Don’t you just love that feeling of totally losing yourself in a good movie? With so much disruption to cinemas since the start of the pandemic, settling down at home with some popcorn to watch a movie has taken on a whole new level of importance.
Naturally, working in the language services industry means I have a particular interest in foreign movies when it comes to what I choose to stream. As such, I thought it was worth looking at some of the best foreign films on Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services.
Before I dive into a roundup of the best foreign films, I want to quickly make the case for watching them. First and foremost, of course, is the simple enjoyment of watching a movie – of immersing yourself in the plot and the cinematography. But that’s not the only benefit when it comes to watching foreign films.
If you’re learning a foreign language, then watching movies created in that language, even if they’re not the best foreign films ever, can be a huge help. Watching with subtitles can help attune your ear to the sound of the language. It can also help you to pick up new words as you watch, as well as embedding those words you already know.
By the way, if you’re currently considering which language to learn next, why not check out the link below to take a look at the world’s fastest growing languages?
Read more: The Fastest Growing Languages in the World
Foreign movies can also provide you with a treasure trove of insights into other cultures. The settings, attitudes, assumptions and so much more can be incredibly revealing, even when the plots of the films are entirely fictional.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most popular streaming platforms and what they have to offer in terms of the best foreign language films currently available.
Netflix is undoubtedly the royalty of streaming services, with 209.18 million subscribers. During the first six months of 2021, the company generated $14.5 billion in revenue. It is available for viewing in more than 190 countries.
That means, in short, that Netflix has plenty of scope to share movies and series across international borders. I’m looking specifically at the best foreign movies on Netflix in this article (but on the subject of series, if you haven’t watched Money Heist or Squid Game yet, it’s time to catch up fast).
Originally filmed in Spanish and Mixtec, this artfully shot, black and white movie from 2018 has been shared with audiences around the world. The first Mexican film ever to win the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, it tells the tale of live-in housekeeper Cleodegaria Gutiérrez.
Roma has won numerous other awards and many consider it to be one of the best films of the 2010s, if not one of the best foreign films of all time.
Another multiple award winner, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fantasy tale filmed in Spanish. The film follows the tale of ten-year-old Ofelia as she attempts to complete a number of dangerous and fantastical tasks. Blending the real world of early 1940s Francoist Spain with and a world that is altogether more magical, Pan’s Labyrinth takes the viewer on a compelling and spellbinding journey.
Filmed in French and Wolof, with filming locations in France, Senegal and Belgium, Atlantics is a supernatural love story that focuses on issues of loss, grief, remorse, class, migration, female solidarity, family struggles and more. Through the struggles of Ada and her partner Souleiman, the film also takes on the issue of the refugee crisis. Beautiful and melancholy in equal measure, this is one of the best foreign movies to air in recent years.
Another of the best international movies on Netflix is A Fortunate Man. Shot in Danish, the film tells the tale of a young man who leaves behind his rural background and religion to find his way in the world, pursuing academia, engineering and love in equal measure. The film tackles religion and culture, among other themes, and has been praised for the actors’ exceptional performances.
The last of the Netflix international movies I want to mention is Under the Shadow. Filmed in Persian at locations including Qatar, Jordan and the UK, the movie is a psychological horror set in Tehran in the 1980s. Fans have been impressed, giving it a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 99%.
That’s the last of the foreign films on Netflix I wanted to share today (there are, of course, so many more but I’m going with a few select highlights from each streaming service). Now let’s look at the foreign movies on Amazon Prime.
Amazon Prime’s video service is another streaming behemoth, available in over 200 countries. Some 175 million of Amazon Prime’s 200+ million subscribers “have streamed shows and movies in the past year,” according to CEO Jeff Bezos in April 2021.
As with Netflix, Amazon Prime’s global reach means plenty of scope for the service to share famous foreign films across international borders. Here are a few of the best.
Japanese film Shoplifters is a must-watch on Amazon Prime. The movie examines the concepts of family, poverty and morality, following a non-biological family who depend on one another for their survival. The film has one an array of awards as well as racking up nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
Acted in Persian and filmed in Iran and France, The Salesman should be on everyone’s list of top foreign films to stream. It scooped an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as other accolades. The Salesman uses the story of Death of a Salesman within the plot (the lead couple perform Miller’s play, after which the wife is assaulted) and expounds on its themes. Gripping and memorable, this is well worth a watch.
Lebanese drama Capernaum is filmed in Arabic and Amharic. Dealing with issues of undocumented immigrants and child neglect, it makes for hard watching in places, but the superb acting and important themes make this one of the best foreign language movies on Amazon Prime. After the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, it received a 15-minute standing ovation – testament to its powerful storytelling and rich characters.
Filmed in Arabic and French, Canadian film Incendies has earned a spot on many film buffs’ lists of the greatest foreign films. It has racked up a string of awards for its tale of family, civil war, hidden pasts, religion, human rights and more. Definitely on the must-watch list for anyone who likes to lose themselves in an intense drama.
I’d like to take a quick look at Apple TV next. Apple TV is home to some popular foreign movies, so I’ve included a few of these below. If you’ve not seen these yet, don’t leave it too long before you do, as some of them really are superb.
If you only watch one foreign movie on Apple TV, let it be Amelie. Whimsical and sweet, with outstanding performances from an all-star cast, this film has plenty to say on the topic of loneliness while delivering a welcome feel-good vibe. Originally release back in 2001, this French film was the highest grossing film in France that year and has stayed on many cinephiles’ lists of the best foreign movies of all time.
If you like your foreign movies to blend action, drama and horror, Train to Busan is the film for you. Filmed in Korean and shot in South Korea, this film follows a workaholic father trying to take his daughter by train to his ex-wife in Busan, all in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. There’s plenty of emotional appeal and plenty of zombies – great viewing for fans of the zombie genre, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94%.
This classic foreign film from the late 1990s is well worth a watch if you didn’t catch it back then – or worth revisiting even if you did. Filmed in Japanese, it features monsters and the threat of a world-ending nuclear meltdown. Not one of the best international movies of all time, perhaps, but still perfect escapism.
Italian ‘giallo horror’ Deep Red was filmed nearly 50 years ago but remains a top foreign film for those who enjoy a good murder mystery, having stood the test of time. It’s something of a gore-fest but that clearly works with the viewers, who have given it an overall Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%.
The final streaming services I wanted to include in this foreign movies roundup is HBO Max. Launched back in May 2020, the service has managed to rack up more than 12 million direct subscribers already, while another 31.5 million regular HBO subscribers can also access it.
So, what are the best foreign films on HBO Max? Let’s take a look.
Not to be confused with the 1986 American movie of the same name, House is a Japanese film released in 1977 and now available to view on HBO Max. This supernatural comedy horror is set in a country house that gradually devours a visiting party of schoolgirls. The box office loved it, the critics didn’t. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind…
Featuring scenes in Wayuu, Spanish, English and Wiwa, this Colombian crime epic is one of the best foreign language movies to come out of South America in the last few years. The film was in production for 10 years, with local Wayuu people making up around 30% of the cast and crew. Much of what happens in the film is drawn from real stories from among the Wayuu, creating an uncomfortably real sense of darkness and danger in places. Absolutely essential viewing.
Acted in Cantonese and filmed in Hong Kong and France, In the Mood for Love is set in 1960s Hong Kong. It tells the tale of two neighbours whose partners are having affairs. As the neighbours gradually fall for each other, the film explores themes of loneliness and uncertainty. A great arthouse film that is, I found, surprisingly affecting.
Based on the entries for the 2022 Oscar for Best International Feature, there are plenty of exciting international movies that should hit our streaming services in the coming months.
One of the most exciting films to look out for is Plaza Catedral. This Panamanian movie tackles issues of violence, conflict and loss, with 15-year-old Fernando Xavier de Casta starring, who was himself tragically killed in gang violence before the film’s premier at the Guadalajara Film Festival in October 2021.
Kenya’s Mission to Rescue is another top foreign film that’s newly out, released on Baze in June 2021. Mission to Rescue tells the true story of a French woman kidnapped amid violence along the Kenya-Somali border.
The other foreign movie I’m eagerly awaiting on a streaming service at the moment is the Indonesian film Yuni. Examining attitudes to women and the expectations of community, the film follows a gifted Indonesian student as she sets out to pursue her education and live life on her own terms.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this roundup of foreign language films across some of the most popular streaming services. I’ll end with a quick note on language, as you might expect from a translation services company.
There’s something uniquely challenging but also uniquely exciting about translating the dialogue for a movie, whether for subtitles or for voice actors to record it in the target language. Working to convey not just the meaning but also the emotive power of the original script is an incredible opportunity and one that can deliver superb results (you can click the link below for more info on what makes a good translation).
Translating a movie involves connecting deeply with the script and the film itself. For film buffs who translate for a living, it’s pretty much the perfect assignment.
Read more: Defining the Qualities of a Good Translation
What’s the best foreign film you’ve ever watched and why? Leave a comment below to share your recommendations. They may just make it into the next update of this article.