103 Best Immigrant Stories to Watch

Staff & contributors

The immigrant experience, while often portrayed as a struggle, shouldn’t be reduced to one. Immigrating is seeking a hopeful new start for the person taking the journey, and a more diverse and richer existence for the community welcoming them. The goal of this section is to portray the immigrant experience in all of its ups and downs, offering a collection of stories on popular streaming services to anyone seeking a better understanding of one of the most talked-about topics today.

In both documentaries and films, adoptees meeting their biological parents for the first time is an event often painted in a sweet light. Never mind the child’s mixed feelings about it or the tragic reality that caused the split in the first place—it’s a reunion between family members, so it must be unequivocally special. In Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou doesn’t just debunk that myth, he subverts it by making the adoptee, Freddie, as unapologetically complex and emotionally enigmatic as possible. She resists affection but wallows in loneliness. She craves reinvention but stays in the same place for years. She’s in constant motion while being absolutely stuck in life. In other words, she’s a realistic embodiment of a person struggling to find some semblance of home. Chou displays an intimate understanding of the foreign experience, and he couples it with captivating cinematography, a rousing soundtrack, and fantastic performances across the board to make a daring, inventive, and thoroughly exciting film. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Guka Han, Heo Jin, Hur Jin, Kim Dong-seok, Kim Sun-young, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Oh Gwang-rok, Oh Kwang-rok, Yoann Zimmer

Director: Davy Chou

Rating: R

Winner of a Golden Bear and a slew of awards at the European Film Awards in the early noughties, Head-on is named after the suicide attempt of Cahit Tomruk (played by the late Birol Ünel), a Turkish-born German in his mid-40s. At the psychiatric clinic where he is treated, he meets the equally damaged Sibel Güner who is also of Turkish descent. (The first ever feature film of famous German actress Sibel Kekilli, who you might know from Game of Thrones.) Sibel persuades him to marry her in an attempt to break away from her traditional-minded parents.

If you think this plot summary was tough stuff, it gets even grimmer from there. Directed by famous German filmmaker Fatih Akın, the intensity with which Kekilli and Ünel perform the character's unhinged self-hatred is as raw as it gets. Head-on is a brutal, gritty, and heart-wrenching story about the violence of love and hedonism – and the struggle of third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck, Cem Akin, Demir Gökgöl, Feridun Koç, Güven Kiraç, Hermann Lause, İdil Üner, Maceo Parker, Mehmet Kurtuluş, Meltem Cumbul, Mona Mur, Orhan Güner, Philipp Baltus, Ralph Misske, Selim Erdoğan, Sibel Kekilli, Stefan Gebelhoff, Tim Seyfi, Tugay Erverdi, Tulga Serim, Zarah Jane McKenzie

Director: Fatih Akin

Rating: R

A Prophet, or Un Prophete, is an unconventional French film that combines prison drama with the Goodfellas-styled narrative of the rise to criminal power. Shot by the inimitable French director Jacques Audiard, A Prophet is a future classic from the get-go, taking age-old cliches and turning them on their heads. It's not often that a film leaves us giddy with enthusiasm and constantly thinking back to it, but A Prophet is so intense, you won't be able to let it go. Incredible acting, especially by then-newcomer Tahar Rahim, fantastic pacing, a great narrative arc with a brutal and uncompromising take on morality, self-realization, and life on the fringes of society. There are only two, quote unquote, action sequences in this movie and they are as brutal and realistic as they are unexpected. Look past the subtitles, do yourself a favor and watch this film.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Adel Bencherif, Antoine Basler, Farid Larbi, Foued Nassah, Frédéric Graziani, Gilles Cohen, Guillaume Verdier, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Karim Leklou, Leila Bekhti, Mohamed Makhtoumi, Mourad Frarema, Nathanaël Maïni, Niels Arestrup, Pierre Leccia, Reda Kateb, Serge Onteniente, Slimane Dazi, Tahar Rahim

Director: Jacques Audiard

Rating: R

With cardboard houses, sugar winters, and broccoli trees, No Dogs or Italians Allowed at first seems lighthearted, playful, and not too serious. Alain Ughetto casts himself asking his grandmother Cesira about his family, but we only see his hands moving and interacting with the characters as if he was crafting clay model miniatures. However, the whimsical approach sugarcoats the very tragedies that struck his family– from the multiple wars to the discrimination they’ve faced as immigrants– with excellent animation and puppetry that feels much more lifelike than 3D CGI. In telling his family’s story, Ughetto also retells 20th century European history, reframing the worldwide events and movements through a personal perspective.

Genre: Animation, Drama

Actor: Alain Ughetto, Ariane Ascaride, Bruno Fontaine, Christophe Gatto, Diego Giuliani, Laura Devoti, Stefano Paganini

Director: Alain Ughetto

While barely 90 minutes long, Cold War is epic in scope and a modern testament to what cinema can be. Whether we are feasting our eyes on the decaying post-war landscape of Poland, the patinated streets of East Berlin, or the delicate magic of a historic Paris, Cold War offers its viewers meticulously staged black-and-white beauty, conceived by Polish wunderkind director Paweł Pawlikowski and his trusted cinematographer Łukasz Ża. Winner of a slew of prestigious awards, this is a film made for the silver screen, so we recommend leaving your iPhone on the table and getting your hands on the biggest screen you can muster for watching this. The plot is essentially about the obsessive attraction between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is recruited as the newest member of the former's state-sponsored folk music band. Cold War follows their impossible love for fourteen years and across many European countries on each side of the Iron Curtain. It is a statement on how far artists go for their art, especially when they become constrained not only by dictatorship but also love. A poetic, sexy, and gorgeous movie without a wasted moment. A work of art.

Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, War

Actor: Adam Ferency, Adam Szyszkowski, Adam Woronowicz, Agata Kulesza, Aloïse Sauvage, Borys Szyc, Cedric Kahn, Dražen Šivak, Jeanne Balibar, Joanna Kulig, Slavko Sobin, Tomasz Kot

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Rating: R

Many things clash in this beautifully layered, semi-autobiographical film of American director Lulu Wang: cultures, morals, and emotions. The result is a type of comedy that is complex and bittersweet⁠—and based on a true lie: this is the story of a Chinese grandma whose family won't tell her that she is fatally ill. Instead, they organize a fake wedding in China, where everyone gets together to bid a farewell to the unwitting matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen). The fake wedding is, in fact, a premature funeral for a person unaware that she is going to die. Played by rapper and comedian Awkwafina, Billi, a New-York-based Chinese-American with a complicated relationship to China, embodies the cultural and moral question at the heart of this story: is it right or wrong not tell grandma? It is thanks to Wang's deft writing and Awkwafina's outstanding performance that The Farewell homes in on answers without ever being melodramatic. Warm, honest, and beautiful.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aoi Mizuhara, Awkwafina, Chen Han, Diana Lin, Gil Perez-Abraham, Hong Lu, Ines Laimins, Jiang Yongbo, Jim Liu, Lu Hong, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, X Mayo, Yang Xuejian, Zhang Jing, Zhao Shuzhen

Director: Lulu Wang

Rating: PG

You might call Francis Lee's spellbinding debut a Call me By Your Name without the privilege and pretentiousness, and we think it's a better movie because of it. God's Own Country tells the story of Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), a farmer's son who is trapped working on the family farm, who dulls his frustration and misery with binging at the pub and aggressive sex with strange men—his true desire is not so much repressed by society's rampant homophobia here, but by his family's emotional callousness. When his strict and icy father suffers a stroke, things get worse for him still. Then, during lambing season, help arrives in the shape of watchful, radiant, and strikingly handsome Romanian seasonal worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), whose warmth of character and professional competence feels threatening to Johnny at first. But when they withdraw to the hills to repair a stone wall, Johnny's aggression gives way to passion as Gheorghe helps him to feel, to love, and to see beauty in the country around him. God's own country. A beautiful, stirring, and passionate debut!

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alec Secareanu, Alexander Suvandjiev, Gemma Jones, Harry Lister Smith, Ian Hart, John McCrea, Josh O'Connor, Josh O'Connor, Liam Thomas, Melanie Kilburn, Moey Hassan, Naveed Choudhry, Patsy Ferran, Sarah White, Stefan Dermendjiev

Director: Francis Lee

Rating: Not Rated

Directed by David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is at times brutal—such is the famous Canadian director's trademark—and operates at a fever pitch of grim violence and revenge. Starring a tattooed, ruthless, and terrifying Viggo Mortensen as a very convincing Russian strong-arm gangster as well as Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, it features intense psychological drama and a gritty crime story. Midwife Anna (Watts) delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who dies while giving birth, and later learns that she was forced into prostitution by the Mafia. To keep this knowledge from seeping out, she gets entangled deeper into London's criminal underbelly, whose various factions and languages are aptly showcased by Cronenberg. Add to all this a smart script and Mortensen's daring performance and you have yourself an intense auteur thriller in signature Cronenberg style.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Aleksandar Mikic, Aleksander Mikic, Alice Henley, Armin Mueller-Stahl, David Papava, Donald Sumpter, Elisa Lasowski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Josef Altin, Mina E. Mina, Naomi Watts, Raza Jaffrey, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sinead Cusack, Tamer Hassan, Tatiana Maslany, Tereza Srbová, Tony Cook, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel

Director: David Cronenberg

Rating: R

A Good Movie to Watch features almost every work of Asghar Farhadi for the sole reason that his films, although highly acclaimed and brilliant, are criminally under-watched. As always, Farhadi offers complex, compelling, and contemporary drama and piercing insight into human relationships and emotions. Expect the twists, subtleties, and emotional limbo that you're probably familiar with from A Separation or About Elly. That said, The Past is a bit different, because, for one, it focuses on romantic relationships, and, secondly, it plays in the far more permissive world of a Parisian suburb –⁠ and not in theocratic Teheran. Independent of its location, The Past's key subject is the universally human phenomenon of having to deal with the choices made in the past. In addition to Farhadi's intricate directing and the sensitive script, it is imperative to mention the powerful performances by Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, and, above all, Bérénice Bejo. An unforgettable experience.

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Actor: Ali Mosaffa, Babak Karimi, Bérénice Bejo, Eléonora Marino, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Pauline Burlet, Sabrina Ouazani, Tahar Rahim, Valéria Cavalli

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: PG-13

Nothing about Saint Omer is easy. A female Senegalese migrant (Guslagie Malanga) is put to trial for committing infanticide, but throughout the film, it becomes clear how much of a victim she is too, of an uncaring and deeply prejudiced society. “What drove her to madness?” Her attorney asks at one point. We’re not sure. We're not necessarily asked to side with her, nor answer the many hard-hitting questions brought up in the film, but we sit with the uneasiness of it all and, in that silence, confront our ideas about motherhood, womanhood, personhood. 

This confusion is what makes the film so compelling. Despite the court’s best efforts, Laurence isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be an example of the ever-ambiguous, forever-complicated, always-hurt person. It’s human nature after all to be this complex and messed up. The film shows us that the best that we can do in situations like this is to listen, understand, and as our protagonist Rama (Kayije Kagame) does, make peace with the noise. 

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Adama Diallo Tamba, Alain Payen, Aurelia Petit, Charlotte Clamens, Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Louise Lemoine Torrès, Robert Cantarella, Salimata Kamate, Seyna Kane, Thomas De Pourquery, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Maly

Director: Alice Diop

Winner of a Camera d'Or, the debutant's prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Director Houda Benyamina's first feature film is fast-paced and full of energy. Deep in the impoverished suburbs of Paris, the infamous banlieues, it tells the story of Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra), a mouthy teenager who is not content with what society is prepared to hand out to her. She's angry; she wants more. And so, together with her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), she decides to finally make some cash as a runner for a drug dealer. While there's obviously some feminism in there somewhere, that's not at the heart of what this film is about. It's about the economic reality in a world of poverty and about two friends and their desire for freedom—no matter what the cost. An exhilarating and thought-provoking debut helped along by Amamra's amazing acting.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bass Dhem, Déborah Lukumuena, Farid Larbi, Houda Benyamina, Jisca Kalvanda, Kevin Mischel, Majdouline Idrissi, Oulaya Amamra, Yasin Houicha

Director: Houda Benyamina, Uda Benyamina

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

Before Turning Red and Crazy Rich Asians, there was The Joy Luck Club. Based on the bestselling novel, the film adaptation centers around the four Chinese-American women and their relationships with their mainland-born mothers. Explaining that the club isn’t particularly joyful or lucky, the film starts from June’s perspective, a perspective of a Chinese-American woman who’s lived all her life in America. However, through strategic screenplay structure and effective sequence arrangement, we learn the struggles of the founding club members, the struggles that brought them to another country, which forms the dynamics between them and their American daughters. Because of how comprehensive and layered the film is, this underrated film adaptation is a phenomenal take on the immigrant experience. Tears are inevitable with how they deal with difficulties, but so is hope.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Andrew McCarthy, Chao Li Chi, Christopher Rich, Diane Baker, Fen Tian, France Nuyen, Irene Ng, Kiều Chinh, Lauren Tom, Lisa Lu, Michael Paul Chan, Ming-Na Wen, Philip Moon, Rosalind Chao, Russell Wong, Tamlyn Tomita, Tsai Chin, Victor Wong, Vivian Wu, Yu Feihong

Director: Wayne Wang

Rating: R

Riceboy Sleeps looks like a fairy tale. Taken in 16mm and colored to pastel-grain perfection, it’s a captivating picture that moves like a happy memory. And occasionally, the action matches the air. Mother So-young (Choi Seung-yoon) and son Dong-hyun (Ethan Hwang) share a fierce, us-against-the-world bond as they strive to make it in a Canadian suburb without a lick of help. 

The film is beautiful that way, but it also importantly doesn't spare us from the harsh-edged realities of immigrant life. There are assimilation attempts, cultural divides, and on Dong-hyun’s part, a perpetual longing to know about an unknowable past. It’s a lovely picture, to be sure, but it’s also a tear-jerker, as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming. 

Coupled with writing and performances that are resonant but restrained (they never verge on melodrama), Riceboy Sleeps makes for a powerful debut and a truly unforgettable watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aiden Finn, Anthony Shim, Bryce Hodgson, Choi Jong-ryul, Eric Keenleyside, Ethan Hwang, Hunter Dillon, John Cassini, Kendra Anderson, Lee Yong-nyeo, Ryan Robbins, Sean Poague, Vanessa Przada

Director: Anthony Shim

Some films struggle to balance style with substance, but Problemista isn’t one of them. It’s brandished with Torres’ unique brand of surrealist aesthetic, which is colorful, freakish, and fun, while also accurately relaying the pains of coming to and making it in America as an outsider. We see Alejandro accept increasingly debasing gigs as he runs out of time and money in the deep maze that is America’s immigration bureaucracy. And all the while, he’s being both genuinely funny and painfully incisive. Torres is not the first person to point out that in this day and age, the monsters we face are overbearing employers, greedy bankers, and exploitative companies, but he just might be one of the few to do it with such imaginative grace.

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Amy Zimmer, Bardia Salimi, Brian Belovitch, Carlos E. Navedo, Catalina Saavedra, Charlene Incarnate, Eudora Peterson, Glo Tavarez, Greta Lee, Greta Titelman, Isabella Rossellini, Jack P. Raymond, James Scully, Jason Furlani, Jordan Mendoza, Julio Torres, Kelly McCormack, Laith Nakli, Larry Owens, Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel, Megan Stalter, Miles G. Jackson, Paul Cooper, Roman Maldonado, Ronald Peet, Ruba Thérèse Mansouri, RZA, Sandra Caldwell, Shakina Nayfack, Sheila Moikangoa, Spike Einbinder, Theo Maltz, Tilda Swinton

Director: Julio Torres

Rating: R

The Secret of the Grain is a saga of the immigrant experience and a packed 151 minutes of diverse storylines and themes that could have each been a film on their own. 

Slimane Beiji is a Tunisian immigrant in the French port city of Sète. His large family consists of two units: his ex-wife Souad, with whom he has many children, and his current partner Latifa who own a run-down hotel where Slimani lives. Slimani gets fired from his shipyard job and is pushed by the children from his first marriage to return to Tunisia, where he can lead a quiet life. But Rym, his current partner’s daughter, convinces him that he can still be happy in France if he pursues his dream: to open a restaurant on a boat he owns that would serve his ex-wife’s unique couscous with fish recipe. Slimani chooses to rekindle his immigrant dream.

It's a beautiful and rich slice-of-life film about immigrant life in Southern France. Slimani's charachter is based on the filmmaker's father. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alice Houri, Benaïssa Ahaouari, Bouraouïa Marzouk, Bruno Lochet, Carole Franck, Hafsia Herzi, Hatika Karaoui, Henri Cohen, Mélèze Bouzid, Olivier Loustau, Sabrina Ouazani, Sami Zitouni

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche