TOP 20 BEST FOREIGN FILMS OF 2013

This post is already one year late, but a lot of films needed to be carefully considered. This list reflects solely the opinion of the writer. For films that were released in the U.S. or in other countries in 2012 but had a release date in the Philippines in 2013, the Philippine release date is followed upon the creation of this list.

Also, all of the films appearing in this list have been rated FIVE over FIVE by the author.
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And so, let the counting commence forth.

20. PRISONERS
      Denis Villenueve, USA


A gripping police procedural, a whodunit thriller, and a morality study combined best describes PRISONERS. Solidly directed and featuring a stellar cast including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano, among others who all render equally intense performances. The film follows the disappearance of both Jackman's and Howard's daughters, and the ensuing investigation led by Gyllenhaal's cop character, in which a suspicious young man (Dano) is grilled into confession as to the whereabouts of the girls. 


19. ZERO DARK THIRTY
      Kathryn Bigelow, USA


One of the controversial films in recent memory is ZERO DARK THIRTY, the unflinching recreation of the daring operation of the Seal Team Six to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Told almost entirely from the point of view of Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA analyst who has devoted her life's work to tracking down Bin Laden, ZDT offers both a tension-building experience leading to the now famous operation, and a character study of a woman whose calculated grip on the war on terror is marked by unparalleled ruthlessness. 


18. GRAVITY
      Alfonso Cuaron, USA


If Alfonso Cuaron's aim was to make us feel the vast, cold infinity of space, and the sheer terror of the unknown, then he succeeded. GRAVITY is a one-of-a-kind experience, a more than welcome return to serious acting for Sandra Bullock, way better than THE BLIND SIDE. There is no other way to view GRAVITY than in IMAX 3D format. It just has to be viewed that way. 


17. FRUITVALE STATION
      Ryan Coogler, USA


Based on a true story, FRUITVALE STATION is about the last hours of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California, during New Year's Day in 2009. Told with much empathy for his subject matter and highlighting the goodness of the main character despite his troubled past, FRUITVALE STATION is an engaging drama. Raw, honest, and straight through the heart. Michael B. Jordan gives one impressive performance as Oscar Grant, and Octavia Spencer delivers a heart-wrenching turn as  Oscar's mother.


16. NEW WORLD
      Park Hoon-jung,  SOUTH KOREA


With a story and theme that echoes that of the wildly successful INFERNAL AFFAIRS, Park Hoon-jung's crime thriller rises above the cliches of the gangster genre through his colorful assortment of flawed characters that make surprising turns as the story progresses. The unrest begins when the head of a criminal organization is suddenly killed in a car accident. Various successors plot against each other to take his place, but loyalties and identities are quickly changing in a vicious game of cat and mouse. Plus points to this film for the campy elevator knife fight scene that keeps begging for more. 


15. PRINCE AVALANCHE
      David Gordon Green, USA


Two men (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) contemplate love, their differences and the mundane as they paint yellow lines on the asphalt road of a country highway in this little indie charmer from David Gordon Green. Rudd plays Alvin, who finds freedom and peace in the solitude of the wilderness, while Hirsch plays Lance, the presumed idiot brother of Alvin's girlfriend. Featuring stunning cinematography by Tim Orr and an eclectic musical score by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky, PRINCE AVALANCHE is a contemplative and honest look about two men, and the unexpected friendship that formed within a mountain of insecurities, stupidity, and stubbornness. 


14. ILO-ILO
      Anthony Chen, SINGAPORE


Winning the Camera d'Or Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and marking the first time a Singaporean film has won an award at Cannes, Anthony Chen's ILO-ILO is a poignant observational drama about a Singaporean family during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and the friendship that sparked between a young boy, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and his Filipina nanny, Teresa (Angeli Bayani). Honest, moving and uncompromising, Anthony Chen's debut feature is a work of silent beauty, and features another noteworthy performance from the versatile Angeli Bayani.  


13. LE PASSE (THE PAST)
      Asghar Farhadi, IRAN/ITALY/FRANCE


Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi revisits the theme of divorce in his previous film A SEPARATION, and finds an examination of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons within a story of inner turmoil brought about by difficult choices. An Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is summoned by his ex-wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) in France to finalize their divorce, so she can marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), an Arab man whose wife is currently in a coma. Throughout a difficult week, secrets unravel, and relationships are tested to the limits. 


12. FRANCES HA
      Noah Baumbach, USA


FRANCES HA reunites Noah Baumbach with Greta Gerwig who previously starred in Baumbach's dysfunctional dark comedy GREENBERG, and Gerwig, whose own movie is long overdue delivers one spark of joy after another in this infectious story of self-discovery. The script is witty, and Gerwig is fun-filled to the bone. That insertion of David Bowie's upbeat song MODERN LOVE as Frances dashes along the New York streets is pure magic. 


11. BLUE JASMINE
      Woody Allen, USA


Is there anything that Cate Blanchett cannot do? From a strong-willed monarch, to a Soviet scientist villain, to being Bob Dylan, and now this colorful character of a woman about to lose her grip on sanity which earned her an Oscar trophy, Blanchett continues to surprise. BLUE JASMINE, while clearly a better film than Allen's previous films (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER), becomes a required viewing due to Blanchett's unforgettable turn as the titular character, a mix of eccentricity and gravitas. 


10. THE IMPOSSIBLE
      J.A. Bayona, Spain


Based on the true story of one family's ordeal and survival during the Indian Ocean tsunami incident in 2004, THE IMPOSSIBLE delivers gut-wrenching drama and stellar performances from leads Naomi Watts (who should have bagged the Best Actress Oscar that year) and Ewan McGregor, and from the young actors who play the couple's children. I dare you not to shed a tear during this movie. 


9. WHAT MAISIE KNEW
     Scott McGehee and David Siegel, USA


This is the film that every parent, or expectant parent, or potential parent (so that's basically everyone) should be required to watch. A contemporary re-imagining of the classic Henry James novel, WHAT MAISIE KNEW is captivating for the sheer emotional weight of the subject material which is made even heartbreaking by making the film from the point of view of the young girl, Maisie. Onata Aprile, the young girl who plays Maisie is a gifted revelation. 


8. DISCONNECT
    Henry Alex Rubin, USA


The film's statement could not be more painfully true: people spend more time creating digital relations than actual human connections. A sad, sad truth, indeed. Also, the final shot of this film (FYI not the screenshot above, mind you)- hauntingly beautiful.


7. LA GRANDE BELLEZZA (THE GREAT BEAUTY)
    Paolo Sorrentino, Italy


A contemplative look on choices not made, opportunities lost, and finding one's fulfillment, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA, when it's not featuring stunningly gorgeous cinematography or engaging us in an intellectual discourse, is actually a poignant character study of one man's introspection. As if this is not tempting enough for you, the film won the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and BAFTA, and is part of the Official Selection for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. While in exhibition at the 15th Cinemanila International FIlm Festival, the film was awarded the Lino Brocka award for Best Film.


6. JAGTEN (THE HUNT)
    Thomas Vinterberg, DENMARK


One small lie destroys one man's reputation, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, the true nature of all his so-called neighbors, colleagues and friends unfold faster than you could spell INJUSTICE. 


5. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
    Abdellatif Kechiche, France


The quote "Love has no gender. Take whoever loves you." is perhaps the one I best remember about BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, the French film by Abdellatif Kechiche which earned quite a global reputation after it won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for the film, and for its two leads Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. Suddenly everyone wanted to watch it. After two viewings, I finally said "this is a film that will stand the test of time". More than a lesbian movie, BLUE is more of a search for identity, a heartbreaking journey that we are more than welcome to share with Adele. 


4. LABOR DAY
    Jason Reitman, USA 


LABOR DAY is a gentle reminder of why Kate Winslet is still one of the best actresses around. As she portrays her character's silent adaptation to terror, and to her own loneliness, Winslet grabs our attention over the minutest detail- a slight tingling of her hands, her weary eyes, her face filled with longing. Also, of all of Jason Reitman's films (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, YOUNG ADULT), this one proves to be my favorite. Josh Brolin's gentleness vis-a-vis threatening presence is an equal match to Winslet's  vulnerability. Students should watch this as example on how to develop a plot.


3. THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN
    Felix Van Groeningen, BELGIUM


The poignant story of boy meets girl, and their evolution as parents to a cancer-stricken daughter is told in alternating timelines. The pain becomes increasingly real as every detail of the couple's shattering love story unfurls in a haunting fashion, as if a violent memory you cannot shake. One just cannot be simply prepared emotionally for this. 


2. SHORT TERM 12
    Destin Daniel Cretton, USA


At the center of SHORT TERM 12 is Grace (Brie Larson), a young woman who works as a supervisor at a facility for at risk teenagers. Working at such emotionally stressful environments, one cannot fully separate the professional from the personal, especially for fragile creatures as human beings. Destin Daniel Cretton's careful direction builds drama steadily and slowly, allowing characters to explore their emotions. The result is a painstakingly beautiful portrait of human connections formed in the unlikeliest of places. 


1. PHILOMENA
    Stephen Frears, UNITED KINGDOM


Expect Judi Dench to approach this real-life character with affecting humor and endearing pathos; coupled with Steve Coogan who is absolutely brilliant in this movie and guided with the expertise of master director Stephen Frears (THE QUEEN, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, DANGEROUS LIAISONS) and PHILOMENA becomes the sort of movie you know you will enjoy, but did not expect to enjoy so much. The plot follows ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who stumbles upon the story of Philomena Lee (Dench), a woman in constant search for her son who was taken away from her many years ago by nuns at a convent in Ireland.  The journey which takes them from UK to Ireland and eventually, to the United States is a magical one, filled with hopes, and fears, and colorful anecdotes. The film's most treasured moments are when Philomena shares to Martin the plot of the romance novels she's been reading; in those scenes, you know right away that no other actress can pull it off rather than Dench.   












   







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