Mexico, Spain, France, South Korea — throughout the years, scores of high-quality international films have resonated with American audiences, evident by their high-grossing numbers. This list shines light on the numbers they accrued at the U.S. box office, and how their quality attracted audiences to spend their hard-earned cash.
All these movies made tremendous money in movie theaters, to the point of holding records at the American box office. Considering their popularity upon release, most films on this list are likely to ring a bell. However, a few titles along the way may appear unfamiliar. Rest assured: they’re all of notable quality. All that said, these are 20 non-English movies that cleaned up at the American box office.
20 Dangal (2016) — $12.39 Million
Directed by Nitesh Tiwari from a script he co-wrote with several others, Dangal (2016) is the highest-grossing Indian film ever made — and with good reason. Tiwari and his crew crafted a compelling story about the real-life Phogat sisters, who sowed the seeds of women’s wrestling in the late-1990s.
Another Sports Film with Mr. Perfectionist
Perhaps the greatest actor in the history of Indian cinema is Aamir Khan, also known as Mr. Perfectionist. Early in his career, he appeared in an action sports film called Awwal Number (1990). A decade down the line, he starred in Lagaan (2001). By far, the latter is superior, even holding tremendous name value in the States. While perhaps not as acclaimed, Dangal accrued even more money, with Khan playing the father and trainer of the revolutionary sisters. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase
19 Under the Same Moon (2007) —$12.59 Million
Marking Patricia Riggen’s directorial debut, Under the Same Moon (2007) stars Kate del Castillo as a single mother named Rosario. She leaves her son, Carlitos, in the care of her mother, then illegally enters the United States. Upon learning that Rosario sends her son money every month, Carlitos’ aunt and uncle try to claim custody. Carlitos’ grandmother promises to keep him, but dies in her sleep that night.
Powerful Performances from the Cast
Alongside Castillo, there’s also Adrián Alonso as Carlitos. They both perform with poise and passion, and the plot brilliantly explores themes of family and immigration. Everyone involved received praise for their efforts — they were also rewarded with buckets of ticket stubs that indicated an impressive box office performance. Rent on AppleTV
18 Volver (2006) —$12.90 Million
- Release Date
- March 16, 2006
- Penelope Cruz , Carmen Maura , Lola Dueñas , Blanca Portillo , Yohana Cobo , Chus Lampreave
Influenced by writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s upbringing, Volver (2006) stars Penélope Cruz as a working-class woman named Raimunda. It combines elements of magical realism — Raimunda’s mother returns from the dead and reconnects with various members of the family — with comedic undertones and consistent melodrama.
Some Iconic Collaborations
Among the most celebrated partnerships of modern cinema is Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. They’ve worked together seven times, with Volver marking their third collaboration in total. And while it may not be the best overall film under their collective belt, it could very well be Cruz’s best performance. She’s one of the most famous actresses to ever live, and audiences were sure to witness her peak back in 2006. Rent on AppleTV
17 Y tu mamá también (2001) — $13.84 Million
In English, Y tu mamá también (2001) translates to And Your Mother Too. Though light on plot points, this masterpiece by Alfonso Cuarón features the most thought-out dialogue you’ll read about today. That’s where its title stems from — a dialogue exchange — as a pair of teenagers embark on a road trip with a woman in her late-20s.
An Ingenious Script by the Cuaróns
The woman is played by Maribel Verdú, with Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna playing the teenagers. They share an engaging chemistry while exchanging intelligent dialogue, with the genius of Y tu mamá también being found in its script. Alongside his brother Carlos, director Alfonso Cuarón crafted a 21st-Century classic that didn’t just resonate with critics, but also with audiences. That showed at the box office. Rent on Prime Video
16 Monsoon Wedding (2002) — $13.89 Million
Telling the story of a Punjabi Hindu wedding, Monsoon Wedding (2002) was directed by Mira Nair from Sabrina Dhawan’s script. Set in Delhi, the marriage is arranged by Lalit and his wife Pimmi, securing their daughter Aditi a husband, named Hemant. Each character battles their own internal struggles while dealing with a large and out-of-hand event.
Cultural Specificty with Relatable Themes
On Rotten Tomatoes, Monsoon Wedding holds a whopping 95% approval rating. Pundits resonated with the film’s overarching theme of family woes, along with the relatable characters and comedic undertones. When analyzing its success with critics, it makes sense that Monsoon Wedding would also be a theatrical hit. Rent on Prime Video
15 Iron Monkey (1993) — $14.69 Million
Early in Donnie Yen’s career, he starred in Iron Monkey (1993), directed by Yuen Woo-ping. Its script was penned by Tsui Hark, revolving around a physician named Yang Tiunchun. He moonlights as the eponymous, masked martial artist, a figure like Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He’s played by Yu Rongguang, while Yen plays a fellow physician and martial artist named Wong Kei-ying.
A Martial Arts Masterpiece
Frankly, Iron Monkey is among the finest martial arts films ever made. However, American audiences weren’t privy to its quality until Quentin Tarantino convinced Miramax to release the 1993 film again in 2001. And while the re-release drew ire from fans of Hong Kong cinema due to edits and changes, it helped Iron Monkey make history at the box office. Rent on YouTube
14 The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) — $16.78 Million
Directed by Walter Salles from José Rivera’s script, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) features Gael García Bernal as the lead: real-life figure Ernesto Guevara. At just 23 years old, he and his friend Alberto Granado went cross-country through South America via motorcycle. Guevara’s observations on the road result in a transformative experience.
The Famous Revolutionary
The film is set in 1952 — a few years later, Ernesto became known as “Che” Guevara, a revolutionary and Marxist guerrilla leader. His coming of age amid South American landscapes painted a beautiful portrait of the character, and audiences in America were desperate to learn more about him. Its box office success adds up. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase
13 Kung Fu Hustle (2005) — $17.12 Million
Kung Fu Hustle
- Release Date
- February 10, 2004
- Stephen Chow , Xiaogang Feng , Wah Yuen , Zhi Hua Dong , Kwok-Kwan Chan , Chi Chung Lam
Among the most fan-favorite films on the list is Kung Fu Hustle (2005), directed by Stephen Chow from his own original story. He also stars as Sing, alongside Lam Chi-chung’s obese sidekick, Bone. After masquerading as members of the Axe Gang, actual gangsters invade the slums in which the low-life friends reside. From there, a hilarious action spectacle plays out to critical acclaim.
The Perfect Blend of Action and Comedy
Upon realizing gang members are invading their neighborhood, three martial arts masters step up to defend the slums. The cast consists of stunt choreographers and martial artists alike, resulting in engaging action sequences that work in wonderful tandem with the wit of Kung Fu Hustle‘s script. It’s among the highest-grossing foreign-language films in the U.S., and with good reason. Rent on Prime Video
12 Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017) — $20.19 Million
For a brief period, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017) was known as the highest-grossing Indian film of all time. It’s an epic action film with spectacles galore — a surefire blockbuster in its premise alone. Directed by S. S. Rajamouli with his father, V. Vijayendra Prasad, as the co-writer, it serves as both a sequel and a prequel to Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), also by Rajamouli and Prasad.
Concluding a High-Grossing Series
While The Beginning made waves at the box office, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion absolutely cleaned up with American audiences. All over the world, too, in fact. Worldwide, this is the second highest-grossing movie India’s ever produced, and fans were quite pleased with the product overall. Its massive success in theaters is rivaled only by the acclaim it accrued from critics. Stream on Netflix
11 La Cage aux Folles (1978) — $20.42 Million
A comedic triumph, La Cage aux Folles (1978) follows a gay couple, Renato and Albin. The former, a drag nightclub owner, is played by Ugo Tognazzi, while Michel Serrault shows up as Albin, his star attraction. Rémi Laurent plays Renato’s son, who enters the plot with a fiancée. The twist: her parents are ultra-conservative.
Adapted by Édouard Molinaro
Based on the play of the same name by Jean Poiret, La Cage aux Folles was adapted for the screen and directed by Édouard Molinaro. It was a massive success in U.S. theaters, just like the English adaptation, The Birdcage (1996). And while the former is more popular from a modern perspective, La Cage aux Folles holds up just as well. Stream on Prime Video
10 Like Water for Chocolate (1992) — $21.67 Million
Based on Laura Esquival’s novel of the same name, she also adapted Like Water for Chocolate (1992) for the screen. Alfonso Arau sat in the director’s chair, while Lumi Cavazos plays the protagonist, named Tita. She takes the heartbreak of the man she loves being arranged to marry her sister and channels the emotion into her talent for cooking. From there, the lines between fantasy and reality are brilliantly blurred.
Sweeping the Ariel Awards
Garnering widespread praise from pundits, Like Water for Chocolate absolutely swept the 34th Ariel Awards. They’re the Academy Awards of Mexico, basically, and this work of magical surrealism won 10 awards out of 14 nominations. Pretty impressive. Of course, it also swept at the box office — upon release, it was the highest-grossing non-English film in United States box office history. It still ranks among the most lucrative today. Rent on YouTube
9 The Postman (1994) — $21.85 Million
Adapted from Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente paciencia, The Postman (1994) was directed by English filmmaker Michael Radford. He and four others adapted the story for the screen, with its fictional plot homing in on Mario Ruoppolo. A postman, he befriends the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and soon develops a love for poetry.
Breaking Box Office Records
At both the American and Canadian box offices, The Postman surpassed Like Water for Chocolate as the highest-grossing film not in the English language. Worldwide, it accrued $33 million against a $3 million budget. Admirable numbers in the end, and audiences resonated with the product just as critics suggested they would. Not Currently Available to Stream or Purchase
8 Fearless (2006) — $24.63 Million
Jet Li’s Fearless
- Release Date
- January 26, 2006
- Ronny Yu
- Shido Nakamura , Betty Sun , Yong Dong , Hee Ching Paw , Jet Li , Yun Qu
Set in the final years of the Qing Dynasty, when China was being infiltrated by Western imperialism and Japanese manipulation, Fearless (2006) chronicles a martial artist who challenges foreigners in combat. His name is Huo Yuanjia, the same name as the real-life figure on whom the character is based. He’s portrayed perfectly by Jet Li.
The Star Power of Jet Li
Though not many names among the cast of Fearless are likely to ring any bells, the name value of Jet Li always attracts American audiences to their local movie theaters. That was very much the case with Fearless. Though not the most acclaimed martial arts film that cleaned up at the U.S. box office, it holds up well today as a classic Jet Li experience. Rent on AppleTV
7 Amélie (2001) — $33.23 Million
One of the most revered films of the 21st Century is Amélie (2001), a French romantic comedy. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, its script was written by Guillaume Laurant from a story they co-wrote together. It chronicles Amélie Poulain, a quirky waitress who spends her time helping others when she should be battling the woes of her own isolation.
The Peak of Jean-Pierre Jeunet
A popular filmmaker from France, Jean-Pierre Jeunet made great waves in the ’90s alongside Marc Caro. The two made hits like Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), with Jeunet’s solo debut marked by Alien: Resurrection (1997). A solid resume overall. But Amélie is considered a classic of modern cinema, and it made absolute waves at the American box office. Without a doubt, it’s peak Jeunet. Rent on YouTube
6 Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — $37.63 Million
A dark fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) was directed by Guillermo Del Toro. As an auteur, he also wrote the original script, which tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who traverses a mythical world she found within an abandoned labyrinth. She interacts with a mysterious faun creature, who leads her through the labyrinth’s trials as she also balances real-world conflicts.
An Essential Fantasy Film
Regardless of genre or region produced, this is among the greatest movies of the 21st Century. Del Toro crafted a compelling fantasy story and executed it perfectly with beautiful cinematography — courtesy of collaborator Guillermo Navarro — effective CGI, and well-applied makeup. Not to mention the performances of its leads, or its elegant score. Considering its widespread acclaim, there’s no wonder why audiences went to see this essential fantasy flick. Stream on Tubi
5 Instructions Not Included (2013) — $44.47 Million
At the worldwide box office, Instructions Not Included (2013) accrued just over $100 million against a $5 million budget. Pretty impressive numbers. Directed by Eugenio Derbez from a script he co-wrote alongside two other creatives, it also features Derbez in the primary role: Valentín Bravo, a playboy from Mexico.
Running the Gamut of Emotion
When a child is presented on his doorstep, Valentín ventures to Los Angeles with hopes of finding her mother. It’s an engrossing plot from its inciting incident, with the father-daughter dynamic providing brilliant humor all throughout. And as funny as Instructions Not Included may be, it’s also poignant in the end. Though not the most acclaimed film you’ll read about today, it is held in high regard by audiences. Stream on Prime Video
4 Parasite (2019) — $53.37 Million
Among the greatest thriller directors of all time is Bong Joon-ho — regardless of genre, Parasite (2019) is his most famous film. As a true auteur, he writes the script for every film he directs. And while Memories of Murder (2003) and Mother (2009) resonated fondly with critics and South Korean audiences, they didn’t exactly make waves overseas. But Parasite received press and promotion like few Joon-ho films before, and that showed in its international ticket sales.
A Thrilling Tale of Social Inequity
Its plot homes in on the Kims, an indigent family who pose as professionals of various crafts to infiltrate the wealthy Park family. Twists unfold from there, with Parasite achieving a perfect balance of dark humor and blood-pumping spectacle. This is the movie that put American audiences on notice re: Bong’s acclaimed filmography, and in many people’s eyes, it’s also perhaps his masterpiece. Stream on Max
3 Hero (2002) — $53.71 Million
A wuxia martial arts film, Hero (2002) was directed by Zhang Yimou from a script he co-wrote alongside Feng Li and Bin Wang. And while their efforts were essential in bringing this imaginative project to life, the most notable names among Hero would be the star-studded cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen. No wonder fans were eager to see this martial arts adventure, as those are all among the greatest actors to ever live. And they led the project to critical acclaim.
Receiving Critical Acclaim
Along with fans, Hero also resonated fondly with pundits. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 94% approval rating, and at the 75th Academy Awards, it was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film. Critics were buzzing about its quality well before release — considering the star power among its cast, it’s no surprise that American audiences lined up to see it. Rent on YouTube
2 Life Is Beautiful (1998) — $57.25 Million
Directed by Roberto Benigni, who also stars, Life Is Beautiful (1998) follows Guido Orefice. An Italian bookshop owner, he spends the plot protecting his son during their imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s an emotional tale, with Benigni also co-writing the script alongside Vincenzo Cerami.
Making Benigni a Household Name
In Italy, the United States, and beyond, Life Is Beautiful garnered widespread praise from audiences. Benigni’s monumental efforts rendered him a household name, with his success at the box office being topped off by a slew of nominations at the Academy Awards. He even won for Best Actor, and fans were eager to witness his efforts. Rent on YouTube
1 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) — $128.08 Million
The most successful run for a non-English film at the American box office is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). A wuxia martial arts film, it proved quite a success with audiences everywhere. What’s more, on top of its high-grossing numbers, Crouching Tiger is also among the highest-rated films of the 21st Century.
Much More Than a Box Office Success
Directed by Ang Lee, its script was co-written by Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, and Tasi Kuo-jung. Each of those names received nominations at the Academy Awards in their respective categories — Best Director for Lee, and Best Adapted Screenplay for the writing trio. And frankly, that’s just scratching the surface of Crouching Tiger‘s critical acclaim. It’s easy to see how it cleaned up at the American box office. Rent on Prime Video