“Virunga” (2014) is an urgent British documentary about Virunga National Park, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a team of rangers have dedicated themselves to the preservation of the park and to the protection of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. The threat to the park and to the gorillas comes from ruthless poachers, looming civil war, and SOCO International, an oil conglomerate with ambitions to exploit the natural resources under the park’s Lake Edward. The storyline revolves around the desperate efforts of park wardens Emmanuel de Merode and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katemb to protect the reserve, ranger André Bauma to personally care for the vulnerable creatures and investigative journalist Mélanie Gouby to expose SOCO’s nefarious intentions for the besieged park, as all three forces slowly converge. A stunning real-life thriller bound to enrage and galvanize the viewer—a remarkable glimpse into a desperate conflict and a searing call-to-action.
2. Land of Mine (Under Sandet)
“Land of Mine” (2015) is a Danish-German historical drama set in 1945, following the end of World War II and the liberation of Denmark from German occupation. The story follows Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) of the Danish military, as he takes charge of a squadron of young German conscripts taken prisoner at the end of armed conflict. The callow young men are assigned the dangerous task of removing hundreds of thousands of land mines from the beaches of Denmark (planted by the Germans), literally crawling on their hands and knees to delicately extract the explosive charges. Rasmussen is initially cruel and callous toward his young detainees, though the gradual affection he develops toward the innocuous youths serves well the emotional framework of the film. Quite the charged and suspenseful cinematic experience, replete with genuine human drama and sequences of jarring, edge-of-your-seat suspense. A well-deserved nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017.
"Monsieur Lazhar" (2011) is a somber, absorbing drama from Québec, Canada about an Algerian immigrant living in Montreal, the titular Mr. Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), who begins a new position as elementary school teacher. His appointment follows the stunning suicide of the class’ previous teach, Martine Lachance, who hangs herself and is regrettably found by one of her students. Unable to locate an immediate replacement, the principal Madame Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) acquiesces to an unexpected offer from Mr. Lazhar to take charge of the classroom, even as he secretly harbors his own history of family tragedy. Ultimately Mr. Lazhar proves to be a capable and adroit educator, though somewhat out-of-touch with modern form, and brings comfort and stability to the children still reeling from the death of their beloved Martine. Genuine and empathetic to its core, “Monsieur Lazhar” serves as a wonderfully touching depiction of grief and loss, touched with a profound air of human reconciliation.
“Lore” (2012) is a German-British-Australian drama set at the end of World War II, as the Nazi regime crumbles and Allied forces swarm Germany. As the story begins, an S.S. officer and his wife abandon their five young children as the threat of capture looms upon them. With instructions to find their way to their grandmother’s home in Northern Germany, the group of five sets off on foot, with the oldest daughter, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), forced to lead the distressed quintet. “Lore” is a tense story of survival that follows the forsaken group along a painstaking trek through newly occupied lands, encountering Germans both helpful and dismissive, before ultimately coming under the unlikely protection of a young Jewish man named Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina). Shot in lush, intimate detail by Adam Arkapaw, “Lore” is an utterly harrowing and starkly unsettling depiction of the resilience of the human spirit under the most distressing of circumstances. A stunning accomplishment for Australian director Cate Shortland not to be missed.
5) Arrhythmia (Aritmiya)
“Arrhythmia” (2017) is a strikingly involving Russian drama focused on the relationship between Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko), a committed yet unruly paramedic, and Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) a dedicated emergency medical doctor. Living together and working conflicting hours, the two strain to maintain some semblance of a workable relationship as Oleg drowns himself in alcohol—often disregarding Katya in lieu of intoxication. Oleg’s contrarian style of work, attending to patents more thoroughly than prescribed, puts him at odds with his superiors who charge that his deliberate style leaves other emergency victims at risk of death. The arrival of a new, authoritarian head of Oleg’s emergency services unit soon puts him in a dire position, exacerbating his anxiety and driving him to further alcohol abuse. “Arrhythmia” paints a brutally honest, stunningly authentic picture of the rigors of everyday life, beset by the complexities of love and commitment. A wonderfully touching film likely to stay with you long after it is over.
“Omar” (2013) is a vital Palestinian drama-thriller starring Adam Bakri as Omar, an unassuming Palestinian baker who frequently climbs the West Bank Barrier Wall to visit his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany), a high school student he plans to marry. Caught by Israeli soldiers and beaten mercilessly, Omar and his friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat) retaliate violently, leading to the death of an Israeli soldier. Ultimately tracked down and imprisoned in Israel, Omar is blackmailed by an Israeli agent named Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) and forced to operate as a double-agent against his own people. Rami manipulates and coerces Omar into a series of complicated and elaborated operations, as Omar struggles against Rami’s oppressive hand and yearns to unite with Nadia. As much a dynamic true-to-life thriller as a cultural and political statement, Omar is engaging and revelatory international cinema at its finest. A strikingly provocative account of fractured existence and profound moral ambiguity.
7. The Clan (El Clan)
“The Clan” (2015) is an engrossing Argentinian crime film that follows the exploits of the infamous “Puccio Clan”, a middle-class family from Buenos Aires that made headlines in the 1980’s for a series of high-profile kidnappings and murders. The story begins in 1982, when family patriarch Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella) leaves his position within the government’s intelligence service to pursue his dream of opening a small business. With aspirations of gaining in wealth and prestige, Arquímedes hatches an illicit plan to kidnap members of wealthy local families and profit on subsequent ransom payments. Alejandro (Peter Lanzani), his eldest son and a star rugby player, soon joins his father in his nefarious activities, helping to identify targets amongst the parents of his wealthy friends. The entire family is soon enmeshed in a volatile series of seizures and murders, with director Pablo Trapero playing out this startling true story of diabolical greed and family tragedy with impeccable skill. An unnerving and utterly mesmerizing experience.
8) Miss Bala
“Miss Bala” (2011) is a intense Mexican thriller starring Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, a 23-year old woman who dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Together with her best friend, Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo), Laura enrolls in the “Miss Baja” beauty pageant and is soon overjoyed to learn that they have both qualified—journeying together to the nearby Millennium Club that evening in order to celebrate. Soon after their arrival, however, the establishment is overrun by members of La Estrella, a fierce drug gang that kills dozens of DEA officers and partygoers in attendance. Laura is taken hostage and soon coerced by the head of La Estrella, Lino (Noé Hernández) into a series of dangerous missions transporting drug money and luring various targets with her stunning looks—all shot with blistering immediacy and feverish intensity. A propulsive thrill-ride that is somehow based on actual events, ”Miss Bala” is a wildly orchestrated whirlwind that delivers a jarring yet cinematically invigorating perspective on the horrors of the Mexican Drug War.
9) Metro Manila
“Metro Manila” (2013) is a British film set in The Philippines that opens with Filipino rice farmer Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) struggling to support his family in the northern rural Banaue Province. Facing the harsh reality of their circumstances, Oscar packs up his wife and two children and relocates them to the southern metropolis of Manila in the hopes of finding work. Ultimately locating an abandoned one-bedroom in the slums, the family begins to settle in as well as possible, with Oscar beginning a new job as a security officer for an armored courier outfit. Oscar grows close to his new partner, Ong, while his wife finds employment as a nightclub as a hostess, and things slowly appear to be coming together. But the film quickly transitions from a human drama to a high-stakes thriller, as blackmail, robbery and murder become inextricably linked to Oscar’s fate. Written and directed by Sean Ellis, “Metro Manila” is a surprising and absorbing hybrid of a cultural exposé and dynamic suspense film, drawing impressively from both and delivering something altogether new and exciting.
“Tangerines” (2013) is a Estonian-Georgian film that follows Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an ethnic Estonian living in a rural part of the disputed Abkhazia region—an area torn apart by war between Abkhaz separatists and the Georgian military. Ivo is long overdue to flee the dangerous region, but remains anxious to harvest his final tangerine crop before his departure. His efforts are soon disturbed by a violent clash in his home between Chechen mercenaries (sided with the Estonains) and Georgian forces that leaves a Chechen (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Georgian (Mikheil Meskhi) mortally wounded. Both are taken in by Ivo and slowly nursed back to health, even as they clash verbally and profess intense hated for one another. Slowly, however, their animosity cools as they begin to see the humanity and honor in one another, previously obscured by prejudice and enmity. Directed and co-written by Zaza Urushadze, “Tangeines” is a tense, riveting film about the absurdity of warfare and the universal value of human reclamation. Alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking—certainly not to be overlooked.