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The Top Ten Foreign Language Films of the Aughts

By Drew Morton | Guides | December 31, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Guides | December 31, 2009 |

When Dustin “Cinnamon” Rowles assigned me to produce a canon of the top ten foreign language films of the aughts, I felt incredibly intimidated. When Dustin assured me that I was the critic for the job, as I had probably seen the most foreign films out of the entire staff, my anxiety only deepened. I admit that I watch a lot of foreign language flicks, thanks to Netflix, the American Cinematheque’s wonderful programming, and owning a region-free DVD player. However, when I spoke to my cinema and media studies classmates and colleagues, I quickly began to realize that I had still missed a torrent of films that could have made this list (Caché, Downfall, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Maria Full of Grace, and Werckmeister Harmonies to name a few). Moreover, to consolidate all the films I had seen over the past decade from all the non-English speaking countries around the world was, frankly, a far more difficult task than ranking my fifteen favorite English language films for our forthcoming list of the top ten films of the aughts.

That said, what follows is indeed a ranking and a canon but I would like to note a few disclaimers before presenting it. First, it is a subjective list as it was based only on films I have seen (unlike the main event, which was compiled from a ballot) and, obviously, I have missed a lot of films. Secondly, some films not found on this list (Let the Right One In for example) may be found on another of our genre lists. In the interest of diversity, we tried not to overlap on the genre lists. Finally, this canon should be viewed as somewhat fluid, given my personal blind spots and the difficulty of reflecting on these films with a critical distance ranging from a few months to ten years. And now, written in its entirety and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions, I proudly present…

The Top Ten Foreign Language Films of the Aughts

10. The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008, France)

I had the pleasure of seeing The Beaches of Agnès with its director, Agnès Varda, sitting a few rows behind me at the American Cinematheque. For those of you unfamiliar with Varda, she stands, along with Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, as one of the key left bank filmmakers of the French New Wave. One of her most popular films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962), features cameos by such New Wave icons as Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine, and Jean-Claude Brialy. What differentiates the left bank from filmmakers such as Godard and François Truffaut, according to critic Richard Roud, is that the left bank often exhibits a less of a cinephilia than the right bank crew, preferring an interaction with literature and other art forms. Varda, a photographer who became a filmmaker, often infuses a documentary style into her fiction films and herself into her documentary films (see The Gleaners and I for instance). The Beaches of Agnès is a chronicle of her life and career, covering her work during the New Wave, her marriage to director Jacques Demy, and her work for art installations and museums. If the joy of The Five Obstructions is to be found in the risks Lith is forced to take in the spur of the creative moment, the joy of The Beaches of Agnès is in its humble reflections on the risks that one of the great directors has taken throughout her long, eclectic career.

9. The Five Obstructions (De Fem Benspænd, 2003, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France)

Upon reflection, I think the only Lars von Trier film I’ve ever seen is The Five Obstructions, a documentary “co-directed” with von Trier’s friend and filmmaking mentor Jørgen Leth. The film is a chronicle of the joys and difficulties of filmmaking, as von Trier forces Leth to remake his short film The Perfect Human (1967) five times over, each time with a different filmmaking obstacle. For instance, for the first obstruction, von Trier demands that Leth not hold a single shot for more than 12 frames (half a second). Later in the film, Leth and von Trier confess to one another a dislike of cartoons, which inspires the sadistic von Trier to make the fourth obstruction animation. At each obstruction, Leth is faced with a difficult challenge and a harsh critic. Yet, the joy of the film is watching a talented filmmaker make use of an opportunity to step outside the pocket and take a risk.

8. Che (AKA: Che Part I: The Argentine and Che Part II: Guerrilla, 2008, Spain/France)

Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio del Toro) is probably the most controversial pick on this list. First, when I informed a colleague that I was thinking about placing it on the list, he quipped, “How can you call it a foreign film when it’s directed by Soderbergh?” My response to that objection would be the following: the landscape of film production, distribution, and exhibition has nearly always been an international phenomenon. As you might have noticed by now, many of the films on this list are the products of international co-production with regard to financing. In fact, the entire top five were co-produced. Moreover, co-productions often involve a cross-over of talent. Thus, to brand a film as not being foreign because its director is American is an odd objection in my opinion. In any case, what I appreciate about Soderbergh’s film(s) is his approach to re-enacting the life of an icon. Soderbergh does not allow us to get carried away by the acts (both good and terrible) of a figure who has become a best selling t-shirt. Instead, Soderbergh uses his critical distance to make us focus on the everyday aspects of being a revolutionary: traversing the landscape with the symptoms of asthma, planning attacks, educating the soldiers. We never get caught up in the victory of the Cuban revolution (which we never even see) and Soderbergh does not overlook Che’s objectionable actions. The Che we’re presented with is almost like a specimen under a microscope, re-enacting the theory and method of revolution before our very eyes.

7. Russian Ark (2002, Russia)

Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman all attempted to break the filmic constraints of time and space that are ultimately faced with the violent reality of the cut. Hitchcock, during production on Rope (1948), choreographed the action in order to construct a feature-length film entirely out of ten shots, with some venturing around the ten minute mark. In Touch of Evil (1958), Welles began his film with a continuous three and a half minute tracking shot across the U.S./Mexican border before having to make a splice. Altman, in homage to Hitchcock and Welles, began The Player (1992) with a nearly eight minute-long take. Why do I mention this history of the long-take? Because Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov was able to utilize a digital steadi-cam to construct a 96-minute film out of a single shot. The shot is used by Sokurov to give us a dream-like tour through Russian history in the Winter Palace. My lack of knowledge of Russian history may have left me at a slight disadvantage when I originally saw this film upon release. However, its aesthetic accomplishments have sealed its legacy in my humble opinion.

6. Talk to Her (Hable con Ella, 2002, Spain)

Pedro Almodóvar’s beautifully photographed tale of love and loss between Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a travel writer visiting his comatose matador girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) and Benigno (Javier Cmara), a personal nurse and caregiver who falls in love with one of his comatose patients, Alicia (Leonor Watling). As Pajiba critic Jeremy C. Fox noted in his guide to Almodóvar, Talk to Her is also memorable for its multitude of aesthetic influences: “Combining elements of modern dance and silent filmmaking with a narrative that feels almost 19th century in its embrace of coincidence and fate, Almodóvar plots the course of four people thrown together by unimaginably bad luck, only two of them conscious.”

5. Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001, France/Germany)

I fell in love with Audrey Tautou in 2001 . As a senior in high school at the time, it was the first time I ever felt both an physical attraction and an overall adoration for an actress based on her character alone. The cinema often invites us to fall in love with members of the opposite sex because of their physical beauty. While Tautou is very much a beautiful woman, her portrayal of Amélie as a hopeless romantic and endless dreamer were the ideal characteristics I wanted to find in a woman (and later found, thanks Nicole!). Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s aesthetically beautiful, often hilarious romantic comedy also pushed me to learn the French language and served as an excellent introduction to French cinema culture. Obviously, it is a film I hold dear to my heart.

4. Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Faunto, 2006, Mexico/Spain)

Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-infused treatment of the Spanish Civil War divided the audience I saw it with. Yet, del Toro’s adult approach to a Grimm (and grim) fairy tale about a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who escapes the atrocities of war and the haunting figure of her stepfather, the murderous Captain Vidal (Sergi López i Ayats) via books and her imagination greatly impressed me with its macabre imagery (Doug Jones’s Pale Man, for instance), performances, and powerful story.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon, 2007, France/U.S.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of biographical films. I dislike the emphasis on acting as imitation rather than imagination, the white-washing of real life events to portray the protagonist as fallible but lovable (see Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind for the most grievous offenses), and they often lack any sort of interesting approach to film form, focusing on the traditional rise and fall of a significant figure. Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly broke nearly all those trends, which is why I respect it so deeply. The film follows Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), former editor of “Elle,” who suffers from a stroke and awakes to find himself afflicted with “locked in syndrome.” Essentially, his brain is still alive and completely functional but he is completely paralyzed except for his left eye. Schnabel uses film form, particularly the use of the camera as Bauby’s point-of-view, as an attempt to place the audience in his position while never allowing us to forget that he is a flawed person.

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2. In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa, 2000, Hong Kong/U.S.)

Wong Kar-Wai is one of the most sensual directors working today and In the Mood for Love, his tale of forbidden love in 1960s Hong Kong, is no exception. When two neighbors, Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) discover that their spouses are having an affair together, they form a friendship in which they fight not to be drawn into the same temptation that their mates fell pray to. Kar-Wai accentuates the passion with his infamous use of slow motion, production design, and a beautiful collage of musical sources (including Spanish language recordings by Nat King Cole and a heartbreaking score by Shigeru Umebayashi).

1. City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002, Brazil/France)

Fernando Meirelles and Ktia Lund’s City of God, a chronicle of Brazilian gang life from the 1960s to 1980s, rivals Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) when it comes to an aesthetically enhanced, pop music-spewing, and no-pulled-punches look at the dark side of the criminal underworld. The film follows Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man with aspirations to be a photojournalist. Yet, he constantly finds himself resisting the magnetic pull of the homicidal Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino) and the lovable Bené (Phellipe Haagensen) into a corrupt life. City of God stands as the cinematic equivalent of The Wire; heartbreaking and morally deep.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.