Subtitles are an acquired taste – although I personally love to watch films in a foreign language and give my brain the challenge of reading at the same time as keeping on top of the action on-screen, for a lot of people this kind of movie experience can be off-putting. With this in mind, I’ve put together the following list of films in a foreign language that are accessible for people giving non-English language movies a try for the first time. These might be a feast for the eyes, or have an engaging story or characters. But most of all they’re enjoyable or thought-provoking, if you fancy a change from Hollywood’s barrage of blockbusters. Now for something a little bit different…
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006 – Spanish)
Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth is my all-time favourite film, and means I’ll forgive him just about anything (even Crimson Peak!). A stunning mixture of beautiful fantasy and brutal reality, this film may be heavy on story but also has many tropes and scenarios you’re likely to recognise from fairy tales, so it’s easier to follow than you might expect. The main character is a girl called Ofelia whose mother takes her to live with her step-father, a sadistic army officer with a (spoiler alert!) bit of a taste for violence. It’s set during the Spanish Civil War and Ofelia’s quest will sweep you along on a dazzling, imaginative ride.
2. Amélie (2001 – French)
Most people who’ve studied French at school have probably been introduced to this charmingly eccentric film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Everything from the colour scheme to the music to Audrey Tautou’s quirky central performance as the title character goes towards conjuring a typically French air of magic. It’s a romantic comedy about a social outsider who seeks to change the lives of everyone she meets – until she encounters someone doing exactly the same who helps her to overcome her loneliness. Full of eccentric characters and wit, this is the perfect breezy bit of entertainment.
3. Wild Tales (2014 – Spanish)
My top film of 2015 (which is when it was released in the UK), this is a no-holds-barred thrill ride that also happens to be extremely funny. It’s made up of 6 different mini-movies all exploring the theme of revenge in everyday settings. Everyone who sees it seems to have a different favourite section (mine is probably the final part, The Wedding) so it’ll give you plenty to talk about with fellow fans. It’ll have you gasping in shock and wincing and laughing out loud. What more can you ask for? And the narrative is never all that complicated so it’s easy to watch too.
4. Spirited Away (2001 – Japanese)
Still probably the first movie most people think about when you say Studio Ghibli (although all their films are fantastic, especially if directed by Hayao Miyazaki), Spirited Away is a brilliant imaginative slice of animé about a young girl whose parents are turned into pigs, sending her spiraling into a world of crazy monsters and bizarre events that’s part-inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Most people will have seen the English dubbed version of the film so I’m cheating a little bit by including it in this list, but it shouldn’t be missed.
5. Two Days, One Night (2014 – French)
Proof that sometimes simple ideas can be the most effective, Two Days, One Night follows the struggle faced by clinically depressed Sandra (played by the always-wonderful Marion Cotillard) when she discovers that her colleagues have been offered a nice bonus – but can only get it if she loses her job. Cue a stressful weekend (which is where the film’s title comes from) spent begging for votes, while she battles her anxiety and visibly seems to be on the verge of collapse at any second. Her incredibly impressive performance earned Cotillard a surprise place on the list of nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2015 Oscars. Although it sounds like hard work, this is a very rewarding movie to watch, with a big emotional pay-off at the end, and the acclaimed Dardenne brothers keep the whole thing well-paced and engaging with help from their star actor and the rest of the cast.
6. The Lives of Others (2006 – German)
This is a film that I really need to watch at some point – all signs point towards it being right up my street but somehow I’ve never found the time to see it. Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is tasked with spying on a writer and his lover but finds himself more interested in their lives than his job calls for. A fascinating depiction of power play in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, this should appeal to fans of thrillers and spy dramas so could be a great way to branch out from Hollywood films in those genres.
7. Let The Right One In (2008 – Swedish)
Difficult to categorise but easy to admire, I suppose Let The Right One In counts as a horror film, but with a strong romantic focus and none of the jump-scares you’d usually associate with the genre. Most of all, it’s very atmospheric and eerie – set in a Stockholm suburb and played out through a series of dark scenes that help to ratchet up the tension, the film tells the story of bullied 12-year-old Oskar, who finds a new friend in the peculiar girl next door, Eli. As the film progresses, we learn more about just why Eli is so strange and why Oskar should perhaps be wary around her… Remade (fairly well) by Hollywood in 2010, the original Swedish version is still the one to watch. The book it’s based on (by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is also well worth checking out!
8. The Orphanage (2007 – Spanish)
Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t get on well with horror films, and the only reason this isn’t higher up my ranking is that I think I might be too scarred to watch it again! Which is a shame because although this movie is truly scary (I mean it!) it’s also really high quality. Director J. A. Bayona and writer Sergio G Sánchez know what it takes to get under an audience’s skin, and they pull out all the stops with this tale of a woman (Laura, played by Belén Rueda) returning to her childhood home – which just happens to have once been an orphanage for handicapped children. Her son suddenly acquires an invisible new friend and Laura starts to think that maybe not all of the house’s previous residents have left for good. A ghost story with huge emotional impact and some skillful use of creepy masks and children’s games, this isn’t one for the faint-hearted!
9. Oldboy (2003 – Korean)
Oldboy isn’t an easy watch by anyone’s standards, but it does contain a gut-wrenching twist, a man eating a live octopus, and a hyper-violent group fight scene that takes place in one narrow corridor – so that might be enough to tempt you! Oh Dae-Su has been imprisoned for 15 years but has no idea why, so when he finally gets released he’s determined to get revenge – and find out why the whole thing happened to him in the first place. This story of vengeance is nowhere near as funny as Wild Tales, and you will probably find yourself turning away from your screen a few times over the course of the film, but the intriguing plot makes it easy to go along with. This film and it’s certainly a memorable experience.
10. Wadjda (2012 – Arabic)
This film is an interestingly low-key glimpse into a society very different to mine, and I don’t often watch films from the Middle East (although I should!) so this was a bit of wild card, but I’m really glad I gave it a try. Wadjda is the name of the main character – a Saudi schoolgirl who has her heart set on a green bike and comes up with an enterprising way to raise the money to buy it: she enters her school’s Koran recitation competition, and although she struggles at first she soon impresses her teachers and classmates with her determination. The film deals with some important issues like the role of religion and the position of women in Arabic culture but remains pretty light-hearted throughout, just like Wadjda herself.
Some films that didn’t quite make the top 10 but are also great…
Volver (2006 – Spanish)
La Vie En Rose (2007 – French)
Force Majeure (2014 – Swedish)
Priceless (2006 – French)
Delicatessen (1991 – French)
The Devil’s Backbone (2001 – Spanish)
Amour (2012 – French)
Run Lola Run (1998 – German)
A Separation (2011 – Persian)
Any we missed that you’d also recommend? Let us know which films convinced you that subtitles are a good thing in the comments…
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