My Favorite Foreign Language Movies of All Time

Quote of the Day: “I'm a New Wave baby, so I got very stimulated by foreign film.” – Jack Nicholson

There are a couple of interesting foreign language movies out in select theaters right now that I want to see. One is Thirst by Oldboy director Park Chan-Wook, telling the story of a priest who becomes a vampire. The other is Lorna’s Silence by the Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, about an Albanian immigrant in Belgium involved in a marriage-for-money scheme.

Some people I know, who shall remain nameless, hate any movie with subtitles. I am not one of them. I love seeing foreign cinema in the original language. Classics like Virgin Spring, La Strada, and The Bicycle Thief are a pleasure to watch over and over, along with more contemporary favorites like Life is Beautiful, Like Water for Chocolate, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Orphanage, and of course Slumdog Millionaire.

Here are my personal favorite foreign language films in no particular order:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Director Ang Lee shows us that a good story is universal, no matter the language. Of course the action and visuals are superb, but the scene that clinched this film as a masterpiece is the powerful moment when Master Li Mu Bai (played brilliantly by Chow Yun-Fat) confesses his love to Yu Shu Lien (played equally superbly by Michelle Yeoh). On a side note, I always imagined this story would have made the perfect outline for the first Star Wars prequel.

The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman’s black-and-white classic is just as beautiful and profound today as it was when it was first made in 1958. A knight (played by Max von Sydow) returns home from the brutal Crusades during the Black Plague, full of doubt about the meaning of life and the existence of God. Who can forget the iconic scene when he plays chess with Death?

Akira – Katsuhiro Otomo's anime adaptation of his graphic novel, about a future world set in Neo-Tokyo, sparked many imitators, both in cartoon and in live action form, but rare are those who were able to capture the same energy and imagination.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro blends fantasy with horror in this amazing tale that packs emotional punches from beginning to end. It’s one of the best allegories ever captured on celluloid, showing a young girl’s escape into a surreal imaginary world of disturbing creatures, none of which can surpass the brutal reality of Fascist Spain in 1944 .

Rashomon – One of my earlier blog entries was about non-linear storytelling in Lost, Pulp Fiction, and other contemporary TV shows and movies. But Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa set the standard. (Any movie by Kurosawa probably deserves to be on any Top Ten List.)

La Femme Nikita – Director Luc Besson created a terrific female assassin that translates into kick-ass awesomeness in any language, thanks to the great performance by actress Anne Parillaud. The American television series starring Peta Wilson was fun too, but it doesn’t come close to the original foreign language film.

The City of Lost Children – Not to everyone’s taste, I know, but this odd, modern-day fairy tale about a scientist kidnapping children to steal their dreams really made an impression on me.

Run, Lola, Run – Tom Tykwer directs a kinetic tour de force as a young woman, played by Franke Potente, races to bring money to her boyfriend before he robs a supermarket.

The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s much maligned blockbuster has many naysayers but I appreciate many things he did with this film. First and foremost is the bold choice to film it in Aramaic and Latin, instead of the typical English language seen in most biblical epics I've seen.

GojiraGodzilla movies are one of my guilty pleasures, but I’m not ashamed to list the original Japanese version by Ishiro Honda as one of the best foreign language films ever. Made less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original Gojira was a powerful anti-nuclear metaphor. Future cheesy monster-movies fail to come anywhere near the power of Honda’s original.

Yes, I’ve left plenty of fun movies out: The Dreamers, Il Postino, Cinema Paradiso, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Nightwatch, The Host, Ringu, and Amelie, to name just a few. But a really comprehensive list would require a multi-volume encyclopedia, not a blog entry. Feel free, however, to let me know your picks of the ones I’ve left out.