The Lives of Others
(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany 2006)

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It’s not common that I’m both entertained and educated by a movie, but this devastating German film does just that. (It’s also not common that I enjoy a German movie…) It’s 1984 and Berlin is still a city divided. A popular artistic couple is put under the watchful eye of a lonely agent with no life of his own. As he invades their world and becomes more and more intimate with the couple he discovers new feelings and thoughts building in his own head and heart. Ulrich Muhe gives a sad, strong, and ultimately inspiring performance, and the film’s final line of dialogue is perfection.

Memories of Murder
(Bong Joon-ho, South Korea 2003)

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Bong is best known for his stellar monster movie meets family drama meets slapstick comedy The Host, and while that’s a great movie his best remains this dark thriller about South Korea’s first serial killer. Someone is raping and killing young women in a rural province outside of Seoul. Two local detectives use the best tools at their disposal… their fists… but find themselves getting nowhere fast, so a more experienced detective from the big city is sent to help out with the investigation. Think of David Fincher’s excellent Zodiac but with a better character dynamic and without the pacing problems and you’ll an idea how good this movie is. Song Kang-ho (again) is phenomenal as the brutal cop, the movie finds unexpected laughs and features at least one incredibly scary scene, and the ending is as devastating as it is terrifying.

Pan’s Labyrinth
(Guillermo del Toro, Mexico 2006)

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This is the second film on the list that seems to be undergoing a bit of a backlash since it’s initially warm reception, and as with Ang Lee’s emotional kung fu epic that derision is utterly undeserved. Del Toro’s best movie combines the harsh realities of war with a magical fantasy land and the result is stunning. Childhood collides with adulthood and the impact results in a fantastical journey into a world filled with fascism, resistance fighters, torture, giant toads, fairies, and an almost blind creepy ass bastard. It truly is a visual feast, and unlike many eye-candy films it has the story that adds substance to the style.

A Prophet
(Jacques Audiard, France 2009)

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Along with Breathless, this is the only other 2009 release to make this list. It’s a deliberately paced tale of a young Arab street thug sent to jail for a six-year stretch who over time becomes something much bigger than expected. A slow pace is a tricky thing to master, but unlike the other big winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (The White Ribbon) the movie keeps and rewards your attention. It slowly builds the character from nothing to something right before our eyes, and it’s an amazing thing to see. The smallest little details combine to form the character and the world around him, and we’re witness to the creation of a different kind of monster.

[REC]
(Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, Spain 2007)

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Yes it’s a horror movie, and yes it’s a first-person POV movie, and yes it’s one of the best foreign language films of the decade. Deal with it. A very cute female reporter doing a story on the fire department responds to a call of a disturbance in an apartment building. We see only what her cameraman’s lens sees, and it is scary as hell folks. From the blood-curdling cries and screams off-screen, to the “things” that soon appear on-screen, to one of the most terrifying hold-your-breath scenes ever, [REC] will scar your dreams. Or at least give you ninety minutes worth of reasons to avoid Spanish apartment buildings.

Revanche
(Gotz Spielmann, Austria 2008)

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Revenge is one of my favorite film genres because the emotion at the core of it is fascinating and powerful. It’s also a theme that can be explored in multiple ways from the visceral and violent to the emotionally devastating. Spielmann’s film takes the latter route in a story about a low-level thug, his (incredibly hot) prostitute girlfriend, a young police officer, and his emotionally-starved wife. A crime is committed, an accidental shooting claims a life, and the beautiful slow burn of revenge begins. To add to the film’s power, the thug is played by a guy who looks like an angry 1970′s Phil Collins.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
(Park Chan-wook, South Korea 2005)

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I know… sacrilege. Old Boy is an amazing movie that I love to no end, but Park’s follow-up is better. Seriously. It may lack the memorable set pieces of it’s predecessor, but it also lacks the implausibilities. It’s a stronger film, a more emotionally controlled and powerful film, and even a more visually rewarding film. A young woman serves jail time for a murder she didn’t commit and is released with vengeance on her mind. What follows is a brilliant, beautiful, and cathartic movie that gets better and better each time I see it. Lee Yeong-ae shines as the titular lady who sees the depths of her soul before meticulously planning her own salvation, and Old Boy‘s Choi Min-sik is equally mesmerizing as her devious mentor.

Tokyo Sonata
(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan 2008)

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This is probably the most straight forward film on this list, and each time I watch it I’m surprised to find myself enjoying it as much as I do. A Japanese family deals with life’s daily tribulations in different ways… and that’s it. Obviously there are varying details for each character but in essence it’s a simple tale about family, what can drive us apart, and what can pull us together. Kurosawa is best known for a long list of often ethereal horror films, but he finds his talents best suited for a touching family drama filled with likable characters, serious questions and emotions, a sweet and simple closing scene, and a welcome lack of melodrama.

Visitor Q
(Takashi Miike, Japan 2001)

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From one family film to another… Miike style. Miike had to be on this list, and with 768 movies he’s directed in the last ten years it was difficult to pick just one. His best three movies are Ichi the Killer, Happiness of the Katakuris, and this one. I chose Visitor Q because it combines the audacity and shock of Ichi with the powerful understanding of familial love found in Happiness. And yes, “familial love” is a bit of a double entendre as the film’s lead character expresses his familial love for his teenage prostitute daughter quite graphically in the opening scene. The movie shocks (murder! rape! necrophilia! lactation that covers the kitchen floor and requires the use of an umbrella!) but it also entertains with humor, wit, and an ultimately sweet view as to what it truly means to be a family. Again… Miike style.

Waltz With Bashir
(Ari Folman, Israel 2008)

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Animation is usually reserved for the realm of children’s films and pop entertainment, but once in a while adults make a quality “cartoon” for other adults. And no, I don’t mean Heavy Metal. Think Watership Down, Spirited Away, South Park… Folman’s autobiographical film finds him reflecting on his time in the Israeli army and more specifically his participation in a specific battle during the invasion of Lebanon. His memory has a hole where the conflict should exist, so he interviews fellow ex-soldiers to discover his role in the incident. Real interviews were filmed then animated over for the movie, and Folman’s dreams and memories receive equally impressive and eye-catching animation sequences including one with bloodthirsty dogs chasing him, a giant, nude, blue woman floating in the ocean, and Folman and his fellow soldiers emerging from the sea in an emotional death march. A powerful look into the past presented in an unusual way.

So yeah, I was kidding about Tony Jaa, but he does make my list of Honorable Mentions: Brotherhood of the Wolf (France 2001), Cache (France 2005), The Chaser (South Korea 2008), The Host (South Korea 2006), In the Mood For Love (Hong Kong 2000), Maelstrom (Canada 2000), Martyrs (France 2008), Mother (South Korea 2009), Old Boy (South Korea 2003), Ong Bak (Thailand 2003), The Orphanage (Mexico 2007), Sin Nombre (Mexico 2009), Thirst (South Korea 2009)

What are your favorite foreign language films of the past ten years?


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