I'm always interested in examining how the foreign films I see have made it onto my radar.
Most American film fans really have to seek out foreign films, since few of them are marketed or distributed heavily in the United States. In fact, only the five that get nominated for Oscars each year have a great chance of making it down to the casual film fans, and even then, only one or two of those seem accessible enough to secure a place on their Netflix queues.
I, however, am not a casual film fan, so I see a lot more foreign language films than most people. Which still results in only a pathetic fraction of those that get made.
My method of learning about them is usually some combination of randomly reading about them, hearing them touted on a film podcast, or perhaps seeing a trailer for them at an arthouse theater.
Because of the random nature of this exposure, it seems like you should watch an equal number of movies from all pockets of the world, assuming you aren't carrying in a bias in favor of any particular region, and assuming you have an open-minded desire to expose yourself to as wide a cross-section of world cinema as you can.
Within this, though, you notice certain patterns emerging, certain parts of the world that seem to be really bringing it in terms of quality during the same period of time. Sometimes you even notice thematic and stylistic similarities that may have a cultural origin.
In the past couple years, South Korean films and Romanian films have each had distinct periods where they've asserted themselves into my consciousness. This year, though, it's films from Norway that are having a moment.
As I write this, I'm a bit surprised to note that three of my top 20 films from 2012 (out of 77 that I've seen) hail from Norway. Which means that 2011 was a damn good year for the Norwegian film industry. (Because of my ranking rules, I rank the films in the year they became available for me to watch for the first time, which was 2012, even though the three films all hit Norwegian theaters in 2011.)
No night better symbolized Norway's sudden ascendency than Monday, when I watched two of these three films in the same evening. (Watched the entirety of one, and finished another I'd started on Sunday.)
It was a total coincidence that I happened to do this, utterly unpremeditated. I'd had Turn Me On, Dammit! (whose trailer I saw at an arthouse theater) as a disc from Netflix since the second week of November, and I prioritized Oslo, August 31st (available on Netflix streaming) because of hearing it touted for a second time on the previous week's episode of Filmspotting. I'm just thankful I didn't ruin the latter film by watching ten minutes of it during a bout of insomnia on Saturday night, then squeezing in another half-hour Sunday night before finishing it on Monday. And the only reason we watched Dammit on Monday night was because our DirecTV is out, as discussed on Monday.
Both of these films are full of wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking surprises, so I won't tell you too much about them. But just to get your curiosity piqued, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a coming-of-age story told (refreshingly) from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, confronting her budding sexuality and its unintended consequences within the setting of a small-town Norwegian high school. Oslo, August 31st is a pensive look at a day in the life of a recovering drug addict, who must confront people from his past as he contemplates his future. As is the case with many good films, the plots are deceptively simple. It's the attention to storytelling detail that makes these two films sing.
But my favorite of the three Norwegian films in my top 20 is a gas of a thriller called Headhunters, which I watched back at the end of September (and learned about by hearing Joe Morgenstern's glowing review of it). This one contains more unexpected moments than the two previous films combined. Rarely have I seen a film straddle this many genres and have such a deft touch at each of them. It reminded me of the best work of Joel and Ethan Coen, except with more humanism. To say any more about it would spoil a terrific rollercoaster ride worse than riding a rollercoaster after a long night of drinking.
As if we needed further proof that there's Norway in the air, a Japanese film called Norwegian Wood, based on Haruki Murakami's novel, would qualify for my 2012 list as well. This one originated in Japan all the way back in 2010, but its U.S. release wasn't until January 6th of this year. I do plan to watch it before I finalize my rankings next month, though I don't expect it to have anything to do with Norway.
Of course, the problem with watching all these foreign films that originated in other calendar years is that each one presents a potential problem to me in terms of this year-end list. What if one of these films ends up being my favorite of the year? I have a philosophical problem with that, because when I look back on these lists in years to come, I don't really want to see that my #1 movie is something that only belongs with that ranking year based on the technicality of it U.S. release date. I narrowly avoided that fate in 2008, when I ranked 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days my #2 film of the year, just behind The Wrestler -- even though many critics ranked it in 2007, having seen it at film festivals. Since then it has definitely surpassed The Wrestler in my estimation. I caught a break with last year's #1, A Separation, which was the rare foreign film to debut in its country of origin in the same year that it debuted in the United States.
I guess I should just be glad that I'm seeing movies that are this good at all, and hand-wringing about year-end lists is not that important. It's the experience of watching the movie that matters, and it's nice to be reminded that you sometimes (frequently?) have to go abroad to find the most original stories being told in cinema.
And in 2012, the way to those stories is Norway.