50 Greatest Foreign Language Films

Spanish spooks, French gangsters and a bug-eyed child-killer...

The Orphanage (2007)

Language: Spanish

The Movie: Genuinely terrifying horror films are few and far between these days, with a reliance on cheap jumps and fake scares seeming to take precedence over set-ups of genuine menace. Not so Juan Antonio Bayona’s old-fashioned ghost story which sets about unravelling a tightly coiled mystery to devastatingly frightening effect. Even the jumpy bits are a cut above. We’re thinking in particular of those involving the old woman…

A Bit Like:
The Others , in terms of its low-key tone and supernatural spookiness.

Also See: The Spirit Of The Beehive , Victor Erice’s similarly eerie film of 1977.

The Lives Of Others (2006)

Language: German

The Movie:
Florian Henckel Von Dommersmarck takes an affecting look at Communist East Berlin with this tale of Stasi Captain Wiesler, who finds himself embroiled in the private lives of an intellectual couple he has been assigned to spy on. Ethical dilemmas abound as Wiesler finds himself torn over the nature of his work, whilst Von Dommersmarck gradually cranks up the tension towards the film’s startling finale.

A Bit Like:
The Good Shepherd …there are certainly comparisons to be drawn between Matt Damon’s character in that film and the put-upon Captain Wiesler.

Also See: Goodbye Lenin , Wolfgang Becker’s heartfelt film set in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Language: Hebrew

The Movie: Ari Folman directs this animated account of his own recollections of the first war between Israel and Lebanon in the early ‘80s. It’s an under-exposed period of history, given a striking big-screen outing thanks to the film’s arresting blend of dreamy animation with stark, unflinching photography. Downbeat, heart-rending and utterly essential.

A Bit Like: Three Kings also gets stuck into Middle Eastern conflict for those who prefer A-list stars to pesky subtitles.

Also See: Lebanon , an anti-war film directed by Samuel Maoz that scooped the Golden Lion in 2009.

Cyrano De Bergerac (1990)

Language: French

The Movie:
Gerard Depardieu straps on the famous prosthetic hooter for this lavish period romance that delivers a plethora of belly-laughs whilst ensuring that no heart-string remains untugged. Sweeping, epic and a veritable treat for the eyes. So this is what they mean by “joie de vivre”!

A Bit Like: Roxanne . Rather a lot like it in fact…

Also See:
Bon Voyage , which reunites Depardieu with director Jean-Paul Rappeneau.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Language: Spanish

The Movie: Alfonso Cuaron’s beautifully judged coming of age movie casts real life buddies Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal to charismatic effect, their real-life rapport adding a layer of realism to their easy on-screen friendship. Maribel Verdu is similarly excellent as the foxy older woman who tags along for the ride in a road movie that veritably sizzles with sexual desire.

A Bit Like: Road Trip , albeit with slightly fewer dick jokes.

Also See: Paris Je T’Aime , Cuaron’s love letter to the French Capital.

Rocco And His Brothers (1960)

Language: Italian

The Movie: Luchino Visconti’s family saga is an overwrought affair, although there’s something to be said for an operatic scope in films such as these. Just look at The Godfather . The plot follows a rural Italian family who relocate to the big city, only for more or less everything that can go wrong, to go wrong. Such is life.

A Bit Like:
The Godfather . Italian family gone to seed? They’re like peas in a pod.

Also See:
Death In Venice , Visconti’s sprawling adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name.

A Prophet (2009)

Language: French

The Movie: Jacques Audiard gives the venerable prison movie a bit of spit and polish in this brooding, claustrophobic crime drama. Tahar Rahim is superb as the new man on the block, whilst his transformation from reluctant errand boy to jailhouse kingpin manages to feel fresh, despite the well-worn set-up. The fantasy elements are an acquired taste, but nevertheless, this remains the best French crime film since La Haine .

A Bit Like:
The Shawshank Redemption , had Andy Dufresne shown an aptitude for murder by razorblade.

Also See: The Beat That My Heart Skipped , another taught, tense thriller from director Audiard.

Intacto (2001)

Language: Spanish

The Movie:
A searingly inventive thriller from director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo that toys with the idea that luck can be taken by one person to another, with Max Von Sydow appearing as a holocaust survivor dubbed the world’s luckiest man. Surprising and affecting, it’s an occasionally baffling watch, but one that’s well worth sticking with.

A Bit Like: The Cooler explores similar themes surrounding luck, albeit with considerably less verve.

Also See: 28 Weeks Later , Fresnadillo’s flawed but visceral foray into the American market.

Let The Right One In (2008)

Language: Swedish

The Movie: Just when you thought the vampire movie had breathed its last, the coffin lid is kicked off its hinges by a thoroughly new take on the genre. This moody Swedish film plays more like a romance than a horror movie at times, as the touching (if slightly odd) relationship between little boy and little vampire gradually unfolds, but the blood-spattered finale ensures that any gorehounds in the audience won’t leave disappointed.

A Bit Like:
ET , with just a tiny bit more bloodletting.

Also See:
Face To Face , another notable Swedish chiller from Ingmar Bergman.

Spirited Away (2001)

Language: Japanese

The Movie: Grossing over $274 million worldwide, it might surprise you to learn that the most successful Japanese film in history is this surrealist oddity from Hayao Miyazaki. Yet behind all the whimsy, Miyazaki has crafted a cast of well-drawn characters bursting with humanity, and that is what audiences connect to. Alongside the dragon, of course.

A Bit Like: Home Alone . Missing parents equals mayhem. Wait, have we missed the point here?

Also See: Princess Monoke , one of Miyazaki’s most successful early works.