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: Shoah (1985)

  • Foreign films: A Touch of Zen (1969)

  • Foreign films: My Night at Maud's (1969)

  • Foreign films: Close-Up (1990)

  • Foreign films: Yojimbo (1961)

  • Foreign films: La Jetée (1962)

  • Foreign films: The Seventh Seal (1957)

  • Foreign films: The 400 Blows (1959)

  • Foreign films: Pather Panchali (1955)

  • Foreign films: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Foreign films: Shoah (1985)

40

Shoah (1985)

For some, there can't ever be too many documentaries about the Holocaust. But if the trend feels slightly tired, it's because there's no improving on this definitive effort, a nine-and-a-half-hour grand statement that wrecks audiences. Daringly, French director Claude Lanzmann completely avoided archival footage and re-creations, instead boring fully into several first-person interviews with three types of subjects: survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. The cumulative effect is massive and central to an appreciation of evil.—Joshua Rothkopf

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39

A Touch of Zen (1969)

Most cine-snobs think of martial-arts movies as guilty pleasures fit only for grindhouses; they've obviously never seen King Hu's gorgeous chronicle of a Buddhist kung fu master in love. The undisputed poet laureate of wuxia films, Hu treats his genre material as if it were high art, balancing action and atmospherics in each battle. Ang Lee readily acknowledged borrowing liberally from this film's eerily quiet fight scenes and balletic bamboo standoffs for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Accept no substitutes.—David Fear

38

My Night at Maud's (1969)

Can two people talking be cinematic? France's Éric Rohmer thought so—his incredible body of work hinges on the pleasures and profundities of conversation. This incisive, quietly devastating feature is the one to see, centering on a spirited chat between a stiff-backed Catholic-Marxist (Jean-Louis Trintignant, brilliantly self-righteous) and the free-spirited woman (Françoise Fabian, enticing in both speech and shape) who tries to seduce him.—Keith Uhlich

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37

Close-Up (1990)

Abbas Kiarostami's astounding hall-of-mirrors docudrama was a watershed for the then-burgeoning Iranian cinema. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of a con artist who passed himself off as a locally famous filmmaker. Further blurring the lines between fiction and reality, the writer-director enlisted everyone involved in the actual scam to act as themselves. If that sounds like bad reality TV, know that there's not a single sensationalist moment.—Keith Uhlich

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36

Yojimbo (1961)

If film can be seen as a shared international language, then here's its most thrilling Rosetta stone. To make this Japanese tale of a wandering ronin, director Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from stately John Ford Westerns and Hollywood's seedy noirs of the 1940s. Having already revised the action landscape with 1954's The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa would now do so again: Yojimbo, a massive worldwide hit, was (illegally) remade into a little Italian picture called A Fistful of Dollars, thereby launching the careers of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood both.—Joshua Rothkopf

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35

La Jetée (1962)

In only 28 minutes, Chris Marker's dazzling sci-fi romance—set largely within the dreamscapes of a nuclear-war survivor—completely rewrites the rules. (Inception fans, get thee to a Netflix queue.) Almost completely composed of still photographs and narration, the French short begins with the destruction of Paris, then introduces a Vertigo-like bridge to a happier past through a vividly remembered tryst. Decades later, Terry Gilliam would remake this plot as the eerie Twelve Monkeys.—Joshua Rothkopf

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34

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Much of the prestige (and, to be fair, the intimidation) that accrues around foreign films can be attributed to this towering Swedish classic—but it's not as difficult as you might think. Yes, our medieval Crusader hero (a sapling-young Max von Sydow) squares off against Death in a chuckleworthy chess match. Yet the brilliance of Ingmar Bergman's psychodrama comes in the way it turns its beard-stroking symbology into a gripping experience for anyone with a little curiosity.—Joshua Rothkopf

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33

The 400 Blows (1959)

François Truffaut's indelible first feature helped put the French New Wave on the map. The film chronicles the troubled existence of cocky teenager Antoine Doinel, beautifully played by the precocious Jean-Pierre Léaud, who would revisit the character over four more movies. Truffaut also captures the profound somberness of postwar France, which is brought home in a heartbreaking final freeze-frame of Antoine alone by the seaside.—Keith Uhlich

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32
Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali (1955)

The poetic splendors of Indian cinema came to the world's attention when writer-director Satyajit Ray debuted his lyrical first feature, which follows the eventful childhood of a poor Bengali boy named Apu. A film of tremendous sympathy and imagination (the visuals are like children's-book illustrations come to breathtaking life), its success allowed Ray to make two follow-ups, Aparajito and The World of Apu, thus creating the formidable Apu Trilogy.—Keith Uhlich

31

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

A strong candidate for the '60s slyest piece of agitpop, Jean-Luc Godard's tribute to pulp fiction stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina as criminal lovers on the lam. But his pileup of quotations from Balzac and B movies isn't just suitable for a brain in a jar; this is the French provocateur at his most colorful (literally), contagiously jazzy and politically cacophonous. It's the key transitional work in a long career of engaged, enraged filmmaking.—David Fear

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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'.