“Sing” (Hungary), by Kristóf Deák
When Kristóf Deák accepted the Oscar for “Sing,” he humbly held up his statue and said, “This is dedicated to the only people who can ultimately make this world a better place: children.” The performances of the film’s 10-year-old actors were no doubt its standout element, making it a sweet and spirited tale about the power of the underdog to battle corrupt authority. The film opens onto Zsófi’s first day at her new school, as she shyly adjusts to her surroundings and finds solace in joining the school choir. It isn’t long before her seemingly lovely instructor, Miss Erika, pulls her aside after class and cruelly orders her to lip sync rather than actually sing. With an important competition coming up, she simply cannot afford to have average voices compromise their chance of defending the school’s national title. Crushed by shame, Zsófi confides in her friend, Liza, and the two soon find out that Zsófi isn’t Miss Erika’s only marionette. Almost half of the students are mere stand-ins, forced to sustain the illusion of gifted children “singing in harmony.” Attuned to the irony as Miss Erika asks them, “We are the best and most beautiful choir in the country, right?” we cheer for the students to take her down.
Amidst excited whispers, a revolution takes root on the school playground, as Zsófi and Liza pass on their plot to humiliate their choir teacher. On competition day, she is totally unprepared as her students, following the downbeat, all begin to lip sync in unison. The effect is hilarious, as the choir’s façade of flawlessness comes crashing down – the parents looking perplexed and amused, and Miss Erika storming off stage like a riled empress. Sabotage has never felt so pure of heart. Only after their teacher has left do the students begin to sing, all together, the beautiful sound now purged of ugly secrets. The message of “Sing” is simple, universal, and relevant to a current social landscape ridden with divisions, deceptions, and abusive authority. It reminds us that succeeding together is more important than allowing the best to excel at others’ expense. It is also a fable about refusing to hide the truth to achieve the desired result and refusing to be silenced by fear. In a true and vibrant choir, every voice counts.
“Silent Nights” (Denmark), by Aske Bang
Though it tries to condense too much dramatic conflict into its short time span, “Silent Nights” deserves ample credit for boldly broaching the poverty, racism, and extreme hardship faced by Europe’s migrants. The film follows a young Danish woman, Inger, volunteering at a shelter in Copenhagen, where she meets and falls in love with Kwame, an undocumented Ghanaian refugee. Kwame leads a poverty-stricken life, often forced to sleep outside in the bitter cold and harassed by local racists as he collects empty bottles in the streets for money. Our sympathy for him is conflicted, however, as he begins a relationship with Inger without telling her he has a wife and three kids back in Ghana.
Though the ending is technically a happy one – Inger forgives Kwame for keeping his family life a secret and provides him with enough money to return home – it is too hastily resolved to resonate with the audience like it should. The fictional love story ultimately detracts from, rather than heightens, the film’s greatest strength: its authentic portrait of immigrants in Denmark. In the scenes at the homeless shelter, most of the film’s extras were actual refugees living there. Prior to writing the script, director Aske Bang had talked to many of them and learned their stories. His inspiration for “Silent Nights,” he said, was walking through the streets of Copenhagen and seeing immigrants collecting bottles and “living like ghosts” as people passed by. The documentary dimension of his film might have gripped us with greater force, however, had it not fallen through the quicksand of ineffectual melodrama.
“Timecode” (Spain), by Juanjo Giménez
“Timecode” has convinced us once and for all that there is no better antidote to boredom than bizarreness. Juanjo Giménez choreographs a novel twist on romantic comedy with his tale of two security guards, Luna and Diego, who alternate shifts at a parking garage. Exchanging no more than “hellos” and “byes” as they clock in and out, Luna suddenly gets a complaint from a car owner about a broken taillight. As she runs through the tapes to find the culprit, she stumbles upon a surreal and comical surprise: Diego, it turns out, passes his time performing dance routines inside the parking complex and accidentally knocked out the taillight executing one of his stunts.
The surprises, however, don’t end here. The next day, Luna leaves Diego a time code on a post-it note; when he punches it in, he finds her looking into the security camera and backing away, only to suddenly whip out dance moves that are as virtuoso as his. Their shared passion soon escalates into a private joke, as they leave time codes for each other and the security cameras become like near-transcendent portals out of deadly boredom, allowing them to watch and record increasingly intricate repertoires. The inspiration for “Timecode” came out of the director’s own tedious experiences working for a financial firm (where the scripts he wrote in his free time were discovered by a colleague of his), as well as his desire to make a film that incorporated dance. Two Catalonian professionals, Lali Ayguadé and Nicolas Ricchini, were brought on set, using routines from their then-touring show, “Incognito.” Watching the two consummate artists frisk and fly with fluid ease across the parking lot is as hilarious as it is hypnotic. Judging by the vigorous applause, “Timecode” was the audience favorite.
“Enemies Within” (France), by Selim Azzazi
Political chamber drama is a tricky art unto itself, and Selim Azzazi has proven one of its new masters. Locked in a battle of the wills are an Algerian man seeking French citizenship and a French government official of Arab descent who turns his simple request into an interrogation session. With vicious pettiness, he extracts the bare details – the man has attended mosques and “large meetings” with other Algerians, he has been to prison, his father belonged to the FLN – and steers them toward their most sinister implications.
Similar to the recent HBO crime drama The Night Of, Azzazi keeps the Algerian man’s flashbacks ambiguous enough that we begin to wonder if these suspicions might actually be justified. Rather than wait for the officer to prove the man’s guilt, we wait for the latter to prove his innocence, our mentality imperceptibly shifting to that of the interrogator. “Enemies Within”: the title primes us for paranoia by eliciting the pervasive specter of potential terrorists, and the time period cannot help but put us on edge. This is the early ‘90s, Algeria’s “Black Decade,” when its government was at war with Islamist insurgent groups and France was on high alert for terrorist attacks. The film, however, does not introduce this context overtly, thereby lending it a trans-historical power as a psychological exercise in how the boundaries of guilt and innocence are redrawn through racial profiling – so subtly that the viewer himself is roped in. Were the cinematography more dynamic, the film’s breaking-point tension would be even sharper; other than that, it’s the most insidious mind game to come along since Rattle the Cage (2015).
“La Femme et le TGV” (Switzerland), by Timo von Gunten
Those who loved Chocolat (2000) will be similarly charmed by Timo von Gunten’s quirky epistolary romance film. “La Femme et le TGV” features Jane Birkin in the role of Elise, an elderly woman in Switzerland who stubbornly sticks to her simple, technology-free routine while the modern world zooms by. Every morning, she wakes up and salutes the TGV with her Swiss flag – a ritual she used to have with her son before he moved out – then rides her bike into town, where she runs a small nearly-out-of-business bakery. All of a sudden, an unexpected gesture breaks through her isolation. While mowing the lawn, she finds a letter addressed to her from the TGV conductor, Bruno, who thanks her for saluting the train, calling it “a ray of sunshine” in his day.
The two begin exchanging letters, and Elise feels the first real connection she’s experienced in years. One day, however, she learns that the routes have been switched, and Bruno informs her of his imminent departure from Zurich. With the help of Jacques, a sympathetic bakery customer, Elise races to the station in her bathrobe to meet him, a mission that seems hopeless as they arrive – the train already pulling away – when suddenly she sees Bruno tapping on the window, calling her name, his arm around his wife and child as he waves goodbye. Though the TGV will no longer pass by her home, Elise’s correspondence with Bruno has renewed her passion for life, and she has a grand reopening of her bakery, with Jacques as her new hired help. Based on a true story, “La Femme et le TGV” reminds us that the modern world we live in, so typically associated with the disappearance of real human connection, may hold surprises in its ability to bridge the distance between lonely souls.