Pixelated Popcorn’s Top 18 Foreign Films of 2009

This is not your usual Best of 2009 list. Barely missing this list are the usual suspects. You won’t see Academy Award nominees Avatar, Precious, Inglorious Basterds, An Education, and UP. Critically acclaimed foreign films such as The White Ribbon and A Prophet are likewise nowhere in sight. I, myself, was surprised to realize that I didn’t go with the popular choices. Instead, it was the little gems – the less known films – that left a mark on my cinematic consciousness.

Unlike 2008 where epic dramas Atonement, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made up my Top 3 (see complete list of Top 20 Films of 2008 here), 2009 can be considered as the year of suspense and thrillers. I saw myself literally jumping from my seat in District 9, laughing in amusement because of Bad Lieutenant’s singing iguana and breakdancing soul, and rooting for the antiheroes of Julia and Mother.

But will a year in movies ever be complete without sweeping love stories? Tragic romances abound in the form of Sang-hyeon and Tae-Jun of Thirst, Tom and Summer of 500 Days of Summer, and Ryan and Alex of Up in the Air. But what’s a love story without a happy ending? Luckily, I found this Australian aboriginal couple’s tale of addiction, hope, and true love.

Without further adieu, here is my Top 18 Foreign Films of 2009.

18. Mammoth (Mamut)

Director: Lukas Moodyson (Lilya 4-Ever, Show Me Love)

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, and Marife Necesito

A humanist study about the dynamics of working parents who provides for the needs of their children but are largely absent in their lives.

17. The Chaser (Chugyeogja)

Director: Na Hong-jin

Starring: Yun-seok Kim and Jung-woo Ha

A tension-filled crime saga where the table keeps on turning until the hunter becomes hunted down.

16. Fish Tank

Director: Andrea Arnold

Starring: Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender

A realistic British drama about opening up, getting hurt, and taking refuge.

15. Tulpan

Director: Sergei Dvortsevoy

Starring: Askhat Kuchinchirekov

As you get lost in the Kazakh dessert, you end up finding a piece of yourself. Simple, dryly humorous, and insightful.

14. In Search of a Midnight Kiss

Director: Alex Holdridge

Starring: Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds

Pits romanticism against pragmatism and invites us to look into how modern dating goes with a hopeful heart and a balanced judgment. Pucker up.

13. Hunger

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Michael Fassbender

This visual spectacle is an unsettling portrayal of the resilience of man and the power of human determination.

12. The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie

Eloquently articulates what a war really is. Disquieting, rather than explosive. And nobody fights to win. Everyone loses, even if you win.

11. Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Starring: Karra Elejalde

Deconstructs the time travel conceit and throws its fragments in an open field. You’ll find yourself frantically trying to put it all together only to realize that the pieces have slipped away.

10. Before the Fall (3 Dias)

Director: F. Javier Gutierrez

Starring: Victor Clavijo

When a serial killer runs amok at the time of apocalypse, a nonchalant hero tries to save his part of the world.

9. Where the Wild Things Are

Director: Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malcovich)

Starring: Max Records

Jonze perfectly captures childhood angst in this bittersweet bedtime story for adults.

8. (500) Days of Summer

Director: Marc Webb (will direct Spider-Man reboot)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Not an anti-love story, but a reality check.

7. Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking)

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick

Highly impenetrable people are usually the most fragile. A revelatory seriocomic that is both timely and crowd-pleasing.

6. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

Director: Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World)

Starring: Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes

Diving into depravity has never been this trippy, hypnotic, and dare I say, fun.

5. Mother (Madeo)

Director: Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder)

Starring: Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin

A madcap fusion of revenge and a mother’s unconditional love. Korea is the new hotspot for first-class murder mysteries.

4. District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Sharlto Copley

An affecting gore fest and a socio-political commentary. Intelligent sci-fi flicks are back.

3. Thirst (Bakjwi)

Director: Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK)

Starring: Kang-ho Song and Ok-bin Kim

The definitive vampire love story. Cake foundation and glitters not included.

2. Julia

Director: Erick Zonca

Starring: Tilda Swinton

Too suspenseful you’ll forget to breathe. A dark character study that largely benefits from Swinton’s miracle work and Zonca’s frenetic direction.

1. Samson & Delilah

Director: Warwick Thornton

Starring: Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson

Life may be cruel, but as long as love exists, no tragedy is too great to overcome. Tender, hopeful, and immensely gratifying.


Adrian Mendizabal said...

haha! okay. nagets ko, anti-pop choices are always great!

but i think the most anti-pop list from a Filipino film buff that oggs, dodo and I were shocked, totally, was from Norther Portrait (Persistence of vision):


its a list that would rattle ones mind with a great reminder: "Though shall not watch avatar, but watch Russian films from 1908."

nakakawindang lang. haha!


Ask ko lang, since nabasa ko sa blog ni sanriel, why not slow, contemplative films? or more importantly, have you watched an OZU?



Fidel Antonio Medel said...

For someone who watches a lot of Star Cinema and other mainstream films, my choices for the Best Foreign Films of 2009 may come as a shock. A lot of my friends expect me to drool over Avatar and The Blind Side.

Fidel Antonio Medel said...

I follow his blog. I’ve seen his list. I haven’t heard of most of them. I get bored by slow films, but there are a few exceptions like Hunger. Btw, what is an OZU?

Adrian Mendizabal said...

most slow films (i.e. Lav diaz) are really boring, mundane and cyclical. I takes a high aesthetic experience to appreciate them. most of these films have a moral and existential themes (aka contemplative). They are the total opposites of the traditional narrative cinema which we enjoy in our SM cinemas today.

for more info of its qualities, visit:


dumadami na sila dahil sa pag-unlad ng technology sa film since yung limit lang ng celluloid film reels nung mga 1980s ay 10 mins continuous shot. A digital camera can record at a maximum of 32 hours in a single shot. The movie with the longest continuous shot (which composes the whole movie) is Alexander Sokurov's THE RUSSIAN ARK (2002) with 96 mins of plan sequence using a SteadyCam digi-camera. Talagang continuous yung flow of images, super astig!

I really enjoy watching these kinds of films. Sabi nga ng friend ko they are the closest to reality in cinema because they capture almost a "real time" in a long shot.


OZU. Everyone knows an ozu, siya yata ang pinaka sikat na Japanese director of all time. He directed "the best film of all time" TOKYO STORY (1953). Madami ding naiiyak na filmmakers both local and foreign tuwing nakikita nila mga films nya. including film critics, special mention si Robin Wood (sikat na film critic nung 1960s). Nung nagretro kasi sa New York circa 1990s ng films ni Ozu, after the second film (An Autumn Afternoon ata), pumunta sya sa stage at umiyak ng bongga, as in and it is because of Ozu.

Ozu is so.... T.T precise in handling his viewers' emotions.


Anonymous said...

Argh. This is the 3rd time I'm typing this reply. Laging nagkakaproblem.

Anyway, I didn't realize this one's uploaded na.

Ah, so you stayed with Samson and Delilah. Actually, if hindi ko alam na gusto mo yun, I wouldn't even think na magugustuhan mo sya.

So that's what the 'I love Korea' remark for. Korea is giving the best thrillers of the late, but also endlessly supplying us with dumb love stories. You should watch Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder - his best IMO.

I thought Mammoth's not that good? I slept over it for 3-4 times and I never really got around to watching it again.

So Timecrimes is 2009? Darn that DVD, bakit kasi hindi nag-work. You really need to lend me your copy na the next time we meet.

Congrats! Next year ulit. Pero magdDL ka na din ngayon! Naks! Hahaha

PS. As per Adrian's comment, Ozu = Yasujiro Ozu, a director you'll hate. Haha.

I clicked on the link above. Good stuff. I have both Imoport Export and Eccentricities on my queue pero hindi ko na napanuod in time for my list. You want? I saw Four Nights with Anna last year after I made my list and maganda sya :)

I hate myself for totally forgetting about The Beaches of Agnes, the only docu I enjoyed last 2009.

Btw, last night, I saw a beautiful Esther Rots film from the Netherlands - Kan door huid heen (Can Go Through Skin). Very unforgettable.

Fidel Antonio Medel said...


That was an interesting read. Thanks. From the list of examples cited by the blog site, I’ve only seen three: Independencia, Tulpan, and Paranoid Park. I’m the typical impatient moviegoer of the MTV generation. I easily get bored with slow films. But if the film has great visuals and atmosphere to compensate for the steadiness of the pace and nothingness of the plot, there’s a possibility that I can sit through it. I was surprised that Tulpan, Hunger, and Samson and Delilah were among my favorites this year despite their slowness. Though I’m not sure if the last two satisfy the definition of contemplative cinema. Perhaps I should watch more of them starting with our local auteurs: Raya Martin, Lav Diaz, Sherad Anthony Sanchez, and John Torres. Don’t crucify me for saying this, but I haven’t seen any Lav Diaz film.

My knowledge in cinema is limited to the new millennium. I haven’t seen any film from Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and other old directors. Ozu got me curious. I love the feeling of being moved to tears by films.

Fidel Antonio Medel said...


Ang haba ng comment tapos tinype mo 3X? Na-touch naman ako. I uploaded this list last night. Nagbago pa ko ng rankings last minute, as in naka-compose na sa Blogger ready to publish. Fish Tank and In Search of a Midnight Kiss were supposed to be higher. Tapos may mga movies na tamad na tamad ako gawan ng write-up, siguro dahil hindi ko talaga sila ganun kagusto. I really felt that 2009 was a weak year compared to 2008. Oh well.

Right after I saw Samson and Delilah in Cinemanila, I knew it would be hard for any film to surpass its effect on me. Nakatutok ako sa screen the entire time kahit na wala siyang dialogue. Ibang klase. It’s almost mythical.

Hurray for Korea. I hope we get more Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-Wook in the coming years. Dedma na sa love stories at K-Pop. Sunugin ang punyetang Girls' Generation at Super Junior, nakakairita pakinggan!

I don’t think you’ll like Mammoth. It’s a conventional drama. May Babel angle siya at may Philippine exposure. It’s not a great movie, but good enough. A lot better than the The Messenger and The Blind Side.

Timecrimes is not 2009, 2007 pa ata. I saw it in Pelikula/Pelicula (the Spanish filmfest in Greenbelt), pati yung Before the Fall. Alam mo namang madaya ako sa release dates kaya nga may mga lumang films ulit dyan. Haha. Pag strictly 2009 release lang, baka hindi ako umabot sa 15.

Andami ko pang gusto panoorin. I’ll probably start with the films on your list especially Red Riding trilogy and Polytechnique. I was wondering why you don’t have a lot of documentaries on your list this year. Walang The Cove, Burma VJ, etc.?

I’ll take note of that Esther Rots film. Pa-copy next time. Btw, how was Alice in Wonderland? Olats ba? Hulaan ko. Di mo nagustuhan.

Anonymous said...

Let's watch my newly downloaded, 11Gbs worth of Heremias and Melancholia together. If inaantok ka na, babatukan kita. Haha.

I saw Russian Ark a few years back, brilliant filmmaking.

Anyway, dapat talaga matouch ka. Effort. Haha. Fish Tank should be higher. If only for --- Jarvis? Hahaha.

I saw Samson and Delilah din sa Cinemanila. Got me glued din. Though may problems ako with the last part, it's still a strong film. Kaso after that I saw Tulpan kasi, na super gusto ko talaga :) Kaya natabunan na kagad sya sakin.

Mammoth along the lines of The Messenger and The Blind Side? Hell, I'll stay away then.

I know madaya ka sa release dates. Dapat sinama mo na din mga super old films you saw. I'm sure mababago pati number 1 mo. Haha

From my list, I think you'll like (or at least find these interesting) Terribly Happy (cos its crazy), Cargo 200 (cos it's thriller and its disgusting), Mary and Max (cos it's nakakaiyak), Polytechnique (cos it's technically superb), Red Riding (cos it's a well-put together thriller and mystery), and Love Exposure (cos I'm sure you will).

I also saw the first of another trilogy. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo yung english title. It's good enough. Murder mystery again.

Hindi ko napanuod Burma VJ in time. Hindi ko ganun kagusto The Cove. I loved The Beaches of Agnes but forgot about it :( 2008 was a banner year for docus.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

Film books! :-)

Adrian Mendizabal said...

Hmmm... Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa's films are canonical works. They provide the most basic notion of cinema and they are highly studied due to their influence in almost all types of modern films. They are so basic that most of the devices in modern films such as a jump cut (Godard, Breathless (1960)), a camera movement(Murnau, Last Laugh(1923), a deep space mise-en-scene (Citizen Kane, 1941), subjective (voyeuristic) shot (Hitchcock, Psyscho (196)) are derived from these films hence they are inseparable from the critiques that we make for the films of the 21st century.

The style is heavily dependent on film history that we, as critics, cannot escape the discussion of such films by kurosawa, hitchcock because most modern directors/filmmakers (especially those who went to film school) owe to their RULES-OF-THUMB directing strategies.

just a note! ^_^

Fidel Antonio Medel said...


Thanks for bringing that up. I'll add Ozu, Hitchcock, and Kurosawa on my growing list of backlogs. And maybe we should also look for Russian films from 1908. =P

Fidel Antonio Medel said...


Can we start with the shortest Lav Diaz full-length film? Ayokong biglain ang sarili ko. Alam ko 5 hours lang ang Batang West Side. I prefer that over the 8-hour Malancholia. Remember what happened to me when I watched Imburnal? Pag ok ang una kong Lav Diaz, saka na ko uulit.

Russian Ark is that film shot in a single continuous shot, right? I heard of it during Cinemalaya. There were comparisons between Engkwentro and Russian Ark. At alam naman nating na hindi authentic na single continuous shot ang Engkwentro.

Fish Tank could have been higher, originally #13 siya. I also love Jarvis. So many great actresses for 2009.

Tinatamad kasi akong iexplain yung criteria ko for considering a film for the 2009 list. Believe me when I say that I have a criteria. Haha.

Love Exposure is 4 hours long. I think that's enough to turn off but we'll see. Sana hindi siya 4 hours of quirky romance and B-movie action. Pangit kasi nung trailer.

Of all the films on your list,e you seen other documentaries like Afghan Star, Food Inc., Polanski something-something, etc.? Mukhang mahina sa'yo ang docus this year.

I'm most excited about Red Riding. I'm just wondering why the second movie didn't make your Top 40.

VICTOR said...

A good list. I had hoped to catch Mammoth on its limited screening her e in Manila, but it slipped my mind. Now I have to raid the sidestreets to look for a bootleg copy.

Fidel Antonio Medel said...

Good luck on your search. I go to Quiapo from time to time to get my hands on hard-to-find DVDs and they do have rare selections. You just have to be very patient in looking.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself a dedicated lover of foreign movies and my objective

here is to present my list of top 100 foreign films that I think every

living human should make some attempt to watch at least once in life.

Watch these best foreign films!

The very best foreign language films - hallmarks of cinematic art!

Writing a lens on top 100 foreign films is a very personal experience

for me because I just don't watch foreign movies, I spend hours

thinking about every detail of a scene that moved me. And I honestly

think that many of our greatest films, the very best movies in

cinematic history - actually are these foreign language films that

have originated outside Hollywood. Thoughts and debates welcome, but I

learned to appreciate that language in our regular sense is a pretty

imperfect medium of communication. These top foreign films have taught

me to transcend the flimsy barriers of these "localized" mediums that

I was so very much "used to". Wherever there are humans, there are

stories...and music...and emotions...and talent to create wonders on

celluloid! And us, the fortunate beholders! So here goes my list of

top 100 foreign films...enjoy!

~ Cheers!



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