With every passing year — with every passing week — Netflix inches closer to a future in which the service streams only original content and eschews outside programming completely. But until that apocalypse arrives, some off-the-beaten path picks continue to hang tough in the under-explored International section of the ever-expanding library. The pickings favor the recent over the time-tested, but a neophyte trawling for something novel to watch can still get a pretty varied crash course on world cinema. Who needs the prestige festival circuit? Give Cannes, Berlin and Venice the slip by trying out one of the best foreign films on Netflix right now.
15. Battle Royale (2000)
As dystopias in which children must murder one another for the amusement of a watching public go, The Hunger Games is kids’ stuff. Go right for the jugular with this Japanese forebear, where mighty jets of blood spatter the clean pressed whites of one unlucky student group. Director Kinji Fukasaku holds nothing back, assuming a gleefully sadistic tone where his franchised American cousin went dour and self-serious. The plentiful, highly creative murder scenes play like live-action “Tom and Jerry” cartoons where the eyeballs don’t pop back in. Those viewers inclined to search for it can find a subtext about the hazards of fascism and autocracy, but for the happy majority of viewers, the extravagant carnival of carnage is more than enough.
14. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
An aging maestro of Italian filmmaking takes a trip down memory lane both within and outside of this bittersweet salute to cinephilia. As the character Salvatore Di Vita returns to his hometown for the funeral of his mentor and gets flooded with Proustian recollections, so too does director Giuseppe Tornatore join in remembering a decades-spanning love affair with movie houses and the lights that dance on their walls. An unabashedly nostalgic film about the hazards of nostalgia, it charmed the pants off of American audiences, earning the Academy Award as well as the rare handsome gross for a foreign-language film. The cynics among us may have to suppress a gag reflex, but it’s hard to deny the overwhelming emotionality of the much-touted kissing montage.
13. The Assassin (2015)
Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien took the onscreen martial arts tradition known as wuxia and slowed it down, way down, to the point where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon starts to look like Rush Hour. In a centuries-old fable following a familiar schematic — girl raised as ruthless killing machine nearly goes native during a mission when love tests her allegiances, so what if the romantic opposite happens to be her cousin? — Hou expands his pauses until they grow into full poems of stillness and silence. He does so much with nothing, creating tension from the distinct absence of action. While fans of the Shaw Brothers’ manic flurries of fists may start to fidget in their seats, those viewers amenable to Hou’s leisurely approach will drift right into a transcendental state.
12. Girlhood (2014)
Another gritty exposé on fictitious youth gangs, though this one’s more in the mold of a coming-of-age narrative. Like any 16-year-old, Marieme (Karidja Touré) wants to fit in, but unique to her suburban enclave of French-Africans, the top dogs of the social food beat each other up for sport. She muscles her way in and enjoys the lifestyle at first — the scene in which she and her friend lip-synch Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room feels classic from the first time you see it — but eventually experiences with no-good boys and even-worse drug dealers disillusion her. She ends the film a woman too grown for her own home, brutally aware of how hard the adult world can be.
11. Immoral Tales (1973)
Poland’s proudest envelope-pusher Walerian Borowczyk directed a long line of surrealist features freely weaving elements of pornography into the dreamy realm of Euro-art cinema. And while this 1973 effort may not be his finest work, it is the only one currently available on Netflix. This anthology binds together four shorts simpatico in their hunger for perversions off the beaten path: incest, crucifixion fetishes, and a whole lot of bloodplay make for a rather exotic delicacy, even for those with a taste for the kinky. But the golden-hued ‘70s production values, the bosom-clutching emoting from Borowczyk’s lineup of French beauties, and a willingness to follow his weirdest artistic whims to their logical conclusion (here’s hoping you’re into extended close-ups of lips getting fondled!) amount to the sort of classed-up sleazefest seldom made these days.
10. Blue Is the Warmest Color (2014)
There’s a lot of unsavory fog hovering around this production — director Abdellatif Kechiche earned his leading actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize by putting them through an experience they’d later describe as “horrible” — but beneath it all, there remains a shatteringly intense love story. Unformed young Adèle (Exarchopoulos) doesn’t quite know what she wants from life until the second she lays eyes on blue-haired, worldly Emma (Seydoux). The girl’s resulting erotic awakening, graphically depicted in a ten-minute sex scene that forms this three-hour film’s breathtaking centerpiece, is just part of a larger hunger for life. Adèle makes love the same way she cries or fights or eats spaghetti, the same way young people do anything: with reckless abandon.
9. City of God (2002)
In the impoverished favelas of Brazil, the drug dealers rule as outlaw kings, and the treacherous Cidade de Deus neighborhood is the most hotly contested fiefdom. A neorealist report from the streets jazzed up with breakneck camerawork, this film maps the deleterious whole of the narcotics trade through the conflict between two sworn enemies. From their youngest days, the power-mad pusher Lil Ze’ (Douglas Silva, and then Leandro Firmino da Hora as an adult) and charming vigilante Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) wage small-scale war on one another, catching innocents like photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) in the crossfire. In the end, everyone has the same security as the chicken that sprints for its life through the opening sequence, scrambling to get through the day with their head fully intact.
8. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook dropped the hammer with this no-holds-barred yarn of transgression and vengeance. Looking like he hasn’t slept in a week, Choi Min-sik stars as a Hitchcockian sap stumbling his way through a lethal, enigmatic conspiracy until he wrests control for himself. Following a kidnapping, extended imprisonment, and an extremely unfortunate sexual encounter, he sets out to procure bloody justice by any means necessary. As is the case with so many films about men on the warpath, the old expression about digging two graves makes for a predictable conclusion, but the path there is strewn with mangled corpses. Of course Quentin Tarantino’s a fan.
7. Taxi (2015)
In his native Iran, filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been forbidden from both making new films and leaving the country over charges of propagandizing against the state. Not that he’s allowed this to diminish his output. He continued to shoot on the sly and send digital copies of his work for festival consideration like a smuggler. For his most recent covert operation, the director posed as a cab driver and roved around Tehran in a documentary-fiction fusion that ultimately pins down the true character of the city. Panahi meets locals of different creeds and political philosophies, socioeconomic backgrounds, and all manner of temperament, but they’re united by their subjugation to the authoritarian regime. It’s a protest film with real stakes. Its very existence qualifies as an act of brash political defiance.
6. Arabian Nights (2015)
It’s 382 minutes, sure, but it’s a tight 382! It took Portuguese madman Miguel Gomes three two-hour-plus films to contain the full scope of his vision, an entirely original story told through the ornate framing device of traditional Middle Eastern folktales. Stories unfold within stories within stories, as an ever-expanding ensemble of colorful characters — fertile surfers, stern religious officials, runaway brides, mustache-twirling villains — map out the whole of a world informed by the modern Portugal beyond the cineplex’s four walls. Bizarre comedic interludes (weird sex stuff ahoy!) break up a default of austerity and hardship rendered vividly enough as to not feel like a slog — a conflicted remembrance of a nation beset by lean times.
5. Nocturama (2016)
Screenwriting books always insist on some big catalyzing turn to set a story in motion, usually arriving about 12 minutes in. Bertrand Bonello begs to differ. The French director spends the first 50-or-so minutes of this radically subversive thriller keeping the viewer in suspense as to what is going on, carefully documenting setup until it becomes clear that what seems like lead-in is actually a narrative already in motion. This unorthodox structure befits a film that takes nothing for granted; the super-sized first act follows a group of telegenic young terrorists as they strategically rig Paris with a network of homemade bombs, and because the political underpinnings of their actions are never revealed (they’re all different ages and races, complicating matters even further), it’s difficult to know who the bad guys are. By the bullet-strewn finale, the cell may very well be anti-capitalist heroes.
4. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
On paper, it sounds like the biggest R-rated studio comedy of 1985, one of the many bastard sons of Porky’s: two randy teenage boys (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) embark on an anything-goes road trip with a stone-cold fox in her late-twenties (Maribel Verdú) and gain a little experience, wink wink, along the way. Except that filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón knows that behind every display of pubescent horndoggery lies insecurity, and possibly even latent homosexuality. The three tease one another in an elaborate performative dance of anticipation before the clothes come off, but once they do, uncomfortable truths not so easily retracted come to light. Between the reined-in performances from the perfectly cast central trio and Cuarón’s unabashed sensuality, there’s a lot to swoon over.
3. Nymphomaniac (2013)
Whether this is Lars Von Trier’s best film is up for debate, but it is certainly his most film. That’s both in terms of scope, as the film’s five hours weave a novelistic life-spanning epic in two parts, and in terms of his pet themes of suffering and degradation, pushed here to extremes unprecedented in his mercilessly bleak filmography. But if you’re undeterred by the winch-and-pulley bondage games, the tensely comic botched threesome, and the golden shower of revenge, you’ll gain access to one of most fearsomely honest stories about depression ever committed to film. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sails the stormy seas of deviant sexuality in an effort to satisfy some unnamable yearning in herself — her cheeky refrain is “fill all my holes” — and the film’s violent conclusion suggests that she’ll never quell it. So long as the notorious L.V.T. continues making movies, we know he hasn’t either.
2. The Tribe (2014)
“Hardcore” is not the word one might expect to be applied to a drama set at a boarding school for the deaf and told entirely through Ukrainian sign language, but this is not the stuffy Seinfeld punchline a synopsis might suggest. We enter this hidden subculture through a newcomer surrogate Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) and are scandalized along with him, as he’s jumped into a network of gangs where the daily order is casual violence, robbery, and prostitution. He bears witness to a series of shocking violations of basic humanity, and with each new sin, his gaze gets a little colder and harder. It ends like an unsparingly grim variation on The Godfather, with the corruption of a good soul complete, our hero-made-villain baptized with the blood of his enemies. Watch it once, and then never again.
1. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
This enthralling, complex drama from Olivier Assayas permeates the membrane between life and text: French cinema treasure Juliette Binoche portrays French cinema treasure Maria Enders, whose guarded relationship to her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) reminds her a little too much of the play she’s just agreed to star in. She returns to this particular script after having originated the other lead role years earlier, just as Binoche reunited with Assayas after having collaborated years earlier. And then there’s the calculating, well-primped Hollywood star (Chloe Grace-Moretz, shockingly good) taking over the role Maria created, nipping at her heels like a Bratz doll of Eve Harrington. The three leading ladies feast on Assayas’ labyrinthine dialogue, with the long philosophical tete-a-tetes between Binoche and Stewart the most exquisite dish.