Fancy something a little bit different from cliché ridden blockbusters, predictable rom coms and endless comic book adaptations? When the current selection at your cinema doesn’t float your boat, it might be a good idea to explore foreign film instead. It’s not just for pretentious people, you know.
I understand that a lot of people seem to be put off by the fact you have to use subtitles and while this can be annoying, there is so much more to be gained that it seems like such a silly and insignificant reason. It’s a wonderful way of being introduced to other cultures, new ideas and historic events we never really heard about. It also will make you want to travel, lots. I’m not going to pretend that every foreign film is profound, more ‘authentic’ or intrinsically better than what we’ve got on offer here. It’s just that people miss out on a lot if they ignore it, just as if they only stuck to the top 40 for music.
As a disclaimer, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or definitive list, just a diverse collection of solid, interesting films to get you started.
1. Amelie (2004)
This seems to be the gateway film for many. Set in Paris, it follows naive Amelie in her quest to be an anonymous saint and inadvertently finding love along the way. It’s happy, bright and quirky, it might also make you want to escape to France immediately. Also look out for Delicatessen.
2. Metropolis (1927)
A silent German film. Yes please. I’m not exaggerating when say this is a captivating, timeless film with the most beautiful music and it’s difficult to believe that it came from the twenties. It was only shown once in its entirety before being cut and reordered, so later editions differ widely. His thriller M is also amazing.
3. The Lives of Others (2006)
Set during 1984 in Berlin, a well known couple are chosen for surveillance by the Secret Service. However, the man in charge becomes more and more intrigued and sympathetic to the ones he is meant to be pursuing. It’s an interesting look into the realities of the Cold War; it seems hard to believe this wasn’t set so long ago, either.
4. Persepolis (2007)
This animated film based on a graphic novel sees a girl growing up against the 1979 Iranian Revolution and moving to France. It’s a funny, heartbreaking and interesting look into something that a lot of my generation are completely clueless about.
5. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
This is one of the most adorable films I have seen. It follows six year old Toto in Sicily as he forms a friendship with the projectionist, we see him grow up, pursue love and trying to find his feet, all the while it is centered around his community at the cinema. I’m about as maternal as Rambo and this might have made me weep a little at the end.
6. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Set during the Plague, the protagonist is a knight fresh from the Crusades and is evading Death, who has told him his time is up. So obviously he gets challenged to a game of chess. It explores existential themes during a time of great upheaval. The cinematography is striking and it’s a really thought provoking film, so not one for when you’re hungover.
7. Spirited Away (2001)
If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Studio Ghibli or seen something they’ve influenced. This is a great introduction to their films and definitely the most famous. While moving house, Chihiro’s parent’s drive into an abandoned theme park and end up being transformed into pigs. Chihiro enters into a surreal land in order to save them. If you like this, keep an eye out for Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies.
8. The Skin I Live In
Almodovar is known as one of the best contemporary Spanish directors. This film contains a lot of his recurrent themes, including gender identity and loss of loved ones and was likened to Hitchcock’s thrillers. Keep an eye out for Bad Education and All About My Mother, which are outstanding films but nothing like this one.
9. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Here’s another war related animation from the Middle East. Isreali Ari Folman took part in the 1982 Lebanon War, but can’t remember anything about it. Talking to his friends, a psychologist and a TV presenter, we follow his memories and eventual discovery that he was involved in the Palestinian refugee massacre.
10. Ikuru (1952)
Kanji Wantanbe discovers he is dying of cancer after a lifetime spent working too much in a pointless bureaucratic job and tries to find some meaning in his life. In the most important part of the film, we follow his co-workers and friends as they piece together and attempt to work out his behavior before passing away. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting. Alternatively, director Akira Kurosawa is known for his Samurai films, if you fancy a bit of that instead.