At the movies is where many of us first glimpsed new countries, whether in David Lean epics like Lawrence of Arabia or foreign language films. Although small theaters showing “art” films (aka foreign) are an endangered species, DVDs and online streaming offer options. And though all of the following films deserve a big screen, however you view them, they’ll provide insight to other places and times—just like the best travel. Cue up your Netflix account or download from iTunes and watch one of these 18 great international movies tonight.
Monsoon Wedding (2001, India)
This romantic comedy charts the elaborate wedding preparations for a modern arranged marriage, with a dash of the West (the groom lives in Houston) spicing up this very Eastern celebration. Relatives from near and far are heading to New Delhi in the monsoon season. What could go wrong? Directed by Mira Nair.
Woman at War (2018, Iceland)
The camera loves certain faces and certain places, including Iceland. A middle-age activist uses her wits and a bow and arrow to fight environmental degradation in this scenic nation. Full of surprises, unfamiliar actors, and some welcome humor.
The Salesman (2016, Iran)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, this drama draws on Death of a Salesman, which a married couple is acting in. Forced to evacuate the condemned building they live in, they move into an apartment, unaware of the previous tenant. Their new home turns out to be more dangerous than the one they left.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972, Germany/Peru)
Never mind that blond Klaus Kinski looks nothing like a Spanish conquistador searching for El Dorado in the mid-16th century. His memorable performance in this Werner Herzog–directed film highlights a chilling tale of colonial exploitation in South America.
Umberto D. (1952, Italy)
When a retired man in postwar Rome faces a rent increase, he struggles to raise money. Carlo Battisti, a novice actor, plays the title character. This is a powerful reminder of generally forgotten residents of a city synonymous with art, architecture, and la dolce vita. Directed by Vittorio de Sica.
Atlantics (2019, Senegal, France, and Belgium)
A supernatural romantic drama with its feet planted firmly in issues of social injustice, Atlantics—French Senegalese director Mati Diop’s debut feature film—is haunting in more ways than one. Come for the soundtrack and stark visuals, stay for the suspense.
Watch It: Netflix
Dersu Uzala (1975, Russia/Japan)
This Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film is a masterpiece from director Akira Kurosawa. Set in Siberia in the 20th century’s first decade, it tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a Russian army captain and a woodsman/hunter who rescues him during a snowstorm.
Watch It: Amazon Prime
Strawberry and Chocolate (1993, Cuba)
This Best Foreign Language Film nominee is an opposites attract look at two young men: Diego (gay, apolitical) aims to seduce David (straight, ardent communist). Boy Meets Boy. But nothing is simple for these two. Can they even be friends? First they have to overcome their differences.
Watch It: Indiana University’s Media Collection
Ida (2013, Poland)
An orphan raised by nuns is about to take her vows in the early 1960s; then she learns from her aunt, her only relative, that she is Jewish. The two women decide to investigate what happened to her parents during the Nazi occupation. And why did Ida survive but not her brother?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan)
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—with dialogue in Mandarin Chinese—is one of the most successful overseas-produced foreign-language films, ever. Don’t be put off by its two-hour run time: Packed with epic martial arts, stunning scenery, and a layered love story, the film has nary a dull moment.
City of God (2003, Brazil)
The title refers to a slum in Rio, where crime thrives in the 1960s. But one boy, Rocket, hopes to avoid gang life. He wants to be a photographer. Can he escape the corruption around him by revealing it through his photos? The story covers a decade of his struggle.
Watch It: Amazon Prime, Netflix
Roma (2018, Mexico)
This semi-autobiographical epic, based on director Alfonso Cuarón’s upbringing in a middle-class family in Mexico City, follows the life of Cleo, a live-in housekeeper. Shot in black and white, it won the 2019 Oscar for Best Cinematography as well as Best Foreign Language Film, the first Mexican movie to take home the award.
Watch It: Netflix
Amélie (2001, France)
In this comedy, Audrey Tautou charmed international audiences as Amélie, a naïve young woman who moves to Paris, where she is a waitress. Soon she’s devoting herself to helping others; making them happy makes her happy . . . up to a point. Meanwhile, she is also searching for true love.
The Lives of Others (2007, Germany)
In 1984 East Germany, a couple—a playwright and an actress—are under surveillance by the Stasi (secret police) for dubious reasons. A captain bugs their apartment and becomes drawn into their lives by what he hears: not what he expects. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, this political thriller won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Volver (2006, Spain)
Two women leave Madrid to visit the village where their parents died in a fire: Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her sister; Raimunda’s teen daughter accompanies them. With a story written and directed by Pedro Almódovar, suffice to say that family relationships, including a senile aunt and predatory husband, get complicated in this comedic drama.
Parasite (2019, South Korea)
Director Bong Joon-Ho’s movie swept the 2020 Academy Awards, winning awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film. A wickedly entertaining thriller on the surface, it’s also a larger commentary on greed and class warfare.
Z (1969, Algeria/France)
Inspired by events in Greece in the 1960s, this riveting film by Costa-Gavras is about the repercussions of a leftist leader’s death. Did the activist die in a traffic accident? Or is a coverup at work? If so, what will happen to those trying to uncover the truth?
Watch It: Amazon Prime
The Great Beauty (2013, Italy)
A love letter to Rome through the eyes of an aging writer, who begins to push past the superficial and look for moments of—you guessed it—great beauty. Beautifully shot, with generous screen time given to Rome’s monuments and streetscapes, it’s at once a film about nothing and something. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014.