7 Foreign-Language Films to Watch Because Subtitles Aren't Hard
Parasite is a film about eating the rich that managed to win Best Picture at the Oscars — a room full of very rich people (and whatever superlative applies to Jeff Bezos). Not only that, the South Korean thriller-satire also made history as the first non-English language film to take the top prize. Director Bong Joon-ho accepted his multiple awards (including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) in his native language, with help from translator Sharon Choi. It was a landmark night in Hollywood, and not just because the most deserving film actually won. The Academy seemed ready to recognize that the year’s best movies aren’t necessarily those made in its backyard.
American audiences seem ready, too; Parasite has been a box office success, not to mention garnered a hive following on Twitter. As Bong Joon-ho said in his already legendary acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes in January: "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." In other words, a whole world of acclaim-worthy movies awaits anyone willing to sit up and read a little. Sometimes the best advice comes wrapped in a sick burn.
“I think naturally we will come to a day when a foreign language film winning [Best Picture] won't be much of an issue,” Bong told journalists in the Oscars press room while cradling his statuettes. “There are streaming services, YouTube, social media, and the environment that we currently live in; I think we are all connected.”
The Oscars have feted international films outside their designated category in the past, with occasional nominations for Best Picture, like Roma just last year. Academy-anointed or no, these subtitled movies aren’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to jaw-dropping global cinema. But they’re a good place to start, and all available to stream as soon as you finish watching Parasite if you haven't caught that one yet.
From historical fantasy and ingenious animation to gripping topical dramas and further tales of class warfare, here are seven films to help you follow the wise words of awards-circuit dad and Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho.
The Handmaiden (2016)
This elegant erotic thriller was a favorite among critics in 2016, though it was not chosen as South Korea’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Celebrated director Park Chan-wook based this film on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, transposing the story from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea. A con man enlists the help of a petty thief to scam a rich heiress out of her inheritance — by convincing her to marry him. Visually captivating and a high mark of technical achievement, The Handmaiden is another probing exploration of tensions between the haves and have-nots.
Where to stream The Handmaiden: Amazon Prime Video
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Antonio Banderas may have finally snagged his first Oscar nomination for Pain and Glory, but his career-long collaboration with Spanish director Pedro Almódovar dates back to the actor’s days as a feather-haired hunk. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988, this black comedy is fueled by pills, a bad breakup, and frantic unanswered messages on an actual answering machine. Incidentally, Banderas plays the son of an actress who does voice-over work dubbing foreign language films. Go figure.
Where to stream Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Amazon Prime Video
Shortlisted as Senegal’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature, Atlantics is part romantic drama, part riveting ghost story. When two young lovers are separated — one cast out to sea while the other is betrothed to someone else — mysterious occurrences (a fire, a strange illness) haunt their suburb of Dakar. A chilling mix of supernatural elements and class commentary, Atlantics won the Grand Prix at Cannes, the film festival’s second highest honor. (The top prize went to, you guessed it, Parasite.) Filmmaker Mati Diop also made history as the first Black woman to direct a film in the competition.
Where to stream Atlantics: Netflix
Based on director Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of the same name, Persepolis chronicles her coming of age from problem child to teenage punk at a time of political uprising in ‘70s and ‘80s Iran. A one-of-a-kind feat of visual storytelling, Persepolis is by turns utterly delightful and riddled with heart-pounding suspense. A co-production of France and Iran, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2007 Oscars (but lost to Ratatouille).
Where to stream Persepolis: Amazon Prime Video
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Before Guillermo del Toro won Best Director in 2017 for The Shape of Water (which also won Best Picture), the Mexican filmmaker made his first showing at the Oscars with this dark historical fantasy. The young daughter of a captain in World War II Spain gets drawn into an abandoned labyrinth, where she meets and befriends some pretty wild mythical beings. Weaving whimsical fairy tale with period drama, Pan’s Labyrinth is a technical marvel; it took home Oscars for cinematography, art direction, and makeup.
Where to stream Pan's Labyrinth: Netflix
Director Deepa Mehta’s deeply affecting drama explores the lives of widows living together on the banks of the Ganges River. A controversial artist in India for her frank yet beautiful and nsightful portrayals of women and social ills, Mehta is among the most acclaimed visionary filmmakers from India, woman or otherwise. The final installment in a trilogy of Mehta’s films named for the elements, Water competed alongside Pan’s Labyrinth for Best Foriegn Language Film at the 2007 Oscars.
Where to stream Water: Amazon Prime Video
A Separation (2011)
This Iranian drama won Best Foreign Language Film back in 2012 — like Parasite, it was the first film from its home country to do so. When a woman tries to divorce her husband and leave Iran with their daughter, a judge denies her request. The couple separates and stays in Tehran, where her husband hires a young woman to care for his ailing father. A family drama that darts ahead like a thriller, A Separation takes one dark turn after another (Marriage Story, it is not). It was also the rare international film to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, another award Parasite took home this year.
Where to stream A Separation: Netflix
With reporting by Brandi Fowler.