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TeamI12.16.2022
The Best International Films of 2022
These are the best titles international cinema had to offer this year.

With every year that passes, we’re reminded more and more of how essential films from outside Hollywood and English-speaking regions are to the global film industry. Especially now, as major studios and streaming services create more challenges for filmmakers just to get their projects made and safely preserved, the thriving international scene reminds us that there are still many more ways of getting things done and many more stories to be told. This isn’t to say the countries mentioned below don’t have issues in film production of their own. But the fact they continue to produce work that is just as good—if not better than—those created under the dominant production models is something to be inspired by.

And so Projektor was created to house thoughtful writings on the best international cinema has to offer. What was previously (and sadly sometimes, still) reduced as fringe and inaccessible finds an exclusive home here, where we’ve sworn to spread the word about its brilliance, one essay—or list—at a time. 

Without further ado, here are our favorites of 2022 in no particular order, with excerpts from reviews we’ve put out this year.

Return to Seoul (dir. Davy Chou)

France, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Romania, Cambodia, Qatar

A character study built around its protagonist’s inability to learn from her mistakes and understand the world around her still makes for one of the richest dramas of the year. Think The Worst Person in the World without the romance, but with far more cultural nuances—of traditional South Korean family values, the independent spirit of the French youth, and an anguished third space somewhere in between. It’s these identities that constantly hound Freddie as she spontaneously seeks out her biological Korean parents, and then rejects any sort of family ties whatsoever and strikes out on her own. We see her change drastically and move forward in life, but what’s so striking are all the ways Freddie stays exactly the same, even after a full decade.

Director Davy Chou sustains an intoxicating, restless energy through every year of Freddie’s life, with every seemingly crucial character relationship seen as temporary and expendable through the young woman’s eyes. And as this character, Park Ji-min—a visual artist venturing into screen acting for the first time—gives one of the best performances of the year, building up layers of armor around her but crumbling like sand every time. You’ll wish you could watch Freddie run away forever. —Emil Hofileña

One Fine Morning (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)

France, United Kingdom, Germany

Life does not stop for anything, not even death. Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film, One Fine Morning, teaches this lesson the hard way, as it centers on Sandra (played by Léa Seydoux), while she balances her responsibilities as a mother, as a daughter, and as a lover.

One Fine Morning slots its way into our post-COVID-but-not-really world, taking its audience on a journey of grief and lost time, inspired by the filmmaker’s own experience of losing her father. Hansen-Løve is known for drawing inspiration from her personal life to enrich her works and give them an undeniable level of authenticity and reality, with previous works drawing inspiration from her late mentor Humbert Balsan and her brother Sven. The film accepts the mundane in day-to-day life, offering up a simple story with ordinary characters who face fairly common tragedies and heartbreaks.

It’s a beautiful and devastating drama that leaves its viewers desperate to better understand its leads. Yet through its ambiguity, it delivers a brilliantly subtle work about love and the painful inevitability of loss. —Raven Brunner

Read Projektor’s full review of One Fine Morning and our interview with Mia Hansen-Løve.

Decision to Leave (dir. Park Chan-wook)

South Korea

It would be disingenuous to argue that Korean auteur Park Chan-wook upends every archetype and trope of the noir and crime thriller genres (often he’ll just make them feel electric), but as his career has continued, women in his films have taken a bolder, stronger focus. In his appropriately twisty fashion, Park’s female characters have engaged fully with the trope of the deceptive femme, and instead of repeating the footsteps of other women in noir, have used deception as a means of empowerment.

Decision to Leave, Park’s new simmering and slick procedural, unpacks the femme fatale trope from an uncharacteristically male perspective for the Korean director. A burnt-out detective becomes transfixed by a Chinese woman as doubts arise about her husband’s suicide. As he becomes fascinated with the suspect Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the married detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is always aware of what kind of story he’s slipping into.

Park argues that maybe the structures of noir and crime films are too punishing for women to ever truly find fulfillment, especially if they’re queer, victims of abuse, or feel alienated from their contemporary society. There is no plan of action that can undo our guilt, there is no deception that can remove us from our trauma, and there is no performance that can make us a different person. —Rory Doherty

Read Projektor’s full review of Decision to Leave and our interview with Park Chan-wook.

R.M.N. (dir. Cristian Mungiu)

Romania, France, Belgium, Sweden

Out of all the movies that have attempted to capture the ferocity of modern-day xenophobia, perhaps none have been (or could be) as acute as R.M.N., the latest feature from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days director Cristian Mungiu. The film follows Matthias (Marin Grigore) as he travels from Germany back home to Romania after a colleague dubs him a “lazy gypsy.” You’d think being called a slur would knock some sense into him, but Matthias internalizes this hate and unleashes it tenfold on the South Asian workers who’ve just arrived in his hometown. Very quickly, the bucolic facade of his Transylvanian village unravels as (White) members of the village move to kick the newcomers out in increasingly deadly ways. 

There is nothing scarier than outright racism, but there is another haunting element at play in R.M.N. We learn early on that something traumatizes Matthias’s son Rudi from passing through the forest again, and throughout the film, we get almost-glimpses of what that could be, shadows and mirages, that later reveal itself in no-less-confusing but still-intriguing form. As is sometimes the case in great filmmaking, it’s hard to pin R.M.N. down to one genre, but thanks to its perceptive wit, it goes down in history as one of the smartest films about xenophobia ever made. —Renee Cuisia

Hit the Road (dir. Panah Panahi)

Iran

In that very specific subgenre known as the road movie, Iranian filmmaker Panah Panahi’s directorial debut Hit the Road bucks tradition by never truly specifying where his characters are headed or how they’re meant to get to their final destination. Nor is the film about “the journey all along,” as the cliché goes; this dysfunctional family really doesn’t have anything more to learn about each other.

Instead, Hit the Road is all about escape—leaving a place that offers familiarity, nostalgia, and relative certainty, just for the possibility of freedom and safety somewhere unknown. As a result, Panahi’s film displays some of the most remarkable uses of setting in a new release this year. Here, backgrounds and wide shots aren’t only meant to look pretty, but they also facilitate emotional processing and at times take the place of these characters’ emotions themselves.

What gives these places added weight, though, isn’t any sense of pride in Iran’s topography. It’s the fact that all this natural beauty brings the central family closer together and brings out their strongest qualities to help each other make it through this journey. —EH

Read Projektor’s full review of Hit the Road.

Leonor Will Never Die (dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar)

Philippines

Leonor Reyes doesn’t like living in reality. A famous action filmmaker in the 1980s, Leonor (played by Sheila Francisco) spends her days living vicariously through the films she watches on TV. Her son Rudie (Bong Cabrera), the last family member willing to live with her, has to remind her to behave like an adult—especially because their light bill is three months overdue. Instead of going to the payment center to resolve this issue, Leonor becomes distracted and purchases a new set of pirated DVDs from the corner store. When she returns to a home submerged in darkness and to an angry Rudie, Leonor does what she does best: she escapes.

The first few minutes of Leonor Will Never Die are hardly joyful, especially after Rudie takes a page from his mother and makes plans to migrate to another country. With no one else around her and nothing to distract her, she unearths one of her unfinished screenplays and begins immersing herself in it—crafting dialogue on her typewriter while animatedly narrating fight scenes and gunfire to an imaginary audience. All is well until a television falls out of a window and onto her head, thrusting her into the world of her own creation and inadvertently making her the star of her own 1980s Filipino action film.

In many places around the world, entertainment is dismissed only as a form of escapism. But Leonor Will Never Die shows that in the Philippines [where the film is set], cinema is a source of community, joy, and closure. —Jason Tan Liwag

Read Projektor’s full review of Leonor Will Never Die

The Quiet Girl (dir. Colm Bairéad)

Ireland

One of the most beautifully shot films of the year, this gentle Irish drama doesn’t seem to revolve around much conflict, but only because all the damage has already been done. The Quiet Girl is a film that’s ultimately about healing—not just for Cáit, the titular nine-year-old who is brought under the care of her aunt and uncle, but for all of these adults who have little idea how to really treat her. An unspoken grief hangs in the air that causes all these children to be neglected and ignored, and simultaneously forces the children to bear their parents’ pain on their own shoulders, too.

Colm Bairéad has made a deceptively simple film, one that mostly consists of characters slowly warming up to each other, but it’s one that still carries a great deal of weight. So when the film arrives at its enormously affecting ending, powered by the earnest performance from Catherine Clinch, it feels like momentous change has been achieved. Only then do you appreciate how carefully this world has been put together, how every lush landscape says everything about Cáit’s innocence and loneliness and how much hope there still is to be found. —EH

No Bears (dir. Jafar Panahi)

Iran

Jafar Panahi’s poignant and powerful No Bears opens with a terrific sequence, one that hits even harder than, say, the acclaimed one-shot marvel of Romain Gavras’s French film Athena. While the latter flaunts cinema’s capacity to transcend the spatial and temporal limitations of human consciousness—which is no mean feat—No Bears, while pretending to do so little on the screen, braves and profoundly overcomes the horrors of living in a world that stifles art and artists. It’s an infinitely bold and beautiful political act. 

Panahi’s call for a unified resistance arrives at a crucial moment as Iran is mired in a powerful civil society movement against the authoritarian state. In one of the most telling scenes in No Bears, the chatty owner of a tea stall warns him against taking a particular route home because “there are bears on the prowl.” A little later, the man reveals nonchalantly that the bears are merely a village myth to keep people out of the streets at night. Here is Panahi winking at his viewers, shining a torch into the dark alleys of collective fear, the handiest tool of fascism, urging them to come out onto the streets. —Aswathy Gopalakrishnan

Read Projektor’s full review of No Bears.

Saint Omer (dir. Alice Diop)

France

A courtroom drama that blows up all our notions of how a courtroom drama should play out, Saint Omer takes the subgenre literally by delivering testimony almost in real-time—and without any of the flourishes that would usually manufacture tension among the characters present. But Alice Diop’s debut narrative feature film also challenges what we believe the purpose of a courtroom drama to be. Normally we’re either invited to watch a winning argument come together based on the evidence presented, or to pass our own judgment when a case is left morally ambiguous. Saint Omer leaves all mystery at the door and asks instead if our existing justice systems are sufficiently equipped to punish individuals, when the real crimes are in everyday realities that harm women, immigrants, and the poor.

Diop pulls off a magic trick. By plainly observing two women in the courtroom—with minimal cuts and very little movement—she presents an entire thesis on the beauty and the burden of motherhood. And in the lead roles, Guslagie Malanga and Kayije Kagame are hypnotic, with quiet storms brewing inside each of their characters without any opportunity for release. The experience is demanding for an audience member, for sure, but it’s one that haunts you for a long, long time. —EH

Alcarràs (dir. Carla Simón)

Spain, Italy

In the small, eponymous village of Alcarras, Spain, a family of farmers fight to preserve their ties to livelihood and each other after an eviction notice threatens to uproot them for their land. In place of their peach orchard, which has kept the community and Solé family afloat for generations, a corporation insists on installing solar panels to boost the local economy. This causes a rift among the seemingly tight-knit Soles, who are forced to take sides in the battle against tradition and modernity, as well as self and family. 

Watching Alcarràs, you wouldn’t know that the leads are played by non-professional actors, such is the chemistry and ease they exude on camera. But what does come across is their expertise in harvesting each and every peach. That’s because Simón made it a point to hire actual Catalan farmers in her movie, and by doing so, she achieves a charming naturalism that’s rarely seen in cinema. 

It’s also worth noting how, instead of laser-focusing on generational trauma or a love-conquers-all sort of bond, as family dramas are wont to do, Simón simply shows things as they are. Children borrow mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re wrong or right. Siblings are inseparable, even though they were sworn enemies just moments ago. Issues aren’t so much resolved as they are laid out for our own perusal and reflection. At one point, it’s not even clear whose children are whose in this sprawling family. But as they share plates on the dinner table and feed each other delicacies (you have to taste this, make sure you take a bite of that) labels become indistinguishable and, in fact, irrelevant. They’re all just Solés raised in the same land, by the same padre de familia, all hoping they can still call this home theirs. —RC

Vortex (dir. Gaspar Noé)

France, Belgium, Monaco

In Vortex, director Gaspar Noé rolls the full credits first. Two screens appear, side by side, in a set-up that at first feels clunky and cheaply vintage. Noé had tried the split screen format before in his 2019 film Lux Æterna, but that movie also had so much motion that it made people throw up. It’s hard to admire the purposefulness of the visuals when you’re about to spill your guts out, I guess.

Two cameras start rolling both from the inside of the same Parisian apartment, each following the two tenants. They’re an elderly couple performing things they’ve done possibly for decades: they both pee, but only the second one flushes. The first one puts the coffee on, the second turns it off. 

In the small thrill of this sequence, the double-screen format goes from clunky to triumphant. Noé has mastered his visuals to a point where he can direct the brain to accept looking at two storylines at once, and this time, without wanting to throw up (triumph, I tell you). These are two people who, despite living together for so long, are now leading two completely different lives. The double-screen visual goes from unusual to necessary. —Bilal Zouheir

Read Projektor’s full review of Vortex.

RRR (dir. S. S. Rajamouli)

India

RRR, a historical fiction film about real-life freedom fighters Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr., otherwise known as Jr NTR) and Raju (Ram Charan), is laden with dialectical metaphors. There are colonizers and colonized people, a hunter and a tiger, water and fire, city and jungle, and all other sorts of contradictory forces. For the first half or so of the film, director S.S. Rajamouli leads us to think that Bheem and Raju are also part of this polarity. Despite their brotherly bond, they serve opposing groups—the Gond tribe and the British colonial army, respectively—whose ideals are incompatible with each other.

But what was initially presented as oppositional is later uncovered as complementary with the revelation of Raju’s backstory. RRR invites the Indian populace (and by extension, its global audience as well) to probe what unites them and focus their energy on fighting common enemies grounded on universal tenets of justice and righteousness. —Gerald Cajayon

Read Projektor’s retrospective on S.S. Rajamouli.

The Novelist’s Film (dir. Hong Sang-soo)

South Korea

Hong Sang-soo films often move in circles, sometimes perfectly spherical, other times more lopsided, but always traceable. The recurrence of characters and locations across not just varying temporal scenarios, but entirely filmic ones as well, creates a pared-down, choose-your-own-adventure structure for the immediate surroundings. The Novelist’s Film hinges on these off-the-cuff decisions, which only accumulate more secondhand agency for their owners as we accompany the players back and forth between a bookstore, an observation tower, and a park. The eponymous movie of the novelist is the functional climax, and Hong ushers us along to its fruition with, as usual, a self-effacing alacrity. —Patrick Preziosi 

Read Projektor’s full review of The Novelist’s Film.

Petite Maman (dir. Céline Sciamma)

France

Eight-year-old Nelly’s maternal grandma has just passed away. While emptying her grandma’s house, Nelly’s mom disappears in the middle of the night without saying goodbye, upset by her loss. While her dad continues the work, Nelly heads out to play among the trees, coming across an almost identical girl called Marion. Played by twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, the two quickly and comfortably bond. Marion, it seems, is her mother as a child, able to take Nelly home where her grandma is still alive and her house is still full.

As the film’s audience, we understand this is a relationship we will never know. But I imagine many of us long for it, like the way we found comfort in minor key lullabies as infants. We long to be able to provide comfort in return for people who spend their whole lives worrying about us. We are their little bundles of joy, who inevitably keep them awake at night worrying when we will be home, who misbehave, who don’t live up to expectations. Petite Maman invites us to imagine if, just for a day or two, we could forget about all of that. —Scott Wilson

Read Projektor’s full review of Petite Maman.

All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Edward Berger)

Germany, United States, United Kingdom

François Truffaut famously said “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” but director Edward Berger makes a very compelling case against that claim with his 2022 adaptation of the World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front

The use of violence to make a point isn’t particularly new, but depicting it with the level of humanity and, dare I say, art in the way that Berger does seems to be. He blows up, servers, and mutilates soldiers right before our eyes, but not before drawing us into their inner lives, quietly intimating their hopes and dreams. When they die, we die with them, not only because we’ve grown attached but because the technicals—the wide shots, the stark silence, the shaky close-up—work in tandem to deliver the film’s moving (but never overly sentimental) anti-war message. It succeeds in depicting the futility of war, one unnerving scene at a time. 

All Quiet on the Western Front relies on this juxtaposition between raw brutality and peaceful quiet to triumph, and the result is an effective viewing experience that leaves you nothing less than stunned long after the credits have rolled. —RC

See which streaming platforms are currently showing All Quiet on the Western Front.

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