10 Must-See Foreign Films
With the enormous catalogue of films Hollywood churns out per year, each of a different genre to suit every individual taste, it is easy to forget the number of cinematic gems that exist outside the English-speaking world. There are so many brilliant ones to pick from, and many more still on my watch-list, that it was a struggle to narrow it down. But here’s a starter, so quit grumbling about having to read the subtitles and get watching!
Cinema Paradiso, Italy, 1988
I have only seen Cinema Paradiso once a long time ago, but it has stayed with me ever since.
When successful film director, Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin) learns that his close childhood friend has died, his memories transport him back to post-WW2 Sicily and his unlikely friendship with the town’s cinema projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret).
A film that proves all you need to create a truly excellent piece of cinema is a wonderful script and everything else falls into place. Tragic, funny and romantic Cinema Paradiso can be seen as a homage to life itself, combining all the complex emotions and dramas we experience in our young lives. It also features one of the greatest ending scenes in cinema history.
Amelie, France, 2001
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s phenomenally successful Amelie is one of the most popular foreign films of all time and for good reason!
After discovering a box full of childhood memorabilia in her flat and returning it to its grateful owner, shy Parisian Amelie decides to help those around her with a string of good deeds. But when she falls for a handsome stranger (Mathieu Kassovitz), she finds herself in need of help to overcome her bashfulness and win his heart.
Ridiculously feel-good, wonderfully quirky and all set in the mesmerizing city of Paris, Amelie is guaranteed to put a smile on your face!
My Neighbour Totoro, Japan, 1988
Studio Ghibli has been delighting audiences across the globe for decades, with their mesmerizing hand-drawn animation and deeply moving, witty stories resonating with viewers of all ages.
My Neighbour Totoro, hailed by many as Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, follows the adventures of five-year-old Mei (Chika Sakamoto) and her elder sister, Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) as they adjust to a new house whilst their mother recovers in hospital. Along the way they discover the mythical creatures lead by the friendly king of the forest, Totoro.
To me, no film has captured the magic of childhood quite so accurately and honestly as Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Whether you grew up in the country or the city, in the nineties or in the sixties, My Neighbour Totoro will bring you flying back to those carefree days when all you needed was some time to play, and perhaps a couple of imaginary furry friends.
City of God, Brazil, 2002
Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Paulo Lins’ novel about the notorious Rio de Janerio slum is something you will never forget.
Initially built for families that had been relocated to the outskirts of Rio, Cidade de Deus (City of God) soon became known for its gang-related violence. The film follows wannabe photographer, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) as he guides us through his life from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Fast-paced, intense and violent City of God manages to achieve something rare by countering its shocking violence with moments of profound humour whilst keeping its story honest. Nominated for four Oscars including best director, screenplay and editing, this is a definite must-watch!
Spirited Away, Japan, 2001
Studio Ghibli makes another entry in my list with the superb Spirited Away.
A story of courage, adventure and strength in the face of evil, Spirited Away is undoubtedly Studio Ghibli’s most popular feature.
When 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is transported into the spirit world, she must battle against the ruthless Yubaba (Mari Natsuki) to save her parents from a horrifying fate.
Miyazaki is known for creating intelligent, brave and independent female characters, in a way Disney has not yet been able to match, and Chihiro is certainly one of the best! Miyazaki is also quite the environmentalist which is frequently referenced throughout his films- look out for the scene where Chihiro helps cleanse a river spirit – a bicycle is found, something Miyazaki once pulled from a river when helping to clean it.
The Lives of Others, Germany, 2006
It is 1984 and East Germany is under close scrutiny by the Stasi. Successful playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) fall victim to the GDR when their lives begin to be surveyed by Stasi officer, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe).
In response to the success of the ostalgie comedies about 1980s Germany, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck decided to take a darker approach to this period in history. Set amongst the backdrop of a consistently wet and dreary Germany, the tone of The Lives of Others is evident. Yet this does not prevent it from being endearing, as we are engrossed in the lives of the fictional characters becoming our very own surveillance system.
The Lives of Others went onto achieve critical and commercial success and was awarded the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Pan’s Labyrinth, Spain, 2006
With an impressive number of mainstream films including Pacific Rim, Hellboy and last year’s Crimson Peak, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is one of the most popular directors of his generation. But one film will always stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Set amongst the fascist leadership of 1944 rural Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredibly dark fantasy horror that is both terrifying and moving. Struggling to adjust to life with her brutal step-father, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finds solace in a magical labyrinth hidden in her family grounds. Here she discovers that she is the long-lost princess of a mythical kingdom, but before she can achieve happiness she must complete three dangerous tasks.
Like Alice in Wonderland but for adults, Pan’s Labyrinth draws many comparisons to the Grimm’s fairytales, that any fan will tell you are far removed from the sugar-coated Disney revamps we know and love today. It is no wonder the film picked up Oscars for art direction and cinematography and as you sit back prepare to be inspired, dazzled and horrified.
Run Lola Run, Germany, 1998
Run Lola Run broke the trend of many German films in the nineties by finding critical and commercial success around the world and remains one of the most popular German films to date.
Early one morning Lola (Franka Potente) receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) telling her he needs 100,000 marks in 20 minutes or he will be killed by the criminal gang whose money he has misplaced.
Structured like a video-game, the film allows Lola three different attempts to raise the money in time to save her boyfriend. Much like a game, Lola learns from her failed attempts correcting her attempts in a bid to succeed. It is the film’s alternative narrative which includes animation, flashbacks and rapid editing that makes Run Lola Run so remarkable. Love it or loathe it, there is nothing quite like it.
The Three Colours Trilogy, France/Poland, 1993-1994
Inspired by the three colours of the French flag, each film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy is loosely based on the flag’s motto: liberty, equality, fraternity.
Poignant, heartbreaking and hopeful, each film in the trilogy covers its own unique theme. From the devastating impact of loss in Three Colours: Blue (1993) to the lust for revenge and ultimate reconciliation in Three Colours: White (1994) and the crippling loneliness that brings two strangers together in Three Colours: Red (1994).
The slow-pace adopted by these films is vastly different to mainstream Hollywood and might not be enough to capture all viewers. But for those willing to embrace this quiet narrative, it is impossible not to be moved by the profoundly human stories at the heart of these films.
Breathless, France, 1960
Arguably the most influential of all the French New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Goddard believed ”all you need for a film is a girl and a gun” and that is exactly with he did with his homage to Hollywood cinema, Breathless.
After fatally shooting a policeman, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) flees to Paris and attempts to rekindle his romance with his courageous ex, Patricia (Jean Seberg). But his crimes soon catch up with him.
Breathless soon became known for its cutting-edge cinematic techniques, that broke from traditional Hollywood, despite its influence on Goddard’s work. To this day, the film is hailed as a landmark of French New Wave cinema and has continued to inspire filmmakers throughout the generations.