Top 15 Foreign Language Films of the Decade

11 Jan


January 11th, 2010–

Sitting here now at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when I had to scour video stores and theaters all over the city looking for foreign films that were presented in their original language. But even as recently as 2000, that was still a common occurrence.

Foreign films were a niche genre at best, and Blockbuster knew this, as did the multiplexes. Here in Baltimore, The Charles Theater, and ocassionally the Rotunda, were the only places you could hope to see a film with subtitles. Big hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brotherhood of the Wolf  were part of the movement that propelled international pictures forward here in America.

By 2004, when The Passion of the Christ (completely presented in subtitles) became one of the biggest box office grossers ever, the U.S. at large was finally paying attention to foreign film. For the rest of us already in the know, we found it easier to locate those obscure flicks that we had read about were often hard up to actually see. And it was a great decade internationally for film. I’ve already covered the Asian films (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand) over in this article HERE, so you won’t find any of those here.

Anything else that was presented in a foreign language for all of it’s running time was in consideration here. So, lets go ahead and take a look at the 15 best now…



15. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) Directed by: Julian Schnabel



Schnabel’s moving and imaginative telling of the life of Jean-Do Bauby, editor of Elle magazine who suffered a stroke that paralyzed all of his functions save for the movement of his left eye. The film is beautifully acted and wonderfully written, but it is the way in which the filmmakers envision Bauby’s mind trapped within his inactive body that really makes Butterfly soar. Married with thoughtful dream sequences is a first-person visual style that places the viewer within Bauby’s frustrated perspective. A very introspective look into the life of a man whose mind and body are no longer connected.


14. Turtles Can Fly (2004) Directed by: Bahman Ghobadi



Turtles Can Fly is a unique film experience. It tells a story I honestly haven’t seen before about a particularly community I have never considered, and it draws actual members from that group to portray some of its characters. Ghobadi’s heart-wrenching drama is focused on a rag-tag group of children, led by 13-yr-old Soran, living in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkish-Iraq border. These children are all orphans and their job is defusing live land mines and selling them to arms dealers. The film takes place before the American invasion of Iraq and casts a speculative eye on the lives of those displaced who found themselves in the middle of the whole mess. Not an anti-war screed but a powerful tale of finding hope when there are no good options available.



13. The Man Without A Past (2003) Directed by: Aki Kaurismaki



What I like most about The Man Without A Past, as odd as it may sound, is the film’s exceptionally lively color scheme. Even though the characters inhabit a slum made up of shipping containers, every sequence has the kind of cheery, vibrant life one can find in a Norman Rockwell. This brighter-than-real-life approach isn’t just applied to the visuals though. Kaurismaki’s film is a warm human comedy that isn’t afraid to be thoughtful and quirky and even surreal all at the same time. Marku Petula plays a man who awakens after a mugging to find he cannot remember who he is, where he was headed, or where he lives. He starts up a new life amongst an impoverished community and begins a cautious  relationship with a Salvation Army worker. What follows is a gentle and often understated journey wherein Marku meets his neighbors and goes about the business of living.



12. A Very Long Engagement (2004) Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet


14 When Jeunet, the great French visualist, traded in his dark fantasy world of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children for the more whimsical and flat Amelie, I was disappointed. When that film proved to be a big hit for the director, I figured we could write off seeing something as complex or quirky as his earlier works. Thankfully, (and I understand fully I’m in the minority here) I found A Very Long Engagement to be a great film and possibly one of the best WW1 films I’ve seen. Yes, it draws from Old Hollywood melodrama to tell its story and there is an almost fairy-tale approach to the central wartime mystery. No matter, Jeunet handles each aspect with the necessary love and finesse to make them fit together and Audrey Tatou is far more luminous and endearing here than in all of Amelie put together.



11. Osama (2004) Directed by: Siddiq Barmak


osama1 Osama is an amazing and sincere piece of cinema, and it is also a difficult and eye-opening picture because of the culture and customs it shines a light on. In Siddiq Barmak’s brave Osama (the term finally applies here because of the dangers of making such a film), we see the lives of women living under the rule of the Taliban in dramatic close-up. The film is not a documentary but it uses all the tools of fiction to tell a story that is played out daily in Afghanistan. Pre-adolescent Osama, in an effort to help provide for her family, disguises herself as a boy and in punishment for her transgression is married off  as one of the many wives of a mullah. The world portrayed here is a harsh one, and the film has a tragic tone, but it is also an intensely sympathetic picture that never forgets that the events captured are a reality for many Afghani women.



10. Russian Ark (2003) Directed by: Alexander Sokurov


russian-ark-2 It would be entirely easy to dismiss Russian Ark, due to its style and composition, as just a lofty artistic exercise and a technical marvel with no substance. It is essentially a 96 minute unbroken shot that travels through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and re-enacts 300 years of Russian history as it goes. Characters from every major event in Russia’s past walk through the camera’s frame sometime during the film. However, the power of Sokurov’s film is the way it becomes a complete and enthralling experience by simply being what it is. It has a dreamlike and propulsive nature that gently pushes you on to the next scene and then the next after that. It is visually rich and even imaginatively vast as it subtly suggests all of the interlocking components of its country’s heritage in an hour and a half running time. There are few other films like it, and that’s probably a good thing, but I’m grateful that we have Russian Ark to savor.



9. Dancer in the Dark (2000) Directed by: Lars Von Trier



Lars Von Trier often strikes me as one of the most self indulgent directors working today. Usually, I find his work unsatisfying at best and rather off-putting at worst. Which is why my adoration of Dancer in the Dark surprised even myself. Bjork, in one of the weirdest roles in the history of cinema, plays Selma, a nearly blind factory worker who is trying to save up money so her son can have an operation that will prevent his eyesight from deteriorating like hers. In Von Trier’s hands, Dancer is so melodramatic that it transcends modern narrative filmmaking and returns to a sensibility more becoming of a silent era movie. Just when you think the director will relent, and allow Selma a moment of happiness and triumph, he hurls down more devastation upon her head. In an attempt to counteract this, he visualizes bright and exciting musical interludes that occur within Selma’s mind to offset the growing darkness (both physical and emotions) of her reality. In the end, Dancer is an odd duck, but as a cinematic experience it’s a trip like no other.



8. The Man on the Train (2002) Directed by: Patrice Leconte




Two men meet, a poet and a robber, and then each one decides to switch places with the other. The poet is played by Jean Rochefort as a man nearing the end of his life, and Halladay plays the thief as one who has spent most of his scraping out an existence. They meet and much of the film is made up of their conversation.Leconte’s picture is beautifully handcrafted and is really about a friendly platonic bond between two men, born out of interest in something each sees in the other. There is an uncomplicated and sublime tone to the movie, and Leconte expertly puts all of the events together, so that when the end of this captivating film arrives, everything feels as it should be. A wonderful and sadly underrated human comedy.



7. The Color of Paradise (2000) Directed  by: Majid Majida


hossein_mahjub_mohsen_ramezani_the_color_of_paradise_001  Majida’s The Color of Paradise begins with the words “To the glory of God’ and the rest of his film plays out like the fulfillment of that promise. This is a profoundly beautiful film—both visually and emotionally—about a blind boy and his father, who has grown to find the child a barrier to his own happiness. Majida captures the inherent majesty and splendor in his natural settings, and upon first viewing I found the film’s scenery almost overwhelming. Everything from the minimalist acting to the simple but evocative storyline have been crafted with the overall impact of the film in mind. The Color of Paradise, like Majida’s earlier work Children of Heaven, is a family film but it is intelligent, gentle and wise in a way that most American family entertainment is not. This is one of the great movies, and it deserves an audience it never quite got.



6. Downfall (2005) Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel


downfall-hitler-and-the-end-of-the-3rd-reich-the-20050224064412768-000 A truly haunting and relevant look at evil and the mundane places it may be found, Downfall focuses the bulk of its running time within the bunker of Hitler and his cronies for their final days. Ganz gives a terrific performance as Hitler, and makes him a man twisted and poisoned so thoroughly that he fails to register even normal levels of human compassion. He’s weary, his military and political brilliance ruptured, and we see him for what he is; just a man. Downfall reminds us that often times we approach the problem of evil from the wrong perspective, assuming it is something unique only in those who exercise it with unrelenting veracity. What Hirschbiegel shows us is that the potential for the evil of the Nazis lies easily within human capacity.



5. The Son (2003) Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne


lefils   The Dardenne Brothers are currently some of my absolute favorite working directors. As a pair of filmmaking siblings, they are currently higher in my esteem than the Coens, whose work has been fitfully uneven as of late. The Son, the first of their films that I saw, unspools its events like a mystery and it does so with extreme patience and observation. The camera of the Dardennes operates like the eye of God, and details we might assume insignificant to the events on screen often later materialize as the key to everything. A carpenter hires a street kid and teaches him his trade, much to the alarm of  everyone else. The tradesman is hiding a secret, and the boy himself may have more depth to him than we initially suspect. The film’s ending is as hard-hitting as we could have hoped for, but the Dardennes aren’t bludgeoning us with this story, instead offering up a thoughtful and exquisite parable. There’s more than enough to digest here when the meal is finished. A fantastic movie.



4. Tsotsi (2006) Directed by: Gavin Hood


Tsotsi2Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi is an honest to goodness redemption story that plays out in such a realistic way that what happens to its protagonist is completely plausible. We aren’t watching a bad man become a good man, but rather we are seeing a violent and cornered youth start to slowly reconnect with his own fractured humanity. Filmed in South Africa, there is no lack of grit and realism in the cinematography, the staging of the film’s more violent scenes, or in the distinguished work of the cast. Presley Chweneyagae is tremendously good as Tsotsi, the street thug who accidentally inherits a baby after mugging its mother. He captures the scared kid under the hard-edged criminal, and he suggests the capacity for a soul to be nurtured back from the brink. There is a sense of the inevitable in the film’s final scenes, but finally, Tsotsi is making choices for himself.



3. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro


pans-labyrinth-movie-01  Reminiscent of great Spanish filmmaking like The Spirit of the Beehive, Del Toro’s magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth is a war-time fantasy that doesn’t short change either of its subjects; the fantasy or the war. Imaginative, heartfelt, and stuffed to the brim with visual invention, Pan’s creates a microcosm of moral strength in the face of pervasive darkness and chaos. Its fairytale pedigree exists, but only on the surface, where it hides a rich and soulful interior. In addition to the masterful filmmaking, Pan’s also offers up a worthwhile message about individual thought amidst a prevailing and corrupt ethos. There’s more here than one viewing can completely capture, and Pan’s Labyrinth is just the kind of film that encourages a return.



2. City of God (2002) Directed by: Fernando Mierelles


city-of-god3jpg Like a modern-day Dickens, Mierelles tells a tragic and dazzling story of a boy living within the ‘City of God’ slums of Rio de Janeiro who finds a camera and takes up photography. There is a great deal more than that to the film, and it follows a cast of characters that are as intriguing and as multi-faceted as any of those populating Great Expectations or Oliver Twist. The difference is that City of God is also terrifyingly realistic and gritty in its depiction of violence. Mierelles allows his camera to spiral around events as they happen, and there’s a precise geography to the slums. This is transporting filmmaking, but instead of functioning as escapism it’s like being inside a waking nightmare. All the same, unlike his counterpart, Scorsese, Mierelles finds more than just notes of violence and corruption in his setting and story. He also finds hope.



1. The Lives of Others (2006) Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck



It isn’t very often that a film affects me so much that I just find myself sitting there after it’s finished, dumbstruck in front of the closing credits. The Lives of Others is one of those movies. In one way, it’s a character study about a fastidious member of the Stasi secret police in East Germany. In another, it’s about the state of the country at large and we watch as authorities manipulate the law and cultivate fear among the citizens. In a third angle, it is the story of what happens when we find ourselves thrust in the proximity of others and their personal concerns, dreams and desires. In the end, it isn’t any one kind of film, but a beautiful blend of suspense, drama and commentary this is quite nearly flawlessly done. It’s one of the finest films I’ve ever seen about surveillance and government control. Whole parts of it remind of Brazil or 1984, but Donnersmarck injects enough historical detail into the film that the fact this era actually happened never leaves our minds. The late and great Ulrich Muehe plays Weisler, the agent at the stories heart and his performance elevates it to the finest piece of foreign cinema released this decade.

29 Responses to “Top 15 Foreign Language Films of the Decade”

  1. Frank Marmoset January 13, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    I should probably see some of these, but I’m horribly lazy about watching subtitled films with no kung fu or swordplay in them. Pan’s Labyrinth is mint, but I’ve seen precisely none of the rest of this list.

    I will check out The Man Without A Past because you’ve reminded me how much I used to like Aki Kaurismaki back in the days of Hamlet Goes Business and Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Totally forgot about that guy. Also, maybe Dancer In The Dark. I want to see it because Bjork is awesome, but it sounds so damn depressing.

    Interesting list, Bartleby. You’ve definitely given me some stuff to think about here.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 9:50 am #

      Leningrad Cowboys Go To America is awesome.

  2. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 13, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Good gravy, there’s a lot of stuff here I haven’t seen. I need to rectify that ASAP. Your top four are complete mint.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 9:49 am #

      I’ve really wanted to see the Russian remake of Viy, but have yet to see that it was released on DVD. It looked visually awesome, and had kind of a Sleepy Hollow meets Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Japanese horror feel going for it.

      See anything of worth on the Russian front recently HOD? Outside of Admiral? I saw that one a few months back and quite enjoyed it.

  3. Jarv January 13, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Top 4 I’d choose as well in a list. The rest, not so much- I’d pick Battle Royale for one.

    Have you seen Tropa De Elite? Well worth looking up.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 9:44 am #

      You don’t actually read these do you?

      “I’ve already covered the Asian films (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand) over in this article HERE, so you won’t find any of those here.”

      I’ve never seen Tropa De Elite? That’s a recommendation then? I’ll get to it.

      So, you have seen and dislike the rest, or just haven’t seen them?

      • Jarv January 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm #


        No there are some on there that I included in other lists (Downfall) but a lot I haven’t seen.

  4. Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    Im assuming the one that would get knickers in a twist would either be Dancer in the Dark or A Very Long Engagement. I can’t think of issues many would have the rest.

  5. koutchboom January 13, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    ALRIGHT! Dancer in the Dark and A Very Long Engagement love!

    I guess I really do need to watch The Lives of Others again, because for the life of me I could not make it through that movie. And I watched it like at 4PM on a Saturday, so it wasn’t like I turned it on at 3AM and couldn’t stay awake. I think I got to 10PM between falling asleep and waking up and just said fuck it and didn’t bother trying to make through it all.

  6. koutchboom January 13, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Whats funny about Lives Of Others is everyone at first was like??? BOO BOO!!! NO PANS Labyrinth?? WHATS THAT STUPID MOVIE? THEN everyone saw it and totally changed their minds.

  7. Droid January 13, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    Haven’t seen many of these, but where is LTROI? Is it because it was in your horror list? Hmmm…. As a general observation, why do all non-english language top 10’s seem to only be serious or “important” films? I see this trend on lots of lists, not just yours. One of the best foreign language flicks I saw in the past 10 years was Tell No One, and that’s a straight up mystery-thriller. That said, I need to see a bunch of these.

    • Hawaiian Organ Donor January 13, 2010 at 11:09 am #

      Tell No One was aces. The ending with the “monologuing” was a bit cliche but it sure was a pot boiler.

      • Droid January 13, 2010 at 11:12 am #

        Yeah, it was, but bugger me if it wasn’t a lot of fun that flick. Better than most thrillers I’ve seen during the decade.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 11:29 am #

      Droid, I was noticing that too, but one of the reasons is that for the most part, save for asian cinema, most other countries popcorn entertainment absolutely blows. Ask HOD, he and I have seen alot of it, and even the decent stuff–the first Night Watch or Inhabited Island–isn’t so good that it makes a list. I know many here really like District B13, and I really enjoy it, but it wasn’t a ‘better’ movie than any of these.

      Tell No One, like Time Crimes, was a really great movie. It would have been on here if it had been another top 20 list. I was pimping it a few years ago when it came out, but I don’t think it was a better movie than these. What foreign pictures DO seem to manage is that, unlike American films, they can make a film with serious subject matter really engaging to watch.

      The Lives of Others is tremendously entertaining, and no less suspenseful than Tell No One. Pan’s Labyrinth, City of God are the same way. In fact, I chose all of these, save Russian Ark, because I found them to be great stories in addition to anything else.

      I’d love to see some really great popcorn movies come out of countries that aren’t China, Japan and Korea, but right now it’s not happening. Only one I can think of is Brotherhood of the Wolf, which I left off, like LTROI and the others, because it made the horror list.

  8. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 13, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    I wanted to like A Very Long Engagement but I just didn’t find the love story very engaging. I’d swap that one out for Black Book.

    • koutchboom January 13, 2010 at 11:27 am #

      Thats just because your into good grooming.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 11:31 am #

      I can see that, and it makes sense. I think AVLE worked for me the way people say Titanic worked for them. I got swept up in it, whereas in the latter movie I just watched the ship sink. Different strokes, I guess…

      Black Book is worthy of recognition though.

      • Hawaiian Organ Donor January 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

        That’s exactly all that kept me watching AVLE after a while, just to see those excellently choreographed trench warfare scenes.

        And nobody sinks a ship like Cameron.

  9. Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Oh and Droid and HOD…if you haven’t, see Man on A Train…it’s a terrific movie.

  10. Droid January 13, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Out of all these I’ve only seen Dancer, Pans and City of God. I do need to start watching more foreign flicks.

  11. Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Droid, what did you think of Dancer?

    If that’s the case, make sure one of the next things you see is Lives of Others. It’s fantastic.

    • koutchboom January 13, 2010 at 11:50 am #

      Yeah Droid, I was gonna say you probably wouldn’t like Dancer. Did you? Movie made me go out and buy a Bjork album.

  12. Droid January 13, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    I saw it at the cinema yonks ago. Well, it must’ve been 2000. It’s damn depressing. But it’s great. Stormare is terrific in it.

  13. Droid January 13, 2010 at 11:51 am #

    Dancer is one of those flicks I will never watch again though.

  14. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 13, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    You really should put up a review of 44 Inch Chest, Bartleby. It seems you’re the only other person in our crowd that’s seen it and I’m curious about your thoughts.

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

      I’m writing it right now HOD, along with Lovely Bones and Parnassus. I was gonna save it for friday, but Im going on vacation now, have Book of Eli for tomorrow night, and am under the weather today, so nothing better to do than type. I’m aiming for the top english language list if I can make it. Ok, let me get crackin…

  15. Lordbronco January 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    City of god was amazing just saw it for the first time. I also got around to avatar. Of the two, I found cog the one I want to watch again because I realized I didn’t notice what happened to just one minor character…

    • Bartleby January 13, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

      It’s ok Bronco, I’m pretty sure Joel gets out of the trailer…oh, wait…that’s not the one you were talking about.

  16. herr milflover January 14, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    It’s not so much that Hitler was evil, just that he had a tendency to get upset about menial things… at least from what I’ve seen of Downfall on youtube.
    Joking of course, I’ve been meaning to see Downfall, just never got around to it, like with so many others.

    The only one of this list that I’ve actually seen is Pan’s Labyrinth, and it is just superb, loved every second of it.

    I’m sure the rest of them are brilliant too, but from what I know of them (most of them anyway) they dont seem like the type of movies I’d enjoy watching.
    Which makes me lame as hell, I know…. (hangs head in shame)

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