15 Foreign Language Films That Define Cinematic Excellence – Lifotravel

Foreign language films have contributed significantly to the world of cinema, bringing diverse stories and cultures to global audiences. From award-winning dramas to critically acclaimed comedies, foreign-language films have proven time and time again that if you genuinely want to explore the best that cinema has to offer, you need to venture outside of your native language. These are our top 15 foreign-language film recommendations.

1. The Handmaiden (2016)

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Image Credit: CJ Entertainment.

This South Korean psychological thriller, directed by Park Chan-wook, is set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It tells the story of a young pickpocket named Sook-hee, who is hired as a handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese woman named Lady Hideko. Sook-hee secretly works with a con artist who plans to defraud Lady Hideko of her fortune. However, Sook-hee and Lady Hideko soon develop feelings for each other, complicating the plan.

2. La Haine (1995)

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Image Credit: Gramercy Pictures.

Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, this French drama takes place in the 24-hour aftermath of a riot in a low-income housing project outside Paris. It follows three young men from different ethnic backgrounds – Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, as they navigate the tense and often violent environment they call home. 

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

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Image Credit: Neon.

This French period drama, directed by Céline Sciamma, takes place in the 18th century and tells the story of Marianne, a young painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left a convent and is engaged to be married. However, Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait, so Marianne must paint her in secret while posing as her companion. As they spend time together, the two women fall in love. 

4. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

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Image Credit: Sony Pictures.

This Argentine-Spanish crime thriller, directed by Juan José Campanella, tells the story of a retired legal counselor named Benjamin Esposito, who is writing a novel about a case he worked on 25 years earlier. The case involves the brutal assault and murder of a young woman, and Esposito becomes obsessed with solving the crime and bringing closure to the victim’s husband. The Secret in Their Eyes is a gripping and emotionally charged film that explores themes of justice, grief, and the power of memory.

5. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

Image Credit: Stadtkino Verleih.

This Austrian horror film, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, tells the story of twin brothers named Elias and Lukas, who live in a secluded country house with their mother, who has just undergone cosmetic surgery. However, the boys begin to suspect that the woman who returns from the hospital is not their real mother, leading to a tense and terrifying game of cat and mouse. Goodnight Mommy is a masterfully crafted and deeply unsettling film that explores themes of identity, family, and trauma.

6. High and Low (1963)

Toshirô Mifune and Kyôko Kagawa in High and Low (1963)Toshirô Mifune and Kyôko Kagawa in High and Low (1963)
Image Credit: Toho Co., Ltd.

Akira Kurosawa directs this Japanese crime thriller based on the novel “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain. It tells the story of Gondo, a wealthy executive who must decide whether to pay a ransom for his kidnapped son. However, it soon becomes clear that the kidnappers have made a mistake and have taken Gondo’s chauffeur’s son instead. As Gondo struggles with the moral implications of his decision, Kurosawa explores themes of class, loyalty, and justice.

7. La Femme Nikita (1990)

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Image Credit: Columbia/Tri-Star.

Directed by Luc Besson, this French action-thriller follows a young woman named Nikita, who is sentenced to life in prison for murder. However, she is given a second chance when a shadowy government agency recruits her to become an assassin. As she trains and carries out missions, Nikita questions the morality of her actions and the people she works for. 

8. The Bicycle Thief (1948)

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Image Credit: Corinth Films.

Directed by Vittorio De Sica, this Italian neorealist film tells the story of Antonio, an unemployed man in post-World War II Rome who finally gets a job hanging posters but is unable to do the job without a bicycle. When his bike is stolen, Antonio and his young son Bruno set out on a desperate search to find it, leading to a poignant and heartbreaking climax. 

9. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

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Image Credit: Miramax

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, this Italian drama tells the story of Salvatore, a successful filmmaker who returns to his hometown in Sicily after many years to attend the funeral of his old friend and mentor, Alfredo. Through a series of flashbacks, we see Salvatore’s childhood in the small town and his love for the local cinema, which Alfredo ran.

10. La Dolce Vita (1960)

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Image Credit: Cineteca di Bologna / Reporters Associati

Directed by Federico Fellini, this Italian drama follows a week in the life of Marcello Rubini, a journalist who lives in Rome and is caught up in the decadent and hedonistic world of the city’s social elite. Marcello grapples with his surroundings’ emptiness and moral decay as he attends parties, interviews celebrities, and searches for love.

11. The Seventh Seal (1957)

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Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this Swedish drama follows a medieval knight named Antonius Block, who is returning home from the Crusades during a plague. He encounters Death on the beach and challenges him to a game of chess, hoping to buy time to figure out the meaning of life. As Block travels through the countryside with his squire, Jöns, they encounter various characters and engage in philosophical debates about faith, mortality, and the nature of existence.

12. Memories of Murder (2003)

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Image Credit: CJ Entertainment

This South Korean crime drama is based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized a small town in the 1980s. The film follows two detectives — one from the city and one from the town — who are assigned to the case and must navigate the complex web of clues and suspects. Memories of Murder is a tense and gripping film that explores themes of justice, morality, and the fallibility of human nature.

13. Parasite (2019)

Image Credit: CJ Entertainment.

Parasite has been one of the most popular foreign language releases of all time, and fans are still praising this movie. This Korean movie follows a family who lives in a lower-class area of Seoul, but their lives change completely when they start benefitting from working for an upper-class family, but their scam can only get them so far in life.

14. In the Mood for Love (2000)

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Image Credit: USA Films.

Set in Hong Kong in the 60s, neighbors Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen start to spend more time together as their spouses are always gone from their homes. But their bond grows stronger when they find out their partners are having an affair, and they seek comfort in each other.

15. Amélie (2003)

Image Credit: Miramax and UGC Fox Distribution.

Amélie is often talked about as one of the most beautiful movies of all time, and fans from around the world are constantly inspired by this French film. Amélie is a waitress but she decides to take the world into her own hands and help others find joy and happiness in their day-to-day lives.

Source: Reddit.

Jaimee Marshall is a writer who hails from the suburbs of Philadelphia but has spent the past few years living abroad in Australia. She considers herself a bit of a movie buff with a knack for horror and clever sci-fi flicks. When she isn’t watching or writing about movies, she’s probably either posting political memes, cooking vegan food, or being active. She covers entertainment news, and reviews films and television for Wealth of Geeks. You can also catch her deep dives on sociopolitical issues at Evie Magazine, Katie Couric Media, and Her Campus or watch her appearance on Popcorned Planet, where she discusses heated issues like due process in our current social climate.

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