It’s about this time of the year that most people go into movie fatigue. All the summer blockbusters have been rolled out, and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve seen iterations of the same film advertised over and over again.
Foreign films might be just what you need to cleanse the cinematic palate. I have searched far and wide for you, dear reader, traversing international territory to bring you a list of the best foreign films already in your library, available to stream on Netflix right now.
So even if you aren’t going somewhere fabulous this summer, you can still find a temporary escape.
1. City of God (2002)
I highlighted this movie when it was first made available in July, but it’s so great that it deserves a second mention. Rio de Janeiro’s ruthless gang culture is revealed through the eyes of budding photographer Rocket, who documents the rise and fall of his friends as the reality of poverty takes hold.
2. Holy Motors (2012)
French director/eccentric genius Leos Carax is by no means prolific. But when he makes a movie, it’s hard to ignore. Take Holy Motors, for instance, a surreal story about a mysterious man named Monsieur Oscar, whose job it is to inhabit disparate bodies in separate shifts throughout the day. Within the span of two hours, we tour the dramatic worlds of many a personality, and not without some insane and visually stunning moments along the way.
3. Stranger by the Lake (2014)
The French always seem to be one step ahead of us when it comes to erotic thrillers. First came the visceral lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color (also on Netflix). And then director Alain Guiraudie countered with this beautifully shot and utterly suspenseful gem. The movie follows a man named Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who spends his summer at a popular beachside cruising spot, looking for the right partner. Finally, a hot, mysterious dude fits the bill. The two carry on their passionate affair even after a murder occurs on their hangout’s premises and they are pegged as the two main suspects. It’s a suspenseful and stirring tale, all at once. Plus, you know, FRENCH SEX.
4. Amelie (2001)
I imagine that to live in the mind of the famously quirky character Amelie is to experience the same thrilling ups and downs as a Labrador puppy. Audrey Tautou charms as a curious and whimsical cafe attendant who — after reading of Princess Diana’s sudden death via car crash — dedicates her life to bringing joy to others. It has everything you want in a French film: a kitschy accordion soundtrack, romantic Paris montages, and a scene specifically dedicated to cracking the hard shell of a crème brûlée.
5. The Act of Killing (2012)
In 1965, when the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, Anwar Congo and his gang formed a business selling black-market movie tickets to death squad leaders. They later helped the army engage in a genocide, killing over a million communists, Chinese people, and intellectuals during the span of a year.
This fascinating documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer challenges Congo and his community to write and act out the story of the killings in a Hollywood-type film, playing both themselves and their victims. The experiment results in intense moments of regret and reflection for all parties involved.
6. Happy People (2010)
What’s that you say? Legendary director Werner Herzog hiked out to the world’s largest terrestrial biome — known to have the lowest temperatures in the country — and filmed there for a year? Of course he did, and of course he made something solemn, thoughtful, and sweepingly gorgeous. Herzog and Russian co-director Dmitry Vasyukov offer a glimpse into the life and culture of a remote 300-person village off the river Yenisei, which has no medical aid, running water, or telephone access. The filmmakers document the community’s daily routines and trapping techniques for all four seasons, telling a tale about complete isolation in the modern world.
7. The Hunt (2012)
Mads Mikkelsen (of the new NBC series Hannibal) stars in this Danish film as a kindergarten schoolteacher who is falsely accused of pedophilia. Tense and unnerving, the film explores the ugly mob mentality that comes with unconfirmed yet damning rumors. It nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars and yet didn’t make its way into many American theaters. Now you can watch it on Netflix.
8. Meet the Fokkens (2011)
This documentary tells the remarkable story of 69-year-old twins Louise and Martine Fokkens. The two worked as prostitutes in Amsterdam’s red light district for half a century until Louise retired because of her arthritis. Martine, however, is still at it, and happy to share her explicit daily activities with the camera crew. On off days, the two walk around in matching outfits and gossip about their time in the trade, happy to claim the title of “whore.” The movie turns our modern-day perception of prostitution on its head, framing sexual acts through the eyes of two wonderfully comfortable elderly women.
9. Gomorrah (2008)
Based on Robert Saviano’s 2006 book about organized crime in Naples, Gomorrah explores the way the mob slowly infects a community, invading its every crevice and influencing its every decision. Much like the film Traffic, Gomorrah weaves together the stories of several Naples inhabitants to tell a sobering tale of horrifying high-stakes systematic violence.
10. Oslo, August 31st (2011)
This Norwegian film follows a day in the life of Anders, a generally sad 34-year-old drug addict. His rehab program grants him a day in the city for a job interview, but he blows that off to wander the streets and catch up with his former social circle. It’s a simple premise that proves to be rich and complicated.
11. Melancholia (2011)
WARNING: DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE POST-BREAKUP. I REPEAT, DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE POST-BREAKUP.
OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can tell you that Lars von Tier’s Melancholia is a dark, artful work. It follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who are getting married on Justine’s sister’s estate. Justine’s life quickly unravels in the span of the wedding ceremony, and she slips into an almost catatonic state of depression, becoming obsessed with a planet called Melancholia that she believes is heading toward Earth. Despite its gloomy plot, the film’s dreamlike cinematography makes it a worthwhile watch.
Here we have a movie set in the neon-rich city of Tokyo about an out-of-body, psychedelic experience. In other words, a guaranteed glow-stick assault on your eyeballs. But an artsy French one! The story is told from the perspective of Oscar, an American drug dealer who’s shot by the police. He floats above the city streets, watching the world move on without him in an out-of-body experience. Though the film has been criticized for being somewhat trivial, it’s a guaranteed gorgeous two and a half hours spent with your laptop.
13. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Two guys and a girl set out on a road trip, in search of a beautiful isolated island. Set on the backdrop of Mexico’s current political and economic issues, the three share their personal experiences about love and relationships, only to eventually find themselves romantically entangled.
It’s a steamy, bittersweet love story about the messiness of personal relationships, gracefully portrayed by writer/producer/director Alfonso Cuarón.
14. Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Based on a 1985 novel of the same name, this 1993 drama details China’s political and humanitarian strife in the mid-20th century. The film focuses on two men — originally orphans who were taken in by an enterprising opera company — who eventually become stars of their trade. Their relationship spans 53 years, hitting a snag at the introduction of one man’s bride.