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The 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.

The 35 Best French Films of the 21st Century

The 35 Best French Films of the 21st Century

25. “Girlhood” (2014)

Assa Sylla and Karidja Touré in Céline Sciamma's GIRLHOOD

“Girlhood”

©Strand Releasing/Courtesy Everett Colle / Everett Collection

Céline Sciamma’s 2014 coming-of-age drama captures the rough Paris outskirts where a teenage girl gang becomes surrogate sisters for one another. Karidjia Touré stars as Marieme, a 16-year-old African-French adolescent who befriends a group of girls who party hard with drugs, violence, and prostitution. The descent into the “fast” lifestyle leaves Marieme forced to confront what home really means. “Girlhood” premiered as part of Directors’ Fortnight at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival before receiving four César Award nominations including Best Director for Sciamma and Most Promising Actress for Touré. As Marieme’s decisions careen from destructive to heroic, the deviating paths of her future reveal themselves. —SB

24. “Titane” (2021)

Titane

“Titane”

Neon

It may be more a film for the adrenal glands than the little grey cells, but Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning triumph is one of the great visceral experiences of recent world cinema. Agathe Rousselle is a model at a motor show who dances provocatively against fenders and hubcaps for horny attendees. Then she has sex with a vintage Cadillac and becomes pregnant with a chrome-and-petrol baby. And that’s just the start of the movie! Certainly one of world cinema’s greatest contributions to transhumanism discourse to date — though perhaps less progressive in the way it uses transgender tropes — “Titane” goes unexpected places. Come for the blurring of boundaries about what it means to be human, and stay for the sincere, committed performance by Vincent Lindon as a grieving father who adopts Rousselle’s character, thinking they’re his long-lost son. It’s rare to find something this punishing yet tender, though any butcher knows you’ve got to inflict some blows to tenderize anything. And Ducournau is a cinematic butcher worthy of three Michelin stars. —CB

23. “I Lost My Body” (2019)

I LOST MY BODY, (aka J’AI PERDU MON CORPS), the severed hand, 2019. © Netflix / courtesy Everett Collection

“I Lost My Body”

©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

A grim fairy tale that starts mere seconds after a young man in mid-’90s Paris has been violently separated from one of his hands, Jérémy Clapin’s morbid yet profoundly moving debut feature — head and shoulders above any other animated film this year — might be described as a story about someone trying to make themselves whole again. But that wouldn’t quite prepare you for the beguiling strangeness of what this Cannes prize-winner has in store. After all, there’s a reason why Clapin’s film is called “I Lost My Body,” and not “I Lost My Hand”: It’s largely told from the point-of-view of a cut-off hand as it scrambles through Paris to reunite with its body. Anyone who’s willing to meet this movie on its own terms and roll with the dream logic it requires will be rewarded with a resonantly cathartic saga about the struggle to find beauty in a world that forces us to leave parts of ourselves behind. —DE

22. “Swimming Pool” (2003)

Francois Ozon Swimming Pool

“Swimming Pool”

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)

“Lil’ Quinquin’

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

20. “The Class” (2008)

“The Class”

Laurent Cantet’s surprise Palme d’Or winner was the first French film to take the top Cannes prize in 20 years for good reason: It’s an uncompromising look at the country’s modern educational system, and not a classically “French film” so much as a searing exposé of the dreamy world that cliché might suggest. The movie follows passionate instructor François (François Marin), who juggles his duty to educate working class teens while befriending them in the process. Cantet captures the jittery nature of the classroom dynamic with a naturalistic approach that veers from intense dramatic confrontations to comic suspense, sometimes within a matter of minutes, as François battles to maintain order in a classroom while his students constantly veer off-track. It’s a bracing portrait of education as a constant process of negotiation, but with time, it expands into a broader indictment of the institution itself, one that ostracizes angry kids who are products of their unfortunate upbringings. These include one wayward teen from Mali who faces possible deportation, and François’ attempts to help the character deal with his problems transforms “The Class” into a moving tragedy even as François’ ongoing commitment is life-affirming. He doesn’t win every fight for his students’ futures, but the battle rages on. —EK

19. “Something in the Air” (2012)

“Something in the Air”

All of Olivier Assayas’ movies are preoccupied with the idea of reconciling the present with the past, and so there’s something very special about watching a movie that essentially functions as his own cine-memoir. A delicate, wide-eyed, and unfailingly sincere coming-of-age saga that follows a floppy-haired young man from the political activism of his teenage years to the artistic awakening that led him to the cinema, “Something in the Air” reimagines the post-May generation as a group of kids who were almost as beautiful as their ideals. Less a strict autobiography than it is a supple and enormously entertaining look back through rose-colored glasses, Assayas’ most personal film is like a highly concentrated dose of his defining interests; it works like a primer for Assayas’ work, but it’s also as personal (and as beautiful) as anything he’s ever made. —DE

18. “Things to Come” (2016)

THINGS TO COME, (aka L'AVENIR), from left: Isabelle Huppert, Edith Scob, 2016. © Sundance Selects / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Things to Come”

©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Mia Hansen-Løve’s delicate late-in-life-crisis drama “Things to Come” offers Isabelle Huppert one of her most complex roles ever as philosophy professor Nathalie, trying to put the pieces back together after the death of her ailing mother and the departure of her husband from their fragile marriage. Huppert, who that year won the New York Film Critics Circle prize for this film as well as the twisty psychosexual thriller “Elle,” has rarely been this vulnerable. Take one scene, where the actress’ usually flinty exterior cracks into first bemused astonishment and then all-out laughter at the sight of, while she’s sitting on a bus, her husband with another woman. Starting over yet again has never been so bittersweet than in Huppert’s hands. —RL 

17. “Summer Hours” (2008)

“Summer Hours”

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right

Olivier Assayas has one of the more audacious filmographies of any working director today, with a career that spans many genres and character types, but “Summer Hours” is one of the best illustrations of his chief skill — movies that exist in the moment, defined by the internal psychological struggles afflicting his characters. In this case, it’s Frederic (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), grown siblings who assemble at their late father’s countryside home to determine what to do with a lifetime of possessions. It’s the ideal setting for a textured look at the way that memory percolates across multiple generations even as it can seem frozen in time within the confines of a single location. While audiences who first encountered Assayas on beguiling projects such as “Personal Shopper” may find his narrative style opaque, “Summer Hours” lays everything out there, entirely through thoughtful exchanges about the nature of ownership and the personal dimensions that possessions accrue with time. Some viewers may find the movie’s story almost too simple for its own good, but its emotions resonate on a level that takes time (and multiple viewings) to fully absorb. Such is the singular brilliance of Assayas’ cinema. —EK

16. “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

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