In the past decade, foreign films became slightly less foreign as directors moved from country to country, funding came from all over the globe, and various international artists teamed up for the benefit of a single work. American Clint Eastwood made a film in Japanese, Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien made a film in French, and Chinese Wong Kar-wai made a film in English. There was even a film with a writer from Poland, a director from Germany, lead actors from Australia and USA, dialogue in Italian and funding from France. So for my list, I'm not choosing "foreign" films so much as I am films whose primary language is not English. Following is my ten best in ranked order.
1. Yi Yi (2000)
This was the seventh feature film by Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, and his first to be distributed in the United States. Sadly, it was also his last film, as he passed away in 2007 at the age of 59. Yi Yi -- subtitled "A One and a Two" -- struck me as a classic even as I watched it early in 2001. I watched it again a few weeks ago just to make sure, and it struck me the same way. Its most miraculous achievement is that it seems warmly humanistic and rigorously artistic at the same time. Usually directors fall in either one camp or the other. It's a bit like The Godfather (without the killings) or like Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (without the angst), a sprawling family epic, in which we observe several members of one very universal family, but we also view them through long hallways or door frames or windows; Yang constantly reminds us that we're just watching and we may never truly know them. The most revealing character is the little boy Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), who likes to photograph the backs of people's heads so that they can see what they truly look like; that's a bit of poetry for the ages if I ever saw it.
2. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr made arthouse waves in the 1990s with his seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, though I think this more manageable, 2-1/2 hour film is just as good. Tarr passes much of the time simply tracking behind the actors as they walk, with only the sound of crunching gravel to help. (Gus Van Sant paid tribute to Tarr with his experimental film Gerry.) But at the same time, he conjures up images so gorgeous and startling that they could almost make your heart skip a beat: Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph) describing the movements of the solar system to a bar full of drunken reprobates, or the first view of a captured whale, seen only dimly from the darkened inside of a giant trailer.
3. Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)
The "Taiwanese New Wave" of the 1990s more or less petered out in the 2000s, though Tsai Ming-liang kept the torch burning with a series of increasingly quirky, almost totally deadpan comedies. Some of them, like What Time Is It There? and The Wayward Cloud earned a critical following, but my favorite is this underappreciated tribute to cinema. It takes place on the last day of a dilapidated movie theater, showing King Hu's Dragon Inn (1967), while the rain pours outside and drips in through various cracks and crevices. The ticket girl has a crush on the projectionist, and various other little comedy-dramas play out as patrons very nearly connect, but eventually go their separate ways. Tsai creates a perfect physical space for this disconnect, damp and a little cramped, and very rarely ventures outside. And I would wager that less than 100 words are spoken throughout, but the weird proceedings add up to a very real sense of beautiful sadness.
4. Let the Right One In (2008)
Considering Sweden, I was about to pick Ingmar Bergman's great and overlooked final film, Saraband, but I kept going instead to this Swedish vampire film; it didn't even make my top ten list last year (I saw it in the middle of awards-season crunch), but it has continued to haunt me and I have come to love it for its tender friendship as well as for its brilliant horror movie achievements. Best of all, I loved it for creating a mood, rather than a plot. One of the most surprising scenes simply had the hero and his mother marching around their apartment, brushing their teeth...
5. In the Mood for Love (2000)
If Wong Kar-wai is the master of missed connections, then he never found a purer or more gorgeous way to express that than in this masterpiece. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play heartbroken souls in 1960s-era Hong Kong whose spouses are cheating on them with each other. They begin meeting and exploring their situation, though actually finding a real connection may be out of their reach. Everything in the entire movie, from the close-fitting costumes to the narrow sets, emphasizes Wong's theme.
6. Friday Night (2002)
Claire Denis is arguably France's most fascinating filmmaker right now, with her intense use of moods and space and her glorious way of letting stories happen rather than telling them to us. Her 2004 film L'Intrus (The Intruder) is better in some ways, and more mysterious, but Friday Night is more quietly romantic. Laure (Valérie Lemercier) finishes packing up her things to move in with her boyfriend, but gets stuck in the Friday night traffic. It's chilly, the sun has gone down and the Paris lights have just begun to twinkle to life. She allows a stranger, Jean (Vincent Lindon), to share the warmth of her car, and they strike up a tender friendship. There are probably a million stories in that traffic jam, but this one has to be the most beautiful.
7. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Mexico's Guillermo Del Toro became one of the decade's most interesting new auteurs, revisiting the same imagery and horror themes in all his films, regardless of whether they were Hollywood popcorn-munchers (Blade II, Hellboy) or more complex titles made at home (The Devil's Backbone). Pan's Labyrinth is something of a culmination of all his work, using Hollywood's obsession with fairy tales as a basis, but building up to something a good deal darker and more powerful.
8. Battle Royale (2000)
Born in 1930, Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku probably never placed a movie on any year-end list, ever, having worked exclusively in drive-in level movies like Yakuza Graveyard and The Green Slime. Somehow, at the age of 70, he landed the job of adapting a cult novel into this astounding movie, a cult classic in its own right. It's as if he saved up everything he learned and experienced and fired it back, full-blast, into this final work. (He died three years later.) The simple, disturbing plot has a band of school kids snatched up and sent to an island, where they are given three days to kill each other. (The final one standing gets to go home; if they don't play, everyone dies.) The great Takeshi Kitano -- known as "Beat" Takeshi when acting -- co-stars as the teacher in charge of the whole shebang.
9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)
The Taiwanese and Iranian "New Wave" movements of the 1990s more or less died out over the last ten years, but a new "New Wave" cropped up in -- of all places -- Romania. In 2006 and 2007, three extraordinary films came from there: Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I love all three of them, and certainly the other two are more laced with black humor, but I have chosen this one because of its fearlessly direct approach to an illegal abortion in 1987, and showing the subject through quietly clawing suspense rather than moral superiority and preaching.
10. Crimson Gold (2003)
The Iranian New Wave may have sputtered out, but not without one last, angry gasp from screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami and director Jafar Panahi, who create a sense of inevitable dread with the stunner of an opening: an overweight pizza deliveryman (Hossain Emadeddin) shoots himself in the head after a failed jewelry heist. The film then flashes back to his final days, traveling around to various clients and experiencing injustice and social imbalance; it has been aptly called the Iranian Taxi Driver. It's tough, but true.
Ten Runners Up (alphabetical): A Christmas Tale (2008), Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), The Gleaners and I (2000), Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Oldboy (2003) Pulse (Kairo) (2001), Russian Ark (2002), Saraband (2005), The World (2004), You, the Living (2007)