“Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé…”
In two days, on July 14th, France will celebrate a great day in its history. In my mind this is also a great day for humanity, delivering great universal ideas we should all strive towards - liberty, equality, fraternity. The Bastille Day is regarded as the day the French people – the masses – liberated themselves, not from the rule of another nation, but from the tyrannical and absolute rule of the monarchs and aristocrats. They say the Greek invented democracy, but up until 1789, democracy was mostly dormant across the world. You can say the French re-invented western democracy, or at least revived it. So to thank the French for their gift to the western world and to honor the one time they stood up for what they believed in (zing), I decided to go over some of the best French films of this decade (to make an all-time list would require more attention from you than you have, no disrespect). In the spirit of the French revolution, I omitted the ruler of all French films from this list, their biggest commercial success to date: Intouchables. They deserve to be there, but I’m sure they’ll understand. So what other cinematic gems have come out of this cheese sniffing, philosophy talking, vacation taking nation (and I’m saying this in the most envious way possible)? Et voilà:
Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have become one of the more important filmmakers’ teams in France during this century. Their clever and witty comedies have been compared to those of Woody Allen, which is a great compliment. This film is their best work, a multiple story affair centered around an uneducated factory owner, unhappy in his bourgeois existence. A visit from Iranian businessmen forces him to learn English, and soon enough he falls in love with his teacher, an intellectual actress, who first looks at him as a buffoon, but slowly succumbs to his natural charm. It’s an absolutely irresistible film, which only the French can make.
French documentaries aren’t as ubiquitous as American ones, but what the French lack in quantity they definitely make up for in quality, and originality. This is a stunning profile of a dedicated educator in rural France, who deals with an unconventional class where the children’s ages vary from 4 to 11. He has his very unique way of teaching and communicating with kids. Whether you agree with his methods or not, this is a fascinating, unfiltered and unapologetic look at teachers, children and education as a whole.
France’s imperialistic past has made it a land of immigrants – either from North Africa, Western Africa, The Caribbean islands and in this case, Georgia. When a member of a family of Francophile Georgians, who immigrated to France, dies, the daughters of the elderly mother try to hide the truth from their aging parent. It’s a touching, un-patronizing and different look at where immigrants come from, with a lot of humor and humanity.
4. 5X2 (2004)
François Ozon is another director that has emerged as one of the leading French directors of this century. Here we have five scenes in the life of a couple, starting with their breakup, and going back in time to their first meeting. It’s a pretty gloomy look at relationships, but the two leads are very good and their characterization is complex, which is probably the most important thing in a film with basically only two people in it. It is sure to leave an impression.
This beautiful film tells the story of an aging French-Moroccan immigrant trying to accomplish his dream of opening a couscous restaurant. Although this film deals with difficult issues, like immigrants and the problems of French society and its pace is slow (which intimidates some viewers), it’s never depressing and has an oddly fresh feeling, owing a lot to the breakout performance by the unique Hafsia Herzi (which landed a Cesar award for most promising actress). And there’s a great surprising ending.
Master filmmaker Claude Lelouche directed this thriller about three people who have supposedly no connection between them, but slowly and surely links start to appear, and the big picture starts to get clearer (or does it). Strange-faced Dominique Pinon gives (as usual may I add) a great performance, and Lelouche toys with the viewer, creating great tension up until the end. It’s a great example for how to make a thriller without resorting to chases, shooting or other cheap tricks, just a great story and a solid mystery.
Another great French thriller, this one tells the real story of legendary gangster Jacques Mesrine. This film was divided into two parts, making an epic crime saga and ultimately doing justice to a very unique criminal and intriguing character in the history of France. The eccentric criminal is played brilliantly by Vincent Cassel, giving him great depth and humanity. Cassel has always excelled in playing criminals, and this film is no exception.
Movies about dedicated educators are a tricky thing – they usually come out the same. Director Laurent Cantet uses a real life teacher as his lead and realism to penetrate ‘inside the walls‘ (the literal translation of the title in French) of a class of hardcase students comprised of mostly immigrants’ sons and daughters in a tough neighborhood in Paris. It’s an eye opening film, that seems more realistic than many documentaries.
The story of a petty criminal’s unusual and unlikely rise to the top. It’s a sort of existential film (man controlled by his destiny), but unlike those gloomy (mostly French) existentialists, in Jacques Audiard’s crime drama, man comes out on top. With Audiard’s surreal touches, and another breakout performance by Tahar Rahim, this has to stand as one of the best crime films of this century.
I noticed we haven’t touched politics since my emotional opening statement, so here we go. Pierre Schöller wrote and directed this excellent political drama about the French transport minister, and how he deals with the prospect of privatization, media and intrigue in his own political party. Olivier Gourmet’s performance as the embattled politician is nothing less than exquisite, the story is complex but believable, and Schöller’s direction sets this film apart from other political dramas.
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Technorati Tags: The Taste of Others, Agnes Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Woody Allen, To Be and To Have, Since Otar Left, 5X2, Fancois Ozon, The Secret of the Grain, Hafsia Herzi, Roman de Gare, Claude Lelouche, Dominique Pinon, Public Enemy Number One, Jacques Mesrine, Vincent Cassel, The Class, Lauret Cantet, A Prophet, Jacques Audiard, Tahar Rahim, L’exercise de l’Etat, Pierre Scholler, Olivier Gourmet
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