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The 25 Best French Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘Amélie’ to ‘Cache’

The best French films of the 21st Century remind us why France is still as important to cinema as light itself.

5. “Eden” (2014)

Greta Gerwig Eden

“Eden”

All of Mia Hansen-Løve’s feature films are autobiographical in one way or another, but it’s nevertheless surprising that “Eden” is the one which most transparently reveals who she is. For one thing, it’s explicitly based on somebody else: Hansen-Løve’s older brother, Sven, a former DJ who co-wrote this sprawling history of the French Touch music scene. An intimate epic running parallel to the ascendancy of Daft Punk, “Eden” stretches from the early ‘90s to the recent past, chronicling 20 years in the increasingly stagnant life of a Parisian DJ named Paul (Félix de Givry). He’s obsessed with bringing EDM to the masses, but his focus far outstrips his talent, and it soon becomes clear (to everyone else) that his mild early success is the beginning of a long road to nowhere. A delicate character study folded into a loving generational portrait, this melancholy masterpiece deepens the same movingly detached inquiry into lost time that has informed all of its director’s work. —DE

4. “Goodbye to Language” (2014)

Godard Goodbye to Language

“Goodbye to Language”

“Godard forever!” So shouted one devout fan as the lights went down at the Cannes Film Festival before the world premiere of the reclusive French New Wave director’s latest mysterious work. The anticipation was warranted: For decades, Godard has continually showed the movie world how it’s done, with one cinematic mic drop after another that pushes every possible boundary of the medium by reinventing it from the ground up. With “Goodbye to Language,” he constructs a beguiling mashup of imagery that’s at once convoluted and brilliantly pointed, an illustration of the way that modern communication has collapsed in an era overrun by digital ephemera. His use of 3D technology is similarly overwhelming, but not devoid of purpose; experimenting with double exposure and overlapping images, he forces to viewers to experience visuals effects in a totally new way. Somewhere in the midst of this crammed assemblage, he stuffs in the story of a couple whose relationship is slowly falling apart. But the true star of “Goodbye to Language” is Godard’s innocent dog Roxie, who grows so mystified by the inanity of civilization that she flees to the countryside. It may be the closest thing we get to a late period mission statement from this secretive filmmaker, whose ambition has only deepened with time, as this endlessly rewarding provocation bears out. Godard forever, indeed. —EK

3. “35 Shots of Rum” (2008)

35 Shots of Rum

“35 Shots of Rum”

Claire Denis possesses an incredibly vivid understanding of bodies and the spaces they occupy, and her acute insights into the physical world are typically expressed through violence of one kind or another — the violence of male desire, the violence of colonialism, the violence of memory. But while bodies (even dead ones) are of paramount importance to “35 Shots of Rum,” this intimate drama is one of the most tender movies ever made. A quietly heartbreaking portrait of a widower (Alex Descas), his increasingly independent daughter (Mati Diop), and the makeshift family they cobble together between the loners and oddballs who live in their apartment building, Denis’ masterpiece unfolds like the most sensual movie that Yasujirō Ozu never made. It’s a bittersweet story of the joys and disappointments that shape our lives, that bring us together and pull us apart, and it’s told with a physical musicality that allows you to feel it on your skin. The centerpiece “Nightshift” sequence is one of those things that everyone should see before they die. — DE

2. “Amour” (2012)

Michael Haneke Amour

“Amour”

When it was first announced that Michael Haneke was making a film called “Amour,” many people assumed that the notoriously severe Austrian director, cinema’s reigning wizard of doom, was having a laugh at our expense. Nothing could have been further from the truth. “Amour” isn’t just one of the most beautiful love stories that the movies have ever seen, it’s also essentially the best-case scenario for any marriage. On its surface, the premise doesn’t sound all that uplifting: An elderly French couple (Jean-Lois Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) finds their relationship interrupted when one of them suffers a debilitating stroke. But the manner in which these two unexceptional bourgeois types reckon with this predicament, while hard to watch, soon begins to pioneer a merciless new kind of humanism, one where a life lived with love deserves to end with a death that’s handled with dignity. It may not be your go-to Valentine’s Day viewing, but “Amour” is the most remarkable romance of the 21st Century, French or otherwise. —DE

1. “Holy Motors” (2012)

“Holy Motors”

Leos Carax hadn’t made a feature film in 12 years when “Holy Motors” landed at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival like a revelation: Here was evidence of sheer cinematic wonder, a provocative work of art that was funny, surreal, tragic and stimulating all once. Its premise gives the strangest David Lynch movie a run for its money. The chameleonesque Denis Lavant plays a man engaged in the murky profession of playing different characters through the day, from a beggar to a monstrous subterranean troll nicknamed “Shit” (and who kidnaps Eva Mendes). He’s sped around town in a limousine at the behest of a dubious organization that may as well be life itself, as the movie coalesces into a poetic metaphor for the ever-shifting modes of everyday experience (as well as the voyeuristic nature of moviegoing). Lavant’s character is accompanied by a mysteriously supportive woman named Céline, played by the legendary Edith Scob, whose own “Eyes Without a Face” receives a classy homage as Carax veers through a serious of remarkable encounters. From a mournful deathbed scene to a haunting musical number featuring Kylie Minogue to the most energetic accordion scene in film history, “Holy Motors” careens through an overwhelming collage of sights and sounds, stitched together by the sheer audacity of Carax’s vision. It’s a wondrous illustration of what a truly liberated film artist can accomplish, and — in the process of bringing Carax back to the spotlight as one of the greatest working filmmakers — it raised the bar for the medium as a whole. A timeless masterpiece. —EK

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