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The 40 Best Foreign-Language Films on Netflix

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The 40 Best Foreign-Language Films on Netflix

Movies have the wonderful ability to shift perception and help you to see and understand the other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in foreign-language films. For a century, cinema has helped us glimpse life in countries where we may never set foot. While Hollywood still dominates the box office, art houses and services like Netflix have given us easy access to films from around the globe. We scoured Netflix’s foreign movie offerings for our favorites. the list includes movies from 20 different nations and nearly that many languages. From traditional cinema powerhouses like France, Italy, Iran and Japan to more recent centers of creativity like Brazil, Indonesia and even Palestine, we give you the 40 Best Foreign-Language Films Streaming on Netflix.

troll-hunter.jpg 40. Troll Hunter
Year: 2010
Director: André Øvredal
Country: Norway
Language: Norwegian
There’s no denying that at its beginning, Troll Hunter seems like another Blair Witch Project knock-off. The first 20 minutes show us a young camera crew investigating some unexplained bear deaths and a suspicious man who may be poaching them. But rather than drawing out the mystery, it takes a sharp turn and tells us matter-of-factly that of course it was trolls killing the bears, and not only that, here’s one of them ready to bonk you on the head. The titular Troll Hunter extraordinaire is played by the affable comedian Otto Jespersen, who brings the entire monster premise to an entirely different level through his nonchalant attitude. In every sense, Troll Hunter lives up to its ridiculous name and premise. —Sean Gandert


omar.jpg 39. Omar
Year: 2014
Director:Hany Abu-Assad
Country: Palestine
Language: Arabic
More trenchant as a political allegory than a character drama, Omar is more interested in the ideas within this slow-burn thriller than in plot machinations. To writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, maniacal twists and cunning action set pieces would simply get in the way—better that we spend our time thinking about why the characters find themselves in this situation at all. Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Omar stars Adam Bakri as the titular young Palestinian, who must daily scale the imposingly tall security wall that separates him from his girlfriend, Nadia (Leem Lubany). Though very much in love, they haven’t yet revealed their relationship to her brother (and Omar’s good friend) Tarek (Eyad Hourani), who is planning with Omar and another close pal, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), to kill an Israeli soldier. The three friends’ mission is a success—it’s Amjad who pulls the trigger—but soon after, Omar is snagged by Israeli forces, led by Agent Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter). Threatening Omar with imprisonment, Rami promises him freedom if he’ll deliver Tarek, the group’s leader, to them in exchange. What’s most resonant in Omar is that, just as we can’t always gauge the characters, they’re, too, concealing parts of themselves from each other, a byproduct of living in a part of the world where distrust is commonplace and secrecy a necessity. Which is why Omar’s startling ending is both somewhat mystifying and also oddly perfect—we don’t see it coming, and yet deep down, we’re not surprised at all that it happened. —Tim Grierson


nightwatch.jpg 38. Night Watch
Year: 2004
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Country: Russia
Language: Russian
A huge hit in its native Russia, Night Watch is a preposterous celluloid Rorschach blot, the backstory and main narratives of which are too feverishly convoluted to summarize. But it works. As an epic about Good and Evil warriors scrapping on the streets of modern Moscow, the film is blissfully free of faux history lessons from the Obi-Wan and Elrond School of Film Exposition. The audience is tossed into a 1,000-year conflict involving witches, curses, vampires, shapeshifters and hypersonic public-utility vehicles and told to sink or swim. Thus, Night Watch feels like Harry Potter’s first week at Hogwarts—crammed with the giddy culture shock of constant discovery. —Michael Marano


daywatch.jpg 37. Day Watch
Year: 2006
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Country: Russia
Language: Russian
Day Watch is the sequel to Night Watch in which we learn that the world is in balance because of a centuries-old truce between the dark-siders and the light-siders who live amongst we clueless mortals.The truce is strained when one of the light guys, Anton, is suspected of murdering a couple of dark side vampires while searching for the mystical “Chalk of Fate.” He’s also looking for his son who has gone to the dark side. And he’s dealing with temporarily inhabiting the body of a woman who used to be an owl. Needless to say, Day Watch can be a tad confusing despite the fact that we are quickly updated on what happened in the first film. But the acting is superb, the dialogue is incredibly sharp and humorous, and the effects are amazing. Even the subtitles are entertaining as the words change color, bounce and crash into pieces. —Tim Basham


ip-man.jpg 36. Ip Man
Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
Country: China
Language: Cantonese
2008’s Ip Man was finally the moment when the truly excellent but never fairly regarded Donnie Yen came into his own, playing a loosely biographical version of the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chung and teacher of a number of future martial arts masters, one of whom was Bruce Lee. The film takes place in 1930s Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China), where the unassuming wing chung master tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action. Crazy, limb-breaking, face-pulverizing action. This semi-historical film succeeds gloriously both as cinema and as martial arts fan-bait. —K. Alexander Smith

he-even-has-your-eyes.jpg 35. He Even Has Your Eyes
Year: 2017
Director: Lucien Jean-Baptiste
Country: France
Language: French
Few films have been able to capture the inherent absurdity at the core of racism, but He Even Has Your Eyes achieves just this,a ll while providing an entertaining look at young coupledom and those early, terrifying stages of motherhood. From director Lucien Jean-Baptiste (who co-stars in the movie), the French-language comedy centers on a young black couple in Paris who decide to adopt a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, very white baby boy. Transracial adoption has been an acceptable aspect of society for so long, and it’s fascinating how, well, absurd things get when the adoptive parents are not white. Jean-Baptiste plays Paul Aloka, but the film is carried by Aïssa Maïga’s performance as his wife, Salimata. Both must navigate a meddling, racist adoption agent and the shock, awe and disappointment of their family members, all while they venture into parenthood for the first time—and yet, somehow the film never feels heavy or depressing, despite the seriousness of the topics. Unlike many other similar works concerned with race and racism, He Even Has Your Eyes is written in a way that doesn’t attempt to overly explain the black characters’ perspective, or (thank heavens) center any of the white characters either. Some of the cultural humor specific to Sali’s Senegalese family will only be funny to those of us who grew up in fear of our mothers hearing us suck our teeth. But like all stories concerned with a specific narrative and spoken with a distinctive voice, the film has a universal quality that makes it a heartwarming delight from beginning to end.—Shannon M. Houston


red-cliff.jpg 34. Red Cliff
Year: 2008
Director: John Woo
Country: China
Language: Mandarin
When we think of John Woo, we tend to think of gun ballads and Chow Yun-Fat. We’re not wired to think of large-scale portrayals of warfare, much less period dramas set during the end of the Han Dynasty. Magnolia split the film more or less in twain for its US release; you won’t find the full 288 version on Netflix Instant, but Red Cliff feels complete even with roughly half its content rotting on the cutting floor. This is a towering film, one that’s filled with allusion and metaphor, stratagem and scheming, sentimentality and philosophy, and eye-popping battle sequences that afford Woo plenty of room to harmonize historical accuracy with the signature flourishes that make him an action maestro. —Andy Crump


adele-blanc-sec.jpg 38. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Director:   Luc Besson  
Year: 2010
Country: France
Language: French
From the director of The Fifth Element and Léon: The Professional comes an adventure with all the whimsical flair of Terry Gilliam or Michel Gondry. Adèle Blanc-Sec has a wit as dry as her name, a fearlessness that would do Indiana Jones proud and a temper to match. A woman in early-1900s Paris, the boys club that surrounds her is just one more obstacle to casually brush aside. Her story involves an Egyptian tomb, a reanimated pterodactyl and an unstoppable resolve to help her sister. French with English subtitles, it’s the type of hidden gem that’s waiting on Netflix Instant to be discovered. —Josh Jackson


35.13assassins.NetflixList.jpg 32. 13 Assassins
Year: 2011
Director: Takashi Miike
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
An adaptation of Seven Samurai more in spirit than in tone and plot, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a sprawling blood bath of mythic proportions—so, in other words, nothing new for the Japanese auteur. What Miike later expounded upon with his faithful adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri he began here, translating classic chambara films into neo-realistic accounts of a gritty, painful time for Japanese culture, making historical epics literally eviscerating experiences. Seemingly long and definitely gruesome, 13 Assassins could easily be Miike’s best film—a high honor coming from such a multifaceted and unsettling filmmaker—but the film is worth watching if only for the moment when the phrase “TOTAL MASSACRE” makes its reappearance. Just… goosebumps. —Dom Sinacola


the-host.jpg 31. The Host
Year: 2006
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Before he was breaking out internationally with tight action films such as Snowpiercer, this South Korean monster movie was Bong Joon-ho’s big work and calling card. Astoundingly successful at the box office in his home country, it straddles several genre lines between sci-fi, family drama and horror, but there’s plenty of scary stuff with the monster menacing little kids in particular. Props to the designers on one of the more unique movie monsters of the last few decades—the creature in this film looks sort of like a giant tadpole with teeth and legs, which is way more awesome than it sounds. The real heart of the film is a superb performance by Song Kang-ho (also in Snowpiercer) as a seemingly slow-witted father trying to hold his family together during the disaster. That’s a pretty common role to be playing in a horror film, but the performances and family dynamic in general truly are the key factor that help elevate The Host far above most of its ilk. It’s not a coincidence that it became one of the most successful Korean films of all time. —Jim Vorel


i-am-love.jpg 30. I Am Love
Year: 2010
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Country: Italy
Language: Italian
The Recchi family, the powerful Italian clan at the core of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, is exclusive. Its wealth is nearly immeasurable, if not incomprehensible, and even marrying into it doesn’t warrant an invitation to its inner circle. Although Emma (Tilda Swinton) gave up her life in Russia—with the exception of her Russian accent, which she just can’t keep from tainting her Italian—in order to become a Recchi, she orbits the rest of the family in the Recchi villa, where the sense of propriety is nearly as tangible and cloying as its thick tapestries. I Am Love is a beautiful film, and a lesson in storytelling. It unfolds at a leisurely but lovely pace, taking time to revel in the details of the setting but never shifting focus from its many rich, complex characters. Swinton becomes Emma, her every pore and follicle embodying passion, guilt and grief with equal conviction. Even in its most tense moments, I Am Love is like the many dishes Antonio shows off in the film—painstakingly created and never overdone. —Ani Vrabel


33.Oldboy.NetflixList.jpg 29. Oldboy
Year: 2005
Director: Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a mind-trip like no other, not to mention so violent it puts Quentin Tarantino’s flicks to shame. The film’s setup: a man thirsts for revenge and answers after he is held prisoner in a hotel room for 15 years, without ever knowing why. As the story movies from one bloody rampage to another, the film’s daring audacity gives away to a beating heart behind the madness. Packing a potent psychological punch, Oldboy is in a category all its own. —Jeremy Medina


hard-to-be-a-god.jpg 28. Hard to Be a God
Year: 2015
Director: Aleksei German
Country: Russia
Language: Russian
Aleksei German’s final film is a stark, wild journey through medieval sci-fi filth. Like the drunken bastard child of a dreamy Andrei Tarkovsky epic and a Terry Gilliam yarn, in Hard to Be a God we see hints of Tarkovsky’s pensive takes, as well as his predilection toward existential speculative fiction (he adapted his 1979 film Stalker from a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same Russian brothers who wrote Hard to Be a God in 1964), coupled with a sort of sensory overload as German’s frames wander through countless intricate details that call to mind Gilliam, another director attracted to obsessive, timeless dystopia. Tarkovsky may have a penchant for surreal confusion, but he anchors his oneiric sensibilities in characters’ motivations, desires, and souls. Here, there’s no real motivation, no real desire, and no real soul, just a crawl through depravity. But if that’s all you’re after, then here you go: This shit is executed majestically. —Jeremy Mathews


tai-chi-master.jpg 27. Tai Chi Master
Year: 1993
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Leave it to Jet Li to invent Tai Chi. Another potboiler plot filmed with epic scale and impeccable grace, Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Master pits the mild-mannered Junbao (Li) against childhood friend and wildcard Tienbo (Chin Siu Ho) in a rapidly escalating yarn about what happens when great power is grabbed without responsibility. See also: Michelle Yeoh transubstantiating table legs into stilts, upon which she balances while attempting to brain an opponent with a lute; an extended high-wire act dappling the side of an executioner’s tower, alternately kept up and torn apart mid-brawl by Junbao and a furious Tienbo, respectively; and a final battle atop precariously bouncy netting, Tienbo literally getting his come-uppance. Also? Junbao handles a ball of wind-bonded leaves as a raver would a pair of glowsticks. Every set-piece Yuen sets his eye to is a dead-serious lark, halfway between hilarity and awe, so that by the time Junbao’s kung fu is an equal match to Tienbo’s, their showdown is settling nothing less than an ultimate power struggle between good and evil. —Dom Sinacola


pigeon.jpg 26. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Year: 2014
Director: Roy Andersson
Country: Sweden
Language: Swedish
Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson’s film avoids easy categorization. Through a series of vignettes—some connected, some not—we see snippets of life. Andersson fixes his camera in one spot and the action plays out in front of us: a group of older siblings tries to convince their dying sister not to take her handbag with her to Heaven, a bar of anonymous drinkers suddenly becomes a chorus, a woman in a dance troupe longs for her disinterested male cohort. And there are two stories that have subsequent episodes, including one featuring a couple of salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) who specialize in novelty joke items like fake vampire teeth. The specifics of what happens in these vignettes is less important than precisely how they’re constructed. Because of Andersson’s locked-down camera, each scene is comically static, like little skits of human behavior in which all the actors (most of them non-professionals) barely show any expression at all. (Adding to the theatricality and surreal oddness of the characters, Andersson puts white makeup on his performers, making them look like they’ve been drained of their vital fluids.) With no cuts and often incorporating exceptionally understated choreography within the frame, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a wonder to behold on formal terms: Andersson creates deceptively low-key movies that are actually quite visually and thematically sophisticated. —Tim Grierson


jp-taxi.jpg 25. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
Year: 2015
Director: Jafar Panahi
Country: Iran
Language: Persian
In the five years since Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced by government authorities to a 20-year ban from filmmaking in his homeland, the acclaimed auteur has turned inward—and kept making movies. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi carries itself like a documentary but is actually scripted. Taxi’s surface is casual, even impish, but underneath the movie are serious questions about filmmaking and individual freedom. If This Is Not a Film was defiant and Closed Curtain despairing, this new film is assured, composed, determined. And it stays with you, its larger implications asserting themselves in the hours after an initial viewing. The film lays out its conceit in its opening moments. Panahi is driving around Tehran in a cab, having installed small cameras onto the dashboard, and he’s picking up random passengers. Taking place over the course of a day, Taxi consists of his interactions with these different people, some of whom recognize him. Episodic and off-the-cuff, the 82-minute film initially feels like a lark, a renowned filmmaker spending a little time with everyday folks. But around the time that a married couple gets into the cab, the husband bloody and badly needing medical attention, it becomes clear that Panahi’s setup is actually a ruse, the whole project a work of fiction. The minutiae of the everyday is Taxi’s secret subject—ultimately, the movie argues, even during a seemingly normal day, the most jarring things can happen. It’s a poignant metaphor for a filmmaker living in his own unpredictable private prison. —Tim Grierson


train-to-busan.jpg 24. Train to Busan
Year: 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Love them or hate them, zombies are still a constant of the horror genre in 2016, dependable enough to set your conductor’s watch by. And although I’ve probably seen enough indie zombie films at this point to eschew them from my viewing habits for the rest of my life, there is still usually at least one great zombie movie every other year. In 2016, that was Train to Busan, a film that I sadly hadn’t yet seen when I wrote the 50 Best Zombie Movies of All Time. There’s no need for speculation: Train to Busan would undoubtedly have made the list. This South Korean story of a career-minded father attempting to protect his young daughter on a train full of rampaging zombies is equal parts suspenseful popcorn entertainment and genuinely affecting family drama. It concludes with several action elements that I’ve never seen before, or even considered for a zombie film, and any time you can add something truly novel to the genre of the walking dead, then you’re definitely doing something right. With a few memorable, empathetic supporting characters and some top-notch makeup FX, you’ve got one of the best zombie movies of the past half-decade. —Jim Vorel


the-square.jpg 23. The Square
Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Country: Egypt
Language: Arabic/English
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, the documentary The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of the greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed Startup.com, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult. —Tim Grierson


the-wailing.jpg 22. The Wailing
Year: 2016
Director: Na Hong-jin
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
The U.S. title of Na Hong-jin’s new film, The Wailing, suggests tone more than it does sound. There is wailing to be heard here, and plenty of it, but in two words Na coyly predicts his audience’s reaction to the movie’s grim tableaus of a county in spiritual strife. Though The Wailing ostensibly falls in the “horror” bin, Na trades in doubt and especially despair more than in what we think of as representing the genre. He isn’t out to terrify us—he’s out to corrode our souls, much in the same way that his protagonist’s faith is corroded after being subject to both divine and infernal tests over the course of the film. You may not leave the film scared, but you will leave it scarred, which is by far a more substantive response than naked fear. —Andy Crump


blue-warmest.jpg 21. Blue is the Warmest Color
Year: 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Country: France
Language: French
Three-hour movies usually are the terrain of Westerns, period epics or sweeping, tragic romances. They don’t tend to be intimate character pieces, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2) more than justifies its length. A beautiful, wise, erotic, devastating love story, this tale of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end utilizes its running time to give us a full sense of two individuals growing together and apart over the course of years. It hurts like real life, yet leaves you enraptured by its power. —Tim Grierson


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