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.

11. Babette’s Feast (1987)

best

8.3

Country

d, Denmark

Director

Gabriel Axel

Actors

Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Axel Strøbye, Bendt Rothe, Bibi Andersson

Moods

Dramatic, Heart-warming, Lovely

Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.

Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

12. Rosetta (1999)

best

8.3

Country

Belgium, France

Director

Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Actors

Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Emotional

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

13. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017)

best

8.2

Country

Japan

Director

Masaaki Yuasa

Actors

Ami Koshimizu, Aoi Yuki, Chikara Honda, Gen Hoshino

Moods

Feel-Good, Quirky, Slice-of-Life

Fun and whimsical to its core, this animated film takes viewers on a visually captivating, surreal, and enchanting journey through a single night in Kyoto. The movie immerses you in an entertaining and eccentric world with its vibrant animation, characters, and offbeat humor following two unnamed characters only referred to as “The Girl with Black Hair” and “Senpai.” The narrative weaves together various quirky encounters, love interests, and strange events, keeping you engaged and curious. Blending romance, comedy, and coming-of-age themes, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a joyous celebration of youth, adventure, and the unpredictable nature of life’s unexpected twists and turns.

14. Only Yesterday (1991)

best

8.0

Country

Japan

Director

Isao Takahata

Actors

Chie Kitagawa, Ichirō Nagai, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Ito

Moods

Heart-warming, Lovely, Slice-of-Life

This beautiful, realistic, and nostalgic anime movie about childhood is one that almost anyone can relate to. Set in the year of 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima is traveling to the countryside by train. Along her journey, she gets flashbacks of her childhood: mostly in elementary school, stealing glances at a boy, and navigating puberty. The movie goes back and forth between past and present, easily making one long for sun-filled summers of yesteryear and silly jokes between playfriends. As well as telling a story about Taeko’s past, Only Yesterday also tells a story about her present, and the combined realism of the plotline with the beautiful animation grips you and doesn’t let go. Only Yesterday truly feels like home.

15. Three Colors: White (1994)

8.0

Country

France, Poland, Switzerland

Director

Krzysztof Kieślowski

Actors

Aleksander Bardini, Andrzej Precigs, Barbara Dziekan, Bartłomiej Topa

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Smart

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s trilogy reflects both the colors and the values of the French republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In Trois couleurs : Blanc (Three Colors: White), Kieślowski explores not only the theme of equality, but also the ramifications of defining and “achieving” equality as a European ideal.

After failing to consummate their marriage, Dominique (the ever-bewitching Julie Delpy) divorces Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), leaving him broke and humiliated. Karol plots to exact revenge on his ex-wife, becoming richer and cruller in the process. 

Although this is often regarded as the weakest of the trilogy, White is worth a watch not just for completionists. Kieślowski interrogates what it means to be equal in sex and socioeconomic class—and if when we strive to move upward in society, whether we are really debasing our basic humanity and humility.

16. Beau travail (1999)

7.9

Country

France

Director

Claire Denis, Female director

Actors

Dan Herzberg, Denis Lavant, Gianfranco Poddighe, Grégoire Colin

Moods

Original, Thought-provoking

Often considered Claire Denis’ best film, Beau Travail is an epic exploration of both masculinity and colonialism. Inspired by Melville’s Billy Budd, she transplants the story to Djibouti where the French Foreign Legion run seemingly aimless drills in an arid desert landscape while largely alienated from the local community. 

Denis inverts the male gaze and imbues charged eroticism to the bodies in motion as the men train and wrestle. Accompanied by the music of Britten’s Billy Budd opera, these movements transform into a breathtaking modern dance. Underneath her jaw-dropping direction is a cutting allegory on repression, desire, and violence, working on both the individual and geopolitical level. This incredible tale is capped off by one of the best end credit sequences of all time. 

17. Porco Rosso (1992)

7.9

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Akemi Okamura, Akio Otsuka, Bunshi Katsura, Bunshi Katsura Vi

As impressive as Studio Ghibli’s collection of films are, I am still stubborn to believe that Porco Rosso is its most underrated film. Porco Rosso, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is the story of a World War military aviator-turned-bounty hunter who has mysteriously been transformed into a pig. 

Bright with humor, heart, and flight (Miyazaki is largely influenced and inspired by the art of aviation), Porco Rosso manages to also acknowledge and reckon with the horrors of war. It also boasts one of, if not the greatest, line in any Ghibli film: I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.

18. The Wind Rises (2013)

7.9

Country

Japan

Director

Hayao Miyazaki

Actors

Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jun Kunimura

Moods

Heart-warming

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

19. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2020)

7.8

Country

Italy, Lesotho, South Africa

Director

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

Actors

Jerry Mofokeng, Jerry Mofokeng Wa, Makhaola Ndebele, Mary Twala

Moods

Slow, Uplifting, Well-acted

A relatively straightforward story of a village of Sotho people building the courage to resist unwanted development on their land and the erasure of their culture, the rousingly titled This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection wastes no time on the oppressors’ point of view. For director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, there is no debate: these people are more important than any markers of progress hoping to displace them. Their struggle is rendered in some of the most crisp and colorful cinematography you could hope to see, with a powerful performance by the late, great Mary Twala front and center, channeling so much sadness into fury and determination.

20. The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

7.6

Country

France, Japan, United States of America

Director

Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Actors

Amy Poehler, Bridgit Mendler, Carol Burnett, David Henrie

Moods

Lovely

Arrietty may not be as epic as other Ghibli movies, both in the literal and figurative sense, but its tiny world is so richly detailed that you could spend hours studying a single frame of the film. In Arrietty’s lovely house-underneath-a-house, stamps are hung on the walls like paintings, a flowerpot serves as the hearth, a tea canister is a cabinet, an olive a chair, a sewing pin a sword, a clothespin a hair tie, and so on. The possibilities are endless, but the film tries to exhaust them as much as it can. This alone makes Arrietty a delightful watch, but the simple story at the heart of it—one of survival, empathy, and faith—elevates into a timeless classic.

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