With President Trump’s recent remarks about “Parasite” and its Best Picture win, many a comment section has been filled with talk about foreign films, too often in a dismissive way. “Those movies are weird” and “I don’t want to read” are common refrains in the ol’ comment section. There are even some who act as though these films don’t deserve any real consideration by American audiences simply because they’re made elsewhere. While I can understand some of these objections (I’m not the fastest reader myself), others demonstrate an astonishing solipsism, which is the antithesis of what art is all about.
The responses haven’t all been all negative, though. Some readers have expressed interest in expanding their awareness of international cinema, but are overwhelmed by its enormity. After all, it’s not as though “Foreign” is a specific genre. French films are different than Japanese films, which are different than Indian films. And so on. And those countries have their own take on drama, comedy, and action. Each country has its own sensibilities, and each individual filmmaker his or her own filmmaking preferences.
Just as American films have different levels of accessibility, so do foreign films. Certainly, the image of the black and white French film featuring people in turtlenecks smoking cigarettes in profile may loom large in the American mind, but there are also French films that are just as crowd-pleasing as any domestic movie. But, to be fair, there are certainly some foreign films that curious American viewers will be more comfortable with than others.
Below is a list of ten non-American films that more adventurous American viewers might enjoy. As accessibility is the name of the game here, the list leans European. There is no Indian, African, or Middle Eastern film, though there are plenty that deserve recognition. If you’re a film fan interested in expanding your horizons, these films might be a good place to start.
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Mexico/Spain
Guillermo Del Toro’s horror riff on “Alice in Wonderland,” this film takes place shortly after the Spanish Civil War. A young girl attempts to escape her hellish life by traveling to a magical kingdom full of beauty and peril. Visually stunning but still imbued with the tonal darkness that Del Toro had become known for, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a deeply disturbing but hopeful take on the horror of war and its impact on the most innocent and vulnerable in society.
9. Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Italy
Vittorio De Sica’s depiction of post-World War II economic depression in Italy is widely considered one of the best movies of all time. An out-of-work family man finally lands a job that requires him to purchase a bicycle. On his first day, his bike is stolen and he recruits his young son to help him find it. Along the way, the two grow closer, but the search becomes more and more hopeless. Despite its downbeat tone, the film remains a humanistic look at poverty and family. An absolute masterpiece.
8. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – West Germany
R.W. Fassbinder’s romantic drama about the attraction of two lonely souls features some of the most naturalistic acting I’ve ever seen. An older woman, largely ignored by her family, falls in love with an Moroccan immigrant with no social connections. The two grow closer, but soon find their relationship tested beyond anything they ever expected. A lovely little film with a clear-eyed look at the intricacies of enduring romance.
7. The Wages of Fear (1953) – France/Italy
One of the most intense films ever made, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s story of social outcasts hired to transport nitroglycerin over a mountain pass takes stress to a new level. As our characters journey – slowly, cautiously – toward their destination, they open up about their lives and backgrounds, knowing that any word could be their last. A master class in cinematic tension.
6. Hero (2004) – China
Chinese wuxia films have always combined stunning action choreography with a certain grace of execution, creating a wholly new and exciting kind of adventure story. Directed by visualist Zhang Yimou and starring Jet Li, “Hero” features beautiful action set pieces that rank with some of the best in film history. Quiet and patient one moment and dangerously complex the next, this film is bound to satisfy anybody who likes their action to be more considered and mature.
5. Life is Beautiful (1998) – Italy
Roberto Benigni took the world by storm with this Charlie Chaplin-inspired depiction of World War II-era anti-semitism. As a Jewish shopkeeper – played by Benigni himself – is taken to a concentration camp with his young son, his protective instinct kicks in and he does everything he can to shield the boy from the horrifying truth of their situation. Criticized by some for soft-pedaling Nazi atrocities, the film remains committed to his blending of drama and comedy, ending on an inspiring note, effectively suggesting that hope is possible in even the most dire of circumstances.
4. Amelie (2001) – France
When visualist Jean-Pierre Jeunet takes on the romantic comedy genre, the results are bound to be unique. In the story of “Amelie,” a young woman (played by the charming Audrey Tatou) in the middle of a personal quest to improve the lives of those around her, suddenly finds herself falling in love. Her usual boldness fails her in her pursuit of romance, making for adorable mishaps and endearing awkwardness, all in the midst of a beautiful – and more fanciful – reality, courtesy of Jeunet’s hyperactive imagination.
3. The Vanishing (1988) – Netherlands/France
Dutch filmmaker George Sulzier riffs on the standard 80s thriller with this straightforward, sobering tale of a young man whose girlfriend disappears without a trace. As his search stretches on, Sulzier explores the familiar theme of obsession, but with a chilling twist. A deeply disturbing film made all the more terrifying due to its matter-of-fact tone, “The Vanishing” will linger in your memory much longer than you want it to.
2. M (1931) – Germany
German director Fritz Lang, who helped to define the look of 1920s cinema, here tells the story of a city on the brink of collapse. A mysterious man has been abducting and murdering children, and it is having an impact on both local law enforcement and the criminal underground. Featuring a haunted performance by a young Peter Lorre, this film is a visual feast that explores compulsion with the pitch black tone of a horror film.
1. Throne of Blood (1957) – Japan
Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa may have been best known for his samurai stories set in feudal Japan, but he was nevertheless enamored with Western narratives. His influences were as varied as the novels of Dashiell Hammett to the early works of John Ford. And, as we see with “Throne of Blood,” Kurosawa clearly had a fondness for the works of William Shakespeare, as well. Starring famous Japanese leading man Toshiro Mifune, “Throne of Blood” is a feudal retelling of “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s play about an overly ambitious man, his murderous rise to power, and his eventual downfall. Incorporating the mysticism of the original play, Kurosawa’s film is beautifully-realized, often feeling oddly-dreamlike in its sensibilities. It is a gorgeous film that hardcore Shakespeare fans will find exhilarating to watch.
Of course, it feels ridiculous to narrow the entirety of world cinema through the decades down to a simple list of ten, but this is meant to be a gateway. For every one of the films mentioned, there are dozens more in the wings, waiting to dazzle and challenge any filmgoer curious enough to engage with them.
And, hey, these are just my recommendations. I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What foreign films do you recommend? What are some of your favorites?