Top Twenty Foreign Language Films of the Decade (2010-19)

Picking the best of a decade is, let’s face it, mostly an impossible task. This is made all the more ridiculous when choosing among all genres. So to make it somehwat manageable, I’ve decided to break it up in to top twenty foreign, domestic features, docs and television. Now, listen, it’s just me here. I don’t have a team of writers. And, since this is not my profession, I only see about 100-125 films a year – so you will undoubtedly have films you would have chosen that I haven’t seen. I welcome the disagreements and hope in the comments you’ll tell me I’m an idiot for leaving off your faves. There’s a chance I haven’t seen it so it might be a welcome introduction for me. But I’ll save you the trouble of asking me about one film that seems to be on every other site’s Best of the Decade. I simply hated “Toni Erdmann”. It gave me a migraine. Sorry. As for my actual picks…

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20. “Bullhead” – Belgium (2012)
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam

Image result for bullhead filmNot just the film in which Matthias Schoenaerts plowed his way to the center of the film world’s universe, “Bullhead” is also an incredibly powerful, magnificently strange, and heartbreaking tale. Nominated for an Oscar (and in my estimation the best film in that year’s class), Roskam’s balanced touch of small town intrigue and big city mystery puts it firmly on my list.

Trailer here, currently available on Tubi with ads, or for rent.

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19. “Volcano” – Ukraine (2018)
Directed by Roman Bondarchuk

Image result for volcano ukraine filmA small film that has almost nothing to do with volcanoes, “Volcano” is Roman Bondarchuk’s love-letter, elegy and eulogy for a way of life altered by the effects of modern technological and economic change – in this instance a small Ukrainian village whose shoreline borders a Soviet-era, damned reservoir that covers the original, centuries-old town. It is a contemplative, funny and heartbreaking hundred minutes of beautiful vistas, loving apparitions, interesting characters and fish-out-of-water irreverence. In short, I loved it.

Trailer here, available this month on Mubi or for rent.

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18. “sieranevada” – Romania (2016)
Directed by Cristi Puiu

Sieranevada.pngA three-hour Romanian comedy with a dozen characters that takes place almost solely in a tiny apartment…really? Well, yes. Puiu’s camerawork is so confident, that it almost outshines his script and the actors’ incredible work…almost. This is a three-hour tour that I have now watched three times. And, yes, it gets better each time. Find it. Watch it. As three hour European comedies go…I’d choose this over that German critical darling any day of the week. Should’ve been rewarded with a nomination.

Trailer here, currently not available to stream.

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17. “The Insult” – Lebanon (2018)
Directed by Ziad Doueiri

Image result for the insult filmWith a script that is quiet and perfect, “The Insult” is simple, emotional and affecting storytelling at its cinematic best. At its core a film about how two people of different backgrounds actually talk to each other, “The Insult” does away with the protagonist/antagonist setup. Rather, director Doueiri makes his two main characters simultaneous protagonist and antagonist. Given that the film, at its core, is a courtroom drama, this decision could be disastrous. But here, it is just the opposite. It is a magnetic film about ego, personal history and institutionalized hatred of the “other”. A gem.

Trailer here, currently available on Amazon Prime.

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16. “Woman At War” – Iceland (2017)
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson

Image result for woman at warThis epic tale of a true eco-warrior is made with heart, well-designed characters and terrific dialogue. “Woman At War” is the best European comedy of the decade. You might think…”Iceland? Really?” Well, think that all you want, but Iceland knows how to make comedies. Bizarre and irreverent comedies, to be sure, but delightful all the same. Woman At War” isn’t even the only Icelandic comedy I considered – Solveig Anspach’s “Aquatic Effect” was right up there, as well.  “Woman At War” is a delight…and an ending that sticks with you forever.

Trailer here, currently available on Hulu.

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15. “The Captain” – Germany (2018)
Directed by Robert Schwentke

Image result for the captain posterIf I didn’t have so many WWII films on my list, I would probably have placed this tremendous film higher. Evocative, provocative and difficult, you might call it a “Wermacht Catch-22”. The photography is as good as it gets, the horror is real yet somehow humorous in a subversive way, and Max Hubacher’s Captain is one of the best performances of the decade.

Trailer here, currently available on Showtime.

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14. “Never Look Away” – Germany (2018)
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Image result for never look away“Lives of Others” director, von Donnersmarck, has crafted a gorgeous, well-executed, complex and, ultimately, incredibly satisfying epic about the lasting effects of living under Nazi rule…and, later, the post-war’s East German Stasi. On a broad scale, this is a film about freedom of thought, creativity, and expression. And to achieve this, he places our protagonist in the terrible position of being a brilliant and innately talented artist in a young East Berlin that exclusively rewards technical ability and communicating the party line over creative expression. And, of course, what it means to be free of that restriction just a hundred feet away in the West. Not quite as accomplished as “Lives of Others”, it is still a magnificent in its own right.

Trailer here, currently available on Starz.

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13. “Parasite” – South Korea (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Image result for parasite movie

As with most of his films, Joon-ho is not afraid to closely look at class and economic inequity – uncovering the dirtiest of secrets. “Parasite” goes a step further. No longer interested in fables or allegories (see “Snowpiercer”), here he shows us abject realism…draped in comedy, yes, but this is the real world…the current world. He’s also not afraid to turn his scripts on a dime, as he does in “Parasite’s” third act. In fact, those last twenty minutes  are among the best you’ll see in any film. Seemingly a foregone conclusion to win the foreign language Oscar this year, “Parasite” is a humorous yet chilling look at the current status of haves and have-nots in the gig economy.

Trailer here, currently in wide release in U.S. theaters.

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12. “Incendies” – Canada (2012)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51yE80LoQSL.jpgA small, but devastating epic, Denis Villeneuve’s first critically acclaimed film is, in my mind, still his best. Spanning decades on two continents, “Incendies” schools us on how assimilation erases history, and why that history is of the utmost importance. The acting, especially from Lubna Azabal, is earnest, matching the weight and realism of the brilliant script. A different kind of epic, “Incendies” should not be overlooked as one of the great films of the decade. Losing to the Danish film, “A Better World” was one of the bigger upsets in the history of the Foreign Language Oscar. And while “A Better World” was a terrific film, it really has never compared to the emotional pull of this Canadian masterpiece.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

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11. “Capernaum” – Lebanon (2018)
Directed by Nadine Labaki

https://d2e111jq13me73.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/styles/product_image_aspect_switcher_170w/public/product-images/csm-movie/capernaum-poster0.jpg?itok=xL70n3pbOne of the bleakest films ever made (more so, even, than 2010’s uber-depressing “Biutiful” – oy), it is also one of the most heart wrenching. Following the adventures embodied by one of the best child characters written (and best child performances from Zain Al Rafeea), the film dares you to find any reason not to fall in love with a street urchin with a penchant for survival…and love…and strength. You might think the film traipses along well-worn territory: the plights of those who get lost and disappear in the bowels of large cities – the poor, homeless and displaced. But instead of getting lost in comparisons, it causes all other films to live up to ITS emotional punch and acumen. A tremendous film that will change you.

Trailer here, currently available on Starz.

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10. “The Fencer” – Estonia (2015)
Directed by Klaus Härö

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcT3hBiHgFXG883IJBYrotSGV6pydg83AX0DeOUA7WMrUpgyoatk&sI’ve loved this film from the moment I first screened it and it has only grown in my estimation. Not because grandiose themes (though they are in there) or the sweeping nature of its telling. No, it has stayed with me because it is a simple story told extremely well, with an economy of words, a wealth of real emotion and performances from both adults and children that are spot on.

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy.

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9. “Ida” – Poland (2014)
Directed by Pawil Pawlikowski

Image result for ida film posterA beautiful film that lulls and seduces as it goes deeper and deeper. Everyone in it is perfect, especially Agata Kulesza as our heroine’s aunt. The high contrast black and white photography and the framing of each shot is magical. Most closely resembling last year’s darling (and I believe overrated) “Cold War, “Ida” is better in almost every way…especially in the connection we feel to the characters. Not to be missed.

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy, Hoopla and Fandor.

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8. “The Club” – Chile (2015)
Directed by Pablo Larraín

Image result for pablo larrain the clubSo, yes, it’s a film about a group of former priests disgraced and banished after being outed as sexual predators and pedophiles. And, yes, there are moments of abject cruelty. And, yes, it’s a highly triggering film. It’s also another work of cinematic genius from Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”, “Neruda”, “No”). I’m not sure what it is that has stuck with me for so long…perhaps its handling of empathy in the face of monsters, but it is one of the more moving films you will ever see. Larrain’s other film made this same year, “Neruda”, is its polar opposite, and on my honorable mention list. See either, see both, but see!

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy and Shudder.

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7. “The Hunt” – Denmark (2012)
Directed by Thomas Vintebourg

The Hunt (2012) BluRay 720p & 1080pAnswers the age old question, “what if you were a kindergarten teacher in a very small Danish village and you were wrongly accused of pedophilia by a kindergartner?” Sounds horrifying, but featuring Mads Mikkelson giving the best performance of his incredible career, it’s a well-written, well-directed, and wholly uncomfortable slice-of-life film that could only come from the Danes. And the final scene will last and last. Easily makes it into my Top Ten.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

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6. “Roma” – Mexico (2018)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Image result for roma film posterNothing much to add here…you’ve probably seen it and if you did so in a theater, then you know how great it is.

Trailer here, currently available on Netflix.

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5. “La Juala de Oro (The Golden Dream)” – Mexico (2013)
Directed by Diego Quemada-Díez

Image result for la jaula de oro film posterAlmost nobody has seen this film because it was never released remotely wide and it’s not available to stream anywhere (other than to rent it from Amazon or YouTube). But when I saw it, I was wrecked for days. If EVER there were a film that encapsulates what “The Caravan” truly is…the horror, the tenacity, the danger, the hope, the resulting empathy…this is it. A truly breathtaking and heartbreaking epic.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

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4. “Mustang” – Turkey/France (2015)
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Image result for mustang film poster“Mustang”, which had the awards misfortune of coming out the same year as “Son of Saul”, makes my top five with ease. In fact, my final four are all way ahead of the rest. But this one, about the lack of feminine agency in the stranglehold of the Turkish patriarchy, had the most effect on me emotionally. The performances, the plot, the photography and even the score from Warren Ellis (and Nick Cave)…it’s all small, or, rather, intimate…incredibly so. You will watch it and, after you catch your breath from how transformed you’ve been, you’ll wonder how it is you’ve never heard of it.

Trailer here, currently available Kanopy.

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3. “1945” – Hungary (2017)
Directed by Ferenc Török

Related image

To me, the most underrated film of the decade goes to this gem from Hungary. A post-Holocaust film shot in the style of Sergio Leone and in brilliant black and white, Török has crafted one of the most original and quietly mesmerizing films of the decade. All of this while illuminating an aspect of post-Shoah Europe that I had not seen in a film before (my #21, this year’s “Those Who Remained,” also ventures in to the same lane, but in a very different environment). I’ve now watched “1945” three times and I get something different out of it every time.

Trailer here, currently available on Amazon Prime.

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2. “Son of Saul” – Hungary (2015)
Directed by Laszlo Nemes

Son Of Saul 索爾之子 海報  導演: Laszlo Nemes 編劇: Laszlo Nemes /  Clara RoyerUnlike the above, this is a movie where one time was enough. In fact, “Son of Saul” may provide you with the most viscerally horrific experience you will ever have in a movie theater. It also happens to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Where documentaries about the subject let us down because of the distancing effect of old newsreel visual evidence, and where features often fail in their desire to tell us a tiny story within the subject’s vast framework, Nemes, in his directorial DEBUT, simply states that this is what happened…every minute…every second. Dramatic gestures don’t need to be wrapped up in plot for this story to be told…moments within mere minutes of life and death inside the camps are enough. And Geza Rohrig’s face is equally truthful. Brilliance all around.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

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1. “Land of Mine” – Denmark (2016)
Directed by Martin Zandvliet

under_sandetNot a film you’ll see on many lists, “Land of Mine” is, nonetheless, my pick for best of the decade. A brilliant study of the power of empathy…in the most unlikely of places…there is not a wasted frame in this tense, yet touching, film set in the days after the end of WWII. I can say, without question, I have not gone a day without thinking about something related to “Mine” since I first screened it in 2016. The acting, especially from the teens, is brilliant, the script is quiet and shows a remarkable economy of words – which is more than made up for by the lens of Zandvliet and cinematographer, Camilla Hjelm. Finally, the two main themes from composer Sune Martin are sublime.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

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The Rest (click on titles for trailers):

21. “Those Who Remained” – Hungary (2019)
Directed by Barnabás Tóth (not yet distributed in the US)

22. “The Line” – Slovakia (2017)
Directed by Peter Bebjak (Czech Netflix)

23. “Les Miserables” – France (2019)
Directed by Ladj Ly (in theaters)

24. “Black Coal Thin Ice” – China (2014)
Directed by Diao Yinan (Hoopla, Shudder)

25. “The Merciless” – South Korea (2017)
Directed by Byun Sung-hyun (not currently available)

26. “The Confessions” – Italy (2016)
Directed by Roberto Andò (Amazon Prime, Hulu)

27. “Dogman” – Italy (2018)
Directed by Mateo Garrone  (Hulu)

28a/b. “Raid: Redemption” & “The Raid 2: Berandal” – Indonesia (2011 & 2014)
Directed by Gareth Evans (rent only)

29. “The Handmaiden” – South Korea (2016)
Directed by Park Chan-wook (Amazon Prime)

30. “Labyrinth of Lies” – Germany (2014)
Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli (rent only)

31. “Neruda” – Chile (2015)
Directed by Pablo Larraín (Netflix, Kanopy)

32. “My Life as a Courgette” – France (2017)
Directed by Claude Barras (Netflix – CHANGE TO FRENCH DIALOGUE!)

33. “Theeb” – UAB (2014)
Directed by Naji Abu Nowar (Hoopla, Kanopy)

34. “Burning” – South Korea (2018)
Directed by Lee Chang-dong  (Kanopy)

35. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” – France (2013)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (Netflix, Criterion Channel)

4 thoughts on “Top Twenty Foreign Language Films of the Decade (2010-19)

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