50 Greatest Foreign Language Films

Downfall (2004)

Language: German

The Movie: Arguably the greatest film about Hitler ever made, Downfall benefits from a powerhouse performance from Bruno Ganz as the increasingly unhinged Fuhrer. Responsible for a thousand Youtube parodies, his ranting turn is never anything less than utterly chilling.

A Bit Like: The Great Dictator , only a little more shouty.

Also See: The Baader Meinhof Complex , in which Ganz can be spotted in a minor role.

Come And See (1985)

Language: Russian / German / Belarusian

The Movie: WW2 dramas don’t come much more harrowing than Elem Klimov’s saga of a teenage boy’s journey through war-ravaged Belarus. Riddled with images of horrendous cruelty, it’s an unflinchingly bleak portrayal of the horror of war. The final image of the boys face, now lined and drawn by the things he has seen, pretty much says it all.

A Bit Like: The Road , a similarly unyielding portrayal of a ruined landscape.

Also See:
Adventures Of A Dentist , director Elem Klimov’s black comedy about a dentist who is ostracised on account of his prodigious talent for painlessly pulling teeth.

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

Language: French

The Movie:
Louis Malle’s Golden Lion-winning holocaust film is a heartbreaking account of the director’s own childhood memories set in a Catholic boarding school in Vichy France, where the Gestapo soon come calling in search of Jewish children. Thrilling and distressing in equal measure, it skilfully handles its troubling subject matter with subtlety and restraint.

A Bit Like:
Harry Potter charts similar boarding-school hi-jinks, although there aren’t any Nazis around to spoil the fun at Hogwarts.

Also See: Lacombe Lucien , in which Malle explores the thorny issue of collaboration with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Knife In The Water (1962)

Language: Polish

The Movie: Roman Polanski’s first and only Polish-language film is a masterclass in tension, as the simple plot (married couple pick up nut-nut third party for a boating trip) is wound as tight as a coiled spring. Claustrophobic and impossibly menacing, it’s a startlingly effective debut from the first-time director.

A Bit Like:
The River Wild , in which nasty Kevin Bacon hijacks Meryl Streep’s family rafting holiday.

Also See:
Repulsion , Polanski’s altogether more hysterical sophomore film.

All About My Mother (1999)

Language: Spanish

The Movie: Pedro Almodovar’s films usually concern themselves with larger than life females, and nowhere is this more the case than in this warm and witty ode to matriarchs everywhere. Granted, the family on display here is less than conventional, but the emotional hand-wringing and ever-present humour will strike a chord with mothers and children alike.

A Bit Like: All About Eve , the Bette Davis film from which Almodovar borrows various bits and pieces.

Also See: Volver , one of Almodovar’s finest collaborations with regular muse Penelope Cruz.

Oldboy (2003)

Language: Korean

The Movie: A magnificently confident crime saga from director Chan-woon Park, Oldboy is as much about the drip-feed of meticulously planned plot-points as it is about the bone-crunching violence. Although having said that, the fight scenes are pretty bloody spectacular.

A Bit Like:
Payback , Mel Gibson’s knuckle-headed revenge blaster.

Also See:
Oldboy forms part of a trio of associated film, preceded by Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy For Lady Vengeance .

Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972)

Language: German

The Movie: The film with which Werner Herzog made his name is a mildly unhinged adventure romp following Klaus Kinski’s conquistador on his all-consuming quest for Eldorado. The first of Kinski and Herzog’s many collaborations, this is the one where Herzog threatened his star with a firearm after one hissy-fit too many!

A Bit Like: There are fairly weighty comparisons to be drawn between Herzog’s tale and the Conrad novel Heart Of Darkness , so we’ll say Apocalypse Now . Coppola’s film has something of the same mania about it for certain.

Also See: Nosferatu , in which Kinski plays the villainous Count. Naturally…

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Language: Italian

The Movie: Federico Fellini’s dream-like jaunt through Rome is best remembered for the iconic image of Anita Ekberg capering in the Trevi Fountain, and a similar air of luxuriant indulgence pervades this most aesthetically pleasing of films. Fellini manages to have his cake and eat it by seemingly chiding his characters for their narcissistic lifestyles whilst allowing his audience to bask in the reflected glow of their adventures. Morally confused it might be, but it makes for an intoxicating brew.

A Bit Like: Woody Allen’s Celebrity , which can be regarded as a New York-set reworking of Fellini’s classic.

Also See: The Academy Award-winning 8 ½ , which scooped Fellini the gong for Best Foreign Film at the 1963 Oscars.

Amores Perros (2000)

Language: Spanish

The Movie: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s highly ambitious thriller is like watching a plate-spinner at work, the narrative jumping back and forward in time as the three interweaving plots entangle themselves to form a trio of heartfelt love stories. There are times when certain plot points are left dangling a mite too long, but Inarittu manages to tie it all together to form a hugely satisfying whole.

A Bit Like:
Pulp Fiction , what with its overlapping narrative and snappy dialogue.

Also See: 21 Grams , a similarly dizzying English-language tale from the same director.

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Language: Cantonese / Shanghainese / French

The Movie:
From the cast down to the costumes Wong Kar Wai’s offbeat, ‘60s-set romance is eye-wateringly beautiful, but it’s the fragile, understated performances from Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung that stick in the mind long after the glamour has faded away. Infidelity has never been more romantic.

A Bit Like: Lost In Translation , in its whimsical, low-key approach. The whispered farewell also makes an appearance in both.

Also See: Days Of Being Wild , in which the director finessed his signature style of woozy, melancholic glamour.