Despite Hollywood’s continuing global prominence, more of the best movies are coming from other countries and in languages other than English. Reading subtitles while watching on-screen action is off-putting for some, but it’s only a little tougher than walking and chewing gum at the same time, and can be so much more rewarding. If you are a true cinephile, you don’t care where a movie originated, just that it’s worth watching. And as far as I’m concerned, the three movies discussed below — are among the finest I’ve seen this year.
Parasite is the latest movie from the lauded Korean director-screenwriter Bong Joon Ho. It will definitely be in the conversation for recognition during award season, especially because it already scored the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Examining the interactive fortunes of two modern Korean families (with a few wild cards thrown in), this crazily brilliant combination of farcical comedy; social satire; fateful tragedy; and dark, tension-laced thrills deals with class war, familial dysfunction, and the potential for crime and chaos when a massive gap exists between the wealthy and the impoverished.
The Kims are impoverished scam artists — a father, mother, brother, and sister — who, starting with the college-aged son, wheedle into the lives of the well-to-do, borderline arrogant Park clan whose finances are on the rise and whose lifestyle is everything the Kims don’t have and would do most anything to possess.
Bong has always shown affection for genre movies, with a stellar filmography that includes the dystopian, sociopolitical sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer, the cool antimilitary monster movie The Host, and the sweetly subversive boy-and-his-mythical-creature feature Okja. He’s also established some serious dramatic bona fides with Mother — a devastating look at the power and breadth of maternal love when one woman on the margins must defend her disabled offspring from criminal charges. But the dynamic, multilayered Parasite is the height of his career to date. Anger, desperation, and frustration fuel the Kims who envy the Parks’ material goods and cushy home. All of the Kims’ planning and implementing of their plots aside, Parasite poses questions that have no easy answers. Who among these people is really entitled to the good life? Is success about luck, hard work, or cunning? When is punishment a crime? Even if he doesn’t take sides, Bong elegantly and entertainingly examines the wages of economic inequity in Parasite, and in the process, strengthens his case for being one of the premier filmmakers working today.
A mix of biography and drama, Loro concerns the rise, corruption, and personal excesses of scandalous and now-disgraced prime minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi. It’s clearly the product of the visually extravagant Italian director Paolo Sorrentino in every beautifully composed frame.
Sorrentino’s 2013 movie The Great Beauty — a glorious look at contemporary Roman society, high and low, through the eyes of an aging journalist — won the Oscar for best foreign film, and maintains a lofty spot on my best-of-all-time list. I think of Sorrentino, who also created and directed the HBO series The Young Pope, as a true heir to Federico Fellini, owing a debt to the master’s visual flair and wit. Still, Sorrentino blazes his own trail. With Loro, which he co-authored with Umberto Contarello, he takes on the heedlessly hedonistic Berlusconi, as played by the great character actor Toni Servillo. Berlusconi came to prominence as an Italian media tycoon and entered politics, evidently to advance his own profligate lifestyle — a seemingly endless, drug-and-booze-fueled party packed with glamorous, willing women for the pleasure of certain predatory, power-mad men. The parallels with the avaricious, self-serving denizen now in the Oval Office were not lost on me, and they make Loro a topical and even more provocative movie. And as an added bonus, Loro looks as spectacular as Sorrentino’s earlier work, and that’s saying something.
PAIN AND GLORY
Finally, we have Pain and Glory. It’s a drama that might be as close to genuine autobiography as the critically lauded Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has made, mixing his memories of romantic and carnal love and his working-class childhood with his passion for the cinema. Antonio Banderas is perfectly cast as Salvador Mallo, the lightly fictionalized stand-in for Almodovar. Mallo is a director dealing with physical and emotional problems that have taken a toll on his ability to make movies. Now, on the eve of a tribute to one of his early masterpieces, he finds himself reflecting on his youth, his first great love, and his elevating embrace of movies. Besides Bandaras, whose piercing performance is the beating heart of Pain and Glory, the other familiar face here is Penelope Cruz, letter-perfect as Mallo’s mother in flashbacks.
Paralleling Sorrentino’s most notable influence, Pain and Glory is somewhat reminiscent of Fellini’s 8½ in its theme of a director in crisis who’s plagued by a lost past and unfinished business. Almodovar’s best movies have a sort of careening energy and wit about them. Here, the driving force is passion, fueling a mature, heartfelt, personal drama from another leading light in world cinema.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster