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The 25 Best Non-English Language Films of The 21st Century

07 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Camilo Caballero

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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We have to take into account the great output to come out from Europe, where film was originally made, from Latin America, a place where the Film Industry is finding solid ground to stand on lately, and Asia, whose films may not be too accessible for western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)

In a Better World

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)

Hero

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)

Amélie

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)

Leviathan

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)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

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)

motorcycle-diaries-still

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)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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)

oldboy pic

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.

 

 

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  • Rachel Helena

    Admittedly I haven’t seen all of these (I’ve seen about half), but you forgot The Intouchables! A true 5 star film, completely unmissable and unforgettable: check it out if you get a chance 🙂

    • Vincenzo Politi

      Yes, it is a beautiful movie indeed.

    • cheermaster

      @changetip:disqus great movie choices! anything Wong Kar Wai is worth watching in my opinion @rachelhelena:disqus

      • Rachel Helena

        I will check it out! Thanks!

  • Ozz Wald

    The Chaser – Hong-jin Na – South Korea 2009
    The Hunt – Thomas Vinterberg – Denmark 2012
    The Piano Teacher – Michael Haneke – France 2001
    Love Exposure – Shion Sono – Japan 2008
    Memories of Murder – Joon-ho Bong – S. Korea 2003

    And so many others I cant recall right now

  • Maximo Cunillera

    It’s a great list
    to me need some kim ki duk.

  • Bùi Phương Anh

    there’s no Departures (Okuribito) – Japan 2008 ? huge mistake. That movie is one of the best movie of 2000s.

  • Peter J. King

    “The Fox Family”, The Happiness of the Katakuris”?

  • Deweb

    Not a bad list, but some honourable mentions should be:
    – L’illusionist
    – As it is in Heaven
    – Kopps
    – The triplets of Belleville
    – L’hombre du train / The man on the train
    – 13 tzametzi (the original, not the remake, which was interesting but not so intense)
    – The Lunchbox
    – Intouchables
    – The memory of a Killer/ De Zaak Alzheimer
    – 36 Quai des Orfévres
    – L’immortel
    – Lek (Dutch titel, no English titel known to me)
    – Van God Los / Godforsaken
    – Bollywood Hero (Dutch movie)
    And (of course) a lot more 😉 .

    • Vincenzo Politi

      Yes, yes, YES! The Lunchbox!!!! 🙂

    • Aditya Akhauri

      WOW! I never thought someone would mention Lunchbox here! Thank you 🙂 Any other Indian films you guys have seen and liked?

      • Stephus

        Anywhere anytime, I hate luv stories (a lot of cliches but I like this movie a lot) monsoon wedding, bahubaali, actually anywhere anytime should be on the list

      • Deweb

        Not that I can remember. Any tips?

  • Romanö Hāchë

    No Almodóvar and Wong Kar Wai?

  • x x

    City of God is a bit lifeless, in terms of believable characters.

    Spirited Away somewhat a slog, because its weird for weird’s sake, I find Princess Mononoke a much better film.

    You nailed the number 1.

    • gustavomda

      Why aren’t the City of God characters believable?

      • Peneloco

        But that is your opinion. City of God has a great character development and spirited away is simply a master piece of an anime movie. But then again, this is my opinion

      • x x

        because they behave like rapid monkeys, betraying, hurting and killing their friends on every turn.

  • marcel

    It’s hard to pick 25 when there’s more than that.For example City of God was a good movie but people keep mentioning only this one. Did you know about Last Stop 174? Also Daglicht has only few reviews, none on this site.

    So let me shoot some more for those who seek:
    Last Stop 174 (as I said before)
    Daglicht
    Vallanzasca
    2 Coelhos
    Bullhead
    Celda 211
    Carandiru
    JCVD (yes really 🙂
    Marshland
    Die Welle
    Cronicas
    Stander
    Sleep Tight
    Karaula
    Amigos (2011, Marcos Cabotá)
    Eight Miles High
    Pajaros de Papel
    Finsterworld

    Hav fun watching…

  • geeq
  • John Moth

    “No man’s Land” (Ničija Zemlja) – highly recommended for anyone who appreciates a war drama made by people who actually experienced it (there’s a bit of black humor in it though not everyone will catch it).
    It’s not local patriotism on my part (I’m a Croat), however it carries more weight if you lived through it.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0283509/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

  • Andre Troesch

    Decent list, but too many French and German films for my for my taste.

  • Andre Troesch

    All of these are Great films

    Infernal Affairs (2002)
    Kill Zone (2005)
    Wait ‘Til You’re Older (2005)
    Ip Man (2008)
    Oseam (2003)
    The Raid: Redemption (2012)
    A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
    Together (2002)
    Uzumaki (2000)
    High Kick Girl (2009)
    Ju-on: The Grudge (2003)
    2 Young (2005)
    Battle Royale (2000)
    Breaking News (2004)
    Dark Water (2002)
    Happy Times (2000)
    In the Mood for Love (2000)
    Inner Senses (2002)
    Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000)
    Long Dream (2000)
    Millennium Actress (2001)
    The Missing Gun (2002)
    New Police Story (2004)
    Nobody Knows (2004)
    One Missed Call (2003)
    Seven Swords (2005)
    Spider Forest (2004)
    A World Without Thieves (2004)
    Yi Yi (2000)

    • HLLH

      Too many Asian films for my taste.

      • Andre Troesch

        Maybe, but numbers 19 & 6 on the list are both also from 2000

  • teb

    It’s probably the first list that i’ve ever seen that features great south-american movies. I can see that you know what you’re talking about, so I encourage you to watch more south-american movies, they are a lot better than what you think.
    Good job.

    • glebsky

      Can you recommend some more? Perhaps less big-budget Oscar-bait and more artistically ambitious stuff… I liked the City of God, but Che was quite cliched leftist hagiography.

      • Claudio

        Central Station ( Central do Brasil) – Walter Salles
        Nine Queens ( Nueve Reinas) – Fabian Bielinsky

        The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) – Daniel Ribeiro
        Speaker Phone (Viva Voz) – Paulo Morelli
        Burnt Money (Plata quemada) – Marcelo Piñeyro

        Ashes of Paradise (Cinzas do Paraíso) – Marcelo PiñeyroAnd Your Mother Too (Y tu mamá también) – Alfonso Cuaron
        The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) – Guillermo Del Toro
        Foreign Land ( Terra Estrangeira) – Walter Salles
        Me You Them ( Eu Tu Eles) – Andrucha Waddington
        The Clown ( O Palhaço) – Selton Mello
        Brainstorm (O Bicho de Sete Cabeças) – Laís Bodansky
        The Ballroom (Chega de Saudade) – Laís Bodansky

        A Dog’s Will (O Auto da Compadecida) – Guel Arraes
        Muitos Homens Num Só – Mini Kerti

      • Claudio

        Lisbela and the Prisoner (Lisbela e o Prisioneiro) – Guel Arraes
        To the Left of the Father (Lavoura Arcaica ) – Luiz Fernando Carvalho
        An Extremely Nutty Teacher (Uma Professora Muito Maluquinha) – André Alves Pinto and Cesar Rodrigues
        Estomach: A Gastronomic Story (Estômago) – Marcos Jorge
        The Man Who Copied (O Homem Que Copiava) – Jorge Furtado

  • Maximo Cunillera

    jajajajajajaj

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Not a very good list. First of all – there is no Romanian movies. At list 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days should be here. No Gegen die wand, which is surely one of few masterpieces of this century. No Dardennes (Le fills should be here, at least): No Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, come on). No Holy Motors, no Turin Horse….

    • Makis Gevros

      could you suggest me some romanian movies??

      • Dimitrije Stojanovic

        Sure 🙂
        4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days
        Death of Mr. Lazarescu
        A fost sau n-a fost?
        Police adjective
        Pozitia copilului
        Behind the hills
        Comoara

        • brujua

          I have only seen “Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, didnt like it at all, was a pain, i think maybe i should stay away from romanian realistics films

  • KittyP

    Nothing from Wim Wenders? Far Away So Close is a classic, and Kieslowski snubbed too? The Three Colors Trilogy, at least Blue deserves recognition. Almodovar is missing as well 🙁 I think they need to expand this list!

    • Matt Langdon

      All those movies you listed are good but they were released in the 1990’s. The list is only 21st century movies.

    • Dave

      I agree on Three Colors, but Far Away So Close is an embarrassment to the main source

  • KittyP

    I must add a thank you to all the commenters for the great suggestions to add to my “watch list”

  • aas

    y tu mama también, mexico
    hable con ella, espana
    in the mood for love, china
    the taste of the others, france

    • Rachel Helena

      Y Tu Mama También is a great film!

  • aas

    un jour, deux nuits, france

  • Camilo Caballero

    Many of the films mentioned in the comments were considered but at the end only 25 films made the cut, and yes, admittedly there are a lot of films from world cinema I still have to check out. Thanks fo the suggestions 🙂

    • HLLH

      Amores Perros is from “Mexcio”?

  • Mauro de Martino

    La stanza del figlio – Nanni Moretti
    L’ora di religione – Marco Bellocchio
    Centochiodi – Ermanno Olmi
    I cento passi – Marco Tullio Giordana
    Oasis – Lee Chang-dong

  • Leopold Stotch

    “At the end this may not be a film that deals with deep subject”
    I lol so hard at this. If there is one film on this list, that goes deep philosophically is the HERO!

  • Pingback: the best non English speaking movie | nguyenxuanduc94()

  • HLLH

    I don’t know why English speakers are too lazy when it comes to subtitles.

    ps, I didn’t know “Mexcio” was a country.

  • Hatesville

    *La Grande Bellezza

  • Emmanouil Zifos

    Holy. Motors.

  • KPÖ

    Thank you so much for that list!
    I definately want to watsch most of them right away, the descriptions started a fire inside me, the cinemaniac..

  • randomrandom

    The Hunt is also great.

  • Miro M

    Great list

  • Miro M

    Missing a few but hey we can not see all the movies

  • Andrew Trump

    If “Let the Right One In” was based upon an “eponymous” novel, then that novel should have been called Eli. “Eponymous” doesn’t mean the same name, it means named after a person. I really liked Rust and Bone.

  • myself

    “Funny games” -Austria “Babam ve oglum” -Turkey “No man’s land” -Slovenia

  • this bear is tops blooby

    Here are a few that haven’t been mentioned:

    Last Life in the Universe
    Three Times
    Suzhou River
    Lust, Caution
    Infernal Affairs II
    A Bittersweet Life
    3-Iron
    Exiled
    Election
    Election 2
    Black Coal, Thin Ice
    The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
    The Place Promised in Our Early Days

  • Nancy Hall

    People make movies in the Middle East, too. There were no Iranian films on the list…A Separation, Taxi, Shirin, Baran, etc. Afghanistan’s Osama was released in the 21st Century.

  • glebsky

    So this list is basically ripped from imdb top 250. How boring.

    • glebsky

      But to be constructive, I’ll add some personal favorites that come to mind (in my opinion way better than the ones listed, and less oriented toward Hollywood/Academy standard):

      Taxidermia

      The Hunt (Jagten)

      Cache

      The Man without a Past

      Turin Horse

      Holy Motors

      Autumn Ball

      The Return (Vozvrashchenie)

      Turtles can Fly

      Revanche

      2046

      Short Stories (Rasskazy)

      Stiliyagi

      Mommy

      Waltz with Bashir

  • Richard Haywood

    i think movies from england should be on this list since they are very different from american films.

  • Abhishek

    woah!, you have included ida and not tangerines.

  • Arshad Khan

    The hunt ???

  • Wes Hac

    white god

  • Akshay Shetty

    Being an Indian with the largest film industry in the world producing 2000 films per year in 25 different languages while grossing $8 Billion in revenue in 2015 alone gives the author 30000 films to choose from in 15 years.A few entries that i would recommend out of the languages i know are:-
    1)Black Friday(Hindi)-2004
    2)Shwaas(Marathi)-2004
    3)Maqbool(Hindi)-2003
    4)Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and Lage Raho Munnabhai(2006)-Hindi
    5)Hazaaron Khaahishein Aisi(2003)-Hindi
    6)Harishchandrachi Factory(Marathi)-2009
    7)Shala(Marathi)-2011
    8)Vihir(Marathi)-2010
    9)Court(Marathi)-2015
    10)Ship Of Theseus(2012)-Multilingual,Mostly English
    11)Deool(Marathi)-2011
    12)3 Idiots(Hindi)-2009

    • Aditya Akhauri

      I think you are missing the best films here – Lunchbox, GoW, Dev-D, Udaan, Lootera, Aligarh, Shahid etc.

  • How about…
    Dogtooth (2009, Greece)
    The Return (2003, Russia)
    Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003, South Korea)
    No Man’s Land (2001, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
    Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, Mexico)
    Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Hungary)
    Talk To Her (2002, Spain)
    Moolaade (2004, Senegal)
    Tropical Malady (2004, Thailand)
    The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005, Romania)
    Holy Motors (2012, France)

  • Brandon Thompson

    No Pedro Almodovar, Bong Joon-Ho, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Pahani and Wong Kar Wai are disappointing exclusions.

    Individual movies that should be here include We Are the Best!, And Your Mother Too and others that aren’t coming to mind.

  • Stephus

    Many good movies!! Leviathan is predictable and turns dull near the half I’d took it out. Rusalka should have been on the list!!

    • Stephus

      i forgot to mention suburra, and, Gomorrah!! I’d add machuca, anywhere anytime, Victoria, and the Belier family

  • Frank

    ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA

  • Susie Cue

    C.R.A.Z.Y. Xavier Dolan

  • Cameron Bigelow

    Wait… How did Holy Motors not make this list?

  • Ariel Malagoli

    Latnin America is not a country. The Motorcycle Diaries movie belongs to Argentina. Argentina is a country like the United States. It is located in America. America is one continent. Yes, the same where is located the United States.

  • Karthik Ramakrishnan

    As Mentioned Many Movies are Misssing, Some to Recollect are

    1. Mesrine (Part 1 & 2) – France

    2. Elite Squad (Part 1 & 2) – Brasil

    3. Ali Zaoua – philippines

    4. Ballad of a Soldier – Russian Movie

    5. Gangs of Wasseypur – Indian movie

    6.No Man’s Land – Bosnia & Serbia

    7. Where is the friends Home – Iran

    8. A Seperation – Iran (Seriously, It’s not their ?)

    9. Children of Heaven – Iran

    10. Hey Ram – India

    And How about Considering the Films of Few Masters in World Cinema

    1. VITTORIO DE SICA – ITALY

    2. FREDRICO FELLINI – ITALY

    3. ANDREI TARKOVSKY – RUSSIA

    4. AKIRA KUROSAWA – JAPAN

    5. SATYAJIT RAY – INDIA

    6. KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI – POLAND

    7. KIM KI DUK – KOREA

    8. INGMAR BERGMAN – SWEDEN

    9. ROMAN POLANSKI – POLAND

    10. FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT & JEAN LUC GODARD – FRANCE