Are you tired of formulaic movies that keep hitting the same exact plot points and exhibiting the same exact character arcs? Are you sick and tired of seeing the same exact tropes, like the so-called “Protagonist Throw” that’s been ruining action films for years now?
Maybe it’s time to take a break from Hollywood and explore the cinematic efforts of other countries.
One thing I love about Netflix is its commitment to showcasing films from around the world — and foreign films are great because they tend to explore styles, tones, and themes that you’d never see in mainstream Hollywood. Foreign films are breaths of fresh air in a stale landscape.
We have picked out 10 of the best foreign-language films on Netflix. You don’t have to watch the entire list, but we do recommend checking out at least 3-5 of them so you can get a true sense of how fresh and unique cinema can be when you broaden your horizons.
1. Train to Busan (2016)
Train to Busan is an amazing take on zombies, taking the genre and elevating it to new levels with a sympathetic cast and a surprising amount of character growth. This critically-acclaimed film earns its stripes not through its thrills, of which there are plenty, but its emotional swells.
Whereas most zombie movies shoot for fear and suspense, Train to Busan understands that characters sit at the core of compelling cinema. Yes, the zombies are nightmarish — reminiscent of 28 Days Later — but you’re really watching this for the hope of repaired relationships.
2. Oldboy (2003)
Koreans are exceedingly good at revenge films, and one could argue that the original Oldboy paved the way for all the other revenge films of the past decade. Note that this film was remade in 2013 by Hollywood and it bombed, so steer clear of that one.
Oldboy follows a man who was kidnapped and held captive for 15 years, then released without ever knowing who kidnapped him or why. While primarily a mystery, Oldboy is intense and gruesome, particularly towards the end. Do not watch if you have a weak stomach.
3. Trollhunter (2010)
Trollhunter is a suspense horror shot in the same found-footage style of The Blair Witch Project from a decade earlier. But instead of teenagers lost in a haunted forest, Trollhunter follows students who track down and document the activities of a supposed troll hunter.
It’s an incredible film that makes smart use of its framing device, and it’s awesome to see a take on trolls that’s so different than what we’ve come to expect. One word of warning: as with all found-footage movies, Trollhunter may induce motion sickness!
4. Amelie (2001)
Most movies that aim for feel-good stories tend to crash and burn, more likely to invoke cringes and eyerolls than a warmed heart. But Amelie is the rare success. Critics praised it, casual viewers loved it, and all because this whimsical tale is also an emotional one.
Amelie is about an innocent Paris girl whose goal is to live life helping those around her, and she does this by covertly intervening in their lives. But beneath her kindness are her own struggles with tragedy, loneliness, and distance.
5. 13 Assassins (2010)
If you want a proper epic action film, then look no further than 13 Assassins. This remake of the 1963 film of the same name is a period drama. Set in 1800s Japan when a high-ranking lord is threatening the way and honor of the samurai, 13 assassins are hired to dispatch him.
What’s wonderful about 13 Assassins is its attention to detail, the excellent fight choreography, but most importantly, the depth of character that’s often missing from action-heavy films. Oh, and it’s graphically violent, but never to the point of glorifying it. War is ugly, and this film doesn’t shy away from showing it.
6. Ip Man (2008)
Ip Man is a biographical drama (not documentary) about the eponymous martial arts master during Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Left with no other choice, Ip Man is forced to train others in the practice of Wing Chun to help them defend themselves in this time of war.
What you may not realize is that Ip Man is the master who taught Bruce Lee. But don’t go into this film expecting a Bruce Lee film. Yes, the martial arts choreography is spectacular, but Ip Man goes much deeper. It’s more a drama than a martial arts film, and a great one at that.
7. Headhunters (2011)
Roger is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief. But when he unknowingly steals a valuable painting from an ex-mercenary, his life gets turned upside down.
Of all the films in this article, Headhunters is the closest to a Hollywood film — it sounds Hollywood, doesn’t it? — but it’s quite unique in style, tone, and characterization, and feels distinctly foreign. Keep in mind it’s an R-rated crime thriller, so you should expect a lot of violence and suspense.
8. Force Majeure (2014)
A “force majeure” is an unavoidable chance accident that legally frees both parties in a contract from fulfilling their obligations. It’s a disturbingly fitting title for this film where a family on vacation in the French Alps gets caught in a mountainside avalanche.
Though Force Majeure is touted as a comedy drama, it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s heavy on the drama, and it’s intensely uncomfortable with how realistically it’s filmed — hard to watch in an emotional sort of way, but worth it for the one-of-a-kind experience it delivers.
9. Omar (2013)
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a touchy topic to center a film on, but Omar does it well and with respect. When an Israeli soldier is killed, a young Palestinian baker/freedom fighter is caught, forced to become an informant, and asked to betray his friends.
Everywhere you look, Omar is billed as a romance or a thriller, but it’s more of a character drama with romance and thriller elements. Looking for a conflict-drenched film dripping with moral dilemmas and suspense? Omar should be at the top of your list.
10. White God (2014)
When a 13-year-old girl’s father sets her mutt dog free because he’s seen as “unfit” by the Hungarian government, she leaves to find him. But little does she know that her dog now leads a pack of all the other “unfit” dogs of society and has turned on humanity.
The plot of White God admittedly sounds a bit silly, or even cheesy, but the strong execution is what makes this film so noteworthy. It’s a dark tale with a message that may be seen as heavy-handed, but the performances and the climax are so good that it will definitely make you think.
What Are Your Favorite Foreign Films?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years as a subscriber, it’s that Netflix has a ton of excellent films that fly under most people’s radars. Despite its shrinking library size, the overall average quality has risen quite a bit, and I absolutely think Netflix is worth the price.
Are you having a hard time finding those excellent films to watch? See our guide on how to find Netflix movies you’ll actually love. It’s true: Netflix’s interface is terrible, so you’ll need to use some third-party tools to really unlock its potential.
Did you enjoy these films? Do you want to discover the finest films Netflix has to offer? If so, see our list of the 100 best films on Netflix. Or tell us your favorites in the comments below.