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