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A Sun

(Chinese): This film is about a family whose structure begins to disintegrate when their youngest child A-Ho, a troublemaker from his youngest days, ends up serving a 3-year prison sentence. There are two main parts to the film. The first part tells how A-Ho ended up in prison and uses flashbacks to better understand the dynamics of the family. For those who have seen Ordinary People, another remarkable film about a dysfunctional family, it is reminiscent of that film. The second part of the film takes a bit of a shift and becomes a crime drama. Part of the brilliance …

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Cake

(Pakistan): This film is about three siblings who return home to Kabul after their father suffers from congestive heart failure. The return home surfaces a number of interpersonal struggles and family secrets that risk fracturing the family. At first glance, it seems like a standard “dysfunctional family dynamics” film. However, the film is really well constructing. The ensemble acting is great. The screenplay is very well crafted, frequently very funny, and keeps coming up with more surprises; I didn’t find it at all predictable. I am impressed with the music; I don’t know anything about Pakistani pop music, but it …

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Ash is the Purest White

(China). Story of Qiao, a young woman whose boyfriend Bin is a gangster (well, I am not sure of the exact translation – he kind of runs an underworld gambling operation and seems to perform “dirty work” for his boss). One day, Bin is viciously attacked by a pack of young men, and Qiao fires warning shots in the air to scare them off. She is arrested and spends the next 5 years in prison. The story is told in three parts: The first, as Bin’s girlfriend before she is arrested; 5 years later, her release and post-arrest life; and …

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Border

(Sweden). This is a very unusual and strange film. Tina is a customs officer. She has an unusual knack for being able to smell people’s emotions – she can tell when someone is trying to get something illegal through the security checkpoint. One day, Vore comes through security; she senses something is wrong but cannot quite determine what it is. When her partner searches Vore, he doesn’t find anything. Another man comes through who has a child pornography disc hidden in his phone, and this sets off a series of events that connect Tina, Vore, and the other man in …

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The Cave

This is the latest film by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, who made Last Men in Aleppo, the gripping film about the White Helmets, the men who risked their lives to rescue civilians from bombing-related rubble. This documentary follows Dr. Amani, a pediatrician and managing physician of the Cave, an underground hospital in a city near Damascus, as she struggles to keep her hospital running. Food, medicine, and medical supplies are dwindling (one of the surgeons plays classical music on his phone and asks his patients to relax during surgery because of the lack of anesthesia), and the increasing risk of …

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Jallikattu

(India): I watched this film with no expectations, and I have to say it was one of the most thought-provoking, interesting, and surprising (in a great way) films I have seen this year. It is the kind of film I am attracted to – creative and unique in its vision and storytelling and one whose premise initially seems like it cannot work but executes brilliantly. It opens with a montage of men who live in the village; we are introduced to some of the key characters, quick glimpses of their faces and activities during a typical day. After a brief …

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Kumbalangi Nights

(India) This film was interesting for me to watch. This is probably the first film out of India I have seen that doesn’t look like it was made for an international audience. Four brothers live together in an old house in a poor part of town. The brothers don’t all get along well together, and it is clear from the beginning that there is a history that we will discover as the film progresses. I was fascinated watching this, as it is a very different film than the kind that are typically produced in the United States. I will claim …

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For Sama

This documentary tells the story of a journalist (Waad al-Kateab) and her family as they endure 5 years in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. She and her husband were both student activists whose roles quickly changed once the war started – he a doctor trying to treat victims in sometimes makeshift hospitals, she a journalist documenting the war, and raising a baby daughter during it all. The film is pretty powerful. It is all first-had footage from her video camera, and she captures a range of experiences from the ground as a woman and mother – scenes in hospital …

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Les Misérables

(France) The setting is Montfermeil, a relatively poor, multiethnic neighborhood in Paris. Stephane is a new corporal who is patrolling the streets with Chris and Gwada, two regular patrollers who have a reputation for using their power in unglorifying ways to maintain control over the streets. They find themselves in a tough situation when an encounter with a child that goes wrong is filmed with a drone by one of the neighborhood children. This is a really intense and powerful exploration of the tensions in a neighborhood controlled by various power structures, each with their own motives and objectives, that …

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Atlantics

(Senegal): Suleiman is among a group of workers on a large, towering building in Dakar who have not been paid for several months. Determined to seek a better source of income for them and their families, he and several others get on a boat and head to Spain. Ada, who is betrothed to a rich merchant, is secretly having an affair with Suleiman.  I won’t say too much more about the story, as the discovery and slow and unpredictable unfolding of the plot is what makes this movie unique. I found myself continually surprised, not at the twist and turns …

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