Top Ten Foreign Crime Thrillers of Past 15 Years!

This is a group of Foreign films that quite literally changed my life. The choices on this list are mostly unheard of, but they are brilliant movies that are not your average Crime Dramas. It seems that foreign films bring an extra edge to them that American movies just consistently fail to possess. They are often disturbing, rather ruthless films that will shock, captivate and might just change your life especially if you are really into movies. ENJOY!


Outrage- 2010


Takeshi Kitano is one of the best known Japanese directors, for very good reason. He is known for directing gangster classics Fireworks (1997) Sonatine (1993) Boiling Point (1990) and Violent Cop (1989), and if you haven’t seen any of these I might suggest watching them to get to know the direction of “Beat” Takeshi. Kitano is known for his nihilistic characters and films that are both ultra-stylish and ultra-violent. Basically he directs movies that make you go, “woah.”

He is the Martin Scorsese of Japan; one could even call him the Sergio Leone. He has a style of film making that some aren’t exactly comfortable with. I’ve come to realize that with foreign films, the violence isn’t as controlled or relegated. There is a lot of brutal realistic violence, that isn’t exploitation violence or off putting. Kitano just hasn’t held much back in his past films and the same goes for Outrage a movie that brings him back into his element after he experimented with his more artistic side for a few years.

Outrage takes place in the Yakuza, and the story follows a string of lies and deception that has the clans on the brink of an all-out war. An assignment to keep another gang in order is passed down from a boss to a subordinate of his, Otomo (played by Takeshi Kitano himself). Outrage is a movie that has thunderous violence, complex twists and turns that keep you in suspense and a real star in Takeshi Kitano. He has never received enough acclaim for his work, he truly is as great of an actor as Robert Mitchum, and he is a solemn tough guy that you root for vigorously throughout.

Outrage is just such a good movie; it’s the purest crime drama on this list. There is no fantastic script or great character studies, just a stylish and fun gangster movie that will bless viewers who enjoys such films as Goodfellas, Eastern Promises, and No Country for Old Men or any of the other foreign films on this list. Outrage is just as much of a crowd pleaser, as it is a traditional and classic Japanese film giving respect to older Japanese movies with various scenes. Outrage is a conflict between old and new tradition, a film that shows you the line between anarchy and some sort of control. Outrage shows as the really bleak reality of being a gangster, as much as the camera brings out the style the story itself is ugly, scary and unforgiving. Kitano is one of the purest filmmakers around, one that is underrated and looked over. Check out Outrage if you enjoy a good Crime Drama and a more realistic and disturbing turn on the Gangster genre.


Memories of Murder- 2003

(South Korea)

It’s difficult to talk about South Korean cinema and not think about the horribly twisted Oldboy, which thrust South Korea into the spotlight. Traditionally, South Koreans tend to have a very original approach to film making. It can go from serious to rather funny, with likeable characters, innovative script and storylines. Memories of Murder is by far the best film to come out of South Korea, it’s classically Korean and very good. It has the pitch black comedy, a very atmospheric background and setting, great characters as well as bleak suspense.

Memories of Murder follows the investigation to the first known serial killer of South Korea, and the small town cop who teamed up with a big shot from Seoul to investigate. The small town cop played by Song Kang-Ho, one of South Korea’s premier acting talents, is a bumbling and hilarious normal guy who isn’t exactly prepared for the magnitude of the case. So officials call in a more experienced detective from the big city, and together they look for clues. Memories of Murder presents itself in the beginning as light hearted and very entertaining, however as time goes, the entertainment stays but there is nothing light hearted left. The duo investigates a group of rape-murders, and the airy suspense overflows for viewers.

Memories of Murder is pure mystery, it’s impossible to deny its original flow and chemistry. It’s very scary, it’s and the cinematography that earned considerable praise seems to be the third main character in the film. It helps set up the scenes as well as the tension, and as the investigation rages on the scenery stays very fair and consistent. This movie is a work of art, but don’t expect anything near a traditional Hollywood murder mystery. The flashy camera angles or tricks, as well as other over the top stylistic elements that you’d find from Hollywood are missing, which helps solidify the movies quality. Memories of Murder ventures into all types of unknown land, and it makes you want to watch it a few times to see if you caught anything that you missed before.

I can’t recommend this movie enough; it’s really that good and despite being 9th on the list, it stands out. The 2000s has seen foreign cinema flourishing, especially in the Crime Drama category Each of these movies on this list are considered to be some of the best movies of all time, each has its own niche. The South Korean market is rising quickly, and this movie here is one of the elements that helped get it to that point of prominence.


Elite Squad- 2007


Elite Squad is my type of movie; exhilarating characters, intense and incredible action, a rock hard script, a message and spirit to go along with it. The ever so beastly Captain Nasciemento is part of the BOPE, which is Brazil’s super elite law enforcement unit that has the discipline and power of the Navy Seals.

The streets of Rio are amidst a very tricky and violent drug war, and the horrible conditions aren’t acceptable for the Pope’s arrival. The BOPE are given the difficult job of eliminating drug dealers and drugs from the streets at all cost. Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the BOPEs tactics which are by all means brutal. Their interrogation methods are cruel and unflinching, no frill and not a second guess in doing things that are illegal for law enforcement to engage in other countries. There is one scene early on in which Captain Nasciemento pumped and depleted on adrenaline, casually puts a plastic bag over an adolescents head and beats him senseless in order to figure out information. The scene disturbs and sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which moves at an ugly pace. Elite Squad is a guilty pleasure.

Captain Nasciemento is a character that you’ll never forget, a powerful and independent mind that doesn’t take anything from anyone. He is also the cool narrator that gives you the big picture to something that seems so small. Elite Squad is about one determined good cop who still believes in good. People tend to root for evil because it feels cooler, but it’s so much better to root for this force of good. The BOPE makes the criminals look like pitiful.

Elite Squad is a Bravado masterpiece, and a solid crowd pleasure. It’s a super violent crime drama, that may not have won any awards but in Brazil this is considered more of the premier film then City of God will ever be. The best part is that Elite Squad has a sequel that is even better.


Gomorrah -2008


Prepare Yourself for this one. Gomorrah is an Italian film, depicting a new type of Italian Mafia that American Audiences aren’t used to. It’s always been Godfather series, Goodfellas, Casino, Al Capone or John Gotti. Gomorrah deals with the Casalesi clan, a crime syndicate within the Camorra — a traditional criminal organization based in Naples and Caserta, in the southern Italian region of Campania.

The movie follows five storylines that are about people whose lives are touched by Organized Crime. Gomorrah isn’t very complex, doesn’t have as a superior script but for what it lacks it makes up with it’s out of world elements and character studies. Gomorrah is very stylized, atmospheric and at times slightly surreal.

It details the intricate dealings and workings of the inside of the organization, and a big reason this movie stands out like it does is how it takes us into the lives of those normal people who want to live normal lives but are affected by Organized Crime. As things heat up and violence erupts, life becomes chaotic and out of control. Not only does the environment change, the people living in do as well which is an interesting look into the infrastructure of human nature.

Gomorrah is a crime drama epic, very different then gangster predecessor. It shows the more solemn side of a world that is so dark and violent. It was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, however ended up winning the second place prize in the Grand Prix award. It drew considerable praise, with its very strong characters that you grow to know as they grow within a bleak world. Gomorrah also received considerable criticism not for the movie itself, but for a message in the end claiming the real Camorra organization has money invested into the rebuilding of the Twin Towers. Gomorrah is available on Netflix Instant Watch, and is definitely worth the watch. It is a fascinating movie that has airy tension and suspense that will leave you thinking about it for months after you watch it.


(Election 2) Triad Election- 2006

(Hong Kong)

Election 2, often called Triad Election in United States, is the sequel to 2005’s Election which didn’t make the list. However, it is a must see if you want to watch the second part, because it gives you reference to the ensemble cast of Hong Kong’s most talented actors.

Wo Shing Society, the oldest Triad in Hong Kong, is holding an election after the devious Lok (Simon Yam) two year term expires. Jimmy (Louis Koo) wants as little to do with the Triad as possible after starting lucrative business in Mainland China. However after being arrested, is told that in order to continue his business he has to win the upcoming election.

Triad Election confidently mixes thrilling tension, a soundtrack that helps make this movie ridiculously original and giddy ultra-violence that keeps you guessing. It works, very well in fact. Don’t expect a Jet Li movie that has Hong Kong influence; expect something that elevates expectations in the crime/gangster genre. Triad Election is a clash of tradition, a complex character study and a bold risk with the direction of the brilliant Johnnie To that pays off. Triad Election didn’t receive the acclaim that it deserved, and needs to be put into lists like this so that a wider audience can enjoy it. After achieving a “96% Fresh Rating” from Rotten Tomatoes with 48 Critics giving a positive review while only 2 gave negative ratings. New York Times also called Triad Election an “Exemplary Gangster Thriller” and it truly is. Currently, Part 1 and 2 are on Netflix Instant Watch as of 9/14/2012, so be sure to check them out!


Infernal Affairs- 2002

(Hong Kong)

The Rise of Hong Kong Cinema began with Raymond Chow’s exploits with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, which crossed overseas and became instant international cult classics. Then during the so called, “Boom Years”, John Woo and Chow Yun Fat took over with various action classics that wowed audiences across the globe. Then after years of minor success, Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong and a few other serious actors emerged. Each of these actors stared in 2002’s Infernal Affairs, a slick super serious super good crime drama/thriller, that took the expectations and blew past them breaking the sound barrier of cinema.

Infernal Affairs is a far more serious film then the major movies American audiences had seen from Hong Kong, its lighter on the action, strong on the dramatic story as well as absolutely masterful acting that build up serious tension. And what audiences will immediately pick up on, is that The Departed is an absolutely remake of Infernal Affairs and it wasn’t just inspired by it.

Needless to say, Infernal Affairs deserve a wide audience. It follows nearly the same plot, two young cadets, one brought up by a spiritual larger than life Triad Boss, becomes the mole in the Special Police, and the other who completes training and then goes undercover with the same Triad Boss. It’s the true story of deception and the cat and mouse game that the two play over time. More than The Departed, Infernal Affairs focuses closely on the deception involved in the job, more than the character study that Scorsese brought.

Infernal Affairs is a big win that brought a ton of attention back to Hong Kong, which had been making quality films even during the less captivating years. Infernal Affairs is near flawless, and is a perfect movie for a Saturday Night. There is a massive distinction between Infernal Affairs and it’s American Remake, so even if you saw the Departed and loved, hated or just liked it a little, it would be best to still watch this film because the two are different. Infernal Affairs is a short fast moving film, with the Hong Kong environment and background, tension that is unique to the film as well as an aura of style and supreme film making. Infernal Affairs is a must see Crime Drama and one of the best Foreign films of All Time.


Ajami- 2009

To call Ajami a simple Crime Drama is ridiculous, it has a major theme of crime but this film like many others on the list elevate into a bigger picture that make them the types of classics that they are. Ajami takes place in the neighborhood Ajami, which is in Jaffa-Tel Aviv, Israel. Ajami has five storylines, which are told in nonlinear and non-chronological order, thus creating a feeling for each character and situation before we see the big picture. Which can easily be seen as a metaphor, as a major theme in Ajami is the intense relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Main storyline or the one that starts the movie is that of a young Palestinian whose family is put into serious danger after his uncle wounds an important member of a clan. Other storylines follow a conflicting love interest, and a grieving police officer. Ajami is a hard movie to watch, because the front cover that is shown doesn’t really give the impression that the movie gives. Ajami is a special work of art, and it is also a testament more than a cinematic experience.

Ajami as a thrilling, anxiety provoking and masterful ticking time bomb, it’s a movie that you should never miss and when I watched it I felt blessed and thankful in some ways to have seen it. There are a lot of lessons to be learned, there are multiple deep messages sewn within the structure of the film. Ajami does what the 2004 best picture winning farce Crash failed so miserably at attempting, to actually give us multiple perceptions of a preconceived disposition or prejudice. Ajami is a true must see, and it may not be as much of a Crime Drama as other movies on this list but still, watch it!


(Un prophète) A Prophet- 2009


A Prophet is of the greatest films ever made, and the best movie to come out of France since 1995’s La Haine. It’s a movie that begins when a young Algerian man is thrust into a violent French prison, where over the years he becomes the undisputed Mafia Kingpin. The prison is run by a brutal Corsican mobster named Cesar, who forces the main character Malik, played by the masterful young actor Tahar Rahim, to kill a witness. The prison is split between the Muslims and the Corsicans, and after taking out the witness Malik gains the protection and the support of the Corsicans despite his own ethnic background. A Prophet is a crime drama as well as a prison epic melodrama that is so much better when you soak in the big picture, which is very big.

Jacques Audiard creates an interesting character in Malik, a battleground in the prison and a truly thrilling movie. Many criticized the trailer, however A Prophet went on to pick up universal critical acclaim. The film gives viewers an out of world experience at times, because the idea that Malik is actually this type of Prophet resonates and evolves throughout the story. He has a philosophical edge to him, as he rises within the Corsican Mafia as well as among the Muslim ranks.

A Prophet is a cinematic masterpiece and a modern day classic, which went on to win the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival as well as be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. How it lost, is beyond me but it seems that the category often overlooks the brilliance of world cinema for movies that may just be a work of art, and not the best work of art. A Prophet achieved a “97% Positive Rank” from an aggregated score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with 140 positive reviews and only 4 negatives. A Prophet reaches the third best movie on the list, simply because it’s a sprawling movie that is a cinematic experience.


Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within- 2010


I detailed the first Elite Squad as a violent Bravado classic and Adrenaline Fire Show. Elite Squad 2 begins only years later, as the drug trade has been hampered by the work of the BOPE as well as forceful work from other police officers and politicians. However now the problem is not within whom society normally deems as criminals, but from out of control corrupted politicians and horribly corrupt police officers, who have taken the control of the slums from the drug dealers and now control it themselves. It’s no better, and is in fact much worse. Captain Nasciemento is still the noble and exhilaratingly straight edge man he was during the first installment, however after a shootout in prison that left criminals “unjustly dead”, human rights activist have called for him to be taking out. At the same time, the politicians love Nasciemento, and they place their future enemy into the role of the Head of Special Police. The BOPE still never falter, but as things become more and more corrupt and chaotic, Nasciemento finds himself in his new position feeling like a pawn of the hierarchy.

Elite Squad 2 tackles a much more complex plot, which leaves you breathless by the end. A real complicated and incredible force, this movie leaves your vision of law enforcement and politics quite raw if not in question. Brazil’s slums have always been complicated in the simplest ways, but Elite Squad 2 gives us a far more intense view of the system. It’s also a far more relevant view, as soon the Olympics and the World Cup are making their way to the newly defined economic powerhouse. As the first part makes you pump your first and gives you goose bumps of raw passionate excitement, the second part gives a headache with how much material it packs in. It’s a multi layered thriller, with numerous perspectives and characters that are hopelessly evil in roles that you wouldn’t exactly expect.

Elite Squad 2 is surely the second best film on this list, if not the best because it’s just such a breathtakingly good movie. It is the pinnacle of foreign film in general, and has garnered mass and nearly universal acclaim from critics and fans alike. It raises the stakes from Elite Squad, and in an alternative position takes numerous risks that pay off so well. Elite Squad 2 didn’t win the awards that it should have which is truly a shame. It definitely deserves the audience that some of its American counterparts receive with a quarter of the quality.

Make sure to watch Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which is currently on Netflix Instant Watch. However, be sure to watch the first movie to give the proper introduction to some of the characters, especially Captain Nasciemento and Captain André Matias. Elite Squad 2 will not get the same acclaim as most of the movies on this list, but it’s a true classic.


(El Secreto de sus ojos) The Secret in Their Eyes- 2009


Somebody could make a good case that The Secret in Their Eyes is one of the best movies of all time overall, I am one of the people that could make that case. Unlike the other films on this list, The Secret in Their Eyes actually got the recognition that it deserved. After winning Best Picture and receiving rare completely universal acclaim, I knew I had to give this a try after I saw it win the Oscar.

Now I’m a movie buff, I like to think that I know a lot about movies. Luckily while growing up, I had a grandmother that cherished older films while simultaneously subscribing to IFC and Sundance channel and having movie nights on Saturday. It was a perfect combination to be well rounded in film, and over the time I was lucky to see thousands of amazing movies. So when I watched The Secret In Their Eye, I knew that that I had seen a movie much greater than our present standards of film. The Secret in Their Eyes can truly stand up to even the golden age of Hollywood film and Ricardo Darin’s role as Benjamin Esposito can be compared to a Humphrey Bogart, Carey Grant or Marlon Brando type tour de force performance.

The Secret in Their Eyes follows retired legal counsel Benjamin Esposito’s struggles with overcoming a past that won’t let him go. He is haunted not only by an unsolved homicide in his career but also by a long lost love. The film takes place in flashbacks of 1974 to 1975 (being a year before the “Dirty War” in Argentina”), as well as 2000 after Benjamin retires.

The Secret in Their Eyes has incredible and unprecedented suspense, the acting is absolutely perfect, the story and plot is perfect and with the direction of Juan J. Campanella a new masterpiece had been created. Following the release, praise was given internationally, and it became the absolute favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as any other award that it was up for. In a year that had two other masterpieces in A Prophet as well as Ajami, it’s saying something to have a preliminary clear favorite. Argentina has had some truly fine movies come out, a good portion of which star Ricardo Darin.

With unflinching suspense, The Secret in Their Eyes will leave your bones rattling, it will leave you breathless. It’s cinematography and unforgettable scenes propel the atmosphere, and it’s lucid pace makes it so much better. I’d give The Secret in Their Eyes a perfect 10 honestly, on Internet Movie Database it’s currently as of 9/15/2012 ranked as the 155th best movie of all time as well as the 26th best films from 2000-2009. Definitely watch this movie, if you like a good drama or even a love story, be sure to get this movie even if you have to buy it. It truly is that good.

Honorable Mentions

1. Animal Kingdom, 2010 (Australia)

2. Election, 2005 (Hong Kong)

3. Tsotsi, 2005 (South Africa)

4. Bullhead, 2011 (Belgium)

5. Pusher 2, 2004 (Denmark)

6. Pusher 3, 2006 (Denmark)