(Welcome to Pop Culture Imports, a column that compiles the best foreign movies and TV streaming right now.)
With the coronavirus pandemic growing and social distancing in full effect, there’s no better time to dip your toes into some foreign-language movies and TV shows that you’ve been meaning to get around to. Whether that be arthouse classics like the German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the second seasons of Netflix’s Kingdom or HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, or that weird furry anime on Netflix, Pop Culture Imports is here for all your streaming needs. And goodness knows we’ll be doing a lot of streaming while we’re in self-quarantine.
Let’s fire up those subtitles and get streaming.
Best Foreign Movies and TV Streaming Now
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Criterion Channel
Genre: German expressionism
Director: Robert Wiene
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover, Friedrich Feher, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Gilda Langer.
This is stretching the confines of this column a bit as a silent picture, but considering this classic film’s importance to the German expressionism movement, and its part in the easing of foreign film industries’ easing on the import of German films post-Word War I, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seemed worth a mention. Directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is just as striking and unnerving as it was 100 years ago, pulling the viewer into an eerie fantasy world that seems to warp and twist with every frame. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells the story of an insane hypnotist (a terrifyingly primal Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) to commit a series of murders. The film’s sharply angular style and abundant use of spirals may call to mind the works of Tim Burton for a modern moviegoer, but Wiene proves with his still-astonishing silent film that the original does it best.
Watch This If You Like: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Frankenstein, Dracula, optical illusions.
My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name – HBO Go
Genre: Drama miniseries
Creator: Saverio Costanzo
Cast: Margherita Mazzucco, Gaia Girace, Giovanni Amura, Gennaro De Stefano, Francesco Serpico, Alessio Gallo, Valentina Acca, Antonio Buonanno
When Elena Ferrante published My Brilliant Friend, the first in her four-part series of novels chronicling the intense and fraught friendship of two girls growing up in post-World War II Naples, in 2012, it became a worldwide literary phenomenon. Ferrante fever returned with HBO’s lush adaptation of the first book, which premiered to critical raves in 2018. The first season delicately told the story of two wildly different, yet fiercely loyal girls coming of age in 1950s Naples. Both highly intelligent, the reserved Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) and the rebellious Lila (Gaia Girace) struggle to break out of the cycle of poverty in their oppressive and violent neighborhood run by crime bosses and gossip. The second season adapts the second of Ferrante’s novels and spans about five years, from the night of Lila’s wedding and to Elena’s college graduation and first brush with professional success, as the two young women navigate their way out of their impoverished neighborhood to achieve the lives their parents wouldn’t dream of. The series has transformed alongside the girls, trading the grey dustiness of the first season for a bright and flashy style that befits the swinging ’60s in which Elena and Lila reach adulthood. More intimate and epic than before, the season wisely focuses on the girls as they struggle with their own longtime rivalry and the domestic abuse that Lila suffers in her supposed fairy tale marriage.
Watch This If You Like: Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Atonement, a sociopolitical snapshot of Italy in the ’60s with your complicated female dynamics.
Kingdom, Season 2 – Netflix
Country: South Korea
Genre: Historical horror-fantasy series
Director: Kim Seong-Hun
Cast: Doona Bae, Greg Chun, Jun-ho Heo, Ji-Hoon Ju.
When Kingdom first hit Netflix last year, the comparisons to Game of Thrones were abundant: it was a medieval epic with a supernatural conceit that dealt with political intrigue as equally as it dealt with zombies. But as Game of Thrones wrapped up its controversial final season, Kingdom is going just as strong — perhaps even stronger — into season 2. Set during the country’s medieval Joseon period, Kingdom follows the Crown Prince Yi-Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) as he continues to attempt to stop the mysterious undead plague threatening to destroy the country, with the help of resilient physician Seo-Bi (Bae Doo-na) and several new allies. But the crown prince faces an even greater evil in the corrupt Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun ) schemes to steal a male newborn and harness the undead army to subdue the citizens of Hanyang. Just as gorgeously shot and full of horrific imagery, Kingdom upped the game with its breathtaking action this season, opening with a battle sequence that outshines Game of Thrones‘ Battle of Winterfell.
Watch This If You Like: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Train to Busan, watching zombie pandemic shows as a weird balm for your current coronavirus anxieties.
BEASTARS – Netflix
Genre: Coming-of-age fantasy anime series
Cast: Sayaka Senbongi, Yuki Ono, Atsumi Tanezaki, Akio Otsuka, Junya Enoki.
If your impression of BEASTARS upon first glance was that the Netflix anime series looked like horny Zootopia…you wouldn’t be far off. But before you write BEASTARS off, give this offbeat coming-of-age romance a chance. Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals who are all drawn like DeviantArt fursonas, BEASTARS follows the students of Cherryton Academy, where the delicate balance between herbivores and carnivores has been shaken by the murder of a herbivore student. It doesn’t make things easier for the awkward loner Legoshi, a large gray wolf who only wishes to blend into the background. But when finds himself drawn to a female dwarf rabbit — and the taste of her blood — he finds himself grappling with his complicated feelings in the most hilarious ways. There’s a serial killer storyline and lion yakuzas running around, but the plot of BEASTARS is pretty barebones, mostly focusing on Legoshi’s awkward hijinks as he struggles with his feelings and works behind the scenes at the drama club, which is ruled by the majestic popular deer Louis, who is on the path to becoming the venerated Beastar. It doesn’t tap into the sociopolitical commentary as Zootopia does, but focuses instead on the modern-day sexual allegory of a wolf hungering and lusting after a rabbit (in Japanese “to eat someone” is a euphemism for sex, and “herbivore” is a frequently used term in modern Japanese culture for aromantic men). But the real star (you might say Beastar) of this series is its blending of experimental animation styles — from 3D animation, to stop-motion, puppetry, paper cut-outs, and water colors. Come for the gorgeous animation, stay for the disarmingly endearing characters as they navigate high school romance.
Watch This If You Like: Twilight, Teen Wolf, Zootopia fan fiction.
Lu Over the Wall – Netflix
Genre: Coming-of-age fantasy anime
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Cast: Kanon Tani, Shota Shimoda, Shinichi Shinohara, Akira Emoto, Soma Saito, Minako Kotobuki.
I have to admit, I found Masaaki Yuasa’s so-called masterpiece Mind Game almost unbearable to watch. I admired the craft and the gonzo experimentation of it all, but it was just so much happening all the time. (Not to mention it starts from the POV of a bullet that travels up a guy’s butt!) But Lu Over the Wall retains Yuasa’s messily fluid animation and anchors it on a much more familiar and comforting coming-of-age premise. Maybe a little too familiar. The story — which follows a middle school boy who moves back to his family’s tiny fishing island to live with his dad and grandpa, and finds himself befriending an amiable music-loving mermaid — veers a little too closely to Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, right down to the tsunami-centric climax and Lu’s cutesy design. But Lu Over the Wall is more like if you took a Looney Tunes hammer to the Ghibli family film. Equal turns charming and bizarre, Lu Over the Wall sees Yuasa funneling his chaotic energy into a charming family film that benefits from his amorphous experimentation.
Watch This If You Like: The Little Mermaid, Ponyo, Splash, friendship saving the day.
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