There are many ways to see the world, and not all of them involve physical travel. Film has been introducing audiences to tucked-away corners of the globe and new ways of looking at the world for well over a century, and there has never been a better time to catch up on the subtitled movies you’ve been meaning to get to, all from the comfort of your couch. To kick off your virtual vacation, here are seven winners of the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film that you can stream right now.
“Parasite,” 2019 (available on Hulu)
While the film itself may not be a feel-good experience — it’s more of a slow-burning thriller whose twists you’ll genuinely never see coming — the story around it is. Bong Joon-ho’s latest became the first South Korean movie to win the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or in 2019, leading many to predict that it would also be the first to be nominated for an Academy Award. It did that and more: “Parasite” won the awards for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. It was a historic victory, as no foreign language film had ever received the Academy’s top prize.
The less said about the plot the better, as “Parasite” is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, but know this: It concerns an impoverished family who all start working for a much wealthier family without revealing that they’re related to one another — or, for that matter, unqualified for their new positions. Bong, whose oeuvre includes such essential viewing as “Mother,” “The Host,” and “Memories of Murder,” vacillates between dark humor and pulse-pounding tension as he masterfully tweaks the interpersonal dynamics in this searing exploration of class divisions.
If watching “Parasite” compels you to seek out more of Bong’s work, you’re in luck: “The Host,” “Barking Dogs Never Bite,” and “Mother” are all also available on Hulu.
“Roma,” 2018 (available on Netflix)
Just a year before “Parasite,” many expected that Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical drama would become the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. It came close — “Roma” won Best Cinematography, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Director (Cuarón’s second time taking home the prize, following 2013's “Gravity”), but lost the big one to “Green Book.” No matter: It’s still rightfully acclaimed as being beautiful and wrenching in equal measure.
That beauty isn’t just visual — though, with vivid black-and-white cinematography by Cuarón himself, it certainly is that — but emotional as well. Cuarón called on his own childhood experiences to tell the story of a live-in maid in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood in the early 1970s, a simple setup that leads to any number of spellbinding moments that resonate long after the credits roll.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” 2000 (available on Netflix)
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” received 10 Oscar nominations back in 2001, a record for a non-English-language film that wasn't met until “Roma” matched it nearly 20 years later. Also like “Roma” and “Parasite,” it was the rare picture to win not only Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director but to also be considered a strong contender for Best Picture as well. Ang Lee’s wuxia (martial arts, essentially) showcase wowed audiences with its majestic cinematography and oft-imitated action sequences that saw combatants scale trees, glide, and perform other otherworldly feats.
To this day, no foreign film has made as much money at the American box office —$128 million — as “Crouching Tiger,” and few have been as revered.
“Fanny and Alexander,” 1982 (available on the Criterion Channel)
If you’re a movie-lover with an affinity for foreign films, you simply have to sign up for the Criterion Channel. The Criterion Collection’s streaming service was launched after FilmStruck, a joint venture between Criterion and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), was shuttered in late 2018. That was a huge loss for cinephiles, but this new venture has filled the void left by FilmStruck and then some.
Case in point: “Fanny and Alexander,” one of the many Ingmar Bergman masterpieces available to stream on the service. The Swedish auteur’s third film to win the Best Foreign-Language Oscar (after 1960's “The Virgin Spring” and 1961's “Through a Glass Darkly,” which claimed the prize in consecutive years), this three-hour historical drama originally aired as a five-hour miniseries. Following two Swedish siblings coming of age in the early 1900s, it features the signature compassion and humanism that make all of Bergman’s work so essential.
“8½,” 1963 (available on Kanopy)
If you’ve never heard of Kanopy, prepare for a treat: This streaming service is entirely free for anyone with a valid library card as well as students and professors at participating colleges and universities, and the catalogue is fantastic. One standout is “8½,” one of four films by Federico Fellini to win Best Foreign Language Film, the others being 1954's “La Strada,” 1957's “Nights of Cabiria,” and 1973's “Amarcord.” (Between Fellini, Vittori De Sica, and several other auteurs, Italy has claimed the prize a record 14 times.)
Arguably Fellini’s most celebrated work alongside the lavish “La Dolce Vita,” “8½” stars Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni as a filmmaker whose struggle to complete a sci-fi picture leads him to reflect on his life and get lost in his own memories and thoughts. It’s a genuine all-timer, the kind of film that expands your perception of what cinema can achieve.
“Rashomon,” 1950 (available on the Criterion Channel)
Would Japanese cinema as we know it exist without “Rashomon”? Akira Kurosawa has more classics to his name than most filmmakers have films, but his first international success holds a special place even among the ranks of “Seven Samurai,” “The High and the Low,” and “Ikiru.” In addition to its Academy Award, “Rashomon” also won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — an honor that would be also bestowed upon “Roma” nearly 70 years later.
If you’ve ever seen a movie in which a central event is told from multiple perspectives that contradict one another, you have Kurosawa to thank. Known as the Rashomon Effect, this technique emphasizes the subjective, unknowable nature of truth. In this case the incident in question is a samurai's murder and his wife's rape, with four characters — a bandit, the wife, the samurai's spirit, and a woodcutter — each telling their version of the story.
While you’re on the Criterion Channel, be sure to check out 1975's “Dersu Uzala” as well. It’s the only other Kurosawa movie to win an Oscar and is perhaps the most distinct in his entire filmography.
“Shoeshine,” 1946 (available on Amazon Prime)
"Shoeshine" (or "Sciuscià" in its native Italian) is as historic as they come: The first foreign film to win any Academy Award, the honorary prize it received later became the Oscar category we know today. Three others by the masterful Vittori De Sica went on to win as well — 1948's “Bicycle Thieves,” 1963's “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” and 1970's “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” — cementing his status as one of the most revered filmmakers of all time. An early example of the Italian neorealist movement, which arose out of World War II and often features non-actors in bracingly realistic narratives shot on location, “Shoeshine” is rightfully considered De Sica’s first masterwork.
As ever with neorealism in general and De Sica in particular, the premise is straightforward: Two shoeshine boys saving up to buy a horse land themselves in trouble when they inadvertently sell stolen goods. Their lot doesn’t improve much from there, and though “Shoeshine” is decidedly tragic, it’s also an endlessly moving must-see. The neorealism movement was, among other things, a way for Italy to reforge its identity after the devastation of World War II left much of the country in ruins; it’s thanks to movies like “Shoeshine” that Italy has long been considered one of the world’s cinematic bright spots.
Featured image credit: alexlitvin/ Unsplash