The 100 Essential Foreign Films
Being a firm advocate and fan of what English-speaking people such as myself refer affectionately to as “foreign” cinema, it was only a matter of time before I wrote this list. I have been working on it for months, and of all the many lists I have written on my site, this one is the one that took the most effort and of which I am the most proud, so I hope you take these films and my recommendations of them seriously.
Anyone can write a list of the 100 best foreign films, but there will be differences in everyone’s lists, so that’s what makes writing them so special. The following 100 films are my favourite foreign films – not to be confused with the best foreign films, a list that would be impossible to write. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that each and every single one of these films is worth seeing, all equally, for cinema lovers of all kinds.
The films on this list are in chronological order. I did not rank them because they are impossible to rank. I do not recommend any films in particular, because they are all worth seeing and I do not want to give any of them preferential treatment, however my love for certain films more than others is sometimes difficult to disguise, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that.
To clarify: the term ‘foreign film’ is defined here as a film whose primary language is anything other than English. So here goes:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
A classic thriller that’s difficult to forget, Robert Wiene’s memorable, startling drama tells of a magician whose main attraction, a somnambulist hidden in a cabinet, begins to turn against him when it’s bizarre prophecies begin to eventuate. Ridden with twists and an unpredictable, table-turning ending, it really is a classic film.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922)
One of the first vampire movies ever made (and one of the best), Nosferatu is also a truly frightening one mainly for the eerie menace that surrounds its eponymous antagonist, Count Orlok. “Your wife has a beautiful neck” remains one of the most memorable lines in a horror film and a staple of Nosferatu‘s place in classic horror history.
The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Probably the best silent film ever made, Sergei Eisenstein’s incredibly influential, startlingly horrific and widely banned tale of the revolt of a group of sailors kept as slaves on a ship, which leads to mass murder and various riots. Constantly riveting and shocking, it’s a classic among all movies and a real must-see.
Fritz Lang’s unforgettable classic, recently re-released with half an hour of extra footage, Metropolis remains a shining example of the potential of silent films, combined with the breakthrough of a New Wave of memorable sci-fi cult favourites, to make it a mechanically brilliant, twisted epic, into which a lot of time and effort and vision was put.
Various versions are different lengths, but the film remains essentially the same: brilliant, influential, epic, beautiful, and well-made. Abel Gance was a master at epics, and this one is arguably his best. Tracking the life and times of one of history’s most memorable leaders, Gance’s film recruits inventive camera angles, tracking shots and an unforgettable split-screen, multi-color effect.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
When Joan of Arc supposedly heard voices compelling her to lead France to victory, so began the remarkable story of one of history’s most celebrated saints, a martyr for her cause, portrayed brilliantly on screen by stage actress Marie Falconetti. Carl Theodor Dreyer directs mindfully, showing her serene, hurt face from various angles in various emotions to create the ultimate feeling of despair.
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali created what is ostensibly the best surrealist short film of all time. Featuring such unforgettable images as dead donkeys tied to a grand piano, ants crawling from a hand and of course a calf’s eyeball being sliced, it grabs the audience’s attention and forces them to think. About what? Nothing. It’s actually better that you don’t think. Bunuel prefers it that way.
L’Age D’Or (1930)
The follow-up to Un Chien Andalou is an almost feature-length sequel containing similar surrealist imagery but perhaps is lighter on the eyes and mind. Using his camera as a gun to ruthlessly shoot at bourgeois values and social contracts was something Bunuel loved to do, especially later in his career, but the roots of these spiteful feelings can be found in works like these.
One of the best films about serial killers I have ever seen, Fritz Lang’s M wastes no time in exposing the two sides of the law: on one, a murderer whose compulsion to kill is beyond his control, and the other a desperate, angry crowd of normal people, recruiting vigilante justice as a means to exact their vengeful plans.
The Triumph of the Will (1934)
Leni Riefenstahl’s documentation of the 1934 Nuremberg rally is ostensibly the best piece of propaganda work ever made. It features camera angles, wide tracking shots and other clever manoevres to make its point. Its point, however, is doubtful and morally repugnant. Make no mistake, this documentary praises Nazism, but therein lies the issue: how can such a repulsive film be great?
The Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir’s classic war movie is a real masterpiece. In a German POW camp, French soldiers attempt to escape but their mission is constantly thwarted. Of all the films about escape from prison, both metaphorical ones and real ones with bars and guards, Renoir’s has to be one of the best. An unforgettable hellride of emotion and experience.
Taking a big leap to 1948 and the birth of Italian neo-realism is Vittorio De Sica’s classic family tragedy The Bicycle Thief, in which a father and son search desperately for their stolen bike, essential to the father’s job and thus the structure of the family. Haunting, beautiful and unforgettable, De Sica’s films will shake you, break you and take you, right from the first frame.
Los Olvidados (1950)
Bunuel takes aim at Mexican slums, examing the lives of juvenile delinquents in the dangerous streets of a filthy life, corrupted by the madness around them. Containing elements of all of Bunuel’s films, this is one of his most affecting and sadly beautiful.
Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, with many to follow, is the stunning story of the unfolding of a rape and murder from various points of view, forcing the viewer to question whose is the right one. A film that has been loved and watched throughout history, one of the first films to bend time in the manner at does, and with an ambiguous conclusion that few refused to accept but that now is commonplace among many films.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
Robert Bresson is a brilliant filmmaker, one of the best French filmmakers and a man who gains a lot less appreciation than he deserves. A meticulous perfectionist, Diary of a Country Priest was his earliest masterpiece. With a film that evidently proved some influence for directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard, Diary of a Country Priest is a personal, elementary, simple work of art.
Kurosawa’s most personal film, Ikiru is also his most beautiful, and the one I always recommend, even over the much more esteemed The Seven Samurai. The simple tale of a dying man whose life he feels has been wasted, attempting to do at least one good thing before he dies. Never overly sentimental, but still deeply saddening, Ikiru is one of the best films of the 50s.
Umberto D. (1952)
Vittorio De Sica continued the brilliance he displayed in films like Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief with a film, I feel, that exceeds both of those in the way it made me feel, both about the movies, De Sica, and the subject matter in general. A poor old man and his dog struggle to survive; after being evicted from his house he wanders around slowly, sadly, attempting to find something. Not necessarily beauty or peace, just… something. I think we all have known how he felt at one time or another.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Ah… finally something light! The first comedy on this list, Jacques Tati’s silly, fun, senseless but adventurous look at the nature of holidays and vacations, not necessarily to find their purpose, but simply to bask in the pleasures and memories people gain from them. Delightful, enjoyable and briskly funny, it’s films like Tati’s which remind us that cinema can be “artsy” without being serious.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Yasujiro Ozu makes it easily into my book of favourite filmmakers because he adopts the use of one of my favourite, preferred camera placement techniques: the static camera. Ozu’s camera very rarely moves, which is something I like. The viewer is grounded, forced to watch as an amazing, classic story unfolds. One of the most accessible movies on this list, Ozu’s film captures life in Tokyo in a manner which exceeds even the style of a masterworker like Kurosawa, leaving in his wake some fantastic films, including this unforgettable, beautiful gem.
Regarded by critics (and IMDb users) as one of the ten best films of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 David Lean-esque epic predates even Lean’s smallest masterpieces, and exceeds even his greatest. The story of seven ronin who are hired to protect a penniless village from vicious bandits is timeless, the inspiration for a remake and countless tributes throughout movie history, this is Kurosawa’s most astonishing achievement.
La Strada (1954)
Soon after Ingmar Bergman saw suicidal clowns get drunk and contemplate suicide in Sawdust and Tinsel, Federico Fellini was seeking a more artistic, accessible style. Romance is an important plot part of La Strada, as it was in most, if not all of Fellini’s films, but clowns in love is immediately more interesting than the typical love story.
Night and Fog (1955)
Alain Resnais’ 1955 short feature was proclaimed by Francois Truffaut as “the greatest film ever made.” While giving a single film such a title is absurd, one could argue fairly that Night and Fog is the greatest documentary ever made. Only 30 minutes long, it examines the horror and nastiness of the concentration camps in the Holocaust, following the process from administration into the camp till the eventual genocide and dumping of the bodies. Disturbing but brilliant.
A Man Escaped (1956)
There are a lot of people who tout The Shawshank Redemption as an amazing, brilliant movie; the best prison film of all time, blah blah blah. A film they fail to take into account is one that is directly influential: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, which tells in a distinctly minimalist style the story of a man stuck in a jail cell slowly chipping his way to freedom. Films like Shawshank and Midnight Express pale in comparison to this amazing film.
Elevator to the Gallows (1957)
Louis Malle’s first feature film is a tension-building thriller which keeps a steady pace towards its inevitable conclusion. Starring Jeanne Moreau, Malle focuses on her surreal, beautiful face as she experiences a range of emotions when she is convinced her lover has deserted her, when in fact he is stuck in a broken elevator after committing murder for her. One of the great non-Hitchcock thrillers of the 50s.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
A film that is a joy to watch the first time, and even better upon subsequent viewings, Ingmar Bergman’s religious allegory provokes a lot of thought and contemplation, which needs to be absorbed slowly and considered carefully. But for those less willing to focus on the emotional meaning, there is always the unforgettable images: the Knight playing chess with Death; the band of travellers entranced in the Dance of Death, and so much more. The Seventh Seal is one of the most visually striking black and white films I have ever seen.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
What happens when two of the greatest Swedish filmmakers collaborate to make a film, one acting and one directing? Ingmar Bergman examines the experience of life from the perspective of an elderly man, played by Victor Sjostrom, reflecting on the beauty and hardship of the long life he has lived, and the last days ahead of him. Made intensely sadder by the fact that Sjostrom died soon after this was completed, it is a beautiful poem of life’s beauty and its various forms.
The French New Wave exploded into worldwide appeal and was generally considered to be kickstarted by Francois Truffaut’s terrific debut. The 400 Blows is an unforgettable tale of childhood, examining all the emotions that pass through a pubescent child’s mind as he struggles to grapple with growing up and having the weight of a dark and unacceptable world on his shoulders.
Hiroshima mon Amour (1959)
Alain Resnais’ first feature film after a series of shorts including the aforementioned Night and Fog, was a beautiful tale of conflicted love in Tokyo, originally intended to be a documentary about the atomic bomb. Resnais’ proved he had a talent for feature film, and this was a suitable, incredible breakthrough into the French New Wave, even though the film was miles away from France.
In Pickpocket, Robert Bresson’s most intense film, his camera intensely concentrates on the tiniest of details to create a rushed, muddled series of images. His films are so simple… he relies more on images than dialogue, and music is optional and oft discarded. Questioning morality, Pickpocket is pared down to the smallest of elements in a disturbing manner which creates indescribable tension.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
“Affront and raspberry are the breasts of life.” Such is the nonsense punctuating the action, comedy and strange New Wave-y goodness of Francois Truffaut’s follow-up to Shoot the Piano Player. A film that was only partially scripted and most of it made up along the way, Truffaut’s film does have a plot but it’s pretty sketchy amongst the rush of mood changes, set changes, and a collection of strange, unexpected twists.
Returning to Spain after a long absence, Luis Bunuel struck back into the mainstream with one of his most controversial (and best) films. A young woman takes in an assortment of hobos and beggars following the suicide of her uncle, with disastrous results. Shocking and offensive to Spanish bigots everywhere, the film was a refreshing release from then-strong moral chains, and a success at Cannes.
Jean-Luc Godard’s first film is not my favourite of his; but it certainly is his most influential and the best of all his comedies, and is most famous for its groundbreaking, startling editing technique. In order to shorten the length of a 120min+ film, Godard employed jump cuts to cut directly through unnecessary parts of a shot without just dumping the rest of the shot altogether. The story of two lovers caught up in a gangster movie-style chase precedes all its imitators, and exceeds them.
Rejected by audiences at Cannes but glowingly praised by critics, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Adventure is his best film, an absolute treasure and one of the greatest mystery stories/romances ever made. One of the best Italian movies I have ever seen, and an intriguing, alluring gripping mystery that has stretched influence from its release till today, most particularly with Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
God knows how many rape/revenge movies or slasher films this has influenced, but Bergman’s story of rape, murder and retribution contains surprisingly little blood, and uses religion as the driving force for its characters and their emotions, which few films since have dared to challenge. It also has one of the best endings ever.
Earning Federico Fellini the Golden Palm at Cannes, La Dolce Vita was the director’s most sensual experience, a film of beauty, love and sadness. After his two previous masterpieces La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, Fellini returned for a third with this vicious, beautiful tale of media obsession and the ability of the media to break people. Part romance, part satire, this is a lovely, enjoyable, fantastic movie from one of cinema’s most charismatic, smart artists.
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Possibly Alain Resnais’ most bizarre, disturbing film, Last Year in Marienbad is also his best feature. Exhibiting an attractive, dreamlike quality combined with a series of disturbingly strange and occasionally nonsensical sequences, not to mention the absence of character names and development, to create a beautifully offbeat New Wave masterpiece.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Bergman is known for his intense character dramas, but never were they like this. He comprises a cast of regulars, including the beautiful Harriet Andersson, the stone cold Gunnar Bjornstrand, the regretful Max von Sydow and the angst-ridden Lars Passgard. A family torn apart by mental illness and their inability to connect, Through a Glass, Darkly culminates in one of the most startling, disturbing denouements, a terrifying vision of the effects of sickness of the mind.
Winter Light (1962)
The second film in what many refer to as Bergman’s Faith trilogy, Winter Light is one of Bergman’s most claustrophobic, dialogue-driven films. A priest loses all faith in God, resulting in a mental breakdown and a rejection of the man he is supposed to worship. Full of incredibly intense, brutal monologues about the failure of human communication and connection, Winter Light is a heartbreaking look at what happens when people lose faith in the only thing that keeps them alive.
Jules and Jim (1962)
One of the most captivating, beautiful love stories of all time, Francois Truffaut’s love triangle of three in beautiful France may end in tragedy, but is nonetheless a fulfilling, marvellous experience. Allow yourself to briefly fall in love with the sensual Jeanne Moreau and join Truffaut in one of the greatest romance stories ever told. And that’s no bullshit.
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
After the backlash brought on by Viridiana, Luis Bunuel shrugged his shoulders and continued to poke fun at the bourgeoisie, humiliating them this time by placing a group of middle-class couples in a room that they are unable to leave. For the whole movie, the door is wide open and yet they simply can’t leave. Darkly comic and very well-made, this is a treat from the always smiling Spaniard.
Brace yourself Kurosawa fans, here is one of the man’s best films. After a string of successes in the 50s with Rashomon, Ikiru and The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa struck back with this riveting, epic tale; which never reached the scale of, say, The Seven Samurai or the later-to-come Ran, but still manages to be very epic and brilliantly well-made.
Louis Malle was not the first person to deal with the then-uncomfortable topic of suicide, but no director has ever done it so bluntly or well as he did with The Fire Within. Following the last days of a desperately unhappy recovering alcoholic, we see his world fall apart from the inside as he attempts futilely to reconnect with some of the people in his life, who were once close and comforting but now seem distant and dark.
The Silence (1963)
Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy comes full circle with The Silence, which does not deal directly with religion, but rather the inability for human beings to successfully communicate. Two sisters and the young son of one stop briefly in a hotel in a foreign land, and their differing and contrasting attitudes are their inevitable undoing in this raw, powerful film.
One of Jean-Luc Godard’s most beautiful, striking films, Contempt deals directly with the contrasting attitudes of a man and a woman in a relationship which may or may not be falling apart. Featuring a notable cameo from Fritz Lang, the film progresses nicely, and much of it flows well, often seeming like one long scene, until the sudden ending.
I’ve been trying to think about the most beautiful film I’ve seen, but since that’s so hard to define precisely, I’m unable to reach a conclusion. All I know is that 8 ½ has to be a contender. It is an unforgettable tale of a filmmaker run out of ideas, stuck inside his own melting brain, remembering the joys and tears of his past in futile hope it will help him deal with his future.
Bande a Part (1964)
One of Jean-Luc Godard’s lighter, more playful films, Bande a Part is like Truffaut’s Jules and Jim if it were a comic heist movie. With countless unforgettable moments, delightfully Godardesque scenes (such as the dance in the diner, a direct inspiration for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and a beautifully shot final shootout, Bande a Part might not be a particularly large achievement for Godard, but it is an achievement nonetheless.
Ingmar Bergman’s best film, closely tied with almost everything he’s ever made, is also his most experimental. Beginning with an almost nonsensical and disturbing prologue, it launches into the story of a mute actress and the nurse hired to care for her, culminating in a vicious monologue shown wholly twice and the startling fusion of both actresses’ faces. A nightmarish masterpiece.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
It’s hard for me to decide what the genius Robert Bresson’s best film is, but after lengthy thought, it’s probably this one. Au Hasard Balthazar is the heartbreaking story of a harshly mistreated donkey who stands witness to various sins committed both to others and himself. Bresson refuses to make the donkey human in any way – he is a donkey, and that is all, but the things he witnesses and endures evidently have an effect on his weary mind.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Though people often herald The Battle of Algiers as one of the great Italian epics, people rarely mention the name of its talented director, Gillo Pontecorvo, who began his career with documentaries and progressed to this, his masterpiece, a sore, brutal tale of human oppression and cruelty inflicted on man by man, and one of the best tales of an irate war ever told.
Closely Watched Trains (1966)
The Czech New Wave, in all its glory, is appreciated by most for this film, a sexually suggestive, brutally funny tale of one man’s attempts to lose his virginity to a beautiful conductress. Though the film is more than just images of trains going into tunnels, sexual symbolism is a huge part of the film, and a large factor of what makes it funny, fresh and original for its time.
The legendary Robert Bresson made few films quite like Mouchette, a truly underrated masterpiece. The raw, beautiful tale of a young girl who gets caught up in the war between two men, is a sad one. After being raped (which Bresson suitably only implies, rather subtly) and used, the unfortunate Mouchette is led down a sad path to oblivion, in the most tragic of all Bresson’s films.
Belle de Jour (1967)
The sublimely beautiful Catherine Deneuve plays a rather silent woman who secretly dreams of sexual domination, and attempts to pursue a part-time job (and/or escape) as a high-class prostitute, only to be led down a sore path to her simultaneous sexual awakening and destruction. Luis Bunuel unfussily tells a sad, shocking story, opening up the door to a world which seems safe but is in reality dangerous and unforgiving.
My personal favourite Godard film and possibly his best, I also described Week End in my original review as the most disturbing film I have ever seen, and I stand by that. While some films are disturbing visually, and others emotionally, Week End is both, a sickening and frightening vision of a world in total decay where humanity and morality is virtually nonexistant.
Andrei Rublev (1968)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s second film is his best. A champion of Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev is an epic work of amazing, mysterious art. The story of a 15th-century monk whose icon painting made him one of the great artists of all time, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is rich in imagery, emotion and thematic power, a fantastic great and a marvellous epic.
When Ingmar Bergman tackled the subject of full-scale war in 1968, the result was one of his most amazing films, very unique and unlike anything else he made during what is known as the “Faro period.” Telling of the undoing of a supposedly happy couple as war strikes, it reveals nasty truths about the nature of war and its effect on the human psyche.
Unashamedly my favourite Louis Malle film, I’m fairly confident it’s his best, too. The beautifully shot tale of the adolescence of a teenage boy culminating in an intimate encounter with his mother is a film for all ages, examining the fragility and beauty of childhood, its charms, delights and the days of heaven it produces.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi thriller and a complex mind-game, this masterpiece from the talented Russian director does not rely on special effects or impressive visuals, but rather a strong plot, great acting and brilliant direction from Tarkovsky, which all combines to make a memorable, brilliant experience.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Luis Bunuel had previously poked fun at the middle class, but none of his films were as vicious, nonsensical or brilliant as this, a disturbing look at a group of bourgeois couples who attempt to sit down and have a meal together but fail miserably due to circumstances out of their control. In the end they’re all puppets, controlled by a sadistically grinning Bunuel, pulling the strings to make the characters act out his own sick intentions.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Though all of his films focus closely on human relationships, none were perhaps as intimate and unforgiving as Cries and Whispers, a film which is also one of his most colourful. Literally. The film is absolutely soaked in the colour red, which Bergman believed was the colour of the human soul. Indeed the soul is explored in the film, sometimes viciously and sometimes softly but always fairly bluntly, and undeniably beautifully.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
Werner Herzog’s unforgettable tale of one man’s loss of sanity when he becomes obsessed with finding a fabled city of gold is visually spectacular and emotionally raw. The brilliant actor Klaus Kinski brings life, originality and his own unique ability into the role of Don Lope de Aguirre, a man who would otherwise be just another tyrant experiencing a mental breakdown and an obsession with power.
Turkish Delight (1973)
Paul Verhoeven’s second film, a brilliant menage of sex, violence and mental illness, was voted Best Dutch Film of the Century, quite deservingly. Starring Rutger Hauer in one of his best roles, he plays a man whose sexual appetite is matched by that of his wife Olga. There is frequent sex in the film, but during the film’s final act it loses almost all eroticism as the film takes a disturbing turn, becoming a beautiful poem of love and loss rather than a nasty sex romp, which some have ignorantly referred to it as.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
This beautiful love story, directed by the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a moving melodrama as well as a satirical poke at society. Two lonely lovers, Ali and Emmi, are criticised for their relationship by the people around them, but are determined to enjoy a satisfactory life together, despite people’s objections to a then-undesirable interracial relationship.
An immensely underrated minimalist masterpiece, Chantal Akerman’s mammoth 3-hour film tells of a widowed housewife who becomes a part-time housewife while doing her daily chores of housework. Akerman shows her doing her housework in bitterly long takes shot in real time, making the film’s shocking, unexpected ending all the more a release from the constriction of routine.
Das Boot (1981)
Wolfgang Peterson’s epic tale of drama during wartime on board a U96 submarine is brilliantly shot, and the action is superbly done. Shot on sets that were also used for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peterson’s masterpiece of brilliant epic proportions is an unforgettable action experience, as expertly done as it could’ve been for its time, and exceeding expectations.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman’s last major feature is a film which, every time I see it, I love it a thousand times more. It is extraordinarily shot by Bergman and genius cinematographer Sven Nykvist to create the ultimate, unforgettable tale of the innocence of childhood, magic, ghosts and human communication. An epic tale of a large family that is five hours in its longest version, Fanny and Alexander is a film all should see.
Klaus Kinski, in one of his best roles second only to Don Lope de Aguirre, plays a man with a love for opera music, who attempts to bring it to the jungles of South America, a man with a passion and a determination to share it. Though Herzog almost killed Kinski during the film’s creation, what remains is a labour of love, a beautiful movie for the ages.
Akira Kurosawa’s final, amazing movie is probably visually his most beautifully. Emotionally, that’s Ikiru but visually Ran is unbeatable among Kurosawa’s work. Though made in the 80s, it is distinctly memorable of Kurosawa’s early work, particularly Yojimbo, and is an astonishing Shakespeare adaptation with many beautiful moments and stunning set pieces.
Come and See (1985)
Though almost all war movies are disturbing, Come and See, both visually and emotionally, is the most raw, visceral and emotionally nihilistic war movie ever made. As a young child wanders through various scenes of disgusting war violence, he questions the nature of it as we question his place in it. A difficult movie to watch, but one of the most important war films.
Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)
Another film about children in wartime, Au Revoir les Enfants is distinctly lighter, and better. It is the summation of Louis Malle’s career, based directly on something that happened in his childhood. At a private school during World War II, a German boy discovers that a Jewish boy is being hidden and disguised amongst the others at the school, and a relationship develops. One of Malle’s more beautiful movies, and despite the rather depressing ending, an uplifting film.
The Decalogue (1988)
Stanley Kubrick said The Decalogue was the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime. And I think that’s a very fair statement for such a prolific filmmaker to make. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten part masterpiece of humanity is a beautiful, stunning, unforgettable, funny, sad, dramatic, frightening, maddening mixture of emotion, the closest thing to what one might call the greatest film ever made.
Cinema Paradiso (1989)
An uplifting childhood classic, this story of a young boy’s adventures and love for cinema is one for all cinephiles. Truly beautiful, uplifting and saddening, this is one of the more accessible films on this list, and one of the most recommended by me for people not that used to foreign films.
The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
Early in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s solemnly beautiful tale, a woman named Weronika is standing in a city square and sees a woman on a bus who looks exactly like her. This scene is the centre of a thought-provoking film about the meaning of human existence, love, beauty, and the mysteries of the enigmatic world around us.
Europa Europa (1991)
One of the most unique and beautiful films about the Holocaust, Europa Europa is Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s magnum opus. Telling a true story of a Polish Jew in Germany during the second World War, he is forced to survive by disguising himself and eventually becoming a Nazi, whilst attempting not to let his Jewish heritage die. A marvellous, perfect Polish film.
Three Colours: Blue (1993)
Juliette Binoche was never more beautiful or enigmatic than in the first instalment of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy about life in France. She plays a widow coming to terms with the death of her husband and child, and the consequences of such a momentous occurance, as Kieslowski directs softly, letting his camera brush past the characters, through the plot, and into the deep, blue abyss of life.
Three Colours: White (1993)
While generally not regarded as the best of Kieslowski’s trilogy, White is nevertheless an important, attractive, funny and endearing film. Telling of an impotent man whose selfish wife divorces him and implicates him in an arson, there are various moments of soft comic relief in what is at heart a rather sad tale.
Three Colours: Red (1994)
The culmination of Kieslowski’s trilogy, and the last film he ever directed is one of the most visually extraordinary, emotionally heartbreaking, riveting films I have ever seen. The plot involves a beautiful young model who strikes up a platonic relationship with a voyeuristic judge, and the subplot of a young law student, which all comes together in the film’s shattering conclusion.
The Kingdom (1994)
Though many regard this as a mini-series or television special, it is listed by many as a single film so I shall list it that way too. Lars von Trier’s story of a haunted hospital, a disgruntled doctor, and various restless ghosts is entertaining, funny, scary, frightening and disturbing. It’s also ten times better than that Grey’s Anatomy crap that people watch these days.
I Stand Alone (1995)
Before making the more successful Irreversible and Enter the Void, Gaspar Noe made this sad, disturbing, nihilistic tale of a man known as The Butcher, who moves through a mostly cruel life on the verge of suicide. Noe doesn’t shy away from poking and examining such tricky subjects as suicide and incest in this very dark story of redemption.
Michael Haneke viciously attacks violence by making a disturbing, masochistic film about the senselessness of it all. A married couple and their son are tormented, tortured and sadistically murdered as Haneke throttles the viewer and forces them to confront what he sees as a world hungry for violence and obscenity on television, without realising the enormity of it.
“I’d like to propose a toast to my father, the man who killed my sister. A murderer.” This line is the centre of Festen, a Dogme 95 experiment which examines what happens when the tight binding relationship of family is brutally shattered by eerie truths. Outrageous, brilliant, riveting and a real must-see, this is Thomas Vinterberg’s best film, and one of the best stories of a dysfunctional family ever told.
The Idiots (1998)
One of the first von Trier films that really racked up controversy, The Idiots does not shy away from graphic sex and biased political views, spitting in the face of the middle-class with its unashamed love of insulting them. A group of people attempt to make fun of their bourgeois superiors by acting mentally retarded and mocking them, with tragic results.
“This wire can cut through bone and meat easily.” Beginning as a rather offbeat romantic comedy, Takashi Miike’s Audition quickly becomes something else entirely, turning into a strange drama and then, in the last thirty minutes, into a disturbing, explicitly violent and bloody horror movie. Though there’s a lot of gore, Audition is a really good horror film, and an even better example of the unique ability of Japanese cinema, particularly Miike’s twisted sense of humour.
All About My Mother (1999)
Beginning rather ambiguously with obvious references to All About Eve, Pedro Almodovar’s most acclaimed film soon settles its point, and makes it well. A story of a woman in Barcelona meeting up with prostitutes and transvestites as she searches for the man who fathered her now dead son. Not afraid to poke fun at sexuality, Almodovar also has rather a sombre and serious attitude as he examines the strange and fun people he has created.
Code Unknown (2000)
One of his more underrated works, Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is still undeniably one of his best. Almost every scene is shot in one single, often static take, and the ones that aren’t static are fluid, exemplary, brilliant tracking shots, as the story of various people whose lifes connect at one key juncture is told with originality and meaning, not like any of the overemotional babble produced by Hollywood. Also, there’s some frickin’ awesome drums.
Yi Yi (2000)
Edward Yang, who died far too young at the age of 49, was probably the best Taiwanese filmmaker who has ever lived, made two great masterpieces: A Brighter Summer Day (1990) and this, Yi Yi, the mammoth 3-hour story of a large family and their life in Taipei as they go about their various lives and meet new people and have new realisations about themselves. Think Bergman meets Altman.
Amores Perros (2000)
“No dogs were harmed in the making of this film.” So proclaims Amores Perros, and though the cruelty to animals in this film is in fact faked, it looks pretty convincing. Dogs are a metaphor for all the characters in this masterpiece, a tale of sadness, love and loss; three lives forever altered by a disastrous car crash.
One cannot have a conversation about contemporary French cinema without mentioning Amélie, which is a fun, funny, playful and delightful film about romance and adventure in Paris, as an offbeat young woman decides to make her mark on the world by altering the tiniest things in the city around her, with memorable consequences.
In my original review of The Piano Teacher, I described lead actress Isabelle Huppert’s performance as ‘the best female acting performance I have ever seen.’ I stand by that statement. Huppert is absolutely riveting in her indescribably brilliant performance as a pianist who is haunted by her own sick desires, which leads to her undoing and eventual destruction. Think Black Swan meets Repulsion, but a million times better.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Alfonso Cuaron is a well-known, controversial Mexican director. While Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu was busy making moving tales of human redemption, Cuaron was examining sexuality and humanity in this well-made, brilliant film starring the incomparable Gael Garcia Bernal.
City of God (2002)
Brutally honest and unflinching about life in the mean streets of Rio De Janeiro, Fernando Meirelle’s documentary-style drama is incredibly violent and truthful. People are shot, tortured, murdered. Riots break out and insane, rabid homeless children ravage the streets; gang wars ensue and silence only comes with death.
Russian Ark (2002)
Shot entirely in one single, unedited take, Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece is a 100 minute tracking shot through the famous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, going back and forth through time as Russian history is examined, culminating in an incredibly beautiful, quite literally breathtaking ballroom sequence in which the camera glides through the players as they rhythmically move. Extraordinary.
Some love it. Some hate it. One thing you can’t deny is that Irreversible is powerful. Told in reverse chronological order, this rape and revenge story becomes something else entirely; much less a festival of violence than a saddening poetic tale of human frailty, the emotions that rage in us when someone we love is so brutally wronged.
Talk to Her (2002)
Almodovar’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning All About My Mother is a film which some critics don’t particularly like, but I secretly think is Almodovar’s best film. A poignant story of two comatose women who inadvertantly bring together their two respective partners, two men concerned for the women whose platonic friendship has saddening consequences.
The best epic of the last decade and certainly the greatest Italian film ever made, Marco Giordana’s 6-hour film about the lives of two brothers over a timespan of forty years is remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. Despite it’s length, Giordana’s film keeps the audience in its grip and never lets them go; probably the least boring and fastest 6-hour film you’ll ever see, The Best of Youth is one of those films which serves to remind us why the term ‘masterpiece’ was invented.
One of Michael Haneke’s best received films, Caché is the riveting story of family secrets unravelled and painful pasts confronted. Shot in a series of mostly static takes, it tells of a couple who are confronted with mysterious videotapes letting them know they are being watched, and as the viewer is plunged deeper into the plot we realise darker forces are at work as terrifying truths are revealed.
Fully deserving of the Palme D’Or it won, Cristian Mungiu’s fantastic film about the abolition of abortion in Ceauceasu-ruled Romania in the 80s is a work of unflinchingly brilliant art. Shot with a single camera in fairly few takes, we see a young woman help her friend secure an illegal abortion, and the consequences of said act. Dark and disturbing, this film will stay in your mind for days.
Let the Right One In (2007)
An endearing, beautiful tale of a childhood romance, Let the Right One In is nevertheless a horror film. The plot concerns a female vampire, Eli, whom a young boy is attracted to when he first meets her in a snowy playground. Brilliantly shot and expertly told, Let the Right One In is a film which confronts childhood romance in a refreshingly new manner, abandoning cliches instead for truth and beauty.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Based on the bestselling novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a riveting, attention-grabbing thriller with various plot twists and turns and excellent direction. Very original and well-told, it’s one of the more impressive thrillers of recent years and a perfect example of the talent embedded in so many contemporary Swedish filmmakers.
A middle class couple raise their children and teach them that they will only ever be safe within the grounds of the family mansion, forbidding them from leaving. This is the disturbing premise to Dogtooth, a film which examines and criticises modern parenting techniques, as well as looking at the ways people can be manipulated by those they trust and the disastrous results of such an abuse of power.
The White Ribbon (2009)
Of all the films shot in black and white in a post-B&W period (i.e. after the 60s), The White Ribbon is one of the few films that actually feels like a 50s or 60s classic. It is the enigmatic story of a series of unexplained crimes and disasters that occur in a small German village in pre-Great War Germany. Michael Haneke mindfully directs what his arguably his most masterful achievement, an undeniable classic which is a perfect way to finish this list.
There. The 100 Essential Foreign Films. What did you think of the list? How many have you seen? Which ones have I forgotten? Leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.
ALSO! In January 2012, four months after publishing this list, I wrote a follow-up list of another hundred essential foreign films. If you’re ready, check that one out by clicking here.