We’re in the heart of the summer movie season, and that means theaters are mostly catering to things with superheroes or orcs or angry birds or more superheroes or ninja turtles. And that’s all well and good, but it can leave a film fan with a broader, more varied appetite a little starved, particularly when it comes to foreign-language fare.
While there’s plenty of great arthouse and indie films in release (go see “The Lobster” and “Love & Friendship,” people!), there are relatively few truly tantalizing subtitled films on offer. This week offers Venice winner “From Afar,” but otherwise things are surprisingly bereft on the foreign-language front until the fall.
But that means it might be a good time to catch up on some recent classics. And so with that in mind, and following our Best of the Century series over the last couple of years, we thought we’d turn our eye to the best of international cinema since the year 2000. And so below, we’ve picked our 50 favorite foreign-language films of the 21st century to date.
To spread the love, we’ve stuck to one movie per director, and don’t take the absence of documentaries as anything but a promise that they’ll have their own Best of the Century list soon. Those are about the only rules we had, and other than that anything predominately in a language other than English qualified. Take a look, and let us know what you think in the comments, in a language of your choosing!
50. “Monsoon Wedding” (2001)
Indian helmer Mira Nair can be a little inconsistent — her work in the last decade has included the underrated “The Namesake” but also the terrible “Amelia” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The highlight, however, was her 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding,” winner of Venice’s Golden Lion, a totally charming, visually lush Altman-esque tale of a massive wedding in Delhi. It’s a great state-of-the-nation look at a changing India, but also one full of warmth and humanity.
49. “Fat Girl” (2001)
Catherine Breillat is among the most ferocious chroniclers of female sexuality in all its variations, as she shows in practically all her titles up to her most recent, 2014’s Isabelle Huppert-starrer “Abuse Of Weakness.” But this tough watch, with its graphic teen sex, themes of sisterly envy (between the overweight Anaïs and her beautiful, desirable sister Elena) and shocking denouement involving murder and rape, is the marker for how uncompromising, ironic and complex her vision can be.
48. “Songs From The Second Floor” (2000)
After a 25-year gap, Roy Andersson returned to cinema at the start of this century, and his Living trilogy is one of the major works of world cinema since. The best of them is still the first, 2000s “Songs From The Second Floor,” though it’s a close-run thing between the three. It’s made up of a series of beautifully shot deep-focus tableaux, only loosely connected, and as darkly, bleakly funny as they are existentially bleak, equal parts Python and Bergman.
47. “Incendies” (2010)
About to make the hotly anticipated “Blade Runner 2,” Denis Villeneuve made his international breakthrough with the powerful “Incendies.” An adaptation of the play by Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad, it sees twins Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) investigate their late mother’s early life in the Middle East, uncovering a dark, long-buried secret as a result. It’s melodramatic stuff, but Villeneuve’s restraint (and a hell of a performance by Lubna Azabal) make it truly compelling and utterly wrenching despite the narrative contrivances.
46. “Wadjda” (2012)
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s feature debut gained a lot of attention a few years back by being the first film made entirely in Saudi Arabia (a nation without cinemas), and being from a female director in a country where women aren’t allowed to drive. But none of this would mean anything if the film wasn’t good, and luckily it was wonderful. The simple story of a young girl (Waad Mohammed) who longs for a bicycle, it’s a deeply subversive neo-realist tale, beautifully shot and performed, and almost overwhelming in its compassion.
45. “Downfall” (2004)
Yes, the meme is still funny, but Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall” needs to be remembered for more than that: It’s a whip-smart, sober examination of madness and inhumanity, as well as a valuable piece of history (the film was praised for its accuracy). Told through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary (the excellent Alexandra Maria Lara), it follows the last 10 days of the Second World War with a scope that reaches far beyond the Führer, but that will be remembered as the most complex depiction of him ever on screen, with Bruno Ganz’s chilling performance showing the man behind the monster but never excusing him.
44. “Let The Right One In” (2008)
Every so often, it seems like the vampire myth might be played out, and then every so often, a film like Tomas Alfredson’s “Let The Right One In” comes along. The breakthrough for the Swedish helmer, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, follows a young Swedish boy in 1980s Stockholm who begins a friendship with the child who’s moved next door, one who turns out to be a creature of the night. Alfredson doesn’t stiff you on the gore, but it’s as much coming-of-age tale as horror, and one of atypical sensitivity and nuance, fantastically directed by its helmer.
43. “I Wish” (2011)
There are several Hirokazu Kore-eda titles that we could have chosen: the melancholic “Still Walking” or the downright tragic “Nobody Knows.” But we’ll go with “I Wish” because it’s exemplary of his unsentimental sincerity and his acute, beautiful way with child actors (here they’re real-life brothers playing the separated children of divorced parents). A sort of Japanese “Stand By Me,” this tale of two kids who believe if they long for reunion hard enough, a miracle will occur, is an exquisitely bittersweet delight.
42. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Still the highest-grossing foreign-language title of all time domestically, Ang Lee‘s sweeping, swooping, soaring martial-arts love-story epic is as close to a blockbuster as this list gets. Featuring an all-star cast of Zhang Ziyi, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, it’s a thrilling romance featuring treetop battles, unspoken passions and ultimate sacrifices that introduced an entire generation of non-Chinese moviegoers to the wuxia genre and opened the floodgates for a torrent of others to come.
41. “The Lives Of Others” (2006)
The flouncy excesses of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s “The Tourist” are all the more baffling because they followed his extraordinary, melancholically low-key foreign language Oscar winner. The story of a lonely Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe) tasked with listening in on the liaisons between a well-known playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover (Martina Gedeck), it’s a beautiful, finely wrought film that’s both a heartbreaking portrayal of dehumanizing totalitarianism, and an uplifting homage to rebellion, no matter how tiny.