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A man in red pours from a teapot beside a man lying on a bed in a well-appointed room in this image from Quad Productions.
“The Intouchables” brilliantly captures the essence of an unlikely friendship. (Image: Quad Productions)

It was a spectacular year for foreign cinema in 2023, offering a refreshing departure from Hollywood’s mundane blockbuster sequels. Despite these breakthroughs, countless foreign cinematic masterpieces from around the globe remain underappreciated and their brilliance doesn’t get noticed.

In an effort to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known masterpieces of cinema, I’ve curated a list of foreign films that are sure to captivate. These hidden gems are brimming with poignant narratives, suspenseful twists, and breathtaking visuals that promise to leave an indelible mark on your heart. Let’s embark on this cinematic adventure and transcend cultural boundaries.

Germany: ‘The Lives of Others’ (2006)

A man wearing headphones with a serious expression intently monitors audio equipment in a dimly lit room in this image from Wiedemann & Berg Film Production.
“The Lives of Others” is bound to make you question your allegiance. (Image: Wiedemann & Berg Film Production)

Don’t you love it when you think you have the movie figured out, only for it to take your heart out of your chest and rip it apart? That’s exactly what “The Lives of Others” does. Set in 1980s East Berlin, the movie follows a cold Stasi agent, played by Ulrich Mühe, who’s assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, Martina Gedeck (Christa-Maria Sieland). He finds himself in a conundrum between his duty and empathy.

It’s a meticulously crafted script that will make you sympathize with the antagonist, and the beautiful background score adds to the starkness of a cold state. It made me ponder the real cost of surveillance on individual freedom and the human spirit. If you want to see how stifling East Germany was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I recommend “The Lives of Others,” which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Academy Awards.

“The Lives of Others” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Japan: ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953)

A monochrome image of three individuals engaged in a conversation, seated on tatami mats in a traditional wooden house in this image from Shochiku.
The film beautifully portrays the fleeting nature of human connections, resonating across cultures and generations. (Image: Shochiku)

I don’t think there’s a director who captures melancholy better than Yasujirō Ozu. In a career that spans over three and a half decades and 50 films, his transcendental filming style wraps you in the story. Out of all his films, I chose “Tokyo Story.” The film is about an elderly couple,  Shukichi Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) and his wife, Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who visit their adult children in post-war Tokyo. Shukichi and Tomi encounter a Tokyo that is alien to them, and they’re neglected by their busy children. A scene that resonated with me is when the couple sits on a beach, quietly reflecting on their life and the realization that their children have their own lives. I found myself sitting right next to them.

“Tokyo Story” is the opposite of contemporary movies. It lets viewers lean in and fully immerse themselves. The movie is an elegant portrayal of the universal truth of generational rupture, and it’s a gentle yet powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of human connections.

“Tokyo Story” is available to stream on Max.

India: ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ (2001)

A man in a suit exchanges a playful glance with a woman in a sparkling dress at a formal event, surrounded by an attentive audience in this image from Excel Entertainment.
From whimsical to deeply romantic, be ready for a roller coaster ride with Akash (Aamir Khan) in “Dil Chahta Hai.” (Image: Excel Entertainment)

I will always hold “Dil Chahta Hai” (“The Heart Desires”) dear to my heart. It played a huge role in shaping me, and I wonder how my personality would be different if this movie didn’t exist. It’s hard to believe it’s a directorial debut, because Farhan Akhtar perfectly captures what it’s like to be young, the ups and downs of friendships, and the journey into adulthood. Even years after its release, the characters — Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), and Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna) — are so funny and relatable that you’ll find yourself reminiscing about your own friendships and the beautiful roller coaster of emotions that come with them.

You may be put off by the three-hour run time, but there’s not a single second you won’t enjoy. The soundtrack — a mix of peppy and introspective tunes — continues to be a staple of my playlists. With a perfect blend of romance, friendship, and self-discovery, this movie is one of my all-time favorites.

“Dil Chahta Hai” is available to stream on Netflix.

Denmark: ‘The Hunt’ (2012)

Two men are in a physical altercation in a church while others try to intervene in this image from Zentropa Entertainment.
“The Hunt” will leave you with lingering questions about justice and the fragility of trust. (Image: Zentropa Entertainment)

In a world where we’re constantly bombarded with misinformation and lies, “The Hunt” challenges you to question your own judgments and the impact they can have on someone’s life. I can’t describe the whirlwind of emotions that Mads Mikkelsen, who won Best Actor at Cannes, made me experience. I admire him for taking on such a difficult role. The story follows Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who is wrongly accused of inappropriate behavior by one of his students.

The movie is less about the lie and focuses more on how society shuns and casts out the accused even before he’s proven guilty. The final act, which is powerful and thought-provoking, left me in awe long after the credits rolled. With an ending that was true to the script, the film serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of mob mentality and the importance of due process.

“The Hunt” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Hong Kong: ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000)

A close-up of a couple in a reflective moment, the woman in focus and the man slightly blurred in the background in this image from Jet Tone Production.
“In the Mood for Love” is a poetic experience, capturing the essence of unfulfilled love with elegance. (Image: Jet Tone Production)

The first time I watched this movie, it left me longing for someone I didn’t even know existed. This masterpiece by Wong Kar-wai is my favorite love story, with its exceptional cinematography, luxurious use of color, and evocative soundtrack. Who needs a plot when you have all that, right? But there’s nothing erratic about the plot, which was written on the fly while filming!

Set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, the movie follows Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), neighbors who form a deep bond after suspecting their spouses of having an affair. Their relationship blossoms into an unspoken romance constrained by social norms. With its voyeuristic shots, you feel as if you’re peeking into a secret. With strong performances by Leung and Cheung, the movie is guaranteed to make you feel love and pain — without a single on-screen kiss.

“In the Mood for Love” is available to stream on Max.

Mexico: ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ (2001)

Three friends share a cheerful ride in a vintage car, with the woman glancing at the driver in this image from Anhelo Producciones.
The trio’s road trip chemistry will make you jealous. (Image: Anhelo Producciones)

The first thing I wanted to do after watching “Y Tu Mamá También” (“And Your Mother Too”) was take an old-school road trip through Mexico with a paper map and journal. This refreshing coming-of-age tale by Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t follow any Hollywood tropes and explores topics of love, loss, and self-exploration. The film follows the journey of two teenage friends, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), and an older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), on a road trip through Mexico.

The film’s themes of freedom and living in the moment will spark spontaneous acts of joy and liberation, like in the scene in which Luisa impulsively asks Julio and Tenoch to pull over the car in the middle of the countryside. She steps out and starts dancing alone on the roadside as the song “Si no te hubieras ido” plays on the radio. The moment is a reminder of the fleeting nature of happiness and the importance of embracing it when we can. I give it a 10 out of 10, would recommend.

“Y Tu Mamá También” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Pakistan: ‘Bol’ (2011)

 A young woman in a peach shawl comforts a pensive young man in white, sharing a moment of quiet empathy in this image from Shoman Productions.
Bol voices the voiceless in a society clinging to taboos. (Image: Shoman Productions)

I’m always captivated when a film boldly addresses societal taboos, which is why “Bol” (“Speak”) resonated so profoundly with me. It goes beyond mere storytelling to strike at the heart of pressing issues such as gender discrimination and transgender rights. The film follows a patriarch’s obsession with a male heir, and his transgender son’s journey confronts the viewer with the harsh realities of societal expectations and the painful struggles faced by trans individuals. I was moved by the raw portrayal of a family caught in the crossfire of tradition and progress. It’s a film that doesn’t just capture your attention; it demands your empathy and understanding.

“Bol” is available to rent or purchase on Apple TV.

South Korea: ‘Memories of Murder’ (2003)

Three men in close proximity showing a mix of concern and amusement, with one man smiling broadly in this image from Sidus Pictures.
“Memories of Murder” is a profound exploration of human fallibility, obsession, and the elusive nature of truth, leaving an indelible impression on its audience. (Image: Sidus Pictures)

I always find myself enthralled by South Korean crime dramas, because they tend to be more humane and emotional than Hollywood’s plot-oriented thrillers that feel colder and more formulaic. Long before “Parasite” and “Squid Game” became global phenomena, South Korea was already crafting masterpieces. That could be a list of its own, but, for now, I’d like to talk about Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder.”

Based on true events, the film follows two detectives as they try to catch South Korea’s first serial killer amid inexperience and procedural stumbling blocks. Bong deliberately chose to wait for overcast skies to film the outdoor scenes, because the dreary look would pay off immensely by making viewers connect with the detectives’ gloominess and frustrations. It’s a movie that captivates you from start to finish.

“Memories of Murder” is available for rent or purchase on Apple TV.

China: ‘Lust, Caution’ (2007)

A young woman in a blue checkered coat with a red clutch stands contemplatively on a foggy, lamp-lit street at night in this image from Haishang Films.
A tense ballet of love and duty unfolds in “Lust, Caution.” (Image: Haishang Films)

I usually find myself disenchanted with the inclusion of explicit scenes, especially in Hollywood movies. They seem to strip away the layers of intimacy rather than enrich the narrative. That’s why my endorsement of “Lust, Caution,” an erotic espionage thriller, cannot be taken lightly. Directed by the talented Ang Lee, this is the highest-grossing NC-17 movie of all time, and it garnered him many awards.

Set in Shanghai during World War II, the story revolves around Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a young resistance member tasked with assassinating a key official, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). As she gets deeper into her mission, she becomes emotionally invested, leading to moral ambiguities and psychological tensions of love and loyalty during wartime. With exceptional performances and explicit scenes that serve not to titillate but to enhance emotional and psychological depth, “Lust, Caution” is an unforgettable cinematic experience.

“Lust, Caution” is available on physical DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon.

France: ‘The Intouchables’ (2011)

In a calm, snow-covered landscape, a man pulls another man in a wheelchair backward in this image from Quad Productions.
Classifying “The Intouchables” as a feel-good movie would be an injustice. (Image: Quad Productions)

This movie is in my top three, hands down. Based on a true story, “The Intouchables” portrays the unlikely friendship between a young man from the Parisian suburbs, Driss (Omar Sy), and a wealthy quadriplegic, Philippe (François Cluzet). There are so many heartwarming scenes in the movie, but Sy’s exuberant dance to “Boogie Wonderland” is in a league of its own. You’re bound to fall in love with his charm.

“The Intouchables” is like a perfect cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter evening — it never fails to deliver comfort and warmth to the soul. It navigates the themes of disability and companionship with a rare honesty, steering clear of the typical tropes that often plague such narratives. Each laugh and tear feels earned, making the experience deeply personal. The film eventually has to end, but its impact lingers, much like the afterglow of a shared laugh or a heartfelt conversation. It’s a cinematic embrace I find myself returning to whenever I need a reminder of the joy and resilience of the human spirit.

“The Intouchables” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Russia: ‘Stalker’ (1979)

Two men lie prone on a vast powdery substance, exchanging cautious glances in an industrial setting in this image from Mosfilm.
“Stalker” is a thought-provoking exploration of the human soul. (Image: Mosfilm)

I was lucky to experience Andrei Tarkovsky‘s “Stalker” at a film festival recently. It’s a film that initially left me in a sea of perplexity. Walking out, I felt as if I had just awoken from the most vivid dream — one I couldn’t understand. After some time, I recognized the film’s genius in forcing introspection and pondering profound ideas. Many of Tarkovsky’s films are considered among the best ever made, not just because of his visionary storytelling, but also the haunting beauty etched into you after watching his movies. This one is no different.

“Stalker” is set in a dystopian world in which there’s a room in the middle of an exclusion zone that grants people’s wishes. The people who want to go to the exclusion zone are guided by professionals called Stalkers. The movie isn’t your conventional sci-fi flick; it’s a cerebral odyssey. I’d argue that it transcends the genre, delving into the desires and depths of the human psyche. The masterful cinematography and long takes give you space to exist alongside the characters. The film demands your time — not just the three hours to watch, but also the additional hours to sit and contemplate the existential questions it poses. “Stalker” engraves itself into your consciousness, urging you to seek the room within yourself where your deepest wishes lie bare.

“Stalker” is available to stream on Max.

India: ‘Lagaan’ (2001)

A group of men, dressed in traditional attire, stand determined in a barren landscape, ready for a challenge, in this image from Aamir Khan Productions.
Before “RRR”, there was “Lagaan,” with its stirring tale of hope, rebellion, and cricket against colonial rule. (Image: Aamir Khan Productions)

I once read that Aamir Khan is the Daniel Day-Lewis of Bollywood, and I agree wholeheartedly. In “Lagaan,” Khan embodies the spirit of Bhuvan, a villager who becomes an unlikely leader, taking on oppressive British colonial rule through an audacious wager: a cricket match that could absolve his village of onerous taxes. That the British actors deliver their lines in Hindi themselves adds a layer of authenticity that heightens the drama.

The film’s nearly four-hour run time is a testament to its epic scale. Every minute is a journey through a spectrum of emotions, culminating in a cinematic experience that’s as inspiring as it is emotionally resonant. The scene where Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) challenges Bhuvan to a cricket match for tax forgiveness still sends shivers down my spine. I invite you to watch “Lagaan” to witness the power of storytelling and the resilience of the human spirit.

“Lagaan” is available to stream on Netflix.

South Korea: ‘Oldboy’ (2003)

A tense scene with two men, one holding a hammer above his head and the other facing him with a wary expression in this image from Egg Film.
With a commentary on the cyclical nature of violence, the shocking finale of “Oldboy” will leave you scarred and with moral questions. (Image: Egg Film)

If there were a movie that could be described as epic, it would be Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” This masterpiece is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. If you disagree, we may need to have a serious talk. Set in the gritty underbelly of South Korea, “Oldboy” is a heart-pumping thriller that explores themes of redemption and revenge. The legendary one-take corridor fight scene is a brutal and intense display of violence that will leave you breathless — and don’t even get me started on how Hollywood completely missed the mark with the remake.

The story follows Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who finds himself inexplicably imprisoned for 15 years before being suddenly released without any explanation. Fueled by an unquenchable thirst for revenge, Oh is hurled into a dizzying maze of dark revelations and shocking twists that make Stephen King look like a telenovela writer. “Oldboy” is far more than a thriller. It’s a deep exploration of the human psyche consumed by rage and the cyclical nature of violence. Disclaimer: We’re not responsible for the emotional scars of the shocking finale.

“Oldboy” is available to stream on Netflix.

Australia, U.K., Serbia: ‘You Won’t Be Alone’ (2022)

A woman with long, damp hair and a pensive expression stands in a dark, rustic setting, evoking a sense of resilience in this image from Causeway Films.
“You Won’t Be Alone” whispers ancient tales of witchcraft and the quest for human connection. (Image: Causeway Films)

In the first 10 minutes of “You Won't Be Alone,” I leaned over to my friend, whispering in half-doubt whether we had stumbled into the wrong theater. Little did I know, I was perched on the precipice of an extraordinary cinematic journey.

The film unfolds like a hauntingly beautiful tapestry, weaving together the tale of Nevena, a young witch who breaks free from a lifetime of isolation and enters the world of humans. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century Macedonia, the film’s raw portrayal of humanity, identity, and metamorphosis is as unsettling as it is captivating.

My friend and I went through the full spectrum of emotions, from the thrill of discovery to the chill of solitude. “You Won’t Be Alone” is an existential expedition, urging you to ponder the very essence of existence. By the end, you may find yourself, as I did, utterly transformed by the experience.

“You Won’t Be Alone” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

Iran: ‘Close-Up’ (1990)

Two people ride a motorcycle down a tree-lined street, with one holding a bright bouquet of red flowers, in an urban setting in this image from Kanun Parvaresh Fekri Productions.
This documentary-style movie blurs the line between fiction and reality. (Image: Kanun Parvaresh Fekri Productions)

It’s unfortunate that Iranian cinema doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves, because the brilliance of the art cannot be overstated. “Close-Up,” a film that skillfully blurs the line between documentary and fiction, is the perfect segue into it. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami, the film is based on the true events surrounding Hossein Sabzian’s impersonation of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. What unfolds on screen is more than just a recounting of facts; it’s a meditation on identity, art, and the human condition.

I commend Kiarostami’s approach to storytelling in “Close-Up,” because it’s both innovative and introspective. He invites the real-life participants to reenact their own experiences, a decision that, as viewers, challenges our understanding of reality and performance. What struck me most about “Close-Up” was its compassionate gaze. Kiarostami doesn’t just document; he empathizes, painting each character with layers of complexity and humanity.

Whether you’re a cinephile or simply intrigued by the power of narrative, “Close-Up” will captivate and change the way you look at the art of cinema itself.

“Close-Up” is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.

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