My Top 10 Danish Films

danish cinema
What better time to (re-)discover the nationalist in yourself than the Fifa World Cup? Besides football the only other time I feel particularly Italian is when I watch Italian films. In that spirit I’ve decided to start a series of top tens centered around some of my favorite countries for cinema. Denmark is one of the first countries that came to mind. Danish cinema has gotten considerable attention in the last few years namely because of directors such as Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Nicolas Winding Refn

Danish cinema is hardly a new phenomenon however. Auteurs such as Carl Theodor Dreyer (the Danish director with most films in the Criterion Collection) and classics like Häxan (1922) and Babette’s Feast (1987) have shaped and continue to shape art house filmmakers everywhere. My favorite thing about Danish films is that they always seem to be concerned with being as honest and truthful as possible, hence the Dogme film movement. That’s not to say however that they sacrifice on aesthetic, pathos and romanticism.

Coming up with a top ten of Danish films was hard. I decided to self impose some limits and allow myself only to pick a maximum of two films per director. Otherwise this would be a Lars von Trier top ten. Von Trier is certainly my favorite Danish director, Mads Mikkelsen is my favorite Danish actor and Zentropa (studio) just does some spectacular marketing. This top ten is in chronological order, because I have a hard time ranking these films, but Melancholia is probably my favorite of the bunch.

10. Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
I’ve already sung the praises of Ordet in my mini-review, but briefly: Why is this film in my top ten of Danish films? Like the Criterion Collection I recognize that this film was a big influence on cinema. I love the black & white cinematography, the religious and philosophical discourse and that it is first and foremost about characters. The ending is what made me fall in love though. It’s genius.

9. The Perfect Human (1967, Jørgen Leth)
the perfect human
Det perfekte menneske is my favorite short film. It was also the first short I reviewed. It was a huge influence on me. Whenever I make a short I know I have this Jørgen Leth masterpiece in the back of my head. I love the “clinical” almost sterile approach. It’s the 60s aesthetic, my favorite type of black & white: Films never looked better. It’s the Danish humor, the simplicity of the concept and the fearless execution.

8. Festen (1998, Thomas Vinterberg)
As far as emotionally devastating films go The Celebration is one of the most pure experiments I’ve seen. Its exploration of interpersonal dynamics and more specifically families is flawless. It’s also what I consider to be the poster child for the Dogme film movement and definitely my personal favorite to come out of that aesthetic. The ending of this film is jarring and quite simply unforgettable.

7. Italian for Beginners (2000, Lone Scherfig)
italian for beginners
It looks like my fascination for Denmark is reciprocated by Danes, because they seem to be in love with Italy. This is a very sweet romantic comedy about a bunch of people who want to learn Italian, but don’t go in expecting a “light” film. This movie was shot with a handheld camera which makes it so effective and emotionally raw. My favorite part is probably the acting, which is solid all-around.

6. Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)
You can read some more in-depth thoughts about Dogville here, but this is one of those films I think I’ll never be able to fully understand myself. Lots of philosophical and moral digressions that only a well-read viewer will get. As a cinephile however I am still in awe of this minimalistic stage-play-style film, which is absolutely gorgeous and features one of my favorite ensemble casts ever. 

5. The Five Obstructions (2003, Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth)
the five obstructions
Let’s add a documentary to the list. The Five Obstructions is actually about Lars von Trier challenging Jørgen Leth to remake his own short film The Perfect Human. It’s a fascinating film about film. I learned a lot about cinema, Lars and just the art of filmmaking itself. I know I said only two films per director on these lists, but this one is co-directed so I’d say it still counts.

4. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
Melancholia is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. From the super-slow motion opening scene to the immensely definitive ending this is a brilliant masterpiece that will live on and become a classic. I know it’s way early to say this, but it’s also my favorite film of the decade so far. Perfection from start to finish. Once again stellar acting, compelling characters and a lot to think about.

3. A Royal Affair (2012, Nikolaj Arcel)
a royal affair
This film was a surprise for me. I watched it because it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, but I’m sure it deserved the top prize. It’s also the film that solidified my love for Danish cinema and actor Mads Mikkelsen. It’s a very delicate film visually, but maybe not so subtle in its message. Still it’s very effective and I especially like the character arcs, it’s not something you see every day.

2. The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg)
the hunt
Jagten was probably one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve had in recent years. I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It’s no surprise this film is the work of two geniuses: Thomas Vinterberg (behind the camera) and Mads Mikkelsen (in front of the camera). I like the simplicity of the story and the emotional rawness of Mads’ performance. It’s a great script as well by the way.

1. Teddy Bear (2012, Mads Matthiesen)
teddy bear
Teddy Bear is a feature film adaptation of Dennis the story of an introverted bodybuilder who travels all the way to Thailand to find a girlfriend. Like its protagonist it’s a rather quiet film, not a lot of action, but that’s precisely what I appreciate about this film: A lot of unspoken feelings. What’s more impressive is that all the actors are non-professionals, which shows great promise for director Mads Matthiesen.


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