I used to tell people my top-10 list had 40 movies on it. It’s a common problem. We all like to make lists, but there’s never enough room.
(Of course, the ranking of any artform is a pathetic and meaningless exercise. We are stipulating that at the outset. But lists are not only fun, they are the current American venue for intellectual debate — see below: The 50 Greatest Lists of All Time — https://richardnilsen.com/2012/11/30/greatest-lists-of-all-time).
When the American Film Institute decided to list the hundred greatest films, they restricted it to American films — or at least they say they did. Somehow, a few English films made the list. But no foreign language films did.
And that leaves us a whole universe of movies not eligible, including some of the best ever made.
So, in response, we are providing the list of 100 best foreign films.
What constitutes a “foreign” film is always a little iffy. The Oscars have had trouble with that for years: Do you count the language of the dialog? The country where the movie was made? The country where the movie was financed?
Most of these films are established classics, and if you worry that the list has too many of the “usual suspects,” I hope I have included enough eccentric personal choices to give everyone something to talk about. That, after all, is the purpose of such a list.
And you will notice a francophile bias. I cannot disavow that. Most of my favorite films are in French. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of them, and I’ve become acculturated.
The movies on this list were chosen for several reasons. Some are among the greatest artistic creations of our civilization. Others are on the list because of their enormous influence on other film makers. Still others are just such fun to watch.
Which reminds me, if you think all foreign films are dreary and boring, you haven’t been watching the right ones. Admittedly, French or German films are more likely to investigate the outer reaches of alienation and philosophy than Hollywood films, but you will never find better battle scenes than in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You will be hard pressed to find more suspense than in the last half hour of Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. And if it’s blowing things up you are after, check out Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand and a bunch of toughs drive a truck full of nitroglycerine 300 miles over unpaved South American roads.
Yet, I don’t want to gloss over the difference between American and foreign films.
I have always made the distinction between what I call “Hollywood films” and “real movies.”
The real movie is about being human, about relationships, character, moral issues and historical and philosophical meaning. Hollywood movies are about blowing things up.
Now, there are foreign-made Hollywood movies by my definition, and Hollywood-made real movies: One thinks of spaghetti Westerns on one hand, and of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or John Ford’s The Searchers on the other.
At least one film manages to play both sides of the field: AFI’s No. 1 film, Citizen Kane manages like nothing else I know, to join seamlessly the slick Hollywood side with the depth and character development of a “real movie.”
As critic Pauline Kael has said, it is one of the few great movies that is also great fun.
But by and large, foreign filmmakers play out their creativity in a larger world, with more possibilities and fewer hidebound cinematic conventions.
After all, Hollywood earned its reputation as the manufacturer of the shallow happy ending.
My list of the 100-best foreign films is a very personal list, drawn from a lifetime of watching movies. I expect you have your own films to nominate. But these are the ones I came up with.
First on my list is Children of Paradise, which is more like a full-length novel than any other film I know. It has a rich cast of characters and follows them over many years. And as in Brothers Karamazov, each character also embodies a different philosophy. It is a very full movie.
Set in the Paris of the 1840s, it tells the tale of Baptiste Debureau and the theatrical world in which he lived. It is also about love, art and social class.
If Kane manages to mix high and low successfully, so does Children of Paradise, in its own way. It has something of the sweep of Gone with the Wind, the passion of From Here to Eternity and the wit of Ninotchka.
And it is a film you can grow with rather than out of. When I was fresh out of college, I identified with the idealistic Baptiste; after a few marriages, I took the practical Frederick Lemaitre’s attitude toward relationships; nowadays, I uncomfortably find myself more in the cynical Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.
Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game might just as well claim the top spot. No other film is as deft at showing the disjunction between what our impulses are and what society demands of us.
Cocteau’s Orphee is also a great deal of fun, playing with all the tricks of cinema to create visual magic. What you see is likely to remain in your memory forever.
Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may be the saddest film ever put on celluloid. It is long and slow, but every detail is life itself, and it makes me weep for the world.
Potemkin is one of those seminal films that invent the language of cinema. What is all the more astonishing is that this Soviet propaganda film actually plays down the more sensational aspects of the historical affair it is based on. If it had been truer to history, it would have felt more simply propagandistic.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the most consistently good film. It has stretches of languors, but when the camera is on the face of Maria Falconetti, in the only film she ever made, the intensity is literally unbearable. It is the face of human suffering.
Kurosawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and shows the director at the absolute peak of his powers, with the best battle sequences ever filmed.
Marlene Dietrich sings Falling in Love Again in The Blue Angel, which makes Cabaret look like “Gidget Goes to the Weimar Republic.” Steamy, smoky, atmospheric, its director, Josef von Sternberg — an American — never did anything so good again.
It takes a serious commitment of time and attention to sit through Andre Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but you will know you have experienced something worth your effort, as the director takes us through a brutal vision of life and the place in it for both art and faith.
Admittedly, almost any of the next 25 or 30 could legitimately make it to the top 10, but I’ll stand with the ones I have chosen.
Some, like Jules and Jim or Amarcord are pure pleasure to watch. Others, such as Rashomon or Wild Strawberries have at their core a moral vision. And still others, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis are simply visionary.
You will find intensity, passion, intellect, visuals, acting and directing the equal or better of anything from Hollywood. What you will not find are giant lizards and serial car wrecks. (Although, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a horrifying metaphor for the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and a great movie, ruined by Hollywood’s re-edit — see the version in Japanese and weep.)
A few, such as Henry V and The Mahabharata are unabashedly theatrical, using their staginess as a style.
There are few British films on my list: AFI threw me a curve and included several on their list. So, Third Man, Dr. Strangelove and Lawrence of Arabia are not here, although they would have been.
You will discover that a handful of directors made the majority of these films. I cannot apologize for that. I made the list without considering authorship. As it turns out, Ingmar Bergman shows up a dozen times; Kurosawa, 10. Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini follow up with seven and five films.
Prety much anything by them, or by Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich Rohmer, Agnes Varda or Krzysztof Kieslowski is worth watching, multiple times.
But, if Bergman is on this list more than others, does this mean Bergman is the greatest director? No. He has made many great films, but he is more prone to self-parody than any other important director and when he is bad — as in the miserable Elliot Gould film, The Touch, he comes close to rivaling Ed Wood.
In art, there is no best. There is only overwhelming.
The TOP 100 FOREIGN FILMS
1. Children of Paradise (1945) Marcel Carne — The French “Gone With the Wind.” Everyone after the same woman.
2. Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir — Infidelity in pre-war France. Everyone after the same woman.
3. Orphee (1949) Jean Cocteau — French surrealist retells myth with magical camera tricks.
4. La Dolce Vita (1960) Fellini — Unforgetable images. We have met the anomie and he is us.
5. Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa — The perfect samurai movie.
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein — 1905 Odessa uprising and mutiny in Tsarist Russia.
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodore Dreyer — The story of the French saint told in intense close-ups.
8. Ran (1985) Kurosawa — Japanese “King Lear.”
9. The Blue Angel (1930) Josef von Sternberg — Obsession, degradation, sex in pre-Hitler Germany.
10. Andrei Rublev (1966) Andre Tarkovsky — Cryptic and beautiful film about art and faith in a brutal world.
11. Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa — He-said, she-said in medieval Japan, looks at nature of truth.
12. Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir — Prison bust in WWI.
13. Amarcord (1974) Fellini — A nostalgic film memoir.
14. La Strada (1954) Fellini — Italian circus strong-man Anthony Quinn takes wife, loses same.
15. Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman — Death checkmates the Swedish knight during the Plague Years.
16. Wild Strawberries (1957) Bergman — Old Swedish doctor takes a road trip through the past to examine his life.
17. Jules and Jim (1961) Francois Truffaut — Two guys, one girl. You do the math. The delights of French bohemia.
18. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) Abel Gance — The great film biography, currently unavailable, blame Francis Ford Coppola.
19. Ikiru (1952) Kurosawa — Dying old man finds purpose to his life by beating the bureaucracy.
20. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Robert Wiene — Expressionist ur-horror tale is a silent classic.
21. Blue, White and Red (1993-94) Krzysztof Kieslowski — Three great films, but one overarching theme, that explodes in the denouement that ties them together.
22. The Bicycle Thief (1949) Vittorio de Sica — Neo-Realist classic about bike messenger who loses his wheels.
23. 400 Blows (1959) Truffaut — French borstal boy.
24. Fanny and Alexander (1983) Bergman — Theater family readjusts to life with strict preacher step-father.
25. Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard — New Wave punk on the lam, with Jean Seberg. Godard is one of the true geniuses of cinema, with astounding and inventive scenes, who nevertheless seldom made a completely satisfying movie. A genius of bits and pieces.
26. L’Avventura (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni — Existential mystery about a woman who disappears on an island.
27. Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville’s hardboiled policier full of dark twists and turns. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films.
28. Day for Night (1973) Truffaut — Sweet-natured film about shenanigans on the set of a “B” movie.
29. Cries and Whispers (1972) Bergman — Who loves the dying woman? The sisters or the nurse?
30. Alexander Nevsky (1938) Eisenstein — Medieval battle on the ice.
31. Persona (1966) Bergman — Burning psychological study of mute actress and her nurse.
32. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi — Two brothers and ambition in medieval Japan.
33. Wings of Desire (1988) Wim Wenders — Angel hears poetry of life and is seduced.
34. Metropolis (1926) Fritz Lang — The future choreographed as machinery.
35. Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau — The original “Dracula.”
36. Le Jour se Leve (1939) Carne — Jean Gabin as a murderer waiting for the police to come.
37. The Last Laugh (1924) Murnau — Devastating, brilliant silent film with no title cards about age and humiliation.
38. Solaris (1972) Tarkovsky — Russian director’s answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
39. Dr. Mabuse, Gambler (1922) Lang — Two-part allegory of Nazi evil with Rudolf Klein-Rogge.
40. Viridiana (1970) Luis Bunuel — Innocence corrupted, with the beggars’ “Last Supper.”
41. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) A pop star waits two hours for results of her biopsy; Agnes Varda’s signature film, but one of only several worth knowing by heart.
42. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) Marcel Ophuls — Are the Nazi collaborators telling the truth? Documentary.
43. La Bete Humaine (1938) Renoir — Jean Gabin is a train engineer who witnesses a murder.
44. Andalusian Dog (1928) Bunuel — Surrealism’s flagship film.
45. Diabolique (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot — Is the murder victim dead? Forget Sharon Stone; rent this.
46. A Nous la Liberte (1931) Rene Clair — “Modern Times” in French.
47. M (1931) Lang — Criminals convict a child molester.
48. Ivan the Terrible Parts 1&2 (1943-1946) Eisenstein — Once-banned pageant, too close to home for Stalin.
49. Le Boucher (1970) Claude Boucher was the most prolific of the New Wave French directors. This is probably his most characteristic film.
50. Woman in the Dunes (1964) Hiroshi Teshigahara — Japanese vacationer gets caught in sand trap of life.
51. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati — Comic seaside vacation. Tati’s best film.
52. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) Alain Resnais — Interracial love and angst in post-war Japan, told stream-of-consciousness.
53. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog — Klaus Kinski as a Spaniard, leading doomed expedition down Amazon.
54. Last Tango in Paris (1973) Bertolucci — Brando laments dead wife, has nameless affair with young woman.
55. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) Bergman — Drawing-room comedy matches the lovers with correct mates.
56. Wild Child (1969) Truffaut — Science vs. Parenthood.
57. Farewell My Concubine (1993) Chen Kaige — Chinese opera vs. Maoism. A film with broad sweep.
58. Olympia (1936) Leni Riefenstahl — Athletics as heroism. It settles into tedium, but the montage is breathtaking.
59. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) Pier Paolo Pasolini — Sober replay of Bible story, told absolutely straight.
60. Hara Kiri (1962) Masaki Kobayashi — Harrowing samurai revenge epic.
61. The Mahabharata (1989) Peter Brook — Theatrical film tells history of the world, Vedic-style.
62. Shop on Main Street (1965) Jan Kadar — Subverting Nazis in Czechoslovakia.
63. My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer — One of Erich Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” Is it infidelity if you don’t have sex with her and you aren’t yet married yet?
64. The Wages of Fear (1952) Clouzot — Explosive road movie.
65. Le Roman d’un Tricheur (the Cheat) (1936) Great French comedian Sacha Guitry speaks virtually all the parts in voice-over narration.
66. Fellini Satyricon (1970) Fellini — If you thought the Classics were dull, you’ve underestimated Fellini.
67. The Virgin Spring (1959) Bergman — Medieval folk tale.
68. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Bunuel — Let’s do lunch, in hell. Recast of Tantalus myth.
69. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) Bergman — Very civilized divorce. Very definition of “internalization.”
70. The Passenger (1975) Antonioni — Jack Nicholson in Italian art film, changes identities, risks life.
71. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Cocteau — Magical retelling of fairy tale. Puts Disney to shame.
72. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Resnais — Classic puzzle picture. Don’t believe anything you see.
73. The Baker’s Wife (1938) Marcel Pagnol — She ran away, but the town still needs bread.
74. Nibelungenlied Parts 1&2: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. (1924) Lang — German saga brilliantly remounted.
75. Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski — Thriller. Don’t pick up hitchhikers.
76. Small Change (1976) Truffaut — One of the few films about childhood that isn’t sappy.
77. The Hidden Fortress (1958) Kurosawa — C-3PO and R2D2 help princess in Medieval Japan.
78. The Magician (1958) Bergman — Science vs. Religion.
79. The Mystery of Picasso (1956) Clouzot — Documentary of great painter at work. Utter magic.
80. The Earrings of Madame … (1953) The master of the moving camera, Max Ophuls tells an ironic and moving story of the La Belle Epoque.
81. Mouchette (1967) Any Robert Bresson film might — and should — be on this list. Mouchette is a good place to start, the story of a young girl whose life is nasty, brutal and short.
82. Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision of Paris, in deep greens and blues, miraculous and warm.
83. Stolen Kisses (1968) Truffaut — Antoine Doinel, from “400 Blows,” grows up, sort of.
84. Los Olvidados (1950) Bunuel — Street life in Mexico.
85. Black Orpheus (1959) Marcel Camus — Myth retold in Brazil, with song and samba.
86. Autumn Sonata (1978) Bergman — Quintessential mother-daughter film, complete with icy stares.
87. Decalogue (1989) Ten short films by Kieslowski, each with an idiosyncratic take on one of the Ten Commandments. Harrowing at best.
88. Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa — Japanese “Macbeth.”
89. Yojimbo (1961) Kurosawa — Samurai “Fistful of Dollars.”
90. Sanjuro (1962) Kurosawa — Another “Teriyaki Western.”
91. Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray — Poor family raises son in poverty-stricken Bengal.
92. Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini — Scheherezade in the nude. Simple filmmaking, complex storytelling.
93. The Story of Adele H. (1975) Truffaut — Touching portrait of obsessive love. With Isabelle Adjani.
94. Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955) Jules Dassin’s iconic caper movie, with its long, silent, heart-pumping theft sequence. The granddaddy of them all.
95. The Devil’s Eye (1960) Bergman — Don Juan comes back from hell to seduce preacher’s daughter.
96. Forbidden Quest (1995) Peter Delpeut — Visionary Antarctic pseudo-documentary.
97. Bye-bye Brazil (1980) Carlos Diegues — Roaming Brazil’s back country with traveling magic show.
98. The Passion of Anna (1969) Bergman — Isolation and love on a Swedish island. In color, though hard to tell.
99. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) Kurosawa — Uneven anthology, but the best episodes are visionary.
100. Marat/Sade (1966) Brook — The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum at Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. In English.
But, how can you make such a list and leave off The Battle of Algiers? Cheez! That’s on my Top 10 List, too.