The top 50 foreign films of all time

TONY ranks the gorgeous, brainy essentials you've always meant to catch up on.

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  • Foreign films: Click to the next image to see our top 50 foreign films of all time

  • Foreign films: The Killer (1989)

  • Foreign films: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

  • Foreign films: The Power of Kangwon Province (1989)

  • Foreign films: Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

  • Foreign films: The Decalogue (1988)

  • Foreign films: Russian Ark (2002)

  • Foreign films: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

  • Foreign films: Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

  • Foreign films: Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) (2000)

  • Foreign films: Wild Strawberries (1957)

Foreign films: Click to the next image to see our top 50 foreign films of all time

There's no need to fear subtitles when so much of what Hollywood has come to love (pop-cultural patter, epic swordplay, urban ennui, etc.) has its original source in a distant land. But where to begin? Let us be your (extremely opinionated) guides. Our only ground rules for this foreign-language list: no silent films (sorry, Metropolis), and no movies from Britain, Australia or other English-speaking countries. We're bound to have forgotten a raft of classics—how could we not, with a whole globe to choose from? Please chime in.


50

The Killer (1989)

Whether you're an action fan or not, welcome to the most influential foreign film of the past 25 years. Hong Kong genius John Woo would go on to make even crazier cop sagas, but none with a more seismic impact on fully loaded cinema than this breakthrough, opening the door to a new school of kinetic mayhem. Suddenly, Woo's double-pistol showdowns were everywhere, inspiring the as-yet-to-break Quentin Tarantino and Hollywood at large.—Joshua Rothkopf

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49

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

All eyes turned to Romania after this two-and-a-half-hour black comedy premiered at Cannes. A new New Wave was born: Cristi Puiu's mesmerizing study of an elderly man shuttled among dispassionate health-care providers pulled back the curtain on an incredibly talented generation of filmmakers, raised during the oppressive Ceausescu regime and now making potent, politically charged art. The thrill, and lasting impact, of that discovery is still being felt.—Keith Uhlich

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48

The Power of Kangwon Province (1989)

South Korea's Hong Sang-soo wowed audiences with this woozy, Woody Allen–ish portrait of vacationing urbanites entangled in messy matters of the heart. A student hooks up with a local cop during a trip to the mountains. When the movie switches its focus to an adulterous college professor, you're left scratching your head—until Hong deftly reveals the connections. This was the movie that jump-started the modern South Korean New Wave, laying the groundwork for everything from Park Chan-wook's baroque thrillers (Oldboy) to Bong Joon-ho's subversive genre work (The Host).—David Fear

47

Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

Few contemporary filmmakers have been as praised by tastemakers as Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, and this elegant, elegiac costume drama justifies the fuss. Set in Shanghai's old-world brothel culture of rich layabouts and loose women, this tale uses a warhorse plot—Will Tony Leung's businessman dump his concubine for a younger model?—as a springboard for Hou's hazy, slow-and-low approach; you feel as if you've taken a few hits off the characters' opium pipes. Sorrow has rarely seemed so enveloping, or so incredibly sensual.—David Fear

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46

The Decalogue (1988)

Thou shalt not ignore the ethical toughness of Polish cinema. With this complex, modern-day take on the Ten Commandments, director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors: Blue) scored his most lasting achievement. Originally made for television, these ten short films found a global embrace as a stand-alone movie event, making gushing fans out of nobodies like Stanley Kubrick and introducing an audience to the rigors of perfectly plotted philosophical inquiries.—Joshua Rothkopf

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45

Russian Ark (2002)

Alexander Sokurov came up with a doozy of a concept for this era-spanning drama: 200 years of Russian history filmed in St. Petersburg's massive Winter Palace in a single, feature-length shot. Long-take lovers would be proud: There's not one cut during the movie's 96 minutes, which makes for an exhilarating sensory experience. Yet there's an equally profound feeling of melancholy, as if every ecstatic sight we're witnessing is fleeting.—Keith Uhlich

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44

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

To the holy triumvirate of Japanese filmmakers—Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi—let's add Mikio Naruse. Although lesser known, his incisive dramas about the struggling working class never fail to move. In this recently rediscovered masterpiece, the great, gorgeous Hideko Takamine plays Keiko, a Tokyo hostess contemplating whether or not to marry. She puts on a dignified mask for her many problematic suitors, but a deep-rooted bitterness seeps through her every smile.—Keith Uhlich

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43

Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

The strife-ridden regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco has provided thematic fodder for numerous films, most recently Pan's Labyrinth. But the gold standard remains Victor Erice's astonishing fable about a troubled rural girl (Ana Torrent) whose first encounter with the movie Frankenstein opens up the floodgates of her imagination. It's impossible to shake many of the film's stunning images, none more so than Torrent's is-it-real-or-isn't-it? encounter with the lumbering monster itself.—Keith Uhlich

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42

Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) (2000)

Appearing on an avalanche of end-of-decade lists, Edward Yang's tender triumph, a portrait of a stressed-out, middle-class Taiwanese family, feels like the apex of domestic drama. The movie's beautiful modulations—from success to failure, blooming high-school love to surly alienation, birth to death—are presented with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of emotional impact. The universality was heartrending.—Joshua Rothkopf

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41

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Sweden's filmmaking paragon, Ingmar Bergman, paid homage to one of his heroes, actor-director Victor Sjöström, by casting the latter as an aging professor recalling his life during a road trip. His dreamy remembrances (of childhood, first love, an unhappy marriage) are stoked by the people he meets and the places he visits. As far as psychoanalytic cinema goes, there's none better. Woody Allen agreed: His Another Woman was a closely modeled, female-centered redo.—Keith Uhlich

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  1. 50–41
  2. 40–31
  3. 30–21
  4. 20–11
  5. 10–1

Users say

25 comments
Shawn
Shawn

This is the worst "yuppy" review I've ever seen in my life! None of "the real" best, Like "City of God", or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or many others.

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

Where's The Bicycle Thief?!? Surely that belongs in the Top 50. Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman should probably be on this list as well! Ditto on La Strada.

fairportfan
fairportfan

I point out that (despite Toho suing Leone over his remake) "Yojimbo" itself is an uncredited version of Dashiell Hammett's novel "Red Harvest".

Peter
Peter

Most of my top 10 foreign films of all time do not appear in this list of top 50. They include;;ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (number one) LA STRADA (number two)THE BURMESE HARP (NUMBER THREE) and 1900.

Evan
Evan

Awesome List. Here is mine. 1. Persona 2. Stalker 3. Breathless 4. Au Hasard Balthazar 5. The Passion of Joan of Arc 6. In the Mood for Love 7. La Dolce Vita 8. Rashomon 9. The Rules of the Game 10. Late Spring

BB
BB

Ran, the best movie of it's decade, should be on all top fifty movies of all time list!

Theo
Theo

Great list. The order is a bit iffy, and a few films (Il Generale Della Rovere, Wild Strawberries) are missing. Here's my top 10: 10. Leon Morin, Priest 9. 8 1/2 8. Jules and Jim 7. L'eclisse 6. Il Generale Della Rovere 5. Wings of Desire 4. The Conformist 3. Wild Strawberries 2. The Battle of Algiers 1. L'avventura

Cameren Lee
Cameren Lee

Interesting list. I know Kurosawa's already on here twice, but Ran deserved to be here IMHO.

Shannon
Shannon

"life is beautiful" is my favorite Italian film. funny and sad.

pollack
pollack

Ed Frias - you are right. I wonder why Jean and Manon des Sources are not on the list. Probably editors haven't seen it... Remarkable cinema. Truly amazing.

Ed Frias
Ed Frias

Jean De Florette from 1986 is the best foreign film i'v seen.

euterpe
euterpe

Masaki Kobayashi's trilogy the Human Condition should be on anyone's list of greatest movies of all time.

tony
tony

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES , DEPARTURES AND TALK TO HER SHOULD BE IN THE LIST. WAY TOO LITTLE REPRESENTATION FROM SOUTH AMERICA IN MY VIEW. WHAT ABOUT INNOCENT VOICES,THE OFFICIAL STORY AND CITY OF GOD...ALL AMAZING MOVIES

Alek
Alek

Movies that are missing In the Name of the Father (Ireland) City of God (Brazil) Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico) 13 Assassins (Japan) War of the Arrows (South Korea0 Oldboy (South Korea) Ip Man (China) Rare Exports Inc. (Finland) The Human Centipede (Netherlands) Just kidding. The Lord of the Rings [All 3] (New Zealand)

hnh
hnh

That no silent film rule disqualified a lot of fine films. The movie M as number 1 is an excellent choice.

G.
G.

Nothing from Almodovar. I think at least one deserves to be in the mix: All About My Mother or Talk To Her. They are both unique and could only have come from one individual.

Ford
Ford

What about the Chinese film "To Live"? I think that should easily make the top 5. Fantastic story, great actors, etc.

Tom
Tom

Interesting list but Seven Samurai missing from the top 5... a bit ridiculous. I don't know if M should be number one but it definitely is top three in my books!

Julio
Julio

"La Haine" and "City of God" are missing and I would add "Old Boy" as well.

Mom
Mom

Cinema Pardiso

Ted Schaefer
Ted Schaefer

I'd nominate "Jules and Jim," "The Double Life of Veronique," "A Sunday in the Country," and "Wings of Desire." More recent entries might include "Summer Hours," "A Christmas Tale," and "Mysteries of Lisbon." --Oh, and there's the great German series, "Heimat I" and II."

Nichol
Nichol

How The Color of Paradise didn't make this list is beyond me.

Tyler
Tyler

Just curious. How is Seven Samurai not in the top 5? Seriously, it may not be everyone's favorite film, but in terms of historical importance it is one of if the THE best ever. M and Rules of the Game are certainly fantastic films but they didn't have the influential input Seven Samurai had on the film community. Just saying..

Adam
Adam

Just like to point out that #6 is actually called '8 1/2' not '8'.