Many of us don’t naturally gravitate toward foreign movies. Maybe it’s the idea of having to read subtitles or get familiar with a new culture. But 2020 signifies the turn of a new decade, so perhaps it’s the perfect time to challenge yourself and the system. This list of foreign films accounts for a ton of different geographical regions. Of course, there are also animated films and classics from past decades that deserve honorable mentions, such as the work of Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai and Studio Ghibli’s anime contribution. But setting those aside, these are the movies that are underrated and undoubtedly deserve a lot more attention.
The Lady Assassin (2013, Vietnam) Directed by Nguyen Quang Dung
This movie takes place in Dai Viet, on an island where a gang of women lures sailors into a well-disguised saloon and then robs and kills them. The story unfolds like a Greek tragedy: we don’t empathize with the women, but we still understand their ambitions, secrets, and downfall.
Ten years ago, female empowerment was neither a buzzword nor a movement in Vietnam. Even in cities like Saigon and Hanoi, gender stereotypes were still brutally oppressive. 2009 signified a shift, though: that year, the prime minister issued Decision 97 which limits “research by private organizations to 317 government-approved topics.” Because of the government’s effort to tighten control over people’s everyday life, Vietnamese citizens began looking for an emotional release in Western ideals and the fantasy worlds of K-pop and K-drama. Really, they felt detached from the place they called home.
The Lady Assassin, in a way, embodies that escape. From beautiful fight scenes in luscious green mountains to steamy bath scenes, the film is itself a visual escape from the cities of Vietnam. It explores female partnership and women’s desire to look out for and take care of one another. In this movie, sexuality is the one thing the government can’t take away from its citizens.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, France) Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Sexuality and struggle are constant themes on this list, and Blue Is the Warmest Color truly masters the exploration of both. This is easily one of the rawest movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t give viewers unrealistic expectations about love, because this isn’t simply a love story. It’s a coming-of-age story about 15-year-old Adèle falling in love with an older art student, Emma. The film shows Adèle learning about herself through her sexual and romantic experiences. We watch her stash sweets under her bed and know that her appetite isn’t only carnal—she has a deeper craving for sexual liberation. The story delves into the desires of a 15-year-old, all while showing us uncensored intimate moments: emotional lows and the universal experience of loss. “I miss not touching each other. Not seeing each other, not breathing in each other. I want you. All the time,” she says. As teenagers, there’s a time when most of us are so crazy about someone that it’s hard to not think about being with them every minute. It’s this pain and vulnerability that makes Blue Is the Warmest Color so universal.
El Angel (2018, Argentina) Directed by Luis Ortega
“The world belongs to outlaws and artists,” says a character named Carlos. That line stuck with me long after I left the theater. I think about Carlos sitting in a half-filled bathtub staring into the air above, a cigarette between his lips and a gun in a corner of the tub. This crime thriller is loosely based on the biography of real-life Argentine criminal Carlos Robledo Puch. He was nicknamed “The Angel of Death,” a baby-faced psychopathic serial killer who committed over 10 murders and assaults. The movie is really as haunting as the man himself. In the movie, Carlos talks about art and artists; he embodies the angst and chaos that are somewhere inside each of us. In the beginning of the film, he breaks into a house, dances in it, and then rides away on a motorcycle, making committing a crime feel kind of tranquil. The first thing we hear him say is that “people are crazy,” and that seems to be the basis of his distorted philosophy. We follow his crimes, but we don’t necessarily understand him or his purpose.
Roma (2018, Mexico) Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Roma paints a simple yet moving picture of the life of a Mexican working-class woman named Cleo. In the early ‘70s, Cleo is a domestic worker in a middle-class family: she cooks, cleans, and looks after the children. The movie doesn’t just deal with class, though: we witness how pivotal moments in their world can seem so minute in the greater scheme of things. As film critic Alissa Wilkinson beautifully put it, “Roma is about daily life against a backdrop of social unrest, and the women who keep it all together.”
Woman at War (2018, Iceland) Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
Woman at War is a black comedy about an environmental activist named Halla who tries to simultaneously fight the local aluminum industry and adopt a child. Halla leads a double life, working as a choir director in the daytime and plotting to sabotage the Icelandic government in the nighttime. From small-scale vandalism to knocking down an entire electricity tower, she does it all—and so the media sees her as a hysterical woman trying to inflict national terror.
When Halla is injured on the mountain and has to run away from law enforcement, she gets help from a strange farmer nearby.
A three-piece band constantly follows her throughout the story, too, adding a theatrical and musical element to an otherwise intense movie. We begin to see how Halla embodies the ideal of a modern independent woman—someone who is constantly on the move, seeking purpose and recognition in all aspects of life. Despite her passion for activism, after all, Halla also yearns to be a mother. What makes her character so complex is the fact that her maternal aspirations seem to almost conflict with her eagle-minded approach to changing the world. Although her methods are extreme, we still find ourselves rooting for her during hiccups. Woman at War is a beautifully poignant portrait of her life, an overachiever failing to have the best of both worlds. Still, she carries on.
Parasite (2019, Korea) Directed by Bong Joon-ho
A thrilling black comedy directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite explores the social dynamics and psychological gap between a wealthy family and a poor one. It won the Palme d'Or, the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving lots of praise and attention from movie buffs and media outlets. Much of Parasite takes place in the Parks’ house, a symbol of status and class. The Kims, on the other hand, are a family of con artists scheming to work for the Parks by posing as overqualified individuals and tricking them into firing their old staff. The movie isn’t just politically charged—it’s also very socially intelligent. It boils the national social dynamics into two categories of citizens: the nice and rich versus the bitter and poor. “They’re rich but still nice,” Mr. Kim comments. “They’re nice because they’re rich,” Mrs. Kim counters. Despite their clear resentment toward the rich, it’s evident that the Kims desperately want to be them.
Better Days (2019, China) Directed by Kwok Cheung Tsang
Before the summer, the film was pulled from distribution by the Chinese government without a proper explanation. Thankfully, though, Better Days was later released to the domestic market. This hard-hitting coming-of-age film is an emotional release: Chen Nian, a quiet girl and top student with a violent childhood of abandonment and bullying, meets Xiao Bei, a gangster dropout who can’t stay out of trouble. He promises to protect her from bullies, and the movie evolves into a curious love story, as he walks behind her on every dark street and in every alleyway. In a world which feels like all the walls are closing in, Chen Nian dreams of escaping. She studies day and night, and stays out of trouble by walking with her head down. Despite the heavy presence of law enforcement, things don’t get any better. “Growing up is like diving. Don’t think, just close your eyes, and jump in,” says Chen Nian. The film is a bitter reminder that most kids are not just overwhelmed by fear, but they’re also puzzled by the idea of growing up—they only know to jump right in and hope for better days.