Our number one choice is, appropriately, a film of firsts: the first serial-killer movie, the celebrated director Fritz Lang's first sound production—and the movie he personally prized above all his others. It marries the fanciful expressionist techniques of the filmmaker's epic silents like Metropolis to a frighteningly realistic tale of a child-murdering psychopath, and its influence can be felt all the way up to our own Sevens and Saws. But the monstrous Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is no cheer-'em-on villain like Jigsaw: First shown abstractly as a threatening shadow on the wall, the character is brought slowly and precisely into focus, until he himself becomes a victim, hunted down and dragged before a kangaroo court, where the moral divide all but evaporates. This politically charged classic reflected the German audiences' adoration of the dawning Nazi party back on itself, and its enduring lessons (for both cinema and society) are as much global as local.
When South Korean director Bong Joon-ho collected his Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2019 – for Parasite, which would eventually make history as the first non-English movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture – he teased the audience for its hesitancy to embrace international filmmaking. ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles’, he said, ‘you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’. Indeed, many of the greatest movies ever made were produced in non-English-speaking countries, like Bong’s homeland of Korea, and there is no need for any fan of cinema to be intimidated by them. Sure, you may encounter big themes and a fair bit of philosophy. But you’ll also find pulse-racing action flicks, silly comedies, charming musicals and stylish thrillers, as well as movies that might feel oddly familiar because, well, they probably directly influenced the movies you already love.
In compiling this list of the best foreign films of all-time, we had to set some guidelines, lest we go on forever. We omitted silent films and determined that the movies had to be in a language that wasn’t English: so goodbye Britain and Australia. Other than those caveats, consider this your travel guide to the wide, wonderful world of international film.
Written by David Fear, Keith Uhlich, Andy Kryza, Joshua Rothkopf & Matthew Singer