20 Best Foreign-Language Movies on Max (HBO Max)

20 Best Foreign-Language Movies on Max (HBO Max)

April 16, 2024

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Don’t let subtitles, unfamiliar storylines, and minor differences in acting styles close you off from discovering the many worlds of non-English language cinema. Once you get over that one-inch-tall barrier (as Parasite director Bong Joon-ho said), it’ll be easy to discover that “foreign” movies already offer so much of what you enjoy from the films you’re used to. And on Max—the streaming service of the network known for its prestige content—the non-English language films available to you possess that same prestige as well. These are titles you may not be very familiar with, but through great storytelling and excellent craft they prove that international cinema isn’t just something to be dismissed as pretentious or weird; these films push the rest of the global industry to be better.

1. The Zone of Interest (2023)

best

9.5

Country

Poland, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Jonathan Glazer

Actors

Anastazja Drobniak, Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Freya Kreutzkam

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

best

9.3

Country

Japan

Director

Isao Takahata

Actors

Aki Asakura, Atsuko Takahata, Hikaru Ijūin, Isao Hashizume

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Lovely

Based on a classic Japanese folktale, Isao Takahata’s last film will break your heart. This adaptation, of course, follows Princess Kaguya from her being discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk to her departure to the moon. However, while faithful to the original tale, Takahata’s direction turns this historical fantasy into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age film as ethereal as the titular character. The film doesn’t focus on the crazy pursuit of her suitors; instead, we’re drawn to the simple experiences Kaguya herself is drawn to and wants more of, as she tries to balance her life with the societal expectations places on women. All of which is rendered through the film’s lush watercolored scenes of the blowing wind or the opening of plum blossoms.

3. In the Mood for Love (2000)

best

9.2

Country

China, France, Hong Kong

Director

Wong Kar-wai

Actors

Chan Man-Lei, Charles de Gaulle, Cheung Tung-cho, Chin Tsi-Ang

Moods

Dramatic, Lovely, Romantic

Called a masterpiece by many and featured on many best-of-the-21st-century lists, Director Wong Kar-wei has created a thing of singular beauty. Every frame is an artwork (painted, as it were, with help of cinematographer Christopher Doyle) in this meticulously and beautifully crafted film about the unrequited love of two people renting adjacent rooms in 1960s Hong Kong. These two people, played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, struggle to stay true to their values rather than give in to their desires, while they both suspect their spouses of extramarital activities. The flawless acting, stunning visuals, and dream-like beauty of In the Mood for Love perfectly captures the melancholy of repressed emotions and unfulfilled love. The cello motif of Shigeru Umebayashi’s main theme will haunt you long after you finished watching.

4. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) (1999)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akihiro Miwa, Akira Nagoya, Akira Sakamoto, Alex Fernandez

Moods

Action-packed

From the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and courtesy of Studio Ghibli, which also brought you Spirited Away, comes this epic whirlwind of a story. Set during a fantastical late Muromachi period, the medieval era of Japan, in a time when many humans were still living among nature, while others set out to conquer and tame it, the movie follows a young man named Ashitaka, who he seeks cure for the curse of a boar god, giving him superhuman powers but eventually killing him. He rides west on a fantastic beast, where he eventually sees a young woman named San, also known as Princess Mononoke. What unfolds from here, is an epic tale of mythical war on many fronts, between the nature gods and humans. While this may sound like a dichotomy, it never is that morally simplistic. The story is action-packed and fast-paced, drawing freely from Japanese mythology as well as modern hot-topic political issues. Add to this the fantastic visuals: Hayao Miyazaki uses a mixture of hand drawings and 3D rendering that are nothing short of spectacular. In short, Princess Mononoke is movie history. If you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.

5. Spirited Away (2001)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akiko Tomihira, Akio Nakamura, Bob Bergen, Bunta Sugawara

Moods

Lovely, Sunday, Sweet

Frequently considered one of the greatest animated movies of all times, and certainly the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, Spirited Away is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli at their very best. It was also the first non-English animation movie to win an Oscar. On the surface, it’s a film about a Chihiro Ogino (Hiiragi), a young girl who stumbles into an abandoned theme park with her parents. In a creepy spiritual world full of Shinto folklore spirits, she sees all kinds of magic and fantastic creatures, while having to find a way to save her parents and escape. In addition to the adventure, the coming-of-age theme, and the motifs of ancient Japanese lore, the film can also be understood as a critique of the Western influence on Japanese culture and the struggle for identity in the wake of the 1990s economic crisis. A deep, fast-paced, and hypnotizing journey.

6. L’Argent (1983)

best

8.7

Country

France, Switzerland

Director

Robert Bresson

Actors

Caroline Lang, Christian Patey, Michel Briguet, Sylvie Van Den Elsen

Moods

Intense, Raw, Slow

With his final film, octogenarian master filmmaker Robert Bresson found the violent, chilling truth in that old cliché, “money is the root of all evil.” L’Argent extends the simplicity of its title (literally, “Money”) into the fabric of the film, using an extremely bare style to track the devastating domino effect that a childish ruse has on one man’s life. When a shopkeeper realizes two schoolboys swindled him out of 500 francs with a counterfeit note, he decides to pass the problem on by paying delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey) with the false note. But when Yvon tries to pay for his lunch with the money, the police are called and his life unravels.

This is just the start of L’Argent’s clinical exploration of the meanness and littleness of man’s greedy spirit. Yvon’s downfall is chronicled with matter-of-fact coldness: everything onscreen is minimal, from the precise cinematography and frugal editing to the non-professional actors’ expressionlessness. This detached style encourages us to absorb all the bitter emotion of the story, which feels — in such an economical format as this — like a moral tale as old as time, but no less cutting.

7. The Piano Teacher (2001)

best

8.6

Country

Austria, France, Germany

Director

Michael Haneke

Actors

Anna Sigalevitch, Annie Girardot, Benoit Magimel, Cornelia Köndgen

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

Based on the Austrian novel, The Piano Teacher is as brilliant and as disturbed as its protagonist. The film follows Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the repressed masochist in question, and the trainwreck of a relationship that she develops with her student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). Their dynamic is undeniably toxic. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke frames each scene with clinical detachment, but it is absolutely brutal how the two characters try to assert control over each other, engage in sadomasochism, and repeatedly violate each other’s boundaries. Huppert’s heartrending performance fully commits to the merciless treatment Erika receives. But more tragic is the way Erika’s unusual relationship could’ve freed her, could’ve helped her process her abuse, and instead, reinforces her repression. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable by admitting your desires, only for them to be used against you.

8. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

best

8.5

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama

Moods

Heart-warming, Inspiring

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

9. A Summer’s Tale (1996)

best

8.4

Country

France

Director

Éric Rohmer

Actors

Aimé Lefèvre, Amanda Langlet, Aurelia Nolin, Gwenaëlle Simon

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Easy

The sunniest installment of Éric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons series is a sly, slow burn of a character study. Everything looks sensuously beautiful in the honey-toned French sunshine, except for the ugly egotism of Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), the full extent of which is gradually revealed over the film’s runtime to amusing — if maddening — effect.

A brooding twenty-something, Gaspard has the traumatic task of having to decide between three beautiful and brilliant young women while vacationing alone on the French coast one summer. He dithers and delays his choice, each woman appealing to a different insecurity of his — but, as frustrating and plainly calculating as he is, you can’t help but be charmed by Gaspard. That’s partly because of Poupaud’s natural charisma, but also because Rohmer grants Gaspard as many searingly honest moments as he does deceitful ones. These come through Rohmer’s hallmark naturalistic walking and talking scenes (a big influence on the films of Richard Linklater), coastal rambles that produce conversations of startling, timeless candor. That inimitable blend of breeziness and frankness is never better matched in the director’s films than by the summer setting of this one, the sharp truths going down a lot smoother in the gorgeous sunlight.

10. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

best

8.3

Country

Japan

Director

Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Actors

Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama

Moods

Feel-Good, Lighthearted, Romantic

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

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