One of the biggest stories of 2018 was Netflix’s continued disruption of the traditional models of film distribution. Their slate of auteur-driven films was the envy of their competitors, signalling their intentions of world domination in the industry. Fittingly, that extraordinary international appeal is reflected in their most prized possession, a black-and-white, foreign language film in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”. As one of the most talked about films of the year, it helped to significantly rejuvenate attention towards non-English cinema. Indeed, many of the most celebrated films of the year came from filmmakers from all corners of the world. And the best of them explored themes surrounding love, war, class conflict and the meaning of family, showcasing the universal language of film. Here are the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2018:
As one of world cinema’s foremost humanists, Hirokazu Koreeda’s films are like food for the soul. In his latest drama “Shoplifters” – winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Canne Film Festival – the Japanese filmmaker continues his interest in exploring familial relationships, as a family takes in an abandoned child from the street. Like much of his previous work, this family portrait is painted in the gentlest of strokes, crafting nuanced relationships which emerge organically and feel genuine. Indeed, Koreeda’s empathetic direction and storytelling is fatherly in its own way, showing interest and care to each character. Even as we learn about the family’s criminal activities, it’s hard not to fall in love with this makeshift family. “Shoplifters” proves that sometimes the best families really are the ones you choose.
9. “Birds of Passage”
There’s been a recent boom in film and TV about drug cartels, but we hadn’t seen one quite like “Birds of Passage“, an outstanding achievement from Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallegos. Taking audiences back to the tribal roots of the booming drug trade in the 1960s and 1970s, “Birds of Passage” sets its blood feud in the Colombian desert, where tribal honor codes are as powerful a force as greed. As the film gradually meets its violent ends, the spiritual elements of the narrative give it a fresh unpredictability. Furthermore, it features some of the strongest female characters of any gangster film, replacing the “godfather” with a matriarch as wise and imposing as any kingpin.
There were many outstanding filmmaking achievements in 2018, but the boldest of them all was arguably Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning.” This beguiling film noir offers few easy answers or definitive conclusions as it follows an aspiring writer who gets entangled in a love triangle of sorts with a young woman from his past and her new friend, a slick but mysterious man. Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jun make for a scintillating triptych in the central roles, as Lee Chang-dong confidently and patiently ignites this slow burn that subtly takes aim at South Korea’s class and gender dynamics.
After plunging audiences into the horrors of the Holocaust with “Son of Saul”, László Nemes premiered yet another immersive period drama at the 2018 Venice Film Festival with “Sunset.” Set in early 20th century Budapest on the eve of World War I, “Sunset” follows a young woman whose efforts to carry on the legacy of her late milliner parents brings up dark secrets from her family’s past. Teeming with mystery and an ominous sense of doom, “Sunset” perfectly conveys the unease of a society on the verge of collapse. But thanks to its immaculate production values and magnetic lead actress, it also provides a beautifully nostalgic journey to a bygone era.
The protagonist Tina (played by an unrecognizable Eva Melander) in Ali Abbasi’s bizarre fantasy-drama “Border” is hardly your typical image of a movie heroine. Despite being good at her job as a customs border agent, her troll features are decidedly inhuman. Yet Abbasi creates disarming empathy for her character, as a chance encounter with another troll takes her on a journey of love for both him and herself. “Border” functions effectively as an allegory for racial intolerance and prejudice, but it resonates most deeply as a fable about the power of self-love. As the plot unfolds with a hard-boiled crime plot, “Border” shows that how we use that self-love is what truly defines us as monsters or men.
With his penchant for staging lavish song and dance spectacles, every new Sanjay Leela Bhansali production is an event film worth anticipating. Though its release was marred by controversy, the Indian filmmaker’s latest “Padmaavat” once again proved to be worth the wait. Its historic tale stars Ranveer Singh in a delightfully impetuous performance as a mad king who wages war to possess the queen (Bhansali’s luminous muse Deepika Padukone) of a rival kingdom. Featuring epic battle scenes, Machiavellian plotting and the most dazzling costumes of the year, this film provides classic entertainment.
As the saying goes, sometimes it’s best to “what you know”. In writing the script for “Roma“, his most personal film to date, Alfonso Cuarón certainly took that to heart. Inspired by his childhood in Mexico’s turbulent 1970s, this stunning film takes us on an emotional journey with a maid named Cleo, whose life undergoes major changes as she cares for a middle-class family in Mexico City. Not only did Cuarón write and direct this impressive period drama, he also served as producer, editor, and cinematographer. And that unified vision paid off in astonishing style, with incredible black-and-white imagery and a compelling story filled with unforgettable scenes of loss, heartbreak, joy and love.
Set entirely within the confines of a police station, Gustav Möller’s “The Guilty” may initially seem like a film with modest ambitions. But there’s more than meets the eye in this nerve-racking thriller. “The Guilty” depicts an extraordinary day in the life of a police officer named Asger Holm, who is assigned to grunt work as an emergency dispatcher due to his past indiscretions. When he receives a call from a kidnapped woman, however, he must step up to solve the most challenging case of his career. By never leaving Holm’s desk and the sounds of his phone calls, “The Guilty” ingeniously stokes our fears through the power of imagination, taking us on a nail-biting journey that leads to a shattering conclusion.
A few years ago, the relatively unknown Paweł Pawlikowski delivered an unexpected masterwork with “Ida”, eventually copping the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2018, Pawlikowski was no longer an under-the-radar name, but he stunned us once again with an even more impressive film in “Cold War“. Loosely inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents, it tells the tumultuous love story of a musical director and a singer, against the backdrop of the Cold War in the 1950s. Using the similar monochromatic approach of “Ida”, this film is a cinematography masterclass, with each frame more astonishing than the last. Meanwhile, Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are absolutely heartbreaking as the star-crossed lovers who must endure the devastating toll of being used as propagandist pawns in the war.
“Happy as Lazzaro”
In the world of non-English cinema, Netflix deserves all the praise for championing “Roma” and bringing it to the masses. But there was another foreign language gem in their slate which was equally exceptional – “Happy as Lazzaro” by Alice Rohrwacher. Italian neorealism meets magical fable in this gorgeously wrought drama about a community of peasants who are unwittingly exploited by a tobacco baroness. As we follow their experiences over time, you’ll be deeply moved by its central character Lazzaro, a young man who is ultimately too pure for this cruel world. In effect, “Happy as Lazzaro” is the quintessential foreign language film of 2018, encompassing many of the common themes surrounding class conflict, crime and unwavering love against all odds.