The Best Foreign Language Films You Must Watch
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.
These words of wisdom are straight from the mouth of 2020 Oscar-winning director, Bong Joon-Ho shortly after receiving the best-picture award for his film, Parasite.
Despite Korean being one of the hardest languages to learn, it just shows that you don’t have to speak a language to connect with the culture.
Once upon a time, Hollywood seemed to be an impenetrable force in the entertainment sector, but it seems that the foreign film market is no longer restricted to the Cannes Film Festival.
Foreign films can have a huge impact on our exploration and understanding of new cultures, choosing our next travel destinations, or better yet, it’s one of the best ways to learn a language through a less formal, more conversational method.
The best foreign films combine captivating cinematography with a downpour of raw emotion that tends to leave viewers in a state of flux as they apprehensively reach for the remote while the credits roll and the soundtrack echoes.
If you’re in search of a cinematic experience to break the Hollywood chain, our list of the best foreign films is the perfect way to start. You may even learn a few phrases along the way!
Parasite (South Korea, 2019)
IMDB Rating: 8.6/10
The best way to experience South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s coming-of-age tragicomedy is with as little prior knowledge as possible. Amidst the film’s ‘thrillarity’ lies an symbolic narrative portraying an intricate examination of class conflict between the working-class Kim family and the wealthy Park family.
Set in the South Korean capital of Seoul, the plot really starts to take shape once the Kim family devise an elaborate scheme to infiltrate the Park’s lavish household. Parasite is as sensationally absorbing as it is deeply melancholy. A true phenomenon that has been created to last the test of time.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain, 2006)
IMDB Rating: 8.2/10
Set in Falangist Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth opens with Ofelia and her pregnant mother being sent to live with her new stepfather, the ruthless Captain Vidal. When she arrives, Ofelia follows what she believes to be a fairy into an ancient labyrinth. Ofelia’s two worlds – fascist Spain and fairy tale labyrinth – collide and intertwine.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a twisted masterpiece that drags the audience both through the horrors of 1940s Spanish facism and nightmarish fantasy of Ofelia’s challenges. Part fairy tale, part dark fantasy, part psychological exploration and part protest, Pan’s Labyrinth is an exceptional work of film that deserves its position on the list.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China, 2000)
IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Set in the 18th century Qing dynasty in China, a young Wudang swordsman by the name of Li Mu Bai decides to give up his ‘Green Destiny’ sword to mark the end of his perilous career. The sword is swiftly stolen by a mysterious master of the martial arts which prompts Li Mu Bai to come out of early retirement.
Directed by Ang Lee, there are many symbolic elements of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that relate to ancient chinese heritage. The title comes from a Chinese aphorism about hiding strength from the world, while the Green coloured sword represents the yin, the female mystery which is rather fitting for this female-led cast. The film submerges you into the world of ancient chinese culture with a solid dose of martial arts and a side of romance. What’s not to love?
Roma (Mexico, 2018)
IMDB Rating: 7.7/10
The Academy Award-winning, Netflix sensation was the first real indication that the art-house economy is slowly, but surely moving online.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Roma follows a year in the life of a 1970s housemaid in Mexico City. The intimate family drama centres around Cleo – one of two domestic workers who help a middle-class couple take care of their four children.
Gripped by your emotional attachment to Cleo and the family, Cuaron uses intimacy and relatability to express the ups and downs of ordinary, hard-working life. The humanistic connection is perhaps the most touching part of the story. Make sure you have a tissue handy for this tear jerking masterpiece.
Amélie (France, 2001)
IMDB Rating: 8.3/10
Amélie follows the eponymous protagonist, portrayed by the wonderful Audrey Tautou. On the surface Amélie is another whimsical fairytale but dig a little deeper and it becomes decidedly dark. Amélie’s penchant for venomous practical jokes and occasional stalking doesn’t preclude to a whiter-than-white personality, after all.
For 20 years, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet collected small intriguing moments, taking notes in his diary, not knowing it was all going to culminate into one of the most successful French films in history. Everything from the cinematography, soundtrack, story and overall atmosphere makes this film a cinematic masterpiece.
City of God (Brazil, 2002)
There are few films more emotionally traumatizing than City of God. The Brazilian film follows two boys growing up in the unavoidable violent slums of 1970s Rio de Janeiro – one aspiring to be a photographer, the other a drug kingpin.
City of God is brave in its unflinching portrayal of the viciousness of Rio and utter abandonment of the districts by the state. However, the film is far from unbridled misery. While the protagonists are robbed of their innocence, their development of characters as living, breathing and fallible people is tangible and brilliantly rewarding.
The Battle of Algiers (1966, Algeria)
Based on actual events, The Battle of Algiers chronicles three years of Algeria’s freedom fighter National Liberation Front uprising against a cynical French colonel – Jean Martin.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s depiction of bitter reality is as gripping as it is heartbreaking. The sheer fact that the picture was released just four years after Algeria had secured independence from France, meant that there was a real need for socio-political unbiased.
The French government at the time didn’t see it this way, and banned the film in France for 5 years. It’s this conscientious on which it’s reputation still rests – a tremendously moving piece of political filmmaking.
La Dolce Vita (Italy, 1960)
If you’re learning Italian, your first test is to translate this timeless classic’s title into English. Easy? Thought so.
Translating into English to read “The Sweet Life”, Federico Fellini’s groundbreaking 1960 satire put Italian cinema on the map thanks to its sexy, surreal encapsulation of modernity.
The film follows the hectic week for a philandering paparazzi journalist living in Rome. The film brilliantly captures the beauty of post-war Rome through the lens of a young man trying to make his mark on the entertainment business from the outside.
Wild Strawberries (Sweden, 1957)
Wild Strawberries is a Swedish film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. The film revolves around a crabbit, seventy-eight year old retired doctor and his journey from Stockholm to Lund where he is to receive an honorary doctorate as an award for his contributions to medicine. Accompanied by his pregnant daughter, they set off a trip down memory lane.
Scripted while Bergman was being treated in hospital for two months whilst suffering gastric ulcers, little did he know that his movie was going to be one of the most everlasting films to come out of Scandinavia. Through its flashback structure, the film builds into a compassionate story of a man coming to terms with the emptiness of his existence.
The 400 Blows (France, 1959)
The 400 Blows is an intensely touching story about a young Parisian boy who turns to petty crime after constant neglect from those close to him. Antoine turns to his best-friend and confidant, Rene, for an escape. When one of their schemes doesn’t go to plan, Antoine ends up in trouble with the law, leading to even more conflict with unsympathetic authority figures.
The film feels all the more special when you realise it is inspired by director Francois Truffaut’s own early life. The film delves into the life of a resourceful boy growing up in Paris who had to learn to fend for himself when he needed people the most. Adults see him as a troublemaker and a pest, but we get to share some of his private moments that reveal his softer, more insecure side.
Rashomon (Japan, 1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s chilling psychological thriller presents four different peoples’ accounts of a horrifying crime. Set in 12th century Japan, this uniquely disturbing drama enhanced a new wave of western interest into the visionary artistry of Japanese cinema.
The film explores the echelons of human communication from a multiperspective outlook and proves that exists solely in the mind of the beholder. Rashomon was the film that solidified Akira Kurosawa’s ingenious reputation. A true cinematic masterpiece that still resonates today.
All About My Mother (Spain, 1999)
All About My Mother follows the story of Manuela, an Argentinian nurse working in the transplant unit of a Madrid hospital. Manuela’s life is turned upside down when Esteban (Manuela’s Son) is knocked down by a car and killed trying to get an autograph from the star of the show, Huma Roja.
Left empty and alone, Manuela decides to retire and travel to Barcelona to confront Esteban’s estranged father. Little do we know, however, that director Pedro Almodovar is concealing the identity of a fugitive transexual prostitute called Lola! The film delicately, yet openly explores complex issues such as AIDS, homosexuality and transsexualism in a fantastcially scripted cinematic experience.
Old Boy (South Korea, 2003)
Park Choon-wook’s breathless thriller is not for the faint of heart. The story follows the vengeful journey of Oh Dae-Su – a man who has been kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years. After his unexpected release, he is told he must find his captor in five days.
As you can imagine, the rest of the film goes down an oddly satisfying blood-spattered road, encapsulating Oh Dae-Su’s merciless revenge mission. Packed with an equal amount of emotional humanity, Old Boy tingles all the sense if you have a strong stomach. The ruthless modern classic is also available to stream on Netflix.
The Intouchables (France, 2011)
A heart-warming story of the unlikely friendship between a millionaire quadriplegic aristocrat called Philippe and a young black man from the projects called Driss. Phillipe is interviewing candidates for the position of his carer when Driss bursts in and asks Phillipe to sign a document from Social Security to prove he is seeking work so he can receive his unemployment benefit. The result – a one month trial as Philippe’s carer!
After moving into Philippe’s home, Driss reinvigorates the place, providing Philippe with a welcomed escape and boost to his confidence. As they gain contrasting life experiences from each other, the friendship blossoms into one of true companionship/bromance. A real feel-good dramedy that was unfortunately re-made as ‘The Upside’ starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.
I hope we’ve managed to lure you into the world of foreign films! Once you get over the minor detail of subtitles, you allow yourself to immerse into the cultural and artistic visionary of international cinema.
Quite a few of the movies we have mentioned
It’s a great way to casually improve your understanding of multiple languages or even just appreciate the contrasting cinematography, sense of humour and cultural themes that are explored.