When it comes to the beauty of foreign language films, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho said it best: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
We’re all used to Hollywood’s powerful claim on the world of filmmaking, and there’s no denying of its influence worldwide. But we’e all guilty of forgetting that some of the most seminal releases in cinema don’t always happen on U.S. soil. In fact, without major sway from Europe (the 1950s’ French New Wave) and Asia (its action legacy is iconic), we probably wouldn’t recognize some of the American films we’ve all come to know and love, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even the newly revived Karate Kid trilogy.
Well, lucky for you, we at Esquire decided to introduce you to the art of foreign cinema. With the help of streaming sites like Netflix, these movies are readily available from the comfort of your couch—no vacation needed. So sit back, maybe open a foreign language dictionary, and get to know some of the best foreign movies out there right now—you won’t regret it.
Guillermo Del Toro seamlessly intertwines a war drama and fantasy in this 2006 film, winner of three Academy Awards. Following a young girl living in 1940’s Spain, she discovers—and frequently escapes to—a magical world in order to save her mother from the throws of her sadistic stepfather. The movie may have had its scratch-the-head moments, but no one can deny the artistic vision which cemented Del Toro as a Hollywood creative.
Based on the grandmaster of the Wing Chung martial art, this 2008 film explores the life of Ip Man as he lives in 1930’s China during the Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man tries to peacefully weather the invasion in his hometown of Foshan, but eventually is pulled into doing the art he’s most famous for. And if that’s not enough, he quickly became the inspiration for future martial arts masters…including one named Bruce Lee.
In the movie which defined the beginning of 2020, greed and poverty threatens a Korean family as they scheme to infiltrate a wealthy employer’s home by pretending to be a highly qualified—and most important, unrelated—group of people worthy of working with the elite. The movie not only became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it changed the way movie-goers chose to view entertainment.
The Life Ahead
In Sophia Loren’s first theatrical appearance in ten years, the actress portrays a former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who provides a safe home for the children of other sex workers in Bari, Italy. She eventually forms a deep bond with a 12-year-old Sengalese orphan, who ends up caring for her throughout the decline of her health. The movie was not only nominated for an Oscar, but it was also a personal attachment for Loren—the director of the film is none other than her son, Edoardo Ponti.
What happens when the love of your life dumps you just days before you’re supposed to tie the knot? A journey of self-exploration. That’s what happens when a young Punjabi girl decides to go on her European honeymoon (sans fiancé) and learns she can find her own happiness without a man by her side. It’s kind of like Eat, Pray, Love, only with more self-love than you’d ever expect.
Mati Diop’s directorial debut is not to be missed in this supernatural romance drama. Set in Dakar, Senegal, the film follows the story of Ada, a young woman, and her lover, Souleiman, a local worker. When Souleiman and his crew go to the sea seeking better working conditions, the crew returns with an unexpected vengeance.
Y Tu Mamá También
Gael García Bernal stars in this Alfonso Cuarón-directed classic, which provides a liberating spin on the archetypal road trip movie. The film follows the coming-of-age of two young men in Mexico who gain an unexpected travel companion in an older, seductive, married woman.
Train to Busan
This South Korean horror film takes place amidst a national zombie outbreak, in which a father and daughter on a train to Busan quickly learn that their destination is now the final quarantined area left in the country. Their journey to safety proves to be dangerous, however, as the train of passengers quickly realize that the outbreak has already spread among them.
Another beautiful Mexican film from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma paints the complicated and powerful portrait of Cleo, young indigenous woman and domestic worker, and her relationship with the affluent family she assists. As complications in Cleo and the family’s lives unfold, the unique unit form a deep bond.
You knew Bong Joon-ho was going to be on here somewhere, didn’t you? This film boasts a cast of well-known Korean and American actors alike, including Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Steven Yeung, and Lily Collins. The film follows a young girl’s quest to reunite with her companion, the titular “superpig,” after the U.S. company that genetically-modified Okja reclaims her.
I Lost My Body
This critically-acclaimed French animated film tells of an epic journey by one dissection lab’s severed hand to find its original owner. Reflected upon through the “eyes” of the hand, the film soon expands into a retrospective analysis of the young man’s life before his loss (and before all that he gained along the way).
My Happy Family
This Georgian drama follows a 50-year old woman in a traditional, multigenerational household who announces to her family that she has chosen to live on her own. Against all conventions, she sets out on into unknown territories, sparking an exploration of family, home, and self.
Happy As Lazarro
Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes, Happy As Lazarro follows the journey of Lazarro, a naive and pure-hearted sharecropper in rural Italy. After forming an unlikely friendship with a young nobleman, Lazarro aids him in faking a kidnapping so that he can escape his family. However, Lazarro soon embarks on a journey of his own when he awakens years later to discover he hasn’t aged.
Based on a short story from Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Burning follows a young man and aspiring novelist who, upon picking up his childhood friend from her travels, encounters her new male companion. The trio’s relationship quickly unfolds into an off-kilter psychological mystery as the protagonist seeks to understand his friend’s new partner.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman star in this psychological thriller in which a cardiologist father finds his family falling to a series of ailments. He soon realizes the spell of misfortune’s correlation to a young man whom he has recently taken under his wing, who explains the reasoning behind this curse. The only way to reverse it before it kills his family? Choose a family member to kill.
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