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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.