When Parasite pulled off the upset last month and won the Oscar for Best Picture, it was exciting for myriad reasons — not least of which because it’s actually a great movie. But the victory also signaled that the Academy, at long last, was finally ready to embrace a foreign-language film with its top prize — something that had never happened in the organization’s nearly 100-year history.
Still, there remains a belief that the average American won’t watch a movie with subtitles. That’s insulting to a lot of people’s intelligence, but at the same time, maybe you’re someone who’s never watched much international cinema. Suddenly, you might seem like the dumb, uncultured guy — so what do you do? If you’re starting from scratch, what are the essential foreign-language movies you should watch first? There are so many languages, so many countries and so many years of movies that it can be a daunting task.
I’m here to help, so I’ve put together an Art House 101: a curated list of 10 movies for the foreign-language novice. These aren’t necessarily the greatest films from beyond America’s borders, but they do offer a handy overview of the breadth of what’s out there. I went with established classics and personal favorites, all with an eye toward coming up with suggestions that aren’t too esoteric or impenetrable. (I know that subtitled films’ very foreignness can sometimes be a big hurdle to the uninitiated.) The idea was to make what might be intimidating accessible. If you end up loving what you see, then by all means get adventurous from there.
A couple quick caveats. I limited myself to movies that are currently available for digital rental on Amazon, iTunes and/or YouTube. (As you’ve probably noticed, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, so being able to stream something was paramount.) Regrettably, this means bypassing films that are only viewable through the Criterion Channel, which requires a subscription. (Obviously, there’s a wealth of excellent international cinema there, too. But that would be its own separate list.) Even then, narrowing the Art House 101 down to 10 was difficult. I couldn’t get to everything because “foreign-language” encompasses every genre and style. But if you want to know what the rest of the world’s filmmakers have been up to over the last century, here’s a great place to get started.
What’s It About? A creepy child killer (Peter Lorre) terrorizes Berlin. The cops face enormous pressure to apprehend this menace, so they start tearing through the city’s criminal underworld in the hopes of finding him. Unhappy that their illicit livelihood is being threatened, Berlin’s crooks decide they need to track down the killer, too. A manhunt ensues for the murderer.
Why’s It So Great? Director and co-writer Fritz Lang was integral to the German Expressionist movement, which crafted moody, psychologically resonant thrillers and horror films. (His 1927 silent sci-fi classic, Metropolis, was an influence on everything from Star Wars to Blade Runner.) And long before Lorre would appear in beloved Hollywood films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, usually playing the bad guy or the weasel, the actor was slimy perfection as a spiritually sick man on the run for his life. Claustrophobically tense — and, yet, surprisingly moving as it becomes clear that the killer’s fate is sealed as the mob descends upon him — M feels weirdly fitting for our true-crime era, in which we’re always on the hunt for monsters.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
What’s It About? Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor father trying to put food on the table. He finally lands a job, which requires him to get a bike. With what little money he has left, Antonio buys one — only to have it promptly stolen. He and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) go in search of the thief across Rome.
Why’s It So Great? A landmark of Italian neorealist cinema, which emphasized stripped-down stories about everyday people, often starring non-professional actors, Bicycle Thieves is, above all else, a film about empathy. Sure, that phrase has become a bit of a cliché ever since Roger Ebert famously declared, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” but Vittorio De Sica’s drama is a marvelous illustration of what happens when we put ourselves in someone else’s place. Antonio’s plight during a time when Italy was still reeling from the aftereffects of World War II is movingly rendered — shot on location, the film easily captures Rome’s poverty and uncertainty — and, to his surprise, he’ll come across characters in even worse situations than he and his family are facing. A genuine tearjerker and despairing social portrait, Bicycle Thieves builds to a gut-punch finale.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Why’s It So Great? Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu is one of the foundational figures of international cinema, responsible for a series of beautiful, delicate movies about families in transition. But Tokyo Story is the gateway drug, which will hook the uninitiated on his stellar body of work. Anyone who’s a parent — or has a parent — will understand the subtle generational tensions going on in this film, but Ozu’s great talent was to keep his movies from being soapy, sappy melodramas. Instead, the emotions are kept close to the vest as disappointments and tragedies get subtly introduced into the plot. It seems like such a simple thing, but he had the ability to capture the small nuances of life in a way that few filmmakers ever did. Or, put another way:
Seven Samurai (1954)
What’s It About? A group of warriors (led by Takashi Shimura) band together to protect a village under siege from bandits.
Why’s It So Great? Whether it’s The Magnificent Seven or Three Amigos, Hollywood has been consistently inspired by this epic action-drama from Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps no director on this list has been as influential on his American counterparts — especially the people who helped create the blockbuster landscape we’ve been living in for 40 years. George Lucas was a massive Kurosawa fan — Star Wars has plenty of Kurosawa elements — and Steven Spielberg helped the master finance his later projects because he admired him so. This supersized samurai extravaganza remains one of the greatest action movies ever filmed — no wonder Hollywood remains in awe.
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
What’s It About? Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is a prostitute in Rome who, despite all evidence to the contrary, insists on being an optimist who sees the best in people. Her rosy outlook will be challenged by a series of run-ins she has with potential lovers and others.
Why’s It So Great? Federico Fellini has made several movies that are more acclaimed — La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 — but I’m choosing Nights of Cabiria for a couple reasons. First, it’s an expert mixture of his early neorealist style and the more flamboyant, dreamlike approach that would soon become his signature, which makes it great one-stop shopping for those new to his work. Second, it’s flat-out lovely, telling an episodic story in which Masina (channeling Chaplin’s endearing Tramp character) does that rare thing: She believably plays a resolutely upbeat character.
Nights of Cabiria is clear-eyed about the problems many people face — economic insecurity, a lack of kindness in the world — but even though Cabiria is ridiculed because of her profession, she refuses to give in to despair. Far from being sappy or Pollyannaish — and never being patronizing or indulging in poverty porn — Fellini’s remarkable, poignant film salutes the guts it takes to hold onto any semblance of faith in humanity.
The 400 Blows (1959)
What’s It About? A boy, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), living in Paris with his disengaged parents starts to go down a bad path, flirting with juvenile delinquency.
Why’s It So Great? The 400 Blows is one of the great coming-of-age dramas. (And if you like it, let me recommend another foreign-language classic: Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali.) Director and co-writer François Truffaut was part of the hallowed French New Wave, a revolutionary movement that included other acclaimed filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda. The 400 Blows isn’t as radical a subversion of cinematic conventions as some of his peers’ work — for the more adventurous, try Godard’s Breathless — but Truffaut made this semiautobiographical portrait of a young life universally resonant. Alienation, innocence, confusion: Those are the building blocks for most movies of this kind, but The 400 Blows feels like ground zero, establishing the framework for every Boyhood to come.
What’s It About? A nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress who appears to have had a nervous breakdown. No longer speaking, Elisabet retreats to a gorgeous beach house to convalesce, with Alma monitoring her recovery. But soon, a tension grows between the two characters in this remote locale.
Why’s It So Great? Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman has countless classics to his credit — The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander, Scenes From a Marriage, Wild Strawberries — but Persona is generally considered his greatest. It’s also eternally fresh, featuring postmodern flourishes that anticipate future avant-garde filmmaker like David Lynch. (Also, two of the most promising young horror directors, The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers and Midsommar’s Ari Aster, spent an entire podcast geeking out over their shared Bergman love.) Persona’s chilling psychological snapshot of two women somehow morphing into one remains startling and hip — the fun comes in trying to unravel the mysteries the movie provocatively leaves at your feet.
What’s It About? The clueless but amiable Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati, who also directed) tries to make his way in Paris, a city that proves to be too futuristic and confusing for him.
Why’s It So Great? It’s a fallacy that lists of great art-house cinema have to all be serious dramas. Playtime is a spectacular comedy that’s often as brilliantly choreographed as a Charlie Chaplin silent movie, featuring Tati’s adorable doppelganger, who was often the protagonist in his wry films. (He’d previously appeared in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle.) But you don’t need to see those movies to love Playtime, which is among the funniest (and, occasionally, most dystopian) looks at modern big-city life.
For a film that’s more than 50 years old, Tati’s magnum opus still feels ahead of its time, partly because the director/star had enormous, visionary sets built that could better capture the bizarre, unnerving futurist world that Hulot tries to navigate. Impenetrable office buildings. Anxiety-inducing apartments. Labyrinthine traffic jams. Playtime would be powerfully upsetting if it wasn’t pitched as a masterful slapstick comedy.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
What’s It About? Two horny buddies, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), go on an impromptu road trip with a beautiful older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), both of them hoping to hook up with her.
Why’s It So Great? Before he made Children of Men, Gravity and Roma, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón first planted his flag with this sexy, funny, surprisingly poignant drama that, on the surface, could have just been a Porky’s-style sex farce. Instead, Y Tu Mamá También is a frank, grownup study about being young and ruled by your hormones. (This might very well be the most melancholy movie ever about wanting to get laid.) The film helped launch Luna’s career and proved to be another stepping stone to stardom for García Bernal, who was equally impressive in the previous year’s Amores Perros, written and directed by Cuarón’s friend (and fellow eventual Oscar-winner) Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cuarón has made more acclaimed and ambitious films since Y Tu Mamá También, but this might still be his most perfect.
What’s It About? Two very different men — a working-class, socially awkward aspiring writer (Yoo Ah-in) and a suave, handsome jetsetter (Steven Yeun) — compete for the affections of the same enigmatic woman (Jeon Jong-seo). But when she goes missing, the writer wonders if his romantic rival might be behind her disappearance.
Why’s It So Great? Bong Joon Ho has, rightly, been celebrated since Parasite’s success, helping to introduce more viewers to the richness of South Korean cinema. Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook are major auteurs, too, but if I had to pick one film, I’d go with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which is based on a Haruki Murakami short story and unfolds like a slow-burn thriller. As Ben, the film’s smiling, reserved nemesis, Yeun delivered one of the great modern bad-guy performances… but is he actually the bad guy?
One of Burning’s best elements is that everything about the film is deeply mysterious, which will lead to fun debates with your friends afterward. A lot of us thought Yeun (probably best known for The Walking Dead) should have been nominated for an Oscar. After you see Burning, you’ll understand why.