50 Greatest Foreign Language Films

The Battle Of Algiers (1966)

Language: French

The Movie: Famously shown to Pentagon staff in 2003, Gillo Pontecorvo’s reconstruction of the Algerian uprising of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s strives for realism by casting non-professionals who had experienced the events they were portraying. The end result was a strikingly gritty portrayal of revolutionary rage and establishment brutalism.

A Bit Like:
Pontecorvo’s style can be seen running through the DNA of the more contemporary Green Zone .

Also See:
Kapo , Pontecorvo’s Oscar-nominated treatment of the Holocaust.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Language: Spanish

The Movie: Guillermo Del Toro’s civil war fable is a masterclass in inventive storytelling, ingeniously using the film’s eye-catching fantasy elements as a device by which to illustrate the real-world distress of his young heroine. Startlingly brutal at times, it captures a troubling blend of childish make-believe and nightmarish reality. And in the Pale Man, Del Toro can boast one of the most terrifying movie monsters ever imagined.

A Bit Like: The Chronicles Of Narnia , if Narnia were an unremittingly violent nightmare.

Also See: The Devil’s Backbone , Del Toro’s earlier ghost story, oft-regarded as a spiritual companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth .

Tokyo Story (1953)

Language: Japanese

The Movie: Cruising along at a stately pace, this low-key family drama would be anathema to modern-day studio bosses. However, there is a beautiful simplicity to Yasuhiri Ozu’s quiet film that perfectly captures the compromise and tension bound up in family life. Next time you tire of Hollywood’s endless bombast, give this one a watch.

A Bit Like:
Hollywood rarely does this sort of thing, so even a facetious comparison is a stretch. However, The Savages is a similarly compelling slice of family drama, so we’ll go with that.

Also See: Early Summer , another thoughtful family-set drama from Ozu.

City Of God (2002)

Language: Portuguese

The Movie:
Fernando Meirelles shows there’s more to Rio than Ipanema beach and the annual carnival, with this stylishly horrifying look at the city’s crime-ridden favelas. The young cast are uniformly excellent, and it’s their childlike appearance that gives the film much of its shock value. Packed with kinetic visuals, whip-smart dialogue and a hefty emotional pull, the abundant hype is richly deserved.

A Bit Like:
Goodfellas , had Henry Hill been born in Cidade de Deus rather than Brooklyn.

Also See:
City Of Men by Paulo Morelli, which shares a location and many of the same cast with Meirelles’ film.

M (1931)

Language: German

The Movie: Fritz Lang considered this heart-pounding thriller to be his finest work, and it’s difficult to argue with him. The bug-eyed Peter Lorre delivers a suitably chilling antagonist in this tale of a child-murderer on the run, whilst his signature whistle still brings us out in goosebumps. Scary stuff indeed.

A Bit Like:
The Night Of The Hunter . Only this time, the hunter has become the hunted.

Also See: The Man Who Knew Too Much , to witness Lorre’s first step into the American market.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Language: Italian

The Movie: A perpetual favourite of critics and filmmakers alike, the plot is simplicity itself: penniless poster-distributor discovers his bike has been stolen and sets out to get it back. However, director Vittorio De Sica skilfully ladles on the pathos until you will want that damned bicycle to turn up more than anything else in the world. It’s quite a feat!

A Bit Like:
Pee Wee Herman underwent a similar trauma, although in that instance, we would happily have seen the bike melted down for scrap along with Pee Wee himself.

Also See: Shoeshine , another of De Sica’s Neo-Realist works.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Language: Swedish

The Movie: The film that represented Ingmar Bergman’s breakthrough success is also one of his least accessible, its bleak, unforgiving outlook sending casual viewers running for the hills. All the traditional Bergman themes (faith, misery, the indifference of God) are present and correct, and brought to life via a sequence of striking imagery.

A Bit Like: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey . Ever wondered where that game of battleships with Death comes from? Now you know.

Also See:
Wild Strawberries , released just ten months later, which continued Bergman’s exploration of the human condition.

The 400 Blows (1959)

Language: French

The Movie: Francois Truffaut’s first film is a coming-of-age classic, telling the tale of rebellious teen Antoine Doinel and his quest for a freedom from childish constraints. Anti-establishment fantasy at its very best, and the template for angry young men to follow the world over.

A Bit Like: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off , with a little more je ne sais quoi.

Also See:
Love On The Run , in which Doinel is all grown up and has long come to realise that adulthood isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Language: Japanese

The Movie:
Akira Kurosawa’s seminal crossover film combines the best elements of the Western and Samurai genres to create one of the most stunning action films of all time. The seven eponymous warriors are a well-drawn collection of hardy souls, but it is the celebrated battle scenes that really set pulses racing with the famous, rain-soaked finale is often hailed as the greatest in cinematic history.

A Bit Like:
The Magnificent Seven , the Hollywood version of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, a classic in its own right.

Also See: Yojimbo, in which the balletic beauty of Seven Samurai is traded in for sheer mayhem and brute force.

A Bout De Souffle (1960)

Language: French

The Movie: With his first film Jean-Luc Godard launches the French New Wave with this airy, too-cool-for-school crime movie. Breaking technical ground (Godard’s quick-cut camerawork would become a Hollywood staple for years to come) as well as setting the template for the sort of arch, snappy dialogue that cast a long shadow over the modern crime film (without Godard there would surely be no Tarantino), A Bout De Souffle is rightly hailed as one of the greatest films made in any language.

A Bit Like: Watch as part of a double-feature alongside Reservoir Dogs for a feast of breezy, throwaway cool.

Also See: Vivre Sa Vie , in which Godard added real emotional heft to his abundance of style.