From Jean-Luc Godard to Akira Kurosawa: The 25 greatest foreign films of all time
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” — Bong Joon-ho
Undertaking a list like this is never an easy task for anyone because the legacy of world cinema is infinitely rich and affects different people in a lot of different ways. However, it is definitely worth trying to note down some of the most influential foreign films of all time, films that have intrigued us with their unfamiliar charm and the ones that have moved us to tears with their destructive beauty.
In order to prevent the monopoly of any one film director (Yes, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Bergman, I am looking at all three of you), we have decided to include 25 different filmmakers for this extensive list, to make it more inclusive but a list like this will always be dominated by some of the greatest masters of the art of cinema. You will see the word “masterpiece” being thrown around a lot because each of these 25 entries deserves our undivided attention, such is their irresistible power.
To make our job even more difficult, the collection includes a different filmmaker for each choice. Here is a list of the top 25 foreign films of all time:
Top 25 Foreign Films of All Time:
25. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel – 1972)
Famous for making what is, arguably, the finest short film of all time, Un chien andalou (1929), Luis Buñuel conducts a masterful and surreal examination of the normative practices of society in his 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film transitions between hilarious social satire and symbolic, nightmarish horror beautifully. It follows a group of bourgeois friends who try having a lavish dinner but are constantly disrupted by bizarre events.
Buñuel exposes the hypocrisies of decadent luxury and rotten ideals in a truly surreal manner. The film received the Academy Award for ‘Best Foreign Film’ in 1972 and remains one of the best surreal and comic masterpieces in the history of cinema.
24. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr – 2011)
What do we talk about when we talk about language? Do we mean words, gestures? In The Turin Horse, Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr does away with all of these cascading signifiers and creates a language of despair that is mostly silent and yet profound. The plot is centred around a farmer and his daughter who live in the middle of nowhere.
Tarr provides us with an unforgivingly bleak vision of a desolate landscape where life itself dissolves into nothingness. The Turin Horse is a minimalistic reimagination of Hell on Earth and is infinitely beautiful in its pessimism.
23. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo – 1934)
Jean Vigo’s charming and whimsical arthouse romance features a naïve young girl who slips away from her husband’s boat (a barge captain) to explore Paris on her own. It is sad and funny but above all, Vigo focuses on the human. The 1934 film explores what it means to love in the dizzying unfamiliarity of the modern world.
It is safe to say that L’Atalante has influenced multiple generations of filmmakers but very few have been able to recreate that sense of innocent wonder. Vigo’s vision is prescient and beautifully original.
22. M (Fritz Lang – 1931)
Dubbed the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute, M is celebrated German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s haunting arthouse crime drama. In the 1931 film, Lang constructs a deeply unsettling labyrinth of corrupt moralities where the binaries of “right” and “wrong” mean very little. Greatly influenced by German Expressionism, Fritz Lang employs a foreboding chiaroscuro of lights and shadows to create a film noir atmosphere.
Even though almost 90 years have passed since the film was released, M is still a compelling melodrama that never fails to come across as anything less than striking. This was the film that exposed American audiences to the German master’s works and solidified his status as one of the greatest filmmakers.
21. Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica – 1948)
Arguably the best Italian neorealist drama, Bicycle Thieves is a powerful and sentimental portrait of post WW-II Italy. In an economic depression, a family tries to remain optimistic even when assaulted by poverty and unemployment. The legacy of Vittorio De Sica’s greatest work is monumental and its influence can be seen in innumerable films.
Widely celebrated and critically acclaimed, it won the Academy Award for “most outstanding foreign film” seven years before that category came into existence. Bicycle Thieves is one film that can never be excluded from a discussion about the greatest films of all time.
20. Playtime (Jacques Tati – 1967)
In Playtime, Jacques Tati creates a subversive and fiercely original Paris of his own, full of metallic skyscrapers and reflective surfaces. Tati’s 1967 comedy is a whimsical exploration of the disillusionment of modern man, trapped in an urban jungle. Complex yet playful, Tati masterfully manages to make a modernist nightmare appear hilarious.
A brilliant sound design works in synchronicity with the stunning visuals in this cinematic masterpiece. Tati’s unique aesthetic vision was supposed to be a warning but we never manage to make it past the aesthetic part.
19. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog – 1972)
Shot in the jungles of Amazon on a very low budget, Werner Herzog’s epic historical drama is one of the defining works of New German Cinema. Building on the myth of El Dorado, Herzog launches a powerful investigation of greed and desire. The film strips away the complexities of power relations and leaves only the unsettling anxieties of what it means to be human.
Klaus Kinski puts up the performance of his lifetime as Aguirre, the Faustian conquistador who is rendered insane by the scorching heat of ambition. The film’s legacy is such that it always shows up on lists that feature eminent works of cinema. The film was ranked #19 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010.
18. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray – 1955)
Undoubtedly the greatest Indian filmmaker, this was Satyajit Ray’s debut feature film. It is an overwhelmingly emotional account of Bengali family in post-partition Bengali. Although it feels like it was inspired by Italian neorealism, Ray’s voice is absolutely his own. The first of his famous Apu Trilogy, it is rich in beautiful imagery and devastating cinematic flair.
Ray juxtaposes the innocence of childhood with a landscape whose cultural memory is violence. Pather Panchali is an unforgettable and indispensable part of the history of cinema.
17. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut – 1959)
This film marked the genesis of Truffaut’s legendary cinematic character, Antoine Doinel. The 400 Blows was at the helm of the burgeoning French New Wave, a beautiful exploration of a childhood that is influenced by flawed role models and crime. It is a story of an unwanted child slipping through the cracks of the system but still holding onto hope.
Truffaut’s striking masterpiece will remain relevant for eternity because the concept of misunderstood youth is an omnipresent one across generations. The 400 Blows is an unyielding quest for freedom that has moved and delight audiences for years and will continue to do so for many more years to come.
16. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir – 1937)
One of the most beautiful anti-war films ever made, Renoir’s 1937 work is a powerful lamentation aimed at the death of the European aristocracy. Skilfully invoking memorable imagery of disintegrating ideals, The Grand Illusion is a tragicomic exposition of the futility of extensive warfare. Renoir’s humanistic vision of the first World War is haunting and touching at the same time.
Although acclaimed filmmakers like Orson Welles and David Lean cited the film as one of their top 10 films of all time, it is interesting to note how fascist political leaders saw Renoir’s masterpiece as a threat to the public consciousness. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels described the film as “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1”.
15. Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski – 1993)
The critically acclaimed Polish filmmaker’s finest work, Three Colours: Blue is the best of the Three Colours trilogy and follows the existential evaluation of a woman’s life after she loses her husband and child in a car crash. Juliette Binoche is spectacular as the protagonist, trying to shake off the trauma by seeking a new identity but finds herself unable to escape the legacy of her loss.
This idea of denial constantly shapes the narrative as well as the cinematic structure, as Kieślowski indulges in long blackouts during a scene only to let reality seep back in, as if highlighting the uselessness of denial. Kieślowski’s great thesis is that sorrow always finds its way out, no matter how hard you try to shove it back down.
14. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Alain Resnais – 1959)
This 1959 masterpiece is one of the best examples of New Historicism, a school of thought that rejects a one-dimensional view of historical events and seeks to penetrate further. The opening sequence of the film is haunting, a complex vision of the aftermath of Hiroshima bombings explored in the form of pillow talk that two lovers indulge in. Alain Resnais undertakes a radical revision of what it means to revisit traumatic events.
Global and personal tragedies are woven together in an intricate narrative thread that gains subjectivity in Hiroshima, a place where the memory of violence is etched on every stone. Resnais’ film is a beautiful act of remembering and forgetting at the same time.
13. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami – 1990)
Arguably the greatest filmmaker of the Iranian New Wave, Abbas Kiarostami masterfully blurs the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, between fantasy and reality in his postmodern docudrama, Close-Up. Profoundly meta-fictional in nature, Kiaorostami examines the performative roles all of us play with the precision of a surgeon and the delicate touch of a poet.
Based on true events, Kiarostami emphasizes on the ‘creation’ part of a reconstruction that features the tragic story of an unemployed aspiring filmmaker, Hossein Sabzian. Close-Up is a beautiful yet unsettling cinematic psychoanalysis of an ordinary man.
12. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson – 1956)
Bresson’s 1956 masterpiece is based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a French Resistance fighter who plans his escape after being captured by the Nazis. With a deceptively simple plot, Robert Bresson manages to portray the loss of liberty and the existential despair in a completely unsentimental manner. A Man Escaped is an emotional and intellectual excursion into anxieties of a prisoner’s psyche.
The mesmerizing cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel and an impeccable sound design work together to create a work of art that is materialistic and metaphysical at the same time. A Man Escaped makes a strong case for why it is the best prison-break film of all time.
11. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi – 1954)
Set in 11th century feudal Japan, it follows the disintegration of a family after the father is exiled by a feudal lord. In a heart-breaking turn of events, the mother and two children set out to look for the father but are kidnapped and sold, the mother as a prostitute and the children as slaves. Mizoguchi is unrelenting in his lamentation about the human condition.
Sansho the Bailiff’s beauty is unparalleled. Kenji Mizoguchi surveys the ethos of the brutal age and zeroes in on the pathos of a personal tragedy. The complexity of the plot is unravelled by simple imagery and the result is one of the most powerful works of cinema.
10. Come and See (Elem Klimov – 1985)
Soviet filmmaker Elem Klimov’s bleak anti-war film is a ruthless depiction of humanity’s capacity for unabashed evil. We experience the horrors of war through the teenaged protagonist, Alexei Kravchenko, in a landscape that has been subjected to a Nazi incursion and genocide. Come and See insists that although the war has changed what it means to be human forever, individual dignity is something nobody can take away from us.
It is a compelling tale of surviving against all odds even though an entire civilization spirals into chaos all around us. Visceral and moving, Come and See is a nightmare but a necessary one, a reminder for us to steer clear of our past mistakes.
9. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni – 1960)
A spectacular arthouse mystery drama, L’Avventura features a young woman who suddenly disappears on a yachting trip to a remote volcanic island in the Mediterranean. Her disinterested lover and a best friend set out to try and find her but end up indulging in an illicit affair. Antonioni’s mesmerizing cinematic language paints the existential ennui and the debilitating loss of meaning in the modern world.
Staying faithful to the artistic ideologies of postmodern art, the film never really resolves itself and the motivations of the characters are never really clear. Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece is the manifestation of the unique and troubled cinematic vision of a genius.
8. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini – 1963)
One of the finest films in the history of world cinema, Fellini’s cinematic tour de force has the feel of a complex painting with multiple layers and a wonderful multiplicity of interpretations. 8 ½ is, perhaps, the most famous example of a film about film. Fellini constructs a grand skeleton of what a film is supposed to be and simultaneously deconstructs it. Delightfully self-indulgent, Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece is a visually stunning and intellectually engaging journey.
8 ½ is a seminal cinematic work that inspired countless other films like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). It won two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design (black-and-white) while garnering three other nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction (black-and-white). The New York Film Critics Circle also named 8 ½ the best foreign language film.
7. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman – 1957)
The culmination of all the philosophical battles that Bergman fought in his films, The Seventh Seal is his finest film which allegorically depicts the violence and the struggle of modern life through a game of chess played between a disillusioned knight and the figure of Death. Bergman paints an unforgiving picture of a godless landscape with the only true master being Death.
Undoubtedly one of the best films of the Hong Kong New Wave in cinema, Chinese auteur Wong Kar-wai creates a film of reserved power and majestic beauty, drowning in romantic melancholy. Set in the morally conservative society of 1962 Hong Kong, the film is about the emotional intimacy that two neighbours share after they discover that their spouses are cheating on them with each other but are unable to act, paralyzed by the performative demands by society.
Wong Kar-wai leaves us with a story that has no resolution and is notably poignant because of the absence of one. His exquisite talent in the craft of filmmaking shines through in each and every scene as we are transported from the picturesque to the sublime.
5. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard – 1960)
Jean-Luc Godard remains one of the most polarizing directors of all time, you either love his work or you hate it. There is no in-between. Either way, you cannot ignore the influence of his debut feature film, Breathless. Godard’s contempt and disregard for the classical conventions of cinema made itself known in his 1960 masterpiece and paved the way for the French New Wave.
Self-reflexive and eager to deconstruct its own myth, Breathless is one of the most unique films in the corpus of world cinema. The cinematic merits of the film can be debated for hours but what cannot be denied is the fiercely original artistic vision of Godard and the irreverent nonchalance with which he transformed the cinematic medium.
4. Yi Yi (Edward Yang – 2000)
Yi Yi (meaning “And a one and a two”) is Edward Yang’s best work, one of the leading filmmakers of the Taiwanese New Wave. The film is an endearingly intimate inter-generational drama about the personal turbulences of a family. Each and every member of the family has his or her own battles to fight and we navigate the confusing mazes of life along with them. Instead of cardboard characters, Edward Yang guides our hands and makes us aware of the presence of flesh and blood, vulnerable yet resilient.
The most unique presence throughout the film is the character of a young boy, Yang-Yang, who is deeply troubled by the fact that people cannot see the back of their own heads. So he goes around clicking pictures of the back of people’s heads for them. In a powerful final scene, he promises his deceased grandmother that he will continue to tell stories that people do not know about and show them things that they haven’t seen. Yang-Yang is the most compelling defender of the avant-garde that cinema has ever produced.
3. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa – 1954)
Set in 16th century Japan, Kurosawa’s epic tale is a three-hour journey into the world of the samurai. It is a conflict between the conservative and rigid code of honour of medieval Japan’s finest warriors and the lawlessness of bandits, morally depraved and parasitic in nature. The seven samurai in the film are the last line of defence against the inevitable corruption of social order.
Kurosawa masterfully translates the conventions of the Noh theatre to a postmodern medium: cinema. The existence of the film itself becomes a site of the conflict that it is trying to portray, a tense contested space that harbours two irreconcilable ideals.
2. Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu – 1953)
Ozu’s timeless masterpiece explores the disillusionments and frustrations of post-war Japan through the story of an elderly couple who go to visit their married children but discover that their children don’t have much time for them. In a city that is constantly bustling, Ozu presents a tale of profound beauty and mourning. The audience is rendered speechless by the quiet devastating power of Tokyo Story.
The 1953 film is also famous for Ozu’s distinctive camera style, often called the “tatami shot”. The lack of camera movement adds a much needed stability because of the extremely volatile and dynamic nature of the city it is filmed in. The film was not introduced to American audiences until 1972, after which it became universally acclaimed and rightly so.
1. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky – 1979)
Stalker is the best film of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Just that statement is enough to merit a place on any list but it does not do the film justice at all. Tarkovsky constructs a meditative experience that violently lurches towards the truth but only claws at the void, a revelatory incision from which an empty dialectic drains out. Although it is structured as an outdoors expedition to arrive at a heterotopia that promises to provide our deepest and darkest desires, Stalker conducts a simultaneous journey into the psychological recesses that remain hidden from us.
Tarkovsky shrouds the brashness of the sci-fi genre with a rich atmosphere of philosophical maturity. Stalker’s self-destructive desire threatens to destroy all of our preconceived notions but holds back with the graceful restraint of poetic totality. Tarkovsky’s camera glides over the radioactive wasteland as he slowly punctures some of the mysteries of the universe.