Top 20 Foreign-Language Films (So far)

As of my viewing of Edward Yang’s acclaimed film Yi Yi on June 1st, I have seen exactly one hundred foreign-language films from around the world.  Through the magic of the cinema, I’ve travelled across four continents, and visited 28 different countries.  I’ve seen films from mighty nations like Russia, France, Japan, and South Korea, and some from countries people don’t normally think of as having film industries like Iran, Cuba, Chile, and Romania.

This is a list of the twenty best foreign-language I’ve seen during my time watching more slightly more challenging films (only 3 or so years now).  It hasn’t been an easy journey, as subtitled films can be hard to enjoy when you don’t have a lot of experience.  To anybody out there who is the least interested in watching some of these films, it only takes a short while to adjust to.  These films are well-worth sitting down and taking in.  You’ll thank yourself for seeing them, because some of them will change your life.  Without further a-due, these are my top 20 films of world cinema (so far):

Image20. Zazie Dans Le Metro (1960)

Country: France

Director: Louis Malle

Starring: Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiet, Hubert Deschamps

Runtime: 89 minutes

Rating: 87% Fresh

Why?: Zazie Dans Le Metro was my first experience with the films of legendary French filmmaker Louis Malle.  It’s a hilarious, satirical, and incredibly fun ride, and Catherine Demongeot is infinitely likeable as the titular Zazie.  I’ve never felt this much joy while watching a film for the first time.

19. Persona (1966)Image

Country: Sweden

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman, Gunnar Bjornstrand

Runtime: 83 minutes

Rating: 93% Fresh

Why?: Persona is perhaps Ingmar Bergman’s most famous film (aside from The Seventh Seal), and for good reason.  There isn’t anything about Persona that I can criticize in any way, as in my opinion it is a near-perfect film.  It’s about a nurse and a mute actress who’s persona’s slowly start melding together, and it’s a heck of a trip.  This is a film that will change the way you look at the medium forever.

Image18. I Am Cuba (1964)

Country: Cuba/Russia

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

Starring: Ensemble cast

Runtime: 141 minutes

Rating: 100% Fresh

Why?: I Am Cuba started as being essentially a propaganda film for the South American country, but it has evolved into so much more than that over the years.  Kalatozov’s long tracking shots are some of the most beautiful camera movements I’ve ever seen in the film, and the stories of Cuban revolutionists and everyday citizens are far most exciting than they sound.  I Am Cuba is truly one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen from both a technical and a storytelling perspective.

17. L’Enfant (The Child) (2005)Image

Country: Belgium

Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Starring: Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois, Jeremie Segard

Runtime: 100 minutes

Rating: 86% Fresh

Why?: The Child marks the second time that Belgium’s The Dardenne Brothers have won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival.  This time they follow a young man with financial problems who tries selling his newborn son on the black market.  It’s incredibly tense, and is one of the most natural and realistic films I’ve ever seen.  This film was on my mind for days after seeing it.

Image16. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)

Country: Japan

Director: Makoto Shinkai

Starring: Kenji Mizuhashi, Yoshimi Kondou, Ayaka Onoue

Runtime: 63 minutes

Rating: n/a (90% Audience rating)

Why?: 5 Centimeters Per Second is the first of two animated films on my list, and one of the greatest stories of love that I have ever seen.  It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, both in its incredible animation and in its actual content.  At barely over an hour long, 5 Centimeters packs an emotional punch the likes of which I’ve never felt before.  One of my all-time favourite animated films!

15. Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring (2003)Image

Country: South Korea

Director: Ki-duk Kim

Starring: Yeong-su Oh, Ki-duk Kim

Runtime: 103 minutes

Rating: 95% Fresh

Why?: Spring, Summer,… is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing unfold before my eyes.  It’s a film you have to experience rather than just watch and analyze.  It’s peaceful, quiet, and visually stunning.  It tells the story of a monk and a small boy living together on a floating temple.  The monk watches the young boy grow up and mature as the seasons wear on.

Image14. Close-Up (1990)

Country: Iran

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Starring: Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abolfazl Ahankhah

Runtime: 98 minutes

Rating: 87% Fresh

Why?: Close-Up was my first real experience with Iranian cinema, and it very quickly got my addicted to it.  Close-up tells the story of a man pretending to be a famous film director, and how it affects a family who accepts him as one of their own.  It’s incredibly well told, incredibly intelligent, and very “meta” in a lot of ways.  I can’t recommend this film enough.

13. No (2012)Image

Country: Chile

Director: Pablo Larrain

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco

Runtime: 118 minutes

Rating: 92% Fresh

Why?: No was easily my favourite foreign film of 2012, and was even nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Oscars this past year.  It tells an incredibly intelligent and fascinating story of Chile’s 1988 referendum, and features remarkable acting from Gael Garcia Bernal.   No is fun, incredibly well shot (it’s meant to look like it was captured on video), and expertly directed by Pablo Larrain.  This is a film absolutely anybody could get a lot of enjoyment out of.

Image12. Wild Strawberries (1957)

Country: Sweden

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin

Runtime: 91 minutes

Rating: 94% Fresh

Why?: Wild Strawberries was my first exposure to the works of Ingmar Bergman, and it had an incredible effect on me.  It left me wide-eyed and wanting more, but also so emotionally exhausted that it took me nearly two years to visit another Bergman film.  Wild Strawberries is truly one of those few films that will change your life, especially if you watch it at the right time in your life.  Wild Strawberries is one I’m desperate to re-visit, but one I’m also afraid to see again for fear that it might leave me stunned again.  See this film at any cost.

11. Rififi (1955)Image

Country: France

Director: Jules Dassin

Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel

Runtime: 122 minutes

Rating: 93%

Why?: The heist scene.  This is all that really needs to be said of Rififi, one of the greatest crime films ever captured on film.  Rififi‘s heist is carried out in a nearly 30 minute scene of complete silence.  It is easily the most nervous I’ve ever been during a film, and literally had me on the edge of my seat the entire way through.  If you like films like Ocean’s 11, you must see Rififi at some point during your life.

Image10. City of God (2002)

Country: Brazil

Director: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Pellipe Haagensen

Runtime: 130 minutes

Rating: 90% Fresh

Why?: City of God does the epic story of two boys growing up in Rio de Janeiro who take drastically different paths in life.  It’s violent, it’s funny, and it’s incredibly well directed and acted.  It was nominated for four Academy Awards upon its release, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Truly one of the great crime films of modern-day cinema.

9. Kagemusha (1980)Image

Country: Japan

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara

Runtime: 162 minutes

Rating: 86% Fresh

Why?: Kagemusha was my first ever Akira Kurosawa film, and I wasn’t sure what to expect before I went into it.  What I got was an incredible samurai film featuring epic battles, incredible colours, and unforgettable costumes.  Anybody who enjoys films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or any of Kurosawa’s other samurai epics will love Kagemusha.  It’s a brilliant and truly underrated masterpiece.

Image8. Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Country: Israel

Director: Ari Folman

Starring: Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Ronny Dayag

Runtime: 90 minutes

Rating: 96% Fresh

Why?: Waltz with Bashir is the second and last animated feature on this list, and is more effective than most live-action films could ever hope to be.  In the film we follow former soldiers as they tell stories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a vital piece of Middle Eastern history.  Waltz with Bashir uses some of the most amazing animation I’ve ever seen, and tells one of the most emotionally draining stories I’ve ever heard.  It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and a fascinating look at a moment in history that most people aren’t even aware of.

7. In the Mood for Love (2000)Image

Country: Hong Kong

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Starring: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Ping Lam Siu

Runtime: 98 minutes

Rating: 88% Fresh

Why?: In the Mood for Love tells one of the most beautiful and subtle love stories in the history of film.  Brilliantly performed by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the film tells the story of a man and a woman who suspect their partners of having an affair.  This would just be another romance film without the help of Wong Kar Wai’s brilliant direction, the amazing performances by the two leads, and featuring some of the most magical moments in movie history.  Highly recommended to anybody.

Image6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

Country: Romania

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov

Runtime: 117 minutes

Rating: 96% Fresh

Why?: 4 Months… is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, and it will leave you dazed and confused once the credits begin to role.  It’s a fascinating look at Communist Romania during the 1980’s, and features two of the most incredible performances I’ve ever seen.  4 Months… is the gripping story of a young woman and her best friend looking to arrange an illegal abortion during a time of hardship in Romania.  One of my all-time favourite films.

5. The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)Image

Country: France

Director: Max Ophuls

Starring: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica

Runtime: 105 minutes

Rating: 100% Fresh

Why?: The Earrings of Madame De… is a magical film from start to finish.  It tells the story of a woman who sells a pair of earrings her husband has bought her so she can pay off her debts.  They are purchased by a young Baron, who Louise eventually falls madly in love with.  I can’t say anymore about the plot, because it really is much better to go into the film knowing very little about it.  Max Ophuls’ highly energetic camerawork is at its absolute best here, as is the performance from Danielle Darrieux.

Image4. Chungking Express (1994)

Country: Hong Kong

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Starring: Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung, Faye Wong

Runtime: 98 minutes

Rating: 96% Fresh

Why?: Chungking Express is easily one of the “coolest” films ever made, and the 98 minutes it runs for are far too short.  Quentin Tarantino cited this film as an influence on the style of Pulp Fiction, and said it was a huge inspiration to him as a filmmaker.  Wong Kar Wai’s direction is incredibly stylish and impressive, and Tony Leung is nearly as good as he is in In the Mood for Love. One of the most unique and amazing movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.  “California Dreamin'” will be stuck in your head for days after seeing this incredible film.

3. M (1931)Image

Country: Germany

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut

Runtime: 99 minutes

Rating: 100% Fresh

Why?: Fritz Lang’s most famous film film M tells the story of a hunt for a man who murders children in 1930’s Germany.  It’s incredibly tense, builds terrific atmosphere, and is an early example of why the sound film eventually overtook the silent film at the greatest storytelling medium.  Peter Lorre as the films titular M is amazingly creepy.  Not only is it a great thriller, but it also delivers some very relevant messages about our society as a whole.

Image2. Winter Light (1963)

Country: Sweden

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Gunnel Lindblom

Runtime: 81 minutes

Rating: 80% Fresh

Why?: My third and final Ingmar Bergman on the list is perhaps the most moving, the coldest, and the most thought-provoking the director has ever been.  Winter Light tells the tale of a pastor suffering from a cold and from a severe crisis of faith in the freezing Swedish winter.  Bergman’s usual cast of familiar faces are here, as are his themes of life, death, and faith.  One of the most thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen.  Just thinking about it nows gives me chills.  I can’t recommend Winter Light enough.

1. Seven Samurai (1954)Image

Country: Japan

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima

Runtime: 141 minutes

Rating: 100% Fresh

Why?: Seven Samurai is perhaps one of the most famous films of all-time, and it has literally every reason to be.  Kurosawa’s most well-crafted film is one that has been universally praised by critics and viewers alike.  It tells the story of seven samurai warriors banding together to defend a village from bandits.  It’s incredibly exciting, violent, hilarious, and very beautiful.  It also has one of the greatest performances in the life of legendary actor Toshiro Mifune.  Seven Samurai is literally a perfect film in every aspect, and one that everybody should see if they haven’t already.

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