The classic conundrum for me as an avid cinephile is how to get your average movie fan to actually like some of my more esoteric favourites. A constant thought exercise for me is trying to figure out how to get the person who thinks Michael Bay’s filmography represents the pinnacle of cinema to watch and like Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”. In my youthful idealism, I would’ve just thought that the way to do that is to simply plop said Michael Bay fan in front of a TV, pop in the Criterion Blu-Ray of Persona, and just sit back and watch as the inherent goodness of Bergman opens his or her eyes to the infinitely expansive world of cinema. Fortunately enough failed attempts to do something like that with my wife (who for the record is NOT enamoured with Bay’s oeuvre, and who frequently enjoy our ventures off the beaten cinematic path) has convinced me of the pure naivety of such an approach.
(Side note: I’m not trying to make some elitist argument saying that only smaller art-film movies are the ONLY thing worth watching and that those who like more popular fare are idiots. I love blockbusters and I have willingly paid a lot of money proving that. I’m simply trying to figure out a way to show how expansive the world of cinema really is.)
As I see it the problem with getting your average Transformers-lover to appreciate Persona comes down to the fact that there are absolutely no points of commonality between the two. Transformers is a modern American blockbuster while Persona is filmed old (read: classic), Scandinavian, and as far away from being a blockbuster as possible. And so the only possible way to get someone from Bay to Bergman is by tackling each individual barrier along the way.
The three big barriers I see that keep unadventurous film watchers from going beyond the beaten path is that either (1) they are foreign (reading subtitles are a turn off), (2) they are “old” – and old = boring, or (3) they are too artsy – and so only snobs appreciate those movies. So I figured for the next three weeks or so it might be fun to try and figure out what the best movies are for someone to dip their toes into each of those uncharted waters.
For this week I will tackle foreign movies for the “subtitle-averse”. Often as with all these categories, the barrier is often bigger in the mind of the viewer than in reality. First there is the presumed hassle that reading subtitles takes you out of the movie, which is patently false. I have found that with just a little bit of exposure the exercise becomes second nature. In fact I find that sometimes it actually helps enhance the movie experience because it makes it easier to keep track of the conversation and concentrate more on the emotion of what is being said. I’ve come to love reading subtitles so much that sometimes I will turn it on for English movies too which has helped me many-a-time discover a deeper nuance and meaning that I would’ve have missed had I simply been listening to the conversation in real time. Second, these movies have “foreign” in the title, which by implication means they are unfamiliar. And to these people I basically say, this is true – often times watching foreign movies means exposing yourself to unfamiliar cultures, customs, mores, times, and places but that is the beauty of the whole experience. I get to travel the world from the comfort of my couch. I get to experience the unfamiliar from a presumably safe distance to watch and observe cultures, places, and perspectives not my own. And more often than not, especially for the wanderlust bug in me, it simply sates my appetite to go and experience it myself.
So consider this is a list of the best initial forays into what I hope is a great big world for the uninitiated. But before I really get into it here are a couple of ground rules/expectations first (because really, who doesn’t love rules?):
- This should be obvious to anyone who looked at the title, but these are not the best foreign movies of all time but rather the best foreign films to get you started. Think of these as gateway drugs – foreign films that whet your appetite, make you want to go deeper, and send you on the way to the deep, dark hole that is classic foreign art film cinema (and all the wonderful detours in between).
- By “foreign” I am of course being extremely Anglo-centric in my picture choices (as the rest of the world would easily view the English speaking world as equally foreign – and they’d be right). But that’s because the great barrier for most people is subtitles – they immediately assume that something not in English is inaccessible. I’m here to combat that.
- Since variety is the spice of life, I am limiting myself to just one film per director since the way I see it, if you get hooked on one of their films just makes it easier and more likely that you’ll stumble on the rest of their work and you really don’t need
- I do not claim that this list is authoritative – just my personal opinion. I may be wrong. But I’m probably not.
- If this list seems pretty genre-heavy, that’s intentional. I feel it’s much easier to introduce someone to a foreign film if said foreign film has an easy parallel to an American film genre such as action or sci-fi or horror.
- And as much as possible, each of these foreign movies are not also movies that might fall into the other two “barriers” (classic films and art films). Again the purpose of the list is to get you interested in foreign films and it makes little sense to try and muddy it up by also trying to get you into classic and art films at the same time (and besides I need something to write about next week).
- And finally – I can totally break whatever rules I want. Because I am my own editor and it’s my list. So there.
But enough rules. Here’s my list of top 10 foreign movies for people who aren’t into foreign movies.
10. (TIE) SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) & YOJIMBO (1961) by Akira Kurosawa
And look at that. Right off the bat I break a whole bunch of my so-called “rules”. Not only do I stuff two films into one slot, both of those films are more than 50 years old, both of them could be counted as “art-films” without too many objections, and they’re both by the SAME director. But hear me out a second. If you are a guy (like me), chances are your dad has at some point in your childhood made you sit down and watch either “The Magnificent Seven” or, if your dad was really cool, the Clint Eastwood starring “A Fistful of Dollars”. In either case, you may or may not know that those Westerns are actually remakes of Kurosawa’s samurai epics. So what better way to dive into the larger foreign film world than in seeing the original version of what should be a familiar story?
Granted this is a bit of a stretch and might only work for a specific subset of people who are either (a) kids of a dad who sat them down to watch old Westerns or (b) are actually the dads themselves. Still if this long-shot works then you have successfully introduced that person to (a) Akira Kurosawa – one of the greatest directors ever, (b) Japanese cinema as a whole, and (c) art films. And if that actually works it might just be the shortest path from Transformers to Persona that I can think of.
Alternative pick: Beauty and the Beast (1946) by Jean Cocteau.
9. CINEMA PARADISO (1988) by Giuseppe Tornatore
There is nothing more universally relatable than childhood. I can’t count the number of times I have seen movies about childhood from places as wide and varied as American suburbia and mid-century rural India and not found myself instantly remembering my own childhood. While it seems that when we get old we emphasize our differences, children from all walks of life universally know how to laugh and play.
And Cinema Paradiso tells yet another instantly relatable story about young Toto growing up in a small Italian town and finding his own way. And the reason I picked this film over a couple of other strong candidates is because this film kills two birds with one stone. This is because young Toto chooses to find his way and learn about life by developing a deep love of the movies by hanging out at the local cinema and developing a friendship with the local projectionist. So if you watch this movie, not only will you will get a touching story of innocence and wonder but you will also get a short introduction to the entire history of cinema. And that is not a bad thing at all.
Alternative picks: Pather Panchali (1955) by Satyajit Ray; Persepolis (2007) by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi.
8. THE RAID (2011) by Gareth Evans
The Raid is perhaps the easiest sell of all the movies on this list. The tagline clearly states: “1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos”. And there is absolutely no false advertising here as this Indonesian action-thriller dispenses with all but the most necessary exposition and delivers a wall-to-wall action blockbuster that is a tense, brutal, and violent ballet of guns, fists, and blood. Pretty much any action film junkie can get on board for this movie (although the squeamish may want to look away). And because everyone will be so focused and entertained by the action, they will barely notice that they are reading the few subtitles present and before you know it you’ve snuck in a foreign movie on them! This is the filmic equivalent of me sneaking in vegetables to my child by hiding it in the spaghetti and meat sauce. And it also just happens to be one of the best action films of this decade to boot. You really can’t lose.
Alternative picks: Fist of Fury (1972) by Lo Wei.
7. (TIE) RINGU (1998) by Hideo Nakata and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) by Tomas Alfredson
And here I am breaking rules again by squeezing two films into one slot. Much like the earlier tie, these two movies have had American remakes and so there is a good possibility that the general public might have some general exposure to these titles. But unlike the Kurosawa duo above, I feel that these might be an easier sell for two reasons. First, chances are the people who might be the most interested in these movies are going to be horror fans. At least in my experience horror movie fans are pretty easy to get to try new horrifying things (and sometimes they might be a little TOO eager to do so). And second and more importantly, these are easily superior movies to the American remakes and are horror hall of fame movies outright. They fall into the very small but lucrative subset of horror movies that are terrifying but smart, that will keep you awake at night but at least half of the reason you’re kept awake is because you keep appreciating the craft of the whole thing.
Of course on the other hand, the easily scared and non-horror types might want to look elsewhere as they are both scarier and bloodier and weirder than their American counterparts. But for horror movie aficionados looking for a good scare, there are not that many better options than these two.
Alternative pick: The Host (2002) by Bong Joon-Ho.
6. POLICE STORY (1985) by Jackie Chan
Thanks to his highly successful foray into several buddy-cop type franchises Stateside (Rush Hour, Shanghai Knights) Mr. Jackie Chan is one of the more recognizable Asian actors out there. Now unfortunately those who have only been familiar with his American output have unknowingly deprived themselves of one of the most versatile physical actors of all time. And there is no better place to start correcting that misfortune than by visiting Jackie Chan’s directorial debut Police Story. Anyone familiar with other comedy cop movies like Beverly Hills Cop will instantly be at home with the movie but where they will be blown away is in the physical action. The end credits of the movie comprise of the outtakes of all the stunts and it always stuns me just how much of the action we see is not the result of some camera trickery but rather the result of Mr. Chan willingly putting his body on the line to capture some truly dynamic and fantastic stuff. Much like The Raid earlier, I feel that this is the easiest movie to forget is a foreign movie and is instead can just be appreciated as one of the best action movies around, period.
Alternative Pick: Hard Boiled (1992) by John Woo.
5. CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) by Wong Kar-Wai
I cannot tell you how many times I have found myself randomly think about this movie. As Variety movie critic Justin Chang once said at a movie forum I attended, “Chungking Express just makes me smile.” While again (as I am wont to do) this movie may violate the strict letter of the law of the rules I set up as it is firmly in the art film camp, I just could not see how I could come up with this list and NOT have this on it somewhere.
The film’s plot is divided into two loosely connected love stories, with each involving a policeman and the unexpected romances they find themselves in. But really, that is perhaps the most reductive way to describe this movie because this movie is barely about plot, this is strictly a movie you feel. Wong Kar-Wai is so great at immersing you in a world that is both strange and instantly comfortably familiar that it becomes so easy to let your emotional guard down to feel joy, sorrow, and everything in between. Perhaps this my most personal recommendation of the list, and I don’t mind making it my goal trying to show everyone this absolute gem. I mean if nothing else convinces you, just let your guard down, watch this clip, and allow yourself to simply bask in giddy joy.
Alternative Pick: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) by Alfonso Cuaron.
4. AKIRA (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo
Looper. Midnight Special. Inception. Netflix’s TV series Stranger Things. These are just some of the myriad of movies and TV shows that count Akira as an influence whether from a thematic or stylistic influence. And we haven’t even mentioned the mega-blockbuster The Matrix yet (and all its sequels, and the myriad of imitators that followed in The Matrix’s wake). Chances are in your circle of friends all of them have at least seen or heard of some of these movies and at least a few of them would count themselves as fans of said properties. Plus I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the whole cyberpunk movement and the ways it has influenced music, fashion, and art in the 21st century. Basically, even if you have never heard of Akira it is undeniable that at some level you have felt its presence. And all this from a traditional hand-drawn cell animated film.
And for good reason. The film is simply iconic. There are at least 5 shots in the movie that I would count among the best of all time. And it can be analyzed from so many different levels. For example as this YouTube video illustrates, the movie even serves as a masterclass of how to light a scene. And if you get scared off by this talk of analysis, don’t worry because at the end of the day this is still an absolutely phenomenal sci-fi story about biker gangs, corrupt governments, and the awakened superpowers of those ill-equipped to use it. Basically I could spend all day gushing about this film and more than any other movie on this list is the one I want to plug in and watch right now.
Alternative Pick: Ghost in the Shell (1995) by Mamoru Oshii.
3. PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) by Guillermo Del Toro
As the Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads, “Pan’s Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland for grown-ups, with the horrors of both reality and fantasy blended together into an extraordinary, spellbinding fable.” So automatically this movie can instantly appeal to fans of fantasy and especially dark fantasy which in this century has seen a resurgence what with the increasingly darker Harry Potter movie series, the seemingly marathon-length Tolkien odyssey movies, and a tiny little show some of you may have heard about called Game of Thrones. Pan’s Labyrinth seamlessly fits next to those movies with its exceptionally crafted and creatively realized magical world in which people in the real world have every potential of being as monstrous as the real monsters within. It is equal parts magical and horrifying, which if you think about it, is truly the sweet spot of any fantasy fiction in my humble opinion.
Guillermo Del Toro, apart from being one of my favourite current directors, also benefits from being one of the few crossover directors who have managed to make more traditional Hollywood blockbusters like Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak (as well as being this close to giving what would’ve been as awesome Hobbit movie – something I still get depressed about). So with his works being something that an average movie fan might be interested in, it really should not take too much convincing to plop them down for what is arguably his best work.
Alternative Pick: Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) by Guillermo del Toro.
2. AMELIE (2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
This was the wife’s pick for this list, and it is hard to argue with her on it (although as you can see, it is sitting at number 2 so I HAVE found a way to argue about it). The movie is simply an effortless breeze about the highly likeable do-gooder Amelie journey to romance set in the most romantic city in the world, Paris. In the hands of Jeunet the film is joyful, bubbly, touching and frequently comedic. That is an achievement in itself as comedy is so often the hardest thing to translate because it is so specific to a culture (it is of no surprise that American comedies often are the poorest performers overseas). It is a feel-good movie that manages never to be cheesy or corny and is full of quirkiness and whimsy without ever being grating.
But again, like most movies on this list the highest compliment I could make is that it is one of best romantic comedy movies of all time (in an age of very mediocre romantic comedies), has one of the best characters of all time, and is completely effortless to watch. As someone on Letterboxd once remarked, is the “movie equivalent of being hugged.” Writing about this reminds me that it has been way too long since I’ve seen this which is a crying shame because it truly is extremely rewatchable.
Alternative Pick: Volver (2006) by Pedro Almodovar.
1. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) by Hayao Miyazaki
In the end there was only ever going to be one director that would end at the top of my list and it had to be the man they called the Japanese Walt Disney, the master Hayao Miyazaki. And if I was only allowed to pick one movie of his for a list, again, there was only ever one movie that it was going to be and it would be My Neighbor Totoro. As I wrote on a review on Letterboxd not too long ago:
“My 2 year old, who barely makes it a third of the way through any of the previous movies we’ve attempted, sat completely enthralled and hooked throughout this entire movie. And she has now spent the last hour or so pretending to be Mei.
And Miyazaki accomplishes this in Totoro without a villain, major conflict, fart jokes, fast cuts or any other cheap Hollywood trick meant to keep the youths entertained.”
Miyazaki especially here is a master of his craft and is in such complete control that everything from the iconic Totoro down to the random creak of a floorboard in the house is given extra care and detail. Almost every shot in this movie can be freeze framed and you’d get a visually enchanting picture filled with details to linger over. It is a gentle, kind, and warm movie that much like the movie’s namesake, lulls you into relaxing from the stresses of adulthood and to re-embrace the innocence of your childhood. And as a bonus, if you do love this movie, his entire filmography is a fantastic celebration of our childhood imaginations gone wild. Seriously, if my two-year old can remain captivated by this, you most definitely can too.
Alternative pick: Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki … or basically any other Miyazaki movie out there. And if you’re really curious, check out some of the work done by his partner in crime Isao Takahata.