Here's a Christmas present for any cinephile: a tour of Belgium, Russia and the French Alps. Each stop offers a vastly different spectacle and don't expect it to be all sugarplums. Two Days, One Night (Belgium) is a socioeconomic parable; Leviathan (Russia) is a modern classic tragedy; and Force Majeure (Sweden/France/Norway) is wickedly funny. They're among the best films of 2014, and although I saw them back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I still can't shake them.
As I waited in line for the North American premiere of Two Days, One Night, I asked a colleague what the film was about—at the time, all I knew was it starred Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (reason enough to stand in any line).
"C'est parabole," said a French critic, adding that he first saw the film during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and was anxious to watch it again. Two hours later, I understood how exact was his choice of the word "parable" to define this impassioned allegory. Two Days, One Night comes from brothers-writers-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and tells the story of Sandra (Cotillard), who has lost her job at a Belgian factory due to downsizing. It turns out that Sandra's 16 co-workers were coerced into choosing between keeping her on the payroll or receiving 1,000-euro bonuses—it's particularly chilling to report that months after the film's premiere, three companies in Belgium and France subjected their employees to such a real-world ultimatum. In the film, Sandra must convince enough of her co-workers to change their votes in the span of a weekend (two days and one night), setting up a breathless climax. What makes Two Days, One Night so compelling is that each of Sandra's co-workers has his or her own economic survival struggles. Cotillard is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination and the film is must-see.
Also on the travel itinerary is Russia and its Leviathan, which features the finest screenplay of the year. It's a modern epic that folds in layered themes of politics, religion, fidelity and the spoils of 21st century Russia, and there are moments in Leviathan that channel the masterworks of Arthur Miller or Henrik Ibsen. Writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev's ambitious script was inspired by no less than the Old Testament's Book of Job, Thomas Hobbes' 1651 work of political philosophy Leviathan, the 2011 imprisonment of Russian rockers-anarchists Pussy Riot and a 2004 U.S. incident in which a disgruntled mechanic used a tank to demolish several Colorado government buildings following a zoning dispute (an armed standoff ended with the mechanic killing himself). Leviathan's own demolitions—there are plenty, both figurative and literal—are equally harrowing, and anyone thinking that Leviathan isn't an indictment of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian corruption isn't paying attention.
Last but far from least, I was knocked over by Force Majeure, a film that caught me by total surprise... almost like the avalanche at the center of this hilarious adult comedy. Here, a family of four is vacationing in the French Alps when what appears to be an avalanche is suddenly heading their way. What follows is a comedy of matrimony, manners and morals (or lack thereof). Writer-director Ruben Ostlund's crisp screenplay is never cruel nor galling; it is a perfectly frosty, arch Nordic bite, a rare frozen treat for most American audiences. I can't compare it to anything else I've seen this year, which is all the more reason to love it.
Be assured, the Motion Picture Academy would do itself proud to hand the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film to any of the above (a three-way tie might be nice).