Foreign language films have always been a tough sell to American audiences. With the exceptions of rare crossover hits like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful, even the most successful foreign films barely reach 2% of movie goers. But that can change.
While it’s true that non-American movies carry cultural differences and varying storytelling styles, the fact remains that a good movie is a good movie, regardless of it’s mother tongue. So here’s a guide to foreign language films for those brave enough to step outside their cinema comfort zone. This is by no means a perfect list, but one that includes genre movies that could easily fit into a Laser Timer’s movie queue (each movie features actors who will be familiar to most Americans).
Most of these movies have an English language dub. Don’t watch that version.
The Killer (1989) / Hard Boiled (1992) – Hong Kong
Familiar Face: Chow Yun-Fat (The Replacement Killers, The Corrupter)
There might be no better starting point for foreign film noobs than these action standards from John Woo. Both are thin on plot and thick on action. The Killer is pure melodrama about a hit man with a heart of gold, looking for one last mission before getting out of the game. Hard Boiled is an overwrought tale of two cops trying to bring down a powerful crime syndicate.
Ignore paper thin plots and just enjoy the astonishing action. The Killer features three spectacular shootouts that will blow your mind — only to have Hard Boiled crank the action up even higher, resulting in a near 50-minute climax that pulls out all the stops, including a hugely impressive 3-minute tracking shot filled with amazing stunts, intricate gunplay, and a an elevator ride. Amazing action aside, the real star is the ever-charming Chow Yun-Fat.
You Might Also Like: The Raid (2011) – Indonesia; District B-13 (2004) – France; Infernal Affairs (2002) – Hong Kong
The Intouchables (2011) – France
Familiar Face: Omar Sy (Jurassic World, X-Men: Days of Future Past)
The Intouchables grossed over $400 million in Europe (about as much as Spider-Man and Iron Man 3 made in America), but you probably haven’t heard of it. Too bad. This beautifully made drama tells the story of a wealthy man named Philippe, paralyzed from the neck down, who goes through caretakers like water due to his prickly attitude. Philippe meets his match when he hires Driss, a streetwise troublemaker. In lesser hands, this odd couple story could have ended up as pure schmaltz. Instead, this movie walks a delicate balance between comedy and drama to tell an exquisite story about the most unlikely of friendships. Both leads are great, but Omar Sy has a career-making performance as Driss.
You Might Also Like: Goodbye Lenin! (2003) – Germany; The Closet (2001) – France; Seducing Dr. Lewis (2003) – France
Intacto (2001) – Spain
Familiar Face: Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist, Dune, Judge Dreadd)
In this dark thriller, luck is a literal commodity that can be given and taken by men with a mysterious, unexplained power. Think of them as vampires, but instead of drinking your blood, they steal your “luck,” making you vulnerable to anything, be it losing a game of poker or surviving a car wreck. Don’t mistake this as some kind of supernatural thriller; it’s more like a retelling of “The Most Dangerous Game,” where men of power amuse themselves by forcing others to compete with their lives.
You Might Also Like: Tell No One (2006) – France; The Skin I Live In (2011) – Spain; Run Lola Run (1998) – Germany
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) / OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009) – France
Familiar Face: Jean Dujardin (The Artist, The Monuments Men)
This pair of spy comedies set during the Cold War pays cheeky homage to the genre. This is not a Naked Gun-style series of spoofs, but more of a loving recreation told with a wink and a nod, filled with period-perfect costumes, travelogue-style cinematography, and even a few rear-projection driving scenes.
Jean Dujardin plays agent OSS 117, sent on a secret mission to find out what happened to another spy who went missing while investigating a rogue faction of post-WWII Nazis. Unfortunately, 117 isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the kitchen, and is easily distracted by beautiful women — yet he somehow saves the day. The Rio-set sequel is a slight step down, but still delightfully funny.
You Might Also Like: Once a Thief (1991) – Hong Kong; My Best Friend (2006) – France
The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy (2009) – Sweden
Familiar Faces: Michael Nyqvist (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, John Wick), Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows)
You may have seen David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — now see the good version. This dark, brooding tale of an unsolved murder was a runaway hit in Europe, making an instant star out of Noomi Rapace for her outstanding performance as computer hacker Lisbeth. She reluctantly agrees to help a disgraced journalist solve the decades-old crime, but must deal with skeletons in her own closet.
The two sequels, while not as sharp as the first film, are still very much worth watching, as they are more focused on Lisbeth’s mysterious past. And they lead to a most satisfying conclusion.
You Might Also Like: Insomnia (1997) – Norway; La Femme Nikita (1990) – France
Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) – France
Familiar Faces: Mark Dacascos (Cradle 2 the Grave, Hawaii Five-O, Iron Chef America), Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Black Swan, Trance), Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded, Shoot ’em Up, Spectre)
I’m not gonna lie, this is easily the most difficult movie on the list. It’s long. The plot is overly complex, with multiple timelines. There are lots of characters and tons of dialogue. It can be difficult to keep everything straight. But if you sit back and enjoy the ride, the story will make sense in the end — it’s basically a take on the Beowulf tale, but set in 18th century France.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop provided the monster’s design, but the real star of the show is the amazing fight choreography. Clearly influenced by The Matrix, Brotherhood of the Wolf goes absolutely nuts in the stunt department, including some spectacular fights featuring martial arts master Mark Dacascos.
You Might Also Like: The Host (2006) – South Korea; Night Watch (2004) – Russia; The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – Spain
Casa De Mi Padre (2012) – Mexico (by way of USA)
Familiar Faces: Will Ferrell (Step Brothers, Anchorman, A Deadly Adoption), Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite, Crank), Gael García Bernal (Rosewater, Babel, The Science of Sleep)
Okay, this is cheating a bit. Technically, Casa de mi Padre is an American production, but the movie is a hilarious parody of Mexican melodramas, filmed entirely in Spanish. And, yes, it stars the Will Ferrell, playing a Mexican.
The story is about two brothers trying to save their father’s ranch from a powerful drug lord (a hysterical, scene-stealing Gael García Bernal). But when one man falls in love with his brother’s fiance, things get bizarrely complicated. It’s filled with all kinds of offbeat film techniques, including clearly fake sets, sequences filmed using only miniatures for no reason, and a completely bonkers story, but if you watch just one movie on this list, make it this one.
You Might Also Like: El Mariachi (1992) – Mexico; Kung Fu Hustle (2004) – Hong Kong
Das Boot (1981) – Germany
Familiar Face: Jürgen Prochnow (The Da Vinci Code, Beerfest, The English Patient)
This nail biting-thriller tells the story of a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic ocean during WWII. The crew is battle-weary and exhausted, but have the utmost respect and loyalty for their captain. When not fighting off claustrophobia, they must try to survive a relentless destroyer that is in constant pursuit.
The three-hour movie sometimes betrays its roots as a mini-series, but it is never dull. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can check out the five-hour extended cut.
You Might Also Like: Black Book (2006) – Germany; Downfall (2004) – Germany
JCVD (2008) – Belgium
Familiar Face: Jean-Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport, Hard Target, The Expendables 2)
In this odd, meta-existential drama, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself, or at least a version of himself: a broke, washed-up actor whose family life is a mess. Even though he still has loving fans that greet him on the streets, Van Damme considers himself something of a failure. He decides to clear his head by visiting his hometown, only to be caught up in the middle of a bank robbery, where he is taken hostage along with the other bank customers.
JCVD is an unusual, deliberately paced, somewhat uneven drama punctuated by a standout performance by Van Damme, showing that he can indeed act. The show-stopper is a single continuous take where Van Damme delivers a long, emotional monologue about what has become of his life, sometimes speaking right to the camera. It’s a terrific piece of acting worth the price of admission.
You Might Also Like: Man on the Train (2002) – France; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) – Romania
Article by contributor WatershipDownSyndrome.