25 underappreciated modern foreign language films
A list of world cinema productions you need to see - assuming you're not scared of a few subtitles...
It’s very hard for any subtitled film to break through in English speaking countries. In many ways you could argue that all foreign language films are underappreciated. Even the ones you assume that everyone must have heard of (Oldboy, The Raid, etc.) are often surprisingly ignored outside of film fan circles. But for every cross-over hit (meaning it’s getting a Hollywood remake) there are a ton of incredible films from around the world which charm and amaze a select few, and didn’t garner the wide-spread appreciation they undoubtedly deserve.
So without further ado, here are 25 underappreciated foreign language films from the last 10 years, 2004 – 2014.
I Saw the Devil (Korea, 2010)
This is the tale of revenge, murder, and how the lines between good and evil can blur so much you can no longer tell where one begins and the other ends – except that they both end in shocking violence. Master director Kim Jee-Woon crafted this stunningly executed tale of a psychopathic killer with no morals, who is relentlessly tracked by a cop with a personal vendetta, and no desire to see justice down by the letter of the law.
If you thought the Vengeance trilogy was the last word in this subject, then think again – I Saw the Devil turns revenge films inside out, and pushes the traditional cops and criminals genre into incredible new territory to boot. It’s a hard and brutal watch, but the violence always informs, and is never simply to titillate.
Incendies (Canada, 2010)
Described by one than one critic as a masterpiece, this offering from Quebecois cinema is fully deserving of the praise. Told partly in flashbacks, Incendies traces the life Nawal Marwan, an immigrant to Canada, who dies of a stroke leaving behind the mystery of her past. Her twin children travel to the Middle-East to unravel her secrets, while we as an audience discover the truth about how it is to survive in a country wracked by civil war, and in a culture utterly alien to us in the West.
Incendies is a film which will stay with you long after the end credits, as secret adoptions, assassinations, extremists, and brutal prison regimes all play their part. It also challenges the viewers to cast aside many of their assumptions about right and wrong, as well as questioning the doctrine of fate many of us believe in.
Dorm (Thailand, 2006)
Beautifully shot, designed, and acted, this chilling horror tale about a young boy sent to a creepy boarding school is as much about emotional nuance as it is about scaring the bejesus out of you. An almost spiritual cousin to the similarly themed The Devil’s Backbone, Dorm also plays with the intense sense of isolation and loneliness you experience as a child, cut off from family and forced to confront horrors far beyond your experience.
While incredibly atmospheric and suitably scary, there’s so much character work in this film it rises above beyond most tacky horror movies, and into the category of excellent films that demand to be seen.
Tell No One (France, 2006)
Years after a successful doctor’s wife is murdered, he receives an email from her, kick-starting an unstoppable chain of events that will leave the viewer bewildered and breathless. Based on an American novel by Harlen Coben, this is for my money the perfect example of how to not only craft a brilliant and tense mystery thriller, but also adapt and improve upon an already brilliant book.
It’s a film with big heart, and unstoppable adrenaline – once Dr Alexandre Beck is strongly implicated in a double homicide of which he has no knowledge the pace never relents, and the mystery of his wife’s murder only deepens. It’s engrossing, twisting, and ultimately incredibly satisfying, plus features in Dr Beck’s briard one of the most loveable canine sidekicks in decades. If you don’t believe me, just ask Michael Caine, who rates it in his top ten movies of all time…
Dead Snow (Norway, 2009)
As endless computer game modes have shown, who doesn’t love zombie Nazis? Or is that Nazi zombies? A mix of high-camp, every horror beat you can imagine, and a ludicrous amount of blood and gore, Dead Snow is nothing new, but that doesn’t stop it being a joyfully chaotic and often quite scary horror film, and one which sadly is never much regarded beyond its premise. For those who take the time to watch it though, you’ll be rewarded with a love letter to old school horror special effects, great action scenes, and some excellent kills.
Soul Boy (Kenya, 2010)
A perfect example of an engaging, inventive film which could have only been produced abroad, Soul Boy tells the story of a young slum boy from Nairobi and his quest to restore his father’s stolen soul. Produced, directed, and starring first time film-makers from the same Kibera slum it is set in, the film came about under the mentorship of German director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas) as a way of giving underprivileged Kenyans the skills to make cinema.
It taps into many Kenyan myths, but does so in a way that is incredibly inclusive for a wider audience. It’s a pulsating movie which never lets up as you follow young Abila on his quest to reconnect with his father, and explore his local environment. It’s a shame that it only gained limited release in the UK, as it’s simply brilliant.
Cargo (Switzerland, 2009)
I can’t say I’m aware of many Swiss sci-fi films, so that alone should make this sadly underrated 2009 effort worthy of further investigation. Luckily for those that do take the time though, you’ll discover a surprisingly thoughtful space thriller. Set in a future where Earth is abandoned, with the rich living on a new planet and the rest of us in orbiting space-stations, Cargo follows the journey of Dr. Laura Portmann, who is making the eight year journey to Rhea to meet her sister. What she finds instead is a terrorist threat, unexplained mysteries, and an apparent stowaway on-board. With hints of Event Horizon about it, Cargo instead focuses on what scientists term ‘space-craziness’, and poses intriguing questions about just what all that time up there will do to us.
Special Forces (France, 2011)
For those who think action cinema is the domain of Hollywood, with occasional guest appearances from Hong Kong, then I highly recommend you watch this recent French effort. With a cast which would be the envy of any English language production, Special Forces pits Diane Kruger’s crusading journalist against a brutal Afghan warlord, leading to her capture and the French government’s decision to send a special forces team led by Djimon Hounsou to rescue her.
What follows is nail-biting tension as the outmatched team desperately fight a rear-guard action across the inhospitable landscape in order to save their mission. Superb action, moving characterisation, and excellent performances mark Special Forces as a cut above the average war film, and a sign that French cinema can more than match Hollywood.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland, 2010)
Recently while away for Christmas, a guy asked a group of us if we wanted to watch a film. He then proceeded to tell us about this ‘amazing’ film he’d heard about featuring a killer/monster Santa. It was then that I knew Rare Exports was going to be a future cult classic. A pretty bat-shit mental Finnish folk tale, Rare Exports harks back to the darker roots of St Nick, and works as both a re-imagination and clever deconstruction of the Santa Claus myth that has children the world over leaving out drinks and snacks for Father Christmas, while also never questioning the reality of something visiting you down the chimney at night. A dark horror fantasy held together by a well played father-son dynamic, Rare Exports is just the sort of Christmas film we should all be enjoying.
Innocence (France, 2004)
Set in an isolated boarding school deep in a dense forest, with seemingly no way out, and arrivals via coffins, Innocence tackles the delicate subject of puberty and sexual awareness. The title says it all however; as just how innocent this film is lies in the perception of the viewer. The most controversial scene of naked girls in a lake is actually completely non-sexual – it’s the viewers own discomfort that adds a sinister overtone. Innocence is a feast for the eyes with its utterly captivating cinematography and unique use of colour as a narrative tool which it needs given the lack of actual plot or dialogue.
A fairy-tale like debut from Lucile Hadžihalilović (wife of Gaspar Noe), Innocence is haunting, lyrical, and deadly beautiful. It will lure you in with both its elegance and mystery, but most likely leave you a little baffled.
The Consequences of Love (Italy, 2004)
While critically admired by many, this film has still somehow fallen through the cracks so as to be unrecognised even by avid film-goers. Director Paolo Sorrentino, who has recently knocked on the door of the big leagues with his Sean Penn starring This Must Be the Place, and the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film winner The Great Beauty, crafted what can only be regarded as a masterpiece with this tale of a lonely businessman with a secret living in a hotel, who falls in love with a waitress.
As well as a brilliant script, the film is shot beautifully, super-stylishly edited, and filled with great performances, led by Toni Servillo’s lead role. But while the film is about the deadly business of love and crime, it never takes itself too seriously – intercutting what should be a stand-out moment of cinematic cool with a perfectly judged piece of slapstick.
Paradise Now (Palestine, 2005)
A film about two Palestinian men preparing for a suicide attack on Israel was never going to be the easiest watch, but Paradise Now paints its conflict in shades of grey so deep that you come out of the experience richer for the human story, rather than the political one.
Much like Chris Morris’ brilliant Four Lions, Paradise Now lets you into the minds of the men who feel driven to not only give their own life for the cause, but take others along with them too. What drives them to do it, and what bonds of friendship exist between Said and Khaled that would make them go through with it, and/or potentially decide it is not worth the cost? A brave film, Paradise Now remains as insightful about the conflict as it was when it was released.
20th Century Boys (Japan, 2008)
While technically a trilogy, the DVD release of this absolutely bonkers Manga adaptation complied the three films into one release, so I’m putting it here as a slightly cheaty single entry. Set in a dystopian future, 20th Century Boys charts the attempts by a group of school-friends to avert a cataclysmic future they apparently wrote about in their own childhood, and which has now led a mysterious cult leader named Friend to try and take over the world. With a central mystery over the identity of this Friend, plus side stories involving paranormal powers and flying saucers, this live-action Manga is over-the-top, mega-budgeted, and glorious. But quite, quite insane.
The Counterfeiters (Germany/Austria, 2007)
In any other circumstances, there’s no way this film should ever be considered underappreciated. An Oscar winner, critically acclaimed (and fully deserving of all that to boot), it sadly remains a film unknown to far too many people. Telling the true story of concentration camp survivor and master forger, Saloman ‘Sallie’ Sorowitsch, it details the largest counterfeiting operation in history – the Nazi’s crackpot scheme to flood the UK and US with counterfeit bills and destabilise the economy.
As well as a cracking war story, the film pulls at the emotional heart-strings in unique ways not usually found in other concentration camp films. These prisoners live a life of relative luxury, and so their actions are not forced to be noble by oppression, but by choice. Should they help the Nazis, or attempt to hinder them? And what is to be gained or lost by their choice?
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec (France, 2010)
Luc Besson’s inventive and mad-cap take on the Jaques Tardi comic series is the type of film that leaves you with a huge smile on your face, and a renewed love of adventure cinema. Starring Louise Bourgoin as the eponymous heroine, the film takes in ancient mummies, dinosaurs, telepathy, and a withered Mathieu Almaric, once again on villainous duties.
It certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s no denying that this is an adaptation that lifts off. It’s the perfect marriage of comic book and old school pulp adventures, bringing to life both of them in the confines of a modern day blockbuster. Ignored pretty much everywhere apart from France, this deserves your attention.
Dogtooth (Greece, 2009)
Perverse, bewitching and challenging, Dogtooth is not for the faint of heart. Telling the story of a mother and father who raise their three children behind closed walls, and teaching them to believe in a fantasy world of their devising, it is a film which both comments and revels in some truly disturbing behaviour. Incest, homeschooling, the power of parenting and violence as a means of control, Dogtooth tackles a varied and interesting number of topics. Yet all of it is shot with such simplicity that you quickly lose yourself in the film, engrossed at all the weirdness.
Persepolis (France/USA, 2007)
Based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is perhaps the most literal and perfect adaptation of source material to screen there has ever been. Using the same simple, yet incredibly effective, animation style as the comic, the film charts the semi-autobiographical story of a young Satrapi as she longs to take part in a revolution against the corrupt Shah of Iran, only to watch in horror as the uprising is taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. It’s a shocking tale, but often hilarious and full of the innocence of youth. Designed not so much as a story about Iran, but a story about how any country can end up like it, Persepolis is deceptively hard-hitting.
2 Rabbits (Brazil, 2012)
Proof that this deserves to have been seen by a wider audience? An American film company are already doing a remake. While the new version may be a great film in its own right (hmmm), it will have to be one of the best films of recent years in order to top this Brazilian modern classic. A take on a Brazilian crime and cultural tension, but funnelled through the filter of pop culture, Tarantino, and Hollywood style explosions and effects, what makes 2 Rabbits so enjoyable isn’t the movies it apes, but the freshness it brings with it. The script and direction from debut filmmaker Afonso Poyart is top notch, and marks his as a talent to watch. Try and keep up through all the double-crosses and plot-twists, and you’ll be rewarded with a distinctly Latin take on a crime epic.
They Came Back (France, 2004)
Otherwise known as Les Revenants, aka The Returned. While its television drama off-shoot quite rightly garnered a ton of acclaim and bewilderment (possibly in equal measure) the original film it was based on is still a mystery to many people. Set on a much larger scale than the intimate series, They Came Back features hundreds of thousands of returned/zombies suddenly appearing one day. All have died in the last ten years, and all have a longing to resume their interrupted lives, which the French government try to help them with, whether or not their loves one want them too. With the same sense of regret and sadness that permeates the series, They Came Back is a thoroughly thoughtful take on a zombie invasion, and may or may not hold some clues as to where The Returned is going.
Haze (Japan, 2005)
If you think 2010’s Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried was tense, then quite simply you ain’t seen nothing yet. Running for a nail-biting 49 minutes (there is a 25 min version for those who are simply too busy) this Japanese horror opens with our protagonist waking up in a sealed concrete space, with no way out. Then he notices he is bleeding to death from a stomach wound. What unfurls is literally the stuff of nightmares, both his and yours, as at every turn of his concrete prison he uncovers a new horrifying vision. What is real and what it false is hard to distinguish, and the film uses its limited run-time to advantage, never feeling like it once has to back off and let the story breathe.
Lebanon (Israel, 2009)
Another film set entirely in an enclosed space, this time the action revolves around a tank crew fighting in the controversial 1982 Lebanon War. With a rookie crew and a pressured situation, the deterioration of both their psyches and the tank itself results in a film which highlights both the unbearable tension and tedium of war. The quarrels, equipment failures, and conflicting orders all lend to the claustrophobia, and the film is a well drawn portrayal of the people behind the often faceless soldiers, put in increasingly difficult situations over which they have little control, despite being the ones in the heavy weaponry.
The Grandmaster (Hong-Kong/China, 2013)
Despite being world cinema legend Wong Kar Wai’s highest grossing film of all time, you can be forgiven for never even hearing about this if you’re from the UK. Not even given a release over here, this biography of Ip Man, better known as the legendary fighter who trained Bruce Lee, is an elegant 1930s set action drama. Full of some of the most gorgeous martial arts sequences ever committed to film, this is kung fu in the hands of a visual artist. Ip Man is brought to life by the ever enthralling Tony Leung, but it is Zhang Ziyi as his on/off opponent and friend Gong Er who is the real star of the show, and also most likely the real Grandmaster of the title. A must for fans of both Wong Kar Wai and kung fu, this has recently come onto US Netflix, for those who know how to access that sort of thing.
A Town Called Panic (Belgium/Luxembourg/France, 2009)
A totally random and gleeful stop-motion film about a cowboy, an Indian, and a horse who share a house, accidentally order 50 million bricks, and journey to the centre of the earth. To be honest, the plot is the most incidental thing in this lovingly animated adventure, as instead you’ll be swept away by the gorgeous visuals, and utter joy of the nonsense proceedings. For those of you who think film can no longer be original, then I highly recommend you look here.
A Separation (2011, Iran)
Once again, I’d argue that an Oscar win and numerous other critical notices haven’t been enough to make this register on most people's film radars (if it has for you, then I salute you). This is a huge shame, as A Separation may just be a contender for a film of the decade. It follows the heartbreaking story of a married couple who after 14 years decide to divorce – wife Simin no longer wants to remain in Iran, while husband Nader wants to stay and care for his Alzheimer suffering father. What follows is a fraught and compelling study of family conflict, love each parent has for their daughter, the drama of involving another in caring for your family, all wrapped in a mystery too. A great insight into the social and religious divisions in Iran, never has a film said so much with so little.
Flame and Citron (Denmark, 2008)
Based on the true events surrounding two operatives of the Danish resistance (the titular Flame and Citron), this is World War Two adventure as you rarely seen it – from the point of view of the oppressed countries. While it’s all good to see daring RAF aces defend Britain, it’s quite another to watch tense scenes of agents sabotaging enemy buildings literally on their own doorstop.
With incredible lead performances from Mads Mikklesen and Thure Lindhart, the film crafts a genuine friendship between these two men, one impulsive freedom fighter, the other a buttoned up family man. Each pours out their repressed emotions into their doomed work, and each is eaten away by the oppression and danger of living with the Nazi’s day in day out. With action scenes to punctuate the emotional drama, Flame and Citron is an incredible insight into a forgotten part of the war.
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