At this year’s Academy Awards, the Korean film Parasite made history by becoming the first film not in English to win Best Picture. The movie’s crossover success has proven what many filmgoers have long known: some of the best films are being made far from Hollywood.
Some might view subtitled films as a chore—a viewing experience that requires a bit more mental energy. And while this is partially true, the reward is almost always worth the effort. For me, foreign-language films provide the edifying experience of getting outside of my context and walking in the shoes of a distant culture—even as I usually end up recognizing my own humanity in what happens on screen. At their best, these movies are cultivators of empathy and destroyers of prejudice because they show how the “foreign” is usually not as foreign as originally thought.
In this unique COVID-19 season, where the entire world is facing a common challenge, I’ve been strangely comforted by watching foreign-language films. With international travel impossible for the near future, films can offer an alternate means of visiting far-off places. For the Christian viewer, they also provide opportunities to love our cross-cultural neighbors by better knowing their stories, and to praise God for the diverse beauty of the world he made.
It’s hard to make a list of fantastic foreign films (there are so many great ones), so this list is limited to some of my favorites from the last two decades that are available to watch on streaming platforms. Perhaps you will add a few of these to your quarantine watch list.
The Assassin (Taiwan, 2015). Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien is known for his minimalist, contemplative style (I also loved his 2008 film, The Flight of the Red Balloon), which to some viewers will come across as achingly slow. But while The Assassin is not as action-packed as, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s still a thing of tremendous beauty. Watch on Tubi.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan, 2000). Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning phenom broke all sorts of box-office records for foreign-language films, and for good reason. The action-packed film is both thrilling and also beautiful—a new classic not only of world cinema, but of cinema period. Watch on Netflix.
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Romania, 2005). This one might hit close to home in these times of heightened awareness of strained health-care systems. Taking place over the course of one long night, this dark comedy follows an ailing old widower who gets shuffled between various hospitals and doctors in search of an elusive diagnosis and treatment. Watch on Netflix.
The Edge of Democracy (Brazil, 2019). Like all political documentaries, this film has a definite partisan point of view, so take its posture with a grain of salt. But in spite of its leftist politics, the film still provides a fascinating look at how the volatile contemporary media landscape and things like “cancel culture” play out in countries around the world. Watch on Netflix.
Happy as Lazzaro (Italy, 2018). The titular character in Alice Rohrwacher’s film gets his name from the biblical Lazarus, and that’s just one of many biblical references in the film, which evokes David and Jonathan, Isaiah 11, various New Testament parables, and feels at times like a cinematic interpretation of the Beatitudes. Watch on Netflix.
Honeyland (North Macedonia, 2019). This Oscar-nominated documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper takes the viewer to a place that for most will feel utterly remote, almost otherworldly. But the beauty of this film is how familiar the protagonist’s struggle turns out to be. Watch on Amazon.
In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000). Wong Kar-wai’s glamorous film often ranks high on “best films of the 21st century” lists. A 1960s period romance that explores memory, longing, and the ephemeral magic of cinema itself, the film captures a deeply human “mood” that transcends the cross-cultural currents that weave throughout. Watch on Criterion Channel.
L’Enfant (Belgium, 2005). The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are some of Europe’s most renowned contemporary filmmakers, and L’Enfant (The Child) is one of their most powerful (if harrowing) dramas. The final cathartic scene will leave you silent and speechless after the screen goes dark. Watch on Amazon.
Les Misérables (France, 2020). Set in Paris in contemporary times, this film is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic, even though it shares geographic setting and some themes with it. Nominated for best international feature film at this year’s Oscars, Ladj Ly’s intense cop drama puts the spotlight on Parisian lives rarely seen by the rest of the world. Watch on Amazon.
Munyurangabo (Rwanda, 2007). More than a decade before he won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury award for Minari (2020), director Lee Isaac Chung, a Christian, earned critical acclaim for this film, which Roger Ebert championed as a “masterpiece.” Neo-realist in style and transcendent in orientation, this stunning film should be on everyone’s watch list. Watch on Tubi.
Nostalgia for the Light (Chile, 2011). This hard-to-classify documentary from Patricio Guzman is a poetic rumination on time, memory, and mortality against the backdrop of history both recent and ancient. Set in the otherworldly Atacama Desert—the driest place on earth, with the clearest skies—the film fixes its scientific and spiritual gaze to the heavens. Watch on Amazon.
Phoenix (Germany, 2014). Christian Petzold is one of the most exciting German filmmakers working today (see also Barbara and Transit). In Phoenix, Petzold uses the setting of post-World War II Berlin to explore beautiful themes of rebirth out of the ashes and new life after death. Watch on Amazon.
The Return (Russia, 2004). The pursuit of a father toward his sons is at the heart of this powerful film, rich with Christian symbolism. The father breaks bread and pours wine for his sons at supper, spends time with them on fishing boats and beach campfires, and runs after them when they rebel. Though his mercy is at times severe, it’s always motivated by love. Watch on Amazon.
The Salt of the Earth (Brazil, 2014). German filmmaker Wim Wenders is one of the best Christian artists working in film today. His 2014 documentary about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado is a gorgeous cinematic photo essay about human struggle, suffering, and resilience around the world. Watch on Amazon.
Secret Sunshine (South Korea, 2007). Few films wrestle with Christian faith and the scandal of grace more painfully than Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, which I included on TGC’s list of “20 Great ‘Protestant’ Films.” If you’re looking for good discussion fodder for a movie night with your church small group, try this heavy-but-rewarding film. Watch on Amazon.
A Separation (Iran, 2011). Several of Asghar Farhadi’s films could have made this list, but A Separation is probably the most acclaimed and a good place to start. The devastating film is at once distant in its deep dive into the cultural nuances of contemporary Iran, and familiar in its tender exploration of the universal complexities of family. Watch on Amazon.
Silent Light (Mexico, 2007). Did you know there are German-speaking Mennonite communities in northern Mexico? Neither did I, before I watched Carlos Reygadas’s spellbinding Silent Light. A homage of sorts to Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), this film features incredibly beautiful cinematography and a stunning climactic scene. Watch on Vudu.
Son of Saul (Hungary, 2015). As an Auschwitz-set Holocaust drama filmed in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, László Nemes’s Son of Saul is not for the faint of heart. It’s a harrowing and difficult experience (think Schindler’s List but even more visceral) but one that finds humanity and dignity amid the horror. Watch on Amazon.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Germany, 2005). Marc Rothemund’s film depicts the quiet subversion of Sophie Scholl, leader of a student resistance group during Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Franz Jägerstätter, Scholl’s profound faith inspired her brave activism and fortified her in the face of the greatest of all costs. Watch on Tubi.
The Square (Egypt, 2013). Jehane Noujaim’s award-winning documentary takes an on-the-ground look at the circumstances surrounding the Egyptian revolution of 2011 at Tahrir Square in Cairo and its fallout. Intense and informative, this is a great cinematic artifact from the “Arab Spring” period of world history. Watch on Netflix.
Still Walking (Japan, 2008). The drama of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s exquisite film consists in the quotidian beauty of family and everyday life in a world where time presses on. Evoking the sublime simplicity of Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), Still Walking is a moving portrait of ordinary life in a particular corner of the world. Watch on iTunes.
Summer Hours (France, 2008). This understated film from celebrated French director Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Carlos) would make my “top 20 films of the decade” list. The drama’s story about family, death, and the passage of time unfolds in contemporary Paris, but it strikes me as universally resonant. Watch on Amazon.
Two Days, One Night (Belgium, 2014). Another masterful and morally charged film from the Dardenne brothers, this intense drama features a spectacular performance by Marion Cotillard as a woman with severe depression who fights to not get laid off from her job. Watch on Amazon.
Yi Yi (Taiwan, 2000). This sprawling family drama from the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang is a masterpiece of wonder in the mundane rhythms of life—a sort of Tokyo Story for Taipei. The film is about what happens in life—ups, downs, beginnings, endings—over the course of a year. One normal family in Taipei stands in for all of us. Watch on Criterion Channel.
Your Name (Japan, 2015). Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name is a mind-bending, dreamlike young adult drama with a Freaky Friday-meets-anime body-swapping plot. Thoroughly original and artfully made, this is probably the best anime I’ve seen since Spirited Away in 2001. Watch on Amazon.