American media has a superiority complex, and honestly, it’s unfounded. Yes, there have been phenomenal works to come out of Hollywood, but the assumption that Hollywood is the sole source of these works is elitist and deprives us of the perspectives offered in foreign productions. Everyone should be watching foreign-language films, and below are some of my favorites to broaden your movie horizons.
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way — this stunning Korean film by Bong Joon-Ho swept the Academy Awards with four wins, including Best Picture. It’s a drama thriller that juxtaposes the life of two families in South Korea, one being wildly wealthy and the other scraping to get by. Joon-Ho crafts a gripping story that weaves into commentary on class divide and environmental justice. The contrast is both beautiful and devastating. This is the only entirely Korean language film I’ve seen from him, but I also loved his English “Snowpiercer” (2014) and “Okja” (2017).
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)
Another one of the more well-known foreign language films of recent years is this French film by Céline Sciamma. It follows the relationship between two women in 1760, and that’s about all I want to divulge as to the storyline. It’s artfully made and a mesmerizing watch, and Sciamma balanced the film’s grounded and simplistic style with equally stunning and masterful visuals. “Portrait” has a relatively subdued production level, yet it feels like the highest form of art.
“Land of Mine” (2015)
The world’s obsession with World War II films means it’s a wildly oversaturated genre, but the Danish and German film “Land of Mine” stands out among the masses for it’s philosophical, deeply human approach to the oft-forgotten narrative of postwar recovery. Director Martin Zandvliet captured the true story of German prisoners of war, comprised almost entirely of young boys, who were kept in Denmark after the end of the war to dig up and disable land mines with their bare hands. It’s a heartbreaking tale exploring how a nation can move on after the atrocities of war, and whether or not exacting revenge on children will deliver any real sense of justice.
Another Korean film with commentary about class disparity, “Burning” follows three young individuals from starkly different financial backgrounds. With a 148-minute runtime and little in the way of action, it’s the slowest of slow burns to exist, but still well worth it for the takeaways. It’s an honest observation of day-to-day life for these characters who navigate space so differently because of the country’s class divide. The payoff is incredible, and it’s visually stunning to watch.
“Pain and Glory” (2019)
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical film “Pain and Glory” depicts an aging director, devoid of the passion he once had, reflecting on the experiences that shaped him. It’s hopeful but heartbreaking, with the physical and emotional ailments brought on by age serving as a bit of a rude awakening. For brevity’s sake, I’m only mentioning one Spanish Almodóvar film here, but he’s also done incredible work with “Volver” (2006), “The Skin I Live In” (2011) and most recently, the English short “The Human Voice” (2020), which our editor-in-chief was able to review during the New York Film Festival.
If there’s any movie to go into blind, it’s this one. I’ll mention it is about a domineering father who wants to protect his children from the corruption of the world and leave it at that. Deeply disturbing, uncomfortable and wickedly hilarious, “Dogtooth” by Yorgos Lanthimos is the pinnacle of dark family drama. Lanthimos is one of my favorites because of his ability to take real-life societal concepts to the extreme and merge the unsettling with dark comedy. This film is in Greek, and he’s done outstanding work in his English films like “The Lobster” (2015), “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017) and “The Favourite” (2018).
“Good Bye, Lenin!” (2003)
This German political satire follows a family as they navigate the transition from being East German to just German after the Berlin Wall falls. It’s not only charming and comical, but also offers valuable insight into the ideological dynamic of postwar Germany — the son Alex (Daniel Brühl) longs for reunification, while his mother is loyal to the communists and nostalgic for East German life. Like “Land of Mine,” “Good Bye, Lenin!” serves as an authentic perspective into the complexity of German life in the 20th century, one more educational than the basic “America good, Germany bad” narrative perpetuated in American media that follows the same timeline.
This Spanish-language film follows the life of a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City in the most intimate way. Director Alfonso Cuarón brilliantly captures every nook and cranny of life here, weaving a deeply personal narrative that feels both honest and profound. It’s also breathtakingly shot, with the black-and-white cinematography using lots of wide shots and slow pans to truly engulf viewers into the full scope of the environment.
We talked about these movies in detail on the Daily’s Dose podcast if you’d like to hear more. But these films do not even begin to scratch the surface of what is out there, so I encourage you to go beyond what I have mentioned and seek out foreign language films intentionally and often. There’s also a whole world of foreign television, too — if you feel ready to dive into a show, I wholeheartedly recommend “Dark” on Netflix, which possesses a brilliance I will never, ever shut up about.
Featured image: Courtesy CGV Arthouse