The 30 Best Foreign-Language Films on Netflix

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The 30 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 international movie offerings for our favorites. The list includes movies from a dozen different languages from a dozen or more different countries—from traditional cinema powerhouses like France, Italy and Japan to more recent centers of creativity like Brazil, Indonesia and even the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Here are the 30 Best Foreign-Language Films on Netflix:

the-lives-of-others.jpg 30. The Lives of Others
Year: 2007
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Language: German
The Lives of Others is a cleverly constructed film about an East German spy who surveils a playwright suspected of sympathizing with the West. He bugs the man’s house, listens to his every peep and writes daily reports. But as he listens, he begins to have reservations about the mission. We never learn much about the spy, although he’s the center of the movie, and writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck relies almost entirely on an ambiguous, minimally expressive performance from his star to keep the man’s changing sympathies plausible. Von Donnersmarck has a number of genuinely good ideas, building interesting, complex set pieces but then knocks them out of alignment, like a jeweler wearing boxing gloves—he has so little trust in the audience’s ability to keep up with the plot twists that he often explains them two or three times. Still this is an intermittently engrossing film about bad-spies-gone-good. —Robert Davis


psychokinesis-movie-poster.jpg 29. Psychokinesis
Year: 2018
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Language: Korean
Following up Train to Busan, his adroit add-on to the endlessly alive zombie genre, Yeon Sang-ho offers another interpretation of the zeitgeist with Psychokinesis, building a deft, vaguely political room of South Korea’s own in the cinematic superhero universe. Ryu Seung-ryong plays everyman nobody Shin Seok-heon, a dopey security guard estranged from his family, brought back into daughter Roo-mi’s (Shim Eun-kyung) life after a gang of unionized construction workers accidentally kill her mother while attempting to evict the young fried chicken entrepreneur from their small storefront. Also: Seok-heon has burgeoning superpowers of the titular variety, contracted when he drinks from a public spring polluted with an alien substance recently released into the earth via crashed space rock. Though Yeon (who also wrote the film) typically confuses comic book sensibility with a total lack of deeply written characters struggling under actually interesting motivations and backstories, Yeon isn’t particularly driven by the same forces as the MCU or the DCEU: Psychokinesis has an unfettered heart, an unfussy melodrama, in ways films of those brands don’t, not burdened by the same economic pressure—while also declaring very clearly that the police are bad. It’s all pretty refreshing in the wake of an Infinity War. —Dom Sinacola


everybody-knows.jpg 28. Everybody Knows
Year: 2018
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Language: Spanish
The mixture of plot twists and moral shading, the focus on flawed characters and irresolvable pasts: Fans of writer-director Asghar Farhadi have come to cherish these trademark elements in his films. Everybody Knows is the Iranian filmmaker’s first work in Spanish. It stars Penelope Cruz as Laura, a wife and mother who returns to the village where she grew up after years of living in Argentina with her husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darin). The reason for the reunion is her sister’s wedding, which brings joy but also anxiety for Laura. While she’s happy to see her family after being gone for so long, there’s an overriding tension: Why has she been so absent? Also making things complicated is that this is the first time in a decade that she’s seen Paco (Javier Bardem), who owns a vineyard and was once Laura’s lover. But that’s seemingly all in the past since he’s now happily married to Bea (Barbara Lennie). Of course, anyone who’s seen a Farhadi film—including A Separation, The Past and The Salesman—knows that old lovers and complicated families don’t go quietly. Those ingredients are the basic building blocks of Farhadi’s dramas, and once Everybody Knows gets rolling, we raise our antennae, preparing for the shockwaves to come. Amidst a superb cast, Bardem and Cruz are both strong playing characters who haven’t let go of the past—a familiar affliction in Farhadi’s films. Which is maybe why Lennie is Everybody Knows’ true knockout. Sexy and smart, Bea is a vital life force who’s captured Paco’s heart. But once Laura returns—and Irene goes missing—she starts to understand that there are whole lifetimes of her husband’s existence that she’s never fully appreciated. Her tragedy may be that, suddenly, it could be too late to do anything about it, and Lennie displays the flurry of anger, sadness and panic that accompany such a profound test of her marriage. As Farhadi skillfully moves his protagonists around the chessboard, only Lennie feels fully untethered, her wild card of a character refusing to be reined in by her husband—or even Farhadi’s narrative maneuvering. —Tim Grierson


ip-man.jpg 27. Ip Man
Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
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 26. 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


train-to-busan.jpg 25. 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


mary-witchs-flower.jpg 24. Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Year: 2018
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Language: Japanese
There’s something heartbreaking about the idea of a child who’s eager to help around the house but creates more of a mess than they end up cleaning. That’s Mary, the title character of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s new film Mary and the Witch’s Flower. She wants to be useful to her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron), and to Charlotte’s housekeeper, Miss Banks (Morwenna Banks), but she can’t relieve Charlotte of an empty teacup without dropping it on the floor. The kid’s a walking disaster. It’s practically tragic. She’s a good kid, she just has nothing to do, until she meets a couple of outdoor cats who lead her to a clutch of glowing blue flowers which capture her curiosity on sight. Not knowing exactly what they are (hint: they’re witch’s flowers), Mary takes them back to Charlotte’s and quickly discovers that the flowers bestow temporary magical abilities on whoever touches them. Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s plot—and, boy, there’s a lot of plot—kicks off from there: Mary is whisked away by a flying sentient broom to an academy for witches, led by Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who put on a kindly front that disguises unsavory intentions. There’s a familiarity to Mary and the Witch’s Flower as narrative: Harry Potter-lite by way of Studio Ghibli-lite with a dash of Yonebayashi’s past thematic interests. The whole thing is spirited, gentle and unfailingly lovely. We all look for magic in the world around us, and when we do the world routinely lets us down. Movies like this remind us that there’s magic, and life, in art—and perhaps especially in animation. —Andy Crump


jiro-sushi.jpg 23. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Year: 2012
Director: David Gelb
Language: Japanese
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick


blue-warmest.jpg 22. Blue is the Warmest Color
Year: 2013
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
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


my-life-zucchini-poster.jpg 21. My Life as a Zucchini
Year: 2016
Director: Claude Barras
Language: French
My Life as a Zucchini begins bleakly. Our nine-year-old, blue-haired protagonist (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is called Icare—translated in English as “Icarus,” though the allusion hardly seems to matter—but he insists on going by Courgette (“Zucchini”), not because he looks like a vegetable or because a zucchini has any metaphorical relevance, but because it’s a nickname his mother gave him. And within those opening minutes, Zucchini has every reason to cling to a small gift from his mom: The boy, completely by accident, kills her. Nowadays, this is just how Oscar nominated kids movies do. From there, the film lightens considerably, even though Zucchini, orphaned post-accident, meets a cadre of broken children at the orphanage to which he’s assigned. After winning the begrudging respect of Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), the self-appointed leader of the small group of castaways, Zucchini learns of the plights of his fellow children: abuse, pedophilia, severe mental illness, alcoholism—all of this Simon relates with little understanding, besides that for each child an unthinkable tragedy means there is no one left to love them, and thus they end up there, bound by their foster-less-ness. Director Barras’s most impressive feat—besides keeping this animated film under 70 minutes—is how effortlessly he gives the film to Zucchini, never once letting the corruption of the adult world stain My Life as a Zucchini’s lively hues and livelier magnanimity. Tonally, Barras struggles in almost every scene, especially when the heaviness of his characters’ lives aren’t given the seriousness such heaviness demands, and optimism threatens to obfuscate the crimes of the adults whose choices led to these kids’ situations so directly. Still, if all Barras is trying to say is that human beings are essentially good—contrary to popular opinion at the moment—then that should be enough. One can’t fault a film too harshly for loving its characters too much to watch them suffer needlessly, or fault an artist too adamantly for adopting the indefatigable idealism of a prepubescent with a pointless nickname. —Dom Sinacola


the-square.jpg 20. The Square
Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
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


fire-at-sea-poster.jpg 19. Fire at Sea
Year: 2016
DIrector: Gianfranco Rosi
Language: Italian
Fire at Sea is an imagistic grasp at a few months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, 100 miles south of Sicily and the first glimpse of land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. With no voiceover and little context, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi juxtaposes the lives of men, women and children barely sustaining themselves on the fringes of society, of humanity, with the everyday, mundane existences of the denizens of the island—both those who devote their lives to helping the refugees and those who work or play or eat big mounds of spaghetti without one thought for the deluge of sad souls passing over their home turf. In long takes and cinematography that aches with the need to push beyond the boundaries of the screen, Rosi indulges in the rhythm of that juxtaposition, daring us to move on from one atrocity after another in order to understand what moving on takes: a lot of boring afternoons and silent plates of spaghetti. —Dom Sinacola


legendary weapons of china poster (Custom).jpg 18. Legendary Weapons of China
Year: 1982
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Language: Cantonese
Though a bit of a storytelling Gordian knot, Legendary Weapons of China’s interconnected plots makes for tons of colorful characters and combat. Its main narrative revolves around a group of “spiritual boxers,” martial artists attempting to train their bodies to resist the bullets of Western imperialist guns, committed also to hunting down former members of the group who have since admitted that stopping a bullet by flexing your abs probably isn’t possible. The film’s real attraction is the incredible array of styles: Ti Tan the impenetrable monk played by Gordon Liu, Maoshan “magic boxers” and more. As if that’s not enough, you also have the reason for the title: This film highlights the styles and uses of traditional Chinese weaponry better than few others of its ilk. Lau Kar-leung features 18 different weapons in total, many during the epic final scene where the hero and villain cycle through all of the legendary weapons as they probe the strengths and weaknesses of each bit of armament. It’s magnificent. —Jim Vorel


april-extraordinary-world-poster.jpg 17. April and the Extraordinary World
Year: 2015
Director: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci
Language: French
Keeping real life global history straight in narratives that leapfrog across decades and centuries is tough enough—making sense of alternate history when it’s articulated at breakneck speed throughout multiple eras of European cultural advancement is just downright strenuous. Think of April and the Extraordinary World as an intense workout for your brain, during which the film shapes a surrogate Earth in the span of mere minutes and fires off salvos of detail, visual and aural alike, in the pursuit of recalibrating the past. The inattentive and unimaginative need not apply. Good news for diligent viewing types, though: April and the Extraordinary World is pretty great, a compact exercise in world building without handholding that rewards a patient, observant audience. If you can keep pace with the film’s plot deployment, you’ll be in for a wonderful ride littered with talking cats, fabulous steampunk backdrops, rollercoaster excitement and terrific characters, all drawn through the fundamental beauty of cel animation. April and the Extraordinary World reminds us of the aesthetic value of traditional animation and the necessity of human ingenuity, all without treating its audience like idiots. —Andy Crump


cagliostro.jpg 16. Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
Year: 1979
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Language: Japanese
The nature of Miyazaki’s oeuvre is such that it brims with an embarrassment of riches, each film in its own part situated indelibly into the continuum that is the anime canon. His films garner so much acclaim for their visual storytelling and emotional virtuosity that even those few that could be considered his “worst” movies still rank leagues above those animators who only aspire to his status. Case in point: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki’s take on Kazuhiko Kato’s notorious master criminal is at once a rip-roaring heist film with heart and what might arguably be Miyazaki’s lesser films. Chalk it up to Miyazaki’s nascent efforts as a director; Castle of Cagliostro suffers from a plodding middle half and a disappointingly simplistic antagonist while still somehow managing to sparkle with his signature charm peeking through the baggage of a preexisting work. Fans of the series passionately criticized the film for relieving Lupin of his anarchic predilections and instead casting him in the mold of a true gentleman thief, stealing only when his nebulous sense of honor permits it. In any case, The Castle of Cagliostro remains an important and essential artifact of Miyazaki’s proto-Ghibli work. A flawed Miyazaki film is a triumph all the same. —Toussaint Egan


three-movie.jpg 15. Three
Year: 2016
Director: Johnnie To
Language: Cantonese
Can you imagine a worse place for cops and robbers to play a game of cat and mouse than a bustling, overstuffed hospital? An orphanage, perhaps, or maybe an elementary school, but houses of convalescence rank pretty high on the list of “least desirable” locations for the police to butt heads with a hardened crook, even when the hardened crook is cuffed to a gurney with a bullet lodged in his brain. But that blatant mismatch of public safety and criminal investigation is part of what makes Johnnie To’s film, Three, so great: The setting gives To a labyrinthine stage to explore, a constrained environment where succor is increasingly tinged by a sense of peril. Three is both a sort-of chamber piece and a lesson in escalating tension. In it, To, per usual, packages stellar filmmaking with a deceptively simple premise. This time around, Dr. Tong (Wei Zhao), a neurosurgeon whose ambition is her greatest vice, is on duty when Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) and his team bring in a wounded suspect (Wallace Chung) for treatment. Just before he goes under the knife, the suspect refuses medical care and begins an elaborate 80-minute battle of wits with his arrester and his provider. Maybe To couldn’t have set Three anywhere but in a hospital. It’s the perfect spot for a conflict of morals, and its cool, maze-like qualities reflect both the mounting complexities of the film’s plot as well as To’s clinical filmmaking style. He orchestrates each sequence with control and precision that feels downright surgical, though the film’s speed-ramped finale reminds us that To has maintained his passion for his craft even after directing movies for over 30 years. In his towering body of work, Three is a satisfyingly minor entry, but minor To is better than major films by most any other contemporary filmmaker you can imagine. —Andy Crump


night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpg 14. The Night Comes for Us
Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Language: Indonesian
While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss. It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever. Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


aquarius.jpg 13. Aquarius
Year: 2016
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Language: Portuguese
Clara (Sonia Braga) is one of the great heroines in contemporary cinema, and her story is one that will endure. By the movie’s climax, one woman’s struggle to hold on to her apartment despite crooked developers’ schemes takes on a dramatic weight found in the most ambitious, large-scale epics—yet Filho’s touch couldn’t be lighter. His direction is elegant and restrained, because he has the confidence not to force his effects. He believes in his ideas, and knows they’ll deepen and expand in the viewer’s mind if he just presents them unadorned. Undoubtedly, part of his confidence comes from the gift he got from Braga, who gives the performance of her career, doing the same thing with her voice, face and body that Filho does with his camera, finding economical gestures that express infinite emotions and ideas. I can’t think of many other roles that so fully encapsulate the human condition in all its humor, tragedy, loss, triumph, eroticism, weariness, fear and hope. —Jim Hemphill


look-of-silence.jpg 12. The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Year: 2015
Language: Indonesian
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —Dom Sinacola


36th-chamber.jpg 11. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Language: Mandarin
And this is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets—the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays a young student who is wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he is finally granted the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. It’s the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine the traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable. The film just has a gravitas—it imbues kung fu with a great dignity, because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


mustang.jpg 10. Mustang
Year: 2016
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Language: Turkish
Imagine the unimaginable: One moment you’re out enjoying a beautiful, sunny day with your friends and your sisters, and the next, your grandmother is slapping you silly for having inappropriate contact with boys. Everything else snowballs from there: You’re whisked off to the doctor for a virginity test, your personal possessions are shut up in a cupboard (along with the telephones), the doors are kept locked and contractors come to reinforce the house you live in with your family, turning it into an improvised prison-cum-wife factory for you and your untamed siblings. Such is the stuff of Mustang, the debut film of Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Mustang is her neorealist chronicle of femininity bound against its will to draconian gender politics. From start to finish, the film crackles with gelid fury. Ergüven doesn’t tip the outrage scale into histrionics, but she doesn’t need to. We can sense exactly how pissed off she is behind the lens. —Andy Crump


happy-as-lazzaro-movie-poster.jpg 9. Happy as Lazzaro
Year: 2018
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Language: Italian
It’s very difficult to get into too many details about Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro without spoiling it—which seems a ridiculous thing to say about a film that starts off as a rural Italian take on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, but you’ve got no idea until you’re watching it. Rohrwacher’s The Wonders was a more intimate, personal film that had moments of magic realism peeking through, just barely. Happy as Lazzaro similarly keeps the magic in check (though a scene with whispers in a field will start to invoke Fellini) until it no longer can—and then the magic explodes, blowing up the narrative and sending what’s left in an insanely bold direction. We can only be applaud its daring. If Dostoevsky was re-framing the Christ narrative, Happy as Lazzaro re-frames the very idea of a Christ narrative until it is something else entirely. Here, Christ is a mythic wolf and our kind idiot Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a touched Lazarus; the difference between them is a matter of substance, time and place. Lazzaro’s goodness, like all earthly goodness, is simultaneously transcendent and doomed, but the wolf continues on beyond any mortal coil, against the flow of humanity. Lazzaro tries to follow, perhaps foolishly, perhaps blindly…but happily, nonetheless. —Chad Betz


my-happy-family-movie-poster.jpg 8. My Happy Family
Year: 2017
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß
Language: Georgian
It’s a shame Netflix felt like Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family deserved a burial, that the company didn’t bother pushing the film for awards season and neglected to give it a boost in visibility for the average consumer. Because Ekvtimishvili and Groß’s latest collaboration in a long line of collaborations is superb, timely and altogether unexpected in its unwavering grace. Compared to the year’s other films centered on dysfunctional families, whether hammy (I, Tonya) or naturalist (Lady Bird), My Happy Family is a gentle tribute to dignity: Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) is never less than noble in her constant dedication to her family, even as she determines that to preserve her sanity she must move out of the apartment she shares with them and lay down roots in a pad of her own. My Happy Family doesn’t judge Manana—it validates her. It illustrates a woman’s liberation from social and familial expectations, allowing Manana to discover who she is, what she wants and where she’s going without looking down on her. But My Happy Family is a small film with grand artistic ambitions, and both Ekvtimishvili and Groß know that Manana’s bliss has its limit. They know that eventually the matters of her husband and children, plus their extended family, must be reconciled. Still, My Happy Family shows a benevolent kind of restraint by ending on a note of uncertainty, sparing us the lion’s share of that work, its ultimate lingering ambiguity a thing of honorable beauty. —Andy Crump


graduation-movie-poster.jpg 7. Graduation
Year: 2017
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Language: Romanian
The crimes are minor but it’s the misdemeanors that do the most harm in Graduation, an excellent Romanian drama that begins as a father’s hope for his talented teen daughter and morphs into a claustrophobic moral crisis ensnaring several individuals. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu lays out his story with nearly surgical precision, adopting a chilly tone for a movie about the tiny, day-to-day infractions that conspire to corrode society’s foundation. This is the fourth feature from Mungiu, who has proved to be a master of the minor. In his breakout second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the arduous process to secure an abortion was enough to sustain a taut, real-time thriller. In his 2012 follow-up Beyond the Hills, the tense relationship between two childhood friends became a springboard for a drama about religious faith and devotion. Now with Graduation, Mungiu again sees the drama in the everyday, arguing that it’s not the major injustices that are the most nefarious—it’s the small ways we screw over the other guy on a regular basis that keep us so paranoid and distrustful of one another. Rarely has cheating on a test been fraught with such significance. —Tim Grierson


crouching-tiger.jpg 6. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Year: 2000
Director: Ang Lee 
Language: Mandarin
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning epic is not only the highest-grossing foreign film ever in America (still), but it also happens to be a film that changed the cinematic landscape: an old-school wuxia flick, with pulpy soul and a romantic heart, that reinvigorated the genre for a whole new audience. Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi play 19th-century warriors whose loyalty and vitality are tested by a series of events that lead each to contemplate their many decisions that brought them together. Beyond the entrancing and lyrical storytelling, Crouching Tiger stands as a rare, beautiful beacon of hope: a foreign film that was actually universally embraced by Western audiences. Here’s to hoping that happens more often, though it’s been almost two decades and nothing has had the same impact since. —Jeremy Medina


okja-movie-poster.jpg 5. Okja
Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Language: Korean
Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz


roma-movie-poster.jpg 4. Roma
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Language: Spanish, Mixtec
Alfonso Cuarón’s film tells many stories, but at the center of the frame is the story of his childhood maid, Libo, translated into Roma as Cleo and played by acting novice Yalitza Aparicio, who auditioned for the film almost on accident. Casting her seems a neo-realist move for authenticity, and for the most part it plays out like that: Cleo is quiet, reserved and submissive when in her servant role, somewhat more expressive when interacting with her fellow servants or with her aloof lover—but those revealing moments are fleeting. The film is composed primarily of wide shots, so each medium frame of Cleo’s face is its own gift wherein you go looking for an interior life that you—like Cuarón, knowingly—can’t quite reach. Still, Roma has some weighty demands on Cleo in its final act, and Aparicio’s performance extends, reaching without ever breaking. Tasked with playing both a real woman and a figure of memory, someone disenfranchised but also cherished (to a certain limit) by the family she served, Aparicio finds a perfect balance. One scene demonstrates just that: A multitude of others flounder as Cleo’s spirit points straight up and unwavering. The clarity of her love and kindness holds her, and the many stories surrounding her, in place. —Chad Betz


look-of-silence.jpg 3. The Look of Silence
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Year: 2015
Language: Indonesian
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —Dom Sinacola


five-venoms-movie-poster.jpg 2. The Five Venoms
Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
Language: Mandarin
This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: The Five Venoms (aka Five Deadly Venoms) is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of the Centipede (Lu Feng), the trickery and guile of the Snake (Wei Pei), the stinging kicks of the Scorpion (Sun Chien), the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of the Lizard Kuo Chui), and the nigh-invincibility of the Toad (Lo Mang), along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers: high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? It’s emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema and the joy taken in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil. —Jim Vorel


burning-movie-poster.jpg 1. Burning
Year: 2018
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Language: Korean
Eight years after critical hit Poetry, Korean director Lee Chang-dong translates a very brief and quarter-century old story by Japanese master novelist Haruki Murakami into something distinctly Korean, distinctly contemporary (spoiler warning: there’s a news clip of Trump) and distinctly Lee Chang-dong. But also: into something that utterly captures the essence of Murakami. Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is an aspiring young writer who quits his menial job to tend to his incarcerated father’s farm (a storyline the film takes from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” after which Murakami—as referential as ever—named his own story). Jong-su encounters a childhood acquaintance, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Joon), who apparently he interacted with just once as a kid by calling her “ugly.” Anyways, Hae-mi’s all grown up and claims to have had plastic surgery; she and Jong-su strike up a relationship. It’s unusual and unnerving: Hae-mi is erratic and inscrutable, possibly a compulsive liar, while Jong-su can barely do more than gape and breathe. Nonetheless, Lee couches this set-up in exquisite details and rich observation. Spontaneously (as is her wont), Hae-mi asks Jong-su to watch her perhaps imaginary cat while she takes a trip to Africa to learn about physical (“small”) hunger and existential (”great”) hunger. That’s not critical embellishment, that’s an actual plot-point. When Hae-mi returns to Korea, she—to Jong-su’s suppressed chagrin—has a rich new boyfriend in tow. His name is Ben, and he’s played as a bored but semi-cheerful sociopath by Steven Yeun (who has never been better).

The way the film’s story flows into uncharted terrain is part of its spell. Something of a love triangle develops, some disturbing idiosyncrasies are revealed (not just about Ben) and some bad stuff happens. Murakami writes about that which he cannot grasp; he embraces the ineffable, inhaling and exhaling a cloud of unknowing. So, too, does Burning, while also managing to give us Lee Chang-dong’s signatures: visual lucidity and artful morality. It’s the rare symbiotic triumph between singular source material and singular cinematic vision. And while the film is a slow-burn, it expands the meaning of the term: You might never quench the flames it sparks within you, flames that send fumes up and away to a thundering, obscuring cloud. —Chad Betz

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