This article is part of our 2019 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from 2019.
We do several “best of” lists at the end of every year, and it’s understood that while we haven’t seen every movie released we’ve seen a healthy enough amount of them to give credence to our picks. It’s a bit easier on the genre front as my love of horror and action sees me intentionally seeking out films from around the world through festivals and recommendations, but highlighting the best non-English language cinema released in a year is far more difficult.
To that end, I’ve welcomed our own Luke Hicks aboard to help me highlight the best non-English films we saw in 2019 — some were released in the US, but others were caught at film festivals both here and abroad. While I feel comfortable saying I see most of a given year’s action/horror output I’d be a liar to claim the same here. Luke and I have still seen quite a few between us, though, so even if you don’t view these nineteen as “the best” non-English films you should instead see them as nineteen… of the best.
And one quick note. I prefer to spread the love across these category lists — action, horror, non-English — and not have duplicate titles between them, so the best non-English films that landed spots on my horror or action lists won’t be repeated here. (They’re all fair game for my overall Best Films of the Year list though.)
19. Sunset (Hungary)
László Nemes’ sophomore film is a dark, mysterious maze of pseudo-history. It takes place in 1913 Budapest, just before the eruption of the Great War. While it reaches Inherent Vice levels of being difficult to follow at times, Sunset isn’t hinged on particular plot points as much as it is on a disastrous social, political, and economic tone. Through the story of a shunned young girl who’s returned home to Budapest to her family’s revered hat shop, Nemes presents us with a portrait of a world on the edge of apocalypse, a snapshot of the way things had to be to reach such chaos in the first world war soon after. Somehow it manages to unfold more slowly and cryptically than his first feature, Son of Saul, a bone-chilling concentration camp drama that shares little in common with Sunset outside of its mutual affirmation of Nemes obsession with corrupt human nature in modern European history, labyrinthian story structures, and constant motion. (Luke Hicks)
18. Belonging (Turkey)
It’s been almost eight months since I saw Turkish writer-director Burak Cevik’s sophomore feature, and I still can’t stop thinking about the seminal breakfast scene: an unforgettable five-minute single take of a fixed shot zoomed in on a tabletop full of Turkish breakfast food (cucumbers, olives, tomatoes, tea, preserves, milk, water, cheese, bread, cherries, etc.) being picked apart by a couple of young lovers whose one night stand has spilled over into a mundane morning discussion of the day’s chores, hands darting in and out of the shot to stab fruit and pour milk and other such things. The shot creates a profound dichotomy of life observed and unobserved. We see every detail of their breakfast choices and hear every future development of their days, but it’s all expressed through hands wrestling with food while the lovers remain barely out of frame. Little do they know, it won’t be long before they’re involved in a murder. We, viewers, know because this quaint breakfast scene takes place in the last fifteen minutes of a film that begins with a 25-minute narration as to how and why the couple executed the murder of the woman’s mother. Belonging’s experimental structure and mode of storytelling ensures that Cevik is a filmmaker we’ll want to keep an eye out for. (Luke Hicks)
17. Mystery of the Night (Philippines)
This haunting, raw, and poetic period tale is a beautifully crafted, slow-burn fable mashing together powerful forces like magic, love, and revenge into an animalistic display of passion and punishment. Director Adolfo Alix Jr. and writer Maynard Manansala have adapted Rody Vera’s play (Ang Unang Aswang) into a mesmerizing and unhurried tale that envelops you slowly and completely before unleashing gory hell. True to its origin on the stage — as well as to its budget and intent — there’s a meticulous artifice to its presentation, but what it avoids in realism at times it delivers in sensual wonder and audacious effect. Seriously, it goes places in the third act. You’ll know early on if it’s for you, but if stick with it the rewards are unexpected and powerful. (Rob Hunter)
16. Varda by Agnès (France)
It’s so rare to receive transparent, career-spanning auto-commentary from one of the medium’s greatest writers and directors, and it’s even more rare to receive it in the form of a deliberately insightful two-hour documentary. But rarity is the nature of the brilliant, late Agnès Varda, whose every directorial choice, it turns out, is as calculated and cool as film analysis has been giving it credit for since 1955. The 90-year-old’s adoration for life, love, human connection, and filmmaking radiates throughout her filmography, and Varda by Agnès is a steadfast affirmation of it all. She had no reason to sit down with us and talk us through the measured shot structures of Vagabond, or the interior femme mind of Cléo From 5 to 7, or the grief she faced at the loss of her husband and fellow French auteur, Jacques Demy. But she did. And she did it in her last leg, the film debuting at the 2019 Berlinale less than two months before she died and left us all pining for her singular charm. Her final words on screen are legendary and immaculately poetic. If you have a heart, bring tissues. (Luke Hicks)