The Top 100 Foreign-Language Films of All-Time, According to 209 Critics from 43 Countries

What qual­i­fies as a “for­eign-lan­guage film” is in the ear of the behold­er, even if the glob­al dom­i­nance of Hol­ly­wood effec­tive­ly makes the cat­e­go­ry refer to any film in a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish. The sheer cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty in world cin­e­ma can seem to ren­der the term too all-encom­pass­ing to be of much crit­i­cal use. From the point of view of cinema’s purest, ear­li­est aspirations—to be an inter­na­tion­al visu­al lan­guage that tran­scends lin­guis­tic barriers—emphasizing spo­ken lan­guage dif­fer­ences can seem to miss the point of filmic art.

On the oth­er hand, these days mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar pop­corn block­busters are cre­at­ed with inter­na­tion­al audi­ences fore­most in mind. But that impulse, too—purely, venal­ly, commercial—doesn’t begin to get at what makes film both a cul­tur­al­ly spe­cif­ic and a uni­ver­sal medi­um.

We go to the movies to be enter­tained, but also to be shocked, sur­prised, intrigued, to be let in on the lives of peo­ple we might nev­er meet. Inter­na­tion­al film, even in its most exper­i­men­tal devi­a­tions, respects the uni­ver­sal con­ven­tions that give audi­ences entry to those lives, no mat­ter what lan­guage they hear.

It is no emp­ty say­ing that “the lan­guage of film is uni­ver­sal,” as the BBC writes in the intro­duc­tion to its list of “The 100 Great­est For­eign-Lan­guage Films.” Nor is it con­tra­dic­to­ry to also point out that “the cin­e­ma of an indi­vid­ual nation is inevitably tied to its unique iden­ti­ty and his­to­ry.” The lat­ter qual­i­ty is what makes non-West­ern film chal­leng­ing, even for­bid­ding, for view­ers with more insu­lar per­spec­tives. The for­mer is what makes world cin­e­ma acces­si­ble to them nonethe­less.

If you’ve some­how avoid­ed see­ing some of the world’s great­est “for­eign-lan­guage films”—for rea­sons of sub­ti­tle-aver­sion or oth­er­wise, it’s nev­er too late to over­come your resis­tance and dis­cov­er how the cul­tur­al rich­ness of world cin­e­ma still speaks an inter­na­tion­al lan­guage. And you can hard­ly go wrong with the BBC list as a guide. Com­piled by 209 crit­ics from 43 dif­fer­ent coun­tries who speak a total of 41 dif­fer­ent lan­guages, the list seems about as inclu­sive as it gets, with some qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

“French can claim to be the inter­na­tion­al lan­guage of acclaimed cin­e­ma,” with 27 of the high­est-rat­ed films in that lan­guage, “fol­lowed by 12 in Man­darin, and 11 each in Ital­ian and Japan­ese.” A full quar­ter of the list of films come from East Asia—Japan, Chi­na, Tai­wan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. “If there’s any­thing dis­ap­point­ing about the final list,” the BBC notes, “it’s the pauci­ty of films direct­ed or co-direct­ed by women,” just four out of 100. But female crit­ics made up 45 per­cent of the respon­dents.

Just below see the first ten films on the list. Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, Aki­ra Kuro­sawa makes the top ten twice, with Sev­en Samu­rai at num­ber one and Rashomon com­ing in at num­ber four. Kuro­sawa “was loved by crit­ics every­where,” except, per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, in Japan, where the six crit­ics who vot­ed “didn’t go for a sin­gle Kuro­sawa film between them,” a reminder that film may be uni­ver­sal but crit­i­cism is not. Or as the great John Car­pen­ter once put it, “In France, I’m an auteur. In Eng­land, I’m a hor­ror movie direc­tor. In Ger­many, I’m a film­mak­er. In the U.S., I’m a bum.”

You can dive into the full list of top 100 “for­eign-lan­guage” films at the BBC here.

  1. Sev­en Samu­rai (Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, 1954)
  2. Bicy­cle Thieves (Vit­to­rio de Sica, 1948)
  3. Tokyo Sto­ry (Yasu­jirô Ozu, 1953)
  4. Rashomon (Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, 1950)
  5. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
  6. Per­sona (Ing­mar Bergman, 1966)
  7. 8 1/2 (Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, 1963)
  8. The 400 Blows (François Truf­faut, 1959)
  9. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
  10. La Dolce Vita (Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, 1960)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Great­est Films of All Time Accord­ing to 846 Film Crit­ics

The Top 100 Amer­i­can Films of All Time, Accord­ing to 62 Inter­na­tion­al Film Crit­ics

The Best 100 Movies of the 21st Cen­tu­ry (So Far) Named by 177 Film Crit­ics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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