I can reel off the best foreign films of the year without pause and feel fairly confident that I haven’t missed anything notable, but best of the decade? Adding to the difficulty is the fact that of the thousands of films released each year in other countries very few of them actually ever reach our shores in any official capacity. Then there’s the issue of release dates… do I use the year the film was first released or the year it finally reached the US? There’s way too much gray area here, so we’re going to simplify things a bit.
This is my list of the best foreign language films of the past ten years, and I highlight that ownership because I don’t expect it to look too similar to lists put out by most other critics. Here are my guidelines… the decade is 2000 through 2009 so the movies below have to have been initially released within that time-span. No director can appear more than once. (This is to prevent South Korean films from making up even more of the list than they already do.) While this is being called the best of the decade understand that I’m making an effort to include standout movies from as many genres as possible. (So just roll with it when you reach Tony Jaa…) I got flack last year for including English-language movies from Great Britain and Australia (which are indeed foreign countries) so I’m going to exclude them and focus solely on films in foreign tongues. And speaking of tongues, I’m an admitted and unapologetic fan of Asian cinema so you may notice a higher percentage of films from those countries than you’ll see in other ‘best of the decade’ lists.
Here are the foreign films that have stuck with me over the years and through repeated viewings… The 15 20 Best Foreign Language Films of the Decade (According to the Guy With an Asian Fetish) in alphabetical order.
(Kim Ki-duk, South Korea 2004)
Kim is often referred to as a misogynistic filmmaker and if you’ve only seen his bleak Bad Guy then you may be inclined to believe the accusation, but watch enough of his work and you’ll see it isn’t true. Case in point is 3-Iron. It’s about a man who breaks into homes not to steal, but to fix broken appliances, do laundry, and tidy up the place. An emotionally and physically abused housewife surprises him one night while cleaning what he thought was an empty house, and the two of them begin an intense affair of the heart that is one of the most beautiful and touching cinematic romances of the decade… and it’s accomplished entirely through their eyes, their glances, and their gestures because he doesn’t speak a single word, and she barely speaks more than that.
(Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France 2001)
This is a movie seemingly designed to be hated by cynics. It’s beautiful, sweet, romantic, quirky… and yet, it’s one of my favorite movies. (Technically I’m more of a realist than a cynic anyway.) Audrey Tautou stars as a lonely woman who takes it upon herself to help out other people, and somewhere along the way she falls in love… with a man she’s never met. The movie is filled with fantastic and whimsical visuals, a beautiful and playful score, dark undertones, and a heart bigger than any ten other films combined. But the true soul of the film rests with Tautou’s performance. She’s alternately adorable, precocious, lovely, and heart-breaking. If you’ve never watched it for fear of it being too cutesy, leave your misinformed cynicism at the door and settle in for one of the most rewarding movies of the decade.
(Kinji Fukasaku, Japan 2000)
This is just ballsy film-making of the kind that rarely sees the light of day here in the US (although the upcoming Kick-Ass may come close if early reports are to be believed). Fukasaku’s film posits a near-future Japan where the youth (and population) have grown out of control. A government program is initiated to help temper the little rascals. Basically, each year one random class is gassed and bussed to an undisclosed island where they are given a random weapon, an explosive neck collar, and a simple instruction… be the last one standing in 24 hours and you’re free to go home. What follows is a satirical societal microcosm, a Lord of the Flies with machine guns and crossbows, as some of the kids work to survive and others (like Kill Bill star Chiaki Kuriyama) begin systematically slaughtering everyone the can. It’s bloody, sad, violent, and emotional… and if it ever sees a true US remake I’ll be extremely surprised.
(Yang Ik-joon, South Korea 2009)
This is one of only two films from 2009 on this list, and while I tried to avoid recent movies as it’s difficult to measure their staying power this one has not left my mind since I saw it over two months ago. The story follows an ass-kicking debt collector through his daily routine of reporting to work, beating the crap out of people, taking their money, and then going home where he beats the crap out of an old man. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But Sang-Hoon’s life takes a turn when he meets (and knocks out) a teenage girl who mouths off one too many times. The movie never quite goes exactly where you think it will, and while it’s focus is the very dark subject of domestic violence it still manages to find moments that are surprisingly funny, touching, and human. Credit and praise here goes to Yang Ik-joon who not only wrote and directed the film but also brings to life the brutal, conflicted, and lost main character. Powerful stuff.
City of God
(Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, Brazil 2002)
If all you know about Brazil comes from the classic Michael Caine movie Blame It On Rio then you need to check out this scrappy little flick about the realities of life away from the country’s tourist destinations. The movie focuses on a slum in Rio de Janeiro from the 60’s through the 70’s as it descends into a violent hell on earth filled with violence, drugs, and the near-certainty of an early death. A boy named Rocket tries to avoid both the pull of the gangs as well as their wrath, but it isn’t easy. He narrates the tale highlighting the lives and deaths of various other characters in the slum, and it’s an amazing journey… all the more when you realize it’s a true story. Gritty, beautiful, brutal, and sweet.
(Laurent Cantet, France 2008)
A French, documentary-like film about snotty middle school students? Sounds absolutely dreadful, I know, but it’s actually a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening look at the state of the educational system. And while it takes place in Paris this school could be anywhere including the US. The students are restless, listless, bored, and unchallenged. The teachers are exhausted, outnumbered, bored, and afraid to challenge. We follow one teacher’s path through a rocky semester as he discovers the limits of his own abilities, concerns, and empathy. If your school years never allowed a second thought to the teacher side of the equation then this movie will definitely open your eyes.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
(Ang Lee, China 2000)
This is the first of two films on this list that were highly praised upon release but over time have seen an odd backlash and a retraction of their “cool” factor. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but it’s ridiculous and unwarranted in both cases. Lee’s foray into period martial arts films resulted in a near-masterpiece here. The fight scenes are fast and fantastic with a combination of authentic hand to hand skills and solid wire-work. The story is epic and involves multiple characters who are each allowed enough screen-time to tell their full stories. And while Zhang Ziyi’s romance is the sexier (because the girl is fine), the unspoken love between Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat is powerful and heart breaking.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
(Julian Schnabel, France 2007)
Of the five or six films on this list based on true stories this is perhaps the most beautiful, bleak, and uplifting. Jean-Dominique Bauby was a successful and happy man living quite the life in France as the editor of Elle magazine when he suffered a sudden stroke that paralyzed his entire body with the singular exception of his left eye. Unbelievably, Bauby proceeded to “write” an autobiography of sorts by blinking his eye and having an assistant transcribe… one letter at a time. It’s an amazing feat and Schnabel’s film captures it beautifully. Bauby’s energy, love for life, and pure will to express himself are shown through the director’s visual choices but they’re truly brought to life by Mathieu Amalric’s heartfelt, powerful, and immersive performance. You see his joy, his pain, his regrets, and his loves both on-screen and on his face.
The Good the Bad the Weird
(Kim Ji-woon, South Korea 2008)
Damn I love this movie. It’s pure cinematic joy from beginning to end starting with one of the best train robberies ever put to film. Three men are vying for the same treasure map… as you can probably guess by the title, one of them is good, one is pretty bad, and one is very, very weird (and played by the always fantastic Song Kang-ho). As amazing as the opening train scene is it’s soon bested by a gunfight in and above a working shanty town featuring bamboo shenanigans, sharpshooting wizardry, and the Good swinging through the air on an intricate system of pulleys. A thing of beauty and a movie you need to watch right now… and watch loud too as the score is just as rousing as the film’s visuals.
Let the Right One In
(Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008)
The three best vampire films of the past decade have all come from outside of the US… Thirst from South Korea, Daybreakers from Australia, and this one from Sweden. That’s pretty damn sad, but the bright side is these are three incredible movies. Alfredson’s film is an unusual take on the genre as it’s basically a moody coming-of-age story that happens to feature a vampire. It’s a dark tale of first loves, unusual neighbors, and the danger of swimming with bullies. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and coldly evocative, seek it out before the US remake hits screens next year.
The Lives of Others
(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany 2006)
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)
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.
(Guillermo del Toro, Mexico 2006)
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.
(Jacques Audiard, France 2009)
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.
(Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, Spain 2007)
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.
(Gotz Spielmann, Austria 2008)
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)
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.
(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan 2008)
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.
(Takashi Miike, Japan 2001)
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)
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?