The 25 Best Non-English Language Films of The 21st Century
American films get the most attention. Be it the high-budget summer blockbusters or the independent productions to come out during award season, American Film has the spotlight. However, we must take into account that the majority of films worldwide are not produced in the United States, and that means many other great pictures are being created year round in the rest of the world. Of course the Oscars try to reward this as well, inventing the category Best Foreign Language Picture, but this does not do entire justice to the great pieces of art being created overseas.
We have to take into account the great output to come out from Europe, where film was originally made, from Latin America, a place where the Film Industry is finding solid ground to stand on lately, and Asia, whose films may not be too accessible for western audiences but are nonetheless worthy titles.
This list is an attempt to put together the 25 best non-English-language films of this century (the term Foreign Language Film is completely inaccurate; every language is a foreign language). Here are the best films according to the author, but one must take into account that there might be many lesser known films that are worthy of being on this list as well.
25. In a Better World (Hævnen) (2010, Denmark)
This Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner tells a story about morality and human nature seen through the eyes of two 12 year olds and the father of one of them. Anton is a Swedish doctor who works at a refugee camp in Sudan, where he has to frequently treat women who are victims of a sadistic warlord. His son, Elias, lives in Denmark and suffers from constant bullying at school, until a new boy arrives and helps him. The new boy Christian is a troubled child, he’s angry at his father because of the death of his mother. The two of them form a friendship that reaches vandalism.
The film poses morality questions such as when Anton must treat the sadistic warlord at his camp, in spite of the monstrosities he has committed. The three main characters must face the harshness of real life, the consequences of their own choices and learn the difference between weakness, compassion and civility.
Under the assured direction of Susanne Bier, these themes are well executed. The performances are all around superb. Because of the questions this film poses and the excellent job done by the cast and crew, this is truly one of the best films from this century.
24. Hero (英雄) (2002, China)
This Wuxia film was first released in China in 2002, but it wouldn’t come to the western world until 2004, thanks to Quentin Tarantino. The movie is set in ancient China during the warring state period. A nameless warrior arrives at the Qin castle and proceeds to tell the king the story about how he fought and defeated the legendary warriors Long Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword.
This martial arts film is nothing short of breath-taking. The action scenes are very skilfully choreographed and bring a lot of fun to the viewer. Zhang Yimou directs this film in a fashion that glues the eyes to the screen. The use of different colors for the account of every battle gives the film a nice artistic touch. The art direction is also very well made. At the end this may not be a film that deals with deep subjects, but it is a beautifully made film that certainly entertains.
23. Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) (2001, France)
This feel-good film was a critical and commercial success, earning top prizes at the European Film Awards and the César Awards and more than 150% its budget at the box office, and it remains today an audience favourite.
This is the story of Amélie Poulain, a young waitress in Paris who embarks in a quest to make others happy, finding love and happiness in the way. The cast of eccentric characters, the unbelievable events and the excellent art direction and cinematography make this film one of the most creative of this century.
The film is funny and charming, and is probably the film with the biggest heart on this list. Audrey Tatou carries the film. Her performance of the timid and insecure but good willed Amélie is great to see. But the film’s strength lies in its screenplay. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who also directed the film) and Guillaume Laurant created a funny and original world. This is a really beautiful film to watch, because of the art direction and the good feelings that it transmits.
22. Leviathan (Левиафан) (2014, Russia)
If Amélie is a film that shows what is good in life, Leviathan definitely shows the other side of the coin. This Russian drama directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev is a portrait of the sad truth of contemporary Russian middle class society.
It is the story about Kolya, a hot headed car mechanic, and how he tries to fight the corrupt mayor who tries to expropriate his land. To do this he recruits the help of his friend Dima, a lawyer from Moscow. The film proceeds to tell a series of events that turn sourer each time.
The film is loosely based on the biblical figure Job, who shares similarities with main character Kolya. It deals with themes such as corruption, religion, darkness of human nature and social critic. Zyvagintsev masterfully takes these themes and creates a tragedy charged with heavy feelings. The performances are all great and the cinematography of the breath-taking landscapes and oceans of the coastal town Teriberka is mesmerizing. This isn’t an easy-to-watch film, but it is certainly a great one.
21. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) (2009, Sweden)
This famous thriller based on the best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson of the same name is certainly one to remember. Just like the novel, it was a critical and commercial success. It is the story of Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist who recently fell out of grace. He is hired by an elderly millionaire to investigate the disappearance of his niece forty years before. To do this he enlists the brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander. Together they uncover dark family secrets and conspiracies that will keep the audience guessing throughout.
This is a very well executed thriller. Niels Arden Oplev’s direction surely delivers a faithful and worthy adaptation to Larsson’s novel. It may prove too violent for some viewers, but it is certainly a ride worth taking. The performances, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander especially, are top notch. The film has two sequels and an American remake. All three films are good, but nothing like the original. This is one of the most memorable films of this century.
20. The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motocicleta) (2004, Latin America)
The story about a young Ernesto “Ché” Guevara before he became the great revolutionary we all know. He travels with his friend Alberto Granado through Latin America on a motorcycle. In their journey, the young Ernesto faces the harsh realities a great portion of the continent lives and develops the ideologies that would turn him into the historical figure we know today.
The film was a co-production from many South American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru and Brazil (just as he would have liked it). It was directed by Brazilian director Walter Salles. The film serves as social critic against the conditions that many South Americans still face today.
Gael García Bernal does an excellent job in the main role: his concern for other human beings is real. The script is very well written as well: at first it has a youthful and even comedic tone, but as the film progresses it becomes more serious in the ideas it’s transmitting. Apart from the views you may have on Ché’s ideologies, this is a film that shows the reality of a whole continent and is definitely worthwhile.
19. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍) (2000, Taiwan)
The second wuxia film in this list. The film was surprisingly a commercial and critical success worldwide, grossing $213.5 million and winning multiple awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture.
The film takes place in the Qing Dynasty time period and tells the story of legendary warrior Li Mu Bai (masterfully portrayed by Chow Yun Fat) who is about to retire and gives his sword, Green Destiny, to his life-long friend and secret love Yu Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh) to deliver to their friend Sir Te as a gift. One night, a masked thief enters the estate and steals Green Destiny.
Many breath-taking martial arts sequences follow as they try to retrieve the sword and Li Mu Bai longs to avenge his master who died at the hands of Jade Fox, a skilled martial artist played by Cheng Pei-pei, who happens to be the master of the thief who stole the sword as well.
This is a film about revenge, redemption, destiny, love and making the right choices, and explores the dynamics of different master-student relationship in different stages. Ang Lee masters the themes he wants to portray with his characters and setting, mixing it with exciting action, creating a world very well designed.
The action scenes are incredibly choreographed and provide a lot of entertainment. The art direction, music and cinematography were deservingly awarded Oscars, and the costume design and editing were nominated as well. This is one of the few non-English-language films that was nominated for the top prize, Best Picture, at Oscar night.
18. Oldboy (올드보이) (2003, South Korea)
The next film on this list is the violent psychological thriller Oldboy directed by Park Chan-wook. It tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years for no apparent reason. Upon his release he decides to discover why he was imprisoned and take revenge on the man responsible. He discovers a web of conspiracy and secrets that will lead him to shocking discoveries. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a sushi chef who helps him in his quest.
This is one messed up film. The amount of violence and disturbing images make it no easy viewing, and the shock twist ending will leave many viewers confused and probably traumatized. Nonetheless, this is great filmmaking at its prime level.
It won Grand Prix at Cannes. Director Park Chan-wook is able to put together a complex story with interesting characters and balance it with great action scenes. The performances, especially Choi Min-sik in the main role, are excellent. Its themes of death, revenge and incest make the film play out as a Greek tragedy. It is an excellent film with one of the most unforgettable endings in movie history.