When most of us hear the word “movie”, we think of Hollywood — fair, given the global domination of Hollywood-produced Spielberg and Harry Potter films, but perhaps a tad ignorant, considering India’s Bollywood produces twice Hollywood’s output every year and reaches a larger audience. As demonstrated by the quality of the films in our Streaming Cinephile piece, foreign films deserve a place in the spotlight. But while that list only featured foreign language films available for streaming on Netflix, this list features the top foreign language films, period. Lest you worry we missed your favorite, check back through our earlier lists: 13 Assassins jumped on our 50 Best Action Movies List, and Amélie stole a spot on the 50 Best Romances.
Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.
Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.
The end of the Tokugawa Shogunate was an ugly time, and director Akira Kurosawa captures the period wonderfully in this clever crime drama. A ronin (samurai) wanders into a town contested by two rival gangs and plans to destroy them both. Scheming ensues — and plenty of people find the business end of a blade (and one pistol).
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-Jô)
Macbeth in Feudal Japan, done perfectly. Shakespeare would certainly raise a glass of sake to this one, which is yet another masterpiece from Akira Kurosawa.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes La Strada
Fellini — who wrote and directed this one — suffered a nervous breakdown while shooting it; it debuted to divisive reviews and caused a brawl between pro- and anti-Fellini followers. It was all worth it. The struggles and tragedy of a young woman sold to a traveling strong man performer make for, as the American Film Institute called it, “one of the most influential films ever made.”
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu)
Ah, the French and their love triangles. There’s plenty of deceit and tragedy in this Renoir flick, set just before WWII. Everybody loves somebody else, and they all play a game of musical chairs, love style — but somebody’s bound to get hurt, non?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Tokyo Story (Tôkyô Monogatari)
Parenthood is hard, especially when your grown-up children are a bunch of jerks. Set in and around Tokyo, this slow-moving (pace) yet moving (emotionally) drama explores how relationships change as people grow older.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Persona
“Modernist horror” is about right. Ingmar Bergman’s film featuring two women with somewhat similar — and entirely disturbing — issues is convoluted, strange and influential.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)
A touching film about film. And relationships. And the past. And growing up.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Kagemusha
Akira Kurosawa? Kind of a big deal in Japanese cinema. When a clan leader bites the dust, his lookalike, a common thief takes the reins. The “decoy” (that’s Kagemusha, get it?) ends up coming into his own as a warrior and leader of men. But can he truly prevail?
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku)
Ever heard of Akira Kurosawa? (Hint: look up.) He directed this one about a tough business transaction, a botched kidnapping and some hard choices for a good man.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz)
Comparing astronomy and prison camps seems a strange, difficult feat, but Patricio Guzmán does it with skill in this 2010 documentary. His exploration of science and history center on Chile’s recent social and political issues — namely, the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Pather Panchali
Song of the Little Road is a trilogy of films that follows a poor Indian family’s trials and tribulations. In this film, the first of the three, protagonist Apu is just a kid, joining his father, sister, mother and aunt in their struggle to survive.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû)
Set in Feudal Japan, this drama features a brother and sister who, after being sold into slavery, try to escape and reunite their family.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part)
Directed by king of New Wave Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders is film noir that’s as much about the developing love triangle between the three protagonists as it is the robbery itself. It tells the tale of two guys — Franz and Arthur — who love American B-movies, and their quest to commit a heist with the help of Odile (played by perennial Godard muse and dreamboat Anna Karina). The Pulp Fiction twist scene ain’t got nothing on the dance scene in this one.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo Hu Cang Long)
Chow Yun-Fat and his secret lover Michelle Yeoh try to track down his missing sword. Along the way, they run into all sorts of people who’d rather they not be alive, which results in a lot of fighting, a bit of flying and a film that holds your attention for all 120 minutes.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Three Colors: Red (Trois Couleurs: Rouge)
After young model Valentine (played by sufficiently model-looking Irene Jacob) runs over a dog, she meets his owner: a judge who enjoys spying on people. The plot may sound weird but this film — the last in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magnificent Three Colors trilogy — is well worth the watch.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes
Chan-wook Park’s harrowing tale of a man imprisoned for 15 years in a hotel room still holds on to a few coveted bragging rights: it has both the best fight scene and most shocking ending of any film in recent years.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Flame & Citron (Flammen & Citronen)
Two assassins (“Flame” and “Citron”, hence the title) in the Danish resistance have a good thing going killing nefarious Danes. Soon after, they start killing Germans, and begin to wonder whether their leader, Winther, is using them to settle personal disputes. Incredibly well acted, impressively directed and based on a true story. Sold.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes 3 Idiots
It’s Eurotrip meets Orange County meets Bollywood. Not for the singing/dancing averse.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Y Tu Mamá También
Alfonso Cuaron’s tale of two teenage boys on a road trip with an older woman (the radiant Maribel Verdu) is an undisputed classic of both Mexican and world cinema. It’s tragedy disguised as comedy, class commentary disguised as coming-of-age tale, profundity disguised as frivolity; or, rather, it’s all of these things at once.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet)
The quintessential art-house film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has inspired countless parodies – most notably in the timeless classic, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Still, the film has much to offer for anyone willing to approach its stone-faced symbolism in earnest. Boasting a career-making lead performance from future bond villain Max von Sydow, even critics of the film acknowledge its place in the canon of indispensable film history.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes 8 1/2 (Otto e Mezzo)
It has become a classic trope: the director struggling to come up with a new project decides to make a film about a director struggling to come up with a new project. Even after the Coen brothers took a stab at it with Barton Fink, Fellini’s towering picture remains the greatest exploration of artistic drive and insecurity yet committed to film.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix Z
A top-notch political thriller from Costa-Gavras, Z laid the groundwork for the careers of filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh. Tracing the investigation of a high-profile political assassination in Greece, the film’s frenetic cutting and exuberant visual energy help place the audience within its world of guerilla violence and corruption.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini’s enthralling tale of a philandering paparazzo’s life in Rome as he tries to become a real writer while navigating his way through Italian social strata and his stifling girlfriend. As the lead, Marcello Mastroianni is the definition of cool.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes)
Werner Herzog goes cinematically HAM with this story of a Spanish expedition to find El Dorado that (inevitably) goes awry. It’s like Apocalypse Now set in North America (and many think it had a big influence on Frankie Coppola’s ‘Nam flick, which premiered seven years later).
Amazon DVD / Netflix The Triplets of Belleville (Les Triplettes de Belleville)
A beautifully animated film about a Grandmother that goes looking for her grandson after he disappears during the Tour de France. This is the kick in the nuts that animated films needed after hot garbage like Ice Age 2. It’s filled with great acting, wonderful design and impressive storytelling, and it gets bonus points if you’re into cycling.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri)
How could a film subsidized by the Algerian government be so even-handed in its portrayal of the Algerian Revolution? Not quite sure, but the result is a modern masterpiece that speaks to a little-known historical event.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin Wa)
Chow Wo-man and Su Li-zen have a lot in common: both are married, though not to each other, and both like noodle shops and martial arts. Oh, and both their spouses are having affairs…which brings them even closer together.
Amazon DVD / Netflix L’Avventura
A woman disappears during a boating trip; her lover and best friend try to find her. But somewhere along the line, their feelings for each other supersede the search.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Au Hasard Balthazar
This film — about the life of a mistreated donkey, and the people in his life — certainly isn’t a happy film, but it’s a true film, and a beautiful film, full of sadness and life and despair, and trying to write a summary of it will make you sound like Hemingway.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes Rashomon (Rashômon)
The original Vantage Point, this Japanese masterpiece tells the story of a samurai’s murder from several different points of view. It raises questions about the power of memory, and the nature of truth.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes
In order to protect his young son from the realities of the Holocaust, a Jewish bookkeeper turns life into a game, with the winner receiving a tank. Whether or not it restores your faith in humanity (a common claim among viewers), Life is Beautiful is just one of those films you need to see before you die.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette)
In post-WWII Italy, an economically distraught man named Antonio Ricci gets a job hanging posters — for which he needs a bicycle. When his bicycle gets stolen, he and his young son wander the streets, searching for the thief.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Ikiru
Ever feel your biological clock ticking? For Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat, the clock starts ticking a lot more quickly when he discovers he’s dying of cancer. How he reacts teaches us all to live better lives.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)
Ah, to be a poor Parisian boy in the 1950s, a place where all your creative endeavors are met with scorn, and no one nurtures your talents or seems to know you exist. A subtle, gritty film by Francois Truffaut.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes La Haine
A Jew, an Arab and a black man find a gun…that’s the set-up for La Haine, written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. It’s a film about youth, hate, anger and Vincent Cassel smoking hash.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes M
Damn, Fritz Lang…you never cease to amaze us. After a local girl is killed in disturbing fashion, neighborhood criminals join in on the manhunt for the murderer.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / iTunes The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge)
You’d be hard pressed to spend 30 minutes doing anything more fulfilling than watching this film about a sentient balloon that follows a young French boy around Paris.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Viridiana
Viridiana, a soon-to-be nun, is summoned to visit her uncle just before taking her vows. When her uncle sees a strong resemblance to his deceased wife in her, the situation turns dark, abruptly robbing the young girl of her innocence and starting her on an entirely new path.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
In the years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Weisler is ordered to monitor the activities of an East German playwright and the playwright’s lover, an actress. When it is revealed that the Minister of Culture is using the Stasi surveillance as a ruse to win the affection of the girlfriend, Weisler finds himself launching headfirst into the lives and affairs of total strangers.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
Unsolved crimes and unrequited love — both can result in life sentences. When a criminal court employee decides to write a novel based on his experience with a grotesque crime, he dredges up a decades-long love in the process.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok)
Based on the true story of South Korea’s first documented serial killer, this film follows two detectives as they search for a killer. Because they lack both the proper investigative tools and the know-how to research the case, they find themselves at impasse after impasse with no leads and no hope.
Amazon DVD / Netflix Good Bye Lenin!
Speaking to Germany’s reunification, this “tragicomic” social critique follows a young man as he protects his mother, who recently emerged from a coma, from discovering East Germany has changed from the country she once knew.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt)
When her ne’er-do-well boyfriend loses a bag of money meant for his boss, Lola volunteers to help him find it. But she’s only got 20 minutes. The film catalogs the same 20 minutes multiple times over, each “run” showing how the bystanders Lola encounters are affected by her actions.
Amazon DVD / Netflix The Conformist (Il Conformista)
Considered to be Bertolucci’s masterpiece (filmed when he was only 29!), the film follows Marcello, an Italian from Rome who plans to take his new bride to Paris for a honeymoon. But Marcello works for Mussolini, and at the French border his superiors give him a gun and charge him with finding a political dissident — his former professor.
Netflix / iTunes Infernal Affairs (Mou Gaan Dou)
The first of a popular Hong Kong trilogy, the original Chinese title is an allusion to the worst part of the Buddhist hell, where suffering is eternal. The story revolves around a police office investigating a gang and another officer who is secretly part of the same gang. If that sounds familiar, you’re on the right track: Infernal Affairs was remade in America as a little film called The Departed.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
This Iranian film tells the story of a couple who have to choose between relocating for the good of their young son and caring for the husband’s elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s, and the problems that come about as a result of their decisions.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Intouchables
A wealthy paraplegic decides to hire a man who is content to live on welfare as his live-in caregiver. The story unfolds to reveal an unlikely friendship and the lessons learned on both sides.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Breathless (À Bout de Souffle)
Jean Luc-Godard’s first feature-length film is a French New Wave heralded for its progressive style, specifically the use of jump cuts. It follows a small-time criminal, Michel, the crimes he commits, and his attempts at evading capture and punishment.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes Downfall (Der Untergang)
Known equally for its riveting portrayal of Hitler’s last ten days in power and the endless parodies of the character’s fiery tirade monologue. A must-see for history buffs and for anyone who thought Inglorious Basterds was historically accurate.
Amazon DVD / Netflix / iTunes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie)
Dubbed a Surrealist film (and rightfully so, since it came from a director who had done extensive work with Salvador Dali), the story revolves around wealthy folks hanging out. Intertwining five instances of their meetings and four dream sequences, the movie combines melodrama, farce, satire and many other types of stories into one award-winning work.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes