Say what you willabout the current state of American cinema, but there is one truth film-lovers can hold to be self-evident: Year after year, most many of the best films are imports from countries across the world. These are the kinds of films that typically yield critical kudos but struggle to find footing in the U.S. marketplace. Luckily, anything and everything is available to discover on DVD. This list sifts through the hundreds of worthy titles since 2000 to the bare-bones minimum of 25. Before you cry foul, wolf, or hey where’s [insert foreign film title here], this is by no means an exhaustive list. Think of it like so: If you were to tell someone who has not seen a single foreign film this decade what to watch, these would be the best 25 titles to start with. The must-see’s. The most-essential:
25. Maria Full of Grace (Colombia, 2004)
First-time Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno earned a richly deserved Oscar nomination for her startling portrayal of a restless woman who willingly becomes a drug mule. After she swallows 62cocaine-filled pellets and departs for America, she finds her world slowly unraveling around her. Shot from an almost documentary-like perspective, Maria Full of Grace is at turns shocking and absolutely heartbreaking.
24. Persepolis (France, 2007)
Lovingly adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated graphic novels, and lavishly animated in a sleek black-and-white palette, Persepolis is that uncommon thing in cinema: an animated film for adults. The luminosity of Satrapi’s autobiographical tale is on full display, from a child’s innocence lost to falling in love for the first time, all backdropped against the turbulence of the Iranian Revolution. Make it a back-to-back feature with last year’s terrific Waltz with Bashir to see the definitions of animation break through every boundary.
23. Volver (Spain, 2006)
coaxes such great performances out of Penelope Cruz, they should always
work together. Almodovar’s muse is in rare form in Volver, an affable, lighthearted film with just the right balance of whimsy and emotional heft. A comic-mystery about two sisters who discover someone from their past may still be living, Cruz dominates every inch of the screen with her commanding, soulful performance.
22. Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Vampire stories are plastered all over American pop culture these days (True Blood, Twilight, this fall’s The Vampire Diaries), but leave it to the Swedes to produce a vampire film that manages to be both sweet and frightening. The friendship between Oskar, a scrawny, 12-year-old outcast, and Eli, a centuries-old vampire frozen in the body of a child, is a chilling but beautiful story to behold. Rumor has it an American remake is forthcoming, but there’s simply to perfect what’s already been perfected.
21. Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a mind-trip like no other, not to mention so violent it puts Quentin Tarantino’s flicks to shame. The film’s setup: a man thirsts for revenge and answers after he is held prisoner in a hotel room for 15 years, without ever knowing why. As the story movies from one bloody rampage to another, the film’s daring audacity gives away to a beating heart behind the madness. Packing a potent psychological punch, Oldboy is in a category all its own.
20. Gomorrah (Italy, 2008)
Gritty like The Godfather or the work of Martin Scorsese, Gomorrah depicts five microcosmic stories of the brutal underground mafia scene in Naples. The cast of largely untrained actors only enhances the film’s grim authenticity, and that authenticity is bolstered by the fact that the film’s source material, the bestselling book of same name, required author Roberto Saviano to get a permanent police escort. Harrowing in its matter-of-factness, the Academy criminally overlooked one of 2008’s best by not nominating it for Best Foreign Film.
19. Downfall (Germany, 2005)