If there's one thing we've learned from the growing prevalence of anime, K-dramas, Nordic noir, and telenovelas, it's that mainstream audiences are more open to and eager for foreign-language media.
That was made even clearer when the South Korean film Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2019.
You don't have to be a film enthusiast to enjoy foreign-language movies. Despite what some may want you to believe, there's nothing inherently better about foreign-language films. They can be mediocre, they can be great, and they can be trash.
Which raises questions: "Where do I start? Which foreign-language movies are worth watching? Which genres are particularly good?"
Here are some of the best foreign-language movies that are so good, they'll suck you in and make you forget you're reading subtitles. They're must-watch no matter what!
10. Incendies (Arabic)
Before Denis Villeneuve made his name on great films like Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, he directed the movie Incendies from his home country of Canada. And like the rest of his filmography, you can expect heavy themes and brutal twists in this story.
After their mother's death, twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan travel to the Middle East to unearth their family's hidden history. Finding the truth in a war-torn territory only hurts them more, but every haunting revelation keeps you at the edge of your seat.
9. Pan's Labyrinth (Spanish)
We all know Guillermo del Toro as the Mexican filmmaker who loves his monster creations. To this day, Pan's Labyrinth remains his magnum opus—a glorified fairy tale with its fantastical elements, twisted characters, and underlying moral lessons.
It centers on a studious girl named Ofelia in the middle of a war-torn Spain who discovers an enchanted labyrinth and a faun who provides three tasks she must complete to fulfill her destiny.
The movie expertly blends the fantasy elements of the labyrinth and the all-too-real elements of the real world. It's everything you could ever want from Guillermo del Toro's own take of Alice in Wonderland.
8. Oldboy (Korean)
Businessman Dae-su is unwittingly framed for a crime he did not commit and imprisoned for 15 years by an unknown captor. When he's suddenly released, the re-invigorated Dae-su heads down a road of vengeance for those he loves—both in the past and present.
Fans of neo-noir thrillers like John Wick and Drive can thank Oldboy for its influence on the genre. And who could deny its appeal? From the revenge premise to the legendary single-take fight scene in the corridor, Oldboy is one cult film that all action fans need to see.
7. In the Mood for Love (Cantonese)
While Hong Kong cinema is known for its martial arts films that are mostly Jackie Chan projects, it's particularly good at delivering romance films—like In the Mood for Love.
This movie tells the melancholic story of a man and a woman, who both learn that their spouses are having an affair together. In their shared commiseration, they find feelings for each other.
Reading the description alone might lead you to expectations of a morose drama about platonic love—and you'd be right. But it's director Wong Kar-Wai's expert slow-burn, beautiful cinematography, and thoughtful scenes that elevate this movie to new heights.
6. Das Boot (German)
Das Boot is the quintessential submarine movie. This WWII-set German war epic centers on the crew of the German submarine U-96 as they deal with the thrills and tedium of patrolling the Atlantic Ocean.
Since this is a West German production, they never rely on the black-and-white themes of war, instead choosing to depict the crew as average people with patriotic hearts.
And that helps in building up to the intense showdown of the submarine against Allied naval and aerial forces. It's an engaging war film from start to finish.
5. City of God (Portuguese)
If you love following crime sagas, City of God is an excellent pick—but it'll be a challenging one. Set between the late 1960s and early 1980s, this Brazilian film shows the rise of organized crime within the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
The story is seen through the eyes of two characters following different paths: the aspiring photographer Rocket and the rising drug lord Li'l Zé. It never holds back on depicting the costs of gang wars, poverty, and corruption.
The film's widespread critical acclaim speaks volumes, making it clear that this is one of the best foreign-language movies of all time.
4. Cinema Paradiso (Italian)
While the classic Life Is Beautiful would've been an obvious choice for an Italian foreign-language movie, Cinema Paradiso is my recommendation.
The filmmaker watched movies from a projection booth as a boy. There, he befriended the projectionist, who taught him how to operate the projector and encouraged him to pursue his dreams.
Told in flashbacks, the story explores a filmmaker's childhood and where his love for movies came from. Watching this will give you a newfound appreciation for film and life.
3. Amélie (French)
The story of Amélie Poulain is sure to delight your heart and senses. While she possesses the quirky traits of a manic pixie dream girl, Amélie is genuinely kind and positive in helping other people as a way to overcome her own feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
Titular character aside, Amélie takes you on a fun journey around a fantastical version of Paris, as seen through her eyes. Out of all of Amélie's quests, my personal favorite has to be the cat-and-mouse game that she sets up for a man named Nino.
Amélie is a shining example of a foreign-language movie that's meaningful and timeless without being overly dark, heavy, and serious.
2. A Separation (Persian)
Any film directed by Asghar Farhadi will be heavy on theme, and the award-winning masterpiece A Separation is no exception. The film revolves around the divorce of an Iranian middle-class couple and the fallout it has on the people around them.
Like many films about divorce, including Kramer vs. Kramer and Marriage Story, it's the egos of husband and wife that play center roles—and they get in the way of any potential solution to their problems. While heartbreaking, it's a must-watch.
1. 3 Idiots (Hindi)
Set both in the present and in flashbacks, 3 Idiots follows three friends—the optimistic Rancho, the world-weary Farhan, and the impoverished Raju—and their misadventures in college.
From class divides to the strict director Dr. Viru, they always take solace in their philosophy that "All is well," which gives them the strength to overcome extraordinary circumstances.
Bollywood is the world's largest film industry, and 3 Idiots is a great entry point. It isn't as over-the-top as stereotypical Bollywood films, but still has hilarious slapstick, larger-than-life characters, and fun musical numbers that'll get stuck in your ears.