For many filmgoers, foreign cinema is difficult to get into. You often have to read subtitles to understand what is going on, and even if there is an English dub for the film, the voice actors are not always good and you lose some of the film's quality.
It's unfortunate that foreign cinema is passed over by many Americans because there is a ton of really good, really engaging filmmaking going on outside our borders
If you want to get into foreign cinema, but you're having trouble doing so, here are seven films that you can start with. They are all engaging, have international appeal, and can ease you into the experience of reading subtitles while watching the film (always read subtitles over dubs; there is no comparison when it comes to quality).
1. Pan's Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)
RATED R | 118 MIN | MEXICO
"Living with her tyrannical stepfather in a new home with her pregnant mother, 10-year-old Ofelia feels alone until she explores a decaying labyrinth guarded by a mysterious faun who claims to know her destiny. If she wishes to return to her real father, Ofelia must complete three terrifying tasks."
Chances are you have probably seen this masterpiece. From the wide range of foreign films I have seen, most of my friends will say they have seen Pan's Labyrinth at some point in their life.
If you haven't seen it, though, this is a perfect starting point. With gorgeous, lush visuals, incredible acting, and del Toro's penchant for eerie horror and dark fantasy this film has easy appeal and plenty to adore. The subtitles were also personally translated by del Toro himself.
Few films are as widely adored as this masterpiece and for good reason. If you have never seen a foreign film before this is one of the best ones to start with.
2. The Wailing (2016, dir. Hong-jin Na)
NOT RATED | 156 MIN | SOUTH KOREA
"A stranger arrives in a little village and soon after a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman is drawn into the incident and is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter."
One of the difficulties that many find with foreign films is that storytelling is approached very differently. While American cinema is, for the most part, very linear and straightforward (with very simple narrative arcs), other countries approach narratives differently. Yet this different approach is the reason so many Eastern horror films are effective.
Case in point: The Wailing.
There are no jump scares in this South Korean horror film and yet it is tense, dark, and terrifying. The cinematography helps sell the darkness of the film and the plot is pretty simple to follow (though it does have its twists and turns). If you're a suspense/horror junkie then you will love this piece of South Korean cinema.
3. Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)
RATED R | 114 MIN | JAPAN
"In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” act."
Battle Royale is like The Hunger Games on steroids. Released in 2000, this Japanese action film takes place in a dystopian future where 9th-grade students are forced to fight each other to the death. Full of memorable characters, visceral action, and plenty of blood you are sure to love this film. If you like the propulsive, bloody action of Tarantino then this film will easily appeal to you.
4. Dead Snow (2009, dir. Tommy Wirkola)
NOT RATED | 91 MIN | NORWAY
"Eight medical students on a ski trip to Norway discover that Hitler’s horrors live on when they come face to face with a battalion of zombie Nazi soldiers intent on devouring anyone unfortunate enough to wander into the remote mountains where they were once sent to die."
Two words: Nazi zombies.
Did you like Shaun of the Dead? Zombieland? Then you will love this Norwegian zombie film. With an incredible setting, gruesome effects and make up work, and sharp direction this film is sure to appeal to all zombie lovers. Best of all, while there is an underlying story about the Nazi zombies (and some important character dynamics to understand) the majority of this film can be enjoyed without having to worry about every single line of dialogue.
5. City of God (2002, dir. Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)
RATED R | 130 MIN | BRAZIL
"Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro take different paths: one becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer."
City of God is an excellent film in every respect. it has complex characters, a strong cinematic voice, gorgeous cinematography, and plenty of action. If you like gang movies, or if you are just looking for a film that combines complex characters with an easy-to-digest narrative, then you will love this film.
6. Oldboy (2003, dir. Chan-wook Park)
RATED R | 120 MIN | SOUTH KOREA
"With no clue how he came to be imprisoned, drugged and tortured for 15 years, a desperate businessman seeks revenge on his captors."
Olboy is actually one of the first foreign films I saw. It is an impressive combination of revenge storytelling, action, and mystery. It's also directed with such flair and confidence that you get lost in the world almost immediately.
The narrative is very dark and twisted, so it may be off-putting for some. The action is also very bloody. However, if you like these kinds of films, or if you can force yourself to push through these elements, you will be extremely impressed by this film.
There is an American remake directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin, but it is horrible and I do not recommend it.
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)
RATED R | 155 MIN | ITALY
"A filmmaker recalls his childhood, when he fell in love with the movies at his village’s theater and formed a deep friendship with the theater’s projectionist."
Cinema Paradiso is the first foreign film I ever saw and it is truly a masterpiece in every respect. It has fun, engaging characters, an emotional story, and a brisk pace. If you love movies you will immediately connect to this endearing story of how a boy fell in love with cinema under the tutelage of a projectionist.
It's a bit on the long side, but you barely feel the length. If you love Spielberg or Zemeckis films you will love this one too.