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Five Non-English Films for Foreign Cinema Beginners

Updated on June 11, 2015

Watch Something Different Tonight

One thing I really liked about the film classes I took in college is that they make me aware of and gave me an appreciation for foreign films. Many countries outside the US are very aware of American films, but all too often moviegoers in the States are completely ignorant of any international cinema until it's given a Hollywood remake.

I prefer subtitled films to dubbed versions as the preservation of the original soundtrack and dialog really helps to convey the emotion of the conversations and characters. Dubbing choices can sometimes be really off-character, bringing comedic reactions where none were intended. Hollywood also has a habit of snapping up remake rights to great foreign films and then churning out a lower-quality product as if domestic audiences just "can't handle" a film made in another country.

Below are five suggestions for foreign films that are really worth seeing. Each comes from a different country, so you have Korean, German, French, Italian and Spanish films to explore.


SNOWPIERCER - Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

Adapted from the original French-language graphic novel, SNOWPIERCER isn't your everyday dystopian, post-apocalyptic, science fiction story. The international cross-pollination, and an equally-diverse cast of actors, gives this story a unique viewpoint unlike that which you have seen before.

Set aboard a train that travels a world-wide track thanks to a perpetual-motion engine, the passengers are the last of humanity after an experiment to halt or slow the increasing global warming backfires and triggers an ice age. The story takes place seventeen years after the catastrophe. The story starts in the tail section of the train, where the people who illegally boarded the train at the time of the disaster have managed to survive under horrid conditions. They are treated almost like baggage and subjected to inhumane punishments or death for any infractions. When two children are taken away to the forward sections of the train for unknown reasons, it triggers unrest that has been building into an active rebellion.

Actor Chris Evans is the lead of this movie, as Curtis, the man determined to take the engine so that everyone in the tail can have better lives. His focus is so strong, he's prepared to make any and all sacrifices to see his goal through. Tilda Swinton has another scene-stealing and show-stopping turn as Mason, the train official overseeing the lower classes. The cast also features Ed Harris, John Hurt, Jaime Bell, Octavia Spencer, Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-seong and Alison Pill.

Post-apocalyptic class struggles with non-stop action

trailer for TATTOO (2002)

TATTOO - Directed by Robert Schwentke

This 2002 thriller from Germany has often been compared to David Fincher's SE7EN. Two German policemen, one older and world-weary, the other younger and brash, must track and stop a serial killer. The trick this time is this killer is stalking the clients of a Japanese tattoo artist, collecting the unique, tattooed skins from the victims.

Complicating matters, the older cop has a daughter who is a runaway, who he is also trying to find as they deal with the escalating case. The younger cop's dilemma is that he falls in love with one of the tattoo master's last surviving clients and is torn between protecting her and using her as bait for the killer.

Set in Berlin, the movie includes elements of the art world, the rave scene and an imagined tattooed underground.

trailer for LE FEMME NIKITA (1990)

LE FEMME NIKITA - Directed by Luc Besson

Skip the tv series, and skip the US movie remake. This is one movie that is totally worth going back to the French original to see!

Luc Besson broke the stigma against a female-based action film with this one. The story follows "Nikita," a junkie caught after a robbery gone wrong and told she is condemned to death. Following a fake execution, she finds she has been "hired" by a government agency and has the choice of becoming the assassin they want her to be, or be put to death for real.

Anne Parillaud is rock solid as the title character, bringing a street-cred and hardness to the character that Bridget Fonda just never had in the Hollywood remake. Bonus: French cinema legend Jeanne Moreau stars as the woman who trains Nikita in feminine manners and wiles.

trailer for LA STRADA (1954)

LA STRADA - Directed by Federico Fellini

This wonderful movie won the first ever-awarded Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, handed out in 1954.

The story follows Gelsomina, a mute girl sold by her mother to a circus strongman. Her dresses her up as a clown and she passes the hat as they travel from town to town. His bad treatment of her causes her pain, but so does her attraction to "the Fool," a tight-rope walker who is kind to her. The character of Gelsomina is portrayed by Felinni's wife, Giulietta Masina, who manages to give whole speeches with her eyes. The two men in her life are played by Anthony Quinn (the strongman) and Richard Basehart (the funambulist). The performances by all three principles are excellent and this is in no way any sort of predictable love triangle.

trailer for PAN'S LABYRINTH (2006)

PAN'S LABYRINTH - Directed by Guillermo del Toro

This stunning fantasy came out just last year, and probably is the only film on this list that people may have actually seen already. Although this movie may appear to be a children's fantasy at a glance, it is in fact a highly-complex adult fairy tale.

Twelve-year-old Ofelia is growing up in fascist Spain at the end of WWII. She and her mother are moving to the countryside where her mother's new husband commands his military unit. The commander soon proves himself to be a sadist whose only joy in life is the idea of the impending birth of his son. Ofelia uses a mix of wits and fantasy to escape the horrors of her day-to-day life.

This movie was highly-acclaimed from the moment it was released and won awards at the Oscars and Spain's Goya awards, along with many others.

Foreign Cinema - comments and feedback

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    • cdub77 profile image

      cdub77 7 years ago from Portland Or

      Great hub, relache! I'll be writing some hubs soon on a few great foreign films I've come across. It's great to see hubbers on here like yourself, who clearly have an appreciation for quality non-American films. Excited to read more of your hubs!

    • triosol profile image

      triosol 7 years ago

      Excellent Hub with great information! Thanks a lot for sharing it with fellow hubbers.

    • RoseGardenAdvice profile image

      RoseGardenAdvice 7 years ago from San Francisco

      I would like to recommend Color of Paradise an Iranian movie that I didn't understand a word of - I couldn't get the sub titles either - but it is a movie I will watch again and again without tiring. Remakes do tend to take the emotional and psychological edge out of the original. If I hadn't read your hub I would never have known why Solaris didn't ring quite true to me! Thanks a lot for this hub.

    • profile image

      SilverGenes 7 years ago

      Thank you for the reviews. Pan's Labyrinth was amazing and perhaps a children's story in the style of Grimm's Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen (the originals) but certainly for is one for adults. Now I'm on the lookout for La Strada. One that you may be interested in, though it's not to everyone's taste, is Babette's Feast.

    • profile image

      WildIris 7 years ago

      I've watched three out of the five movies, but the other two I am going to put on my Netflix list. Thanks for the suggestions.

    • profile image

      L. Andrew Marr 8 years ago


      The Orphanage by Guillermo del Toro

    • profile image

      CarinaLamendola 8 years ago

      No Cinema Paradiso?

    • fierycj profile image

      fierycj 8 years ago from The Fiery Heart of Africa

      Super brilliant hub. I just love Luc Besson's style. Its little wonder he won Best Director for The 5th Element. And Del Toro, what a genius! I love this hub!

    • mayhmong profile image

      mayhmong 8 years ago from North Carolina

      A friend of mine mentioned about Pan's Labyrith. Didn't know it was going to turned out that great!

    • Renaissance Mouse profile image

      Renaissance Mouse 8 years ago from Asheville, North Carolina

      Excellent list! I've been meaning to watch "Solaris" and "Pan's Labyrinth" for some time. I am also a huge fan of Luc Besson - "Le Grand Bleu" and "Leon" are two of my favorite movies. I have been on the lookout for "Le Femme Nikita" for a while. Also a major fan of Jean Reno, who I believe appears in that film. I agree with Chris A, though, do you have any favorites from Asian cinema?

    • petexanh profile image

      Peter 9 years ago

      Great article. Great choice of films. I've seen them all and agree wholeheartedly. Any article that encourages others to see what the rest of the world has to offer is a good one, in my books.


    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 9 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      i love foreign films! Of the three you recommend, I have seen the last three and they are truly great! I usually refer to Oscar best foreign film nominees and independent film festivals to get news on new foreign films. It's a good thing there's the Criterion Collection for less popular foreign titles! Nice hub:D Is there an Asian film that you like?