17. A Prophet (Un Prophète) (2009, France)
Another Grand Prix winner and Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar nominee, this prison drama was directed by Jacques Audiard. This is the story of Malik, an Algerian young man who is sentenced to prison for attacking police officers. The place is divided in two regimes: the Muslims and the Corsica. Malik falls under the wing of the Corsican mafia after being used as instrument to murder a Muslim witness. This event plagues him throughout the film. He rises through the ranks of the prison world, becoming a big part in the Corsica organization, and eventually turning to the side of the Muslims.
This film was an immediate critical success upon its release. Aside from the aforementioned prizes, it won the César Award for Best Film, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language and was named the Film of the Year by the London Film Critics’ Circle. Themes such as guilt, religion and heritage are strong throughout. Tahar Rahim is excellent as Malik and Jacques Audiard’s direction creates an ultimate great end result. This is a very realistic prison film and an enthralling gangster film at the same time.
16. Ida (2013, Poland)
The winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. This is one beautiful and rare film. Anna is a young novice who is about to take her vows as a nun, but before doing this she must meet her aunt Wanda, her only surviving relative, who also happens to be a former communist fighter against the German occupation during the Holocaust. She tells Anna that her real name is Ida and that her parents were Jewish and were murdered during this time. The two of them embark on a road trip to find Ida’s parents grave and discover more about her and their past.
It is certainly one beautiful film to watch. Shot in black and white, the cinematography, showing the beauty of the polish landscape, was rightfully praised by critics throughout the world. The themes this film deals with are thought provoking, such as religion, faith, freedom and facing history.
Although not openly mentioned, the effects of both the Holocaust and Communism in Poland are prominent in the film. Both leads are excellent at their roles, Agata Trzebuchowska as the young and innocent Ida and Agata Kulesza as her experienced and nihilistic aunt Wanda. It won numerous important awards including the European Award for Best Film, the BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language and of course the Oscar.
15. Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la Novia) (2001, Argentina)
Juan José Camapanella directed this Argentinian comedy-drama film about Rafael, a middle aged man who shares join custody with his wife for his young daughter. He owns a restaurant and lies in basically every aspect of his life. His mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is institutionalized in a nursing home. One day Rafael suffers from a heart attack and starts revaluating his life. He decides to sell the restaurant with the idea of moving to Mexico. His ill mother wants to be married again, this time by the church, an idea which Rafael is reluctant to accept at first.
The film tells its story in a very witty and refreshing fashion. Although the topic of mid-life crisis is not new, the script, the performances and the entertainingly varied cast of characters make this film very fun to watch. Dealing with issues such as family and discovering what is really important in life, the film’s script is its high point. The dialogues, the cleverness of the situations and the characters were perfectly created by director Campanella and Fernando Castets.
The actors are too worth mentioning. Ricardo Darín puts in an excellent performance as always, and Héctor Alterio, Norma Aleandro and Eduardo Blanco are a delight to see as well. This is one of the wittiest films in recent history to come from a country full of witty films. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and won the Silver Condor (Argentinian Oscar).
14. Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle) (2013, France)
The controversial film about two lesbians won the Palm d’Or at Cannes two years ago. It tells the story of Adèle, a confused and introverted teenager who falls in love with Emma, a blue haired artist. Adèle comes to learn a lot more about herself as she begins to explore her sexuality and new found freedom. This film shocked audiences with its graphic sexual content, and with the rumours (later confirmed by the cast) about the conditions of shooting the film generated controversy.
The two main actresses have publicly stated that director Abdellatif Kechiche was hard on them, often shooting sex scenes several times to achieve perfection. However, they have acknowledged the man’s talent, and the end result was well worth the hard work. This is a film about finding oneself, about discovering what really lies under all the social norms and pressure.
Unlike other LGBT films, it does not focus on two homosexuals trying to live in a heterosexual world, but on the self-discovery that Adèle goes through. It is one of the best films on this topic in recent years. The performances from the lead actresses are great. Adèle Exarchopoulos is wonderful as the insecure Adèle and Léa Seydoux fits perfectly for the role of the experienced Emma. It won the top prize at Cannes and the jury not only awarded the director (like they are used to) but both main actresses as well.
13. Good Bye, Lenin! (2003, Germany)
Tackling subjects such as the fall of the Berlin wall, socialism and the inevitable influence of the western world, this was a very successful film when it was first released, being a commercial and critical success, and remaining one of the most beloved German films in recent years.
Alex is a young man living in the final years of the German Democratic Republic. His mother, Christiane, is one of the main supporters of the socialist party. In spite of this, he participates in anti-government demonstrations and, during one of these, is arrested, just in front of his mother. This causes her to fall into a coma. She stays in this condition for eight months, and during this time the Wall falls and the West begins flooding the East. When Christiane wakes up, Alex does everything in his power to prevent his mother from knowing about the impending dissolution of the GDR.
This was one of the first films to treat the subject of the Belin Wall nearly 15 years later, and does so in a very original and clever way. Alex’s attempts to maintain the illusion so his mother can have peaceful final days are truly heart-warming. It won the German Film Award and the European Film Award for Best Film.
12. Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004, Germany)
Known as the film that humanizes Hitler, this is another memorable German film on the list. It depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich as Berlin falls under Allied fire and important members of the National Socialism hide in the Führerbunker. We see how the impending defeat takes toll in Hitler’s psychology, as well as how it affects the many members hiding with him. The feeling of dread as if the end of the world had dawn upon them is masterfully created by director Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Hitler is shown as a human character, who was nice to his secretaries and played with his dog, but snapped out of fury at his commanders when an order was not followed. Bruno Ganz excellent portrayed the Führer. Many found this film negative because of its portrayal of several important Nazi figures, but that is one of the best aspects of the film. We can see that these were people too, with passions and fears, not as the monsters that history presents them to be.
The art direction and costume design are worth mentioning as well. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This is a film that shows the other side of WWII.
11. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) (2006, Spain, Mexico)
This dark fantasy Spanish-Mexican co-production is still today one of the most memorable films of the last decade. The story is set in the year 1944, three years after the Spanish Civil War and General Francisco Franco has taken power. Ofelia is a young girl whose mother is pregnant and has a new husband, Captain Vidal, who hunts down republican rebels.
With the aid of fairy, Ofelia finds a labyrinth, where she meets a Faun who tells her that she’s the reincarnation of the Princess of the Underworld, and that she must complete three tasks before the next full moon in order to achieve immortality. Ofelia’s adventures are very well entertaining, they treat themes such as overcoming obstacles, choice and even fascism. Sergi López makes Captain Vidal one of the most memorable villains in recent years because of his cold blooded nature and his iron fist attitude towards Ofelia and her mother.
The art direction, make up and costume design are wonderfully designed, and although the pioneering CGI special effects may seem a little dated today, they were great at their time. But its strength lies in its story, in the beautiful and sad fairy tale of a young girl in a hostile world looking to find her home. It won several awards, including three Academy Awards.
10. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (2008, Sweden)
During all the excitement for the forgettable teenage vampire Twilight Saga, mainstream audiences overlooked this little Swedish gem with a similar topic but a very different approach, but those who did see this movie remember it as one of the best horror films in this century. Oskar is a lonely 12- year-old who suffers from constant bullying at school and is fascinated by grisly murders and hunting knives.
One night he meets Eli, a seemingly innocent girl who moved in next door. She is secretly a blood-sucking vampire, responsible for many of the murders and disappearances that have been going on around town. The two of them form a close relationship and eventually fall in love, with Eli helping Oskar to stand up for himself. This is a film that combines the macabre, the suspenseful and the gore with love, friendship and coming-of-age.
Although the subject of vampires is hardly original, the way this film tackles it is completely new. The screenplay is excellently written, with great human characters and believable dialogues. It is based on an eponymous novel, which is well worth reading too. Tomas Alfredson directs this film very effectively, setting the perfect tone and mood. It was extremely well received by critics, winning several awards and running in different festivals, and was remade two years later for American audiences, and although it was a good remake, it was not as good as the original.
9. Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し) (2001, Japan)
This is probably the most successful Anime in history, both commercially and critically. The film is still remembered and loved by children and grown-ups alike. It tells the story of Chihiro, a ten year old who, along with her parents, stumble upon an abandoned theme park. As the night falls, her parents are turned into pigs for eating food they found at the park, and Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world full of strange creatures.
In order to convert her parents’ form back to normal and to be able to go back to the real world, Chihiro must work at a bathhouse under the cruel witch Yubaba, she meets a lot of interesting characters along the way. This is probably Hiyao Miyazaki’s most well-known work, at least for Western audiences, and is certainly one of his best.
The theme of the bathhouse may have eluded many viewers at first, but in recent years the premise has surfaces that in ancient Japan bathhouses such as the one in the film were usually prostitution houses. The film makes a statement against this. It is also critical towards Japanese society, with the members of the spirit world displaying greed, corruption and selfishness.
The film won basically every award for Best Animated Feature upon its release, as well as the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The screenplay is also a very strong point, with the cast full of crazy characters, better yet with the excellent animation. Because of this and the themes it touches, this is one of the best animated films of all times.