Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the Best Foreign-Language Films of 2018

6:45 AM 12/19/2018

by THR Staff

From an autobiographical Mexican masterpiece to two very different dramas from Hirokazu Kore-eda, a slow-simmering Korean thriller and a love story between Swedish trolls, here are the best foreign-language movies of the year.

From left: 'The Third Murder,' 'Burning,' 'Summer 1993'
From left: 'The Third Murder,' 'Burning,' 'Summer 1993'
Courtesy of Fuji Television Network; Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival; Courtesy of Inicia Films
  1. 10
    10

    Custody

    Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

    This hard-hitting and largely naturalistic French film dissects a family’s struggles with the fallout of a divorce and the resulting joint-custody arrangement for the kids. The drama hinges on the fact that the mother (Lea Drucker) had requested full custody for herself, arguing that the children did not want to see their increasingly violent father (Denis Menochet). Director Xavier Legrand lays bare the tensions, lies and faulty defense mechanisms of the separated parents as well as their kids. Confidently assembled and acted with impressive precision, it’s a striking debut feature and a solid calling card for its maker. — BOYD VAN HOEIJ

  2. 9
    10

    The Guardians

    Courtesy of TIFF

    A World War I movie where the battles are fought far from home but resonate deeply with those who’ve been left behind, this French drama is a satisfyingly low-key return to form for Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and MenLe Petit lieutenant). Straightforward and simply told, with emotions running just below the surface and then boiling up at key moments, this femme-centric story — about a group of women holding down the family farm while the men are away at the front — proves that the director still masters his uniquely classical brand of filmmaking, coaxing strong performances out of veteran Nathalie Baye and newbie Iris Bry. — JORDAN MINTZER

  3. 8
    10

    Border

    Courtesy of Meta Spark and Karnfilm

    This gripping thriller, adapted by Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbassi from a novella by Let the Right One In creator John Ajvide Lindqvist, blends supernatural folklore with contemporary social realism in a parable about fear of the other. While the premise — an attraction between two Swedish outcasts with facial deformities — shares DNA with the superfreak allegories of the X-Men series, the naturalistic presentation has more in common with the downbeat grit of Nordic noir. — STEPHEN DALTON

  4. 7
    10

    Summer 1993

    Courtesy of Inicia Films

    A summer of troubled and troubling experience is reshaped into a delicately crafted, moving filmic memoir by Catalan director Carla Simon in her feature debut. That the film draws on personal recollection can be sensed in virtually every frame of this story about a 6-year-old girl sent to live with her uncle and aunt following the death of her parents; it imparts to events a directness and detail that is underpinned throughout by its performances, particularly those of the children. Childhood memoirs always are under threat from self-indulgence and sentimentality, but this one successfully sidesteps both. — JONATHAN HOLLAND

  5. 6
    10

    The Third Murder

    Courtesy of Film Movement

    A confessed murderer changes his story (several times) in Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda's complex, engrossing and elegant courtroom drama — the film he made before 2018 Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters. Though different in feeling from the Japanese writer-director's perceptive family talesit has the same clarity of thought, mysterious beauty and precision of image as his very best work. — DEBORAH YOUNG

  6. 5
    10

    The Guilty

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Despite focusing entirely on one individual (a commanding Jakob Cedergren) as he speaks into a headset in an emergency call center, this Danish film nonetheless emerges as a twisty crime thriller that’s every bit as pulse-pounding and involving as its action-oriented, adrenaline-soaked counterparts. In his feature debut, helmer Gustav Moller masterfully ratchets up tension without the benefit of the usual visual aids, forcing viewers to dust off their imaginations and put them to work, with chillingly effective results. — MICHAEL RECHTSHAFFEN

  7. 4
    10

    Cold War

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    The new film from Pawel Pawlikowski (2015 foreign-language Oscar winner Ida) is a bittersweet and lovely ballad of lovers who can't stand to stay apart but also can't stand each other. Achingly romantic, though wryly realistic about the destructive power of eros, the drama spans from the '40s to the '60s, tracking the tempestuous relationship between pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) as they shuttle back and forth across the Iron Curtain, from Warsaw to Paris and beyond. — LESLIE FELPERIN

  8. 3
    10

    Shoplifters

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda contrasts the frigid emotions of socially correct behavior with the warmth and happiness of a dishonest lower-class Tokyo family, in which money is tight and all methods of obtaining it are permissible, including teaching the children to steal. This small film is a thoughtful addition to his parables about happy and unhappy families (Nobody KnowsAfter the Storm), studded with memorable characters and believable performances that quietly lead the viewer to reflect on societal values. Who better than Kore-eda, a director who whispers instead of shouts, to capture contradictions and issues though such a subtle, unforced style of storytelling? — DEBORAH YOUNG

  9. 2
    10

    Burning

    Courtesy of Finecut

    Daringly heating his mysterious tale involving just three people on a low boil across two and a half hours, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong establishes and then sustains an almost trance-like state while still keeping a simple yet elusive story afloat. With a script adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” this is a beautifully crafted film loaded with glancing insights and observations into an understated triangular relationship, one rife with subtle perceptions about class privilege, reverberating family legacies, creative confidence, self-invention, sexual jealousy, justice and revenge. —TODD MCCARTHY

  10. 1
    10

    Roma

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Few cinematic evocations of a director's youth have been as distinctive, gorgeous and less self-centered than Alfonso Cuaron's glimmering black-and-white account of Mexico City life in the early 1970s. Rejecting melodrama in favor of immersion, Cuaron keenly observes life around him while gradually coming to focus on the quiet, uneducated, powerless family maid, whose existence is seen as central to those around her. The unstressed drama is foregrounded by a cascade of extraordinary images and an emerging sense of history being made. —TODD MCCARTHY