The list below is a compilation of 20 foreign-language thrillers made in the 21st Century that I have enjoyed the most. The purpose is to list movie recommendations apart from the Indian and Hollywood fare that is more popular amongst film fans. These films spill over into other genres too, but all of them have the elements of a thriller.
This is NOT a ranked list. It excludes Korean films (click here for that). Plus, it might not have some of your own favourites, so don’t forget to mention them in the comments section.
Here we go.
1. Millenium Trilogy (Sweden, 2009)
The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Three films, based on Stieg Larsson’s bestselling books. Popularised Scandinavian Noir as a genre world over.
2. Marshland (Spain, 2014) Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.3
The Franco dictatorship has ended. Two girls are found murdered in a southern village. Enter two cops from Madrid. The stunning opening credits sequence is a bonus.
3. Headhunters (Norway, 2011) Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.5
A headhunter for corporate firm is also a con-man stealing art. He crosses the wrong person and is forced to run for his life. Game Of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays the suave villain. Directed by Morten Tyldum, who’d go on to make The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch.
4. The Secret In Their Eyes (Argentina, 2009) Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 8.2
The Best Foreign Film Oscar winner in 2009, over frontrunners The Prophet (more on that later) and The White Ribbon. A retired judicial officer is writing a book about the case that he, and his younger, senior colleague (also his crush) could never solve. The great Argentine actor Ricardo Darín headlines this.
5. Nine Queens (Argentina, 2000) Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.9
From director Fabián Bielinsky, a tale of two con-men, each trying to fox the other for a $ 500,000 bounty. Darín co-stars with Gastón Pauls. Bollywood ripped this off to make Bluffmaster.
6. Incendies (Canada, 2010) Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 8.3
Before he made Prisoners and Sicario, Denis Villeneuve made this unnerving thriller about a migrant woman who leaves behind a will asking her fraternal twin kids to search for their father and brother respectively. One of the most shocking endings of all time.
Bonus : Radiohead’s “You And Whose Army” features in the opening sequence.
7. The Keeper Of Lost Causes (Denmark, 2013) Rotten Tomatoes 70%, IMDb 7.2
The first of the four films so far based on Jussi Adler Olsen’s Department Q books, in which Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares star as the detectives solving unsolved cold cases. All four films are intriguing, although this is still the best.
8. Omar (Palestine, 2013) Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.5
Life in an occupied state. Romance, brotherhood and betrayal. A dead soldier. All hell breaking loose.
9. The Raid Series (Indonesia, 2011 and 2014)
Welsh director Gareth Evans’ two martial art films (Redemption and Berandal) incorporate other genres too to create compelling action flicks. Watch them for the beautifully choreographed Pencak Silat fight scenes, if nothing else.
10. Timecrimes (Spain, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes 89%, IMDb 7.2
Time travel makes for an interesting concept. The film packs the terror of a masked villain too from the beginning. As things escalate, the first thing you’ll feel is bafflement, and then, shock.
11. A Prophet (France, 2009) Rotten Tomatoes 97%, IMDb 7.9
“A coming-of-age story in a prison” would be the one-line gist. But this film is more than that. Less straightforward than your average thriller, with convincing performances from Tahir Rahim as the young convict and Niels Arestrup as the jail’s Godfather.
12. Tell No One (France, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes 94%, IMDb 7.5
Based on American author Harlan Coben’s eponymous book, this tells the story of a man whose wife was murdered by a serial killer 8 years ago. New murders implicate him, and he receives a message telling him that his wife is alive. Cue bedlam.
13. The Lives Of Others (Germany, 2006) Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 8.4
1984, East Germany. A Stasi (secret service) agent’s job is to listen in to other people’s conversations and file those away. He goes after a famous playwright and his family, who are seemingly too good to be true patriots. The first of two consecutive German films to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The second follows.
14. The Counterfeiters (Germany, 2007) Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.6
Technically, it’s an Austrian-German film. Based on the real-life story of Salomon Sorowitsch, whose team was tasked by its Nazi concentration camp handlers to make fake British currency to dump the enemy’s economy at the height of the Second World War.
15. Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002) Rotten Tomatoes 94%, IMDb 8.0
Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar-winning The Departed was pretty good, no? It was a remake of this film starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung. For those unaware of the plot, the police force and the Triads (Hong Kong mafia) both have a mole each in the other’s ranks. Cat-and-mouse, mouse-and-cat.
16. Land Of Mine (Denmark, 2015) Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 7.8
Another Second World War-related film, based on another real-life story. At the end of the war, the German occupation of Denmark finishes. Young German POWs are forced to clear Nazi landmines by the thousands at the North Sea coast. A harrowing, human story.
17. The Consequences Of Love (Italy, 2004) Rotten Tomatoes 83%, IMDb 7.5
A man working for the Italian mafia is holed up in a hotel in Switzerland for ages. He has feelings for the barmaid. Features one of my favourite songs, and a cold, wet ending.
18. Phoenix (Germany, 2014) Rotten Tomatoes 98%, IMDb 7.3
A singer returns from a concentration camp and sets out to find her husband, sure in her belief that he didn’t betray her to the Nazis. Another film with a great ending.
19. Gomorrah (Italy, 2008) Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.0
We’ve all watched mafia films made in the US or UK or India. Have a dose of the mafia from the land which gave the word. For a change, this is the Camorra mafia in Naples, not Silician mafia. A searing portrayal of how crime permeates all levels of society.
20. City Of God (Brazil, 2002) Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 8.6
Great cinematography, epic story, but even more potent, the story of how crime is a way of life in the Brazilian slums, and how fighting to stay away from it is an even harder task than partaking in it.
What do you think of this list? Which movies do you think I missed? Let’s discuss in the comments section.
Featured image courtesy.
Thank you for reading.