Technically there’s no such thing as a foreign language film. No language is foreign to everyone, every language is native to someone. We Americans just call them foreign language films because they’re in a language that’s not English. Subtle nationalism really do be like that! But all of that is beside the point.
There are many foreign films that are absolutely vital to the history of world cinema as a whole. From French New Wave to Bollywood films, the world of cinema beyond the U.S. has so much to offer. Watching foreign films expands your horizons and helps you understand the world better as a whole, which is something we can and should always strive for. How better to understand your fellow global citizens than by watching art created by their people?
One of the worst popular ideas of world cinema is that they’re all ultra serious dramas or tragedies that depict wars or other such atrocities. World cinema is as varied as American cinema, and thought it does include serious dramas, it also includes some uproarious comedies, amongst other genres.
In recent years, global cinema has become more and more accessible, mostly thanks to Netflix, which has made more foreign language films available to the US and many other countries. This increased availability hopefully means that Netflix’s English-speaking users will get over their fear of subtitles and get some education in world cinema.
Without further ado, here are the best foreign films of all time.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Stars: Adi Carauleanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Madalina Ghitescu, Vlad Ivanoc, Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu
Film critic J. Hoberman writes about ordeal cinema, movies with situations so painstakingly rendered that they become experiences inflicted on the viewer. They take you under and hold you there, where you can't breathe, where you can't do anything but watch. Winner of the Palme d'Or in 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is an ordeal.
Set in Romania in 1987, this is the movie: Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu), a university student is pregnant. Her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) will help her get an illegal abortion from Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), as the procedure was banned under the communist regime. They meet him in a hotel room. The payment is discussed, becomes complicated. The procedure occurs. Then, Găbiţa needs Otilia's help after the procedure.
That's it. That's the paraphrasable content, but as with the best movies, the formal decisions turn the experience into something a summary can't possibly convey. —RS
8 1/2 (1963)
Director: Federico Fellini
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Rossella Falk, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale
Let's do the necessary and obvious thing, and crown 8 1/2 the best film about filmmaking ever made. In 2013, this is no grand pronouncement, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact, lest we forget it.
Coming off the heels of the seminal La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini found himself in a bind. He didn't know what to make as his follow-up to the acclaimed examination of the glamorous life in postwar Italy. Straight-jacketed by writer's block, he made a movie about his straight-jacket.
The film opens with one of the greatest dream sequences in movie history, with director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) struggling to escape a claustrophobic traffic jam. He wakes up, but he still doesn't know what the fuck he's doing with his next project, despite the giant rocket ship he's constructed as one of the principal sets. As producers, writers, and former lovers smother him, Guido's pushed into a corner from which one of the greatest endings in movie history emerges. —RS
The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut
Stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier, Guy Decomble, Patrick Auffay, Georges Flamant
After spending nearly a decade working as a film critic, Francois Truffaut knew what made film work, and when it came to sit down and write his feature debut, The 400 Blows, the auteur kept things personal. A key piece of the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut's best known film treats adolescence with a respect and restraint.
The film's preteen protagonist, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is a deeply unhappy kid who, following accusations of plagiarism at school, gets sent by his asshole father to live behind bars. Thanks to Leaud's controlled performance, The 400 Blows never descends into the goofiness you've come to associate with movies about precocious youngsters. —MB
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Country: South Korea
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Stars: Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun Young, Yeom Jeong-ah, Kim Kap-soo, Lee Seung-bi, Lee Dae-yeon
Thanks to the influx of "J-horror" remakes in the early 2000s, Japan was universally recognized as Asian cinema's top purveyor of scary movies; yet the best of all recent Asian horror flicks hails from South Korea.
Ji-woon Kim's A Tale Of Two Sisters (unconvincingly remade by Hollywood in 2009 and re-titled as The Uninvited) holds up, nine years after its release, as one of the last decade's strongest psychological creep-outs. Showing hardly anything in the way of gore or jump-scares, master filmmaker Ji-woon Kim blends mental instability with potential supernatural activity, showing how a girl's return home from the loony bin, after her mother's death, triggers full-blown insanity.
As an unsettling mood piece, A Tale of Two Sisters is tough to beat. It will also function as a point of entry into a great director. Proceed to A Bittersweet Life next. —MB
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro, Peter Berling, Cecilia Rivera
A major player in the New German Cinema movement, alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder and others, Werner Herzog is not like you and me. This man once saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car accident. He's eaten a cooked shoe. He's made some of the most unforgetting and insane films the world has ever seen.
New German Cinema explored the state of the country in the wake of WWII, which is to say in the wake of Hitler. In Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Herzog gets at Hitler obliquely by telling the tale of a group of conquistadors looking for El Dorado in the 16th century. This band of men is led by Aguirre, played by the crazy-eyed Klaus Kinski, the De Niro to Herzog's Scorsese.
Shot on location in the Amazon, where the danger was very real, Herzog's film has none of the polish of a Hollywood historical epic. Instead, it's like you're watching a community theater troupe try not to die in Peru. There's nothing like it —RS
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Stars: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Having already established the New German Cinema by the early '70s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder looked to Hollywood melodrama of the '50s as an influence for the next detour in his career. While paying tribute to All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul translates Douglas Sirk’s May-December romance to accommodate a portrait of Germany’s fickle social politics and willful blindness to the racism in the cultural DNA.
The love story between the elderly widow Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira) and the young, hulking Arab Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) begins as an act of defiance, thwarting social conventions to the displeasure of everyone around them. But when their friends evolve and accept Emmi and Ali’s relationship, the couple begins to internalize the oppression that once came from without. Their romance becomes the story of neocolonial love and a society’s inability to come to acknowledge and confront its own dark history. —Rad S.
Country: France, Germany
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Stars: Andre Dussollier, Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Serge Merlin
We’ll be the first to admit that Amélie is not a film suited to everyone’s taste. With its whimsical style and cute-as-a-button leading lady (Audrey Tatou), it’s a Disneyfied version of life in Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood. One where young Amélie works as a waitress on a mission to make life happier for those around her, concocting a number of elaborate schemes in order to manipulate joy from the strangers who surround her. Until she eventually realizes that it is she who is need of a personal pick-me-up.
Though dismissed by some for being too cutesy (it was famously rejected from screening at Cannes when a programmer described it as being “uninteresting”), the film’s fanciful depiction of The City of Light conjured up more than $30 million at the box office, making it the most successful French film to hit American shores. —JW
Director: Takashi Miike
Stars: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura
When a middle-aged widower named Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) attempts to find love again after the death of his wife, his movie producer friend sets up a fake casting audition to find him his next great love. He falls immediately for Asami (Eihi Shiina). Sounds like a romantic comedy, right? Acclaimed director Takashi Miike's comment on gender in Japan is anything but, but we won't spoil the outcome. To get the experience, you should know as little as possible. But just by telling you that, we've already said too much.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Country: France, Algeria
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Stars: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Tommaso Neri, Fawzia El-Kader, Michele Kerbash
In the midst of its War on Terror, the Pentagon deemed The Battle of Algiers necessary viewing. You should too. Gillo Pontecorvo’s film about the Algerian revolution, where rebels planted the seeds to oust the French occupation, is revolutionary in its own right. Pontercorvo’s handheld, documentary-like aesthetic was groundbreaking for achieving such startling realism, capturing both the government’s strategy to quell the rebellion and the Algerian tactics to break them off.
Meanwhile, the film’s purview does not center on a lone individual as traditional narratives go. There is no one hero for us to identify with. In true democratic fashion, The Battle of Algiers is about the many individuals who unite around a cause, disappearing among the crowds to stay tactical. —Rad S.