20 Essential Classic International Films You Can Watch for Free on YouTube
A curated collection of masterpieces of world cinema
Before the Dark Times, before the Streamers, any U.S.-based cinema-lover who wanted to find a great foreign film only had to hit a Blockbuster or, if that didn’t do the trick, track down the quirky video shop that was more interested in Ozu and Truffaut than the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Even after Netflix came along, one could request any of thousands of obscure international titles to be sent directly to their mailbox. But then we submitted to the apparent convenience of digital streaming and physical media largely went the way of the Dodo as a result.
After living six years outside the States, I can attest that the situation is even worse in places such as the United Kingdom and Australia. The only place I assume it’s not bad is France because, well, the French understand the value of cinema like few other cultures.
Ironically, it’s a streaming platform that offers the best solution to the deficit of accessible physical media problem today. YouTube is a treasure trove for cinephiles willing to dig deep to find what they’re after.
Cinephiles like me.
This article offers up a curated collection of twenty international titles I believe are essential experiences for anyone who claims to love film — including French, German, Italian, Japanese, Soviet, and Spanish titles. All are available for free to watch and study.
(Note: Some of these may be region-locked, depending upon where you are in the world. Apologies if this proves to be the case).
Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky — Soviet Union
This piece of sci-fi existentialism has influenced countless films including, perhaps most significantly, Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION (2018). It unsettles the mind, and will occupy your imagination for days to come after you watch it.
Dir. Yasujirō Ozu — Japan
Ozu’s films are celebrations of everyday life, while his filmmaking craft is anything but everyday in its approach. Myself, I always find myself awed by his interposition of shots that feel inconsequential to transition between action. “Pillow shots” some call them. Each of these little clusters of visual wonder refutes the Hollywood notion that every scene in a film should move the narrative forward in some way.
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein — Soviet Union
Watching BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN a dozen times is pretty much the equivalent of two years of film school. The director basically invented juxtaposition in cinema, contributing more to the art form than just about any other director in history.
Dir. Albert Lamorisse — France
Lamorisse turns a red balloon into the poetry of childhood. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t know if anything else matters as much.
Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov — Cuba/Soviet Union
SOY CUBA is a largely forgotten gem that has thankfully begun to receive renewed interest from cinephiles around the globe, no doubt in part because it features what I (and many) consider one of the greatest tracking shots in film history.
Dir. Victor Erice — Spain
THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE strikes me as a perfect film to pair with Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, both being haunting, monster-obsessed coming-of-age stories set against the backdrop of Spanish fascism.
Dir. Luis Buñuel — France
This surrealist classic is a short experience, but an unforgettable one. It challenges and defies and rewrites cinematic language like few films of its time. It’s also still deeply disturbing today.
Dir. Elem Klimov — Soviet Union
I have seen few anti-war films as powerful as COME AND SEE. Its final sequence haunts me, and I defy you to watch it and not walk away changed in some way.
Dir. Jean Cocteau — France
ORPHEUS is one of those films that seems to entirely exist as a conversation with art as an eternal concept. It’s mythic and otherworldly, and it’s difficult to imagine true artists — or rather, those with an artist’s heart — not being affected by it.
Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder — Germany
One of the great thrills of my life is introducing people to Fassbinder’s work. I would recommend starting with ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, an unexpected romance between a sixty-year-old white German woman and a much-younger Moroccan Gasterbeiter (foreign laborer). It made such an impact on me, I paid homage to it in in my novel PSALMS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD.
Dir. Sergei Eistenstein — Soviet Union
In the first part of this series, I pointed readers toward Eisenstein’s iconic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925). STRIKE was released in the same year, a cinematic achievement roughly the equivalent to Steven Spielberg making SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and JURASSIC PARK (1994) at the same time. Like POTEMKIN, it features a climactic sequence worthy of much study, this one of the violent suppression of a strike cross-cut with the slaughter of cattle.
You cannot go wrong with Clouzot, but LES DIABOLIQUES ranks up there with THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953) as his masterpieces. This psychological thriller is based on a novel Alfred Hitchcock tried to option until Clouzot cock-blocked him (Hitch made PSYCHO (1960) as a result, to scratch the itch this project would’ve).
Dir. Robert Wiene — Germany
Wiene’s horror is a masterpiece of German Expressionism and, as far as I’m concerned, the first truly great monster film ever produced. More than a century later, its Somnambulist still terrifies as he creeps through painted shadows that slice like knives.
Dir. Vittoria De Sica — Italy
While not one of the most celebrated films in De Sica’s oeuvre, I believe it essential because it’s a fantasy from one of the greatest voices of the Italian neorealist movement. This is what happens when a director dedicated to honestly depicting the world decides to use a cinematic fable to accomplish the same.
Dir. George Méliès — France
There were attempts at true “films” before A TRIP TO THE MOON, but none remotely grasped the potential of cinema like Méliès, whom I would call the George Lucas or James Cameron of silent film. This short film started everything.
Dir. Yasujirō Ozu — Japan
In Part 1 of this series, I suggested readers check out Ozu’s LATE SPRING (1949). LATE SPRING is an obvious masterpiece, while THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE is what we could call “lesser Ozu”, which isn’t saying much since even the worst handful of Ozu films I’ve seen are better than 95% of the films ever made. It’s another wonderful opportunity to get to know this important director better.
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer — France/Germany
This vampire film landed one year after Universal’s DRACULA (1931), but couldn’t be more different. Atmospheric, often disorienting, full of creative filmmaking techniques. It left a huge stamp on me, and even influenced my own “DRACULA” (2013) television series that starred Jonathan Rhys Meyers (you can read my own horror story about it here).
Dir. Jean Cocteau — France
Last time around, I suggested readers watch Cocteau’s ORPHEUS (1950). But most would, I think, agree LA BELLE ET LA BÉTE is his greatest masterpiece — an erotic fairy tale brimming with danger and profound beauty. You will also enjoy clocking the creative palace details Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) lifted.
Dir. Luis Buñuel — France
L’AGE D’OR is the second surrealist film from Buñuel I’ve recommended, the first being his horrific UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929). This time around, the director applies the technique to a social satire, taking on modern life — well, modern life in the twenties/thirties — and its grotesque hypocrisies.
Dir. Sergei Parajanov — Soviet Union
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES is considered by many — including me — to be one of the greatest films ever made. Parajanov’s use of composition and editing is unparalleled, a kind of visual poetry few will ever truly achieve with the moving image.
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PSALMS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is out now from Headline Books, Hachette Australia, and more. You can order it here wherever you are in the world: