10 of the Best Foreign Films… Of the Last 15 Years

Ah, the foreign film—ever prevalent in the cinematic world, yet underappreciated and overlooked by so many. Maybe I just don’t hang around a certain type of people, but every time I mention a foreign film to someone I know and recommend they watch it, I always seem to get scowls and looks of perplexed disgust (yeah, digest that reaction for a minute). Their expressions are usually followed up with some variant phrasing of how Hollywood is spectacularly amazing and that American movies perfectly suffice for them. There’s no denying that Hollywood can produce cinematic masterpieces that are loved the world over, but just because you get brilliant films (sometimes…) in your own backyard, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow yourself to venture out a bit and enjoy just as equally masterful films from other parts of the world.

In an attempt—that hopefully won’t turn out to be in vain—to briefly introduce some magnificent foreign films and hopefully contribute to their appreciation, I’ve compiled a list of 10 foreign films that I consider to be some of the best. Yes, I know. Compiling a list of 10 foreign films for a “best” list is near impossible, if not completely impossible. So instead of focusing on older foreign films, regardless of how brilliant they may be, I’ve decided to restrict my list to the last 15 years (so no films prior to 1998), making it both easier on me to choose the 10 films and making the list rather contemporary, and therefore more relatable to a modern audience. So, without any further ado, here’s my list of 10 of the best foreign films of the last 15 years:

10. Run Lola Run / Lola rennt (Germany, 1998)

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If I could say only one thing about this movie, it would be how clever it is in its production. Run Lola Run plays on a few different forms of media, perhaps most notable is the way the film is set up like a video game. This technique is quite unique and greatly succeeds in telling the story of Lola (Franka Potente) as she races against the clock to gather money and try to save her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), from robbing a store in order to pay back money he lost. The film is so obviously fictional as people die and are brought back to life so Lola can start the process over again—just like a video game, Lola has extra lives so she can start over if something goes wrong. But despite the blinding fictionality of the film, it somehow still creates a feeling of reality and connectedness for the viewer as you watch and cheer on Lola as she overcomes obstacles, fights “villains,” and supersonically screams her way to victory in an action-packed film that is deserving of every praise it gets.

9. Even the Rain / También la lluvia (Spain, 2010)

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There’s something meta about Even the Rain given that you’re watching a film about the filming of a film. But this aspect is rather secondary, though, to what is really at the heart of the movie, which is the struggle of local citizens against the city government. In the midst of their filming, Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) and Costa (Luis Tosar) are caught in a public battle over the local government’s plans to privatize the water supply. This would be particularly devastating to a local sect of the population. They protest and riot, but the lead protestor is also a lead actor in Sebastian and Costa’s film, which causes complications for them. At its roots, Even the Rain is a study in sympathy for our fellow humans, and a look at the hardships of an oft-put down group of society and their struggle to attain a voice within that society. It is both a powerful and moving film with a lot of heart behind it.

8. Animal Kingdom (Australia, 2010)

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Right out of the gate, we can safely assume things are going to be difficult for Josh (James Frecheville) when his mother dies of a heroin overdose next to him on the couch. Not knowing what to do, he calls his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and he moves in with her and his uncles. The only problem? This is a family who are criminals through and through. Josh is thrown into a world of robbery and drug dealing. His escape from the illegality that surrounds him is his girlfriend. Josh’s life is further completed when a detective (Guy Pearce) investigating his family wants Josh to help, in hopes of simultaneously rescuing him from his criminal family. Josh is forced to pick a side, all the while seeking revenge on one of his uncles for a heinous crime. Animal Kingdom gives us a chilling and compelling look at the emotional turmoil and internal tug-of-war that someone can face when forced to make a decision between what’s right and what’s best for us.

7. Noi the Albino / Nói albínói (Iceland, 2003)

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Truthfully, before I saw Noi the Albino I was fully expecting to hate it. Well, that turned out to not be the case at all. Noi (Tómas Lemarquis) is a high-school aged boy who doesn’t put any effort into school. At first you can’t tell if he isn’t the smartest person and therefore school is difficult for him, or if he simply doesn’t care. It becomes quite obvious, though, that Noi is intelligent but suffering from feelings preventing him from truly being satisfied with his life, chief among these is his sense of isolation from the rest of the world and his longing for a tropical location. (It’s not hard to imagine someone residing in Iceland to feel this way.) Throughout the film, there are many moments we see Noi in some form of confinement, only adding to his feeling of isolation. When vast devastation strikes Noi, the audience feels the true emotional weight of this film and the now heightened sense of loneliness and isolation with which Noi must deal.

6. Paradise Now / جنة الآن (Palestine, 2005)

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Where to begin with this film? I could talk about why the director frequently chose to portray Palestinians as somewhat hostile toward fellow Palestinians. Or I could talk about the implications of sexism that is displayed as being engrained in this society. There’s even room for discussion of the interesting visual aspects of the film, like the tableau vivant recreation of The Last Supper. And while all of that is worthy of discussion, the heart of Paradise Now lies with the central figure, Said (Kais Nashif), and his best friend Khaled (Ali Suliman). Hired to be suicide bombers, the viewer gets a look into the events that go into carrying out a successful suicide mission and the emotional toll it can take on individuals. But what this film does controversially, yet perhaps most importantly, is give us a somewhat existential look at these characters and its evocation of our sympathy for people whom we should, in theory, have no sympathy for. So while Paradise Now provides a story for suicide bombers, what it really does is forces us to question our moral psyche and why we sympathize, when we sympathize, and for whom we sympathize. This film challenges on so many levels, and I am eternally grateful it does, and I think you will be too.

5. Love / Amour (Austria, 2012)

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Confession time: I cried a bit while watching this film. That’s how much Amour pulls on the heartstrings. Following the life of an elderly couple, Amour explores the struggle of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he attempts to cope with emotional struggle and aid his ailing wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she slips into physical and mental despair following a stroke. Anne fights her health battles as long as she can, but eventually it becomes Georges’ responsibility to care for his wife and make decisions for her. This film is, aptly, an experiment in love. Is Georges’ love for Anne evident? Does he stop loving Anne as she (involuntarily) becomes more difficult to deal with? Is the way he ultimately manifests his love for Anne an appropriate way to display that love? Amour asks us those questions and more, and makes us grapple with the answers. Cinematographically, the film is both beautiful and brilliant, with its rather intelligent mise en scène (e.g., the vivid paintings that are quite memorable and symbolic) and the use of music, which essentially acts as another character in the film. But ultimately, Amour is a poignant story about the ups and downs of love and the lengths we’ll go to when someone we love deeply is slipping away.

4. Moolaadé (Senegal/Burkina Faso/France/Cameroon, 2004)

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Moolaadé, though fictional, is a film about the very real topic of female genital mutilation in certain parts of Africa. After children run away to a neighboring village to escape the inevitable genital mutilation, a woman, Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), takes them under her protection in order to save them from this horrendous event. The choice to keep these children in her home causes strife between the two villages, and the elders (all men, of course) of Collé’s village want her to return the children, arguing that being “cut” is a tradition and that these girls will never get married if they don’t take part in the tradition. However, knowing what is right, Collé refuses to release the children so they can return to this fate. For her bravery, Collé is beaten in front of both villages, but endures the violence for the sake of the children. With its very difficult subject matter, Moolaadé brings to light an issue that still plagues parts of Africa, and that only last year was unanimously banned by the U.N. Through its storytelling, plot, and characters, Moolaadé provides a great portrayal about female power and rights in a civilization where women are marginal citizens at best.

3. Second Skin / Segunda Piel (Spain, 1999)

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Javier Bardem and Jordi Mollà both turn in Oscar-worthy performances in Second Skin. Telling the story of Diego (Bardem), a gay doctor, and Alberto (Mollà), a closeted male with a wife and son, Second Skin explores the hardships of Alberto as he struggles to come to terms with his true sexual identity. Sneaking around behind his wife’s back is the only way he can be with Diego, the man he loves. He finds his life becoming more complicated as he loves his wife too. Things unravel when his wife finds out about his second life. Attempting to keep his family together, Alberto and his wife reconcile, but he isn’t able to stay away from Diego, whom I would argue is his one true love. Without trying, and perhaps not even intentionally so, Second Skin provides both a heartfelt and heart-wrenching argument for gay equality through its portrayal of the very real internal and emotional struggles that some gay people face on a regular basis.

2. A Separation / Jodái-e Náder az Simin (Iran, 2011)

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Telling the story of an Iranian couple who decide to end their marriage, A Separation is a brilliant film that depicts the consequences of that separation. When Simin (Leila Hatami) moves out of the home she shares with her husband Nader (Payman Maadi), Nader is forced to hire a caretaker to watch his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Their lives are even further complicated when the caretaker concocts an elaborate lie which threatens Nader’s freedom. During this trying time, Simin and Nader attempt to cordially get along and smooth out their issues despite Nader blaming Simin for Nader’s impending imprisonment since Simin’s leaving caused the need for a caretaker—the one who is at the root of the problem. Though we are made aware of the emotional toll both Simin and Nader are going through, the one who garners most of the sympathy is their young daughter, who ultimately is forced to choose between her mother and father. A Separation simultaneously makes us aware of the trying circumstances that life and choices present to us, as well as how human deception, sometimes viewed as mild, can cause the destruction of that very life that has already provided difficulties for us.

1. The Celebration / Festen (Denmark, 1998)

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I’m just going to put it out there. The Celebration is one of my favorite films ever, foreign or non-foreign. The Celebration is one of those shit-just-hit-the-fan kinds of movies, though it may not appear that way from the beginning. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and his siblings, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Helene (Paprika Steen), gather with extended family and friends to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday. For the most part, things may appear rather happy-go-lucky at first, but all of that changes once the dinner party formally begins. While making a toast, Christian, unbeknownst to everyone in the room, makes a shocking family revelation that affected his life and that had direct consequences on his twin sister’s suicide. The film progresses by showing results of this revelation, depicting family dynamics, and forever changing this family altogether. We are left to ponder not only the family’s familial relations but also our own familial relations, as well as question what hidden secrets are doing to us and those around us.

This film is also part of the Dogme 95, a set of rules that put in place the “Vow of Chastity” and described how films should be made in an attempt to fight against anti-bourgeois films that had managed to become bourgeois. The Dogme 95 was created by the director of this film, Thomas Vinterberg, in tandem with another well-known Danish film director, Lars von Trier. There are several elements within the Dogme 95 that can be seen in this film. Perhaps the most obvious is the filming of the movie on a hand-held camera. While some may not enjoy this type of camera work, I don’t think it takes away from the movie at all. As a matter of fact, I think it adds to it as it gives the feeling that you’re watching a home family movie, which I believe adds to the importance for how this film is viewed and understood.

By no means would I call this a comprehensive list. However, it is a good overview to provide an introduction to modern world cinema. Each of the films provides something different, yet makes us challenge our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs in some way, shape, or form. It is this that makes each of the films powerful and captivating, which is why these are the ten I have chosen. You can watch any number of these films and walk away afterwards feeling educated, self-loathing (or just loathing in general), cheerful, melancholy, or like you want to go out and save the world. To me, that is the mark of a great film, and a great film is exactly what each of these are. They teach, they inspire, they move, and they each deserve a rightful place in film history.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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39 Comments

  1. Scallar
    0

    Noi the Albino should be in the center for this. It reminded me why I like a lot of foreign movies: it is character based, not plot driven.

  2. Great movies but what about Let the right one in? Or my favorite German movie, “The Lives of Others”.

    • Robert Humphrey

      Admittedly, I haven’t seen “The Lives of Others,” though I have actually heard it’s a really good movie. I’ll have to check it out.

      I did really enjoy “Let the Right One In,” and I was very close to including it, but I ultimately left it off because I didn’t connect as mentally or emotionally to it as I did the other films. Had I extended the list to 15, “Let the Right One In” would have definitely made the list.

      • Wicked Games
        0

        You need to watch Das Leben der Anderen immediately.

        • Robert Humphrey

          So, I got it, and I watched it. (Yep, that quickly. Hooray for free rush delivery!) It’s pretty much amazing — like many people here have been commenting. I give it an honorary place on the list.

  3. Wicked Games
    0

    My top three
    3. The White Ribbon (2009)
    2. In The Mood For Love (2000)
    1. City Of God (2002)

    First choice is a personal favorite…

  4. Reese Santos
    0

    Amores Perros or the whole trilogy is something to watch. And the Park revenge trilogy too.

  5. Reggie J
    0

    Good Article but a few more would have been great. Here is a list that can make a great addition.

    Turtles can Fly

    The Intouchables

    The Aura

    Paradise Now

    Nine Queens

    The Band’s Visit

    The Man from Nowhere

    Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (This is a Brazilian movie a sequel to Elite Squad but I posted as the second is much better then the first)

    Das Experiment

    Curse of the Golden Flower

    Taste of Cherry (even though this movie is from 97 but it is a must watch)

    The Return

    Special Forces

  6. Spirited Away and Y Tu Mama Tambien (they are both released 2001) could’ve been included. Quite disappointing to not see them as they would both make any top 10 I would imagine. Other films that I would have liked to have seen that for whatever reason aren’t in this list: Micmacs, Memories of Murder, Zatoichi – all great films.

  7. Paullavan
    0

    Very interesting list. The ones that I have seen on this list I would all agree with, tho for the life of me, I still don’t see what is so special about Animal Kingdom. Yes it is watchable, but top 10?

    Other films I would also have included in my top 50 are 1: Insomnia (the original Swedish/Norwegian film – not in the last decade). 2: Frit Villt (Norwegian Horror) 3: The Diving Bell (Excellent French film)

    Finally, based on this list I will be looking out for 4 new films. World Cinema (with relevant subtitles of course) offers so much. Thanks for the list!

    • Robert Humphrey

      I know a couple people who watched “Animal Kingdom,” and they actually didn’t even consider it watchable. They pretty much hated it. My justification for inclusion is that I found it very intriguing, and I am, perhaps to a fault, a sucker for crime movies. I think this is where the subjectivity of something like this gets in the way.

      Anyway, the 4 films you’ll be looking out for, I don’t know which 4 they are, but I hope you enjoy them! Try not to blame me, though, if you hate them. Hahaha. 😉

  8. Angela Lam
    0

    Fantastic list; pleased to say I’ve seen the majority of these and enjoyed them immensely. The ones that I haven’t I may have to take a look at. I always find World Cinema generally far more exciting than most Hollywood fodder.

  9. Justin Wu

    Great list. I’ve heard of some and am excited at the prospect of watching those that I haven’t heard of. I also feel like adding some to the list:

    -The Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002): Hollywood adapted its script and made The Departed (2006), but the original version is one of my favourite movies of all time

    -The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006): a wonderful plot and brilliant performance by late Ulrich Muhe

    -The Departures (Japan, 2008): totally worthy of Oscar Best Foreign Pictures with its subtlety

    -Battle Royale (Japan, 2000): there are rooms for improvement for this film, but as one of the most controversial films in East Asian cinema it’s always worth a mention

    -Confession (Japan, 2010): the music and theme of this movie are hauntingly beautiful, and the starring actress made you shiver with her performance

    -Life is Beautiful (Italy, 1997): this one barley misses the 15-year frame-mark, but it’s the best dark-comedy I’ve ever watched

    -In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000): I personally like Wong Kar-wai’s older films are better, but this one is a great one with international acclaim

  10. Robert Humphrey

    Coming up with a list like this is dang near impossible, and trust me when I say I struggled to pick just 10. But I’m SO glad that a lot of you guys are also giving suggestions–some I’ve seen, and some I haven’t. With all of these great additions, this has, in a way, become a collaborative article, and I LOVE that. Thanks!

  11. David Tatlow

    I found this to be a good read – I haven’t seen several of these, so I’ll be checking them out. You were never going to please anybody with this list as it’s such a broad category, but I’m glad you gave plenty of explanation and justification for your choices, and as a result it’s a list that I won’t argue with. Now that I think about it, I doubt that I’d be able to choose just ten. Nice work!

  12. Kevin Licht

    This is really difficult list. Even narrowing it down to the last 15 years you’re going to get plenty of disagreement. One film I really enjoyed that I haven’t seen pop up in the comments is Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. That may have been a top 5 film for me in 2010/2011 depending on when I actually first saw it.

  13. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani
    0

    Such an intriguing list, I’ve only seen half of the films on this list, and you’ve got me intrigued to watch the other half, am particularly curious about The Celebration and its #1 ranking. Other films that I think deserve a mention are The Lives of Others and City of God as mentioned above. I’d also struggle to omit Pan’s Labyrinth, Persepolis, and The Intouchables (best foreign film I’ve seen this year insofar). As someone also mentioned above, Life is Beautiful – which just misses the 15 year mark is an absolutely incredible film.
    It’s intriguing to see what everyone else thinks in response to this brilliant article – which has given me some useful recommendations!

    • Robert Humphrey

      Clearly I’m biased, but I’m going to strongly recommend The Celebration. I think if you also have the ability to appreciate the film’s technicality and simplicity, then it greatly adds to your appreciation. Fair warning, though: I’ve heard some people call it pretentious crap. However, I again am really going to push for you to watch it if you’re curious and interested.

  14. Dossett
    0

    I was surprised not to see any of the following make it to the list: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Potiche, either of the Mesrine films, La Vie En Rose, either of the Coco Chanel films, The Passion Of The Christ, Apocalypto or The Kite Runner.

  15. kaylee gean
    0

    I’ve not got a lot of experience with foreign films, but I really like westerns – and if I remember rightly, spaghetti westerns count as foreign films, so The Good, The Bad and the Ugly would be on my list. If that doesn’t pass the test, The Good, The Bad and The Weird was great fun too.

  16. Amy Wood

    Thanks for this article! I have been looking to watch more foreign films and this is a good list to start with 🙂 great to see all the other recommendations also. Have you seen Cache (also known as Hidden) ? That one is worth a watch, most notable foreign film I have seen recently. Sin Nombre was also very good.

  17. Lachlan Vass

    Check out City of God too, one of my all time favourite movies.

  18. Nicola Kahler

    City of God and Amelie would be two of my favourite foreign films 🙂 Though japanese horrors are always good to watch !

  19. Brendan Johnson

    I was going to suggest Y Tu Mamá También but then I looked it up and discovered that it was released in 2001. Still… love that film.

  20. I’m so happy that the film ” A Separation” has received such immense recognition and praise. The beauty of this film is that for once people are not focused on the brutish or negative aspects of middle-eastern people, but instead are focusing on a simple story of a couple who chooses to longer be married to each other. Yes the concepts of class and gender are brought up within the film, but no one has a weapon or a bomb and using Islamic verses to condemn the rest of the world. It is a movie that we can all relate to in some way and really help the viewers realize that these people are just like everyone else.

  21. Dale Barham

    Talk To Her is my personal favourite, love Almodovar! Y Tu Mama Tambien should be on here though!

    Great article though, you drew my attention to a few films I’d never heard of.

  22. Lauren Gabourel

    I like your choices, but I would have loved to see “In the Mood For Love” and the “The InTouchables” on here.

  23. This is a really thoughtful list that spans a long time for only choosing 10! I grew up never having watched a foreign film until college! My husband loves foreign films, so I have developed a sense of appreciation and a whole different way of watching movies. I know you are getting a lot of suggestions for your list, but have you watched “White Material” or “Dogtooth”? You should develop other lists relating to foreign films. This was great!

  24. Alec Johnsson
    acjohnsson
    0

    Here’s my top 5:

    1. Amores Perros (2000, Mexico). Masterpiece. Three perfect interlocking stories about men and women treating each other like animals, and thereby turning into animals. I actually think Y Tu Mamá También is really overrated; all it’s really about is people having sex and cheating on each other. AP is far more ambitious, complex and fraught with emotion.

    2. City of God (2002, Brazil). Like AP, a textbook example of postmodern filmmaking. Not one time change or subplot is wasted or gratuitous; everything is done in service of the honorable cause of depicting hell on Earth in the slums of Rio. Also has the greatest villain in all of film.

    3. Oldboy (2003, South Korea). The Spike Lee remake is lazy and lifeless. Stick with this one.

    4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, Romania). Surprised that I haven’t seen this show up in the comments yet; the AV Club did a great write-up on it for their Palme Thursday feature. You don’t need to bludgeon your audience over the head with your opinions to be political; all you need is a really great narrative to show that totalitarianism has no place in society.

    5. Caché (2005, France). Haneke’s best, though The Piano Teacher gives it a run for its money. How many mystery films can you name in which there IS a certain someone who “done it”, but nothing is confirmed and the audience is left to figure it out? Watch that last shot like a hawk.

    The Celebration, A Separation, Amour and Run Lola Run are all solid choices, though, and I’m going to watch Animal Kingdom on Netflix later tonight.

  25. Liz Watkins

    A few other greats:

    Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
    Let the Right One In (2008)
    The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

    I feel like the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres get left out so much in the “great films” category. Pan’s Labyrinth and Let the Right One In are fantasy/horror with fantastic stories and characters. The Secret in Their Eyes is just a great crime drama/mystery with a surprising and gut wrenching twist.

  26. Marlon Shingles

    Definitely a hard list to compile, but I definitely feel like In the Mood for Love, City Of God, Oldboy, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pans Labyrinth and Amores Perros need to be mentioned!

  27. Adrienne
    0

    This is a great list, but “Even the Rain” might not merit inclusion. While the film does many of the things you mention, it is hampered by a rather flawed plot and incomplete context. I found myself enchanted, interested, and then disappointed.

  28. Great list! There are so many great foreign movies.

    A couple I really like are http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo_LYkn88o8 The Klass and estonian movie which is really hard to watch and Mesrine is a great Vincent Cassel movie in 2 parts.

  29. Mallagray

    LOVERS OF THE POLAR CIRCLE

  30. Dennis Fulton

    I’m not a rapid viewer of foreign films, but I am pretty shocked to not see Pan’s Labyrinth, Oldboy, or City of God on here. Those movies were beyond phenomenal.

  31. Raag.Be

    you should check out A Prophet. It’s a french movie. It’s what I call Next Level Awesome

  32. Srikanth Pandey
    0

    Lovely list! I’m an avid watcher of foreign films and your list has given me a few more titles to watch. I would recommend “Gangs of Wasseypur”. The crime story is split into 2 parts. I’m from India, and I choose this film to represent our indie cinema. 🙂

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