When Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” dominated the awards circuit in 2018, it represented a rare instance of non-English cinema taking the spotlight. But in a welcome turn of events, 2019 was arguably an even bigger year for foreign language films. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” has produced unprecedented crossover success for Korean cinema, looking to go even further than “Roma” at the Oscars. In addition, a particularly strong year for French cinema had cinephiles falling in love with such stellar work as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Atlantics” and “Les Misérables.” These films and more are celebrated in this year’s list of the Top 10 Foreign Language Films of 2019.
Based on a macabre premise — a hand searches for its owner after accidentally being chopped off — Jérémy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body” is certainly not your average animated film. At once a mood piece and a whimsical adventure, this mature film is a poignant odyssey through Paris, told from the perspective of the severed hand and flashbacks to the preceding events of its owner’s life. Featuring an award-winning score that perfectly sets the tone, “I Lost My Body” is a touching rumination on life and its endless surprises, whether serendipitous or tragic.
Set in a scenic riverside below majestic hills, “The Third Wife” immediately draws your attention from its opening frame. Transporting us to 19th century Vietnam, director Ash Mayfair crafts one of the most visually striking films of the year. But below its genteel surface is a potently feminist film, as a 14-year old quietly asserts herself as the titular third wife of a wealthy landlord. Through fascinating plot twists surrounding forbidden desire and resistance to the patriarchy, this graceful period film builds to a powerful conclusion that should resonate with modern audiences.
Capping an already memorable decade for lesbian-themed films, Céline Sciamma added another worthy entry to the canon with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” On a secluded island, a painter is commissioned for a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse, at the behest of her mother. The painting is to be used to court an Italian gentleman for marriage, unbeknownst to Héloïse. But as the two women become acquainted, an unexpected, deep affection grows that will affect their lives forever. In a marvelous showcase of the sorely underrepresented female gaze, this ravishingly elegant film reinterprets classic filmmaking through its subversive artist-muse dynamic, virtually all-female cast and its characters’ defiance against traditional female roles and behavior.
Taking its cues from real life events, Ladj Ly offers a masterclass in cinematic tension with his scorching debut feature, “Les Misérables.” This cop drama follows the exploits of an anti-crime squad in a Parisian suburb, tasked with maintaining law and order within its racially and religiously diverse communities. Told largely through the eyes of a new recruit to the force, Ly exposes the unfortunate state of contemporary social justice, as tensions erupt in the wake of an absurdist theft. The rage-filled fallout is no laughing matter, however, as Ly’s dynamic and intimate filmmaking style puts us right in the thick of an ongoing struggle with no end in sight.
In Alvaro Delgado Aparicio’s “Retablo,” a 14-year old Peruvian boy named Segundo hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a master artisan specializing in retablos, traditional shrines typically reflecting Catholic iconography. But when he accidentally learns one day of his father’s taboo secret, the revelation begins to test his loyalty and their precious bond. As skillfully crafted as the titular art pieces, “Retablo” is a moving coming-of-age story about love and masculinity. Impressively led by a quietly intense performance from newcomer Junior Bejar as Segundo, the film is a remarkable showcase of Peruvian talent and culture.
Premiering without much fanfare in the Venice Film Festival’s sidebar Venice Days section, Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi” is one of the year’s hidden gems. Inspired by an incredible true story, it follows a reformed ex-convict named Daniel who mistakenly becomes installed as the priest in a Polish town. While Daniel tries to escape his past, he attempts to heal a community also struggling to deal with painful memories of a terrible tragedy. At once tortured and charismatic, Bartosz Bielenia turns in an immense performance in the lead role as “Corpus Christi” delivers a resonant message about forgiveness and redemption.
Taking the film world by storm after winning the prestigious Palme d’Or, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a shining example of the excellence of Korean cinema. Its story surrounds two families, the Kims and the Parks, as the former gradually infiltrates the lives of their wealthier counterparts. Bringing new meaning to social hierarchy with its darkly comic take on the upstairs/downstairs trope, “Parasite” subsequently offers an incisive critique of class in South Korea. As the plot twists and turns to thrilling effect, the ingenious combination of sharp satire and delightful entertainment makes it one of 2019’s must-see films.
In a case of beautiful irony, one of the year’s most relatable and honest films is based on a lie. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” tells the story of a young woman struggling to cope with her dear grandmother Nai Nai’s life-threatening cancer diagnosis, made all the more unbearable by her family’s decision to withhold the truth from Nai Nai. As the family hastily arranges a wedding as a cover up to spend precious time with her, Billi slowly begins to accept the situation. Guided brilliantly by Wang’s sensitive direction, Awkwafina is a revelation in an against-type bilingual performance, as is Zhao Shuzhen in her US film debut as the lovable busybody Nai Nai. Together, their sincere chemistry anchors this warm and deeply touching family drama.
With her astonishing debut film “Atlantics,” Mati Diop established herself as one of the most exciting new voices in world cinema in 2019. Set in the city of Dakar in Senegal, this mesmerizing drama follows a young woman left adrift in the world after the disappearance of her lover, who sought refuge on a boat to Europe. When mysterious occurrences disrupt her subsequent wedding and the city at large, an investigation points toward his inexplicable return. As this riveting “ghost love story” unfolds with beautifully poetic visuals and dialogue, “Atlantics” explores human desire at its most elemental — the longing for love, happiness and a better life.
After the muted reception to his most recent work, fans of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar were treated to a triumphant return to form with “Pain and Glory.” In this loosely autobiographical drama, a film director in the twilight of his career reflects on his life as he struggles to reclaim his former glory while suffering through several ailments. Playing the lead role, Antonio Banderas leads a phenomenal cast as Almodovar meditates on the ups and downs of life with his trademark elegant musicality and exquisite mise-en-scène. Indeed, every facet of the filmmaking is gorgeously wrought, serving as a stunning reminder of what makes Almodovar such a distinct and essential storyteller.