Critics' Picks: The 10 Best Foreign-Language Films of 2016

6:40 AM 12/19/2016

by THR Staff

THR film critics rank their favorite foreign-language releases of the year, including a bold French film from Paul Verhoeven, a sexy, Sapphic South Korean thriller, a Romanian western and more.

'The Handmaiden' and 'Elle'
'The Handmaiden' and 'Elle'
Photofest

  1. 10
    10

    Aquarius

    Brazil

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Returning to the Brazilian neighborhood of his debut, Neighboring Sounds, but focusing on the life of a single aging resident (played by an elegant and still very passionate Sonia Braga) who makes a final stand against greedy real-estate developers, Kleber Mendonca Filho's film brims with nostalgia for the sights and sounds of old times. It's an appealing, visually vibrant portrait of one woman holding on to her dignity as others try to take away what's most dear to her: the apartment where she's lived, loved and survived through various personal trials. — Jordan Mintzer

  2. 9
    10

    Aferim!

    Romania

    Silviu Ghetie/ Big World Productions

    A harsh history lesson leavened by bawdy humor and classic western elements, this film dramatizes the formerly taboo subject of gypsy slavery that flourished in Romania for centuries, and was only finally abolished in 1856. Handsomely shot in luminous monochrome on 35mm film, director Radu Jude's third feature boasts a striking look, a surprisingly funny script and timely observations about the lingering scars of slavery, feudalism, misogyny and racism. — Stephen Dalton

  3. 8
    10

    Things to Come

    France

    Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

    For her very fine fifth feature, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Love follows the quotidian travails of a 50-something philosophy teacher — played effortlessly and with plenty of verve by Isabelle Huppert — who's dumped by her husband, burdened with a senile mother and suddenly forced to face the onset of old age by herself. The filmmaker tackles her subject head-on in a manner both deeply intellectual and compassionately playful, mixing citations by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal with witty reflections and a surprising number of cat jokes. — J.M.

  4. 7
    10

    From Afar

    Venezuela

    Courtesy of TIFF

    This intimate chamber piece about two men from vastly different worlds who make an unexpected connection marks an assured debut from Lorenzo Vigas. Deliberately detached in its observational style, yet as probing, subtle and affecting as any psychological drama could wish to be, this is an elliptical film that trusts its audience to accept layers of ambiguity. The film has a stinging clarity that’s amplified in very fine performances from Chilean veteran Alfredo Castro (No, The Club) and promising newcomer Luis Silva. — David Rooney

  5. 6
    10

    Neruda

    Chile

    Courtesy of Director’s Fortnight Film

    Gael Garcia Bernal reteams with No director Pablo Larrain to play an obsessive detective on the trail of the famed Chilean poet-politician forced into exile in 1948. Focusing on the period in the late 1940s when the writer, then a senator for the Chilean Communist Party, was living in hiding before fleeing first to Argentina and then to France, Neruda takes its stylistic cues from the poet’s work. Guillermo Calderon's screenplay blends surreal perspective, political anger, simmering passion, mordant humor and celebratory sensuality for an idiosyncratic contemplation of a great artist. — D.R.

  6. 5
    10

    The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

    Finland

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Finnish newcomer Juho Kuosmanen chronicles the buildup to the 1962 world featherweight championship title match in this idiosyncratic boxing drama. Shooting such a story in black and white might risk inviting comparison to the gold standard for the genre, Raging Bull. But Kuosmanen's captivating account of the face-off between country baker Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) and American titleholder Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.) so gracefully sidesteps the formulaic mold that it almost could be considered an anti-fight picture. — D.R. 

  7. 4
    10

    Being 17

    France

    Courtesy of Luc Roux

    Andre Techine's drama about the emotionally and physically charged connection between two rural French teen boys is an ultra-naturalistic slice of rocky adolescent life that combines violence and sensuality, wrenching loss and tender discovery. Expansive in scope and rich in tone, it's an intimate epic that builds in wholly unexpected ways to a final act of searing poignancy. As the doctor mother of one of the boys, Sandrine Kiberlain gives a gorgeous performance, radiating warmth, strength, humor and intelligence while remaining real and relatable. — D.R. 

  8. 3
    10

    The Handmaiden

    South Korea

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Expectations are fully met in Park Chan-wook's exquisitely filmed, amusingly kinky and surprisingly moving 1930s erotic thriller (based on the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith) about a fetching Korean pickpocket, a Japanese heiress and the swindler who tries to play them both. Brimming with delicious surprises that make its two-and-a-half hours fly by, the film never descends into the cheap and tawdry — and the violence, considering this is from the cult director of Oldboy, remains surprisingly offscreen. — Deborah Young 

  9. 2
    10

    Toni Erdmann

    Germany

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Maren Ade's third feature film beautifully unravels the knots that tie together Peter Simonischek's prankster father and Sandra Huller as his career-driven daughter. The result is the first-ever genuinely funny, 162-minute German comedy of embarrassment. Even the use of whoopee cushions and semen-covered petit fours as props and the inclusion of a scene where a character sings an easy-listening classic in its entirety doesn't stop this film from being a slow-burning thing of beauty, moving and implausibly funny. — Leslie Felperin

  10. 1
    10

    Elle

    France

    Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

    Paul Verhoeven's disturbing and witty film about a French woman's complicated response to the man who raped her is one of the high points of his career. For his first feature in 10 years, the Dutch auteur has teamed up with the great Isabelle Huppert to craft a tastefully twisted mid- to late-life-crisis thriller that's both lasciviously dark and rebelliously light on its feet — a story about a woman who is sexually assaulted and fights back with mockery and resilience. — J.M. 

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