10 great foreign-language films of the decade so far

Past the decade’s halfway point, what are some of the best foreign-language films of the 2010s?

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu, 2014)

Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu, 2014)

Few would deny Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan a place at the top table of filmmakers in the world right now. His early breakthrough Uzak (2002) won the Cannes Grand Prix, and like its 2006 follow-up Climates, married a photographer’s eye for faces and landscape with an incisive portrait of a male psyche.

2011’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia also took the Cannes Grand Prix, and should be considered unlucky to have come up against Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for the Palme d’or. Set on the steppes of central Turkey during a long overnight police search for a buried man, and absolutely magical in its sense of a night passing over barren countryside, it represented a shift into a new intimate epic mode for Ceylan.

With his latest film, Winter Sleep, Ceylan finally bagged Cannes’ biggest prize, beating out competition from such heavyweights as Mr. Turner, Leviathan and Foxcatcher. The Istanbul-born director has once more chosen to set it in Anatolia, this time in the otherworldly landscapes of Cappadocia, where homes have been carved into windblown turrets of rock since the time of the early Christians. Retired actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) has set up a boutique hotel there, living with his wife and sister, and again Ceylan charts the passage of a night as family tensions percolate within the lamplit walls of the hotel.

A Palme d’or win will virtually guarantee a UK release for a film, whether it be from Turkey, Thailand or closer to home, and in compiling this list of other milestone foreign-language films of the decade so far we limited ourselves to films that have either been released here or have subsequently emerged on DVD.

World cinema is a very big oyster, and due to the vagaries of distribution UK audiences only see a very small fraction of it, but there’s little point in recommending films that are impossible to find. These 10 films from 10 different countries are all readily available here; each promises a truly transporting experience.

Tuesday, after Christmas (2010)

Director Radu Muntean

Tuesday, after Christmas (2010)

Tuesday, after Christmas (2010)

Radu Muntean’s scalding infidelity drama is the only film on this list not to have received a cinema release in the UK. It premiered at Cannes in 2010, but found no take up here until it was finally rescued for a DVD edition in 2012 by Second Run.

Mimi Brãnescu plays Paul, who lives in an affluent neighbourhood of Bucharest with his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), while holding down an affair with a younger woman (Maria Popistaşu), a dentist who’s treating his daughter. Paul knows the situation is unsustainable, but as Christmas nears his efforts to resolve it will send a riptide of pain and destruction through the lives of everyone involved.

Coolly directed by Muntean, Tuesday, after Christmas is the equal of the more famous films of the new Romanian cinema that preceded it (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007), as well as one of the most stinging dramatisations of the toxic effects of adultery in recent memory.

Poetry (2010)

Director Lee Chang-dong

Poetry (2010)

Poetry (2010)

On paper, Poetry sounds like a recipe for goo. It’s about a lonely grandmother, Mija (legendary Korean actor Yoon Jeong-hee), saddled with a delinquent grandson and suffering the early symptoms of Alzheimers, who enrols in a poetry course as an outlet for her undernourished creative side. She wants to be able to write one poem before her capacity for language escapes her altogether.

The British equivalent might star Judi Dench as a late-blooming watercolourist, and you’d probably be right to fear how that would turn out, but in director Lee Chang-dong’s hands, the sentimental setup transfigures into something much richer and stranger. The discovery of a dead teenage girl floating in a river leads back to her family, and even as Mija resiliently pursues her last chance at creativity, she is forced to shoulder one more burden: shame. The tone is both resigned and celebratory, offering a calm, melancholy and finally sublime portrait of the new artist as an old woman.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee raluek chat, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee raluek chat, 2010)

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (often known simply as ‘Joe’) had already amassed a sizeable critical cult by the turn of the decade, after a string of beguilingly off-the-wall treats including Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004) and Syndromes and a Century (2006).

Winning the top prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the wonderfully titled Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives brought Weerasethakul’s work to wider attention. It’s a ghost story about a middle-aged man with kidney trouble (the eponymous uncle) facing his final days at a house in the jungle, where he is visited by the spectres of his dead wife and son – the latter embodied as a Chewbacca-ish monkey spirit. Later, in the middle of the forest, there’s a bizarrely funny moment of sexual intercourse between a travelling princess and a talking catfish, before Uncle Boonmee himself takes off into the woods for one final commune with the material world.

It’s a slow, mystical, challenging film, but it oozes warmth and even happiness. If you submit to its intoxicating sounds and textures you may find yourself lulled into the strange, blissful raptures that only Joe at his hypnotic best can produce. The Financial Times film critic Nigel Andrews put it best when he wrote: “By the close you feel as if you have walked through the heart of a rainbow.”

A Separation (2011)

Director Asghar Farhadi

While Abbas Kiarostami moved into a new international phase, making Certified Copy (2010) in Tuscany and Like Someone in Love (2012) in Tokyo, fellow Iranian director Asghar Farhadi shot to prominence with A Separation, a riveting marital breakdown drama set in modern-day Tehran.

Farhadi’s film details the separation of middle-class couple Nader and Simin after a 14-year marriage. She wants to leave Iran with their daughter; he is committed to staying and caring for his ailing father. After tragedy, the drama wades deeper and deeper into a hornet’s nest of culpability and recrimination, but what’s remarkable is the emotional acuity and even-handedness with which the director treats his characters. There are lashings out and wrongdoings all round, yet we empathise with everyone in the story’s toxic orbit.

A Separation is a rare example of a serious-minded foreign-language film that pleased both the festival crowd (it received Berlin’s Golden Bear for best film) and the Hollywood mainstream (it became the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for best foreign film). UK distributors quickly released some of the Farhadi back catalogue – Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and About Elly (2009) – and we all discovered that Farhadi had been this good for a while.

Goodbye First Love (2011)

Director Mia Hansen-Løve

Goodbye First Love (2011)

Goodbye First Love (2011)

Mia Hansen-Løve followed acclaim for her 2009 drama The Father of My Children with a dip into semi-autobiographical territory for Un amour de jeunesse, titled Goodbye First Love in the UK.

It stars Lola Créton as Camille, who is 15 when the film begins in Paris in 1999 and in the midst of a passionate relationship with Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Hansen-Løve captures their affair at a moment of bliss during a holiday in the Ardèche, but with a dark cloud on the horizon: Sullivan is planning a year out in South America that will wrench the pair apart.

Their separation and inevitable cooling off has overpowering consequences for Camille, but afterwards Hansen-Løve’s film delicately charts the passing of time and a gradual process of healing and starting again. That passage is becoming a keynote of the director’s career, with her latest, Eden (2014), presenting the rise and gradual petering out of the French house music scene. But it’s at its most affecting here, in a film that treats first love – and its sustained after-tremors – with candour and seriousness.

Neighbouring Sounds (2012)

Director Kleber Mendonça Filho

A brilliant fiction debut from Brazilian film critic and documentarist Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighbouring Sounds is one of a number of recent films from Latin America to tackle the theme of the wealthy middle classes living in embalmed security in high rises and gated communities.

It’s a multi-character drama following various residents of a neighbourhood of Recife, where small acts of insurrection are beginning to disturb the placid surface of bourgeois civility. A dog is poisoned; a car broken into; occasionally, we see a barefooted boy from the favelas stealing into houses where he doesn’t belong. The community is steeped in an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia.

With its thrilling use of sound and the widescreen frame, Neighbouring Sounds premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012 and quickly generated buzz as one of the year’s must-see titles. It’s reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) or soap operas, but with a mounting unease that’s closer to the horror films of John Carpenter or one of J.G. Ballard’s parables of debauched modernity.

The Turin Horse (2012)

Director Béla Tarr

Sátántangó (2011)

Sátántangó (2011)

The Turin Horse premiered at Berlin in 2012 and director Béla Tarr let it be known that it would be his final film – no matter that the still very much alive director was a sprightly 56 at the time. The Village Voice called it “a death-haunted masterpiece”, and there’s an exhausted, morbid heaviness about it that could have been merely depressing had Tarr not fixed it all with his trademark eye for desolate beauty.

It begins with an anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche witnessing the flogging of a horse – an incident that led to the philosopher experiencing a breakdown. Then we’re careering across a barren plain with a horse and cart, Tarr bobbing his camera around and about the mare in a continuous take that immediately establishes a sense of dread and drudgery – a headlong canter to doom. In the 29 more bewitchingly slow and portentous shots that follow, Tarr tracks the end days of a man and his daughter in a remote cottage as they await an imminent apocalypse. The meek of heart beware: this is an elemental and oppressively downcast chronicle of the dying of the light.

Tabu (2012)

Director Miguel Gomes

Tabu was a toast of the Berlin Film Festival in 2012. Critics filed ecstatic reviews of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s two-part love story, which begins in modern-day Lisbon before an unexpected plunge into colonial-era east Africa.

It’s the story of Aurora, who we meet as a cantankerous octogenarian. Facing death, she asks her friends to track down an old acquaintance – a man she knew when she lived on a farm at the foot of Mount Tabu – and the film segues into an astonishingly beautiful account of her love affair in the heat and dust of her African youth.

This ‘Paradise Lost’/Paradise’ structure is a tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Pacific island romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), and the scenes on the savannah are shot like a silent movie: the voices are mute, but the atmospheric hum of insects and wildlife remains. It’s a yearning, magical evocation of loves lost and times passed, full of rhapsodic black-and-white imagery and shot through with Gomes’s eccentric wit and intelligence.

Ida (2013)

Director Pawel Pawlikowski

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)

The best reboot of the decade so far is surely Pawel Pawlikowski’s return to his native Poland to make Ida. Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) were great British films that benefitted from an outsider’s eye, but after his Paris-set drama The Woman in the Fifth (2011) he repaired to his homeland to hew this immaculate, monochrome jewel from a story about the country’s troubled historical past.

Orphaned during the Second World War, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice nun in 1960s Poland, on the brink of taking her vows. But first she is commanded to go back out into the world to meet her aunt, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking lawyer (Agata Kulesza) who is burdened by unanswered questions. Rather like in Tabu, this encounter is a key to the past, a chance for Anna to discover the secret of what happened to her parents and how that intersects with Poland’s own guilty secrets.

The personal and political, the past and the present, questions of faith and free will – somehow Pawlikowski draws them all seamlessly together, without an extraneous shot or one that fails to dazzle. It won best film at the London Film Festival, and it’s all done in 80 minutes.

Leviathan (2014)

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev

Leviathan (2014)

Leviathan (2014)

Andrey Zvyagintsev began the decade with Elena (2011), an intimate domestic drama that suggested a tightening in the work of the Russian director of weighty critical favourites The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007).

The Tarkovsky comparisons may be back with his latest film, which takes its title from Hobbes and its story from the Book of Job, but there’s a fierceness and specificity in this tale of political corruption in Putin’s Russia that anchors its gargantuan allegorical scope. Leviathan is set on the coast of the Barents Sea, where Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryakov) is being aggressively ousted from his home to make way for development by unscrupulous local mayor Vadim. It’s a battle of wits that shifts gears as a lawyer friend arrives from the big city to help Nikolay fight his cause, but Vadim – a brilliant portrait of petulant, gangsterish officialdom by actor Roman Madyanov – is a man accustomed to getting what he wants …

Leviathan’s widescreen grandeur and thematic gravity should not be off-putting: it also has a fine line in sardonic humour (notably in a target practise sequence at a picnic, complete with paintings of former Russian premiers) and, if you keep up with the amount of vodka downed during its duration, it could be the most ruinous drinking-game film since Withnail & I (1986).

Your suggestions

We asked you to vote for the films you thought we’d missed out from this list. And the winners are … 

The Great Beauty (2013)

The Great Beauty (2013)

  1. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
  2. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
  3. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)
  4. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
  5. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)
  6. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012)
  7. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
  8. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)
  9. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)
  10. I Wish (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2011)

Yes, The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s lavish, Fellini-esque tribute to Rome and one writer’s lifetime of parties, was the overwhelming favourite for our most glaring omission. Blue Is the Warmest Colour was the most popular of a swathe of French titles you named, coming in at number two, just ahead of Thomas Vinterberg’s wronged-man drama The Hunt.

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