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Top Foreign Films of Decade

Written By Franklin V on Sunday, May 8, 2011 | 3:53 PM

The massive marketing machine of Hollywood makes great foreign productions difficult to discover. However, some of the greatest movies ever are produced outside U.S. borders, and many of the greatest films of the last ten years are in a language other than English.
For the sake of diversity, I chose films from ten different countries and nine different languages. So even though a few excellent films were left off that may not have been otherwise, I did not want this list to be full of only Spanish language and Korean films (for example).  For a few more great foreign films of the last decade, check out the honorable mention at the bottom of the list. Lastly, I did not consider animated films while creating this list.

10. Zwartboek (Black Book) – Dutch (Netherlands) 2006

Three years before Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, Paul Verhoeven created this story about a Jewish woman whose country is occupied by Nazi Germany, whose family is killed by Nazi’s, and who disguises herself as a non-Jew in order to exact her plan for revenge. This version, though less critically received, puts a much more realistic touch on the plot, as Rachel (Carice van Houten) maneuvers her way up the Nazi hierarchy and into the heart of one of its leaders.

The complexity of the relationships, including the sincere affection that Rachel develops towards the man she is deceiving, highlight the film. The photography of the film resonates well, as the film bleeds its colors, making it feel authentic to its time. These attributes, combined with a great plot, packed with suspense, action, and romance make Black Book a must see.

9. Paradise Now – Arabic (Israel) 2005

Created by a Palestinean director (Hany Abu-Assad) and an Israeli producer (Amir Harel), Paradise Now puts a human face on terrorist plots. This tale of two friends who are recruited to be suicide bombers show their mental and physical journeys while considering whether to go through with their plot. 

Unexpectedly separated before going through with their plan, they individually experience different people and confront their respective pasts. Their ultimate final decision comes to each as a result of the people and places they encounter and one’s attempt to stop the other build to a tension-filled and tragic conclusion.

8. Tsotsi – Tsotsitaal (South Africa) 2005

Tsotsi, which translates to ‘thug’ in the Tsotsitaal, shows a few days in the life of a gangster in a slum outside Johannesburg, South Africa. This gritty drama, centered around an accidental kidnapping, builds a theme of humanity over a suspenseful story of a common criminal. The gradual and believable transition of the main character (Presley Chweneyagae) from a thief and gangster to caring custodian highlights the film and its message of redemption.

7. Gwoemul (The Host) – Korean (South Korea) 2006

Chosen over the great Oldboy (mentioned previously in my comic book list), The Host is chosen as the best Korean film of the last decade mostly because of its universality, as compared to the other two. Although amazingly complex, Oldboy primarily serves as a revenge tale, while Infernal Affairs is essentially a crime/cop drama.

The Host, on the other hand, not only crosses genres (monster movie/family drama), but also seamlessly moves from terror to humor to emotional and back again. Added to that, the creators of this film managed to squeeze in social and political messages, as the monster is unjustly accused of being a host of a deadly virus, in addition to reeking havoc on Seoul. This truly unique adventure entertains throughout and manages to be packed with surprises (which are severely lacking in most monster movies produced) and its unconventional bitter-sweet ending make this film truly one-of-a-kind.

6. Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) – Chinese (Taiwan) 2000

The highest grossing foreign language film of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened the doors for foreign films with western audiences. Beautifully shot with incredible landscapes throughout, this tale, which focuses on three female warriors and their struggles within the Wudang community appealed to all audiences. The different stories and backgrounds of each of the main characters, the heroine, the pupil, and the villain, each cast different shades of the female experience in a male dominated society.

The prominent story, of a woman (Michelle Yeoh) who has repressed her romantic feelings for her closest friend (Chow Yun-Fat), is a unique perspective on human interaction that is rarely focused on in film. Another compelling relationship is that of the villain (Cheng Pei-Pei) and the pupil (Zhang Ziyi), which focuses on the former’s cynicism and the latter’s naïvety and emotional development. Overall, despite the fantastic special effects and choreography, the relationships and character development steal the focus and success of the film.

5. Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amelie) – French (France) 2001

Known to American audiences simply as Amelie, this prototypically bazaar French film manages to appeal to all audiences with the charming lead (Audrey Tautou) playing the title character. This fabulously shot movie about an antisocial and quirky, yet gorgeous woman is all at once funny, tragic and touching. Inspiring the Travelocity gnome, this film is full of interesting and original ideas spawned from the mind of the heroine. Also among them, is her secret goals to conspire at making strangers secret wishes come true, without their knowing her schemes. The most touching scheme occurs when she reunites a man with his grandson, leading to an emotional scene featuring greasy fingers and chicken.

4. C.R.A.Z.Y. – French (Canada) 2005

I know it seems like I cheated to slip in a second French language film, but this Quebecois production gets an exception to my rule. The amazing narrative of a family, centered around the fourth of five sons, spans two decades, from 1960 to 1980. Though the focus of the film is lead character Zach’s (Marc-André Grondin) spiritual journeys and inner struggles, the entire family dynamics are the hallmark of the movie. Each brother’s personality manages to influence Zach and the family in different ways. Most important to the story is his eldest brother, Christian (Maxime Tremblay), whose battles with women and drugs help Zach learn valuable lessons about life and family.

The greatest aspect of the film is the incredible music, which effectively transports the audience to the time in which the story takes place. This excellent soundtrack features songs from Patsy Cline (whose cover of Willie Nelson’s Crazy will never sound the same after this film), Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Billie Idol, and others. One of the best scenes of the movie, which features The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Zach imagines a church congregation singing to him as he ascends to a divine-like status. The music in this scene, as with many others, becomes a main character, and adds a dimension that rarely exists in the majority of films.

3. El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) – Spanish (Spain) 2006

Pan’s Labyrinth is best described as a child’s fairy tale made for adults. It successfully transports the viewer to the perspective of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and into her world which gently bends between reality and fantasy (with the help of a timeless score by Javier Navarrete). In the end, the audience is left to speculate as to whether the fantasy was real, but regardless of what conclusion is made, the ride is amazing.

While jumping between the fantasy world and the real world, Ofelia (along with the audience) fall victim to many sorts of violence and deceit. The true success of the story is how the brutality of reality always pushes beyond our expectations and sensitivities. Whether or not the imaginary world is real, Ofelia is forced to believe in it to cope with her tragic circumstances. Ultimately, even against insurmountable odds, Ofelia triumphs as a hero in both worlds.

2. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the right one in) – Swedish (Sweden) 2008

One of the biggest surprises of the decade was the resurgence of the vampire genre. Let the right one in sets itself apart from theTwilight dung-heap to become arguably the greatest vampire film of all time. Its narrative including two children in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, eclipses the genre while becoming a story more complex than description can provide. One attempt at explaining its story would be to focus on the relationship between the two children (one being a vampire who does not age). However, the relationship’s dynamics cannot be summed up that simply, due to the symbiotic nature in which the two depend on each other.
The complexity of the relationship is countered by the simplicity of the story which features a bullied boy and a vampire who depends on someone else for survival. Their relationship seems to develop into a romantic one, however neither of them have the maturity to understand what that is. Overall, its a film that must be seen to truly appreciate it (However, look for a proper sub-titled version unless you want to miss out on the witty dark humor throughout.)

1. Cidade de Deus (City of God) – Portuguese (Brazil) 2002

City of God, the partially true history of the birth of the gang wars in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, is one of the best films you’ll ever see (if you can keep your eyes open the whole time). The battles between rival gangs over a period of more than a decade are shown through the perspective of the film’s narrator and only protagonist, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). His passion for photography and overall benevolence for others fuel his desire and efforts to escape the slums, and is symbolized by the first scene of the film, in which a chicken attempts to escape the slaughter.
Filmed with mostly residents of the actual slums, City of God paints a gritty and violent portrait of the area in the 1960s and 70s. The violence can be particularly stunning given the ages of the criminals which are portrayed by kids who are the actual age of the characters they play (unlike in most Hollywood productions). However, creative photography keeps much of the bloodshed off-screen, making the brutality palatable.
Plot and the shock of the story aside, this film also triumphs as a creative film landmark. Its time-line, composition, and overall style borrow from modern film greats such as Scorsese and Tarantino. In particular, a musical montage of violence draws an automatic comparison to a similar scene from Goodfellas, which was set to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” However, regardless of similarities, its overall composition transcends comparison, making it a must-see and one of the greatest films of all time.

Honorable Mention

Infernal Affairs – Cantonese (Hong Kong) (2002)
Motorcycle Diaries – Spanish (South America) (2004)
Oldboy – Korean (South Korea) (2003)
Y tu Mama Tambien – Spanish (Mexico) (2001)
Brotherhood of the Wolf – French (France) (2001)

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+ comments + 2 comments

December 6, 2011 at 5:35 PM

A great list, and gives me something to work through over the coming weeks! Are they all foreign speaking films, and if so, are the available with English subtitling?

December 6, 2011 at 8:25 PM

Yes.. The above mentioned films are foreign speaking films.. English Subtitles are available at www.opensubtitles.org

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