It is quite clear that mainstream cinema no longer applies just to Hollywood blockbusters, or the odd British comedy. With the advent of mass home cinema in the last decade, and the increasing availability of pretty much anything and everything on DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming services like Netflix, world cinema has finally crossed the divide of being the preserve of the connoisseur, or the type of thing you’d stumble on late at night on TV.
In the last ten years, world cinema has made a massive impact on film-of-the-year lists, and many people’s personal favourites. Starting from 2002 and ending here in 2012, it’s safe to say that you’ll have seen many of the films below, and enjoyed them simply as great pieces of filmmaking, regardless of where they came from.
If, however, you are in any doubt of the utter brilliance of world cinema, then take your time to read the list below, and pick a few to watch that interest you. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
50. TrollHunter (Norway, 2010)
The anti-Hollywood blockbuster. One of the latest and, for my money, superior entries in the found footage genre, TrollHunter manages to be exciting, fantastical, dramatic and humorous all at the same time. Weirdly grounded in a tight version of reality, the film whisks you along an incredible journey, taking in some of the best parts of Scandinavian myth and legend while updating it for the 21st century. It’s one of the most enjoyable films I think you could have the pleasure of watching, so catch it now before the inevitable Hollywood remake due in the next few years…
49. Kung Fu Hustle (China, 2004)
A riotous homage to the classic Hong Kong action cinema of the 1970s, and the biggest ever earner in Hong Kong until a few months ago, Kung Fu Hustle is without a doubt one of the funniest, most entertaining, and energetic movies of recent years. Writer, director, producer and lead actor Stephen Chow proved he was worthy of the praise bestowed upon Shaolin Soccer with this follow-up, a 1940s set tale of a young man desperate to join the infamous Axe gang of Shanghai and accidentally setting up a war between them and the retired kung fu masters of Pig Sty Alley.
Referencing numerous kung fun take, books and films, this live-action cartoon is an absolute blast from start to finish and so in love with its subject matter you can’t help but be charmed. And then kung fu someone in the head.
48. Lilya 4 Ever (Sweden, 2002)
Lukas Moodysson’s earlier film Show Me Love was one of the most uplifting and heart-warming stories I’ve ever seen, which just made this sucker-punch of a movie even more devastating. Lilya is a teenage girl in the former Soviet Union who is abandoned by her mother and forced into prostitution, eventually ending up in Sweden.
Exploring themes which Stieg Larsson would also draw attention to in his Millennium trilogy, the processes of human trafficking and sex slavery are shown in brutal detail. It’s a bleak film, and necessarily so–cinema cannot always be sweetness and light, and important issues need to be shown and drawn attention to, especially in such a well made way as this.
47. Casshern (Japan, 2004)
Ignore the plot of this Japanese film, because it’s not going to make much sense-–a bio-engineered legendary hero returns to fight the robots of a totalitarian government–and concentrate instead on its visuals. This is as close as you’ll come to seeing a live-action manga, and it is glorious.
One of the very first films shot entirely on a digital back-lot (along with Sin City and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow), Casshern easily the best-looking and most arresting of the three, with its neo-fascist baddies and dystopian sci-fi landscape constantly engaging the eye. It apparently takes influences from Hamlet and Russian avant-garde cinema, which helps explain why it’s so utterly bonkers.
46. Innocence (France, 2004)
Lucile Hadzihalilovic may live in the professional shadow of husband Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) but she certainly deserves recognition for this brave directing debut. Innocence follows the lives of the girls who attend an isolated boarding school deep in a dense forest, with seemingly no way in or out. This enchanting, menacing setting is littered with nods to fairytales (lantern-lit paths, red hoods, underground tunnels) as the girls negotiate their eerie, prison-like world.
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.
45. The Edukators (Germany/Austria, 2004)
Peter, his girlfriend Jule and best friend Jan are young Berlin anti-capitalists who start a campaign to “educate” the upper-class. They do this by breaking into their houses, creating sculptures with their belongings, and leaving notes that read “die fetten Jahre sind vorbei” (the days of plenty are over) or “Sie haben zu viel Geld” (you have too much money). After breaking into the property of a wealthy business man who then returns and discovers the group, they find themselves with an accidental hostage out in the Alps.
This claustrophobic, high-tension setting is where the film develops a tender slant, as a blossoming romance between Jule and Jan threatens the dynamic of the trio. The Edukators isn’t to be mistaken for anti-capitalist propaganda – the political persuasion of the protagonists is purely a narrative tool to allow a sincere depiction of the idealism of youth and the thoughtful exploration of love and friendship; and the delicate nature of both.
44. The Dreamers (France/Italy/UK, 2003)
Has a film ever been so aptly named? It describes not only the main trio of the film, two siblings and their American friend, but also the audience’s state of mind after spending time immersed in the film. Featuring a break-out turn from Eva Green, and a role for Michael Pitt as the young man who becomes hopelessly involved in the lives of a brother and sister.
Pitt’s turn proved that he was far more than ‘that guy from Dawson’s Creek’, and The Dreamers is a highly sexualised love-letter to filmmaking (particularly New Wave cinema), friendship, and the loss of innocence. It’s a film which you’ll find yourself thinking about again and again, and become hopelessly enchanted by.
43. Russian Ark (Russia, 2002)
Hmm, so a two-hour film which trails around various rooms in a museum wouldn’t, at first glance, belong on everyone’s must watch list, but like a lot of world cinema, there’s so much more than meets the eye to Russian Ark. In fact, Russian Ark is one of, if not the most innovative film on this list. The reason for this is its groundbreaking use of digital camerawork – the entire film is one long unbroken tracking shot that floats though not only the museum itself, but through the different periods of Russian history it houses or has played a part in.
Learning has never been as absorbing or as good looking, and the actual, involving a nobleman searching for answers, is truly engaging, and means Russian Ark is never just a technical curio.
42. Maria Full Of Grace (Colombia, 2004)
The tagline reads ‘Based on a 1000 true stories’, and sadly, I believe it. Made for less money than a packet of biscuits, and from the incredibly talented writer/director/everything else Joshua Marston, this is the story of a pregnant Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule in order to raise money for her impoverished family. Tracing her journey from Bogota to New York, the emphasis is always, wisely, on the characters, and what each decision really means.
Nothing is glamourised in what I can only imagine is a painfully real depiction of life in Colombia, yet neither does it revel in the misery and seediness of the situation. It’s a compelling story honestly told, and incredibly moving. It’s exactly what great cinema should always be, and why Maria Full Of Grace sits on this list.
41. Lust/Caution (Taiwan, 2007)
How do you follow up a critically acclaimed and groundbreaking Hollywood drama? Well, if you’re Ang Lee and just made Brokeback Mountain, you turn away from the mainstream and make a Taiwanese film about the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. A sexual thriller about espionage, collaborators and the nature of love and obsession, Lust/Caution is incredibly gripping, stylish, and moving.
Watching it made my chest feel uncomfortably tight at times, and in Tony Leung’s masterful performance as Mr Yee, a high-ranking collaborator, you have what may be one of the most complex and nuanced villains in cinema history. Lust/Caution is an exquisite treat that rewards the senses.
40. Dogtooth (Greece, 2009)
Perhaps one of the most surreal and shocking films of recent years, Dogtooth is nothing short of cinematic brilliance. Telling the weird and terrifying story of three children kept away from the world by their parents, and forced into various acts of submission, it is not for the faint of heart, but is incredibly rewarding if you take the plunge. Each bizarre and unique situation that unfolds (including hammer attacks, cat mutilation and sexual blackmail) only serves to drag the viewer further into its crazy world.
You won’t be able to take your eyes off it, and it helps that Dogtooth is pretty great to look at, too, with a mass of elegant compositions and downright odd framings all jumbled together. It is not for nothing that director Yorogos Lanthimos has been compared to Lars von Trier, and this film hailed by the Greek government as a success for the country.
39. Chico & Rita (Spain, 2010)
A true delight this one–an animated film set in 40s and 50s Havana, it is ostensibly a love story between the title’s protagonists. Chico is a talented jazz pianist, while Rita is a beautiful singer. The stylish animation, charm of the main story and jazz-infused Havana atmosphere would be enough on its own, but the film also throws in an intriguing and well told look at the era’s pre- and post-Cuban revolution. Chico & Ritais an utter joy from start to finish, a riotous blast of music, colour and passion.
38. 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (Romania, 2007)
Set in the final years of Communist Romania, this is a gripping and compelling tale about two friends arranging an illegal abortion, and the consequences that lead from this choice. As well as an examination of repression in society, it is also a truly moving film about friendship, and a confident high point for a new national cinema.
The film establishes its serious tone with a restrained, naturalistic aesthetic, and immediately forces the viewer to pay attention. The extremes the two women must undergo for what is considered a human right in Western democracies really does make us reflect on how fortunate we are over here.
37. Switchblade Romance/High Tension (France, 2003)
One of the most controversial and extreme films in this top 50, Switchblade Romance (or High Tension to our US readers) is a gory horror involving a couple and family’s attempt to survive a brutal onslaught from a serial killer. As its American title suggests, the film is a master class in ramping up tension, leaving the viewer with heart palpitations, chewed nails and an overwhelming desire to check behind every door.
It’s surely one of the most terrifying films you can watch on a dark and lonely night, probably after midnight… It’s also garnered more than its fair share of criticism for its gratuitous violence and depictions of same sex relationships, so watch it and see where you stand in the debate.
36. The Holy Girl (Argentina, 2004)
This is one of those films you might watch without expecting too much, but then find yourself thinking about it more and more in the days that follow. Almost a re-telling of Nabokov’s Lolita, it concerns a cat and mouse game between Argentinean small-town girl Helena, and her mission to ‘save’ the married Dr Jano, who seemingly can’t help himself around her. Produced by the titan of world cinema that is Pedro Almodovar, The Holy Girl is exquisitely shot, directed and acted, with the entire film packing a subtle punch which proves the old adage that less is more
35. Tell No One (France, 2006)
Based on the acclaimed Harlan Coben novel, the first intriguing thing is that this is a French adaptation of that book, rather than a Hollywood one, which considering the material, the latter would seem like a more obvious choice. Watching the film, however, you quickly become glad the US studios left it well alone, as Tell No One is a superb mystery thriller, and a perfect adaptation.
Years after a paediatrician’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. Multi-faceted and totally and utterly compelling, this is one of the finest thrillers made in the last ten years, and teaches the rest of the world how the genre should really be approached.
34. [REC] (Spain, 2007)
Forget the rubbish Quarantine US remake, this is the original and best. My favourite found-footage film of them all, it is a balls-to-the-wall terrifying zombie action horror film, with so many great scares in it that it genuinely had my friend trying to climb out of the window to escape it. From the initial, almost dull set-up of a TV crew filming a fireman, to the mounting sense of dread at the fate of a Barcelona building’s occupants, and then to the frights and weirdness of the rest of the film, [REC] is an utter scream – both literally and figuratively.
33. The Consequences Of Love (Italy, 2004)
From the second The Consequences Of Love opens, with its critically acclaimed sequence of a bright white hotel corridor, the film establishes itself as one of the most stylish examples of cinematography in the noughties. Titta Di Girolamo is a middle-aged loner who has spent eight years living in a chic Swiss hotel. The audience is quickly made familiar with his monotonous daily routine of sitting alone and silent at the hotel bar, solving puzzles in the newspaper.
As he begins to fall for Sofia, a beautiful and much younger hotel barmaid, the reasons for his isolated existence are slowly revealed. The Consequences Of Love keeps you straining in your seat and holding your breath until the ending, which all I can say involves wet concrete and will leave you in a cold sweat for hours after.
32. Etre Et Avoir (France, 2002)
Telling the story of a year in the life of a small rural village school, Etre Et Avoir documents the trials and tribulations of its teacher Georges Lopez, as he teaches an entire school of mixed age pupils. Both heart-warming and (pardon the pun) educational, the film demonstrates the power that teaching, and the right teacher, can have on young minds, and how inspirational it can be.
However, the film itself is not without controversy, as Lopez unsuccessfully tried to sue the filmmakers, claiming that they had exploited both him and the children without his permission, once again opening up the debate between the reality and artifice of documentary making.
31. Night Watch (Russia, 2004)
Foreign language cinema doesn’t always have to involve small-scale personal drama. In fact, it doesn’t get more epic than this bona-fide apocalyptic Russian blockbuster, which pitches the forces of good and evil against each other in an eternal battle. The concept is excellent, with pretty much every supernatural creature on one side or the other; the action spectacular, and in Konstantin Khabenskiy’s weary hero Anton, the characters iconic.
Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov’s direction verges on the outrageous at times – particularly in a scene that tracks the descent of a screw from a plane at several thousand feet all the way down to a cup of coffee. Always entertaining, Night Watch took on Hollywood at its own game and easily matched it.
30. Irreversible (France, 2002)
If there’s one thing that foreign language films have always been good for in the English speaking press, it’s whipping up controversy. And Irreversible might just be the most controversial film of them all. Told in a reverse non-linear narrative, Gaspar Noé’s film deals with an attempted revenge attack following a brutal rape.
Famous (or infamous) for its very long, on-screen assault, as suffered by Monica Bellucci’s character, it is actually a very clever film that deals with the consequences of violence, and what drives people to commit senseless acts. And weirdly, due to its non-linear narrative, it has kind of a happy ending…
29. Howl’s Moving Castle (Japan, 2004)
It would take something pretty special to get the legendary Japanese animator and head of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki to come out of retirement, especially after the global success of his masterpiece Spirited Away. That something special was Howl’s Moving Castle, an adaptation of Dianne Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel. Taking the basic plot of the book, in which a young girl is transformed into an old woman by a witch and forced to work for the terrible wizard Howl, it adds many Miyazaki twists including flying battleships, a steam-punk design ethic, and the pacifist leanings of most Ghibli films.
While some may argue that it fails to live up to the majestic Spirited Away, I would disagree, and get them to watch the moment where Howl first takes flight again; truly hairs on the back of your neck stuff. Add to this the most gorgeous animation of possibly any film ever made, and you have another Ghibli classic.
28. The Orphanage (Spain, 2007)
Creepy kids in masks, spooky old buildings, ghostly goings on, and some truly brilliant scares, both physically and psychologically. The Orphanage is one of the best horror films of the last decade, with the film staying with you long after you’ve turned it off. Taking what could have been a clichéd and cheesy concept and making it work perfectly, the real horror isn’t in the jumps, nor in the iconic sack mask, but in the sadness of what really happened after a child disappears. It makes my spine tingle just thinking about it. Beautifully shot and directed, The Orphanage is a real modern classic.
27. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (France, 2005)
A rare case of a foreign language remake of an English language film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking that stays with you long after, and genuinely leaves an impression. Thomas is torn between two worlds, following in his father’s footsteps as an enforcer for criminals, or his mother’s as a concert pianist. Thomas’s desire to follow his dreams leads to an explosive encounter between the two, in which Thomas must decide his true nature. It’s an intriguing thriller, marked out by some virtuoso performances and a real energy, which makes you question some of your own life decisions. Not that I’m either a criminal or pianist, mind…
26. TimeCrimes (Spain, 2007)
I bloody love this film, Den of Geek loves this film, and you should love this film. It is not only one of the finest world cinema films of the last ten years, but also one of the finest genre films ever. A man sees something in binoculars, man investigates, man falls into time machine, and man tries to fix mess he makes with ever-worsening ramifications.
Taking a well-worked time travel concept and coming incredibly close to making it actually make sense, TimeCrimes also has the decency to throw in some damn good scares in there too, as well as making one hell of an iconic villain. Or is that hero? But then he went back and did that thing, which led to that other thing, but didn’t he need to do that first… My head hurts.
25. Devdas (India, 2002)
One of the strengths of Bollywood and the Indian film industry in general is the sheer number of films it produces, making it the largest film industry in the world. However, it is this volume that also hinders it, meaning that a film has to be something pretty special in order to stand out. Luckily, Devdas is more than a bit special. The most expensive Indian film ever made at the time, it is based on the famous 1917 novel of the same name, and involves lost love, betrayal, addiction and family politics, as well as a good deal of heartache.
What really sets it apart, though, is the sheer quality of its production, from the set design to the songs and choreography to the performances. If you thought Bollywood was silly and cheesy, then think again; this is a movie which could teach any other film industry a thing or two. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing any Bollywood films, then I highly recommend you start here.
24. At Five In The Afternoon (Iran, 2003)
Iranian cinema has been one of the most ambitious and interesting cinemas of recent times. With a repressive government and international sanctions to struggle against, the filmmaking talent has consistently outdone itself time and time again, and none more so than the Makhmalbaf family. This effort by daughter Samira was the first film shot in Afghanistan after the NATO invasion, and tells the tale of a young woman trying to gain an education in a post-Taliban world.
Inspirational, funny and poetic, the DVD also comes complete with a making-of which is as enthralling as the main picture. Made by younger sibling Hana, The Joy Of Madness details the struggles of persuading a suspicious local people to help make the film.
23. The Host (South Korea, 2006)
Following on from the J-Horror of the late 90s, South Korean cinema has really taken up the baton in showcasing terror, horror, and in this particular case, monsters. After a chemical dumping goes wrong, a disease-ridden beast terrorises South Korea. Not afraid of hiding the big reveal, The Host lets you see its creature early on in a quite brilliant river attack, and with good reason – the mutant amphibian design is one of recent cinema’s finest and more believable, and knowing what our protagonists are up against lends a lot more tension to proceedings.
However, a good horror film is not just about the scares, but the characters, and with the makeshift family of The Host, there is just as much terror and grief internally. Loopy and demented in every way, its slight anti-US bias also gave it the official seal of approval from North Korea!
22. Belleville Rendezvous/The Triplets Of Belleville (France, 2003)
Belleville Rendezvous is a film for those who might usually turn their nose up at watching animation, as five minutes in you’ll have completely forgotten you’re watching a ‘cartoon’; its unique style creates characters with incredible depth that provide captivating performances. In an industry where the animation genre in most people’s mind simply means a Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks production, this film defines why there is still room, and a requirement, for so much more.
When Madame Souza’s cyclist son is kidnapped during the Tour-de-France, she sets out to rescue him. She picks up help along the way, including singing jazz trio The Triplets of Belleville and dog Bruno. You can feel the love poured into every frame of this dazzling film. A friend summed up Belleville Rendezvous to me as “Impossible to describe, impossible to forget,” and if that doesn’t whet your appetite I don’t know what else will…
21. Lebanon (Israel, 2009)
A contender for many people’s film of the year, Lebanon is based in part on director Samuel Maoz’s experiences fighting in the 1983 Lebanese war. Set entirely within a tank, the action details an Israeli army unit clearing a town of civilians, with potentially illegal use of weapons.
In such an enclosed environment, the tension is heightened to frightening extremes, with every small disagreement in an already pressurised situation elevated tenfold. Each character is well drawn, and you really begin to feel that you are in the tank with them, making this an intense and claustrophobic experience not just for the cast, but for the audience as well. Controversial, dramatic and deeply impressive, Lebanon is one war film which puts you right in the action.
20. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Sweden, 2009)
The first adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling novel, this truly threw down the gauntlet to Hollywood and announced to the English speaking audience that foreign language cinema could more than compete with the big boys. Its success around the world proved that the right material, filmed well and marketed sensibly, could easily cross cultural barriers to a mainstream previously thought unbreakable.
Audiences responded incredibly well to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the film itself is so good that the vaunted David Fincher himself has struggled to match it. While making what may be a better adaptation, the so-so box office of the Hollywood version shows that people were pretty happy with this one, and probably didn’t need another…
19. Tsotsi (South Africa, 2005)
An Oscar winning effort by Gavin Hood, Tsotsi is a film which fully deserves its acclaimed status. Set in the slums of Johannesburg, which isn’t exactly the nicest place to visit, Tsotsi is a young street thug who gets more than he bargains for when he steals a car: a baby in the back, to be precise. Telling his story over several days, the film gives us an insight into the lives of the slum-dwellers, as well as taking the audience on a gripping tale of violence and crime.
Added to this is an awesome soundtrack from South African artists, as well imposingly edited and shot visuals, and Tsotsi is a densely layered treat proving that Gavin Hood is a lot better than his subsequent Wolverine would have you believe.
18. Gomorrah (Italy, 2008)
Gomorrah opens with a stylised scene of gangsters being executed while at a tanning salon. It proves to be the very last conventional movie portrayal of organised crime in the film. Based on the book of the same name, Gomorrah examines the corrosive effect the Comorra crime family has on the lives of Italians through five interweaving stories.
Always brutally realistic, it pokes fun at the Hollywood glamourisation of gangsters, implying that this is as just as much to blame for driving youngsters to crime as the social inequality of Italy. It also serves as a warning to anyone thinking that they are separated from this world – it has tentacles everywhere, and at some point you will have come into contact with the Comorra.
17. Persepolis (France, 2007)
Based on Marjane Sartrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, who co-directed, Persepolis charts the story of a young girl growing up in Iran, and living through the Iranian Revolution. While in many, many other hands that would be the basis of a harrowing and serious earnest tale about loss and repression, in Sartrapi’s hands the main thing which strikes you about the novel and film is how funny and engaging it is.
At points harrowing and serious, it is all so accessible and enthralling that you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing is real, but sadly it is. It’s a gift to make this sort of history come truly alive, and make an audience with no reference point feel engaged and emotionally involved, but Persepolis makes it look easy, and remains the defining film on the Iranian Revolution.
16. Goodbye Lenin! (Germany, 2003)
A simple yet effective premise lies at the heart of this incredibly warm tale about family, ideology, and coming together – an East German woman sees her son being arrested on the eve of the Berlin Wall collapse, and has a heart attack which leads to a coma. Months later she comes round, and her son decides to pretend that the communist world she loved still exists in order to avoid a second fatal heart attack.
Easily manoeuvring past the one-trick pony Goodbye Lenin! could have been, it lampoons communism, commercialism, and the idiocy of the Cold War, while also showcasing the importance of family and belonging. It also helps that’s its damn funny film with some great performances. Goodbye Lenin was easily the most effective film about the former German Democratic Republic – until a certain other movie came along…
15. The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina, 2004)
This might as well be the official tourism film of South America. Gorgeously shot, it is impossible to watch the story of a young Che Guevara travelling the continent by motorbike without immediately wanting to set off there yourself. Cleverly avoiding the politics of its main character, The Motorcycle Diaries instead acts as a coming of age drama about finding who you are and where you fit into the world.
The movie thrives on the performances of Gael Garcia Bernal as Che, and Rodrigo De la Serna as Alberto Granado, and how they make the very real friendship really believable. It’s the type of film you can show people who would normally be put off subtitles, and one of my favourites in the whole list.
14. Downfall (Germany, 2004)
Perhaps more famous now for its Internet Hitler meme than the film itself, Downfall is a perfect example of how world cinema has truly entered the popular consciousness. However, strip away the comedy YouTube clips, and you have what is a truly incredible and riveting portrayal of the Third Reich’s final days, and the madness of a dictator faced with absolute ruin.
Bruno Ganz rightly won plaudits for his eminently human take on the 20th Century’s greatest monster, but it is the strength and depth of all the performances that gives Downfall its power. If you ever wanted to know what it would feel like to be on the losing side of a war, with your enemies closing in, then this is about as close as you can get. The history books can tell you, but they can’t show you, and Downfall does just that.
13. Volver (Spain, 2006)
Almost a one man film industry in himself, Pedro Almodovar has helped the agenda for world cinema since the 80s, and with recent fare such as The Skin I Live In, he shows no sign of slowing down or becoming any less relevant. His 2006 effort Volver is a perfect example of this, allying his always heightened melodramatic style of storytelling with gorgeous visuals and captivating performances, in this case from Penelope Cruz, in what is possibly a career best.
Returning to her family home after her parents’ death, Raimunda’s (Cruz) attempts to connect with her daughter are complicated by the ghost of her mother returning to tidy up unfinished business. Part auto-biographical, part reflection on his previous films, Volver is everything you could hope from one of the most consistently inventive and beguiling directors working today.
12. Hero (China, 2002)
Redefining many people’s concepts of what makes an epic, Hero was the film that delivered on a mainstream audience’s raised hopes and increasing familiarity with foreign-language action cinema – due in no small part to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a few years earlier.
Endorsed wholeheartedly by the Chinese government, Hero is far more than a political message movie. Cleverly interweaving the tale of how Jet Li’s Nameless defeated three would-be assassins of the king of Qin with what turns out to be the truth, it showcases breathtaking action, dazzling direction, and yes, a hero you can believe in.
11. Waltz With Bashir (Israel, 2008)
When one of the most hard-hitting, powerful and awarded films in any language of the last decade is an animated film, you know you have something truly special on your hands. And so it is with Waltz With Bashir. Based on the life of writer/director Ari Folman, it traces the experiences of an older Folman as he struggles to recall his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, in which he was a 19-year-old soldier. As he faces up to the reality of the atrocities committed there, he struggles to deal with the complicity of his own actions.
Harrowing, beautiful and brave, this is not a film unafraid to deal with recent controversy – many of those who served and ordered the actions in the war are still around. For a country often questioned about its actions, it is refreshing to see a home-grown film challenging them.
10. The Secret In Their Eyes (Argentina, 2009)
Taught, thrilling, compelling. This superb Argentinean film was one of the most deserved Oscar winners of recent years, and is a film that I have gone back to several times since my first watch, and always found something new to enjoy. Whether it is the main plot of an unsolved murder, the intricate period details, or the haunting romantic subplot, this is a heartbreaking work which rewards the viewer right up until the end. A breathtaking scene involving chasing a suspect around the confusion of a South-American football stadium during match-day probably should have a place of its own on this list.
9. Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002)
A film that was so good it led to Scorsese finally getting an Oscar. I remember a friend breathlessly telling he had just seen something incredible, and hurriedly passed me his copy. Watching it that night, I understood his enthusiasm. Breathing new life into what had become a stale and listless crime genre, Infernal Affairs is a confident, stylish and laudable slice of filmmaking that showed that a simple (yet ingenious) idea could be executed almost flawlessly.
Telling the parallel stories of an undercover cop and a gangster mole, it is edge of seat stuff, with the threat of discovery for both characters still as tense as ever. And you know what, I think I prefer the ending of Infernal Affairs to The Departed’s version…
8. Let The Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Described as a romantic horror film, this is easily the best vampire movie of the last decade, and maybe one of the finest full stop. If you haven’t yet seen it just stop reading and go and watch it. If you already have, then you’ll understand the melancholic beauty of the movie. Oskar, a lonely, bullied Swedish boy, is offered the chance of true love when the vampire Eli moves next door.
Watching the relationship grow between the two is cinema at its finest, and the subplot of killings and Eli’s vampiric nature maintains the tension and horror superbly. The entire thing is also hauntingly shot, making the most of the wintry, desolate Swedish locations, and the swimming pool finale must surely be one of the greatest set-pieces in a horror film ever.
7. 2046 (Hong Kong, 2004)
Like Hollywood, world cinema has also thrown up its legendary directors. One of these is most certainly Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai. Perhaps most famous for In The Mood For Love, it is actually his last film made in Hong Kong that is my favourite. A sequel of sorts to the aforementioned In The Mood, 2046 was five years in the making (leading to a joke that its title was its release date) and is an awesome summation of the director’s work.
A 1960s novelist tells the story of a futuristic city where you can forget painful memories while at the same time, he embarks on a series of love affairs at a hotel. It is the best looking film on this list, as well one of the most emotionally charged, probably leaving the viewer a bit reflective but definitely satisfied. It also features sexy androids.
6. A Prophet (France, 2009)
My film of the year upon its theatrical release, A Prophet still stands up as one of the finest works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Iconic, mystical and mysterious, I described it as “An important film, but one which I wasn’t sure the meaning of”. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface, but what a surface it is, as the film traces the rise of 19-year-old Malik, who enters prison alone and uneducated, but begins a rise to power which is compelling to witness.
Director Jacques Audiard aimed to give a cinematic voice to the Arabian people, neatly foreshadowing the gaining of their political voice last year, rendering A Prophet even more important than it first was.
5. Hidden/Cache (Austria/France, 2005)
A disturbingly simple and chilling tale of how the act of being watched can destroy lives, Hidden is a modern day fable and a warning to those who’ve become complacent, and whose actions in their own comfortable lives have led to terrible consequences for others. On one level a taught psychological thriller about how people are never what they seem, it is also a cutting examination of the West’s treatment of the rest of the world, and how all of us are implicated.
Some filmmakers are just happy to tell stories; others such as Michael Haneke want to use film to dissect the world and the issues surrounding us. That he can do it in such a masterful and compelling fashion is almost unreal. The fact that he has made a film about watching seemingly event-free videos one of the most compelling of the new century is a minor miracle.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (Mexico, 2006)
Following Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy, people knew Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was a talent to watch. Then he made Pan’s Labyrinth, and people knew he was a genius. During the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia finds escape from the brutal practices of her military stepfather by heading into a fairy tale labyrinth by a menacing and mysterious faun.
Part parable, part dark fantasy, part political war movie, Pan’s Labyrinth has an almost indescribable magical quality that appeals to everyone. Unexpectedly violent as well as undeniably bewitching, the film features a beautiful central performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, as well as several iconic turns from Doug Jones as the faun and the pale man, one of cinema’s most terrifying creations.
It’s tricky to know whether to look away in horror or watch with fascination as he gives chase to Ofelia. Speaking to something deep within us all, perhaps with its quest narrative, or its escape from a terrible reality, Pan’s Labyrinth has only grown in stature in the years since release.
3. Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)
The octopus eating. The tongue slicing. The show-stopping corridor fight. It’s hard to know where to begin when describing Oldboy – superlatives simply don’t do it justice. A film that strikes like a hammer blow to the head, the second part of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy is a masterpiece of action, thriller and psychological filmmaking.
Kidnapped without reason and then released 15 years later, Oh Dae-su’s quest to find out why, what and who should pay for it forms the basis of the plot, but with so much more thrown in there, too. The violent action is beautiful and balletic in places, but never without purpose, which only makes every blow land twice as hard. Mesmerising every time, Oldboy is utterly brilliant.
2. City Of God (Brazil, 2002)
Still the most incendiary piece of filmmaking I have ever seen in a cinema, this was one of those films that was (and is) talked about by seemingly everyone. Telling the tale of gang warfare over decades in a notorious suburb of Rio, and in particular the different paths of two young boys growing up there, it is hard to know what to praise the most.
Is it the kinetic camera-work, the complex and inventive plot, or the performances of the mostly amateur cast? The thrill of the entire thing still leaves me a bit open-mouthed. It is also brutal and shocking in parts, as well as being funny and emotional. In short, this film has it all.
1. The Lives Of Others (Germany, 2006)
A film would have to be something pretty damn special to top this list, and The Lives Of Others is most certainly that. Set in 1984 East Berlin, Gerd Wiesler is a member of the feared Stasi, who spends his days listening to suspected anti-regime activists. However, this insight into a world of free-thinking, free-speech, and freedom gradually begins to change the mind-set of this loyal agent of the state.
I cannot praise this film enough; it is an incredible look into the recent past of one of the most important first world democracies. The climate of fear is all pervading, and the sheer anachronistic nature of the German Democratic Republic is almost unbelievable, but sadly true. And capping all this tension, jeopardy and intrigue is a masterful performance by the late Ulrich Mühe, who as Wiesler, imbues the film with a believable heart, and the genuine possibility that positive change is always a possibility. The Lives Of Others is an absolute must-see.
Think we’ve got it spot on, or totally wrong? Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.