There was much discussion about the jokes that Ricky Gervais made at the expense of Hollywood superstars at this year’s Golden Globes. However, what stood out for me was what should have won an award for the “golden quote” of the night. It came from the director of the highly anticipated South Korean film Parasite, Bong Joon-ho. He gave the much needed reminder that:
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.
This really spoke to me- and not just in English. If I could add one addendum to this brilliant insight, it would be that viewing international films also exposes you to different cultural fabrics, different challenges and, different experiences. Aside from that, they’re also very entertaining and remain such an underappreciated cinematic art by large chunks of Western audiences. So in order to help you get over the horrific inconvenience of subtitles, and in light of Bong Joon-ho’s golden quote. Here are 20 international films to watch in 2020.
- The Wailing (2016- South Korea)
2016 was a watershed year for Korean cinema on the international stage. This is one of the reasons why. A policeman investigated mysterious deaths and disease in a rural village, with suspicious events linking into his daughter’s increasingly disturbing behaviour. It’s gritty, supernatural and compelling viewing.
- Come and See (1985- Belarus)
The most hesitant inclusion on this list. Because it’s utterly brutal. But it’s a bold attempt at capturing the truly nightmarish realities that war brings. It’s an experience of Nazi atrocities on the Eastern front through the innocent eyes of a child. You won’t want to see it more than once. But you should Come and See it once.
- Black Book (2006- Netherlands)
Without a doubt my favourite World War 2 film. Carice Van Houten has moved on to bigger things, and this is a major reason why. It’s a subversive love story steeped in the thrilling and dangerous subtext of the Netherlands under Nazi occupation.
- Infernal Affairs (2002- Hong Kong)
Not just a stylish and scintillating crime thriller in its own right, but a major inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
- Hidden (2005- France)
As someone who’s never quite warmed to French cinema, this stands out as a notable exception. Juliet Binoche stars in this psychological thriller, where an affluent Parisien couple grapples with the threat of mysterious phone calls and video tapes sent to them by an anonymous and threatening overseer.
- Train to Busan (2016- South Korea)
And we’re back to South Korea in 2016. Train to Busan is quite simply, my favourite Zombie movie. It’s a lot of fun, and so much work clearly went into it. Just watch it.
- Blind Shaft (2003- China)
It’s not just about entertainment. Blind Shaft demonstrates why international films are an important insight into more challenging realities of the drudgery of human existence that Western audiences don’t often see. Two mineworkers always on the lookout for the next scam come across a young boy who they believe can help them acquire the ultimate score. Bleak as Bleak can be, but compelling viewing.
- Cargo 200 (2007- Russia)
One of those glorious times when you turn on a film and just give it a chance. I had no intention of watching Cargo 200 until I turned on Film 4 and it was waiting for me. Set against the devastating backdrop of the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the 1980s’, it’s an anxiety inducing thriller that’s somehow interspersed with darkly comedic elements, served with extra vodka.
- The Raid (2011- Indonesia)
Indonesia boasts an impressive set of action films and anyone who’s seen The Raid knows why. With well paced and expertly choreographed combat scenes, this film knows exactly what it is, and delivers an action masterpiece.
- Life is Beautiful (1997- Italy)
Perhaps more famous for director and star Roberto Benigni’s Oscar acceptance, Life is Beautiful is a father son tale depicting the depths that one can go in order to make even the most horrific of environments a place of laughter for the people they love most.
- Dogtooth (2009- Greece)
Remember The Lobster? And The Killing of a Sacred Deer? They were both directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and his entry for Best International Film at the Oscars in 2009 is just as eccentric and twisted as his English language films.
- The Lives of Others (2006- Germany)
Woody Harrelson called the late Ulrich Mühe’s performance in this film the best of the decade. Want to see a film about how authoritarian and oppressive mass surveillance can be? Skip Oliver Stone’s Hollywood proofed Snowden. Watch this instead. The Stasi secret police of the GDR did surveillance like no others, and you should definitely follow suit and listen in to this movie.
- Downfall (2006- Germany)
The Downfall of Hitler was the uprising of a new star. Bruno Gantz was the first actor to portray Adolf Hitler in the German language here. You probably already know about this film, but only because of overused and silly memes. Watch the actual film- it’s a bold and excellent study of the last days of the Third Reich, which engulfs you in the claustrophobic nightmare from deep within the alcohol fuelled and poison laced Berlin bunker.
- Son of Saul (2015- Hungary)
There are many, many, many Holocaust films. Numerous English language adaptations have been fantastic. But László Nemes‘s Son of Saul is my favourite. Bolstered by an incredible and understated performance by Röhrig Géza, it almost shoots in the first person, depicting the gruesome realities of the systematic extermination of Jews during the War, and the emotional disconnection that was needed by the “Sonderkommandos” tasked with helping the Nazis on threat of execution.
- The Handmaiden (2016- South Korea)
There are flaws with The Handmaiden and the direction in which the plot unfolds. But it’s a funny, thrilling and downright sexy film that did so much to bolster the popularity of Korean cinema on n global stage. Shot beautifully and with first rate costume design, it’s a keeper.
- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009- Sweden)
There’s certainly an argument that David Fincher’s adaptation of Steig Larsson’s first novel in the Millenium series is a superior piece of film making. But the original Swedish film matches it in almost every aspect, with more limited resources. In addition, Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth Salander with an assurance that hasn’t been matched by either Rooney Mara or Claire Foy in subsequent Hollywood adaptations.
- Embrace of the Serpent (2015- Colombia)
Split between two narratives and shot in black and white, Embrace of the Serpent tracks the journey of two explorers 30 years apart, both searching for a rare plant in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest. Apart from having lots to say about white colonialism, its technical achievements and acting are superb throughout this journey down Amazonian rivers.
- The Great Beauty (2013- Italy)
Paolo Sorrentino‘s ride through Rome takes us through the inner thoughts and outer escapades of an ageing writer who reflects on a lifetime of lavish parties, superficial relationships and ultimately forces us to reconsider what really needs to be cherished in life (and why or if it all really matters). With superbly paced and scintillating dialogue, along with a truly mesmerising but richly layered score, The Great Beauty emerges as an unforgettable blend of deep introspection and poignancy decorated by its thrilling sensual exterior.
- Spirited Away (2001- Japan)
Another Oscar winner, Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece captures the innocence of a lost child in the most frightening of unanticipated environments. It’s a coming of age story steeped in interpretive social commentary. It has a soundtrack that I’ve never, ever forgotten and it coughs up (literally) some fantastic mythological creatures. It is by far my favourite animated film.
- Parasite (2019- South Korea)
Well duh! If only to thank director Bong Joon-Ho for his inspiration. Surely you can’t watch all of these and then neglect to see his Oscar nominated piece?