The only good reason for making a list of the best movies of any given period is to inspire curiosity and conversation, which is the goal behind this inventory of 25 key foreign-language titles from the 2010s, a period when international cinema adjusted to universal shifts in technology and viewership while gaining a greater foothold in the United States than ever before.
Certainly, the success, as measured in Rotten Tomatoes scores and Oscars, of a movie like Roma (2018) was suggestive of a receptivity by U.S. critics (and audiences) to celebrate subtitled fare; unlike previous 21st-century imports such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Hero (2002), Alfonso Cuarón’s drama didn’t lean on genre tropes for popularity. But the film’s major distribution deal via Netflix indicated that the art-house economy had, to some extent, moved online, with Cuarón joining not only U.S. auteurs like Martin Scorsese and the Coens in cashing checks from the streaming giant, but also Cannes competitors like South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. Meanwhile, the emergence over the past few years of niche-themed streaming services like FilmStruck and the Criterion Channel has meant, potentially, greater availability and access to foreign-language movies past and present—a variety that the biggest players in the online game (e.g. Disney) would just as soon see snuffed out, Thanos-style.
As far as the movies themselves go, while it’s impossible to impose a set of themes and trends on a global body of work, it would seem that the hardscrabble realism so in vogue in the 2000s—driven mainly by the success of the Dardenne brothers—has receded a bit, allowing for a more widely styled set of festival darlings: If forced to choose, some programmers would probably cite the dreamy drift of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the decade’s most pervasive aesthetic influence on non-Western cinema, while the skilful gentrifying of genre practiced by Bong, Park Chan-wook, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Guillermo del Toro (who hasn’t looked back at Mexico since Pan’s Labyrinth) continues to cast a long shadow. The continued output of Jean-Luc Godard, who looks more than ever like the last man standing of his generation, offered a vital argument for the old guard, although the outpouring of emotion online after the death in March of the brilliant New Wave innovator Agnès Varda testified to her heroic status among younger cinephiles.
The list is not ranked and instead ordered alphabetically—an easy way out, maybe, but my chosen route regardless. To keep auteurism from running wild, I limited myself to one film per director, but otherwise the field was wide open. Sadly, I didn’t find room for any French-Canadian movies, and (maybe it’s the English-Canadian in me) I can’t help but feel like the U.K. gets screwed in this situation even though some of the best recent British films could benefit from being watched with subtitles (i.e. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which also happens to be my actual favorite movie of the decade, in any language, for those keeping score at home). And instead of trying to pick out (or impose) any sort of trends or themes on this subjective collection of features, I’ll just suggest that adventurous Ringer readers seek them out and report back.
Arabian Nights (2015, Miguel Gomes)
I could have just as easily tapped the Portuguese director for 2012’s lovely, achingly fragile love story Tabu, but the scope and scale of his six-hour interpretation of Arabian Nights can’t be denied. Gomes’s conceptual framework here is the fable of Scheherazade, the sultan’s wife who must tell her husband stories like her life depends on it—because it does. (We’re meant to believe that the filmmaker is trying to stave off his own execution as well.) The non-sequitur jokes and sight gags are relentless, but what really unites Gomes’s collage of stories—most set in contemporary times despite a bit of old-timey stagecraft and all based in some way on current events—is the necessity of narrative itself: We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
China’s ninth-century Tang Dynasty provides a ravishing backdrop for Hou’s martial arts melodrama, a genre detour for a filmmaker whose output is usually hardcore art house. Always a great choreographer of bodies in space, Hou unsurprisingly proves himself an adept action director, albeit one content to let the violence glide by at its own gentle, unhurried pace. The traditional story of a female killer enlisted to take down her cousin—and in the process throw her region’s local government into chaos—is sturdy enough to support Hou’s showmanship. And in the title role, Shu Qi is magnetic: a graceful angel of death who comes to choose mercy instead.
Attenberg (2011, Athina Rachel Tsangari)
The rise of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave” was heralded in 2010 by Dogtooth, a vicious chamber drama featuring a supremely dysfunctional family; its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, would eventually graduate to Oscar glory with The Favourite. I actually prefer the less savage—but equally bizarre—Attenberg, which costars Lanthimos as the potential lover of gawky, sex-phobic Ariane Labed, a girl still clinging to the intense but platonic intimacy she shares with her dying father. Their all-in-the-family habit of watching (and imitating) nature documentaries in bed together frames Tsangari’s film as a wry, anthropological study of the human animal, memorably soundtracked by post-punk icons Suicide.
Burning (2018, Lee Chang-dong)
The Ringer’s top movie of 2018 is a master class on point of view, limiting our perspective to that of its angry, sexually pent-up, cash-strapped protagonist until until we’re equally sure that the arrogant, handsome rich prick (Steven Yeun) who stole his girlfriend (all while literally living Gangnam Style) is actually a sociopathic serial killer. Not that Lee’s perfectly poker-faced masterpiece ever shows its hand; like any genuinely lingering thriller, it’s punctuated with a question mark.
Cemetery of Splendor (2015, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Apichatpong makes movies that feel like lucid dreams, so it’s on brand that Cemetery of Splendor is about an epidemic of sleeping sickness, an elegant metaphor for a country being slowly lulled into a state of political paralysis. Working in a rural clinic where the victims’ hallucinations are charted using color-coded tubes, a nurse looks for ways to communicate with the fallen men. No international filmmaker exerted so much influence so benignly as the Thai wunderkind, whose 2010 Palme d’Or for the similarly mesmerizing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives opened up the possibilities for a placid, poetic, popular art cinema; in his low-key, beguiling way, he’s one of the decade’s genuine artistic heroes.
Eega (2012, S.S. Rajamouli)
An innocent man killed by his romantic rival gets reincarnated as a housefly and carries out his slapstick vengeance in Rajamouli’s Telugu-language blockbuster, a knowingly outlandish, endlessly inventive action-comedy with a fairy-tale framing device à la The Princess Bride and the relentless, kinetic wit of a classic Warner Bros. cartoon. There’s no Cronenbergian body horror here, just unapologetic lunacy elevated to the level of grandeur. At the same time, it’s impossible not to be moved when our microscopic hero uses his wings to write his grieving lover a note using her tears as ink. Next-to-impossible to take seriously, actually impossible to dislike.
Elle (2016, Paul Verhoeven)
After getting run out of Holland and Hollywood on a rail for crimes against good taste (a charge for which he has never pled anything but guilty), Verhoeven decamped to the depraved landscape of France, where he managed to offend once again. As a video game designer determined to track down her rapist—for reasons including, but not limited to, revenge—Isabelle Huppert serves as the perfect blunt, elegant instrument for Elle’s hammering satire; nasty, brutish and short, and armed with the best deadpan in the business, she’s like a claw hammer wrapped in gossamer.
Force Majeure (2014, Ruben Östlund)
Sundance 2020 will bring Downhill, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s English-language, Will Ferrell–and–Julia Louis-Dreyfus–starring reworking of the hit Swedish import Force Majeure. While the original’s comic premise was undoubtedly universal—a harried dad abandons his family during an avalanche at a ski resort and then has to face them with his tail between his legs—it seems unlikely that the Americans will equal Östlund’s deadpan mastery, which was also on display in his Palme d’Or–winning The Square. Östlund’s combination films of grueling realism and abject satire led some to brand him the new Michael Haneke—but his funny games are actually, well, funny.
Happy as Lazzaro (2018, Alice Rohrwacher)
The hero of Rohrwacher’s deceptively gentle modern fairy tale—based on the bizarre true story of a remote Italian village whose inhabitants were conned into living as tithe-paying peasants well into the early 1980s—is about a young man who takes pleasure in helping others. Lazzaro lives to serve because he has never known another way; when he’s suddenly freed from his arrangement, he begins to feel trapped. The character’s savant-like goodness doesn’t make him a foil to the forces of exploitation but their instrument. In a decade when filmmakers from all over the world tried to wrestle with the spiritual ravage of late capitalism, Rohrwacher’s vision may have been the most lucid and disturbing of all.
Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)
Denis Lavant gave the performance of the decade times 10 in Carax’s wild, shape-shifting Holy Motors, a collection of vignettes based on the travels (and multiple identities) of Lavant’s “Mr. Oscar.” Cross-dressing beggar, motion-capture stuntman, elite assassin, sewer-dwelling mutant, dying senior citizen, mad accordionist, chimpanzee ... he does it all, with assists from Kylie Minogue, Eva Mendes, and the great French actress Edith Scob, who drives him and wears the glass mask she donned a half-century ago in the horror classic Eyes Without a Face. What any of it truly means underneath all that virtuoso weirdness is hard to say for sure, but let’s hear it for virtuoso weirdness in the meantime.
Jauja (2014, Lisandro Alonso)
We stan a movie star who uses his clout for good rather than evil, and Viggo Mortensen’s commitment to the Argentinian auteur—in signing on to produce and star in Jauja—is as heroic as anything he did as Aragorn. As a Danish officer trying to retrieve his missing daughter in 19th-century Argentina, Mortensen projects a weary nobility compromised by his status as a colonial operative, but as the film goes on, plot—and even political commentary—falls away in favor of something more spacious and enigmatic. The almost excruciatingly beautiful cinematography casts a spell that’s aided by Alonso’s slow pacing: Without ever copying David Lynch, the younger director conjures up some of the same rapt, uncanny fascination.
Let the Sunshine In (2017, Claire Denis)
As a Parisian artist navigating the treacherous waters of later-life dating, Juliette Binoche dares to be strident, confusing, inconsistent, unbearable; she doesn’t hedge on the character’s chaotic essence and emerges with a great performance even by her own high standards. Superficially light and funny but punctuated by explosive depth charges of emotion, Denis’s romantic drama makes the case for the necessary terror of intimacy, even if it stops short of a ringing endorsement. Hell is other people, sure, but what about being alone?
Neighboring Sounds (2013, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
The paranoia pulsating through Mendonça Filho’s superlative debut is that of haves trying to insulate themselves against have-nots. The film is set in an elegant apartment block in Recife, Brazil, where a private security firm has installed high-tech devices—and armed guards—to keep the inhabitants safely cloistered amid their signifiers of wealth and comfort. Everything seems to be in order, but the brilliantly designed soundtrack keeps hinting at some encroaching threats: footsteps, whispers, a reckoning close at hand. The insidious creepiness of Mendonça Filho’s style brings Neighboring Sounds into the realm of horror cinema, but it’s scariest as an allegory about class and power—a local story with universal implications.
No Home Movie (2015, Chantal Akerman)
The great Belgian director died shortly after the premiere of her final film; no title on this list was more preoccupied with mortality, or gazed more bravely into the abyss. Conceived largely as an homage to Akerman’s aged mother, Natalia—a wizened concentration camp survivor with formidable recall of her experiences—No Home Movie unfolds as a series of one-on-one conversations, in person or via Skype, recaps of a past that isn’t through with these women by longshot. It’s all filmed at a precise, static remove that can be read as respectful distance or a mournful acknowledgment of a relationship slipping away with each inexorable tick of the clock.
Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)
An honest-to-god crossover hit, Parasite has given Bong more global visibility than his English-language wannabe blockbusters, positioning him as one of the world’s great transnational entertainers. Everything that’s been written about the movie’s sociopolitical acuity is worth reading, but I’m going to use this space to stump for Bong’s style: the absolute confidence and clarity in his staging and cutting, qualities that any action director (including Spielberg) would envy. Watch the ease with which a casual hangout scene mutates, first into a pressurized suspense set piece and then into horror, and realize you’re in the company of an actual master.
Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
The almost mathematical, structural perfection of Petzold’s postwar noir belies its tidal emotional power—the big, awful, overwhelming emotions churning away below its skilfully minimalist surfaces. Nina Hoss stars as a badly wounded Jewish concentration camp survivor who’s been given a new face with which to start a new life, but is drawn back, pathologically, to a ruined Berlin in search of her sinister, controlling German husband. She finds him, but he doesn’t recognize her, and the ensuing intrigue gets positively Hitchockian (with plot twists as dizzying as Vertigo) without ever losing its allegorical shape. As a meditation on survivor guilt, Phoenix is intelligent and affecting; as a revenge fantasy it culminates in a sequence as devastating as anything in Inglourious Basterds, without firing a single shot.
Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, Hong Sang-soo)
The joke about South Korea’s prodigious Hong is that he keeps making the same movie over and over again. With Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong calls his critics’ bluff, spinning a familiar little deadpan farce about a horny film director, an attractive young student, and an evening spent imbibing dangerous amounts of sake ... and then pressing reset to show it all happening again—the same but different, with minor variations that add up to a very different outcome. Really, there are a half-dozen Hongs I could have had in this spot, but Right Now, Wrong Then’s perfectly executed narrative gimmick elevates it a couple of precious inches above the rest.
Sieranevada (2016, Cristi Puiu)
A family comes together to commemorate a deceased patriarch, and all hell breaks loose in the Romanian director’s three-hour comedy-drama, which understands the dynamics of family get-togethers like no other film of the 21st century: People are hungry and irritable and drunk, and there’s always some weird uncle talking about how 9/11 was an inside job and jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. Shot in roving, miraculously choreographed long takes inside a cramped apartment that just keeps filling up with people (all of whom are strange in one way or another) and driven by a phenomenally complex screenplay that integrates themes of guilt, religion, and modernity into the basic all-families-are-psychotic-conceit, Sieranevada is demanding, but more than worth it.
Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)
Cruising a nude beach in Provence, a young man witnesses what appears to be a murder by drowning; the killer is the same attractive, alpha-male stranger he’s been drawn to during his daily visits. Part thriller, part allegory, and part black comedy, Stranger by the Lake juxtaposes sex and death and links them back to the same anxious, desperate curiosity. Although known for his transgressive comedies, Guiraudie plays the genre elements (figuratively) straight without holding back on explicitly homoerotic imagery. At this point, shocking art-house provocations are a dime a dozen; Stranger by the Lake is filled with ideas (and feelings) worth confronting.
This Is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
The title imitates deference: Sequestered to his apartment under house arrest for seditious cinematic activities, Panahi lets everybody—especially Iran’s censors—know that this homemade oddity is not, god forbid, a film. But of course it is, and despite a lack of equipment, resources, money, collaborators, or legal right to raise a camera, Panahi proves himself to be quite the not-a-filmmaker, integrating a host of styles and modes (video diary, self-portrait, prison drama, existential comedy, social critique) into a document that somehow simultaneously reaches out to his peers (filmmakers and social activists around the world) while raising a middle finger at his oppressors.
Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)
An Islamist militia overruns a village in Mali in Sissako’s serrated political satire, which takes its absurdist cues from the hypocrisy of real-world zealots (and is based on a real event from 2012). In the midst of a ban on all athletics, the jihadists discuss their favorite soccer players, while a sequence showing a group of children playing soccer with an invisible ball in front of their occupiers etches an ephemeral, indelible act of defiance—imagination as teamwork, and sports as solidarity.
Toni Erdmann (2016, Maren Ade)
For once, the across-the-board acclaim for the German director’s father-daughter saga wasn’t a case of consensus run amok—it just so happens that Toni Erdmann touches something universal. The subject of this funny movie is the catharsis of comedy itself, with Sandra Hüller’s uptight white-collar striver trying not to break every time her dowdy father (Peter Simonischek) invades her space disguised as the eponymous “life coach” Toni Erdmann. As the film goes on, the latter’s mantra of “don’t lose the humor” is vindicated alongside Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” which is warbled by Hüller in what must be the greatest karaoke scene in movie history. They can’t take away her dignity, indeed.
A Touch of Sin (2013, Jia Zhangke)
Zhangke began his career as an outlaw filmmaker, working in defiance of China’s state censorship laws. By 2013, he’d been cleared to release his films at home despite failing to tone down his work’s tendency toward provocation. The four ripped-from-the-headlines stories in A Touch of Sin paint a picture of a country riven by corruption, poverty, and economic anxiety; each mini-narrative has a baseline of bitter realism, punctuated by eruptions of startling, Scorsese-ish violence. Actually, Marty’s a fan of Jia, and the last scene of The Wolf of Wall Street is so close to Sin’s finale that it could almost be an homage (if the movies hadn’t come out in the same year, of course).
Viola (2012, Matías Piñeiro)
The Argentinian director crafts miniatures: His fleet, agile comedies are often barely feature-length, but as William Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The Bard also happens to be Piñeiro’s great influence, with each movie named for—and conversant with—a Shakespearean text. Viola concerns a troupe of young actors in Buenos Aires restaging Twelfth Night (and other plays) and builds up some of the same poetic momentum as its inspiration. No filmmaker this decade played more eloquently with language than Piñeiro, whose modestly ingenious, blessedly good-spirited movies deserve a wider audience in North America.
Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel)
The only demerit against Martel is that she led a jury that gave Joker a major prize at the Venice Film Festival. Even geniuses aren’t perfect. For many critics, the 2010s didn’t yield another film—foreign-language or otherwise—as perfectly conceived and executed as Martel’s 18th-century period piece Zama, which traps a mediocre colonial officer in a Patagonian purgatory where time (and with it, his ambition) stands agonizingly still. As a slow-motion comedy of manners, Zama rivals Kubrick’s monumental Barry Lyndon—that’s the level of artistry Martel is working on.