best foreign movies and tv streaming criterion

(Welcome to Pop Culture Imports, a column that compiles the best foreign movies and TV streaming right now.)

The Criterion Channel launched earlier this month to the joy of cinephiles everywhere. Following the demise of FilmStruck, the Criterion Collection teamed up with Janus Films to launch a new streaming service that contains a vast library of more than 1,000 feature films, 350 shorts, and thousands of supplementary features. Impeccably curated and frequently refreshed, The Criterion Channel promises to fulfill current streaming services’ severe deficiency of films released before the 1980s.

But still, with Criterion’s expanding prestigious catalogue, it can be a little daunting to dive into the classics — not to mention the foreign film classics. So, barring a few films that I’ve featured on this column before during the memoriam to FilmStruck (which you can also check out on Criterion), here are a few essential foreign movies and TV streaming on Criterion Channel to get you started.

The Best Foreign Movies and TV Streaming on Criterion Channel

Breathless

Country: France

Genre: French new wave/crime drama

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg.

At risk of starting this column off with a choice that’s too “Film Class 101,” Breathless is nevertheless a must-see. Jean-Luc Godard‘s 1960 crime drama, alongside Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, helped launch the widely influential French New Wave, a movement marked by cinematic experimentation and the rejection of classic narrative structures. But whereas The 400 Blows is more a rejection of rigid social norms, Breathless rejects everything that a movie should be. Breathless follows a petty criminal Michel, (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who fashions himself after Humphrey Bogart, as he wanders the streets of Paris with his doting American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). The film is nearly without a narrative structure, and is shot almost like an amateur film, rife with jump cuts and nonsensical asides. But its brilliance is in how it deconstructs the very genres it pays homage to, with the film playing into Michel’s fantasies that he is a suave antihero, only to thwart the kind of cathartic narrative payoff that noir films usually get. It’s infuriating, it’s bewildering, but most importantly, it’s a game-changing approach to filmmaking that would leave reverberations throughout the industry for years to come.

Watch This If You Like: Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, basically all of Quentin Tarantino’s blatant rip-offs of it in his movies.

Tokyo Story

Country: Japan

Genre: Drama

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Cast: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara.

The first thing you notice about Tokyo Story is how still it is. Yasujiro Ozu‘s steady camera lingers on every subtle glance, every micro-expression in his rich tapestry of life centered around an elderly couple who take a train trip from their sleepy seaside town to visit their children living in bustling post-war Tokyo. However, they find that life, and their frequently preoccupied children, have started to leave them behind. Though western cinephiles aren’t as familiar with Ozu as they are with Akira Kurosawa, it becomes immediately apparent why Tokyo Story is held in such high esteem in Japan — and in the world cinema arena. Honest, real, and occasionally pretty funny, Tokyo Story is an ode to the beauty in the moments in-between. Despite Ozu’s spare, almost austere filmmaking style, Tokyo Story manages to be a stirring, deeply felt testament to the human experience.

Watch This If You LikeRoma, Shoplifters, the vast landscape of human experience.

M

Country: Germany

Genre: Drama thriller

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens.

M is another classic Film Class 101 movie, but one that feels refreshingly modern. That’s because of Fritz Lang‘s frantic experimentation with bold angles, complex sounds, and heavy-handed social commentary all pay off in German thriller that the director rightly considers to be his magnum opus. It’s astonishing to learn that 1931 film was Lang’s first sound film, so assured is he with his direction, and so memorable is that creepy leitmotif whistled by Peter Lorre‘s child serial killer. M‘s long stretches of silence, only punctuated by sudden sound effects and Lorre’s eerie whistling, help heighten the tension in this taut thriller about the city-wide manhunt for a child serial killer who taunts the police and antagonizes the criminal underworld of Berlin. Lorre gives an electrifying and unforgettable performance as the killer, whose unspeakable crimes bring out the most grotesque, base emotions of all the denizens of the city. But Berlin is more than just a backdrop, Lang makes the city positively hum with life, infusing it and the film with a grimy, seedy character.

Watch This If You LikeZodiac, Seven, Memories of Murder, The Alienist, leitmotifs!

The Apu Trilogy (Panther Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar)

Country: West Bengal

Genre: Coming-of-age bildungsroman

Director: Satyajit Ray

Cast:Kanu Banerjee, Karuna Banerjee.

The Criterion Collection has frequently been criticized for skewing too Eurocentric, but Janus Films comes in with the save with its compilation of The Apu Trilogy, composed of 1955’s Pather Panchali, 1956’s Aparajito, and 1959’s The World of Apu. All three Bengali films directed by legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray are considered to be three of the most important films of all time and milestones in Indian cinema. Filmed on a shoestring budget, this coming-of-age story was borne of an array of influences — from French New Wave, to Italian neorealism, to the semi-autobiographical Bengali novels written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay upon which they’re based — but is transformed into something infinitely more pure and poetic than the sum of its parts. And here is your chance to see all three in high quality too: The original negatives for The Apu Trilogy were burned in an infamous 1994 fire in the Henderson’s film lab in South London, but Criterion finally reconstructed the films and released them in their 4K restoratinos in 2015.

Watch This If You Like: The 400 Blows, Boyhood, Persepolis, learning about more of Indian cinema than just Bollywood.

The Seventh Seal

Country: Sweden

Genre: Historical fantasy

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Inga Landgré, Ake Fridell.

The iconography of The Seventh Seal is so strong that you don’t even have to know of the movie to recognize its indelible imagery: the knight playing chess with Death, the group of helpless humans being led on a merry Danse Macabre across a hillside. Yes, that imagery stems from religious and medieval art, but their lofty place in pop culture is wholly because of Ingmar Bergman‘s bewitching 1957 masterpiece. The Seventh Seal follows a disillusioned knight (Max von Sydow) as he returns from the Crusades to find Sweden ravaged by the plague. Upon his return, he encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot), whom he challenges to a chess match to forestall his own demise. The match continues throughout the story, interwoven with segments in which the knight Antonius and his cynical squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) run into a string of colorful characters who all have their brushes with tragedy. Light on plot and heavy on symbolism, The Seventh Seal is an incredibly philosophical and challenging film that transcends the countless homages and parodies that have followed it.

Watch This If You Like: Another Earth, Melancholia, The Fountain, understanding The Seventh Seal reference in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

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