Pan's Labyrinth; Wadjda; Roma; The Handmaiden; Atlantics; Princess Mononoke Credit - Everett Collection (4); Netflix (2)
The Oscars celebrate the Best International Feature Film, the Golden Globes select the Best Foreign-Language Film, and the BAFTAs award the Best Film Not in the English Language. As the film industry becomes increasingly globalized, with streaming services making films in every language more accessible and movies like Parasite scooping up top awards, it’s no wonder no one can land on what to call these categories. Maybe no single label can capture the diversity, range and richness of global cinema—Netflix serves up simply “International Films” to its viewers before delving into regional and genre-based categories.
What constitutes an international film at these British and U.S.-based awards shows has become a point of contention in recent years. In 2019, Lionheart, Nigeria’s first-ever Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film, was disqualified by the award’s organizers on the basis of films in the category requiring “a predominantly non-English dialogue track” (Lionheart’s dialogue was mostly in English, which is still the official language of Nigeria due to its colonial past). And late last year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was criticized for placing Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari in the Foreign-Language Film category, despite the production being American and made up of mostly American actors—raising the question of who is and isn’t considered “foreign.” As Parasite director Bong Joon-ho teased in his Oscars acceptance speech, “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
TIME’s Culture team grappled too with the idea of what exactly makes an “international” film. Should it be in a language other than English? Should it be a production somewhere other than the U.S.? Do these labels risk projecting an Anglo-centric worldview? In the spirit of celebrating the increasingly globalized world of entertainment, fueled in large part by streaming platforms, TIME staffers across the world took an inclusive definition, here selecting their favorite titles that come to mind when thinking about the imperfect category of “International Films” on Netflix.
Atlantics, Senegal (2019)
You might not guess that Mati Diop’s 2019 film Atlantics is a supernatural story from its first scene, as construction workers in Dakar, Senegal, rally against their bosses to protest unpaid wages. But the juxtaposition between the real social issues of gritty injustice, and the ethereal, ghostly love story that emerges as the film progresses, are interwoven in a mesmerizing, unpredictable way.
Soulemain, one of the construction workers, is in an illicit relationship with Ada, who is betrothed to another, wealthier match. When Soulemain and some of his fellow workers venture out to sea to seek out better fortunes in Europe and their bodies are never recovered, the focus turns to Ada, distraught in her grief and surrounded by a series of suspicious, paranormal events. With Atlantics, French actor and director Diop became the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes Film Festival. Shots in which the camera pans over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, a recurring image throughout the film, show the allure of the sea as a conduit to a more hopeful future, and the dangers it poses for those who dare to dream too much.—Suyin Haynes
The Edge of Democracy, Brazil (2019)
In her 2019 documentary The Edge of Democracy, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa traces her country’s political upheaval over the last decade, mixing her family’s story with national history. Through a combination of home movies, news archives and original footage taken both on the streets and deep in the halls of power, Costa examines the events that led to the 2017 imprisonment on corruption charges of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s hugely popular 21st Century leftist president, and the 2016 impeachment of his chosen successor Dilma Rousseff.
These events paved the way for the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 and the film is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand Brazil today. The sweeping scale and intimate access to political heavyweights—Costa spends time in cars and at home with Rousseff and Lula—are impressive. But it is the personal lens that gives the film its power. As Costa unravels what is in her telling a national tragedy, The Edge of Democracy conveys like few other films the emotional pain of watching your country go down a path you see as wrong.—Ciara Nugent
The End of Evangelion, Japan (1997)
With the Neon Genesis Evangelion television series, animator and filmmaker Hideaki Anno took the familiar action-packed genre of mecha anime and created a psychological drama focused heavily on interpersonal relationships and philosophical concepts. The series follows a group of teenagers tasked with piloting giant mechanical weapons in order to defend humanity from mysterious beings called Angels. Though the series is generally beloved, when it first came out there was much debate surrounding the polarizing and experimental final two episodes. The feature-length film The End of Evangelion was released a little over a year after the original run and works as a parallel or alternate ending for the series. (I highly recommend watching the full series first before diving into this film.)
Despite essentially being an alternative to a controversial ending, The End of Evangelion does not come off as pandering fan service. The film further explores heavy themes such as trauma, death, depression, self-acceptance and human evolution. It’s a brutal, unsettling and challenging film that does justice to the rest of the series while continuing to push forward the concepts it introduced. While complex and often tragic, the movie is profoundly human and ultimately tells the story of searching within oneself to find what is most important.—Chris Grasinger
First They Killed My Father, Cambodia (2017)
Loung Ung’s life changes drastically when American forces pull out of Cambodia in 1975, allowing the Khmer Rouge to start its reign of terror in the country. The five-year-old is separated from her family and forced to train as a child soldier. The horrors she witnesses form the crux of the film and shed light on the plight of millions who were subjugated and killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Angelina Jolie’s film, which is based on a true life story told in Ung’s 2000 memoir of the same name, is definitely not the first to document this painful period in history (most famously, 1984’s The Killing Fields). But this film brings to it a different perspective: one of children whose lives were mercilessly upended by conflict and violence. In one scene, Loung’s brother says he wants to have “ma’s chicken soup” once they return home. That’s when you realize that First They Killed My Father is not a film about a brutal regime, but one about lost childhoods and shattered dreams.—Abhishyant Kidangoor
The Handmaiden, South Korea (2016)
For his 2016 thriller The Handmaiden, acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook translated a lesbian love story set in a stately home in Victorian-era Britain—the plot of the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters—to 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula. Sook-hee, a young woman from an impoverished family, agrees to help a conman in his quest to marry Hideko, a Japanese heiress, in order to lock her up and steal her wealth. But as Sook-hee serves as Hideko’s handmaiden and explores her sinister home life, the dynamic between the three characters begins to shift, taking the viewer on a twisty, absorbing ride. Park directs with a creativity and confidence buoyed by his geographic relocation of the source material, introducing a playful chronology and leaning into bold, sensual images. The result is a film that is menacing, sometimes hilarious, and constantly surprising—all packaged in sumptuous period visuals.—Ciara Nugent
Infernal Affairs, Hong Kong (2002)
Two young men both show promising skills as undercover detectives as they cross paths in the Hong Kong police cadets. But flash forward to a decade later, and they end up on very different paths in this 2002 action thriller film starring two of Hong Kong’s best known actors, Andy Lau and Tony Leung. Lau Kin-ming (Lau) is an undercover mole for an organized crime gang, and has managed to infiltrate and rise the ranks to Senior Inspector in the Hong Kong Police Force. Meanwhile, trained cop Chan Wing-yan (Leung) has been living undercover too, but as a member within the same triad gang — only his police superintendent knows his true identity. As the hunt for each mole’s identity within each organization closes in, a game of cat-and-mouse ensues between Lau and Chan, culminating in a dramatic face-off on a rooftop building against a backdrop of mirrored skyscrapers and the glistening blue of Victoria Harbour.
The film spawned two sequels, as well as a Hollywood remake: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. With twists and turns we won’t spoil here, Infernal Affairs shows two characters wrestling with the life-changing choices that others have made for them, and the harsh reality of what it means to live a lie.—Suyin Haynes
Kapoor and Sons, India (2016)
A dysfunctional family comes together after the family patriarch falls sick. As the Kapoor clan prepares to fulfill the man’s wish of clicking one last family photograph, long- held secrets spill out and the house devolves into chaos.
The stereotype of Indian films, particularly Bollywood films, is that of happy families that break into song and dance at the drop of a hat. But in Kapoor and Sons—whose plot resembles August: Osage County, albeit slightly lighter in tone—director Shakun Batra brings to the screen a real and nuanced portrayal of how a middle class Indian family functions. It goes beyond the black and white of good and evil and explores family relationships in a way that allows the viewer to develop empathy for all the characters in the end. In the final scene, the senior Kapoor gets the family portrait he wanted, but one very different from what he had in mind. It’s a scene which, much like the film, might just manage to warm and break your heart at the same time.—Abhishyant Kidangoor
Les Misérables, France (2019)
Set in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil in the aftermath of 2018’s World Cup, Ladj Ly’s debut feature film is a powerful tale of injustice and poverty. “There is Paris, and there are the banlieues, and they are two worlds apart,” Ly told TIME last year, speaking of the low-income, largely Black and ethnic minority housing developments where the action of Les Misérables takes place. In a film that takes place over the course of 24 hours, Ly intersperses panoramic drone views of the neighborhood and its high-rise blocks with up-close and personal shots of a police unit made up of three men. Though they are all from different backgrounds and have different temperaments, they are ultimately all complicit in the brutality against young Black men in the neighborhood they patrol.
The film’s pacing ebbs and flows for maximum tension, hurtling through scenes of intensity before moments of domestic quiet as the three police officers, and a young man whom they have targeted, Issa, all return to their respective homes after a tumultuous day. Yet its climactic scene, based on a real-life episode of police violence that Ly witnessed and filmed in 2008, builds to a crescendo of rage and fury that will stay with the viewer long after the credits roll.—Suyin Haynes
Okja, South Korea (2017)
A young girl and an other-worldly “super pig” are best friends: that is the sweet and simple starting point of Bong Joon-Ho’s film, which turns out to be anything but that. Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) is separated from the genetically modified creature she raised in the mountains of rural South Korea after learning that her pal, Okja, is a property of the Mirando Corporation—bred with the purpose of feeding the masses. Determined to save the super pig from its fate in a slaughterhouse, Mija follows Okja to the other side of the Pacific Ocean as she faces off against the powerful company helmed by image-obsessed CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton).
Okja perturbs and provokes, inspecting the dark realities of the meat industry and the depths of corporate greed as it centers the perspective of bright-eyed, pure-hearted Mija. But mixed with the moments of shock and horror are generous doses of wry humor signature to Bong. And while the movie is marked by an over-the-top, flamboyant energy—largely through exaggerated performances by not only Swinton but also Jake Gyllenhaal’s zany TV zoologist—Okja drives home a grave message about how food gets to our tables. “I don’t want people who see this film to convert to veganism. I just want them to consider the animal they’re eating,” Bong told Time Out in 2017.—Kat Moon
My Octopus Teacher, South Africa (2020)
After it debuted on Netflix in September in 2020, My Octopus Teacher went viral in a way you might not expect for a meditative nature documentary about the relationship between a man and a cephalopod. Celebrities were extolling its soothing virtues and stunning underwater visuals. It made Netflix’s top-10 most-watched list in several countries. And it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this past April, in a stacked category that included rather serious fare including a documentary about investigative journalists uncovering government corruption in Romania and a searing personal look at the human costs of the American criminal justice system.
My Octopus Teacher chronicles filmmaker Craig Foster’s yearlong dives in the rough waters off his Cape Town suburb, during which he befriended (at least in his eyes) the octopus that would become his so-called teacher. Some viewers may be less impressed than others by the profundity of the lessons she teaches him, but even if you don’t come away from My Octopus Teacher with a new outlook on life, you’ll have spent 85 minutes aghast at the complexity of animals we tend to underestimate (and, yes, eat) and the beauty of the undisturbed natural world.—Eliza Berman
Pan’s Labyrinth, Spain/Mexico (2006)
The movie begins in Spain in 1944, with Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen, traveling to move in with—and meet—Captain Vidal, Carmen’s new husband and Ofelia’s stepfather. Very early on, it becomes clear that the Captain is a terrible person. He spends most of his time terrorizing the locals and trying to crush the anti-Francoist army that he has been tasked with stamping out.
Soon after their arrival, Ofelia meets a fairy, who takes her to the titular labyrinth and introduces her to a faun, who in turn convinces her that she is in fact a princess named Moanna. In order to return to her kingdom, she must complete three tasks before the full moon. Throughout the movie, del Toro keeps viewers wondering if this fantasy world really exists or if Ofelia is imagining it all.
This movie was my introduction to Guillermo Del Toro, and it is by far my favorite one directed by him He has such a wonderful imagination, always blending a mixture of horror and fantasy. The creatures are amazing, and I think the “Pale Man” remains one of the scariest monsters I’ve ever seen on film.—Erica Solano
Princess Mononoke, Japan (1997)
The best Studio Ghibli film is a hotly-contested debate among fans—and fortunately for admirers of the legendary Japanese anime studio, Netflix acquired the rights to 21 of its classic films in 2020 (although unfortunately, the films are unavailable to U.S. subscribers, who must now seek them out on HBO Max). Among them is the fantasy epic Princess Mononoke, written and directed by the renowned auteur Hayao Miyazaki. Set in Japan’s medieval period, the film is a rich exploration of man’s (sometimes antagonistic) relationship to the natural world, following the pursuits of protagonist Ashitaka on a quest to find a cure for the curse he’s fallen victim to and to restore peace to the land. The film took 16 years to design and three years to produce, and became the highest-grossing movie in Japan on its release (until Titanic overtook it a few months later). With its sweeping scenery, boundless imagination and approach to big philosophical themes, Princess Mononoke proves Miyazaki’s point “the background in anime isn’t an afterthought. It’s an essential element.”—Suyin Haynes
Roma, Mexico (2019)
Roma opens with a four-minute scene of a domestic worker, whom viewers will soon come to know as Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio), cleaning the patio of the home where she works. For most of that time, all we see is soapy water ebbing and flowing over the stone tiles. By this point, you probably know if this movie by the great contemporary Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is for you. Though it ended up winning three of its 11 Oscar nominations, it started out as something of an underdog, at least in the awards race: a black-and-white, Spanish-language film produced by a streaming platform and requiring, at times, a level of patience for its slowly unfolding narrative that is rarely demanded of audiences these days.
But bring to it such patience and you will be rewarded: with a story that blends a tale of childhood disillusionment with one of political unrest, that captures a place and a time—Mexico City in the early 1970s—and that evokes the intimacy of Cuarón’s own feelings for the women, biological and otherwise, who raised him. As TIME film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote when she named it the best movie of 2018, “Roma is an ode to the power of memory, as intimate as a whisper and as vital as the roar of the sea.”—Eliza Berman
Shirkers, Singapore (2018)
In 1992, 18-year-old Sandi Tan and her closest friends put everything they had into a self-produced movie, which was to be Singapore’s first indie film. Then, the decades-older American mentor who had been helping with the production disappeared, and with him, all their footage, dashing the dreams of these young cinema-obsessed hopefuls. Shirkers is Tan’s deeply personal documentary about this time in her life, and her relationship to her home, to cinema and to a man she trusted. And all of it is enlivened by an element of mystery when the footage reemerges, half a world away, decades later.
Tan weaves that original footage with contemporary reflections and interviews, in a meditation on youthful ambition, creative dreams and misplaced trust. While it may not be the film Shirkers was intended to be nearly 30 years ago, it’s wholly original in its own right, a full-circle moment for an aspiring filmmaker whose life took a direction different than the one she’d imagined.—Eliza Berman
Under the Shadow, Iran (2016)
The psychological stresses of motherhood have fueled classic horror movies from Rosemary’s Baby to The Shining to The Babadook. (Dad Horror is a sparsely populated subgenre by contrast, though David Lynch’s Eraserhead is one notable example.) Under the Shadow, a film from Persian writer-director Babak Anvari that takes place during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, deserves a place in the same canon.
Set almost entirely in a Tehran apartment building, it follows Shideh (Narges Rashid), a young woman who was expelled from medical school for participating in leftist activism and now lives a tightly circumscribed life, caring for her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Before departing for military service, Shideh’s husband, a doctor, tries to convince her to leave a city that’s growing ever more dangerous. Her refusal has immediate consequences: a missile tears through the roof of the family’s building, opening them up to threats both martial and supernatural. Poetic, insightful and terrifying all at once, Under the Shadow is a sharp commentary on post-revolutionary Iranian politics and the isolation of a gendered domestic sphere as well as a haunting dramatization of the anxieties that come with maternal love.—Judy Berman
Wadjda, Saudi Arabia (2012)
Not only the first feature by a Saudi Arabian woman director, but also the first feature to be shot entirely in that country, Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 debut is an objectively important film. It’s also, from an artistic standpoint, an excellent one. The eponymous hero (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old firecracker living outside Riyadh who wants a few very simple things: to play with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), to have a bicycle of her own and to raise money for that purchase by selling trinkets to her schoolmates. Unfortunately, Wadjda is approaching an age at which society will no longer tolerate her divergence from repressive cultural norms around femininity—norms that would forbid her from hanging out with boys, or riding bikes, or making mischief of any kind. As she schemes to hold onto her freedom, Wadjda’s mom (Reem Abdullah) is devastated to learn that the girl’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) is considering taking a second wife. A powerful feminist statement from a filmmaker who took a great risk just by making it, Wadjda is also a charming character study with an irresistible lead performance.—Judy Berman
Your Name Engraved Herein, Taiwan (2020)
Your Name Engraved Herein became Taiwan’s highest-grossing LGBTQ-themed movie of all time in 2020, one year after the island became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. But the film, which follows the story of high school student Chang Jia-Han (Edward Chen) as he falls for bandmate Wang Birdy (Jing-Hua Tseng), is set decades before this legislation was enacted. It’s 1987 in Taiwan, and openly gay individuals are widely scorned. At his Catholic high school, Jia-Han witnesses repeated physical and verbal attacks against a student who has come out; on the streets of Taipei, he sees police apprehending a protester holding a sign that says “homosexuality is not a disease.” These anti-LGBTQ sentiments are not unfamiliar to Director Patrick Liu, whose memories of his first love inspired the film. The story of Jia-Han is around 80% based on his own experiences in high school, the director told TIME.
The film is an intimate and tender portrait of a budding love that searches for a way to blossom in a hostile social environment. Despite being set in the year when Taiwan’s martial law had just lifted in an ostensible step toward more civil liberties, Your Name Engraved Herein evinces the piercing heartache of living without the freedom to love.—Kat Moon