18 foreign language films you really should see

If you fancy having a dabble in world cinema, but aren't sure where to start, then let our writers recommend you some movies...

It’s really been the growth in DVD over the past decade that’s allowed many of us access to a huge catalogue of foreigh language films. Previous to that, we were served up whatever some distributor felt warranted a cinema release, or a broadcaster thought to stick on the telly late at night.

DVD has meant that there’s a cavalcade of material waiting to be explored. And with that in mind, we asked our writers to recommend a foreign language movie each that they particularly liked. Here’s what they came up with…

MRon Hogan

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I have a lot of foreign films I love, but I have no doubt other writers will cover them for this list. So I’m going to hop in the time machine and strongly recommend that everyone watch the German psychological thriller M.

It took me years to get around to watching this movie, and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long because it’s a masterpiece. Fritz Lang is one of the most influential directors of his generation, for good reason.

This was the movie that made Peter Lorre a star. Even today, it holds up like very few movies from that period, thanks to that legitimately pathetic – yet chilling – performance from Lorre, with an opera-style leitmotif that really cranks up the tension. When you hear In The Hall Of The Mountain King, you know the predator is waiting to strike.

The movie wrestles with ideas of justice, punishment, and compulsions, all without succumbing to the melodramatic acting rampant in silent films. Despite being from 1931, M feels like a modern police film thanks to deft camera placements, revolutionary sound design, and one of the best actors to ever menace the screen.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg)Gemma Cartwright of Dorkadore.com

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Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is an incredibly stylish, magical French musical from 1964, and the first one to be filmed in colour. All dialogue is sung, from ‘I love you’ to ‘Which type of petrol would you like, madam?’ and it features a very young and impossibly stunning Catherine Deneuve as Genevieve, a young French woman who runs an umbrella shop in Cherbourg with her overprotective mother. She’s seventeen, headstrong and secretly in love with Guy, a young mechanic. The film tells the story of their tragic love affair.

Obviously, as all dialogue is sung, some of the fantastic lines (like “People only die of love in movies”) get lost amongst the cheesy singing, but really this film is all about the cinematography, the costumes and the vivid colour which, now it’s been restored for DVD, can be watched with all the bright yellows, blues and pinks that writer/ director Jaques Demy originally intended.

This is the perfect rainy day film and, despite the sad moments, it always makes me smile. If you’ve seen Amelie and loved the magical Frenchness of it, get ready for a treat!

CronosKarl Hodge

My tastes are populist, so I’m sure that some of my favourites have already been grabbed. Let the Right One In, Nightwatch, Amelie… The film I’ve chosen is still a bona fide favourite, though, and one that others might have missed. Cronos, directed by Blade II helmer Guillermo del Toro, is a weird little fantasy horror that neatly prefaces his later work on Hellboy. It’s also kind of a cheat as it’s partly in English, partly in Spanish.

An antique shop owner finds a device, a strange mechanical insect, that confers eternal youth upon him. As is often the case with such magical artefacts, its benefits come at a terrible price. What begins as a gentle, pleasant drama gradually morphs into a Spanish episode of the Twilight Zone – on mescaline.

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If you love horror movies of the 70s or Epic Comic’s Creepy Tales you’ll love Cronos, which brings a quiet, European sensibility to the genre. It’s like an episode of Hammer House Of Horror, made by a tag team of Fedrico Fellini and David Cronenberg. Best watched in a triple bill with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

A bout de souffle (Breathless) Rupert de Paula

I have to admit, this was a difficult question to answer. But after long deliberation I decided that, if pushed, the one non-English language film I would recommend above all other would be Jean-Luc Goddard’s manifesto on Gallic 60s cool, Breathless.

At its heart, Breathless is the classic love tragedy: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy dies trying to win back her love. But what makes Breathless so unique is its maverick aesthetic – both revering and rebelling from the classic narrative system. It’s legendry open sequence, which threw the continuity editing rulebook firmly out the window, was a landmark moment in cinema.

By no means was this the first film to defy the laws of convention. But a lot of these ‘art house’ classics quickly disappear up their derrieres’. Goddard, though, knew that while cinema can be art it has to be entertainment.

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This is no existentialist, Sartre-lite musing on the meaning of existence. Breathless is the kind history lesson that can be enjoyed over and over and over again. It also contains my favourite-ever moment of dialogue.

When asked by the young heroine, Patricia, what his greatest ambition is, the world famous director Parvulesco (in a cameo by the great Jean-Pierre Melville) replies:

“To become immortal…and then to die.”

Now, if that’s not a mantra to live your life by, then what is?

Cinema ParadisoAlex Westthorp

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Cinema Paradiso is Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s lyrical tribute to a small village cinema in rural Sicily. Opening with film director Salvatore’s (Jacques Perrin) return to his native village for the funeral of the old cinema projectionist Alfredo, the film then revisits the charming friendship between the young Salvatore, then an altar boy, known as ‘Toto’ (a wonderful performance from Salvatore Cascio), and his ‘surrogate father’ the wily Alfredo (Philippe Noiret).

The film explores the joys of the cinema; there’s some marvellous reaction shots from children as they watch cowboys and Indians. Censorship is portrayed by a man with a bell who deems kissing scenes unsuitable. Toto matures and falls in love with first girlfriend Elena.

Eventually drafted into the army, Toto reluctantly leaves the village behind and the job of projectionist he’s inherited from his beloved Alfredo, when the latter is blinded in a fire.

Tornatore’s detractors accuse him of presenting a sentimentally ideal view of Italy to the world. The film is certainly sentimental but only for the loss of innocence and what might have been. Evocative of the sheer pleasure of cinema-going, it’s amusing, heart-warming, exquisitely photographed and beautifully acted.

Cinema Paradiso was released in Italy in 1988 and in the UK in 1990 when I first watched it (appropriately) at the opulent Art Deco Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. It was probably the first major world cinema film I saw at the cinema. What an introduction!

Some people will never watch world cinema because they hate subtitles. This short-sighted opinion excludes many from the delights of some truely excellent films. Beyond Hollywood blockbusters and rather worthy British kitchen sink dramas, world cinema is a rewarding pleasure. Cinema Paradiso is one of the very best examples and I highly recommend it.

Toto le hérosGaye Birch

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Like my fellow DOG writers, I had a hard time picking just one foreign language film as I enjoy so many from various genres and countries. So, I based my choice on a film that might appeal to many, but may still have escaped the notice of some.

Toto le héros, filmed in Belgium, is, at its core, a story of regret, opening on the scene of a murder and hopscotching back and forth in the regretter Thomas’ life as child and young and old man.

The root of Thomas’ misery is his suspicion – a festering lifelong belief that’s come to a boil – that he was switched at birth with his wealthy next-door neighbours’ son, Alfred. This thought poisons his life and his relationships and, in his old age, he plans to take his revenge.

What makes this story special is the fantasy scenes that are cut into the more straightforward retelling of events. They typify the way children perceive life and its very telling that, even as an old man, this is the way Thomas still views what’s happening around him, as he’s clung to a childish notion for so long.

The end scenes, in what could be a depressing story, are as uplifting as any you’ll see and hear in any language, and make this unique take on a relatable tale’s appeal universal and eternal.

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Katakuri-ke no kôfuku (The Happiness Of The Katakuris)Mark Oakley

Horror comedies really don’t come any weirder or more glorious than this. Directed by Takashi Miike, The Happiness Of The Katakuris is a wonderful celebration of life and death. Oh, and it’s completely and utterly bonkers.

Perhaps best described as a musical comedy with zombies, the film follows the family Katakuris as they open up a small hotel in the country. Their idyllic dream comes unstuck when their guests start dying all over the place in bizarre ways. To protect the name of the business the family decide, some reluctantly, to bury the corpses in the forest near the house. Bad move as it turns out when the guests come back as zombies. Singing and dancing zombies.

Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of watching this film where the family burst into song at any opportunity and the unique black humour often leaves you bewildered. It’s original, it’s totally off its rocker and it’s alarmingly good fun. This video gives a pretty good taste of what the film has to offer. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this before.

Amores Perros (Love’s A Bitch) Simon Brew

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The stunning City Of God nearly got my nod here, but in the end, the foreign language movie that I remember being utterly blown away by was Amores Perros, a Mexican film that was pretty much instantly compared to Pulp Fiction on its original release (why it’s felt necessary to consistently compare international movies to an English-language equivalent is continually perplexing, but I guess if it helps them get a wider audience, then so be it).

That said, what really helped the impact of the film for me is one of the side benefits of exploring world cinema: I knew absolutely nothing about it when I popped the DVD in my player. I used to blind buy quite a lot of international DVDs, most of which didn’t work out too well. But Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stunning, daring mashing together of three stories, interconnected by a gut-wrenching car crash, is a stunning piece of work. I remember just being sat there, stuck firmly to my seat, utterly compelled by the audacity of what Iñárritu had put together.

For fear of spoiling the joys of the film for anyone else, I’m not going to go into more detail than that. Just that this is a wonderfully woven ensemble piece, that has one or two little bumps, but for the most part is a real tour de force. You won’t see anything like it at your local multiplex this weekend, that I can guarantee you.

Following the success of Amores Perros (which translates as Love’s A Bitch), Alejandro González Iñárritu headed to America, but I didn’t really warm that much to either 21 Grams or Babel (although segments of the latter were excellent). I’m far more encouraged by the project he’s in post-production on now, Biutiful. With that, it looks like he’s leaving Hollywood behind for the time being, and if it gets back to the intensity of Amores Perros, that’s got to be a very good thing…

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away)Mark Pickavance

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I thought hard and long about this, because there are some exceptionally good French and Mexican movies that many people will have not seen, but I kept coming back to one movie that does more than just break the language barrier. I’m talking about the Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, which is better known to Western audiences as Spirited Away. It’s the work of animation genius Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote and directed this very unusual film about a young girl transported to a magical yet disturbing alternate world.

What I love most about is that at each subsequent viewing my understanding of what goes on expands, although I accept that, because I don’t have a Japanese cultural background, the significance of some imagery will elude me. But surely this is the joy of film, to achieve your own understanding and be happy with that interpretation?

There is a dubbed version, but, frankly, unless you’re allergic to subtitles I’d not bother with it.

Spirited Away is a wonderful antidote to the Hollywood conventions of film that repeatedly surprises the audience with its quirky invention and otherworldliness. It spirited me away to its fantastical world for the full running time of 125 minutes, and once you get taken there you just might not want to come back.

VolverNick Smith

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For almost 30 years, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has consistently produced sensual, good looking films with compelling stories that could happen to the girl next door, if she was drop dead gorgeous.

Volver (“to return”) is his 2006 flick starring Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, a housewife with a wanker for a husband. Literally. When he makes a play for her daughter, he ends up dead on the kitchen floor. Raimunda efficiently mops up the mess and stuffs him in a chest freezer, under the noses of a hungry horde of restaurant customers.

There are two elements that make this film particularly memorable. One is Carmen Maura who plays Raimunda’s mum. She’s supposed to have died in a fire, so when she comes back we don’t know if she’s a ghost or a resurrected recluse. She seems to spend half the film hiding in a closet, in the trunk of a car or under a bed, waiting for the right time to reveal herself to her daughter and reconcile with her. Maura acts with great compassion, a believable air of fatigue and a childlike edge that make her scenes a delight to watch.

The second great element is the setting – La Mancha, a sad little village where sudden gales cause house fires to erupt. The haunting gusts of wind and dark streets give the film an eerie edge, pervading Volver with a tangible sense of regret and loneliness.

La cité des enfants perdus (The City Of Lost Children)Carley Tauchert

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My favourite foreign film release is the magical and twisted The City Of Lost Children by wonderful French directing duo Caro and Jeunet. As with most of the pieces that come from the mind of this directing pair, it is set in a surreal society where a mad scientist kidnaps children and steals their dreams.

When the brother of a circus strongman is taken, he takes it on himself to rescue him and along the way meets a series of bizarre characters that help him on his journey.

Made in 1995 and starring Hellboy‘s Ron Perlman, The City Of Lost Children is such a wonderfully strange movie I am constantly drawn back to it and each viewing reveals something new that I hadn’t noticed before.

The actual plot is very dark and disturbing but there are plenty of light moments and even a few belly laughs to help counterbalance this out (the scientist’s clones are especially amusing).

Mostly, though, it is just the visuals that are truly stunning and you feel you have entered a world so far beyond your imagination you can’t help but get swept up in it. I couldn’t urge you more to track it down.

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Good Bye, Lenin!Glen Chapman

Difficult to pinpoint a single foreign language film that I’d recommend to others, given the number of quality films to choose from. In the past I’ve recommend Amores Perros to people, but this film seems an appropriate choice given the recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.

Set in East Germany in 1989 proud socialist Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) suffers a heart attack when she sees her son, Alex (Daniel Bruhl), arrested whilst taking part in an anti-Berlin wall demonstration and falls into a coma.

There are a number of changes whilst Christine is in her coma, most notably the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of East and West Germany. When Christine comes out of the coma eight months later, Alex recognises that she is in a fragile state and any shock or excitement could lead to another heart attack and possibly death. He sets out to keep the news of the change from his mother and goes to great lengths to do so in increasingly difficult circumstances due to the drastic changes occurring.

Daniel Bruhl, who most will recognise from his role as Private Zoller in Inglorious Basterds, is fantastic in the leading role as Alex. The film is incredibly funny and quite moving at times. I would highly recommend this to anyone.

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Goyangileul butaghae (Take Care Of My Cat)Matt Haigh

Upon leaving high school, five young women struggle to remain close friends as each embarks upon adult life, encountering the pressures of jobs and boyfriends that threaten to diminish the camaraderie the gang possessed in school.

Tying them all together is a cat, given as a gift at a birthday party, and ultimately passed from hand to hand as the characters find their lives moving in unexpected directions.

This is director Jae-eun Jeong’s first film, and like another relatively new female director, Sofia Coppola, she works with a distinct, quirky visual style. Full of warmth and intimacy, but also the space and loneliness of a Korean cityscape at night, the visuals brilliantly evoke the transgressions of these character’s lives and the transient nature of friendship.

I happened upon this film by chance very late one night on Channel 4 and I instantly fell in love with it, for the same reasons I fell in love with Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel, Kitchen. Like that book, Take Care of My Cat is full of a childlike wonder that imbues even the lonelier parts of life with a comforting quality, while carefully maintaining more of a bittersweet truth than a sugar-coated, schmaltzy lie.

Persepolis Julian Whitley

Based on her seminal graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an animated coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian Revolution. The film follows young Marji, a daughter of liberal parenthood, who rejects her government’s increasingly oppressive regime in favour a natural state of teenage rebellion.

Fearing her candour will lead to trouble, her parents send her to study in Vienna, where she can live without fear of arrest. However, becoming increasingly isolated in a country where liberty is taken for granted, Marji is forced to return to a country in a much worse state than before she left. Mounting tyranny and several personal tragedies force Marji to make bold decisions for her future.

A sometimes distressing viewing experience, the stark, relatively basic animation style somehow makes Marji’s tragedies, and those of the whole Iranian populace, seem all the more affecting. But Persepolis doesn’t simply revel in misery – the film is as joyous as it is harrowing, as Marji’s frankly hilarious, ever-so-slightly out of tune rendition of Eye Of The Tiger will attest.

Persepolis is one of those rare films that manage to grab you at both ends of the emotional spectrum, undoubtedly causing sadness and glee in equal measure.

Ryeong (The Ghost)Jenny Sanders

A little-known South Korean film, The Ghost tells the story of Min Ji-won, a schoolgirl suffering from amnesia and haunted by strange visions. As she recovers from whatever accident messed with her memory, people around her start dying. She fights to put the pieces together and realises that her previous life contained things she would rather remained forgotten…

It’s hard to explain any more without massive spoilers, but this is a film which takes all that was good from the likes of A Tale Of Two Sisters and Ringu and weaves it all together into something really quite clever. It looks great, the acting is excellent and some of the imagery will stay with you for ages afterwards. While a bit clichéd, it’s entertaining from start to finish – and the ending has a cracking twist.

Anybody who lives and breathes horror from the Far East might find this to be ‘more of the same’, but for anyone else it’s well worth watching and deserves recognition.

Ultimo Tango a Parigi (Last Tango In Paris) Doralba Picerno

This movie was released when I was too little to see it or understand its impact. For years all I heard about was how scandalous it was. Its release had huge repercussions, not least in the lives of the people involved, primarily director Bernardo Bertolucci and actress Maria Schneider, whose career was wrongly ostracised by the notoriety of the movie.

When I actually got to see it, I understood what the fuss was about: the big brouhaha over the infamous sex scene involving butter (as lubricant) was mostly to cover the outrage at the movie’s inherent anti-establishment stance. In that very scene an ageing Marlon Brando verbally attacks the very foundations of the family in a Christian society. This was almost blasphemous at the time, so much so that the movie was unjustly tagged as obscene (an Italian court ruling condemned it to be burnt!) and its director was stripped of his civil rights for five five years. (Funnily enough, all was forgotten when he won nine Oscars for The Last Emperor…).

With dialogue in French and English (Brando actually plays an American living in Paris), it is an accessible foreign cult movie, one that stimulates the intellect, and whose message has not been diluted after all these years, and one of Bertolussci most poignant examples of his early political oeuvre.

C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog)Michael Leader

Just one? Cripes. Where to start? This is almost carte blanche to go art-house, to strike a pose and declare ‘This Is The Canon’. Something by Jean Renoir? Tarkovsky? How about À bout de souffle? La jetée? 8 1/2? I’ll go against all inner urges to whip out the beret and condescend, and instead highlight – for your esteemed consideration – the 1992 Belgian flick Man Bites Dog.

Exhibited at the same Cannes Film Festival as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog shares more than just a canine-derived title, offering a similarly comic look at violence and society, with tricks and quirks borrowed from low-budget indie filmmaking.

Man Bites Dog is a black and white mockumentary, in which a group of shoe-string filmmakers follow around a hardened serial killer, Benoît (Benoît Poelvoorde). The film mixes up scenes of Ben’s day-to-day criminal activities (‘I usually start the month with a postman’), and more biographical sequences with his family and friends. Poelvoorde’s gives a powerhouse performance, carrying the film while creating a uniquely bizarre character. Benoît is a gentleman crook, a charismatic drinking buddy, and an effete pseudo-philosopher quick to wax lyrical on architecture and art.

He is also arrogant, bigoted and aggressively self-centered. He plays up to the camera, and before long, the film crew find themselves complicit in his cycle of murders and – most chillingly – a brutal rape. It is a deftly-handled shift from dark comedy to a wholly unsettling commentary on the media’s two-way relationship with the horrors of society.

It’s a startling piece of work, tinged with a sense of unfulfilled promise, as the three-headed directing-writing-acting team – Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel – have yet to match this early peak in their careers, which, with Belvaux’s death in 2006, seems unlikely to ever happen. In Man Bites Dog, however, they produced a film that was cut from the same cloth as Tarantino, offering a quotable, gripping, stylized crime drama, yet did so with an intelligent, polemical edge that their American counterpart has yet to attain.

Låt den rätte komma i (Let The Right One In)Matt Edwards

Whilst I’m aware that Let The Right One In is a recent film, that is actually part of the reason I would recommend it. The idea being that by recommending the latest, hippest foreign film, I’m going to look pretty bloody cool. Also, people will know I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon when I complain about how awful the remake is when it comes out. Plus, it’s a film I only have on Blu-ray, meaning that I have an excuse not to lend out my copy when I make the recommendation.

The film itself is incredible. Perhaps the only film to be able to tick the boxes ‘awesome vampire film’ and ‘touching drama’. The cold, Swedish winter setting gives the film a beautiful look and all of the performances, especially that of Lina Leandersson as Eli, are superb.If it starts out a little slowly, it’s only to establish everything it needs to to set up the amazing find 3 quarters of the film.

Honestly, for all of the ranting I could do about the film, we’d probably all be better off if you just took my word for it and saw the film. I would lend it to you, but I’ve only got it on Blu-ray so it won’t work on your DVD player. Sorry.