Quarantine Watchlist #1: 14 Foreign-Language Films You Need to Watch Right Now (And Some Other Suggestions)
“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” – Bong Joon Ho
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any standard reviews (more on that coming soon), and my newest mini-review piece is still underway (where I can tell you guys all about what I thought of the 2020 movies I have seen so far), so I figured I would give you guys a new series to grab onto during your self-isolation/quarantines.
(On that note, thank you to all essential workers who are risking their lives and livelihoods day in and day out to help all of us get through this crisis as safely as humanly possible – you are invaluable heroes, and those of us who are non-essential are so very lucky that you exist, and you’re still out there helping us.)
This series is going to be a little different. A while ago, myself and my girlfriend published a sort of joint Quarantine Watch List filled with different shows and movies that we both recommend, as well as ones we recommend individually. But while that list was much more general, spread around many different genres and types of narrative, this particular series is going to be geared a little more toward specific kinds of movies; one piece could be on trilogies, or on LGBTQ+ films, or (in the case of this particular piece), international movies told in foreign languages. I do not yet have a clearly mapped out space in my head for how to approach this series, so for now, I’ll just be winging it in regards to what topics are approached.
The first thing we have to establish for this piece is this: what constitutes a “foreign-language film?” Well, given that I am from the United States, where the primary language is English, a “foreign-language film” (in this instance) refers to any movie produced outside of the United States wherein the primary language is not English. This means that films like God’s Own Country, or the infamous Oscar shutout Lionheart (from Nigeria, where the primary language is also English) will not be eligible (we’re playing by the old Academy rules here). This also means that no movies produced within the U.S. will be eligible, even if they are not in English, so films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (told almost entirely through a mix of Arabic and Hebrew) or Lulu Wang’s magnificent The Farewell cannot be put on this list. It can be hard sometimes to determine whether or not it is fair to say that foreign films from places where the first language is English or domestic films that are mostly told through foreign languages should or should not be allowed to participate in these sorts of lists, but having these parameters makes it a lot easier to stick to the broadest possible definition of this piece’s title, and helps those reading to understand what type of movie it is that I’m referring to.
The second thing to establish with a list like this is that this is not a ranking of foreign-language films, and thus will not have the structure of a rankings list, where the best or worst is at the bottom and the list is told in ascending or descending order. This is simply a sampling of some world cinema in which I have found great value, meaning, entertainment, or any mix of two or all three of those elements. Instead, this list will be given in alphabetical order by title, where the first word that is not an article adjective (“a,” “an,” “the,”) determines the film’s placement.
The third and final (and perhaps most obvious) thing to establish about this list is: I cannot put a movie on this list which I have not seen. I recognize there are many notably iconic films like 8 ½ , Life is Beautiful, the Three Colors trilogy, Oldboy (the original one), or even Seven Samurai that perhaps deserve to be on this list far more than some of the entries I have included here, but as I have not seen them (yet), I cannot give an informed opinion about them, and thus they cannot be included in this list. I am in the process of catching up, thanks to the miracle that is The Criterion Channel, and perhaps I will write a follow-up piece to this with some of those older entries on it, but for now, I just wanted to get this out as soon as I possibly could, so that you guys didn’t have to aimlessly float through quarantine without a guide to expanding your cinematic palettes.
Now, with all that out of the way, let’s get into it. Here are 15 Foreign-Language Films You Need to Watch Right Now (and Some Other Suggestions).
Starting off the list is a film I’m still processing long after my first viewing, especially given that my first viewing was several months ago. Amélie’s boundless optimism keeps this movie afloat through all manner of weird camera angles, strange lighting, and disjointed storylines so well that by the time it’s over, you’re left questioning whether or not the movie you just watched made any sense at all, or if there was any sort of central point. What you won’t question is that that really doesn’t matter. As we follow the titular character along her various journeys in life, love, and the pursuit of whimsy, it comes to our attention that not having a point is the point, and that we should probably just stop thinking about it and enjoy the ride. This is a film that breaks almost every movie rule you know right out of the gate, doesn’t apologize for any of it, and leaves you breathlessly wishing more filmmakers would be so bold as to throw this much caution to the wind in creating something so brash, weird, and undeniably arresting.
Where to Watch: Cinemax, VOD
Blue is the Warmest Color
If you sang that title in the same melody as the “3 is a Magic Number” song from Tik Tok, then congratulations, you’re at the same level of processing this pandemic as I am. All kidding aside, this NC-17 French film about a young woman discovering love and her sexuality for the first time is a hell of a film, and clocking in at right around 3 hours, it can seem like an intimidating one to sit through. One needn’t worry about the runtime, though, as it flies right by while the film follows the young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she navigates school, growing up, and developing a deeply emotional connection with Emma (Léa Seydoux), whom she meets in a lesbian bar during a night out with one of her classmates. The performances of the two lead actresses are as perfect as they can be, the camerawork is intimate to a degree of occasional un-comfortability, and the story and screenplay aren’t afraid to tackle even the most difficult-to-watch aspects of how love stories like this can often go. Fair warning, the film is extremely graphic in its depictions of sexuality (hence the NC-17 rating), but if you’re willing to give it a chance, you’ll find it to be one of the most enriching, engaging, complex, and moving films about young love and coming-of-age that France has ever developed.
Where to Watch: Netflix, VOD
City of God
This Brazilian saga of crime and photography told entirely in Portuguese might seem at first like it would have swept the Oscars in 2003, but upon close inspection, it is revealed that not only did it not win the Foreign Language category, it wasn’t even nominated in the first place. That’s a real shame, because City of God’s reflection of two young men growing up in Rio, whose paths cross on their ways to becoming a world-renowned photographer and a ruthless kingpin, has a lot to offer and then some. It can’t be perfectly expressed in words just what sort of effect watching this epic can have on a person, but you can’t finish it, credits and all, and genuinely say that you didn’t see something incredibly special, vibrant, and remarkable.
Where to Watch: VOD
To this day, I’m not sure if I actually like Cold War very much, or just respect it immensely, but this doomed Polish romance from director Paweł Pawlikowski certainly has an unforgettable sense of style. Besides the fact that it earned multiple Oscar nominations (including one for Best Cinematography and a Best Director nod for Pawlikowski), Cold War brews with the sort of patience and eye for passion that only the most untouchable of foreign features can. It may not be the most interesting or even particularly moving of black-and-white period romances, but even if some things in it don’t work as well in terms of effecting one’s emotional state, you still can’t and won’t take your eyes off the screen the entire time it’s on.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video, VOD
This Danish film, set in a single location wherein our main character is stuck on a call at an Emergency Services desk, utilizes every instrument in its arsenal to rachet up the tension and never let go. It may not follow up on every aspect of itself full-stop, but once the main action kicks in, there’s not a whole lot else that will grab and keep your attention nearly as well. Every minute matters, and you can feel that in the performance of lead actor Jakob Cedergren, whom I am absolutely sure we’ll be seeing again quite soon. Clocking in at a tight 1 hour and 28 minutes, The Guilty is a taut, nail-biting thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and then yanks you down off of it by the film’s end. I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s larger surprises, but let’s just say this does not quite go where you think it might.
Where to Watch: Hulu, VOD
Park Chan-wook’s reworking of the novel Fingersmith into a period Korean noir story shouldn’t work as well as it does. I’m shocked anyone would even attempt to adapt the book at all, let alone into something this audacious, and yet, this movie’s mysteries hold no end to their depths, its plot turning like a swiss watch, just waiting for the viewer to get settled into the groove of everything before pulling out its next big move. What begins as a sort of heist thriller soon turns into something wholly unexpected, with every little detail seeming to matter the absolute most and then not at all. This truly is one hell of a movie, and its stone-cold commitment to shocking you might be seen as a weakness in the hands of a less-skilled filmmaker, but Park Chan-wook weaves every bit of story he has into those shocks so meticulously, the only shocking thing about those moments is how you couldn’t have seen them coming even if you knew where certain storylines were supposed to lead. The performances from Min-hee Kim, Jun-woo Ha, and Tae-ri Kim are all excellent, the camerawork and score are simultaneously brand new and instantly unforgettable, the design work is sleek, sexy, and deliberate, and this is easily one of the most iconic and stylish Korean films you’ll ever see.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video, VOD
The Hunt (2012)
Boy, the Danish know how to make you feel badly tense with every minute of something, don’t they? This thriller from director Thomas Vinterberg stars the ever-perfect Mads Mikkelsen as an elementary school teacher who is falsely accused by one of his students of molesting her, which sends his life into a terrifying whirlwind of chaos. The movie is incredibly difficult to watch, as Mikkelsen’s teacher friends abandon him, his friends leave him behind, and no one in his town seems to give him the time of day as everything around him spirals of out of control, right up to some taking things too far in attempting to hurt him for what they think he supposedly did. Movies about false accusations and runaway lies may not be the order of the day at this moment in time, but they’re also rarely done this well, so if you get the chance to check this one out, please do so.
Where to Watch: Tubi, VOD
I Lost My Body
You may remember this as the French animated film that went up against the like of Klaus, Toy Story 4, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World for Best Animated Feature last year, but what you may not remember is that, for a long time before awards season really got underway, it was considered to be the frontrunner among those and many other potential nominees. Toy Story 4’s eventual win was hardly undeserved, but it was a real shame that something as bold, weird, and strangely beautiful as this meditation on life turned out to be never really got off the ground after the Oscars were over. I can’t guarantee that you’ll love or even like it, but I can tell you that it is absolutely worth seeing, and is one of the most ambitiously strange Netflix Originals (especially among their awards contenders) to come out from the streaming giant in a long time.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas have been a consistently good pairing for a long time, but I don’t know if either of them has ever been this good. Starring Banderas as an aging director reckoning with his career, his life, and his upbringing, Almodóvar manages to bring out a performance from his lead actor that only he can. Banderas moves quietly throughout the film as he attempts to reflect on his past, chasing new highs, stooping to new lows, and all the while asking what stories he has left to tell, especially now that he has become chronically ill. Almodóvar’s camera moves with delicacy and sensuality not of the sexual nature, but of the elemental. Penélope Cruz also turns in great work as Banderas’ mother in flashbacks to his childhood, and the way the film wraps up is one for the ages.
Where to Watch: Starz, VOD
South Korea finally managed to crack the Oscar race last year, and shot straight to the top. The first-ever foreign language film to win the top prize of Best Picture is, in every sense, an undeniable masterpiece positively brimming with meaning in every element. The screenplay, the cinematography, the performances, the design, the direction, the editing, and the music all have meaning, and every little moment matters just as much as the last. I went into the theater to see this knowing nothing about it except its reputation, and I hesitate to say anything now for fear that I might spoil something for one of you readers who has not yet taken a chance on this film. For now, I’ll just say that all 4 of its Oscars are more than well-deserved, and its status as a modern masterpiece is far from hyperbole. If you make time for any film on this list today, make it this one.
Where to Watch: Hulu, VOD
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
History will not look kindly on the way this movie was passed over as France’s submission to the 2020 Oscars. Nearly matching Parasite step-for-step in terms of how flawless it truly is in every element of its production, Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece of a French period romance has already become one of the most beloved foreign-language films of all time, and a huge favorite among Academy members that have caught up on it since. Boasting perfect performances from leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, every moment of this film both breaks and heals your heart, until the ending rips everything to shreds inside your emotional pain centers. The camerawork is patient and perfectly framed, the direction is sure but unobtrusive, the screenplay is twelve different levels of brilliant, and there is no film in the entirety of last year’s output that has seeped so deeply into my soul and touched my heart as this (not even Parasite, as perfect as it also is). The embodiment in film of the art which she seeks to elevate, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the greatest film that Céline Sciamma has ever made, and if I had it my way, it wouldn’t have just been all over the Academy’s nomination ballots – it would have been on the acceptance stage any number of times.
Where to Watch: Hulu, VOD
Alfonso Cuarón is a household name to the Academy and any film buffs worth their salt, having blown us away with such hits as Children of Men and Gravity before this, but Roma is his true masterpiece. Just hearing about how he was able to construct an entire 5 mile stretch of his hometown in Mexico City from his memory alone is impressive enough, but to also consider that he wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited this movie himself blows my mind. By far the best looking film of 2018, Roma’s essentiality continues to be felt long into 2020, and its quiet power, its dedication to every large thing affecting the smallest things (a power most felt in the hospital sequence and the beach scene at the end of the film) hits you square in the chest with everything it has. Every sequence in this movie, even with the aforementioned two taking the top spots, is remarkable, and the fact that this was Yalitza Aparicio’s first-ever job as an actress continues to blow my mind, given how magnificent she is in the film (to the point that she was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars). And this is all before we get to Marina de Tavira’s world-class performance to go right alongside Aparicio’s. Everything about this film is patient, and quietly moving. Is this the greatest Netflix film ever made? Quite possibly.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Son of Saul
This Hungarian drama, set entirely inside a concentration camp, won Best Foreign-Language Feature in 2016, and for a while, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it follows Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer, a Jewish camp worker who is told there is a child he and one other partner need to help escape the camp. As they attempt to do this, writer/director László Nemes takes us on a claustrophobic journey through each of the many rooms the Jews are made to work in within the camps. As Saul looks for the child, so do we, and each and every moment is rife with tension. While the utter hopelessness the film impresses upon the viewer may be too depressing for some to handle, Son of Saul could also be considered essential viewing for those who wish to know how to do these sorts of films the right way, as well as for those who are interested in seeing the atrocities of the Holocaust from an entirely different perspective.
Where to Watch: VOD
Train to Busan
Korean director Yeon Sang-ho brings us one of the best, most nail-biting and action-packed zombie apocalypse survival thrillers in quite a long time, with Yoo Gong starring as an emotionally distant father in charge of transporting his child (Su-an Kim) from Seoul to Busan via train. There really is no explanation for how the zombie virus starts or why it spreads so quickly among the infected, and there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes fast-paced and thrilling is the order of the day, and that’s exactly what Train to Busan gives, no bones about it. In fact, you could take this as a simple, straightforward zombie thriller, but what really makes this one special though is that it also doubles as an immigration allegory, as certain of the uninfected passengers are shunned by others because they’re running from the disease, just as those who may be escaping trouble are unfairly shunned for ever being associated with it in the first place. Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but it’s worth thinking about, and Train to Busan is definitely worth watching.
Where to Watch: Netflix, VOD
What are some of your favorite foreign-language films? Have you seen any on this list? Any suggestions for ones I should check out? Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
Other Foreign-Language Films to Check Out: Amour (VOD), Burning (Netflix, VOD), The Intouchables (Tubi, Vudu, VOD), The Salesman (VOD), Shoplifters (Hulu, VOD), The Wave (Hulu, VOD)
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.