I don't usually make a blanket recommendation of a movie, but I want to make an exception. Mainly it's because I found this one while browsing Netflix- it was not recommended to me- and liked it so much I was shocked to discover I'd somehow missed news of its release. Its name is L'Affaire Farewell, or just Farewell in English. Please give it some love.
It's a Cold War spy movie, from France, mainly in French and Russian. Don't worry, if you are afraid of subtitles, there are a few scenes in English. The story (allegedly true) is about a Frenchman, Pierre (Guillaume Canat), working in Moscow during the late 1980s. He makes friends with Sergei (Emir Kusturica), a government official, who passes state secrets for Pierre to give to French Intelligence.
The movie is very much France saying, "Hey! We were in the Cold War too!", but the whole production is very well done. Canat and Kusturica both give great performances, and I was surprised to learn they are both better known for their work as directors.[ref] Although both have impressive acting resumes as well. [/ref] There's some tense moments, but the movie doesn't have action set pieces á la James Bond, and instead relies on the inherent drama of the situation, which works well. Also, Willem Dafoe shows up as a CIA operative for a few scenes, and it's always nice to see him.
I was particularly impressed with two suspenseful moments that play out beautifully. As always, my mantra is Tell people something bad is about to happen, and then make them wait for it. Early on, Pierre goes out to his car for a late night meeting. He notices a van parked up the street- is that the guy he's waiting for? Sure enough, the van starts up and drives- right past Pierre's car. Just as it goes by, there's a split second where the headlights shine on Pierre and we can see there's someone sitting in the back seat. Director Christian Carion wisely lets us stew for another 15-20 seconds, while Pierre has no idea he's not alone, before the guy in back reveals himself.
The second scene requires some set up: Pierre and Sergei are talking at one point about what would happen if they got caught. Sergei, working for the government, says he would be put on trial and made an example of before he got a firing squad. Pierre is nobody. They'd just make it look like an accident. Sergei warns him to watch out for truck drivers.
Fast forward at least half an hour, to an innocuous scene of Pierre in his car pulling up to a stop light. We can see through his back window as a big, rusty, growling truck turns the corner and rolls up behind him. Closer and closer. Until the engine fills the entire window. And then-
Well, you should watch the movie, shouldn't you?
The pacing is very snappy and efficient. Even though the running time is a little under two hours, we cover a lot of ground in that time. We see exactly what we need to see and nothing more.
Granted, Vladimir Vetrov, the man Kusturica's Sergei is based on, was not as nice in real life, and there's probably an interesting movie to be made about him, but this isn't it. There's a nod to John LeCarré's classic Cold War espionage novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had coincidentally finished reading weeks before I saw Farewell. LeCarré is a lot darker than this movie, which I think makes that scenario play out better, but Farewell is definitely pulling ideas from good places.
Even if you can't take my work for it, here's what Roger Ebert had to say. L'Affaire Farewell, or just Farewell, is available on DVD and Netflix Instant.