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The 20 Best Non-English Language Movies of 2020

“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” – Bong Joon-ho accepting another award.
international movies 2020
By  · Published on January 6th, 2021

This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we virtually travel beyond our border to find the best international movies of 2020.

Every year is brimming with great international films, the majority of which slide under the American radar due to a mass leaning on English language content. That is partially understandable and partially frustrating if you know what the world of non-English film has to offer. Once upon a time, the English-speaking masses shattered through the glass ceiling of conditioned subtitle discomfort (all hail Parasite, breaker of chains), and, actually, that was only nine months ago, so everyone is looking for non-English recs now, right? Right??

Despite the bizarre year in production and distribution, 2020 is as strong as ever in the international realm. From coming-of-age voodoo ghost stories to drunk teachers, and from corruption-revealing documentaries to BDSM as a means of healing, the films on this list range wildly in genre, style, and expression, and nearly every film comes from a different country.

In an ever-globalizing world, films from other nations have a lot to teach us about the shared human experience and the ways in which worldviews differ (and validly so). If you’re tired of old storytelling modes, My Mexican Bretzel has got you covered. If you’re concerned about the American healthcare system, Collective has something to teach you about the Romanian version. If you recently kissed your childhood best friend and it turns out they weren’t feeling it, you’ll find the French Canadians of Matthias & Maxime eerily relatable. And if you just want a good movie, you’ve got twenty here to pick from, courtesy of me and Rob Hunter.

20. AV: The Hunt (Turkey)

Av The Hunt

For one reason or another, best of the year lists focused on non-English films often lean towards the classy and/or dramatic, as evidenced by Luke’s picks below. But sometimes straight-up genre fare muscles its way into consideration. This Turkish film clocks in at a lean eighty-six minutes, but it packs quite a punch along the way. Similar to 2013’s more dramatically devastating Before Snowfall, it involves an attempted honor killing, but this time it’s the targeted victim whom we follow in her attempt to outrun family members fueled by culture-ingrained brutality to punish her for daring to love a man beyond their approval. AV: The Hunt delivers a fast-moving, suspenseful, and violent ride as she seeks escape from a society unwilling to break with tradition, and it’s made all the more powerful knowing her journey is based on a sad and unforgivable reality. (Rob Hunter)

19. Madre (Spain/France)

Madre Spain France

Marta Nieto is outstanding in this criminally underseen gloomy psychological drama, perhaps the only film since 2005 to show any semblance of the profoundly strange and stirring mood that was Birth. That’s in large part because there aren’t many movies that stage a middle-aged woman and a young boy (in this case, a teen) across from each other in a near-romantic, near-maternal relationship, albeit one that is nearly impossible to interpret. The narrative of Madre is layered with phases of sorrow and mental instability born in the wake of loss and complicated by memory. Yet, empathy is central in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s new film, in which a middle-aged mother resigns herself to a quiet life waitressing near the beach after the death of her teenage son.

18. Saudi Runaway (Switzerland)

Saudi Runaway

Documentaries don’t typically make my year-end picks, but that’s due more to my own viewing schedules than it is to the quality of the docs. I don’t typically watch them in my daily life, but I make an exception for them at film festivals. (No, I don’t know why.) Saudi Runaway is one I saw at Sundance 2020 — my first and last in-person film festival of 2020 — and it’s a film that’s stuck with me throughout this horrid year. Directed by Susanne Regina Meures, it was filmed almost entirely outside of her presence while a young woman in Saudi Arabia captured her own life on an iPhone. She’s heading toward an arranged marriage, one she wants no part of, and the footage she shoots shows the restrictions of an explicitly patriarchal society alongside her efforts and plans for escape. They’re elaborate and precise, and the suspense becomes unbearable at times as the pieces fall into place even as the slightest wrong move could cause it all to come crashing down. The anxiety you’ll feel while watching is immense, but it’s dwarfed by this young woman’s reality. (Rob Hunter)

17. The Wild Goose Lake (China)

Wild Goose Lake

Black Coal, Thin Ice wowed international audiences in 2014 and became Diao Yinan’s directorial launch pad. The Wild Goose Lake marks his first film since. Premiering at Cannes in 2019, it inevitably fell below the peerless brilliance of Black Coal but not without holding its own weight in neon neo-noir wonder. The film follows a man on the run in the Wuhan underground as he meets and sheds a rolling cast of characters. Rain is always falling. Night is always swarming. The pressure never lets up. Moped chases lead to murky, violent ends. Yinan has delivered another thrilling hunt that’s difficult to forget.

16. Beasts Clawing at Straws (South Korea)

Beasts Clawing At Straws

Twisty thrillers built on the backs of seemingly innocent characters caught up in something criminal are far from uncommon, but less frequent are examples that allow their protagonists to get a little bit dirty. Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest is an example of the former while Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan leans to the latter. Writer/director Kim Yong-hoon‘s mean, surprising, and constantly moving gem Beasts Clawing at Straws belongs in that second group as a bag of cash moves through hands belonging to good and dangerous people alike. The film plays with time and expectations as characters cross paths in ways both entertaining and deadly, leading to a highly satisfying conclusion. (Rob Hunter)

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.