Foreign language films don’t get the wide releases accorded to domestic titles, but that doesn’t make them any less worth seeking out in the smaller, art house theaters near you or even on VOD. They might not have a Hollywood budget, but often they make up for it with ideas and execution well beyond the domestic norm.
It’s not quite a tend, but there’s something of a common theme among this year’s best foreign language films in that many of them are focused on the trials and tribulations facing women – young or old, facing troubles of their own devising or from outside sources. Of course there’s also dogs, serial killers, and the personification of God himself.
It’s worth noting that two of the best foreign films released in the US this year – About Elly and Blind – actually made my Best Foreign Language Film lists in 2010 and 2014, respectively, so they won’t be repeating here.
15. Phoenix (Germany)
Much of the chatter on this film has been around the mic-drop of an ending, but it deserves just as much credit for dropping us directly into the tale without need of backstory. We awake along with the lead, uncertain and unsure as to what to believe, and the ensuing mystery captivates before the bandages have even been removed. The lead character survives tragedy to face loss and the possibility of personal betrayal, and her search for the truth captivates until the final frame.
14. Marshland (Spain)
This Spanish period thriller belongs in the same conversation as the likes of South Korea’s Memories of Murder and Germany’s The Silence, as it’s an intense and gorgeously-shot indictment of a time and a people highlighting the true cost of the truth.
13. A Wolf at the Door (Brazil)
This harrowing, slow-burn of a thriller tackles the dramatic suspense of a missing child in an unconventional way. Instead of proceeding like a traditional procedural, the film quickly settles on one witness and lets the story unfold through her recounting of events, and in doing so it becomes less a story of what happened to the little girl and more a tale of why it had to happen at all.
12. Princess (Israel)
Films about child abuse can’t (and shouldn’t) approach the devastation of the real thing, but that doesn’t make dramatizations any easier to watch. Writer/director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s latest feature is a haunting and harrowing walk along the blurred line between the real world and the imagined one, and while it features a couple scenes guaranteed to pause your breath it presents this particular nightmare with fantastic beauty.
11. Tag (Japan)
Sion Sono’s Tag opens with the scene above, and remains an incredibly bloody and graphically violent experience through to the end. At a brisk 85 minutes the film is a ridiculously exciting (and just flat out ridiculous at times) piece of run-and-gun entertainment that can easily be enjoyed – or dismissed – as just pure surface-level thrills, but Sono pairs the blood and panties parade with a devastatingly cynical commentary that adds a whole other level of appreciation.
10. Girlhood (France)
The thought of yet another coming-of-age tale may not appeal on its surface, but the teens at the center of the tale – black girls living on the outskirts of Paris’ wealth and privilege – offer a perspective rarely glimpsed onscreen in France or here at home. It’s a hard watch at times as the girls struggle with the lives they’ve been dealt, but there’s real beauty too including the scene above featuring the four friends sharing a moment of self-created joy.
9. 10000 KM (Spain)
It’s entirely possible that my affection and admiration for this film is based on my own two year (with summer breaks) long distance relationship, but even if I hadn’t experienced it myself the raw intimacy on display here would most certainly still be effective. It’s a painfully honest and deliriously sexy look at a geographically-challenged love, and the two actors – the only two in the film – deliver performances that convince in their love, lust, and frustration.
8. White God (Hungary)
This a gorgeous film with a simple message – essentially, we can do better as a species. Director/co-writer Kornél Mundruczó has crafted a beautifully-shot allegory for man’s treatment of the downtrodden, whether they be animals or other men, and the end result is a thrilling adventure about inter-species awareness. It’s the heartwarming quest for reunion from Homeward Bound meets the flesh-tearing mayhem of Man’s Best Friend, and it’s an incredible journey worth taking. The opening scene above offers a glimpse of the cinematography the film has to offer.
7. The Second Mother (Brazil)
Commentary on class distinctions is a fairly common topic in cinema, but it’s rarely been handled with the humanity, humor, and razor-sharp observations on display here. It’s a beautifully-acted film too with a lead performance that walks a fine line between the dramatic and the comedic and a tale that will leave you warm and smiling at its affection for family.
6. A Hard Day (South Korea)
Most of the films that made this list feature heavy subject matter in some form or another, but this Korean gem is pure pop perfection. It’s a thriller that rarely stops moving, and it delivers the adrenaline-fueled suspense with a twisted sense of humor. It’s not the kind of movie that speaks to your soul, but it’s a thriller that succeeds so damn beautifully that you won’t forget it anytime soon.
5. The Brand New Testament (Belgium)
Jaco Van Dormael’s highly irreverent comedy is a smartly-written, laugh out loud experience that feels like Christopher Moore’s brilliant novel Lamb as adapted by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). It’s as amazing and beautiful as that pair-up sounds, and it finds the humanity in the surreal and absurd.
4. Wild Tales (Argentina)
Six different flavors of rage and revenge fill the screen with energy, wit, and style to spare in this rare anthology film without a single dud. The laughs are as plentiful as the moments of real suspense and tension making the observations on human behavior icing on the very entertaining cake.
3. Mustang (Turkey/France)
Individual freedom is a fickle thing in this alternately enraging and joyous look at five teenage sisters forced to mute their energy and personality for the sake of backward, conservative values. The youngest, Lale, watches as her siblings are picked off one by one and marked for arranged marriage, but her spirit and vitality are a force unto themselves.
2. Black Coal Thin Ice (China)
On its surface this is a film about ex-police officers whose careers were ruined by an unsolved murder case who get a chance at redemption when the killings begin again, but this Chinese noir is interested in far more than simple genre thrills. It’s bleak and slow-moving, filled with gorgeous cinematography and punctuated with acts of brutality, and explores ideas of gender, guilt, and urban living with a neon-tinged eye for detail and depth.
1. Timbuktu (Mauritania/France)
The Western world lives in fear of Islamic extremists, but the fact remains that the vast majority of these terrorists’ victims are true, non-radicalized Muslims. Abderrahmane Sissako’s latest is something of a fly on the wall look at life in a Mali town under the developing rule of ISIS-like jihadists. Some conform to the ridiculousness of Sharia law while others attempt to fight it, and some – as glimpsed in the beautiful but sad clip above of boys forbidden to play football – try to work their away around it. The film is an engaging, life-affirming, and beautifully-shot reminder of what’s at stake in the face of rising religious fundamentalism.
Honorable mentions: 24 Days, Assassination, The Connection, Cruel, Mommy
Read more of our Best of 2015 coverage!