See These Foreign Films & Impress Your Friends

Photo: Courtesy of Alliance VivaFilm; Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
It used to be that you'd have to schlep out to an actual place to rent VHS tapes, LaserDiscs, and DVDs. And, even then, it wasn't like Blockbuster was stocking the best of Kurosawa. Nope, if you wanted to see foreign films, you had to work for it!

Well, now you can stream these films from home, at any time of the day or night. Sure, we've lost the joy of browsing the shelves, knowing that whatever movie you chose was about to become the only option for the night, and we no longer have to be sneered at by snobby video store clerks who are totally judging you for renting Glitter again. But, now you don't even have to put on pants to watch a foreign film, and that's really the most important thing. Not putting on pants.

The best and brightest foreign films are mostly kept under lock and key by Criterion — you can rent their highfalutin flicks via iTunes or Hulu — but Netflix has a good variety of older classics and newer, buzzy titles. You can find some real gems on Netflix, and once you get the taste of a certain director, you can start searching for more of their works.      
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Cinema Paradiso (1988)
A famous director returns home to the small Sicilian village where he grew up to attend the funeral of the projectionist who instilled in him a lifelong love of the cinema. Hugely influential and regularly on top 10 lists for critics everywhere.

Streaming: Netflix
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Black Sunday (1960)
This is just one of many Italian horror films available on Netflix Instant, so take a taste of this bloody concoction by Mario Bava. The fabulous Barbara Steele stars as a vampire witch who's hellbent on returning to life. Rowr!

Streaming: Netflix
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Alice (1988)
Jan Švankmajer uses stop-motion animation, puppets, and one young actress for a trippy take on the Lewis Carroll classic.

Streaming: Netflix
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The Act of Killing (2012)
This documentary is hard to explain. Joshua Oppenheimer and his team, some of whom remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, interviewed self-styled "gangsters" who led death squads in Indonesia. These guys live out in the open, among the families and friends of people they've killed. In lieu of just a series of talking heads, Oppenheimer gives them the chance to reenact their crimes using the movie genres they love. It's surreal, to say the least, and extremely disturbing. Not for the faint of heart.

Streaming: Netflix
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The Bicycle Thief (1949)
Vittorio De Sica's beloved film about a man searching for a job, and then for his stolen bicycle, is a classic of Italian neorealist cinema. Sometimes known as Bicycle Thieves, it's widely regarded as one of the best films ever made.

Streaming: Netflix
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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
For diehard fans of Stieg Larsson's famous crime series, Noomi Rapace is the one true Lisbeth Salander, and this is the best movie in the trilogy. Niels Arden Oplev only directed the first of the Swedish adaptations because of timing, so it's paced more like a thriller than the others.

Streaming: Netflix
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Barbara (2012)
Our heroine is a doctor from East Germany who's sent to work out in the country as punishment for requesting an exit visa. Barbara is still bound and determined to escape, despite being under the all-seeing eye of the Stasi. Despite her best intentions, she grows interested in some of the people she meets, but it's impossible to tell who's a spy and who's not in this era of German history.

Streaming: Netflix
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Fascination (1979)
If you like your vampires sleazy and naked, Jean Rollin is the '70s softcore director for you. When a thief finds himself in need of a hiding place, he thinks he's really lucked out when he finds two sexy (and bisexual!) ladies who live in a giant castle. The fun doesn't last — for him, at least. Netflix has quite a few of Rollin's movies on streaming, if you're ever in the mood for something silly, bloody, and/or vaguely lascivious.

Streaming: Netflix
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Fantômas I: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)
This is more like an episode of a TV drama than a movie, but it's the first in a series based on the incredibly popular French crime serials. Netflix has the first five available to stream, which is like an awesome, arty Law & Order mini-binge, if Law & Order were in black-and-white and silent.

Streaming: Netflix
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5 Broken Cameras (2011)
This documentary was mostly shot by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian who originally bought a camera to document the birth of his son. Soon Burnat begins using his camera to film the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier in his village of Bil’in, which becomes the center of a heated protest against the Israeli government and IDF. Burnat is eventually joined by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi to finish 5 Broken Cameras.

Streaming: Netflix
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Ida (2013)
Travel through time with this gorgeous black-and-white film about a nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) who is sent to meet with her last living relative before taking her vows. The editing and cinematography make it feel like a dream. As an added bonus, you can point out to your pals that Ida was filmed in the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio.

Streaming: Netflix
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Goodbye First Love (2011)
Mia Hansen-Løve's drama captures the high highs and very low lows of one's first sexual relationship. Lola Créton is perfect as Camille, a 15-year-old girl who falls madly in love with an older boy named Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). The movie follows the eight years in Camille's life after Sullivan leaves town to travel the world and eventually stops returning her letters, while she mourns the relationship and eventually moves on.

Streaming: Netflix
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I Am Love (2009)
Of course Tilda Swinton can act in Italian, and she can do it with a Russian accent too. Swinton stars as the matriarch of a fabulously rich Italian family who falls for someone totally off limits. In addition to the sweeping, lush vistas, and impeccably dressed people, there's also a tremendous amount of delicious food being prepared and devoured onscreen. It's a heady feast.

Streaming: Netflix
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Laurence Anyways (2012)
Whippersnappin' writer and director Xavier Dolan, who was born in 1989, chronicles 10 years in the life of a trans woman, Laurence, and her lover, Frédérique, as Laurence slowly comes out and embraces her identity. Melvil Poupaud stars as Laurence, alongside Suzanne Clément as Frédérique. Yes, this is a long movie, but you need to get on the Xavier Dolan train ASAP.

Streaming: Netflix
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Let the Right One In (2008)
It's not that the 2010 remake of this Swedish movie was bad; it's just that it was unnecessary. Oskar is an awkward, bullied young teen who becomes friends with his neighbor Eli, a strange girl with even stranger habits. Oskar finds love and courage from his friendship with Eli, but can it last once Oskar realizes Eli's true nature?

Streaming: Netflix
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L'Age D'Or (1930)
Luis Buñuel's surreal movie is a masterpiece according to those who know about such things, but it's definitely not for people who abhor ocular trauma. Then again, one wouldn't expect anything straightforward from a movie written by Salvador Dalí.

Streaming: Netflix
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Melancholia (2011)
Lars von Trier directs this beautiful movie about clinical depression and the end of the world. Wait, where are you going? Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as sisters who couldn't be more different. Justine (Dunst) ditches her hot new husband right after their giant wedding and lapses into a practically catatonic depression, and Claire (Gainsbourg) is left to take care of Justine as per usual. Meanwhile, a mysterious planet named Melancholia is headed toward Earth. Are we all doomed?

Streaming: Netflix
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Mauvais Sang (1986)
Leos Carax's bizarre French romance definitely has a plot, but you'll be too busy watching the physically gifted actor Denis Lavant dance, move, and contort himself to follow what's happening. Lavant plays a card shark who's recruited by some pals of his late father's to steal a serum that cures a disease that afflicts people who have sex without love. Got all that? Juliette Binoche and Julie Delpy co-star, and they're all glowy and beautiful. The "Modern Love" scene in Frances Ha is a direct reference to Mauvais Sang, and even if you adore Greta Gerwig (which we do!), Lavant does it a million times better.

Streaming: Netflix
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Snowpiercer (2013)
This dystopian sci-fi takes place entirely on a train called Snowpiercer, which circles the globe without stopping. The world outside is uninhabitable, but the horrible class system onboard the train is growing equally untenable. Chris Evans leads the revolution against the fancy folks living at the front of the train, alongside an international cast. Tilda Swinton is practically unrecognizable as the monstrous Minister Mason.

Streaming: Netflix
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Polisse (2011)
Maïwenn wrote, directed, and stars in this police procedural drama as a journalist who accompanies the Child Protection Unit in Paris as they go about their investigations. Based on extensive research, Polisse documents not just the awful crimes the CPU investigates, but the way dealing with such crimes affects their personal lives. It's messy, harrowing stuff. (Fun fact: Maïwenn co-starred in the New French Extreme horror film High Tension,, which is messy and harrowing in an entirely different way.)

Streaming: Netflix
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Stranger By the Lake (2013)
This French thriller is about a murderer on the loose in a popular gay cruising ground. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) knows who it is, but he's also deeply infatuated with this dangerous stranger. Love (and lust) hurts.

Streaming: Netflix
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The Piano Teacher (2001)
Forget the Red Room of Pain. Isabelle Huppert stars as an uptight, masochistic piano teacher who is locked in a codependent nightmare with her mother. When Erika finds a sadistic pupil that is attracted to her, they begin a twisted back and forth that ends badly. This isn't an easy movie to watch, which is just how director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) likes it.

Streaming: Netflix
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Tomboy (2011)
Céline Sciamma's quiet, sweet movie about gender identity and friendship is about a 10-year-old child named Laure (Zoé Héran) who moves to a new neighborhood. Given the opportunity to start all over, Laure dresses in traditionally boys' clothing and introduces themselves as Mickäel to the other neighborhood kids. Living as Mickäel among friends presents all sorts of new intrigues and delights, but complications as well.

Streaming: Netflix
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This Is Not A Film (2012)
This isn't your average day-in-the-life sort of doc. Award-winning director Jafar Panahi filmed this while he was under house arrest in Iran for making "propaganda" against the government; he was also banned for 20 years from filmmaking, leaving the country, speaking to the media, and so on. This Is Not A Film was smuggled to Cannes in a flash drive hidden in a cake.

Streaming: Netflix
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Oldboy (2003)
South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook's gruesome thriller is not for the squeamish, but those who can stomach Oldboy are in for a treat. Businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 years in a weird sort of hotel room. The only information he gets is that his wife has been killed, and he's the number one suspect. By the time he's suddenly released without explanation, Dae-su is naturally a little unhinged, but he's about to get much more unhinged on his quest for revenge.

Streaming: Netflix
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The Square (2013)
When Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) and her team saw the rumblings of a revolution in Tahrir Square, they grabbed their cameras and ran toward the action. This is an incredible portrait of the Egyptian Spring before, during, and after the resignation of Mubarak, as seen through the eyes of different activists.

Streaming: Netflix
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Yossi and Jagger (2002)
Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Lior, a.k.a. Jagger (Yehuda Levi) are Israeli soldiers stationed at a base on the border of Israel and Lebanon; they're also secret lovers. The dynamic of the entire army base is thrown into chaos when two beautiful female soldiers enter, one of whom has eyes for Jagger. Director Eytan Fox followed up with Yossi in 2012.

Streaming: Netflix
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Top of the Lake (2013)
This is technically a mini-series, but it's too excellent to not include. When a pregnant 12-year-old girl in the small town of Laketop goes missing, visiting detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) joins the local police in the investigation, which uncovers a whole bucket of worms from Robin's past and the town's present. Co-writer and director Jane Campion enlisted her pal from The Piano, Holly Hunter, to play the eccentric leader of a sort of women's separatist group that takes up residence on the edge of town. Surreal, beautiful, and explosive, Top of the Lake is definitely must-see TV.

Streaming: Netflix
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We Are The Best! (2013)
Bobo and Klara are two adorable teen punks growing up in Sweden. When they discover the joy of making noise and pissing everyone off, they decide to start a punk band. They recruit another outsider — a church-going girl who plays classical guitar — and start their reign of innocent 13-year-old girl terror. Yes, despite their parents' dysfunctions and being made fun of by the other kids, these girls really are the best.

Streaming: Netflix
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Wetlands (2013)
Charlotte Roche's novel about a teen obsessed with her own bodily excretions and sex caused quite the uproar in Germany, and this adaptation doesn't pull any punches. Wetlands begins with Helen (Carla Juri) injuring herself while shaving her own anus, so if that squicks out you — and, hey, we don't blame you — stop reading right here. This is one of the wildest coming-of-age stories out there, and one of the best. But, you should definitely watch the "pink band" trailer first to see if you can stomach Helen's habits.

Streaming: Netflix
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