This weekend marks the closing of the 67th Cannes International Film Festival, France’s annual celebrity-soaked gathering of the world’s top actors, actresses and auteurs.
Each year, Cannes is the place where filmmakers and movies, both big and small, get the buzz they need to go global and (fingers crossed) take their first steps toward an Academy Award. And while Russell Crowe and Liam Hemsworth are hobnobbing with J-Law on Ralph Lauren’s yacht all week, the rest of us [mere mortals] are stuck at home awaiting the release of this year’s best films from around the world. While we wait, we thought we’d turn our attention to some of the best foreign language films of recent years.
So crack open a Perrier or brew yourself a teeny tiny coffee and cue up one (or more) of these foreign-language films that are definitely worth the subtitles:
1. Le Havre (Finland / France, 2011)
For Fans Of: Wes Anderson
While, stylistically, Le Havre is playfully vintage, its plot revolves around the most controversial political issue in Europe today: illegal immigration. A charming, funny, and ultimately hopeful fable of friendship, Le Havre is a kind of not-so-distant Finnish cousin to Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore.
2. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (United States / Japan, 2011)
For Fans Of: The Food Network, wasabi, the California roll
This documentary film is an up close and personal look at the life and work of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a man who’s widely believed to be the greatest sushi chef in the world. Whether you are a sushi lover or not, it’s a powerful portrait of a father and his sons, Japanese food culture and the essence of true craftsmanship. If you happen to be a sushi lover, well then eat your heart out—because this movie is visually delicious.
3. Flame & Citron (Denmark, 2008)
For Fans Of: The Untouchables, Inglourious Basterds, Valkyrie
This historical drama introduced the movie-viewing world to the the cloak and dagger operations of Danish resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945. It’s a violent, hard-hitting first person perspective of the gray realities of what happens when war comes to your homeland. And, as always, Mads Mikkelsen’s (Casino Royale, The Salvation) performance is exceptional.
4. Kon Tiki (Norway, 2012)
For Fans Of: Swiss Family Robinson, Cast Away, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week
Another film from the increasingly impressive world of Scandinavian cinema, Kon Tiki tells the remarkable true story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 4,300 mile journey across the Pacific Ocean on a handmade balsa wood raft in 1947. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2012, Kon Tiki is a high seas celebration of human resolve, imagination and scientific discovery. Interestingly, two versions of Kon Tiki were filmed simultaneously: one in Norwegian, for the film’s domestic audience (where Heyerdahl is a national hero), and one primarily in English—just for you.
5. The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium, 2013)
For Fans Of: Walk the Line, Crazy Heart and any song by The Civil Wars
One of 2014’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, this culture-bending film out of Belgium somehow succeeds in marrying a European romance with an Appalachian soundtrack so poignant that the music becomes a principal character. Yes, this is a love story, but it’s a tragic love story. And, in the end, the viewer becomes part of the collateral damage. Spoiler alert: You are going to cry.
6. The Band’s Visit (Israel, 2007)
For Fans Of: Uplifting, sweet stories of “fish out of water”
Following the misfortunes of an Egyptian Police Orchestra who take a wrong turn while on a visit to Israel, The Band’s Visit is the kind of film that is so quiet, so subtle, so sweet—you really have to wonder how it ever got made. Despite being set within the tense context of Arab/Israeli relations, The Band’s Visit is not a political movie but, rather, a kind of visual short story of human frailty and human decency. Anchored by fine performances, it won three awards at Cannes and several dozen other international awards.
7. A Very Long Engagement (France, 2004)
For Fans Of: Chocolat, Cold Mountain
Nominated for two Academy Awards, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow-up to 2001’s uber-whimsical Amelie is a darker, grittier affair: part film-noir “whodunnit” and part coming-of-age romance. In spite of being set against the grim backdrop of World War I, A Very Long Engagement is buoyed by the director’s use of playful visual devices and by the unquenchable charms of Audrey Tautou, who plays the film’s stubbornly optimistic protagonist.
8. Good Bye, Lenin (Germany, 2002)
For Fans Of: For Beginners, In a World and every Michael Cera movie ever made
Although German films are not especially well known for their sweetness or slapstick comedy, Good Bye, Lenin swells with both. During the reunification of Germany in 1990, young Alex has to protect his mother’s fragile heart condition from any and all potentially fatal shocks—including the reality that, while mom was comatose, communism has fallen. A refreshing comedic tale of family love and youthful inventiveness, Good Bye, Lenin is an unexpected charmer.
9. A Hijacking (Denmark, 2012)
For Fans Of: the Bourne Trilogy, Proof of Life and every other hostage movie
2013’s Captain Phillips is a very good film about Somali pirates hijacking a cargo ship, but A Hijacking is an outstanding film about Somali pirates hijacking a cargo ship. Director Tobias Lindholm spreads the ripples of dramatic tension out beyond the ship and crew to the negotiators, the families and the “bottom line” business interests involved. In the end, both films are white knuckle drama pictures that force the viewer to consider the relationship between corporate systems, violence and the value of human life.
10. Tell No One (France, 2006)
For Fans Of: Mystic River, Momento, The Fugitive, North By Northwest
Years after Alex’s wife is murdered under highly mysterious circumstances, the many loose ends of the murder begin to both unravel and come together. Alex is forced to outrun corruption, assassination and the sudden appearance of his lost lover’s ghost. Action-packed chase scenes and tightly wound Hitchcockian twists make Tell No One one of the best psychological thrillers of the 2000s.
Austin Sailsbury lives, writes, and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow him on twitter @austinsails and at his blog Wayfarers All.