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The 25 Best Movies That Won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film

06 February 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Jose Gallegos

the lives of others

Between 1947 and 1955 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed an honorary award to one film each year that they believed to be the best in international cinema. Beginning in 1956, the Academy turned the honorary award into an award of merit, thus creating the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Though controversial due to its nomination process, the Foreign Language Film race invites countries to submit one film – whose dialogue is primarily in a non-English language – to represent them in the race (the award itself is bestowed to the country, not to the filmmaker).

The list of submissions is then whittled down to five nominees, who compete in the final round of voting before the eventual winner is revealed. While it has raised questions concerning the validity of “national cinema,” the “ghettoization” of international/arthouse films, and the “politics” of voting, the Best Foreign Language Film category has also bestowed the award on some of the best and most influential films imaginable. This list attempts to rank these films in terms of impact, technical mastery, and cultural relevance.


25. Jeux interdits (Dir. René Clément, 1952)

Forbidden Games

Two precocious children, Michel (Georges Poujouly) and the orphaned Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), deal with the trauma of their war-torn surroundings by turning death into an “innocent” game. Yet, as the children construct their own cemetery of dead animals and insects, the adults around them soon question the “innocence” of their childlike antics. Aided by Narcisco Yepes’ heartbreaking score and the astonishing performances of its two leads, Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) will most likely leave you with tear-stained cheeks.


24. Le notti di Cabiria (Dir. Federico Fellini, 1957)

Nights of Cabiria

A “hooker with a heart of gold,” the aging Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) tries desperately to leave her tragic surroundings by looking for happiness and love with anyone who will give it to her. Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) followed the success of La strada and gave Giulietta Masina a vehicle to showcase her talent as an actress. The final moments of the film are some of the most glorious images I have ever seen, and they will break your heart while also giving you hope. Cabiria may not have the same impact as La strada, but it is a bittersweet tale that uses its central character as a means of exploring the various economic ranks of postwar Italy.


23. Jungfrukällan (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

The Virgin Spring

Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) is a young maiden who is taking candles to a church one day. Along the way, she encounters two men who eventually rape and kill her. The men later take shelter at Karin’s parents’ home, and that’s when all hell eventually breaks loose. Bergman’s underappreciated film (even Bergman himself never spoke often about it) is a moral fable, one whose psychosexual implications and depictions of vengeance make it one of the more intriguing entries in Bergman’s illustrious filmography.


22. Amour (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2012)


Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple who must deal with Anne’s slow deterioration. Through Haneke’s provocative storytelling, and even more provocative imagery, he crafts a unique story about love enduring adversity. The physical and emotional transformation of the characters is an emotional journey for audiences, many of whom see reflections of their own grandparents, parents, etc. in the characters.


21. Todo sobre mi madre (Dir. Pedro Almodovar, 1999)

All About My Mother

Pedro Almodovar’s Todo sobre mi Madre (All About My Mother) is a phenomenal film that uses transplantation and transgenderism as metaphors for interconnectivity. Cecilia Roth is astonishing as Manuela, a mother who travels from Madrid to Barcelona following the death of her son. It is a heartbreaking and poignant portrait of the modernization of Spain’s dueling images, the interconnected relationships of friends and lovers, and the roles women play in society.


20. Das leben der anderen (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)


Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das leben der anderen (The Lives of Others) is a sleek and often times muted film that economizes its time and visuals in order to speak volumes. With a masterful performance by Ulrich Mühe, the film chronicles the covert espionage and surveillance of oppressive regimes in East Germany.


19. Jodai-e Nadér az Simín (Dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation

Filmmakers in repressed/oppressed societies often turn toward metaphor in order to criticize their oppressors. Jodai-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation) uses a marital separation as a means of exploring political topics, all the while professing that it is an apolitical film. Farhadi’s direction and screenplay construct an interesting portrait of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), whose separation leads to a series of tragedies and feuds. Through the narrative framework, Farhadi explores (from a distanced vantage point) issues of women’s rights, blood feuds, and the legal system. Farhadi balances these motives and themes with such ease.


18. Orfeu negro (Dir. Marcel Camus, 1959)


The classical story of Orpheus and Eurydice was given a Brazilian cultural specificity in this charming classic from Marcel Camus. When Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) moves to a new town, she begins a relationship with Orfeu (Breno Mello). Their budding romance is thwarted by death, who stalks Eurydice and waits patiently until he can kidnap her during Carnival. The film’s exotic imagery and catchy soundtrack helped capture the attention of viewers, while also helping to (somewhat) subvert images of cultural fetishization.



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  • Orso Bruno

    where is La Grande Bellezza(The Great Beauty)? I’m Italian so I should not be upset for all these Italian movies in the list, but La Vita è Bella and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso are far from being great as the Sorrentino’s piece of art. It’s one of those Italian movies which not only the directing is amazing, but the script is fundamentally so deep in the Italian culture that divided us a lot. I think you missed another movie, definitely “better” and deep in the Italian culture that is Mediterraneo.
    I would easily switch Mediterraneo and La Grande Bellezza with Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and La Vita è Bella.
    Just my two cents, and keep working, I love your website.

    • Nicola Camoglio

      La Grande Bellezza is far too recent and far too topical, as I fear that it means so much more to us (Italians) than it does to individuals of other nationalities. While Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and La Vita E’ Bella have a more universal appeal – a coming of age story and the struggles of the Holocaust -, La Grande Bellezza deals with the corrupted nature of Italians, the Italian culture itself and its morally fractured ideal of beauty and, as much as I believe it was appreciated in foreign countries more for its direction and performances than for its subtext, there are elements to it that are highly contextualized in an Italian background and in its history from the post-war to today. And that is the reason it may, as of yet, be overlooked when talking about the greatest Oscar-winning foreign films (Michael Haneke’s Amour is in but it would be criminal not to include such an important work from one of Europe’s most revered masters)
      As of Mediterraneo, I certainly think it could take La Vita E’ Bella’s spot, a film that I enjoy but I believe is far too simplistic in its approach (and that Benigni did not deserve an Oscar for, he was up against two momentous performances by Ian McKellen and Edward Norton that were far more deserving). On the other hand, I don’t think Mediterraneo holds up well against Salvatores’ own Marrakesh Express, that I deem far superior, profound and heart-breaking, although not Oscar-winning and therefore a little off-topic in this conversation.
      Lastly, I just think Indagine Su Un Cittadino Al Di Sopra Di Ogni Sospetto should be ranked above both Nuovo Cinema and La Vita E’ Bella, as it is truly one of Elio Petri’s masterpieces and, as far as I’m concerned, Gian Maria Volontè’s ultimate performance. It is a film whose political and social message has not aged a bit and that is far too relevant in today’s world.

      PS: Love the website, it’s always an immense pleasure to read your posts!

      • Orso Bruno

        I agree almost on everything you wrote, I would only point out that the topic of the article is “The 25 Best Movies That Won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film”, it doesn’t insert a “time” parameter. That’s why I think “La Grande Bellezza” should be considered in this list.
        And I think they didn’t rank the movies, I think it’s just a list…or at least, as I read it.
        Have a good weekend to all!

  • Jeffrey Wilsey

    Great job

  • Erick García

    Where is “El secreto de sus ojos”? It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen!

    • Malu

      You took the words out of my mouth!

    • BigSisterC

      I couldn’t agree more! It’s the first thing I thought when I saw the list!

    • Paul van Dijke

      fully agreed

  • Hommy Cabrera Rodríguez

    Liked this article. But I think “El secreto de sus ojos” should have been there.

  • Neilanjeev Roy

    Watched ‘Rashomon’, ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ and That Persian Movie ‘A Seperation’.. and i loved that Persian movie …

  • Christoph

    I like the list and I’m glag the not so well known “Jeux interdits” made it. But if you would ask what is missing, it would definitly be “Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray”, which won in 1963.

  • Jorge Oswaldo Gòmez Ortiz

    Anchìo direi La Grande Belleza e un film superiore a Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, ma comunque, pochi film mi han fatto sentiré tante cose come il film di Alfredo e Totò

  • gustavomda

    Orfeu Negro is an eurocentric piece of shit made by and for Europeans only. No Brazilian would ever believe the country depicted in that movie.

  • Relf

    Emmanuelle Riva was robed so hard!

  • Carlos Cordero Madrigal

    Aside from Life is Beautiful, which I find insulting, most of the rest are well chosen. Agree about El Secreto de sus Ojos.

    • Brandon Thompson

      Definitely agree with you on Life is Beautiful, I don’t know how anyone can make a holocaust movie into a comedy.