The 18 Very Best Foreign-Language Movies on Netflix

November 10, 2019

With Netflix making moves on international markets, foreign-Language Netflix Originals have the quality reference that English Netflix Originals did a couple of years ago. AKA very good.

This applies to TV shows too. A great example is the Italian show Suburra, a thrilling depiction of modern-day Rome. Or Dogs of Berlin, an edgy story of the underworld of the German capital. And of course, Money Heist, one of the most compelling bank heist shows ever made.

And in non-Netflix Originals, the world is your oyster – literally. Not only do foreign movies remain little-seen in the U.S., but some of the best ones are available on Netflix. I’m talking Oscar-winning good (list below).

I leave you with our staff’s 18 highest rated foreign-language films currently streaming on Netflix. But again, beyond these movies – I really encourage you to try more foreign films. You will not be disappointed and you will have a much easier time finding what to watch.

Happy watching.

Girl (2019)
18.

Girl won four awards at the Cannes Film Festival last year and was nominated to 9 Magritte Awards. It was also Belgium’s entry to the Oscar for best foreign-language film. When a dance school accepts her, Lara has the opportunity to realize her dream and become a professional ballerina. The dancing takes a toll on her body, but her biggest obstacle is that she was born into the body of a boy. Girl illustrates the trans teenage experience with sensitivity, slowly and humanly making Lara’s anguish become the viewer’s. Based on a true story.

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Burning (2018)

Vague statement alert: Burning is not a movie that you “get”; it’s a movie you experience.

Based on a short story by Murakami, it’s dark and bleak in a way that comes out more in the atmosphere of the movie rather than what happens in the story.

Working in the capital Seoul, a young guy from a poor town near the North Korean border runs into a girl from his village. As he starts falling for her, she makes an unlikely acquaintance with one of Seoul’s wealthy youth (played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, pictured above.)

This new character is mysterious in a way that’s all-too-common in South Korea: young people who have access to money no one knows where it came from, and who are difficult to predict or go against.

Two worlds clash, poor and rich, in a movie that’s really three movies combined into one – a character-study, a romance, and a revenge thriller.

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On My Skin (2018)

This Netflix production is based on a case that rocked public opinion in Italy. Stefano Cucchi was arrested for a minor drug charge and died five days later from police brutality.

The movie takes its time to expose what Cucchi went through, which might lead some viewers to find On My Skin slow, and rightfully so. Thinking about the issues at hand here, it’s easy to understand why the director made that choice. In fact, Italians’ complex relationship with the Carabinieri, a division of the Italian army that carries out domestic policing, is delicate to explain and requires meticulous unveiling.

Nominated to nine David di Donatello Awards (the equivalent of the Academy Awards in Italy), of which it won three.

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Under the Shadow (2016)

Horror movies have always been creepier to me when they play on our fear of the “unknown” rather than gore. Under The Shadow does exactly that. The story is based around the relationship of a woman, Shideh, and her daughter, Dorsa, under the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war. As widespread bombings shake the ground beneath their feet, the two grapple with a more insidious evil that is faceless and traceless, coming and going only with the wind. The movie’s dread-effect plays strongly on feelings of isolation and helplessness. The scares are slow and it’s obvious the director takes great care in making every single second count and in raising the unpredictableness of the action. Like the bombs, the audience never knows when or how the next apparition will materialize. The former is always on the edge of fear, wondering what is no doubt there, but is yet to be shown on the frame. In terms of significance, Under The Shadow features too many symbolisms to count and will most likely resonate with each person differently. But one thing remains relatively unarguable: this is a wonderful movie.

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Aquarius (2016)

If you’ve never heard of Sonia Braga, you’re in for a ride with this movie. She is, in my opinion, one of the best actresses alive today. In Aquarius, she stars as a 65-year-old trying to keep the home in which she pledged to die. In a quiet, yet stoically powerful performance, she reminds us that identity often intersects with the spaces in which we live.

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And Breathe Normally (2018)

Iceland is a country of vast lands but limited population – only about 300,000 people can call themselves Icelandic. On the other hand, 8 million people have connecting flights through Iceland every year.

In this setting of mass movement, a single mother dealing with poverty is offered a chance to turn things around – a job as a border agent. One of her first days, she comes across an asylum seeker on a connecting flight from Guinea Bissau to Canada, trying to cross with a fake passport.

Their stories don’t only intertwine as border agent and asylum seeker, but as two mothers. And Breathe Normally is about struggling with poverty both in Europe and coming from a place like Guinea Bissau. It’s a beautiful, plot-heavy statement on the importance of solidarity and of seeing the human behind the country of origin or race.

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Train to Busan (2016)

A zombie virus breaks out and catches up with a father as he is taking his daughter from Seoul to Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Watch them trying to survive to reach their destination, a purported safe zone.

The acting is spot-on; the set pieces are particularly well choreographed. You’ll care about the characters. You’ll feel for the father as he struggles to keep his humanity in the bleakest of scenarios.

It’s a refreshingly thrilling disaster movie, a perfect specimen of the genre.

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Contratiempo (2016)

This movie is like thriller-candy. It is full of twists, it is very atmospheric, and in nicely predictable fashion it will deliver that excitement rush we (most of us) love. Accused of murder, a wealthy entrepreneur hires the best witness preparation expert he can find. They have three hours before the trial to come up with the most solid, plausible defence. But ?, a new witness surfaces. Don’t expect anything overly original, but expect to be entertained.

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Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

Set in 1970s Italian countryside, this is a quirky movie that’s full of plot twists.

Lazzaro is a dedicated worker at a tobacco estate. His village has been indebted to a marquise and like everyone else, he works without a wage and in arduous conditions.

Lazzaro strikes a friendship with the son of the marquise, who, in an act of rebellion against his mother, decides to fake his own kidnapping. The two form an unlikely friendship in a story that mixes magical realism with social commentary.

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My Happy Family (2017)

This movie is a dramatic masterpiece and a tribute to loving middle-aged women everywhere. It is unparalleled in the way it portrays its characters and the subtlety with which it tells their stories. The events are centered around a 52-year-old Georgian woman who decides to leave her family home and live alone without much of a notice. She trades chaos and domestic disputes for solitude, and the prospect of sad old age for an opportunity to build a new life for herself. In other words, she trades being the secondary character to her mother, husband, and children, to being the hero of her own story. A genuine and beautiful film. If like me you grew up with a mother who sacrificed everything for you, this will hit very close to home.

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Shéhérazade (2018)

A gritty and realistic thriller set in France’s notorious capital city of crime – Marseille.

Zachary is released from Juvenile prison to learn that his mother has abandoned him. He finds kinship in an underage sex worker by the name of Shéhérazade.

This seems like the set-up for a tough watch, but Shéhérazade plays like a romance when it’s slow, and a crime thriller when it’s fast (it’s mostly fast). Everything about the story and two leads’ relationship rings true. Added to the fact that it has no interest in emotionally manipulating you, the movie is more gripping and thought-provoking than sad.

A great story, fantastic acting from the cast of first-timers, and outstanding direction give the feeling that Shéhérazade is bound to become a modern classic. If you liked City of God, you will love this.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

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Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

Emma, a free-spirited girl with blue hair, influences Adele’s life dramatically, teaching her how to be honest with herself and discover her true desires about love. The film beautifully and realistically portrays Adele’s evolution, from a high-school girl to a grown-up woman. The spirit Emma lights up in her never dies. Blue Is the Warmest Color or La Vie d’Adèle is an honest, intense, and charming picture, prepare not to blink and have your face glued to screen from start to finish.

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Deep in the suburbs of Paris, Divines follows the story of Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra) and her best friend Maimouna (played by Déborah Lukumuena). Director Houda Benyamina serves a nest of social issues – welcoming the viewer into a world where poverty is pervasive and adults are haunted by their own ghosts, where there is a life vest only in the reliance on friendship. The nature of this bond between the two female characters is deep, playful, and backed by mesmerizing acting on behalf of Amamra and Lukumuena.

Just as prevailing throughout the film is the commentary on immigrant diasporas and the power of idealization. The girls fantasize about financial excess with guttural determination, guided only by the realization that their escape from their current lives has to come to fruition no matter what the cost. This film is entrancing and thought-provoking. You won’t be able to look away.

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The Look of Silence (2015)

The Look of Silence is an incredible documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer, a follow-up/companion piece to his award-winning documentary The Act of Killing. Both films focus on the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, where the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. In this film an optician named Adi Rukun meets with various members of the death squad that murdered his brother, under the guise of providing them eye examinations. As he questions them about their participation in the killings, they show little remorse and in fact provide lurid details to the many executions. It’s a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical violence, along with the insidious propaganda that provoked it then and continues to justify it to younger generations.

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On Body and Soul (2017)

On Body and Soul is the impeccably crafted winner of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival.

Two strangers have the same dream every night, they meet as deer in a forest and eventually fall in love. When they run into each other in real life, they search for the love they experience unconsciously. The reality of their introverted personalities and their surroundings make it hard to establish that same connection.

This unconventional love story is passionately told by Hungary’s best director, Ildikó Enyedi. Before it, she had taken an 18-year break from making movies, something that kind of makes sense when you watch On Body and Soul. That break was probably the only way to come up with something as thoughtful and creative as this.

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The Lives of Others (2006)

I saw this movie about a month ago, and I can’t stop seeing it again every weekend. It’s so heartbreaking. Wiesler, an officer of the Stasi, is designated to spy on a playwright and his girlfriend because the State Security has doubts about their loyalty. However after a while Wiesler becomes absorbed in Dreyman and his girlfriend’s lives and that’s when the empathy and the human component surge to be confronted with orders, and the realities of the time.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is a melodrama , quietly affecting, quietly chilling, quietly quiet. It captures the drab architecture of totalitarianism, the soul-dead buildings of a soul-dead state and the haunted freedom in that time.

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A Separation (2011)

Winner of an Oscar and a Golden Globe among endless accolades, A Separation is a movie about an Iranian couple faced with the decision of leaving the country for better opportunities or staying to take care of a sick parent. If you’ve ever been curious about the humans of Iran beyond the politics, and by cultural extension, humans of Middle-Eastern countries, watch A Separation. But hold it, “An interesting foreign movie” is not how A Separation should be viewed (it’s not Slumdog Millionaire). As someone who grew up in a middle-class Muslim family, this film may be the only one to thoroughly portray many integral aspects of my upbringing.  It perfectly depicts the delicate interaction between high moral standards and the realities of underdevelopment: how many bad people are only good people running out of options, and how parents raise their children in a shell of protection from the outside world while struggling to also introduce them to it. On a separate level, it also portrays how people live ready to have every privilege they have ever had revoked and how the constant need to “man up” transforms people, as well as the role of religion in all this. A Separation is my movie, and so I am asking you to watch this film the same way I’d want you to come visit and get to know my home country.

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