The unprecedented success of director and writer Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and the demand for entertainment increasing with society’s collective self-isolation means that international film recommendations are a must for our current circumstances. Without further ado, here’s a list of must-see movies spanning both genres and borders.
- Parasite (2019) — South Korea
It would be amiss to ignore this movie. Bong Joon-ho’s class conflict thriller is a love letter to cinema, and cinema loves it right back. Parasite won 6 Oscars in 2020 and is currently breaking streaming records on Hulu within its first week of release.
- Okja (2017) — South Korea
Another Bong Joon-ho classic, available on Netflix. Okja follows young girl Mija’s attempt to rescue her genetically modified (and adorable) “super-pig” Okja from the clutches of a corrupt New York company. It follows up on Joon-ho’s thematic conventions surrounding capitalism and leaves the viewer hanging on the edge of their couch.
- Train to Busan (2016) — South Korea
A terrifying zombie thriller turned on its head — don’t watch this movie if you are easily terrified, or if the idea of a zombie apocalypse keeps you up at night. It follows a father and daughter duo as they attempt to escape a zombie epidemic via train to the only safe South Korean city, and is available on Netflix.
- Roma (2018) — Mexico
From director Alfonso Cuaron, Roma follows Cleo, a domestic worker in Mexico City who is invited on vacation with the family she works for after their father runs away with a mistress. Roma won three Oscars in 2018 and is available on Netflix.
- Like Water for Chocolate (1992) — Mexico
Directed by Alfonso Arau, this 1992 classic follows Tita as she rebels against the family tradition involving the youngest daughter being burdened with the responsibility of looking after her mother instead of getting married. Her love interest, Pedro, marries her sister in order to stay close to Tita. As her frustration and feelings boil over, Tita’s cooking begins to have magical effects on her family. The movie is a beautifully rendered take on magical realism available on Netflix.
- The Platform (2019)— Spain
Since The Platform’s release on Netflix, fans have been abuzz about director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s latest foray into science fiction and horror. In a reflection on class and capitalism, the movie follows prisoners in a vertical tower. Those at the top take food first, and then send the remaining scraps down to prisoners below. Presented as a well thought out allegory for trickle down economics, The Platform will keep you up at night pondering how economics and horror could mix so well.
- Sing Street (2016) — Ireland
Set in 1980s Dublin, the film follows Conor as he attempts to adjust to his new life in the inner city during an economic recession, creates a rock band (despite never playing an instrument), and tries to talk to a supermodel. The result is a coming of age film that never makes light of its protagonist’s dreams. It’s a musical full of heart that points to imagination as a means of escape and is worth checking out.
- Shaun of the Dead (2004) — Britain
A British cult classic for good reason. Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy housed inside a satirical zombie flick, and somehow pulls both off seamlessly. It launched director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg to star status, performed incredibly well in box offices, and remains a classic even 16 years later.
- The Holiday (2019) — Russia
Released on YouTube due to controversy in Russia, The Holiday follows a wealthy family preparing for Christmas dinner during the Siege of Leningrad in 1917. In this dark satire, the comedically bumbling family casts a mirror towards society, showing that living in a bubble creates problems for all.
- My Life as a Zucchini (2016)— France
A stop motion animated film that feels like poetry in motion, My Life As A Zucchini is a poignant tale full of whimsy. It follows a young boy in a group home after the death of his mother, and paints a beautiful picture of healing. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2016 and exists as a labor of love by director Claude Barras. My Life As A Zucchini is available on Netflix.
- The Sky is Pink (2019) — India
A heartwarming yet devastating film about the life of motivational speaker Aisha Chaudhary, who died in 2018 due to a genetic illness. The story is told by 18 year old Aisha from the grave. The film follows her parents via flashback as they attempt to grapple with her disease, and give Aisha a beautiful life.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) — France
Available on Hulu after its box office run was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful period piece set in 1770. Marianne is hired to paint the portrait of a reluctant bride in secret and slowly falls in love with her subject.
- Rafiki (2019) — Kenya
The first movie about LGBTQ romance produced in Kenya, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, Rafiki is unintentionally revolutionary. It follows two teenage girls through their love story, against the vibrant backdrop of Kenyan culture. The film is a standout of what director Wanuri Kaihu calls “afrobubblegum”, an art movement that centers around depicting Africa with joy and light. Aesthetically beautiful and emotionally riveting, Rafiki was the first Kenyan film to debut at Cannes Film Festival and has been breaking boundaries ever since.
- Liyana (2017) — Swaziland
This documentary created by Aaron and Amanda Kopp follows young Swazi orphans as they recreate their experiences via animation.. It splices together the fictional adventures of Liyana as she embarks on a journey to save her young brothers with real scenes of the orphans, documentary style.
- Atlantics (2019) — Senegal
After a group of construction workers perish at sea in the search for a better life, they return to haunt their hometown of Dakar from beyond the grave. Ada, who is betrothed to another man, is in love with ghostly Suleiman, and their struggles live at the heart of the narrative. This is a gorgeous blend of fantasy, horror, romance and social commentary that creates a new genre all on its own.
- Shoplifters (2018) — Japan
In director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s brilliant ‘found family’ film, a Japanese couple who must shoplift to make ends meet take in a young girl, only to find their motivations questioned. This is Kore-eda at his best in a philosophical, art-house fueled journey that requires audiences to take a deep breath before being swept away.
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — Spain
Guillermo del Toro (pre-Shape of Water) is a directorial force to be reckoned with, and Pan’s Labyrinth is some of his best work. It follows a young girl during World War I as she is drawn into a mythical world of fantasy in an attempt to escape from the horrors committed by her sadistic army stepfather. Although anchored heavily in war (as darkness within fantasy is one of del Toro’s staples), this film is one of the best within the fantasy genre.
- I Lost My Body (2019) — France
Another French animation film that is simply too good to leave off this list. Occasionally macabre but beautifully imaginative, I Lost My Body follows a severed hand as it travels through the streets of Paris, attempting to reunite with the boy it belongs to while slowly remembering details of the boy’s love life. I Lost My Body is available on Netflix.
- A Separation (2011) — Iran
Available on Netflix, this film follows a married couple’s difficult decision to either stay in Tehran to care for an ailing parent or move abroad in search of a better life for their young daughter. Although the film has a slow beginning, director Farhadi builds upon tension with a dexterity that leaves audiences hanging on by a thread.
- The Square (2013) — Egypt
A documentary tracing the events of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. Beautifully shot and constructed, it follows a series of young activists during the February 2011 uprisings, and is an absolutely gut wrenching depiction of Egyptian society in turmoil.
This is an incomplete list of films — there are hundreds of other jaw-dropping, stunning works of art available across the globe. While cinema is subjective (and you may not enjoy every film on this list), the sheer mass of movies in the world allows everyone to find something they love. Now that most of the populace is self-isolating and social distancing in order to flatten the curve, there’s never been a better time to explore new, international, media.