This year, like every year, saw many great films from all around the world. Some reached the United States through festivals or an actual release while others still haven’t touched our shores in an official capacity. Staggered release schedules play havoc with availability and year-end lists, so far my purposes here I focus on films that first played the US in some capacity in 2018. Happily, there was no shortage of fantastic cinema to choose from.
One note, the Taiwanese gem Mon Mon Mon Monsters had its official US release this year via Shudder and is easily among the year’s best, but I included it in last year’s ranking after seeing it at festivals.
Keep reading for a look at the 18 best foreign language films of 2018.
18. The Night Comes for Us (Indonesia)
Directed by Timo Tjahjanto
Timo Tjahjanto’s blistering epic about a bad guy gone good landed in the top spot for my Best Action Movies of 2018 list, so it seems only fitting it also secure a spot here. The story may be familiar and the dialogue may be generic, but the characters, style, and sweet, glorious action make it one of the year’s most entertaining and re-watchable films.
17. One Cut of the Dead (Japan)
Directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda
My #2 horror movie of the year also makes the cut here as in addition to bringing the flesh-eating goods this deliriously fun zom-com pulls the unexpected out of its tooth-marked ass in the form of something truly special. It’s funny, it’s gory, and it’s entertaining, but it’s also a whip-smart look at the art and business of indie film-making. I know, didn’t see that coming right? Its structure is genius as it reinvents itself in surprising ways that both embrace the genre elements and shift towards something altogether different.
16. Sicilian Ghost Story (Italy)
Directed by Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza
There’s darkness in this world, and while the youth sees too much of it they don’t always understand. This tale is based loosely on the true story of a boy’s abduction, but it puts the focus on a pre-teen who falls for the boy before he disappears only to wonder why no one else seems to care. It’s a lyrical, fable-like coming of age tale pairing innocence and tragedy in beautiful yet painful unison.
15. November (Estonia)
Directed by Rainer Sarnet
Movies that choose to film black & white these days do so as both an immediate attention-grabber and sometimes as a way to focus the eyes on characters and images in a new light, and this beautifully crafted fairy tale from northern Europe succeeds on both counts. It’s a love story, of sorts, but it’s one with magic, creatures, and a dark sense of humor as absurd as it is silly. It’s a madly poetic concoction that’s also striking in its beauty, and it’s quite unlike anything else you’ve seen this year.
14. Under the Tree (Iceland)
Directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Tales about small things like interactions and conflicts that spin wildly out of control are often exhilarating in their structure when played for thrills and/or laughs — think Martin Scorsese’s brilliant After Hours (1985) — but there’s a different kind of weight when things grow more serious. This tale about feuding neighbors starts in the realm of the understandable but grows into something angry, violent, and irreversible. The fact that it’s also able to deliver a few laughs along the way is impressive too.
13. Let the Sunshine In (France)
Directed by Claire Denis
It’s always a welcome sight seeing a female lead in her 50s, and that’s doubly so when the woman is Juliette Binoche. Here she plays a divorced mother on the hunt for love with frequent stops for sex along the way. Writer/director Claire Denis crafts a film that never judges its protagonist and instead lets her be herself, for better or worse, on her own journey of self-discovery. There’s a plot here but it’s secondary to simply letting Binoche’s character enjoy the sunshine.
12. Roma (Mexico)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
A maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City during the 70s is the focus of this intimate and very personal tale from writer/director Alfonso Cuarón, and while her story holds no surprises it’s a strongly relevant one all the same. Her experience is her own, but the year covered here speaks to the changing world around her as well. Cuarón shoots an attractive film capturing the place and the person at the center of it all — someone who doesn’t see herself that way at all.
11. Angels Wear White (China)
Directed by Vivian Qu
There’s plenty of misery on this list, but few of the films are as relentlessly bleak and cynical as this soft-spoken but visibly angry drama. It concerns a teenager made privy to the abuse of two young girls and her struggle to find a voice that people will listen to in a world that values women as virgins or sexual objects — with nothing of note in between. The imagery is clear in the giant Marilyn Monroe statue, the white dress, and general behaviors of those around the seaside community, and we’re left struggling with our optimism. It’s a sad film that’s never merely exploitative, and that makes it hurt all the more.
10. The Guilty (Denmark)
Directed by Gustav Möller
Gimmick movies, even great ones, don’t typically make year-end lists, but this Danish thriller is such a near-perfect example of how to do this right that it basically forced its way onto the list. It’s essentially a single-location suspense flick focused on a single 911 operator dealing with a call from a woman who’s been abducted. It’s a smart, thrilling, and tight ride at only 85 minutes, and you’re riveted through to the very end.