Films

The 15 greatest foreign films on Netflix

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Harvey Day
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The 15 greatest foreign films on Netflix

With more than 4,000 films in its catalogue, Netflix has a bewildering array of movies for you to watch at any moment. 

And when it comes to films that aren’t made in the UK or America, it can be hard to know where to start looking. 

So, dear friends, using our impeccable taste we’ve compiled a list of the best foreign-language films from recent years that you might have missed (as well as a few old-school classics).

From a South Korean mystery horror to an intimate documentary on the behind-the-scenes life of an Italian porn star, there’s something here for everyone. 

  1. 1.

    'Under the Shadow' (Persian, 2016)

    Under the Shadow is a claustrophobic horror film set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. It seamlessly blends real-life, emotional terror with Persian dark magic and evil spirits. This film, despite being chosen by BBC film critic Mark Kermode as his favourite movie of 2016, has achieved nowhere near the level of recognition it deserves. A beautiful modern masterpiece.

    It’s similar to: The Babadook

    Best thing about it: How it portrays women as genuinely meaningful characters

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 99%

  1. 2.

    'The Wailing' (Korean, 2016)

    The Wailing, a South Korean horror-mystery-thriller about a policeman reluctantly investigating dark and twisted events in his small town, is an addicting watch from the first scene to the last. The lead actor Kwak Do-won conjures up a heartfelt performance as he struggles to be a father and a man in a society with strict ideas about gender. You’ll enjoy every second but be prepared for the film to take you to some unexpectedly dark places.

    It’s similar to: Silence of the Lambs

    Best thing about it: The wonderfully complex and engaging plot

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 99%

  2. 3.

    'Aquarius' (Portuguese, 2016)

    Aquarius is a sexy Brazilian drama about a retired female music writer who refuses to give up her sexuality and her identity. As she battles to stay in her beloved apartment, the film also becomes a tale of political and personal resistance. Sônia Braga (basically the Brazilian Helen Mirren) is a beautiful actor – she makes every scene shine. And to top it off this film has an incredible soundtrack.

    It’s similar to: Elle

    Best thing about it: Braga’s relentless power as she has sex with a male prostitute

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 97%

  3. 4.

    'Son of Saul' (Hungarian, German and Yiddish, 2015)

    This quiet drama focuses on a member of the Jewish Sonderkommando in a Holocaust concentration camp who is desperately struggling to bury a boy who he believes to be his son. But don’t be scared off by the harrowing subject matter, this is a tender examination of how love and humanity can survive even through the thick smoke and ash of the concentration camps.

    It’s similar to: The Grey Zone

    Best thing about it: The main character’s will to survive

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 96%

  4. 5.

    'Rocco' (Italian, 2016)

    If you’re in the mood for something completely different, give this documentary about legendary Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi – aka Italian Stallion – a go. It’s chock full of sex, although when they take away the fantasy, some of it is pretty unsexy. It’s beautifully shot, atmospheric and gives a genuinely fresh insight into the lives of porn stars. One memorable scene has two porn actresses discussing their day job: “In my line of work blowing 200 blokes on a beach is a normal day at the office.” Like all porn films, this doc is probably a bit too long, but you can always just fast forward to the best bits…

    It’s similar to: Nymphomaniac

    Best thing about it: The surprising moments of humanity as the porn actresses wipe away the cum after a bountiful bukkake

    Rotten Tomatoes score: Not yet rated

  5. 6.

    'Sand Storm' (Arabic, 2016)

    Sand Storm is an Israeli film about Bedouin women struggling to get by in an impoverished and conservative village. Sounds like heavy going but hear me out: there are some beautifully funny moments, some scenes that will make your heart burst and others that will leave you feeling emotionally crushed. The women in this film sparkle like shining stars in the desert.

    Best thing about it: The cheeky and charming acting from the younger sister

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 94%

  6. 7.

    'Skins' (Spanish, 2017)

    Skins feels like a mind-fuck, art house film that the writers of the League of Gentleman might have come up with if they had a bigger budget and had a slightly gayer sensibility. Disturbing scenes of child prostitution are juxtaposed with a young woman who has an arsehole for a mouth. I kid you not. This film is a bizarre and very funny exploration of love, deformity and identity.

    It’s similar to: It’s honestly like nothing else 

    Best thing about it: A romantic tongue-fucking of one character’s arse-mouth

    Rotten Tomatoes score: Not yet rated

  1. 8.

    'Sky Ladder' (Mandarin, 2016)

    This aggressive documentary about Chinese fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang is a very interesting study of how an artist creates his work. It touches on just the right amount of national history, politics and personal tragedy (like the time when he was so poor his family was forced to eat his dog). Guo-Qiang, who did the fireworks for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics like his collaboration with the authoritarian communist regime. A thoroughly personable and enjoyable portrait of an artist.

    It’s similar to: Imagine a particularly good episode of a BBC arts show

    Best thing about it: The stunning final scene

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%

  2. 9.

    'The White Helmets' (Arabic, 2016)

    This short Netflix documentary brings you terrifyingly close to the horror of the Syrian Civil War. But the pain of this film is mixed with the breathtaking bravery of the men who do everything they can save the victims of the Russian and Syrian government’s relentless bombing campaign. I cried multiple times (especially hard when the one-week-old ‘miracle baby’ was saved).

    Best thing about it: Having your faith’s in the goodness of humanity restored

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 100%

  3. 10.

    'The Way He Looks' (Portuguese, 2014)

    Another Brazilian film on the list, this time it’s a sweet coming of age story about a blind, gay teenager. I loved this film. It’s a heavenly charade of what young gay love could be if humanity wasn’t so fucked up. If only every LGBT+ person could live this story!

    It’s similar to: Beautiful Thing

    Best thing about it: The warm fuzzy feelings you’ll get from watching it

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 92%

  4. 11.

    'Blue is the Warmest Colour' (French, 2013)

    If your heart doesn’t break at some point during Abdellatif Kechiche’s coming of age story then you might want to take it somewhere to get looked at. The story of Adele includes her coming to terms with her confusing sexuality, finding love, losing love and then maybe finding it again, over three hours that are sumptuously shot and shatteringly believable. If you only know it for the sex scenes then you don’t know it at all.

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 90%

  5. 12.

    'The Great Beauty' (Italian, 2013)

    Back to Italy again with this entertaining character study of a 65-year-old man involved in a love affair with the city of Rome. As our hedonistic protagonist looks back on his life, we’re treated to a stunning portrait of a city and director Paolo Sorrentino has a skillful grasp on the place, taking us all the way to Rome without ever having to leave our sofa. It won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%

And a few of the classics…

  1. 1.

    'City of God' (Portuguese, 2002)

    A huge breakout hit back in 2002, this Brazilian crime drama arrived at Cannes out of nowhere and announced director Fernando Meirelles as a major talent. Its vibrant take on organised crime and how it is viewed through the eyes of a young narrator still remains as fresh and as shocking as it was the first time round. While Meirelles might have stumbled since, this remains a timeless classic which deservedly scooped him an Oscar nomination.

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 90%

  2. 2.

    'Battle Royale' (Japanese, 2000)

    If you’ve seen, and enjoyed, The Hunger Games, then you owe a hearty back slap to the creators of this Japanese thriller which, back in 2000, paved the way for Katniss and her cohorts. The gleefully gruesome story of a class of students taken to an island to kill each other until only one remains is an inspired bloodbath which manages to make some smart satirical jabs in amongst all the killing. It was deservedly a huge hit in Japan and spwaned a less well-received sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem.

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 87%

  3. 3.

    'Cinema Paradiso' (Italian, 1988)

    Sticking with Italy again, this is a slightly more saccharine offering but one that’s still virtually impossible not to fall for. It’s charming in its old-fashioned and unashamed traditionalism as it tells the tale of a director looking back on his life and it happily ticks all of the boxes you’d expect from such a familiar yet comfortably well-handled set-up. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and provided a major boost to the Italian film industry.

    Rotten Tomatoes score: 90%

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Harvey Day

Digital writer for Shortlist.com / @harveyday94 / harvey.day@shortlist.com

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