The Best Foreign Movies to Stream on Netflix
See past the subtitles.
Heed the words of multi-Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho from his Golden Globes acceptance speech: "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." Subtitles don't need to be intimidating when they're offering a healthy culture fix from the comfort of your couch, thanks to Netflix. Whether you're trying to brush up on your foreign-language listening-comprehension skills or looking for a fresh new perspective, with titles ranging from comedy to drama to documentary, you won't need a plane ticket to get a closer look at a far-off land. While some of these movies are in English, or made by American filmmakers, each one offers a glimpse at a different perspective from our own. So sit back, relax, and plan the cheapest weekend getaway ever.
In Atlantics, the entrancing debut feature from Senegalese-French filmmaker Mati Diop, a debt must be paid. To construct a large glass tower in the coastal city of Dakar, an unscrupulous construction manager leans on his employees and refuses to provide the backpay they are owed. One of the workers, a young man named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), is in love with Ada (Mama Bineta Sané), a young woman engaged to a rich family's obnoxious, preening son. After establishing the tricky dynamics of this relationship, Diop's story takes a number of startling turns, introducing supernatural elements and a noir-like detective subplot. As the events unfold, often in engrossingly shot and exquisitely paced night sequences, the movie retains an ethereal quality that unsettles the imagination. Rather than providing conventional dramatic catharsis, Atlantics mimics the rhythms of the ocean, drawing in the viewer with each new wave of tension.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
While best remembered for its stamina-filled, seven-minute sex scene, this French movie features Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos figuring stuff out (about their bodies, about themselves) in the most exciting, French way possible. It does a pretty good job of destroying you with its love story, too. If you're unaware of the seedy logistics of how these scenes were produced, stay innocent and watch with fresh eyes.
Brahman Naman (2016)
Truly, nothing can spice up a school quiz tournament like the quest to lose your virginity. This Netflix original set in India in the 1980s sends a Bangalore trio of teenage horndogs to Calcutta to win on both counts. What results is a charming, colorful, surprisingly raunchy portrait of the universal teenage experience.
Some mysteries simmer; this one smolders. In his adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, writer and director Lee Chang-dong includes many elements of the acclaimed author's slyly mischievous style -- cats, jazz, cooking, and an alienated male writer protagonist all pop up -- but he also invests the material with his own dark humor, stray references to contemporary news, and an unyielding sense of curiosity. We follow aimless aspiring novelist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) as he reconnects with Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman he grew up with, but the movie never lets you get too comfortable in one scene or setting. When Yeun's Ben, a handsome rich guy with a beautiful apartment and a passion for burning down greenhouses, appears, the film shifts to an even more tremulous register. Can Ben be trusted? Yeun's performance is perfectly calibrated to entice and confuse, like he's a suave, pyromaniac version of Tyler Durden. Each frame keeps you guessing.
Thrillers don't come much more propulsive or elegant than Houda Benyamina's Divines, a heartwarming French drama about female friendship that spirals into a pulse-pounding crime saga. Rambunctious teenager Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) begin the film as low-level shoplifters and thieves, but once they fall into the orbit of a slightly older, seasoned drug dealer named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), they're on a Goodfellas-like trajectory. Benyamina offsets the violent, gritty genre elements with lyrical passages where Dounia watches her ballet-dancer crush rehearse his routines from afar, and kinetic scenes of the young girls goofing off on social media. It's a cautionary tale told with joy, empathy, and an eye for beauty.
First They Killed My Father (2017)
Few Hollywood movies have detailed the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's rise to power in Cambodia in 1975 -- the genocidal revolutionary movement isn't exactly the backdrop for the next Titanic. But Angelina Jolie, who developed a close connection to the country when she first visited during the shoot for Tomb Raider, brings the gloss of big-budget movies to this horrifying-but-tender adaptation of Loung Ung's memoir of the same name. Like Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, First They Killed My Father tracks the Cambodian diaspora from city living to makeshift, military-run farm communes, all from the perspective of 7-year-old Loung. Jolie rarely wavers from the POV, witnessing violence from down low and leaving reality behind in moments of escapism. Jolie pours her heart into telling the story, and it shows.
I Lost My Body (2019)
A loose adaptation of Academy Award nominee Guillaume Laurant's (Amelie) 2006 novel, Happy Hand, I Lost My Body is one of the most unodorothox and surreal animated feature in recent history. In short, this French film is about a severed hand attempting to reunite with the rest of its body, but it's more a meditation on humanity and wholeness than it is a gross-out horror film. Netflix acquired the movie after it premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim, and it's another sign that the streaming giant's creative ambition will push it into exciting new territory.
The Ip Man movies
There aren't many biopics that also pass for decent action movies. Somehow, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip have made three separate movies based on the life of Chinese martial arts master Yip Kai-man, who famously trained Bruce Lee. What's their trick to keeping this series fresh? Play fast and loose with the facts, up the melodrama with each film, and when in doubt, cast Mike Tyson as an evil property developer. The third movie in the series isn't necessarily the best -- that's probably still the first film -- but the fights are incredible, and Yen's portrayal of the aging master still has the power to draw a few tears from even the most grizzled tough guy.
Les Affamés (2017)
Whether you're zombie-addicted or not, Les Affamés (The Ravenous) is worth checking out. Robin Aubert's arty French-Canadian thriller picks up after the outbreak of a mysterious plague, which has ravaged rural Quebec and decimated its population. The scenario might sound familiar, but the scenes often unfold with fresh rhythms and punctuation marks. The survivors you meet along the way, for example -- likely unknowns to most stateside viewers, but talented as hell -- are not ordinary heroes, and truthfully they're concerned less with rebuilding their community or finding answers and more with simply surviving. Also, the zombies are not just zombies. That said, Les Affamés might have more in common with the underrated romp Wyrmwood than something like The Walking Dead. It's slightly more grounded than the former, to be sure, but it's likewise a unique, and at times surreal, spin on the genre we were pleased to find.
The Lobster (2016)
To examine modern love, this baroque, sci-fi rom-com from Yorgos Lanthimos -- his first English-language film -- basically splits into two movies: the first is an evisceration of Bachelor-esque monogamy logic, where Colin Farrell's David must find love in 45 days or be turned into an animal (of his choice -- the overlords aren't monsters). The second boots our hero to savage woods, where escaped singles plot terrorist attacks against their romance-obsessed society. Shaded with cool hues and orchestrated like a minor symphony, Farrell and Rachel Weisz’s character, who becomes his secret love, balance the off-kilter dystopia with vibrant, sexual heat. Outrunning tranquilizer darts never looked so good, making The Lobster is original, heartfelt, and would make an awful date movie.
Threesomes. Blowjobs. Bathroom-stall fucks. Entangling in every position known to mankind. French director Gaspar Noé made headlines for featuring loads of unsimulated sex in this film, but there's tenderness at the center of this erotica, too, following a man who ruins his passionate romance with a fling, then finds himself in a noir-like search for his missing ex. Noé tracks the nonlinear timeline through spurts of graphic commingling, and wrings absorbing performances out of his unknown cast. Love is the definition of horny, provocative drama.
My Happy Family (2017)
At 52, Manana (Ia Shughliashvili) packs a bag and walks out on her husband, son, daughter, daughter's live-in boyfriend, and elderly mother and father, all of whom live together in a single apartment in Georgia. The family is cantankerous and blustery, asking everything of Manana, who spends her days teaching better-behaved teenagers about literature. But as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß's striking character study unfolds, the motivation behind Manana's departure is a deeper strain of frustration, despite what her brother, aunts, uncles, and anyone else who can cram themselves into the situation would like us to think. Anchored by Ia Shughliashvili's stunningly internal performance, and punctured by a dark sense of humor akin to Darren Aronofsky's mother! (which would have been the perfect alternate title), My Happy Family is both delicate and brutal in its portrayal of independence, and should get under the skin of anyone with their own family drama.
Bong Joon Bong's Netflix movie is a wild ride: part action heist, part Miyazaki-like travelogue, and part scathing satire. It's fueled by fairy-tale whimsy -- but the Grimm kind, where there are smiles and spilled blood. Ahn Seo-hyun plays Mija, a young South Korean girl living in the mountains who has raised an adorable "super-pig," a breed, unbeknownst to Mija, developed by a food manufacturer to be the next step in human-consumption evolution. When the corporate overlords come for her roly-poly pal, Mija hightails it from the farm to the big city to break him out, crossing environmental terrorists (including ones played by Paul Dano and Steven Yeun), a zany Steve Irwin-esque type (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the icy psychos at the top of the food chain (including Swinton's childlike CEO) along the way. Okja doesn't pluck your heartstrings like, say, E.T., but there's grandeur in its frenzy, and the film's cross-species friendship will strike up every other emotion with its empathetic, eco-friendly, and eccentric observations.
On Body and Soul (2017)
This Hungarian film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, and it's easy to see why. The sparse love story begins when two slaughterhouse employees discover they have the same dream at night, in which they're both deer searching the winter forest for food. Endre, a longtime executive at the slaughterhouse, has a physically damaged arm, whereas Maria is a temporary replacement who seems to be on the autism spectrum. If the setup sounds a bit on-the-nose, the moving performances and the unflinching direction save On Body and Soul from turning into a Thomas Aquinas 101 class, resulting in the kind of bleak beauty you can find in a dead winter forest.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s dark odyssey Pan’s Labyrinth takes a fantasy setting to mirror the horrible political realities of the human realm. Set in 1940s Falangist Spain, the film documents the hero’s journey of a young girl and stepdaughter of a ruthless Spanish army officer as she seeks an escape from her war-occupied world. When a fairy informs her that her true destiny may be as the princess of the underworld, she seizes her chance. Like Alice in Wonderland if Alice had gone to Hell instead of down the rabbit hole, the Academy Award-winning film is a wondrous, frightening fairy tale where that depicts how perilous the human-created monster of war can be.
The Pianist (2002)
In 2003, Adrien Brody became the youngest person ever to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist fighting for survival in Warsaw at the dawn of World War II, in The Pianist. The autobiographical film directed by Roman Polanski (who also took home the prize for Best Director) documents the true life story of Szpilman who grew up in a privileged family and refused to believe the Nazi occupation would grow big enough to affect him and his loved ones, until the threat proves to be all too real. With precision, Brody nails this challenging role that sees an unavoidable travesty unfold before his eyes, and the granular, though extensive, effects it had on one individual.
The Platform (2020)
it's difficult to watch The Platform, a cannibalistic prison freak-out from Spain and not imagine a producer sitting in a conference room or a coffee shop and musing, "What if Snowpiercer but vertical?" The debut feature from Spanish filmmaker Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia boasts an appealing high-concept premise, an oddly affable leading man in actor Iván Massagué, and a series of brutal twists that should intrigue anyone currently watching the news and thinking about the possible end game of rampant inequality. Instead of a train, The Platform takes place in a prison-like structure called the "Vertical Self-Management Center" where inmates live two to a floor. Those on the top get first dibs on a giant platform of food that descends from the ceiling everyday; those on the bottom get the scraps -- or nothing at all. Dismantling the system of this socioeconomic experiment unravels through David Desola and Pedro Rivero's knotty, exposition-packed script.
Alfonso Cuarón's latest film dives back into the Oscar-winning director's own childhood as a kind of study of and tribute to the inner life of his family housekeeper. Set in Mexico City in the 1970s during a period of civil unrest, Roma is a mesmerizing, tender veneration of the kinds of people who are so easily taken for granted. Distributed by Netflix itself, the piece, which is shot beautifully in black and white, features extremely intimate sound work and sincere shots as if torn from a family photo album. Roma is a masterpiece in the purest form and a game changer for the streaming platform.
Did people go overboard in praising Snowpiercer when it came out? Maybe. But it's important to remember that the movie arrived in the sweaty dog days of summer, hitting critics and sci-fi lovers like a welcome blast of icy water from a hose. The film's simple, almost video game-like plot -- get to the front of the train, or die trying -- allowed visionary South Korean director Bong Joon Ho to fill the screen with excitement, absurdity, and radical politics. Chris Evans never looked more alive, Tilda Swinton never stole more scenes, and mainstream blockbuster filmmaking never felt so tepid in comparison. Come on, ride the train!
Train to Busan (2016)
There are so many zombie movies and TV shows, it's hard to know what's actually good and what's garbage. But the South Korean import Train to Busan is one of the most novel, clever, and refreshingly entertaining zombie massacres to hit the screen in quite some time. It's about nothing more than a father and his young daughter who board a train from Seoul to Busan just as a very expeditious zombie virus has hit the area. Onboard the train, you'll find a colorful collection of amusing disaster movie archetypes, from a gruff bully and his pregnant wife to a teenage girl with a crush on a hunky baseball player, and Yeon Sang Ho, in his debut, does a very nice job of ramping up the zombie insanity at frequent and regular intervals. (Watch Psychokinesis, Yeon's 2018 action movie with a heart, next.)
Verónica, a Spanish ghost thriller in the vein of The Conjuring, is inspired by a terrifying true story about a girl dabbling with the powers of a Ouija board. A young girl named, what else, Verónica (Sandra Escacena) uses the board to conjure bad spirits with her friends during a solar eclipse while lodging an attempt to contact her dead father; they end up waking up some truly sinister forces. Whether or not it's actually scary is up for you to decide.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Before taking us to space with Gravity, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón steamed up screens with this sexed-up, comedic drama about two teenage boys (Diego Luna and young Gael García Bernal) road tripping with an older woman (Maribel Verdú). Like a sunbaked Jules and Jim, the movie makes nimble use of its central love triangle, setting up conflicts between the characters as they move through the complicated political and social realities of Mexican life. It's a confident, relaxed film that's got an equal amount of brains and sex appeal, including one of the sultriest second-hand kisses you'll ever experience.
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