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The Best Foreign Language Films of the 2010s

Updated on July 23, 2017

World Cinema Is On a Roll

It’s a great decade for world cinema whose films seem to be at its highest level of quality. And the rise in the number of talented filmmakers makes sure that level will continue forward to the next. It is therefore, a daunting task to choose from a multitude of great foreign films to include in this list for they all deserve to be seen. The real winner here however, are the film enthusiasts, who are even too fortunate they get to choose. But, don’t choose, just watch. Everything you can. Or you might just miss something.

The list is long, and not everything will be included. A film you like may not be here. Perhaps, they will be added in the future. So, here are highly recommended live-action foreign films of the year 2010-2017 that you should start watching right now.

Phoenix (2014)

Sometimes its not a real betrayal.

— Nelly

Germany

Directed by Christian Petzold

In Post-WWII Germany, a Holocaust survivor Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstructive surgery that left her with a new identity. She tries to re-connect with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who might have betrayed her to the Nazis. Johnny doesn’t recognize her, but thinks she resembles his wife enough to come up with a scheme to collect an inheritance. Shocked, Nelly still plays along with it, in denial of her husband’s betrayal. Phoenix is a strange, beautiful tale wrought in pain. This one's a real heavy. Post-war sadness that just stabs you in the heart. It separates itself from other wonderful foreign films of the decade because of its immaculate storytelling. It has a beginning, an ending, but you'd know how effective a story is by how great the middle parts are. This is the best of the decade.

Ida (2013)

What if you go there and discover there is no God?

— Wanda

Poland

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Poland in the early 60s, a young girl Ida (Agata Trzebuckowska) who is about to take her vow in the convent, visits her promiscuous and liberated aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who was a former people’s court judge who had sent people to their deaths. They go on a trip to find out what happened to Ida’s parents, who were Jews during the war. It becomes a journey of reflection that changes them, and binds them together. Filmed in black and white, every frame in the movie is like a postcard that carries with it a story, or a memory. You can just stare at it all day. Simply beautiful photography that illuminates a profound story of innocence and guilt.

A Separation (2011)

What is wrong is wrong, no matter who said it or where it's written.

— Nader

Iran

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

A middle-class couple in Iran, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Shahab Hosseini) separate after a dispute on the welfare of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). With Simin living with her parents, Nader employs a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father who has Alzheimer’s. Razieh, who is pregnant, gets into a fight with Nader and has a miscarriage. They go to court accusing each other of crimes which escalate uncontrollably. The web of deceit and lies that follows are so intricate that it will keep you on your toes. A Separation is an engrossing, high caliber drama with a wonderfully written script and a great acting ensemble.

The Great Beauty (2013)

The most important thing I discovered a few days after turning 65, is that I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.

— Jep

Italy

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

The story circles around a group of rich, aging socialites living in Rome who spend most of their time holding parties and amusing themselves with irreverent small talk. At the center is writer Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), who has written a novel but became content with writing cultural pieces and drinking the night away. But, the death of a former love veers him off track and begins to reflect on himself. The Great Beauty is a film that celebrates life and makes bitter-sweet love affair with mortality. An orgy of sound and movements—the film would have referred to itself as a badass 8 ½. A likable main character, great music and masterful direction make this short of a life-changing experience.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

It’s so often about getting things done. You do this, you do that. And in the meantime, life just passes by.

— Winfried/Toni

Germany

Directed by Maren Ade

A middle-aged man Winfried (Peter Simonischek), with a penchant for practical jokes like putting on disguises, visits her uber workaholic and very serious daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) in Bucharest. Ines welcomes her father openly but fears that he would become a burden what with his side attractions. And he does, Winfried (who adopts the name of Toni Erdmann in public) with his shenanigans constantly impedes on her daughter’s work that their relationship goes on a series of rough tumbles. Toni Erdmann is something special—a father-daughter movie that’s as funny as it is meaningful. It keeps you in a sentimental mood while tickling you on the side, and probably, the best man-woman performance of its year.

Certified Copy (2010)

I'm afraid there's nothing simple about being simple.

— James

France

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

A French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) and an English Author (William Shimell) meet in Tuscany, Italy and spend the day together talking light-heartedly. When a café owner mistakes them as husband and wife, their conduct toward each other slowly changes, hinting that they could really be a couple, thus leaving the audience to wonder to the true nature of their relationship. This genius trickery of Abbas Kiarostami’s storytelling pokes fun as to how little we know about each other’s wants and needs. Nothing like a delicately conceived story that develops with such precision that it keeps the mind beguiled.

Son of Saul (2015)

I have to take care of my son.

— Saul

Hungary

Directed by Laszlo Nemes

During the latter days of WWII, Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a quiet, brooding Hungarian Jew, works as a Sonderkommando in the concentration camps in Auschwitz, whose primary task is dragging bodies out of the gas chamber and then scrubbing the place. He chances upon the body of a boy and tries to get him a proper Jewish burial even if it puts him and his fellow prisoners at risk. The close quartered camera gives a frightening guided tour of Auschwitz as it follows the prisoners like death, while they are herded and locked. It doesn't make eye contact with its captors, making it more, phobic and intense. Son of Saul is not easy to forget.

Mustang (2015)

The house became a wife factory that we never came out of.

— Lale

Turkey

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven

The story of five sisters in a tiny village in Turkey whose lives are controlled by their strict grandparents and essentially, by a conservative society. They are told what to do, what to have, what to wear, and to their chagrin, who to marry. The movie focuses on the youngest one, Lale (Gunes Sensoy) as she watches her sisters get married one by one and move out of the house, her once happy life saunters to loneliness. Mustang is like a telenovela with just the beautiful moments sewn together. There’s just something so inviting where the story takes place: the house, kinship, sisterhood and to become witness as innocence turns to puberty to adolescence, that some of the memories that get left behind could even be your own.

Julieta (2016)

That absurd hope has devoured the weak base on which I had built my new life. Now I have nothing left. Only you exist.

— Julieta

Spain

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Just as she was going to start her life over, Julieta (Emma Suarez) suddenly retreats to her old apartment hoping that her estranged daughter Antia, who had left her many years ago, would try to contact her. There, she starts a journal recounting her younger self (Adriana Ugarte), how she met her husband, Antia’s birth and the events that may have caused their break-up. Only Almodovar could make a simple family spat seems like the greatest plot ever. He returns to his “cinema of women” with a noirish grandeur—sharp, sensitive, with a colorful array of emotions, typical of Almodovar’s world, where everything looks excitingly bleak.

Holy Motors (2012)

I have a plan to go mad.

— Oscar

France/Germany

Directed Leos Carax

In this surreal, sci-fi, genre-bender, a middle-aged actor Oscar (Denis Lavant) cruise along the streets in a white limo in a streak of wild, public performances that sees him take on different guises and personalities. There seems to be no motive for his madness except that everybody seems to be in on it, as part of his act, or as unassuming witnesses, the entirety becomes one big, moving, movie set. Holy Motors is holy shit, what is this movie? Really. It surprised critics, has the erudite boggled—a film as art that’s nothing like anything that anyone has ever seen and that comes with a guarantee.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

It's the kids who suffer in the end, doctor. Everyone pays for the things they do. But kids pay for the sins of adults.

— Naci

Turkey

A group of policemen and civil officials escort two murder suspects across open fields outside town to look for the buried body of the victim. Their efforts start futile as the murderers couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact location as tension mounts among the ranks. The darkness of the deserted landscape, the whispering wind, and hidden thoughts of men (in a male-dominated arena) provide a kind of unusual creepiness in this noirish drama with hints of dark humor.

Leviathan (2014)

Well? Where’s your merciful God almighty?

— Kolya

Russia

Directed by Andrey Zvyaginstev

Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), his wife and son, own a large piece of land in a Russian provincial bay area, which is being strong armed by a corrupt Mayor. He seeks the aid of an old lawyer friend from Moscow to fight them in legal court but an unexpected turn of events careens the story into a tragic finish. Leviathan is a reference to the sea monster in the Biblical Book of Job which has relevance to the movie’s religious undertones. While it is obvious from the beginning that the story is bound to end badly, it keeps challenging our expectations with false hopes. Against the backdrop of a small fishing and factory town, the parable works almightily thanks to superb performances.

The Hunt (2012)

They say you did bad things to me.

— Klara

Denmark

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In a small town, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works in a kindergarten school. One of the children is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), his best friend’s daughter, who has a bit of a crush on him. When Lucas reprimands her one day, the girl takes offence and makes-up a story about how Lucas exposed himself to her. The town quickly turns against Lucas, a false accusation that could ruin his life forever. It’s that popular notion that children have no reason to lie when it comes to such things, similarly, how people would easily jump to unfounded conclusions. This is the kind of story you can’t wait to get to the bottom of.

Poetry (2010)

Now as darkness falls, will a candle be lit again?

— Mi-Ja

South Korea

Directed by Lee Chang-Dong

An aging woman Yang Mi-Ja (Yoon Jeong-hee), diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, works as a part-time maid and takes care of her disrespectful grandson, Jong-wook (Lee David), who gets into serious trouble which she may never accept. To ease her mind, she enrolls in a community poetry class and embarks on a personal journey to write a poem and let her feelings out. Even without the spunk of your usual Korean film, Poetry delivers solid drama rooted in the modern tradition without going overboard. Realizations here are brutal, problems believable, and consequences are truths. There is only honesty

Force Majeure (2014)

I’m a bloody victim of my own instincts.

— Tomas

Directed by Ruben Ostlund

During a vacation in the French alps, a Swedish family’s scary experience with an avalanche threatens to break them apart, when Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the father, seems to have panicked and ran away leaving his family behind. Turns out it was just avalanche smoke and everybody is alright. But Tomas’ actions leaves his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) unable to accept it. The genius play of the story: one single act sets in motion an entire movie. Force Majeure is a straight drama injected with dark humor and intelligently placed characters whose counter-reactions are just spot on.

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