As 2023 draws to a close, Deadline’s film critics have each chosen their top three movies of the year to hail from abroad. Some were festival world premieres, some have made the International Feature Oscar shortlist — and some have not (not all were put forth by their country of origin, however).
Overall, it has been another banner year for international cinema – right from 2023’s earliest festivals, through to the spring and fall circuits, and including some local productions that also hit outside their home markets.
Here are the top international films of 2023, according to Pete Hammond, Damon Wise, Valerie Complex and Stephanie Bunbury, based on their respected individual opinions and listed in alphabetical order under their names.
PETE HAMMOND’S PICKS:
GODZILLA MINUS ONE
This one snuck up on me right at the close of 2023 and it wasn’t even an entry at any festival I was at, or any country’s entry into the Oscar International race, but rather a wide theatrical release that has turned out to be one of the most successful ever from Japan. Of course it comes with a great cinematic legacy , as well as being the first in the Godzilla series in several years to come from Toho who started it all in 1954. This one stood out from all that has come before and is actually the very first period-set Godzilla movie, placed just at the end of World War II and dealing with the nightmarish aftermath of a losing war, wholesale destruction, and now a monster emerging as a visible result of all that human anguish and fear. Takashi Yamazaki’s take on the legendary lizard is unlike any other, one that doesn’t have the multi-million dollar VFX budgets of the ginormous Hollywood takes, or the cheesy charm of the legion of various chapters pitting Godzilla against all sorts of imposing opponents. This film works on a rare level of human interaction and emotion with fully three dimensional characters at its heart. It is Godzilla minus the expected, Godzilla minus the gimmicks, and Godzilla minus the noise. This is a Godzilla for the ages, a Godzilla art film.
Click here to read Deadline’s Godzilla Minus One review
THE TASTE OF THINGS
This Cannes Film Festival discovery took the Best Director prize for Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Ahn Hung and rightfully so. It may be the most quintessential French film I have seen since, well, A Man and A Woman back in 1966, a sumptuous love story where you aren’t sure if the true object of desire is actually more the food on display than the people consuming it. Benoit Magimel is Bouffant, a gastronome with no peer. He lives with his personal cook and lover Eugenie played exquisitely by Juliette Binoche, as fine as she has ever been. The first act is almost exclusively about the creation of the eats, a near silent movie with the camera gorgeously ogling the goods as they are prepared and served at weekend feasts for Bouffant’s circle of friends whose stomachs seemingly have no bottom. But do not fear. This movie is full of humanity, a heartbreaking love story that ultimately rests on its stars, not its soufflés. Some were shocked when this film, was selected as France’s official Oscar entry over the Palme d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall. I wasn’t. If you are going to enter a French French movie you could do no better than this one that melts hearts and butter all at the same time.
Click here to read Deadline’s The Taste of Things review
THE ZONE OF INTEREST
At Cannes, we are all seeing potentially the best of global cinema that the world has in store in any given year, and so when it comes to choosing which films to review it is always a mystery as to what I will be seeing. The curt descriptions of many of the movies don’t tell you much, and so when I came upon one called The Zone of Interest it simply indicated it was about a Nazi commandant living outside Auschwitz during World War II. Okay, I thought, this sounds fairly familiar but I will give it a shot and sign up to review it. When I emerged from the early morning screening I was transformed after an experience in a theater I had never quite had before. This simple concept focusing on the German family of the Commandant assigned to run the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland opens with quiet scenes of beauty by a lake, a family outing, and soon takes us into their everyday life in a house surrounded by a meticulously-kept garden, but also by the faint sounds of screaming, smoke rising and “everyday” activities of the otherwise unseen Auschwitz located in this ‘zone’ of interest. This from British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer is a Holocaust film like no other, but also in the end one that is undeniably uniquely powerful like no other.
Click here to read Deadline’s The Zone of Interest review
DAMON WISE’S PICKS:
Tarsem Singh made his name with The Cell, a misunderstood thriller that starred Jennifer Lopez as a psychoanalyst chasing a serial killer through her patients’ minds. For a time, this kind of heightened fantasy became his trademark, notably with his self-financed masterpiece The Fall (2006), about a suicidal 1920s stuntman. His comeback film, though, will be a surprise to anyone who thinks they can second-guess this singular director, whose peers include Spike Jonze and David Fincher. Filmed in India and Canada, this slow-burn drama begins as an amiable love story, before taking a dark and disturbing turn. Though not exactly a docudrama with its studied, Haneke-style pacing, Dear Jassi cleaves closely enough to the real-life story of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu, who displeased her family by marrying out of her caste, to deliver the most chilling ending of any film in the fall festival season. The silence that follows every screening is deafening.
Click here to read Deadline’s Dear Jassi review
It’s perhaps a badge of honor for Agnieszka Holland’s latest movie that it isn’t representing Poland in the International Oscar race. Denounced by the Polish Minister of Justice, who compared it to Nazi propaganda even before it premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year, Green Border is a startling snapshot of modern European politics that has a wider significance beyond its national borders. Not quite as forensic as Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest, it is a similar story of ordinary people of desperate times, beginning with a planeload of Syrian refugees landing in Belarus. The plan is to cross the border into Poland, but harsh realities of immigration control result in a Kafkaesque nightmare of weaponized bureaucracy. Like their unwanted guests, the Polish government would like this film to go away, but the urgency of the storytelling — work-shopped with a cast of non-professionals — has already caught the world’s attention.
Click here to read Deadline’s Green Border review
SOCIETY OF THE SNOW
The story of a plane that crashed in the Andes in 1972, on the way from Uruguay to Chile, has been told twice before, first in the lurid B-movie Survive! (1976) and again in a more upscale version from Touchstone, Alive (1993). This new iteration, from Spain’s J.A. Bayona, doesn’t reveal anything especially new, but, like his terrific 2012 tsunami drama The Impossible, it reveals a previously hidden humanity to the story as it recreates an unimaginable nightmare in incredible detail. For 50 years, the most widely known aspect of Flight 571’s ordeal was that its remaining passengers were forced to eat human flesh as they waited for 72 days in the freezing unknown, but Bayona’s holistic adaptation focuses instead on the camaraderie and human interactions. More importantly, the dead are also honored, in the first version that lets us hear their stories from beyond the grave, and, for the first time, in their own language.
Click here to read Deadline’s Society of the Snow review
VALERIE COMPLEX’S PICKS:
BANEL & ADAMA
With her first feature film Banel & Adama, French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy proves herself a bold and compassionate new talent. Set in Senegal, Sy illuminates sensitively nuanced portraits of relationships through observational storytelling, never losing sight of their full, relatable humanity, and of the lead characters Banel and Adama played by Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo. The film signals the overdue emergence of Sy’s essential voice in filmmaking. This is a landmark debut woven straight from lived realities she captures with authenticity.
Click here to read Deadline’s Banel & Adama review
In her latest film, Four Daughters, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania proves herself a master of tactfully exploring charged social issues. This poignant documentary follows four young women in a lower-income neighborhood of Tunis as they navigate pivotal crossroads in love, family, and personal freedom. Ben Hania films her subjects with compassion, eschewing judgment even when their choices go against her own progressive ideals. We witness these daughters’ dreams and heartbreaks via fly-on-the-wall intimacy, their struggles universally relatable despite cultural particularities. Yet Ben Hania’s lens also reveals the specific social constraints that shape their womanhood.
Click here to read Deadline’s Four Daughters review
The evocative new film Totem marks an astounding second feature film for Mexican filmmaker Lila Avilés. The young lead actress, Naíma Sentíes, delivers an intensely moving performance as a child dealing with grief, family secrets and her identity within this family unit. Through gorgeous cinematography and emotionally resonant magical realism, Avilés crafts a transcendent cinematic experience that announces her as a director to watch. Totem represents a major milestone for both Avilés and Mexican cinema, harmoniously weaving indigenous traditions and universal themes into a singularly unique film.
Click here to read Deadline’s Totem review
STEPHANIE BUNBURY’S PICKS:
AFIRE (aka Roter Himmel)
Berlin School director Christian Petzold is a master of unsettled worlds, where personal anxieties cannot be unwound from their troubled political settings. His first film, The State I’m In, followed a couple of left-wing terrorists; Barbara (2022) drew a bleak picture of life under Stasi surveillance while Phoenix (2014) explored post-war disillusion. Here he turns his gimlet eye on his own kind: a perpetually offended writer called Leon (Thomas Schubert) working at his friend Felix’s fairytale cottage while nervously awaiting a visit from his publisher. Forest fires rage just beyond the nearby hills, but Leon is more disturbed by carefree Nadja (Paula Beer) who is unexpectedly already in the cottage when they arrive. Petzold’s story is droll, tightly wired and perfectly formed; he shows his characters no mercy. And yet they are all too human, determined to just sit in the garden and snipe at each other over wine as the apocalypse draws near.
Click here to read Deadline’s Afire review
DO NOT EXPECT TOO MUCH FROM THE END OF THE WORLD
Whether Romanian provocateur Radu Jude’s sprawling, funny, curious and furious film is really the best film of the year is beside the point; this is cinema as an incendiary device, exploding in our faces, that demands we pay attention. Jude, who won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2021 with the confronting Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, describes his new film as an essay; the official description says it is about “an overworked production assistant instructed to film a workplace safety video.” And it is that, but it is also about the dehumanizing exhaustion of work, capitalism, class, misogyny (online and off) and sex. Winner of the Locarno Film Festival’s Jury Prize, it was also one of the year’s 10 best films according to director John Waters, who said he went to bed after seeing it thinking he didn’t like it, then woke up knowing he loved it. Both opinions are entirely correct.
Click here to read Deadline’s Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World review
Gritty, gory and grand in scope, Italian maestro Matteo Garrone’s account of two Senegalese teenagers’ punishing journey to Europe – in their minds, the land of milk, honey and the pop stardom that is surely their destiny – is the most profoundly moving film seen at festivals this year. Garrone is best known for Gomorrah (2008) which drew deeply from a well of real-life experiences of boys lured into becoming mafia foot soldiers. This is also based on one boy’s own adventure, but it encompasses millions of others – many ending in death — that the world needs to hear, told with Garrone’s consummate technical elegance. The hardships, beatings and scams these travelers face could break anybody, but Seydou Sarr, who was spotted in an open audition, gives a revelatory performance as the endlessly optimistic boy, also called Seydou, who finds himself driving the boat delivering 250 desperate souls to safety.
Click here to read Deadline’s Io Capitano review