In the now iconic words of Bong Joon-ho, once you overcome the barrier one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. And in 2020, that statement continued to be true with a slate of extraordinary cinematic works from around the world. From wartime dramas to forbidden romances, world cinema made us laugh, cry and open our eyes to fresh perspectives. With the bountiful array of international films produced in the past year, this list is hardly exhaustive. But from what I’ve seen, here are my picks for the Top 10 Non-English Language Films of 2020.
Honorable Mention: Night of the Kings
10. TWO OF US
In a year bearing no shortage of films surrounding mental ailments, Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us is one of 2020’s most moving. It stars Barbara Sukowa as Nina and Martine Chevallier as Madeleine, two retired women who live as neighbors in Parisian apartments who share a secret love affair. When Madeleine suffers a stroke, however, their arrangement is put to the test by Madeleine’s meddling children. Gracely directed and performed, their everlasting love becomes palpably apparent, as the determined Nina embarks on an eventful mission to ensure a reunion. As they find their way back to each other, this unabashedly sentimental film will melt the most hardened of hearts.
9. SUN CHILDREN
More than 20 years after Children of Heaven netted an Oscar nomination, Iranian director Majid Majidi could be in contention again for his affecting drama Sun Children. Like his award-winning debut, Sun Children centers the perspectives of children, as it tells the story of four boys who are forced to hustle to survive. For their latest scheme, they enroll in a school for the underprivileged, in the pursuit of treasure rumored to be hidden below. As we follow their desperate plot, Majidi deftly weaves in sharp social commentary about the plight of impoverished children in the Middle East. But most impressive are the remarkable assured performances from its young leads, especially Roohollah Zamani as their tenacious, misguided mastermind.
8. LA LLORONA
Cult-like prayer circles. Strange noises at night. Stoic testimonials of rape and murder. The real life terrors of instill a chilling atmosphere even before a supernatural presence arrives to torment a genocidal military general’s family in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona. Set in Guatemala, this immaculately crafted horror film envisions an allegorical reckoning for crimes against indigenous people, through a compelling ghost story. Indeed, you’ll surely be rooting for María Mercedes Coroy as the family’s enigmatic new maid, as she invokes an unforgettable, nightmarish retribution.
7. DEAR COMRADES
Russian cinema is known for its bleak dramas and with Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Dear Comrades, that tradition continues with one of his most harrowing films to date. Dear Comrades relives one of the darkest episodes in the country’s history, when the communist government opened fire on factory workers protesting increasing food prices. At the heart of the story is Julia Vysotskaya as Lyuda, delivering a fierce portrayal of a stubbornly loyal government insider who is awakened to the cruelty of the regime when her rebellious daughter goes missing. Shot in elegant black and white and directed with a kinetic sense of urgency, Dear Comrades is one of the most essential political films of the year.
6. QUO VADIS, AIDA?
One of the highlights of the fall festival circuit, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Oscar submission Quo vadis, Aida? is a searing depiction of war and genocide. Told from the perspective of a local UN translator, it dramatizes the events surrounding the Serbian Army’s massacre of the Bosnian population in Srebrenica. Widely acknowledged as a failure of the United Nations to protect this designated “safe zone”, Quo vadis, Aida? is powerful and heart-wrenching. Featuring dynamic camerawork and an equally physical performance from Jasna Djuricic, Quo vadis Aida? deftly communicates the escalating madness and ultimate tragedy of war.
5. I CARRY YOU WITH ME
We love the idea of the perfect fairytale romance, but the most moving love stories come with varying degrees of hardship. That unfortunate truth is the foundation of Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me, which captivates with its stunning honesty even before we meet the real life lovers in its final act. Indeed, the award-winning documentarian makes a sterling foray into narrative features as she elegantly weaves together fact and fiction in depicting the journey of a gay Mexican couple seeking a better life in America. As they face homophobia at home and racial discrimination in their adopted land, Ewing strikes the perfect balance between enchanting romance and gritty social realism with breathtaking cinematography and poignant screenwriting. The result is a bittersweet immigrant drama that embraces the hope of the American dream while conveying the deep longing for what is left behind.
4. ANOTHER ROUND
In one of the year’s most exhilarating performances, Mads Mikkelsen reunites with director Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round, their unique take on the addiction drama. The esteemed Danish actor stars as Martin, a man going through a midlife crisis that affects his family and teaching career. During a birthday dinner, his similarly unmotivated colleagues form a strange pact, deciding to maintain a minimum level of alcohol in their blood to rekindle the spark in their lives. What follows is an alternately sobering and liberating roller coaster of emotions, culminating in a dance sequence that will be talked about for years to come.
3. SUMMER OF 85
On the sun-kissed surface of François Ozon’s latest film Summer of 85, it’s easy to draw comparisons to Luca Guadagnino‘s Call Me by Your Name. But while these two films of 1980s European summer love may feel like cinematic cousins, there are darker edges to Ozon’s engrossing French drama. When a 16-year old boy named Alexis is saved at sea by a handsome 18-year old stranger, a friendship turns develops into a life-altering romance told with nostalgic spirit. But there’s a potential murder mystery lurking underneath the ravishing cinematography and warm performances, giving the narrative and extra layer of intrigue to keep you riveted from beginning to end.
For one of 2020’s quintessential American stories, look no further than Lee Isaac Chung’s touchingly empathetic Minari. Following a Korean immigrant family as they move from the city to rural Arkansas, this special film is at once classic and undeniably contemporary. Indeed, there’s a nod to the unknown frontier as the family’s patriarch Jacob (sensitively portrayed by Steven Yeun) toils on his farmland to secure their slice of the American pie in the 1980s. As Chung draws on his own childhood to unravel the rich family dynamic, the personal becomes universal as three generations come together to realize their American dreams.
1. AND THEN WE DANCED
When Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced was released, it was met with protest among the conservative Georgian society it depicts. And it’s easy to understand why. At once a scintillating dance film and a heartfelt gay love story, this acclaimed drama points a metaphorical middle finger at the heteronormative establishment. Dancer Levan Gelbakhiani makes his sensational film debut in the lead role as Merab, a member of the traditionalist National Georgian Ensemble aspiring to land a coveted spot in the main ensemble. When his technique is decried as being too “soft” and “weak,” his chances look even more slim when a new dancer arrives who better fits the mould. But instead of rivals, the two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a dangerous romance. Anchored by Gelbakhiani’s stunning performance, And Then We Danced beautifully portrays a journey of self actualization all the way to its defiant conclusion.