Best of the 2010s: Foreign Film of the Decade
What do we call this decade? The Tweenies? The Teens? The Onesies? Or simply The Tens? Whatever we call this decade, there is no denying it is coming to a close with this year. By year's end, you'll notice professional critics and bloggers looking back at the decade that was. But, being as how there's been over 2,000 films released this decade, doing a proper retrospective can be a bit daunting. Therefore, it is time for the return of my Best of the Decade series!
Every month I'm going to focus on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, will have a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.
This month our focus will turn to the Best Foreign Films of the Decade. Be sure to check out Episode 52 of The Movie Lovers, wherein we counted down our favorite foreign films of the decade.
It's important to note the obvious caveat - the decade isn't quite over, yet. We realize this, thank you. It's possible that something will come along during the course of the year that is a huge financial or critical hit and should be taken into consideration. It's possible, but we're not seeing anything on the horizon that is likely (admittedly, it is tough to tell with foreign films). If anything does come along it will surely be included in the 100 Best list at year's end.
Second, what qualifies for this list? Well, first it had to be produced in a non-English-speaking country and/or it had to primarily feature a foreign language. For example, Denis Villaneuve's Incendies was taken in consideration despite being Canadian, a largely English-speaking nation, because it was in French and took place largely in the Middle East. Second, a film had to have a theatrical release in the United States. Most of these were limited releases or releases only in New York City. Regardless, festival screenings did not qualify for this list. As such, release years reflect when the public had an opportunity to see the film in the United States. Streaming-exclusive releases were not considered, as usual.
As for this decade's foreign film, it was actually rather difficult compared to the last decade when there was a huge boom of foreign film and each year had at least one box office foreign language hit, starting with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and ending with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Korean cinema exploded last decade with only a few notables extending into this decade. Last decade I had seen over 30 foreign films with an additional 30 well-known films I've yet to see; it was much more daunting. As for this decade, a lot more research was necessary since not many foreign films became widely known or box office hits Stateside. I've seen around 30 foreign films this decade - half of which needed to be crammed for this piece after some research - with maybe a dozen I've still yet to see, most notably A Fantastic Woman, Shoplifters, Cold War, Wadjda, Poetry, In a Better World, and I Saw the Devil. So, if you think any of those are greater than what made the list then feel free to take the list with a grain of salt.
Without further ado...
The Raid: Redemption (2012)
While the last decade was full of foreign action hits, particularly from Asia - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; Ip Man; Kung Fu Hustle - that was not the case so much this decade. Enter Indonesia's The Raid: Redemption. This, along with its 2014 sequel, had enough action for the entire decade combined; we didn't need anything else. This movie is simply insane. Take the basic concept of Die Hard, change the skyscraper to a slum apartment building ruled by a ruthless drug lord, add a couple hundred residents and police officers and shake vigorously and you might have an idea that resembles The Raid. The action absolutely does not let up nor does the brutality. As far as foreign language spectacle goes nothing tops The Raid: Redemption. It is one of the decade's biggest surprises.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013)
A man and a woman - an atheist and a Christian - fall in love and start a family. Their daughter, unfortunately, is diagnosed with a serious illness that requires a lot of treatment. Can their love survive the challenges they face? This Belgian film is directed by Felix van Groeningen (last year's melodrama, Beautiful Boy) and stars Johan Heldenbergh (The Zookeeper's Wife) and Veerle Baetens (TV's The White Queen), who give powerful performances. It is a touching, heartbreaking story where we witness a dreamer slowly become cynical and wrecked by life. The film also features some wonderful and beautiful bluegrass music sung by the cast. It may be melodrama, but it is some of the finest, most effecting melodrama you'll find this decade.
The Hunt (2013)
A middle aged man lives alone. His teenage son lives with his ex-wife. He thinks he might have found love. He's also a daycare teacher and one of his students accuses him of exposing himself to her. Mads Mikkelsen (TV's Hannibal) plays the man. Thomas Vinterberg (Far from the Maddening Crowd) directs this story that is so simply told, yet will prompt so much discussion. It may cause the viewer to question their own biases and assumptions of the accused and the accuser in these kinds of situations. Unwittingly, in a time since its release when men are accused of salacious behavior regularly and have the burden of proving their innocence, The Hunt has become one of the most timely foreign films of the decade.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) adapts this story from the French graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh. It stars Adele Exarchopoulos (2016's Orphan) as a teen who falls in love with Lea Seydoux's (Spectre) blue-haired artist. What transpires over three hours is a story that is both sexually and emotionally raw. Adele is magnetic and carries the audience through this unusually lengthy story with ease, expressing naivete, curiosity, and a deep passion for Seydoux's Emma. By being directed by a male, one can't help but think to what extent the film about the love between two young women is limited in its perspective. But there is so much care and delicacy by Kechiche that everything works and makes for one of the most memorable foreign films of the decade.
We have sung the praises of Raw a few times, I think, on The Movie Lovers. Raw is pretty much 2017's foreign sensation - possibly the decade's only foreign sensation. It is Julia Ducournau's solo feature directorial debut and possibly one of the decade's best Triple F-Rated movies (written, directed, and stars women). It is about a teenager going off to a vet school, living away from home for the first time, and discovering who she is. This film touches on sexual discovery, sibling relationships, and how we try to rebel from our parents, but realize how much like them we truly are. It does so in such a unique and horrific way that it instantly became one of the decade's most unforgettable foreign films. Garance Marillier stars in the lead role and it's fascinating to see her evolve during the course of the film from quiet "fresh meat", so to speak, to confident and ravenous. This is her feature debut and she is very impressive here.
NOT Darren Aronofsky's bonkers 2017 film! Bong Joon-ho's mystery thriller starring Kim Hye-ja and Bin Won is remarkable. Won stars as a teenager who, due to an incident in the past, is a little slow and sometimes mixes up memories or struggles to communicate clearly. Hye-ja plays his hovering mother, who will pay more attention to what her son is doing than the flowers she is chopping (you can imagine this leads to a couple tense moments). Her son eventually gets accused of murdering a teenage girl and is arrested. She spends the rest of the film doing everything she can to prove his innocence. Kim Hye-ja is absolutely remarkable in this film. She always has a nervous energy about her, but within that manages to express desperation and unconditional, uncompromising maternal love. She will do anything to bring her son home and it causes us to ask what lengths would we go to prove our child's innocence. Mother is a twisty mystery with a shocking climax and a curious final scene - and is surprisingly funny at times. Like his Korean colleague Park Chan-wook, Bong would take an English-language detour (Snowpiercer, a more successful effort than Park's Stoker) this decade. But Mother may be his best work this decade and worthy of praise.
Abderrahmane Sissako's film set in Mauritania is one of the most eye-opening films for western eyes. We meet several characters in the title town and a family of cattle herders in the dunes outside the town. For those within the town, life is oppressed by Jihadists who ban laughter, music, soccer, cigarettes, and even outlaw unmarried men and women being in the same residence together after dark. Outside the town the family enjoys freedom from such oppression, however their simple life is turned upside down when a neighbor kills one of their cattle. Timbuktu is an extraordinary portrait of modern-day struggles outside our myopic western worldview. It is at times absolutely gorgeous (a long shot between the neighbor and the father across a thin body of water comes to mind) and at others difficult to watch. Characters speak occasionally in Arabic, French, and other Persian languages. But the struggles of an oppressed community are clear, as are our privileges in Western society.
A Separation (2011)
Director Asghar Farhadi has made a name for himself the past 15 years, but has gained increasing notoriety this past decade as one of Iranian cinema's leading voices. A Separation is arguably his best film this decade. After being denied formal divorce, a married couple attempt a separation caused by the wife (a luminous and extraordinary Leila Hatami) wanting work out of country. The husband (Payman Maadi) refuses to move with his wife and feels his responsibilities are to care-taking his senile father and being present for his teenage daughter. The situation requires hiring a caretaker for his father. One bad day leads to a series of misunderstandings and possible imprisonment for the husband. One of Farhadi's strengths is being able to tell a simple story within his home country of Iran - a nation with a difficult relationship with the American public - and make it universally relatable. A Separation is most effective at this, be it through a son's worry over the well-being of his elderly father or even a dad helping his daughter with homework. Farhadi's work should be required viewing for any western audience and gain just as much attention as any Hollywood dramatist. It shows that, no matter what nation we live in, we all have families and are deserving of dignity and empathy.
Two Days, One Night (2014)
This is my first film by the Dardenne Brothers. Judging from what I've read it looks like several of their films are about normal people going through financial hardships of some kind. Two Days, One Night follows suit. Its central conflict - a woman's job is up for a vote by her co-workers the following Monday and she spends the weekend trying to convince each one to vote to keep her job - is not life or death. But it may as well be. In a time when the world was recovering from financial ruin and our current economy requires many to work two jobs in order to afford the bills the stakes that Marion Cotillard's character is faced with are so high one can understand her initial pessimism and defeat and would also want to crawl into bed and hide from the world. This is the stuff of great drama. Something so small, so microcosmic as one weekend, one vote, one job can feel just as enormous as trying to change the world or win some legal battle, as in other dramas. To add another layer to the situation: a vote in her favor is a vote against bonus pay. So, it's not just one person who is struggling, everyone is. Does the majority vote to opt out of extra money that could pay for home repairs or mounting bills out of loyalty or empathy? Or do they vote to take care of themselves and their own, suggesting that feeling of responsibility does not extend to the person working shoulder-to-shoulder next to them? Marion Cotillard has been working since the early '90s, racking up over 80 films to her credit. Yet I feel it wasn't until this decade that she became a star with endless opportunities to be top-billed and front and center. She gave some good performances in Hollywood films by Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, and Woody Allen early this decade. But I feel her strongest performance is in Two Days, One Night (Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone is a close second). She carries the film, conveys the conflict and never feels like just a cypher for the Average Joe viewer; she invests herself fully into this woman and her struggle. Two Days, One Night is one of the most powerful dramas of the decade because it is about the struggles many of us have faced and are still going through this decade.
13 Assassins (2011)
I never would have imagined that this Takashi Miike film, which I named the best film of 2011, would be the best foreign film of the decade. Not that I thought it was undeserving. But sometimes you don't expect the best to come out so early in a decade. Takashi has directed over 60 feature-length films, yet I had only seen Audition before I discovered 13 Assassins - a last-minute discovery in 2011. But Audition, his most well-known film, was brutal and grim enough for me to keep at arm's length of his work. It wasn't a film as much as a traumatic experience, one that I'll never forget. With 13 Assassins, Takashi makes his version of an Akira Kurosawa film. It has its moments of brutality, chiefly in the first 30 minutes to establish the sadism of the film's villain (Goro Inagaki). But the comparisons to Kurosawa are otherwise impossible to avoid, particularly to Seven Samurai. A lord of pure evil is rising to power in feudal Japan and wishes to break years of peace and go to war. A samurai (Koji Yakusho) is hired to slaughter the lord. To do so he builds a team of ronin and develops a plan that leads to an epic 45-minute battle sequence that is one of the most impressive ever put to film. Nobody makes films like 13 Assassins anymore - the cast, the extras, the practical effects, the costumes, the weaponry, the set design, the sound design, all are elaborate and akin to a craftsmanship of a bygone era. Of all of the foreign films this decade there is no equal to 13 Assassins.
Rust and Bone (2012), Amour (2012), Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015), The Secret in Their Eyes (2010), Phoenix (2015).
Those are my picks for the best foreign films of the decade. What do you think are the best of the decade? Feel free to comment below or email.
Be sure to check out the previous entries in the Best of the 2010s series, Love Stories and Animation. Next time on the Best of the 2010s: Documentaries. Look for that in May.