berlinale competition section, no less.
3. “The German Doctor." Written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Lucia Puenzo (“XXY”), this true story centers on an Argentine family who in 1960 unwittingly welcomed Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele into their home, and exposed themselves to his devious medical experiments. Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl) becomes particularly enchanted with the family’s pre-teen daughter (Florencia Bado), who suffers from stunted growth. Puenzo works in themes of ruthless conformity, denial and moral complexity as she builds toward an effective finale, while also taking visual advantage of the film’s setting: The gorgeously high-altitude region of Bariloche, Argentina, which cannily evokes both South America and alpine Germany. (Argentina’s official Oscar entry; hits theaters in April, via Samuel Goldwyn Films.)
4. “Heli." Cannes favorite Amat Escalante’s last feature “Bastardos” burned slow until a surprisingly gory shocker came in its final act. “Heli” goes the opposite route, putting its notoriously brutal scenes (yes, a young man gets his testicles set afire) in the opening hour, and letting the second hour settle into a nuanced character study. Heli is a young man living in rural Mexico, who gets caught up in a botched drug operation. Escalante weaves a skillful society critique, looking at violence, the country’s blurred lines between authorities and criminals, and misplaced revenge. (Mexico’s official Oscar entry.)
5. “Traffic Department." This thriller about corruption inside a Warsaw PD traffic unit is edited with as much lean economy as a David Fincher film, but with a scrappy, gritty look that matches the film’s grey and slushy winter setting. Writer-director Wojtek Smarzowski centers on seven officers, all friends, whose lives are thrown into tumult when one of them dies in what appears to be foul play. A hit at Poland’s box office and at the Polish Film Awards (where it scored Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor), “Traffic Department” is a title for crime film and neo-noir enthusiasts to seek out ASAP on the festival circuit.
Trailers and clips, after the jump.