In the age of streaming, the earth is flat — screen-size — with travel to faraway destinations only a monthly subscription and a click away. We’ve journeyed through the world of options and chosen the best new international movies for you to watch.
It was only after I had laughed, cried and bitten my nails in suspense watching “Binti” that I realized it was tagged in the “kids” category on Amazon. Directed by Frederike Migom, this Belgian film pulls off a feat rarely seen in American children’s cinema: It folds sobering real-life issues of racial inequality and immigration into a feel-good story without ever condescending to its audience. At the beating, bursting heart of this film is the 11-year-old Binti (played by a vivacious Bebel Tshiani Baloji), an undocumented Congolese immigrant who lives in Belgium with her father. She’s a social-media-obsessed tween with a sizable online following, amassed through videos that put a glamorous spin on her precarious life.
When a police raid forces Binti and her father to flee the house they squat in with other undocumented immigrants, she crosses paths with Elias (Mo Bakker), a white teenager struggling to come to terms with his parents’ divorce. With the miraculous faith in humanity typical of children’s movies, Elias and his mother decide to shelter Binti and her father. Soon this resulting makeshift family is planning a benefit dance show for an animal Elias adores, the okapis, an endangered species related to the giraffe and endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Warmth and comedy course through these antics, but when the characters confront the threat of deportation, Migom treats it with cleareyed seriousness, tying it all together in a climax that is both realistic in its portrayal of an unjust world and optimistic about the potential of people — and particularly kids — to make things better.
Sleek, suspenseful and thoroughly surprising, “Workforce” unfolds in its first half as a gritty Kafkaesque drama about exploited workers. After losing his brother to a workplace accident, Francisco (Luis Alberti), a construction worker in Mexico City, tries to secure compensation for his pregnant sister-in-law and is stymied by an indifferent and corrupt bureaucracy. In starkly composed, neorealistic scenes, the director David Zonana details the daily travails of Francisco and his colleagues. Not only do the men toil all day to build a palatial house that looks obscene in comparison to their own cramped, leaky huts, but they also suffer routine indignities on the job: long hours, missed pay, deductions for minor mistakes.
But midway through, this slow-burning kitchen-sink drama suddenly shape-shifts, as a dark twist leads Francisco and his co-workers to take over the house and live in it together with their families. The group’s deliberations and negotiations — and their amazement at the relative luxuries now available to them — are moving and riveting to watch. But an unease persists and grows through it all, as Francisco turns into a slippery, morally ambiguous figure. Zonana keeps his cards close to his chest till the very end, folding an excoriating critique of class inequities and the corruption of capital into a taut thriller.
This Malayali superhero story starts off with a literal bang. In a tiny village in the South Indian state of Kerala, a spate of lightning precipitated by a rare astronomical event strikes two men at the same time: Jaison (Tovino Thomas), a handsome young tailor who dreams of moving to America to find work; and Shibu (Guru Somasundaram), an eccentric outcast whose long-lost love has just returned to town. Right off the bat, the film sets up an intriguing mystery. Which of these two men, both of whom are soon coughing up blue phlegm and moving objects with their minds, is the superhero of the film’s title (“minnal” meaning “lightning”)? And are they would-be teammates or antagonists?
In a clever narrative tactic, “Minnal Murali” doesn’t clarify these questions until at least an hour into the film, instead tracing its two leads’ coming-into-power with equal empathy and wit. Wearing scrappy disguises, Jaison uses his newfound mega-strength to teach the town’s dimwitted, corrupt police a lesson, while Shibu defends his crush from lecherous dudes and robs a bank to help the woman’s sick daughter. Jaison signs off his antics with the name Minnal Murali, and when the village assumes that Shibu’s escapades are also by the same masked man, confusions and rivalries ensue. The stakes eventually heighten, but for the most part, Basil Joseph’s movie feels less like a superhero actioner and more like a charming provincial comedy. Featuring a unanimously fantastic ensemble cast, the film revels in the endearing quirks of a small village and the humble aspirations that drive even its most powerful denizens.
“Gritt” is the nickname of Gry-Jeanette, the performance artist at the heart of Itonje Soimer Guttormsen’s film, but it might also be a reference to a quality that our stubborn, head-in-the-clouds protagonist has perhaps in excess. When we first meet Gritt, she’s in New York with a Norwegian theater troupe as an assistant for an actress with Down syndrome, whom she regards with envy and resentment. It’s the latest in Gritt’s globe-trotting series of attempts to crack into the avant-garde art scene, and it seems to bear some promise when a local theater director puts her in touch with a colleague in Oslo.
As we soon learn, however, Gritt has neither the resources (she lacks a stable home and is denied government grants because of a lack of experience) nor the integrity to bring her lofty ideas to life. In Oslo, she lands an apprenticeship at The Theater of Cruelty and begins working on a project with local Syrian refugees, only to bungle it all with poor decisions and selfish lies — a turn that finally prompts some soul-searching. With real-life artists from New York and Oslo appearing as themselves, and frenetic, hand-held cinematography that invokes reality television, “Gritt” itself can feel like performance art at times — a character portrait that goads the viewer with its deeply ambiguous yet arresting subject, played with superb commitment by Birgitte Larsen.
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The personal and the political entwine fascinatingly in Federico Atehortúa Arteaga’s meditative documentary essay. The director had initially set out to make a film about what is widely regarded as the beginnings of Colombian cinema: the restaging of a 1906 assassination attempt on the country’s then-president, Rafael Reyes, for a photographic report. While he was working on this project, Atehortúa Arteaga’s mother developed a sudden case of mutism that doctors could not explain. In “Mute Fire,” the director draws associative links between these two events, braiding them together in an inspired inquiry on performance, trauma and the unspoken ways in which the weight of Colombia’s bloody wars is borne corporeally by its people.
Using archival images and home videos, Atehortúa Arteaga unspools an investigation into the role that images play in familial and historical memory. Deftly, with a poetic voice-over, he weaves together the early films of Thomas Edison, which recreated famous executions; the controversy around one of the first-ever movies made in Colombia, capturing the death of the political leader Rafael Uribe Uribe; and the “false positives” scandal of the Colombian military, involving the thousands of innocent men and women murdered and passed off as combat kills during the country’s recent civil conflict. War, Atehortúa Arteaga movingly demonstrates, is fought as much with images as with weapons, and as those images persist through time, so do the many wounds of battle.