Foreign language films in 2016 offered stories as diverse as the countries which they originated. Some of these unique films include a horror story from Iran, a comedy from Germany, and a story coinciding with the turbulent political atmosphere in Brazil.
The year included two films from arguably the greatest actress of her generation Isabelle Huppert, and films from acclaimed directors like Pedro Almodovar, Chan-wook Park, and Asghar Farhadi. The following is a list of 15 of the best foreign language films of the year.
15. Divines (France)
Director Houda Benyamina released her debut feature film Divines in 2016, and cast her younger sister, Oulaya Amamra in the lead role. Oulaya stars as Dounia, a teenager living in a banlieue outside of France, with few viable options available to her in life. She and her friend Maimouna hustle and shoplift to make a living, dreaming for more for themselves.
Dounia also attends vocational school, but eventually drops out, disenchanted with the prospect of working as an administrative assistance for a living. Refusing to be a victim of her circumstances, Dounia meets the neighborhood drug dealer Rebecca, and soon begins working under her tutelage.
Oulaya is a revelation in her performance as Dounia, reflecting her character’s ambition and vision to shape her own future. Outside of the film’s story, Divines is especially relevant in providing insight into the circumstances surrounding immigrant communities in Europe today. Divines was nominated for Best Film at the 2017 Cesar Awards, and Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards. Divines is available for streaming on Netflix.
14. Neruda (Chile)
Director Pablo Larrain may best be known for his 2016 film Jackie, however a second film which he directed was also released in 2016, the Chilean film Neruda. The film tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning Poet Pablo Neruda, and his attempt to escape arrest from the ruling Chilean party.
Neruda, a senator for the Chilean Communist Party, is being hunted down after criticizing the president in a speech. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Oscar Peluchonneau, a fictional detective tasked by the Chilean president to find and arrest Neruda. Peluchonneau is many ways haunted by Nerdu’s mystic, seeing himself as the supporting actor in his quest.
Pablo Larrain tells this story with a flair, invoking rich colors and unique characters. Some of the best scenes in the film are towards the end as the hunt for Neruda moves to the snow-capped Andes Mountains. Neruda was nominated for the best foreign language film at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards.
13. Under the Shadow (UK-Iran)
Under the Shadow is the debut feature film by Iranian-born director Babak Anvari. Anvari lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and the film takes place during this era, reflecting the trauma and anxiety of war. The film tells the story of Dorsa and Shideh, a mother and daughter living in their Tehran apartment during the war.
Dorsa the daughter believes that a Djinn, a supernatural creature in Islamic mythology, is haunting the building. She has good reason to believe this as well; sounds of moans, knocking, and apartment rattling pervades throughout the film. Things start disappearing around the house, and a ceiling crack caused by an undetonated missile is getting bigger and bigger. Soon the mother will experience her own unexplainable events in the house, and the presence of the entity can no longer be denied.
Under the Shadow is a different kind of horror film, not only due to the country which it is based in, but also from the undertones of feminism which permeate throughout the film. Available for streaming on Netflix, Under the Shadow is one of the most unique films of 2016.
12. Julieta (Spain)
Oscar winning director Pedro Almodovar returned in 2016 with his 20th feature film Julieta. Almodovar, known for his self-described “cinema of women” is one of the great directors in the history of cinema when it comes to telling stories driven by female characters. These characters are usually mysterious, passionate, and leave memorable impressions long after the film has ended. His films are lush in visual, many times over-the-top in plot, and express a vibrancy of Spanish culture like no other film maker.
Examples of some of these wonderful films include The Skin I Live In, Broken Embraces, Volver, Talk to Her (which he won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), All About My Mother, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Julieta can also be added among his great works, as Almodovar returns with a new story centered on women.
Emma Suarez stars as Julieta, a woman who has a chance encounter with a friend of her daughter one day on the street. Julieta has not seen her daughter in over a decade, and the encounter floods back memories which will soon be told on screen. These memories will span several decades back to when Julieta first meets her Xoan, who will become the father of her daughter, and an incident that leads to the absence of her daughter from her life.
Julieta was listed as one of the top 5 Foreign Language Films of 2016 by the National Board of Review, and nominated for the Palme d’OR at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 BAFTA Awards.
11. I, Olga Hepnarova (Czech Republic)
Directed by Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinreb, I, Olga Hepnarova tells the true story of a young Czechoslovakian woman who in 1973 murdered eight people in Prague. Shot in black and white, the film shows the mental and emotional breakdown of the socially awkward Olga, as she is bullied by classmates, abused at home, and frustrated with her sexuality.
The film is shot in a matter-of-fact style, giving an authenticity to the subject matter, rather than seeking sympathy for the protagonist. Olga eventually drives a truck into a crowd of people waiting for a bus, committing her murderous act.
In her letter mailed to newspapers shortly before her truck attack, Olga said: “I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people… I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to pay back my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.” Olga would go on to become the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia, and the film provides a final haunting scene of her end.
10. Sand Storm (Israel)
2016’s Sand Storm is the feature film debut by Israeli director Elite Zexer. Elite uses her debut to tell an empowering story of women from a Bedouin village in southern Israel. The film centers around two women, Layla and her mother Jalila. Acting newcomer Lamis Ammar stars as Layla, an 18-year old university student trying to keep her love affair a secret. Her mother Jalila meanwhile is having to accept the marriage between her husband and his second wife, a woman much younger that her.
This is a village of customs and traditions where women are expected to be dutiful, including the acceptance of arranged marriages. Despite the bleak circumstances that surround the film, Zexer provides her viewers with hope for the future before the film comes to a close.
Sand Storm won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Drama at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Sand Storm is now available for streaming on Netflix.
9. Land of Mine (Denmark)
Many times films set during World War II often fall into cliché storylines. Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine however tells a previously untold story. Set shortly after Germany’s surrender, the film tells the story of German POW’s that were used to clear land mines previously planted by Nazis troops off of the Danish coastline. These German POW’s are largely comprised of young teenagers, and a least half will end up losing their lives in the process.
The teens are managed by a Danish sergeant who despises the Nazis, but eventually comes to appreciate the sacrifice the young boys are making. “I wanted to explore what happens to a person who loves his country as a patriot and feels a right to hate his enemy, but is put in charge of a task that conflicts with the values he thought he possessed and that his own nation represented” Zandvliet says. Land of Mine was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards.
8. Things to Come (France)
Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert won several awards in 2016 for her performance in the film Elle, however that was not her only exceptional performance for the year. Directed by Mia Hansen-Love and starring Isabelle Huppert; Things to Come is a film which did not receive as much recognition during the year as others, but is as good as any other foreign language film of the year.
Huppert plays Nathalie, a middle-aged woman weaving her way through unexpected events in her life. The character of Nathalie was inspired by Hansen-Love’s own mother, and Huppert plays her with an understated emotion and dignity. “Couldn’t keep it a secret?” is Nathalie’s reply as her husband tells her that he has been seeing another woman.
Rather than responding with cliché, Nathalie, a philosophy teacher continues further “I’m lucky to be fulfilled intellectually”. But soon even her own class textbook series will be in jeopardy, her mother’s health is deteriorating, and there is an emptiness which she cannot avoid.
Huppert is at the top of her game in Things to Come, proving worthy of the heaps of praise she has received recently as one of the best (if not the best) actress alive; and with this master actress Hansen-Love has made her best film to date.