The Best Foreign-Language Movies of 2016

Subtitles are your friend.
By  · Published on December 22nd, 2016

Once upon a time films with subtitles were the domain of the snobby elite and the bane of the common man, but as the world has grown more connected so has the public’s appreciation of cinema in languages other than their own. That’s a wonderful thing. And here are sixteen of the best from around the globe.

16. Suntan (Greece)

Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s film captures a Greek island destination at its two extremes of a dead winter and the life-blood of summer. There’s beauty in the scenery and vitality in the constant motion of the temporarily-ballooned population, but it’s the slow shift from hopeful to obsessive, from the sun’s brightness to one man’s growing darkness that draws our focus. It feels at times like your pervy uncle has somehow wandered into 1982’s Summer Lovers, and while you know it can’t end well for him or the unclothed youths you still feel compelled to see it through to the end. Part character drama, part cautionary tale, part marketing for Greece’s Bureau of Tourism, it’s an engaging slowburn of sandy beaches, sex, and sadness.

15. Train to Busan (South Korea)

Genre films, particularly horror, frequently get marginalized in qualitative rankings, but a strong film is a strong film. This Korean horror/thriller is a blood-soaked bullet train that pairs zombie carnage with the rapid-fire pacing of an action film, and the result is an adrenaline-fueled nightmare. Being Korean it also moves effortlessly between making you laugh and making you tear up as characters we love approach their doom, and while there’s minor effort made towards commentary on the country’s imbalance between work and family the focus is on making your pulse race. And it succeeds.

14. Elle (France)

Some films exhibit strength and value while still leaving questions, doubts, and arguments raging in your head. Paul Verhoeven’s latest does just that – and it’s no surprise seeing as the director lives to poke and cajole his viewers by instigating our moral reflexes into reaction. While the story turns offer a wealth of debate material, there’s no question that Isabelle Huppert’s pitch-perfect performance is the stuff legend’s are made of. You may laugh, you may grow incensed, but you will bow before Huppert’s terrifyingly funny presence.

13. Raw (France)

As with Elle above, Julia Ducournau’s film still has me debating it internally even months after seeing it. Billed erroneously by some as a cannibal thriller, it instead manifests as a coming of age tale focused on a young woman whose entry into college – an unbelievable but highly French veterinary school – triggers desires within that go against her strict upbringing. Family and the need to belong find themselves at odds, and the result is a compelling exploration of blossoming womanhood in a world designed to keep such things in check.

12. If Cats Disappeared from the World (Japan)

A young man with a terminal illness is granted a deal with the devil – one extra day of life in exchange for one thing removed from existence – and Akira Nagai’s film proceeds from there to explore the man’s connections to other people and how those relationships disappear along with the objects in question. The film reminds in some ways of the beautiful Korean romance, Il Mare. Both films feature fantasy elements that seem constantly on the verge of crumbling, but they succeed despite that thanks to an overwhelmingly confident grasp on the emotional journey. Events seem silly, but the human element will have your eyes watering as you react to the screen and reflect on your own relationships. Young love, friendship, and the importance of art are given immense value here leading to a simple point – we’re all going to die, but what matters is how we live.

11. In Order of Disappearance (Norway)

It’s easy to say Hans Petter Moland’s film owes a debt of some sort to the Coen’s Fargo, but blackly-comic, violence-filled films are near standards in Nordic cinema. Even in that crowded field though this funny and bloody revenge drama holds its head high by delivering on all fronts and showing the wisdom to cast Stellan Skarsgård in the lead. An onscreen body counter (complete with the deceased’s religious affiliation) serves as a stark reminder of the carnage, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at the same time.

10. Chevalier (Greece)

Director/co-writer Athina Rachel Tsangari’s third feature is a humorous and insightful look at adult masculinity and the games men play with each other and with themselves. The comedy is dry and subtle early on as the characters are initially setup, but some big laughs come our way once the game begins in earnest at which point it skewers the male need to compete and win, to be “the best” at something, with sharp observations. The film works perfectly well as a comedy strictly about these particular men and about men in general, but sly commentary on the classes and on Greece’s recent and ongoing financial strife seems evident as well.

9. The Age of Shadows (South Korea)

Kim Jee-woon couldn’t make a dull film if he tried, but all the same we’re thankful it’s not a goal he’s set for himself yet. His latest is a historical action/thriller focused on spies and acts of rebellion in Japanese-occupied Korea, and while the plot and character roster are dense the story’s energy and urgency keeps the momentum moving at a near breakneck pace. It doesn’t hurt that Gong Yoo (Train to Busan), Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder), and Lee Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil) lead the way through the twisty tale.

8. The Lure (Poland)

From illustrated opening credits to the infusion of magical realism into a Warsaw-set nightclub scene, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s film makes it abundantly clear that this world exists a little to the left of reality. The addition of musical numbers feels like a natural fit with moody sequences, seductive motions, and a big, jauntily-choreographed excursion filling the screen with energy and color. It all works together to create a dark fairy tale quite unlike any we’ve seen before and populated with magic, terror, and a degree of sexy whimsy you wouldn’t have thought possible.

7. The Inerasable (Japan)

The director of Fish Story and A Boy and His Samurai delivers a literate, beautifully-paced, and terrifying look at the ghosts that haunt us. It’s less interested in traditional scares and jumps than it is in crafting and building an overwhelming sense of terror and unease, and it manages that aim with tremendous success. Even better, the film’s interest in exploring the history behind the hauntings as well as the reasons why we want them to be real recalls the terrific Legend of Hell House, and it’s an approach that most modern films – especially Hollywood horrors – have neglected in favor of loud noises.

6. Apocalypse Child (Philippines)

Myth and reality collide in this tale of people looking backward in the hopes of learning how to move forward. Mario Cornejo’s raw and affecting film explores the idea of escaping one’s past through self-deception and distraction and does so alongside gorgeous visuals and performances. There’s a beauty here, but the ingrained sadness is undeniable, and while the Philippines’ current woes are a tragedy apart the film’s lesson finds an even greater relevance in the real world.

5. Divines (France)

A French drama about two teenage girls trying to break free of class and racial oppression doesn’t sound like a good time at the movies, but director/co-writer Houda Benyamina imbues her film with such energy and vitality that the moments of sadness continually blindside you. One of her secret weapons is lead actor Oulaya Amamra who shines as a young woman struggling to be something more than life has dictated for her. The imagined drive in a Ferrari is an all-time keeper.

4. The Wailing (South Korea)

Na Hong-jin’s latest is every bit as dark, vicious, and spellbinding as The Chaser and The Yellow Sea even as much of the early violence occurs off-screen. We’re shown the aftermath of brutal and mysterious crimes rather than the acts themselves, but the weight of the scenes are visible on the screen and on our lead character’s face. He’s a bumbling cop unused to such carnage, and as the events bleed into his nightmares it becomes clear that he might not be the man to face these horrors. It’s big, earthy, nerve-shredding entertainment the likes of which we rarely see from American filmmakers, and it’s not soon forgotten.

3. The Brand New Testament (Belgium)

God’s preteen daughter is sick of being cooped up in their Brussels apartment while Dad berates her and her mother, insults his son Jesus, and thinks of new laws of nature to mess with mankind, so she sets out on her own to tell a kinder, gentler tale. Jaco Van Dormael’s highly irreverent comedy is a smartly-written, laugh out loud experience that feels like Christopher Moore’s brilliant novel Lamb as adapted by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). It’s as amazing and beautiful as that pair-up sounds.

2. Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Family dysfunction is a longtime staple in cinema, but no film this year captured it with such humor, warmth, and wisdom as Maren Ade’s third feature. Even at 162 minutes our time with Ines and her oddball father feels far too short as their journey of discovery becomes one we don’t want to see end. There’s an honesty here – yes, even with subtitles – about the way we see ourselves through our loved ones’ eyes and in turn how we view ourselves, but if that’s not enough of a draw the film also delivers at least one of the year’s biggest laughs.

1. The Handmaiden (South Korea)

Park Chan-wook’s latest is a relentlessly gorgeous film with every frame offering beauty of some kind or other with its cinematography, story turns, and performances. Part twisty and kinky love story, part searing dismissal of the male gaze, this is a mesmerizing love story in the guise of a period thriller. There’s no more seductive film this year, and I mean that in every configuration of the word possible.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.