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40 Foreign Films to Watch Instantly

In the golden age of the so-called “art cinema”, college-aged cineastes and middle-aged professorial types needed only to congregate at the local repertory theatre for a fix of the latest and greatest in international film. They could catch a Bergman-Fellini double feature and wile away the evening in a coffee shop discussing the Christ-figure symbolism or whatever.

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In the golden age of the so-called “art cinema”, college-aged cineastes and middle-aged professorial types needed only to congregate at the local repertory theatre for a fix of the latest and greatest in international film. They could catch a Bergman-Fellini double feature and wile away the evening in a coffee shop discussing the Christ-figure symbolism or whatever. “If only I had lived then”, laments the modern cinephile, “what films I could have seen.” Our young moviegoer, correct though they may be to bemoan the passing of Truffaut’s heyday, has forgotten one thing: a vast library of international movies are available to watch instantly with the stroke of a keyboard, granted they’re already paying for access to services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime. The same goes for you, Mr. Ignorant Summer Blockbuster. You too can become a film snob — with very little actual work.

But nothing’s ever that easy. The plight of the internet age is not access but selection. We’ve done some of the heavy popcorn lifting for you and picked out forty of the best foreign films available for instant streaming today. We even organized them into genres. Go forth and become a global movie connoisseur.

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ACTION/THRILLER

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13 Assassins
Japanese auteur and controversialist Takashi Miike is best known for ultra-violent torture pictures like Audition and only slightly less violent yakuza gangster pictures. Even his most vehement detractors could never deny his keen eye for composition and detail, and these strengths are on full display in his classical (if still ultra-violent) samurai epic. Netflix
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Oldboy
Now that the trailer has finally dropped for Spike Lee’s long-awaited remake of this Korean masterwork, it’s safe to say the original deserves a second look. Chan-wook Park’s harrowing tale of a man imprisoned for 15 years in a hotel room still holds on to a few coveted bragging rights: it has both the best fight scene and most shocking ending of any film in recent years. Netflix / Hulu
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Tell No One
This French adaptation of Harlan Coben’s bestselling thriller was universally lauded by critics and audiences alike on its release, earning director Guillaume Canet comparisons to Hitchcock. With an English-language remake lost in development hell, now’s as good a time as any to check out this thriller. Netflix / Amazon
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Headhunters
It’s like a Norwegian Thomas Crown Affair, plus a hefty dose of originality and minus Rene Russo’s cardboard performance. Sure, there are over-the-top Shyamala-gotcha moments; but there is more than enough style to make this questionable substance palatable. Netflix / Amazon
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Mesrine
This two-part schlock-filled crime epic chronicles the rise, fall and bitter end of French criminal Jaques Mesrine. The sprawling saga is held together by Vincent Cassel’s magnetic performance, which tops even his brilliant turn in Eastern Promises for both fearsomeness and vulnerability. Netflix: Part 1 / Netflix: Part 2
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Timecrimes
Although Rian Johnson is said to have begun work on the soon-to-be-classic Looper before Timecrimes was released, it’s hard not to feel that Nacho Vigalondo’s low-budget thriller was a substantial influence. Time travel remains a lurid, if overplayed, topic, and Vigalondo proves there is still much originality and surprise to be extracted from the all too common plot device. Netflix
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Let the Right One In
A film about young heartbreak and vampires that won’t have you jamming pencils in your eyes. Let the Right One In stands as one of the few foreign classics that was remade well, but that does not mean the original is any less worthy of your rapt attention. Note the patience and seeming passivity with which Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) builds to the film’s bloody, satisfactory conclusion, and the empathy with which he handles his young leads. Netflix
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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
If you have any doubt that the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is compulsory viewing, consider that most audiences actually preferred it to the near impeccable David Fincher-helmed remake. Stieg Larsson’s source material remains as compelling as ever, and Noomi Rapace brings a captivating fierceness to Lisbeth Salander that was lost in Rooney Mara’s more damaged portrayal. Netflix / Amazon
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Gomorrah
Imagine The Godfather – or, perhaps, Once Upon a Time in America – in the modern era, shot with the gritty realism of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Mix in the character diversity of the entire Sopranos series and a hint of Oliver Stone-ish political conspiracy and you have Gommorah. A quintessential example of what has been called the New Italian Epic genre, this study of criminal hierarchy is intensely watchable and thought-provoking fare. Netflix / Amazon
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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
This Turkish crime drama and Cannes Grand Prix winner has drawn comparisons to Tarantino in both its title (Leone-inspired) and the meandering, philosophical dialogue of its characters. In reality, it more closely resembles Rio Bravo, the Howard Hawks/John Wayne classic that Tarantino himself called “the greatest hangout picture of all time”. The film’s plot, concerning the search for a dead body on the Anatolian steppe, supplies sufficient tension, but like in Bravo, the dialogue and characterizations are the centerpieces. Netflix


DRAMA

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The Motorcycle Diaries
Much has been made of the fact that this romantic road picture from director Walter Salles is about the early life and travels of revolutionary Che Guevara. Perhaps too much, actually, because that knowledge places limits on the film’s interpretation that obscure just how universal a story it is. Guevara, then known by the nickname “Fuser”, travels South America with lifelong friend Alberto Granado, and on the way bears witness to both the beauty and endemic injustices of the continent. The film is best taken not as the making of a violent revolutionary but the maturing of an idealist. Netflix
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The Twilight Samurai
Quiet, understated, patient – 13 Assassins this is not. If Miike’s film paid homage to the brilliant action choreography and plot structure of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures, Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai pays homage to their spirit; namely, the painful conflict within the soul of the samurai as his traditions are eroded by modernity. The film’s solemn protagonist, a humble samurai named Seibei Iguchi, struggles with the same questions of honor and masculinity that run through Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Rather than Toshiro Mifune’s operatic melodrama, however, star Hiroyuki Sanada delivers a performance marked by subtlety and grace. Netflix
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The Sea Inside
Before Javier Bardem began sporting questionable haircuts and playing psychopathic supervillains (Anton Chigurh, Raoul Silva), he turned in a soaring and human performance in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside. This true story of a quadriplegic’s fight to end his own life finds warmth and even humor in what could be an oppressively grim topic. Bardem’s performance, conducted primarily from the confines of a hospital bed, has both the vitality and urgency to force any viewer to consider euthanasia more carefully. Netflix
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Bullhead
Bullhead is an aggressive film in the way that a caged bull is aggressive — fear and vulnerability are its primary emotions, not rage. This brooding drama concerning the murder of a policeman in the wake of a shady deal in the Belgian cattle trade features as its haunted protagonist a farmer addicted to the growth hormone intended for his cattle. A study in trauma and masculine identity, Bullhead is an “art” film in the sense that makes the typical American viewer cringe, but those able to stomach its laid-bare emotions are in for a riveting experience. Netflix
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In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai’s films are often criticized for being enjoyable only when one is aware of the wealth of pop culture samples from which they pull. An unsurprising favorite of Quentin Tarantino, Wong is postmodern to the very last, but to the savvy viewer his films still pack a nostalgic emotional punch that’s rare in American films. Those less enamored of cinema’s history will wonder what the hell everyone’s crying about. Netflix
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4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner is brutal, bleak, and incredibly difficult to watch. Set in the twilight years of Communist Romania, it tells the story of two university students looking to procure an illegal abortion. A taste for realism and a stomach for tragedy are required of the viewer, but for those willing to grapple with the subject matter, it’s a hugely rewarding picture. Netflix / Amazon
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Children of Heaven
If you’ve just watched 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and find yourself curled up in a ball of misery on the floor, Children of Heaven might be just the picture to rescue you from depression. It’s essentially the same story – just replace Romania with Iran, replace two college girls with a young brother and sister, and replace the abortion with a pair of shoes. Earnest and warm but not overly sentimental, it’s the perfect film to ease your way from Hollywood schlock into foreign cinema. Netflix / Hulu
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El Norte
This British-American production was funded in part by PBS, and some of the film’s more heavy-handed moments betray a detachment from its subject matter. Still, what the film lacks in authenticity it more than makes up for in visual mastery and genuine emotion. Hollywood melodrama without the questionable Hollywood politics, it’s a stirring journey of a film that feels deeply for its characters as they make the journey north to escape the Guatemalan Civil War. Hulu
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La Haine
Amelie star Mathieu Kassovitz directs this lively portrait of race relations in a French housing project. The film features another brilliant turn from Vincent Cassel, who here channels Taxi Driver-era DeNiro as a young, confused, angry gangster. Like Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing, La Haine (French for hatred) does not advocate violence but empathizes with those characters who feel like it’s their only option. At the end, we’re left in the same sad state of reflection Lee’s film brought about, unsure whether to radicalize or put down our weapons. Hulu
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Melancholia
By the standards of Danish director Lars Von Trier, this apocalyptic Xanax pill of a film is extraordinarily tame. If the recent clips of Von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac, have whet your appetite for his bizarrely lurid brand of filmmaking, Melancholia might just be the film to satisfy your craving. No, the wedding-as-apocalypse reading is not a viable interpretation. Netflix


COMEDY

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Y Tu Mamá También
Alfonso Cuaron’s tale of two teenage boys on a road trip with an older woman (the radiant Maribel Verdu) is an undisputed classic of both Mexican and world cinema. It’s tragedy disguised as comedy, class commentary disguised as coming-of-age tale, profundity disguised as frivolity; or, rather, it’s all of these things, all at once. Cuaron layers immense complexity into this simple road picture, making it one of those rare films that mean something different to each viewer. Netflix / Hulu / Amazon
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The Intouchables
This story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and a reluctant candidate to be his assistant was an instant hit in its home country of France, and has quickly developed an international following on the streaming market. One of the film’s stars, Omar Sy, broke historic ground when he won the César Award for Best Actor (over Jean Dujardin for The Artist) and became the first French African actor so honored. Still, though widely lauded by audiences, the film has drawn fire from critics for its Miss Daisy-esque condescension. See for yourself. Netflix
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The Closet
This French farce stars Daniel Auteuil as a disgruntled worker at a condom factory who must pretend to be homosexual in order to keep his job. Like a socially aware Mrs. Doubtfire, the picture unfolds with pleasant, comforting predictability. The witty script and Gerard Depardieu’s turn as a homophobic co-worker elevate it above standard fare, though, and the situational comedy translates beautifully to an international audience. Netflix / Hulu
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Klown
This Danish comedy about the two lead actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves (think Scandinavian This is the End) is set for an American remake by Old School director Todd Phillips and Eastbound & Down star Danny McBride. The taboo-busting comedy will be familiar to fans of Apatow and Phillips, but a hint of Wes Anderson quirkiness and a tighter grasp of craft sets it apart from the last seven Hangover movies. Netflix / (Hulu Series)
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Amelie
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t at least sort of love Amelie. The fanciful French comedy launched the career of Audrey Tautou and helped popularize French cinema abroad. Depending on your disposition, Amelie may surpass 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as the greatest date movie on this list. Amazon
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Le Havre
Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre tells the story of a failed author turned shoe-shiner who takes in a young African illegal immigrant and defends him from the grasp of a police inspector. It takes place in the sort of whimsical universe where… well, where such a story is even possible. A co-production of Finland, France, and Germany, the film takes as its backdrop the richly cultured French port city of Le Havre; the city’s sights and sounds, as well as the kindly people that populate it, lend the film a distinct atmosphere that blends with Kaurismaki’s unique style to create something magical. Hulu
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Life is Beautiful
We like to use Life is Beautiful as something of a barometer: if ever you come across a person of dubious moral standing, simply screen the film for them. If they do not cry at the end of the film, you can be certain they have no soul. Roberto Benigni’s tragicomic tale of a father’s attempt to shield his son from the horrors of their concentration camp during WWII is as heart-wrenching as they come. So why the hell did we place it in the comedy section? There’s a lot more than sadness here. Benigni received an Oscar for his Chaplin-esque performance, along with the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Netflix / Hulu / Amazon
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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel’s surrealist critique of the upper-middle-class is scant on plot: it merely concerns some members of the bourgeoisie trying to have dinner together. But, as Roger Ebert famously wrote, it’s not what a film is about but how it’s about it. Discreet Charm is chock full of dream sequences, bizarre subplots, non-sequiturs, and strange symbolism. A classic from the golden age of art cinema, it requires purposeful viewing, but the satire is biting and brutally satisfying. Hulu
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My Life as a Dog
This coming-of-age tale by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom holds, at the time of this writing, a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it in rare company with classics like All About Eve. The film also holds a place alongside Eve on Kurt Vonnegut’s list of favorite films, an honor that in itself makes the film essential viewing. Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Reidar Jonsson, the film won Best Foreign Language Film from the Independent Spirit Awards, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, and Golden Globes. Hulu
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Cinema Paradiso
An epic romance in the tradition of Gone with the Wind and The English Patient, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso is a defense of nostalgia and the cinema. It’s a meditation on cinema the way a child sees it, the way we all wish we could still see it. Exalted by Ennio Morricone’s soaring and unabashedly sentimental score, Cinema Paradiso will make a cinephile out of you, whether you like it or not. Netflix / Hulu / Amazon


Classics

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The Last Emperor
Bernardo Bertolucci, the renowned director of such 70s masterpieces as Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, has sadly gone the way of Francis Ford Coppola in recent years, falling slowly into obscurity with a combination of good and mediocre films. Like Coppola, Bertolucci has suffered not from a loss of talent but the weight of comparison to his earlier work, the height of which was this sprawling historical epic. Photographed in vibrant and richly symbolic color by Vittorio Storaro (a Coppola favorite), The Last Emperor is an odyssey of sight and sound – a complete cinematic canon in a single (very, very long) picture. Netflix / Amazon
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8 1/2
It has become a classic trope: the director struggling to come up with a new project decides to make a film about a director struggling to come up with a new project. Even after the Coen brothers took a stab at it with Barton Fink, Fellini’s towering picture remains the greatest exploration of artistic drive and insecurity yet committed to film. Marcello Mastroianni’s tortured Guido has become both a stylistic and cinematic icon, but it’s Fellini himself who permeates every frame of the movie. Netflix / Amazon
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Bicycle Thieves
A working class father depends on his bicycle for his very livelihood. When it is stolen, he scours the city with his young son in search of the thief. Along the way, he discovers that even he is capable of theft when desperation strikes. The deceptively simple story and style of this Neorealist landmark masks its profound social commentary and deft control of tone. Netflix
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Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa damn near invented the modern action picture with this epic, which tells the story of a poor farmers’ town that hires a crew of samurai to defend them from bandit raids. Despite the film’s immense scale, details ranging from the composition of each shot to the authenticity of the samurai costumes are all meticulously controlled. Set aside three hours and let this one wash over you. Hulu
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The 400 Blows
This autobiographical gem from Francois Truffaut helped kicked off the French New Wave, but it’s a distinctly more human and sentimental film than its Godardian counterparts. Young star Jean-Pierre Leaud would go on to reprise the role of Antoine Doinel (a Truffaut surrogate) in three later films, each of which recounts a different period in Truffaut’s life. All three – Stolen Kisses, Love on the Run, and Bed and Board – are available to stream. Hulu
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Z
A top-notch political thriller from Costa-Gavras, Z laid the groundwork for the careers of filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh. Tracing the investigation of a high-profile political assassination in Greece, the film’s frenetic cutting and exuberant visual energy help place the audience within its world of guerilla violence and corruption. Hulu
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The Seventh Seal
The quintessential art-house film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has inspired countless parodies – most notably in the timeless classic, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Still, the film has much to offer for anyone willing to approach its stone-faced symbolism in earnest. Boasting a career-making lead performance from future bond villain Max von Sydow, even critics of the film acknowledge its place in the canon of indispensable film history. Hulu
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The Battle of Algiers
Before Traffic there was Z, but before Z, there was The Battle of Algiers. A consummate expression of rebellion, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film is a battle cry in black and white. So authentic is the film’s portrayal of guerilla warfare during the Algerian War that it has since been taken as inspiration by groups such as the Black Panthers and Baader-Meinhof Gang. Despite this repossession, Pontecorvo’s film is strikingly evenhanded, making all the more resonant as a political statement. Hulu
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Belle de Jour
Since the dawn of the art film, filmmakers have used smut to attract reluctant audiences to slightly more sophisticated fare. The site of a nude Catherine Deneuve on the film’s poster may raise eyebrows and sell tickets, but exploitation this is not. Luis Buñuel uses Deneuve’s sex appeal and the lurid nature of the storyline (housewife turned prostitute) to subvert our expectations. You’ll learn something in spite of yourself. Hulu
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The Spirit of the Beehive
Like Cinema Paradiso, The Spirit of the Beehive captures that naïve but immensely receptive point in a child’s life where cinema means everything. The bottomless eyes of lead actress Ana Torrent are like sponges, soaking up the images and fantasies onscreen with a wonderment all adults can only hope to recapture. Hulu

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