Cinema was one of the truly international phenomenons of the last millennium, but France — more so than any other nation — has always been one of the medium’s most essential guiding lights. From the pioneer era of the Lumiere brothers, to the revolutionary New Wave that expanded our understanding of film’s potential, to the country’s recent defense of the theatrical experience, France has always pushed the movies forward while reminding us what we love about them in the first place. No country did more to help propel cinema into the 20th Century, and no country has done more to help sustain its integrity and its potential in the 21st.
From sultry thrillers to mind-blowing 3D experiments and one of the most heartbreakingly honest love stories ever told, these are the 25 best French films of the 21st Century.
Note: To qualify for our list, a film had to be predominately French-language and at least partially French-funded. With one exception, all of the films on this list are also set in France, as well.
25. “La Sapienza” (2014)
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The premise of the “The Sapience” (“La Sapienza”) could easily provide fodder for a clichéd indie drama: an estranged couple travels to the countryside in a desperate attempt to raise their weary spirits, bonds with a pair of troubled teens and by helping them work through their problems, finds a renewed sense of hope. Gag. But in the hands of French-American filmmaker Eugéne Green (“The Portuguese Nun”), whose movies blend understated storytelling with literary themes, “The Sapience” is anything but familiar. Instead, the writer-director crafts a work that’s both weighted with scholarly inquiry and an undercurrent of poignancy unlike anything else. The title refers to a definition of wisdom stretching back many centuries and applied in the works of baroque 17th century Roman architect Francesco Borromini, whose work becomes as much a character in the movie as the intellectuals at its center. Green’s merging of past and present results in a powerful blend of intellectual and emotional experiences that’s also a disarming deadpan comedy. Gorgeous to a fault, it’s the rare case of a cerebral narrative that manages to be life-affirming in the process. —EK
24. “The Man on the Train” (2002)
From 1989 to 2002, Patrice Leconte was one of the most electric and beguiling (and under-appreciated) filmmakers in the world. His career-defining hot streak may have peaked with 1999’s singularly romantic “Girl on the Bridge,” but it ultimately came to a boil with “The Man on the Train.” The wise and altogether wonderful story of a chance encounter between a retired teacher (the great Jean Rochefort) and an aging bank robber on the brink of a big score (French icon Johnny Hallyday), “The Man on the Train” wouldn’t prove to be Leconte’s final film, but it feels like it could have been — it’s possessed by the same wistful spirit that has defined so many of cinema’s great farewells. The friendship that forms between these two grizzled men is sweet but never sentimental, and the fraternal bond that they share over the course of a single weekend is as memorable as any love story. — DE
23. “Of Gods and Men” (2010)
From its early scenes, “Of Gods and Men” inhabits the sacred lives of its monastic subjects. The eight monks residing in a seemingly quaint North African mountain community go through the motions of their daily prayers, the ritualistic hymns echoing monotonously throughout their hallowed chambers. Providing medical assistance and spiritual counsel to their Muslim neighbors, they inhabit an untroubled world, but the tranquility is short-lived. The monks find their harmonious existence suddenly disrupted by bloodthirsty Islamic fundamentalists, and so begins the conundrum at the heart of the movie. Loosely based on the mysterious 1996 assassination of seven French monks in Algeria, Xavier Beauvois’ understated fifth feature takes liberties with that widely scrutinized incident, but its simplistic milieu exists out of time. Ignore the precise religious context and it stands perfectly well as a restrained look at personal convictions in the face of certain death. Each time a monk contemplates his fate, Beauvois implies a deeper process taking place beneath the surface. By keeping their eventual fate off-camera, he conveys the powerful idea that the full extent of the tragedy is unknowable, and it keeps the movie relevant to this day. —EK
22. “Swimming Pool” (2003)
Francois Ozon’s sultry noir is rich with atmosphere and ambiguity. The story of British novelist Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) who ventures to the countryside to overcome her writer’s block, “Swimming Pool” seems pretty straightforward…at first. Then Sarah gets to her publisher’s palatial home and receives a creepy surprise: His alleged daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) shows up and launches a series a sexual excursions on the property, forcing the writer into a voyeuristic scenario she never expected. With time, however, she’s both drawn into Julie’s sexual adventures and fascinated by the mystery surrounding them, so much that the older woman considers using the experience to drive the creative spark she’s been searching for. The sensual plot keeps thickening, building to a violent third act that further complicates Sarah’s quest for the ultimate potboiler. As viewers, we may experience the solution to her turmoil, and the movie opens itself up to interpretation along those lines. Is anything that we see here real — or simply an extension of Sarah’s desire to conjure a superbly engaging thriller? That question remains unanswered, but there’s no doubt that Ozon delivers exactly that. —EK
21. “Li’L Quinquin” (2014)
Bruno Dumont is one of the most audacious, provocative filmmakers working in France today, but nothing he’s done has distilled the scope of his work more than this three-plus hour miniseries, which premiered as a feature-length production at Cannes and screened that way in the U.S. And indeed, it is a complete work of pure vision: a comedic tale of bumbling police investigators in a small town and the various rural characters they encounter along the way. Less “Twin Peaks” than Inspector Clouseau, the mystery at the center of the movie matters less than the way the frazzled police captain (Bernard Pruvost) constantly attempts to process the disparate clues coming his way. It starts with the murder of woman stuffed inside a cow and only gets more bizarre from there, but Dumont’s elegant, patience approach to the narrative yields a complicated world filled with desperation and aimless rebellion. The titular Quiquin, a farm-raised teen with nothing but scorn for the law, doesn’t really have anything to do with the murder except that he’s mostly ambivalent about it, much like everything else in his drab surroundings. The captain becomes the only figure who seems to truly care about justice, and while he may be incompetent, he’s the best they’ve got. All of Dumont’s movies involve flawed characters trying to make the most of their dreary settings; “Li’L Quinquin” elevates that motif to an epic plane with masterful results. —EK