Five Foreign Film Favorites

New Year’s resolution: Watch more foreign films.

Watching foreign cinema is a lot like eating your vegetables. You know you must do it to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, and while you may actually find you enjoy them once you taste them, it’s so much easier to just load up on cheeseburgers and fries.

Maybe I’m just speaking for me, but I would guess those sentiments articulate the unfortunate habits of many a movie fan. To be clear, I have absolutely zero aversion to foreign films (I have no problem “reading” while watching a movie)—I just don’t watch nearly as many as I “should.” I find them just as rewarding—or not, as the case may be—as American-made films.

Trying to narrow down five favorites to recommend among the many I have seen was revealing to me; I discovered that, apparently, I have more of an affinity for certain countries’ films and/or filmmakers than for others. You won’t find one Italian movie here. Why? Not because I don’t think Italian cinema is important, or great, or list-worthy. Of course it is.

The reason you don’t see, for example, Italian films or filmmakers here is because I decided to simply assemble this tiny list with as little organized thinking as possible; I just went totally from the gut, as they say, for those films I see myself returning to again and again. These aren’t my choices for “the best foreign films,” “the foreign films you must see,” “the most important blah blah blah…”—no attempts to evenly cover the globe in five films, or include the most renowned filmmakers, etc.

These are just my personal favorites.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

There has never been a “definitive” film made from the book Don Quixote. Many have tried. Many have met with mixed success. The effort to make a Quixote film might just drive Terry Gilliam mad one day; for a modern interpretation of the tale, you won’t find anything better than Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (yes, it is a Don Quixote film, which anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the book will easily discover). As for films about madness in general, however, there is no cinema maestro who maintains a more mesmerizing grasp of the topic than Werner Herzog. I could populate a top five, top 10, or top 15 list just with his films alone, but I will restrict myself to recommending the second Herzog film I saw after first discovering his eccentric output by watching his Nosferatu remake.

The film also represents the first (and I would argue finest) collaboration between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, who is at his wild-eyed and boiling best as 16th-century explorer Don Lope de Aguirre, second-in-command of the Pizarro expedition to locate the fabled El Dorado. As his group succumbs to the perils of a brutal wilderness and experiences multiple attacks from Indians hiding in the brush, Kinski’s oddly-postured lunatic takes command of their journey and enters his own personal heart of darkness. This film—like all of Herzog’s works—is rich with grand and puzzling gestures of sight and sound.

One intriguing factoid about Aguirre is that it was shot with the actors speaking in English, and only in the post-production phase was the dialogue in German looped. Yes, if you watch the English-language version, it still “counts.”

(His 1979 remake of Murnau’s unauthorized Dracula film took this one step further, as Herzog shot the dialogue scenes once in English and then again in German)


Betty Blue

First thing’s first: You will never forget the opening scene of Betty Blue. A delicious entry in the “Oh, my God, she is really crazy” subgenre of erotic drama, this steamy, funny, and unpredictably strange offering from French helmer Jean-Jacques Beineix is the story of writer Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and his volatile relationship with Betty (Béatrice Dalle), the woman he loves (and makes love with, often) despite her increasing outbursts of seeming lunacy. Roger Ebert posits in his one-and-a-half star review that many admirers of the film “miss the point” of it, and that it is simply “about Béatrice Dalle’s boobs and behind, and everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.”

Oh, yes. Agreed. And while it might be more fashionable to revere Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, for all of that film’s opulent Brando baring, I admit that I find that saucy classic a bit more of a slog (and less of a joy) to revisit these days than this cheeky and carnal treat.

The Family Game

One of these days I’m going to shell out the money for the DVD release of this droll Japanese comedy from 1983. The shame of it is that the film is not readily available at a reasonable price, so my VHS copy has been taking a real beating. The film centers on the story of a slacking teenage boy (Ichirôta Miyakawa) who lives in the shadow of his older brother’s (Junichi Tsujita) academic successes and is having trouble with his studies. His mother and father (Saori Yuki, Jûzô Itami) —both curiously neurotic in their own quiet ways—hire a tutor to come to the house. The tutor (Yûsaku Matsuda, who delivers a show-stopping performance of what can only be called ballsy restraint) turns out to be a sadist of sorts who enjoys playing disturbing mind games as much as encouraging better study habits.

The precisely paced narrative is driven by the escalating weirdness that takes place between the tutor and every member of the family, and it boasts a finale of uncommonly mind-busting peculiarity. I took pains to include the name of every member of the principal cast here, because this is truly an ensemble piece where everyone is given a chance to shine. This is one of my favorite comedies in any language.

Seven Samurai

Yes, Akira Kurosawa’s film is an unmatched epic of suspenseful action, but it is also teeming with thematic material relevant to our everyday lives. Seven Samurai shows us what courage, loyalty, and well-developed skills can accomplish; it reveals the powerful benefits of teamwork; it teaches us that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re probably part of the problem. We see ourselves (as men, anyway; I wonder how much this movie connects with women, as they play a relatively miniscule role in the story) a little bit in each of the samurai—both who we want to be, and who we really are. Imitated often; never equaled.


Wings of Desire

Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel, has what must be the universe’s most exhausting job—enlisting himself in the act of listening to the whole of human thought at once, delicately filtering it and focusing on individuals who draw his particular attention, and then occasionally providing those people with unseen, but sometimes deeply felt, connections to his divine curiosity and compassion. Sometimes he remains more passively distant, but he still absorbs the emotional impact of the world’s people in full.

Wim Wenders’ haunting and moving spiritual drama manages to translate the celestial Damiel’s predicament—the urge to “get away from it all”—into a situation with which every mortal can relate. And so it is that, when Damiel’s desire to descend into the physical world and experience its corporeal pleasures is fulfilled, we are pulled into both the vicarious thrill of living utterly in the moment and the more abstract contemplation of the special gravity of human existence.

The film, photographed in both black-and-white and color (you will see these as obvious choices), plays with the otherworldliness of fable but is also ingeniously grounded by one of Peter Falk’s most touching performances—as “himself.” To say anything more to those who have yet to see the film is to say far too much. (UPDATE 1/21/14 **Though I found a way to indeed say a lot more about this amazing movie, while still preserving some of its surprises, in my longer exploration of the film here**)

My runners-up would have included Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, both deceptively slow-moving films of unusually affecting power; a focus on more recent discoveries would certainly have included the outrageous Spanish film The Last Circus, by Álex de la Iglesia (a fine recommendation courtesy Movie Irv).


But, you start to see the problem. An entire world of movies always remains to be discovered, and I’m eager for extensive travel.

Give me your itinerary.



    1Christmas Carol(1951)
    2Master Of Ballantrae(1953)
    3Lilacs In The Spring(1954)(Keep an eye out for Sean Connery)
    4Four feathers(1939)
    549TH Parallel(1941)

  • Blair Kramer

    I remember a years old beer commercial that hilariously lampooned foreign films (foreign, as in Scandinavian…). As two transfixed young women and their deathly bored boyfriends sat in front of a TV, they observed a very sad clown behave in an incomprehensibly symbolic manner. The voice over asked a decidedly relevant question: “Why are foreign films so… FOREIGN…?!” After the American beer is introduced, we find the young men happily high-fiving each other as they watch exploding speed boats on the TV! Of course, their girlfriends are now the ones who are bored! Clearly, someone decided to switch over to an American action movie! Basically, the ad was trying to tell us that American beer tastes better than foreign imports. But a secondary message also comes through: Since American movies aren’t pretentious, they’re a lot more fun than foreign films!

  • George D. Allen

    I think that ad may also be sending a third message.

  • Blair Kramer

    Yeah… Of course… But just because the ad was talking down to its audience, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a point worth making. I’m not saying that I took the commercial seriously, but it clearly stuck in my mind. I guess the underlying message remained with me because I was not, and AM not, a drinker…

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    After several years of studying cinema I had stopped thinking of the term “foreign films” and though more of films from countries and directors. There is just so much good cinema out there that I just don’t like to think of a dichotomy of US and them. But when lending movies you do have to think this way though (can the person stand subtitles, B&W and subtitles, long dialogue, cultural differences, etc…)

    One mistake I notice that some make is thinking that non-US films means anti-pop. While some film industries have had government subsidized movies (Taiwan), many are made for a mass local audience (and some hope that it might make it elsewhere) like later Mainland films and Hong Kong films. Seriously some of the best action films come from Hong Kong with other great pop films coming from almost everywhere else in the globe.

    But in the end it is impossible for me to submit a top 5 non-English list. It is hard enough to do a top 5 Akira Kurosawa, Herzog, a top 5 HK list (I had sent a top 50 list to George awhile back) or a top 5 films from France.

    But if he can get more people to watch Seven Samurai, Wings of Desire or Aguire Wrath of God (or any Herzog film) then George has done well.

    Now go watch (I know George has watched quite a bit of these) Yojimbo, Tokyo Spring, Police Story, C’est La View, Mon Cheri, Fitzcarraldo, Shoot the Piano Player, 8½, Woman in the Dunes and well it never ends. But I’m always willing to make more suggestions.

    Reminds me George have you seen The Boxer’s Omen yet or A Tale of Two Sisters? To be fair I’m going to try to find The Family Game.

    Hmmm, maybe do a top 5 German silent movie list. Dang that is hard too.

  • George D. Allen

    MOIIP, Tale of Two Sisters has eluded me as of yet; as for Boxer’s Omen, I should probably only say as of now that the film might just be appearing in a piece just after we enter 2012.

    I’m “this” close to sitting down with the remake of The Housemaid, if only because the original is not readily accessible. Meanwhile, yes, The Family Game, I cannot recommend highly enough. Sadly, we do not have it, but it can be obtained for a not-so-small price…elsewhere, shall we say.

    Happy to see Woman in the Dunes mentioned. :) I would like to do something here about that one someday, esp. because I had seen it after reading the book years ago and found both to be terrific.

    The whole doing or not doing of “top” lists is obviously of continual interest to film buffs, who can often amusingly take multiple, contradictory positions about them on any given day. This one I found to be an easy exercise for the reasons I mentioned–I just did it fast, with no concept of shaping it to any end except to name the first five I could think of that I could watch over and over again.

  • Harry Lyme

    Wages of Fear, Diabolique, Smiles of a Summer Night, Z for a start.

    The moment in Wings of Desire when Falk tells Ganz he knows he is there sends shivers down my back.

  • OZ, Rob

    1.Pandoras Box,1929..Silent German,Louise Brooks.
    2,Diary of a Country Priest,1950..Profound Bresson.
    3,This Man Must Die,1969..Chabrol Psychological Thriller.
    4,A Colt is My Passport,1967..Cool,Nikkatsu Noir.
    5,Rockers,1977..Colorful Jamaican,for Reggae lovers.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Top 5 Johnnie To films:

    The Mission (1999): Trying to pick a favorite Johnnie To film is a futile exercise. I like so much of his output. But The Mission is one of those great low-key crime films that it must have come as a big shock in HK. It’s showing of Triad-life malaise is like a warped version of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Great cast with Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Simon Yam, Roy Cheung and To regular Lam Suet. Fits perfect in To’s “team spirit” theme. This is a great film to watch if the only Triad films you are familiar with are from John Woo.

    Throw Down (2004): Oh this is such a fun film. Made as a homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and Kurosawa in general, it still feels like a To film. It is quirky and quite eccentric but for fans of Johnnie To’s more personal films like PTU and The Mission they will find this one of his better movies. One of Louis Koo Tin-Lok (Election, Rob-B-Hood) best performances as as Szeto To who is an enigmatic ex-Judo expert who mysteriously quite competition to drink, gamble and stumble his way through life. There are excellent secondary characters (angry mumbling video game playing triad member) and quirky situations that seem to inhabit Johnnie To’s universe.

    The Odd One Dies (1997: Patrick Yau Tat-chi): Johnnie To also did a lot of direction on this film on this film as well. I love misanthropic loners and add a bit of good luck to the mix and you get a quirky black comedy that sometimes feels like a Wong Kar-wai film (especially in Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character Mo), sometimes feels like a Johnnie To film but ultimately it is just a strange fun film. It is easy to see it as an allegory for the upcoming handover to China, but you can see it as a parable of Hong Kong youth as well. But the biggest lesson learned from this movie is what not to do when someone tries to stab you.

    Sparrow (2008): I love this French Influenced Johnnie To film which is a mixture of Jean-Pierre Melville, Francis Truffaut, Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Bresson’s Pickpocket. This is quite a bit different than most of To’s films (though it does have some resemblance to Yesterday Once More (2004)), but it still contains many of his auteur themes such as team work and redemption. The climax duel of the pickpockets is one of the best directed scenes I have seen in quite a long time and the team’s bicycle ride is quite unique as well. Sparrow has beautiful use of location as well and was partially made to be a time capsule to show the splendor of older Hong Kong.

    The Longest Nite (1998: Patrick Yau Tai-chi): While Patrick Yau is credited as director, guess who did most of the direction? Yes, Johnnie To. This was a pattern for awhile with To where he would assign a director to a project and then take over not being satisfied with the work. This is one of the best examples of Hong Kong film noir with a nihilistic and bleak outlook that it is not recommended for feel-good filmgoers. The penultimate ending, which is influenced by Lady From Shanghai (1947) as well as Enter the Dragon (1973), is later redone in To’s Mad Detective (2007; Lau Ching-wan also stars in this movie), but I feel it is more effective here.

  • Barbara

    Just one woman’s perspective: Seven Samurai is one of my favorite films, and I, too, see a bit of myself in each character. Maybe because I’m kind of old, and have lived through the gender wars, I don’t NOT identify with someone just because he is male. We women also reflect on what courage, loyalty, and well-develped skills can accomplish,not to mention finding a balance, or sometimes more like a sway, between autonomy and teamwork, between idealism and pragmatism, between generosity and self-preservation.
    And then there’s the fact that Seven Samurai has a variety of types of humor: just like life!

  • Mayka

    There are so many foreign movies I love, but here are just ten titles that are worth watching, in my opinion:

    1) El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes)
    2) La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman).
    3) Bienvenido Mr. Marshall (Welcome Mr. Marshall).
    4) Don’t Move.
    5) Tacones Lejanos (High Heels) Pedro Almodovar.
    6) The Lives of Others
    7) The Counterfiters
    8) Los Santos Inocentes
    9) Atame (Tie me up, Tide me Down) Pedro Almodovar.
    10) La Lengua de las Mariposas (Butterfly).

  • mb

    Beauty and the Beast(1946), Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie

  • Johnny Sherman

    Ni Sangre, ni Arena (Cantinflas)

    Das Boot
    The Seven Samurai
    La Strada
    Babette’s Feast

  • Rob in L.A.

    Non-English-language (sound-film) faves:

    1. L’AVVENTURA (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/France, 1960)
    2. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradzhanov, USSR, 1969)
    3. RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950)
    4. CHUNGKING EXPRESS (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
    5. LA STRADA (Federico Fellini, Italy, 1954)
    6. EL OTRO FRANCISCO (Sergio Giral, Cuba, 1975)

  • tim “blackie” kenneally

    I think “the tin drum” might be the greatest film ever made. I would rather watch a foreign film over a ami any day of the week. others I love are these;
    the 4th man
    box 507
    the man on the roof
    the wages of fear
    the price of power
    jean de florette
    the thousand eyes of dr. mabuse

  • classicsforever

    There are several that I own and really enjoy. This includes: “Das Boot”, “The Wages Of Fear”, “Diabolique”, “M” and “Bicycle Thieves” (so far). At the present, I’ve recently purchased “Solaris”. I saw it on TCM and was very much impressed with it. A very well made sci-fi masterpiece that, although slow at times, offers a rewarding viewing experience.

  • EldersburgRick

    Let me throw in two essentials that aren’t mentioned below: UMBERTO D and THE SEVENTH SEAL.

  • Yves Fey

    Some all time favorite foreign films – not British. Children of Paradise. Diary of a Country Priest. La Belle et la Bete. Persona. Shame. La Dolce Vita. Satyricon. The Lives of Others. Flame and Citron. The Girl on the Bridge. The Man on the Train. Metropolis. Red Desert.

  • julian

    What a pleasure to see films by Werner Herzog praised……he is one of my absolute favourite
    directors; AGUIRRE and FITZCARRALDO in particular….my other great favourite films are
    NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and PATHS OF GLORY….a brand new film like it is PRIVATE PEACEFUL….see it if you can!!!! It is a British film.

  • TrippyTrellis

    The Woman Next Door
    La Dolce Vita
    Au Revoir les Enfants
    The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
    Raise the Red Lantern

  • Ellen Christy Snyder

    My favorite foreign films are: Maria Full of Grace, Joyeuxz Noel, La Vie En Rose and The Virgin Spring

  • Ellen Christy Snyder

    Also, the German movie “M” was a very good movie. Peter Lorre was such a creep!

  • Gary Clure