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The 25 Best Foreign-Language Movie Scenes of the 21st Century

Movie moments so pure that nothing about them is lost in translation.

Earlier this year, the IndieWire staff counted down our favorite English-language movie scenes of the 21st century. Now that due attention has been paid to Llewyn Davis’ heartbreaking audition, Daniel Plainview’s heartless approach to milkshakes, and several more of the most unforgettable moments in recent memory, it’s time to broaden our horizons.

It’s a big world out there, but great cinema has the power to bring it a little closer together. From an accordion jam session led by Denis Lavant, to an intimate slow dance in a small Parisian bar, these passages are too perfect for anything to get lost in translation.

These are our picks for the 25 best foreign-language film scenes of the 21st century.

25. “Holy Motors” (Entracte)

Midway through Leos Carax’s surreal and beautiful look at a man (Denis Lavant) who undergoes a series of disguises over the course of a very strange night, the movie takes a musical break. More specifically, it finds Lavant leading a parade of men through some subterranean labyrinth as they rock out on accordions and assorted other instruments, banging out lively riffs on the same few notes again and again. The scene is initially baffling and random before taking on a rhythm of its own, underscoring the distinct brilliance of a movie that traffics in feeling more than precise events. Carax’s movie is littered with transcendent moments that defy any specific categorization, but this one stands out for the way it treasures visceral experiences over the kind of literal-minded storytelling Carax would never do. It’s a perfect snapshot of his filmmaking genius, and pretty damn catchy, too.

24. “Oldboy” (Hammer Time)

Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” glides from one memorable scene to another, but nothing tops the genuinely iconic one-take wonder in which Oh-Daesu hammers an entire goon squad into submission. A masterpiece of fight choreography (and the dark comedy that can be mined from the sight of regular dudes pretending to be Rambo), the brawl thrives on untrained clumsiness and feral desperation, our recently liberated hero unleashing decades of pent-up aggression on the henchmen who stand in his way. Park establishes the narrowness of the warehouse hallway before cutting to a diorama-like wide shot that invites us to appreciate the operatic sweep of Oh-Daesu’s triumph. And thanks to the lack of cuts, all the huffing and puffing on screen feels real (and it probably was). This might be the only time in movie history where you actually believe that one guy could take on 25 henchman at once — even with a knife sticking out of his back. —DE

23. “Downfall” (Hitler Becomes a Meme)

From Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks to the “Seinfeld” and “Archer” writers’ rooms, comedians have spent decades joking about Adolf Hitler, finding that poking fun at his mustache, bluster, and failed art career has proved fleeting catharsis. “Downfall,” German screenwriter Bernd Eichinger’s WWII historical drama on the last 10 days of Hitler’s life, features a meltdown from der Führer (Bruno Ganz) that caused YouTubers to pounce. In the most-parodied scene from the 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, a general with a map informs Hitler that Berlin will soon fall to the Allies. Ganz’s spitting response also involves finger-twitching, table-slamming, and chest-beating.

Hundreds of online humorists — so-called “Untergangers” — have paired the rant with new subtitles; you can now watch Hitler lament a delayed pizza delivery, the “Game of Thrones” red wedding, Michael Jackson’s death and much more. “You couldn’t get a better compliment as a director,” Oliver Hirschbiegel told Vulture in January 2010, after production company Constantin Films hastened YouTube to remove said content (the website stopped doing so that October). Ganz had less enthusiasm for the tributes. “It’s amazing, the creativity of these kids,” he said in a video interview. “I put everything into that performance, so it’s not easy for me to accept it.” —JM

22. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (King Charles XII)

The fact of the matter is that we could have filled this entire list with scenes from Roy Andersson’s self-described “trilogy about being a human being.” All of the scenes in “Songs from the Second Floor,” “You, the Living,” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” are wonders of morbid comic imagination. Andersson shoots each of the isolated vignettes that comprise these films in one uninterrupted take, his static (or understandably shell-shocked) camera giving its full attention to these droll tableaux of despair.

That being said, the incredible centerpiece from Andersson’s most recent film deserves special recognition, if only because of its mind-boggling scale. What starts as a benign moment inside a restaurant slowly gives way to a general disquiet as the massacred army of King Charles XII sloughs into the background, the men stumbling home from their slaughter at the Battle of Poltava. Distant ghosts of the 18th century, their spirit eventually makes their play for the modern world, the young and bloodthirsty sovereign galloping off the pages of history and into the diner itself. Running for the better part of 20 minutes, the shot is a perfect illustration of how Andersson’s signature approach allows him to flatten time into an endless continuum of defeat — it’s a show-stopping long-take in a film that consists of nothing but show-stopping long-takes. —DE

21. “BPM” (A Handjob Before Dying)

The most remarkable thing about Robin Campillo’s gripping drama is that it manages to find defiant joy amongst the rubble of the AIDS crisis. Dramatized with crackling naturalism by Campillo and his ensemble of actors, the meetings of ACT UP Paris pulse with a frenetic energy that belies the tragedy waiting just outside its doors. Out of these masterfully crafted group scenes arises a tender romance between quiet newbie Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and the lively Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is HIV-positive. Their relationship provides the film’s second burst of energy, and a focal point to the introductory meetings and actions. In the film’s most striking scene, Nathan visits Sean in the hospital before taking him home to die. Sean’s indefatigable spirit finally flagging, Nathan does what any good lover would. Backlit in silhouette, we see Nathan’s healthy frame curled over Sean’s shrinking one, as he caresses him to a final orgasm in his hospital bed. It’s at once tender, wrenching, and beautiful; a testament to a human spirit that can find joy even as the world is falling apart. —JD

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