Cinema is a worldwide artform, and as such many of the year’s best and most exciting films often come from overseas. Quality is no guarantee of visibility though as subtitled films rarely get a wide reception in American theaters, and worse, many don’t even make it to our shores until a year or more after opening in their own country.
That’s the kind of factor that makes ranking foreign language films a difficult and inconsistent process. I try and go by actual year of release when possible, but for obvious reasons I’m not adverse to including entries that made their U.S. debut this year, too.
But these are details… let’s get to the movies! Genre films rarely make “best of” lists like this , but I make no apologies for their inclusion here. Best is best, and if my best happens to include a character named The Queen of Saliva so be it..
A man joins a local S&M club looking for distractions from his real pain, but what he finds is an organization with a very strict cancellation policy and a lack of respect for safe words, children, and boundaries. Hitoshi Matsumoto‘s latest is a rare experience in its ability to create an emotional connection with its protagonist even as events onscreen spiral beyond the absurd. The film is extremely funny and touching but finds real heart and tenderness amid the black leather and visual effects.
A sleazy politician’s chauffeur descends into hell when his own daughter is kidnapped by people intending to grab the rich man’s kid, and as he’s forced into a race against time to not only save her but also prevent anyone from discovering the wrong girl was abducted. Ron Morales‘ incredibly dark thriller goes places no American film would dare, and while it makes for a tough watch it also raises the stakes in incredibly dramatic and vile fashion. Filled with sorrow and desperation, the movie grips all the way through before dumping you out of your seat in dire need of a shower.
11. The Fifth Season
A small town in Belgium spirals into disarray when the promise of spring fails to arrive leaving the town trapped in an unending winter. The premise here is simple, a Twilight Zone-like “what if?” scenario that could go a dozen different ways, but it plays out with stark beauty, a twisted sense of humor, and dark acts of violence as it indicts mankind’s past and present behaviors. Our parasitic relationship with nature is on trial here, and the verdict is in.
10. A Hijacking
Somali pirates target a Danish cargo ship, and as the crew works to stay alive their captors engage in negotiations with corporate representatives half a world away. Captain Phillips told a similar (and equally fantastic) tale to a wider audience, but Tobias Lindholm‘s film is more interested in the human drama than the action heroics. Some of the most stirring moments occur in the company’s boardroom as fates are decided in terms of dollars and cents.
9. The Past
Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris to finalize his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo), but his visit opens old wounds and new revelations involving the man (Tahar Rahim) she’s preparing to marry. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi‘s latest continues his interest in exploring relationships fractured by truths and misconceptions, and while it doesn’t reach the same heights as A Separation or About Elly it remains a powerful, beautifully acted film. That final teardrop? Brilliant.
8. The Broken Circle Breakdown
Didier and Elise share little in common aside from an unexpected love for each other, but while that bond grows with the birth of their child her illness threatens to tear them apart. A Belgian film filled with bluegrass music doesn’t sound like a guaranteed good time, but there’s such affection for life flowing through Felix Van Groeningen‘s film that it’s hard not to be wrapped up in its characters’ situation and the directions their story goes.
7. In the House
A teacher (Fabrice Luchini) grown tired with today’s teens forms a bond with a boy who shows real talent on the page, but as the story unfolds the line between teacher and student blurs to the point of obsolescence. French director François Ozon is no stranger to the fractured nature of modern day relationships, both intimate ones in the home and less personal ones out in public, but here he examines the layered divide with a darkly comic meta tweak. It unfolds brilliantly to its unexpected but perfect end.
6. Drug War
The leader (Louis Koo) of a drug cartel is arrested, but when faced with execution (the punishment in China for major drug-related offenses) he agrees to assist in further investigations by turning against his accomplices. Johnnie To makes a wide array of films, but he’s best known for high-energy action epics that leave the ground littered with bullet casings and blood. This is one of his best as it pairs some exceptionally well-choreographed set-pieces with a thrilling procedural resulting in a film that enthralls from beginning to end.
5. The Attack
Amin (Ali Suliman) is an Arab doctor living in Tel Aviv with his wife, but when a suicide bomber leaves dozens dead and more wounded he’s most affected by the knowledge that his wife may have been involved. The topic of terrorism has become a ubiquitous one in films, but Ziad Doueiri‘s film finds a way to marry suspense and drama with a personal tale of loss and the devastating revelation that the life he thought he had may have been a lie.
4. A Touch of Sin
Four stories, tangentially related, offer a starkly realistic glimpse of modern-day China, and the picture is a grim observation on the collision between traditional values and their growing consumer society. Chinese filmmakers are bound by some fairly strict guidelines, but writer/director Zhangke Jia seems immune to those rules. His characters cross moral lines, sometimes without consequence, and his outlook of where his country’s headed is far from bright.
3. Big Bad Wolves
A young girl goes missing, and while a dogged and determined detective struggles to prove his number one suspect is guilty the girl’s father takes matters into his own hands. This genre-bending thriller from Israel mixes suspense and the blackest of comedy into a deliriously fun concoction, and while the story and script would be enough to make it worth a watch co-writers/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado also ensure their film is gorgeously photographed and scored with pulsing perfection. And I’m not kidding about it being the blackest of comedies.
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color
A teenager (Adèle Exarchopoulos) learns about sex, love, and heartbreak over a few years’ time as she moves from boys to the love of a blue-haired woman (Léa Seydoux). Abdellatif Kechiche‘s film has received the most attention for its fairly explicit sex scenes, but they’re actually the weakest (and most unintentionally comic) elements in an otherwise beautifully-shot romantic drama. It’s raw and honest in ways very few films are these days, and the two lead performances are both brave and intensely affecting.
1. The Hunt
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works at a local kindergarten where he falls victim to a misguided lie that sends his life crumbling as mistrust and doubt threaten his small town existence. Thomas Vinterberg‘s film is a haunting look at the weight of accusation in a world where judgement is too frequently passed without proof or evidence, and Mikkelsen’s powerful performance makes the experience that much more devastating. This is also a too rare example of a film nailing the perfect ending.