It’s true that American filmmaking inspired a global appreciation of the cinematic art form, but it’s impossible to deny the international influence on film by important auteurs from countries around the globe. With the inclusion of Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Costa-Gavras, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Pedro Almodóvar, and countless others, this list of essential films from non-English-speaking countries proves that American filmmaking has taken inspiration from countless artists working in many languages. Spotlighting just one film per year in the last half-century, here’s our list of 50 foreign-language films any true movie buff should see.
1963: 8 ½ (dir. Federico Fellini)
Fellini’s mind-bending drama about a stressed-out film director attempting to ease his creative block as well as his relationships with the numerous women that surround him is the perfect title to kick off this list, as it’s one of the greatest films of all time.
1964: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy)
Catherine Deneuve stars in Jacques Demy’s gorgeous film, which might be the most depressing — but loveliest — movie musical ever made.
1965: Marriage Italian-Style (dir. Vittorio De Sica)
A man agrees to marry his mistress once she reveals she’s dying. After the wedding, however, she makes a particularly surprising recovery.
1966: The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)
This controversial film depicts the liberation of Algeria from France and provides incredible commentary on guerrilla warfare. It was also banned in France until five years after its release.
1967: Belle de Jour (dir. Luis Buñuel)
Buñuel’s surrealist film, also starring Deneuve, follows a young housewife who experiences a sexual awakening upon becoming a prostitute.
1968: War and Peace (dir. Sergei Bondarchuk)
Bondarchuk’s epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic is a four-part, seven-hour drama, the most expensive film made in the Soviet Union, and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
1969: Z (dir. Costa-Gavras)
This French-language political thriller is based on the assassination of a Greek politician and offers up a darkly satirical look at the political system in Greece.
1970: Claire’s Knee (dir. Eric Rohmer)
The 30-something Jerome meets his old friend on a holiday, and becomes obsessed with her teenage daughter Claire… and her knee.
1971: The Emigrants (dir. Jan Troell)
If you weren’t already aware, Troell’s film about Swedish immigrants attempting a move to the United States proves that things were kinda crappy for poor Europeans in the 19th century.
1972: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (dir. Luis Buñuel)
Buñuel’s absurdist classic pokes fun at various levels of society in France, in a series of linked scenes framed by the narrative of an upper-class group of friends desperately trying to eat dinner together.
1973: Day for Night (dir. François Truffaut)
Truffaut’s comedy is a laugh-out-loud satire of the film industry.
1974: Amarcord (dir. Federico Fellini)
This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film follows Titta, a young boy living amongst an eccentric cast of characters in a small coastal town in 1930 Italy amid the rise of fascism.
1975: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini)
People literally eat shit and die. This is not a film for the faint of heart.
1976: Black and White in Color (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud)
French colonialists try to rally the local Africans against the Germans in this World World I-set dark comedy.
1977: That Obscure Object of Desire (dir. Luis Buñuel)
Buñuel’s comedy follows an older man obsessed with a younger woman (played by two actresses) and details how her unpredictable temperament plays on his romantic and sexual frustrations.
1978: La Cage aux Folles (dir. Edouard Molinaro)
The inspiration for both the Broadway musical of the same name and the Mike Nichols comedy The Birdcage, La Cage is a classic comedic farce in which a pair of gay men must appear wholesome and conservative to impress their son’s fiancée and her family.
1979: The Tin Drum (dir. Volker Schlondorff)
Günter Grass’ celebrated novel inspired an award-winning film adaptation. It follows a young boy whose adult-level intelligence allows him to process the mania of pre-World War II Germany.
1980: The Last Metro (dir. François Truffaut)
In Nazi-occupied Paris, an actress (played by Catherine Deneuve!) mounts a new production of a play in her husband’s theater. That husband, played by Gérard Depardieu, is Jewish and is hiding within the theater walls to avoid persecution.
1981: Mephisto (dir. István Szabó)
A German actor finds that his Faustian alter ego allows him to distance himself from the growing Nazi presence in pre-WWII Germany.
1982: Fanny and Alexander (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman’s classic film follows two children (the titular characters) who are uprooted from the milieu of their parents’ theater company following the death of their father and their mother’s remarriage to an austere bishop.
1983: Carmen (dir. Carlos Saura)
This soaring film adaptation of the opera by Georges Bizet starred Placido Domingo, and is a rare case of opera translated for the big screen.
1984: Dangerous Moves (dir. Richard Dembo)
Switzerland won its first Oscar for Foreign-Language Film for this political thriller about chess.
1985: Ran (dir. Akira Kurosawa)
The celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa picks up another Shakespeare play — this time King Lear — as the source material for a tale of samurai-era corruption, betrayal, and greed.
1986: Betty Blue (dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)
A French handyman falls in love with a gorgeous, yet unpredictable, woman. As their love grows more intense, she appears to unravel emotionally and mentally. He must come to terms with the mania within the woman he loves.
1987: Babette’s Feast (dir. Gabriel Axel)
Isak Dinesen’s story about the interactions between two Protestant Danish women and their French Catholic housekeeper makes for a touching film about class, religion, and acceptance, and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
1988: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar’s career soared after the release of this hilarious, melodramatic, and gorgeously stylized romantic comedy set in late-’80s Madrid.
1989: Cinema Paradiso (dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)
This coming-of-age story is told in flashbacks from the point of view of a famous filmmaker, who recounts fondly the movie house in his Sicilian hometown and the projectionist who gave him his love for cinema.
1990: Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
Posing as the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a young man convinces a prominent Tehran family into letting him film in their house. Based on a true story, director Kiarostami’s docudrama features the real-life people on which the film is based.
1991: Raise the Red Lantern (dir. Zhang Yimou)
In this film set in China before the civil war, a young woman is betrothed to a man with four other wives, and the women compete for his affections with disastrous results.
1992: Belle Époque (dir. Fernando Trueba)
A young army deserter is welcomed by an old local villager, who is the father of four daughters. The soldier falls in love with each of them in turn, and must decide which of the sisters to stay with.
1993: Cronos (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro made his directorial debut with this creative take on the typical vampire story, in which an ages-old device delivers eternal life to its newfound owner.
1994: Il Postino (dir. Michael Radford)
A poorly educated postman delivers mail to the famous poet Pablo Neruda during his political exile, as Neruda’s lessons on poetry allow him to woo the woman of his dreams.
1995: Antonia’s Line (dir. Marleen Gorris)
Described as a “feminist fairly tale,” Gorris’ film follows a woman who returns to the Dutch village of her birth in order to start a matriarchal community.
1996: Kolya (dir. Jan Svěrák)
An older gentleman in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia marries a young Russian woman, who in turn leaves him and her son for her lover in West Germany. The two most cope together, forming an unlikely bond.
1997: Ma vie en rose (dir. Alain Berliner)
A rare glimpse of the transgender experience seen through the eyes of a child, this film was particularly groundbreaking considering its release in the late ’90s. It’s a lovely portrait of a young person who doesn’t feel out of place until relatives and neighbors point out the child’s difference.
1998: Life Is Beautiful (dir. Roberto Benigni)
This bittersweet film stars director Roberto Benigni as a Jewish bookstore owner who uses his imagination to protect his son from the looming Nazi presence in Italy.
1999: All About My Mother (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
Arguably Almodóvar’s greatest film, this tragic melodrama follows a woman who, after the death of her son, attempts to track down his father — an AIDS-afflicted transvestite prostitute.
2000: Amores Perros (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu)
A car accident connects the lives of a handful of strangers in this film made up of interconnected story lines that shed a light on class issues in Mexico City.
2001: Amélie (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
This charming and stylish film brought worldwide attention to Audrey Tatou, who plays the delightfully quirky title character in this French romance.
2002: City of God (dir. Fernando Meirelles)
An explosive look at the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro, this Oscar-winning film follows two boys from the slums of Brazil who take vastly different paths in life.
2003: Oldboy (dir. Chan-wook Park)
A man, after being released from inexplicable captivity for 15 years, is given new clothes, money, and a cellular phone. All hell breaks loose when he sets out to find his captor.
2004: Downfall (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
This film, which depicts the final ten days of Hitler’s reign over Germany, was nominated for an Oscar, but perhaps more importantly has been parodied countless times on YouTube.
2005: Paradise Now (dir. Hany Abu-Assad)
Two childhood friends, both Palestinian, are recruited to carry out a suicide bombing. When they are separated in Tel Aviv, the two try to find each other and carry out their mission, but not without considering the ramifications of their plans.
2006: The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
This drama follows a member of the East German secret police who becomes personally invested in the author on whom he is spying.
2007: Persepolis (dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)
Marjane Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed this French-language animated adaptation of her internationally famous graphic memoir about coming of age after the Iranian Revolution.
2008: Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
This Swedish horror romance about a teenage vampire and the young boy who falls in love with her is one of the best examples of the genre and immediately inspired an American remake.
2009: Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
In this thriller, three teenagers are confined on a compound with no contact with the outside world, their ideas and perceptions controlled by their domineering parents. A young woman, brought in by the father to relieve his son’s sexual urges, disrupts the balance of the children’s captivity, unlocking a series of unsettling events.
2010: I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Tilda Swinton learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent for this luscious melodramatic romance.
2011: A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
An Iranian couple are at odds: the wife wants to leave the country to provide a better life for her daughter, but the husband wants to stay and care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s.
2012: Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)
In one of the more depressing films of recent years, an elderly couple copes with the wife’s debilitating mental and physical health.
Bonus — 2013 so far: Blue Is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Although there’s still room for another film to upstage it, this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Blue Is the Warmest Color, is an early standout. It centers around an emotionally intense relationship between two young women, with an emphasis on frank, unapologetic sexuality.