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The 15 Best Non-English-Language Films of 2021

From Norway to India to Romania and beyond, Luke Hicks counts down the 15 best non-English language films released in 2021.
Best Foreign Language Films
By  · Published on December 20th, 2021

This article is part of our 2021 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explore the best non-English/foreign language films of 2021.

There are no weak years in film. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is just telling on themselves for not having paid attention. Across budgets, genres, and countries, every year of cinema is rich. So rich that it’s impossible to see all the good offerings.

This year was especially loaded due to rampant Covid delays. You can rule out the English language entirely and still have a tough time choosing only 15 of the most thoughtful, entertaining, fresh, memorable, and maybe even groundbreaking movies of the year. That’s also what makes the prospect of year-end lists like these so bright. Who knows what one of us has adored that the other hasn’t even heard of? Global cinema is an endless treasure chest of new perspectives that will crack your world open and change you. Let it.

Here are the best non-English-language movies of 2021:

15. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World

Best Foreign Language Films 2021: Most Beautiful Boy

It’s hard to imagine a world in which a famously erotic gay director could hold a mass audition for young boys that doubles as a perverse sexual fantasy in which he can demand them to strip. The director, Luchino Visconti, was casting the face (and body) of Death in Venice, his 1971 film about a composer who obsesses over a teen boy. The parallels are on the nose in retrospect.

It was a different time. And with this documentary, filmmakers Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri color that distinction gravely to point out the exploitation of children that was so rampant in the wild west of cinematic exploration in the 1970s. Even by some of the greats, even at the heart of some of the best work.

The kid eventually cast in the film was Björn Andrésen, a steely, wiry, goldilocked lad that Visconti deemed “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” only to elevate the teen to global icon status and catapult him into a storm of ruthless, suffocating celebrity. The documentary follows Andrésen from his first meeting with Visconti to his recent role as the white-haired sacrifice that belly-flops off the cliff in Midsommar. And it covers all of the confusion, existential aimlessness, and pain that plagued him in between.

14. Compartment No. 6

Best Foreign Language Films 2021: Compartment No

A messy, lovely, cramped, and emotionally confused ride through the Russian arctic, Juho Kuosmanen’s Compartment No. 6 is a welcome critique of, and diversion from, rom-com tropes.

It starts with a rather typical premise, but the unfolding is fresh. Laura (Seidi Haarla) and Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) are unlikely train car companions on a multi-night trip. At first, he’s gross as shit, scarfing down pickles and liquor and practically spitting his unwelcome words, he’s so drunk. But as personalities emerge and Kuosmanen ditches the stereotypes, the two characters evolve and don’t mind each other so much. Things that seemed true about them are revealed not to be.

Don’t come in expecting romance or heartwarming closure in a final kiss. The Finnish filmmaker’s strange blend of icy drama, comic relief, and liminal connection means to make a magical story out of a more realistic uniting experience. This film took home the Grand Prix at Cannes for a reason.

13. Riders of Justice

Best Foreign Language Films 2021: Riders Of Justice

While the title and marketing materials make it look like a cheap, Danish Taken, Anders Thomas Jensen’s first film since 2015 is much more than it seems. Another Mads Mikkelsen vehicle, Riders of Justice is equal parts buddy comedy, John Wick, and grief counseling.

The largely handheld, beautifully shot film opens with a devastating train accident. A woman is killed, only after switching seats with a man who winds up surviving the disaster. Her teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), also lives through the accident but is traumatized. The woman’s husband, Markus (Mikkelsen), is stationed in Afghanistan at the time of the train wreck but returns home to be with Mathilde following the incident. Together they struggle, to put it lightly, through their life-changing loss.

Dad is not a good shepherd of feelings, and Mathilde is too young to have much of an influence on him. That is, until a motley crew of goofy statisticians and hackers, one of whom was the man who switched with the mother on the train, enters the picture with new information about the train accident. Their findings give Markus an outlet to express his rage and Mathilde a chance to draw her and her father closer to healing. It’s only a matter of time before one of their paths reveals its dark conceit in consequence.

12. Parallel Mothers

Best Foreign Language Films 2021: Parallel Mothers

Leave it to veteran Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar to give us two of the best movies of the year. One of them was too short to qualify for this list, unfortunately (let’s pour one out for The Human Voice). The other is Parallel Mothers, a twisting, turning, unexpectedly juicy tale about two women, Janis and Ana (Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit), whose lives converge when they give birth on the same day in the same hospital room.

What starts as an excavation of personal histories turns into a friendship drama for the ages, a rich portrait of a career-driven, mid-life mother, and, ultimately, a plea for collective socio-political memory. The colors are characteristically dazzling, the production design a delight, and the windy navigation of themes expertly executed. It’s Almodovar’s best feature since, well, Pain & Glory, because he’s always making good movies.

11. Benedetta

Best Foreign Language Films 2021: Benedetta

Very few writer-directors, accomplished or otherwise, can claim mastery in two drastically different fields, and even fewer can claim to have wed them. On that list is James Cameron, with his career-turning pursuit of deep-sea research. Another is Paul Verhoeven, whose marriage of exuberant cinematic provocation and revered scholarship of Christian Church history has birthed a singular child: Benedetta.

The erotic thriller traces the historical violence, egotism, and deceit that has defined the Church’s actions for centuries through the true story of a 17th-century lesbian nun who rose to power in her Tuscan convent through “miraculous” works. Bouncing around from gruesome body horror to bureaucratic maze, to full-frontal, Verhoeven is in peak form.

Protest from the Catholic Church has already ensued, and more is sure to come from others, but their cries are music to Verhoeven’s ears. The Dutch mind behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls has always been loud about his disapproval of American cinema’s hypocrisy when it comes to condemning nudity and worshipping violence. How about a lot of both?

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.