It’s a big world out there, and while technology brings much of it closer the second-best thing to actually traveling to other countries yourself is sitting back and experiencing new places and cultures through the power of film. Niche theaters, a plethora of streaming choices, and a calendar filled with film festivals offers Americans more opportunities than ever to seek out and experience readable movies, and we’re happy to celebrate it with a look at some of the year’s best.
Keep reading for a look at the 17 best foreign language films of 2017 (that I’ve seen from my seat in the U.S.).
17. Heart Blackened (South Korea)
Old Boy‘s Choi Min-sik plays a man who has everything only to see it all torn away, and he anchors both the drama and thrills of this crime story all the way through a fourth (?) act that twists convention into something affecting and surprising.
16. She Remembers, He Forgets (Hong Kong)
A woman whose present life is in distress looks back on her youth and the turns of fate that led her there. It’s occasionally familiar but overcomes some deceptively simple plotting to reveal a sweet, sad, and funny look at the redemptive power of regret.
15. Cold Hell (Germany)
A sleek and effective genre thriller, this is an entertaining tale about a woman who witnesses a murder and is then herself targeted. It works beautifully on those simple merits, but it stands apart from the crowd with a strong lead character who’s both an ass-kicking hero and a Muslim woman. When’s the last time you saw that pairing onscreen?
14. Spoor (Poland)
Part mystery, part PETA recruitment tool, this atmospheric and methodically-paced tale is ultimately a plea for the better treatment of more than just the animals around us. It suggests, and even demands, that we treat all life with respect.
13. Raw (France)
Coming of age films typically focus on what we’re putting out into the world, but writer/director Julia Ducournau‘s debut is just as interested in what we ingest. One leads to the other after all, and the result is a film that pairs well with the likes of Ginger Snaps as horror tropes are applied to real-world fears of growing up, fitting in, and making it out alive.
12. KFC (Vietnam)
Brutality and consumerism meet in Le Binh Giang‘s feature debut, and the result is an audacious film guaranteed to provoke, disturb, and disgust. Far from a lazy attack on American brands — Kentucky Fried Chicken plays host to murder, cannibalism, and things far, far worse — the film offers a grotesquely brilliant critique of commercialism and the power of brands. (It makes for an unruly companion to the films above and below.)
11. Okja (South Korea)
Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) follows up his first international production (Snowpiercer) with something far weirder but every bit as critical of man’s actions. Sharp satire, thrilling action beats, and broad comedy (thanks Jake Gyllenhaal!) blend together into a condemnation of the corporate world we’re all complicit in creating.
10. First They Killed My Father (Cambodia)
The Cambodian genocide is well-documented both onscreen and off, but Angelina Jolie‘s latest directorial effort offers a harrowing and far more personal look at the reality of it all. The result is a film where cinematic beauty is constantly at odds with mankind’s ugliness.
9. In the Fade (Germany)
Billed falsely as a revenge thriller of sorts, this tale of a woman who loses her husband and son to an act of terror is interested in more than mere cathartic thrills. Writer/director Fatih Akin is more interested in his lead character’s journey through sadness, rage, and realization, and Diane Kruger delivers with a performance that leaves viewers feeling it all with her. It’s not an optimistic tale.
8. BPM (France)
The AIDS crisis of the 80s/90s has simmered down in the “civilized” world, but those unaware of the fight to reach even this point will find themselves well educated by this look into the turbulent early days of France’s ACT UP organization. We see their public actions and private moments, but the film’s most alive in scenes showing their strategy sessions featuring celebration, dissent, planning, and conflict. Shot with an immersive style, it welcomes viewers in for both the better and the worse.
7. The Lure (Poland)
Is it more than just a musical about mermaid sisters who are pulled from the sea and turned into lounge singers who fall in love before remembering that they’re carnivorous monsters? Does it need to be?
6. Mon Mon Mon Monsters (Taiwan)
Don’t let the playful title fool you — this is a raw and brutally honest look at cruelty of youth and the unpopular observation that, if given the chance, the bullied will often become the bully. That’s not to suggest it’s a dryly serious film, though, as Giddens Ko (You Are the Apple of My Eye) also fills the screen with equally copious amounts of dark humor and blood.
5. A Taxi Driver (South Korea)
Song Kang-ho is an international treasure who brings charisma, humanity, and authenticity to every role, and his latest puts those traits to the test with a character who challenges our affection and understanding. A true story from South Korea’s turbulent 1980s — the decade opened with a presidential assassination followed immediately by a military coup — the film serves as a reminder that the fight against government oppression must go on no matter the cost.
4. The Square (Sweden)
Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure showed him to be a filmmaker in complete control of tone and the balance between light and dark. His latest confirms that assessment in grand fashion as he satirizes the actions and affections of a society that prides itself on “good” works and knowing “better” than others. It gets to the core of our humanity with wit, dark comedy, and a begrudging acknowledgment that we can always do better than we think we’re doing.
3. Bad Genius (Thailand)
A high-school heist film about teens cheating on their national exams may not seem like the makings of a “year’s best” film, but Nattawut Poonpiriya‘s second feature is the real deal. As slick as an Ocean’s Eleven film but with far more heart, its two-hour-plus running time flies by pausing only to ratchet up both tension and tears.
2. Foxtrot (Israel)
The screen is a familiar home to indictments of war, both as concept and reality, but few films tackle their prey with such biting confidence as Samuel Maoz‘s (Lebanon) latest. What starts as a straightforward tale of grief shifts into an occasionally surreal but continually beautiful look at the pains we cause ourselves and others.
1. Thelma (Norway)
Every movie deserves an audience willing and able to walk in blind, but Joachim Trier‘s (Oslo, August 31st) latest demands it. His name should get you in the door, and the quiet stunner of an opening sequence should hold you through to the very end. The reward is a beautiful — in every sense of the word — film about discovering who you truly are and then being true to that discovery.