Some of the greatest films ever made in film history have not been made in the English language, yet most people that I come across are unaware of these gems due to these films not being popular enough, and because of a certain bias against watching films with subtitles. As Bong Joon-ho said in his Golden Globes-winning speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. So, with that in mind, I have curated this list of essential foreign films (not in English or any Indian regional language) that can serve as an entry point to world cinema for someone who’s never seen one.
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Wong Kar-wai’s magnum opus In The Mood For Love (2000) is one of the best romantic films ever made. The story of Su Li-Zhen and Chow Mo-wan, who are neighbours, slowly developing feelings and unexpectedly falling for each other is one that is going to move those with the hardest of hearts. Kar-wai explores loneliness and love in a melancholic and beautiful way that only he can through the use of lush visuals, slow-motion camerawork and a beautiful soundtrack. The film is a part of an informal tetralogy consisting of Days of Being Wild (1990), 2046 (2004) and the upcoming Blossoms. I can assure you that you will never find films that look as beautiful as those of Kar-wai’s. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are going to charm their ways in your heart and stay there for good.
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho is one of those rare filmmakers who has not made a single film that I personally consider a miss. While the whole of his filmography is diverse and should be explored, I would like to focus on his Palme D’Or winner Parasite. The genius of Parasite is that once someone looks over the supposed barrier of subtitles, it is a film that can be enjoyed by anyone. On the surface, its a terrific thriller and once someone reads between the lines, it’s a deep study on class-divide and a critique of capitalism. Bong keeps us hooked with tight editing and a script that doesn’t let you guess what twist might be coming next. Its the universal appeal of Parasite’s themes that forced the world to bow down to Bong’s genius, to the extent that it became the first non-English language film in history to win the Best Picture award at the Oscars.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is one of the most celebrated films of world cinema. The Seventh Seal deals with themes of life and death and the existence of a God, a theme that Bergman has explored repeatedly in many of his films. The film deals with a knight who has to play a game of chess with the personification of Death for his life. Cinematographer Gunner Fischer’s camerawork is at its finest display here and captures some of the most memorable shots in cinema history. The acting performances of Bergman regulars like Max Von Sydow are also exceptional.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
This Giuseppe Tornatore film is the ultimate love letter ever written to the art form of cinema and the people who love cinema. The film follows a famous film director Salvatore Di Vita as he gets to know one fine day that Alfredo has died. The film then flashes back to Salvatore’s childhood spent in a post-World War II Sicilian village and continues going back and forth to tell the story of Salvatore’s life. Ennio Morricone’s soothing soundtrack for the film catches the different emotions showed in the film, like the joy of watching a film together with people and falling in love.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Jeunet’s Amelie is one of the most universally loved foreign language film ever made and for good reason. This lovely romantic-comedy film depicts Amelie, a waitress in Paris who tries to seek happiness in her own life and make others happy as well however she can, a theme that is relatable to people everywhere. She doesn’t let her imaginations be restricted by her low-paid job and small apartment and lets it go wild to find pleasure in simple things. The film is a beautiful depiction of Paris and Parisian life in general with the use of a highly contrasting but visually aesthetic colour palette and a beautiful soundtrack by Yann Tiersen.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut
Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which was his directorial debut, is one of the pioneering films of the French New Wave movement of which Truffaut was a big part of. The film follows Antoine Doinel, a young boy who is growing up in the Paris of the 50s. Doinel is rebellious and different and gets in trouble with everyone in his life from his parents to his teachers until he decides to break away from his life. Jean Pierre Leaud, who wasn’t all that different as a kid from his character Doinel, gives one of the best child-performances seen in film history and would reprise his role as Doinel in three other films by Truffaut as well.
A Separation (2011)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Iran is a place where cinema is heavily censored and many Iranian filmmakers have been exiled or jailed for failing to follow the strict censorship laws. In spite of that, some of the world’s best films have come out from Iran through the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Farhadi. A Separation is a film that depicts the power of a strong screenplay, showcasing important issues and emotions. The film portrays the separation of a middle-class Iranian couple, the troubles they have to go through administratively to achieve that, and the effect it has on their family, especially their daughter. Farhadi’s film won hearts everywhere, sweeping every Foreign Language film award wherever it was nominated, including the Oscars, becoming the first Iranian film to do so.
Director: Park Chan-wook
A man is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years until one day he is finally let go, into a world he doesn’t recognize much anymore, only to find out that that was not the end of all his troubles. This intriguing plot is the basis of Oldboy, director Park Chan-wook’s magnum opus and one of the finest pieces of Korean cinema ever made. South Korea has consistently provided us with some of the best films in recent history with the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Chan-wook and Lee Chang-dong all getting critical acclaim with their films and Oldboy proves why the films from there are so successful all over. With a fantastic plot and terrific action sequences, Oldboy is a masterful thriller that also explores our humanity.
Pain and Glory (2019)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar is one of the greatest living filmmakers who’s made numerous films for the nearly four decades but his most personal work came last year in the form of Pain and Glory (2019), depicting the life of an ageing and ailing filmmaker Salvador Mallo who is having a creative block and realizes he’s getting closer to death every day. The film shows Mallo’s life through his present-day activities as well as through flashbacks of his childhood in Paterna. Almodovar collaborates with his muse Antonio Banderas who plays the lead. Banderas is chill as ravishing and charming as he was when he first appeared in an Almodovar film back in Labyrinth of Passion (1982). The film glistens with immaculate production design which is typical of an Almodovar film and a stunning Penelope Cruz.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Adapted from a Wajdi Mouawad play, Incendies is the film that threw French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve into the limelight after which he’s never looked back and without any exaggeration, he’s had the best decade in terms of filmmaking than anyone else (The fact that he Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), all within a decade perpetually blows my mind). Incendies tells the story of a pair of Canadian twins, Jeanne and Simon, who are sent to the Middle East because of their mother’s last wishes to trace their family roots. What follows is a tale of war, hatred and love that is going to move you in a way which very few films will.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
Japanese animation is tremendously popular all over the world thanks to anime and mangas, and one of the pioneers of Japanese animation is the iconic Studio Ghibli. Although I would suggest someone to watch every Studio Ghibli film they can get their hands on (the entire collection is now on Netflix), my favourite Ghibli film is Isao Takahata’s 1988 war drama Grave of The Fireflies. Its a terribly sad film, depicting the lives of two siblings as they struggle to see out the final few months of the World War II in Kobe, but it is also essential to see the effects of war on people and the unbearable suffering it causes. The film not only carries an anti-war message (although the director denies that being intentional) but also depicts an unbreakable and an eye-watering sibling bond.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda is a master of telling stories about families and exploring the different strings that hold a family together. His entire filmography whether its Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013) or Still Walking (2007) is filled with such examples. His most recent work is the Palme D’Or winning 2018 film Shoplifters, which shows a not-so-regular family who survives by doing petty crimes and how they take in a girl they find on the road one day until an unforeseen incident tests their bond.
This list is not definitive and is just a list of some of my favourite films I feel would serve as a good entry point into world cinema for someone who’s interested in films and to learn about films. All of us are living through confused and trying times, and it would probably do us good to take a break from our reality and get lost in the world of cinema. I hope whoever reads this has a good time with these movies, as I did.