Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Favorite Films: Foreign Films

I look for three things in a foreign film: (1) a film that gives me a feel of having been to a foreign country, (2) a film that gives me something Hollywood never could or would, i.e. the "stranger" the better, and (3) a film that holds my interesting throughout. With that in mind, here goes:

** this list does not include Anglo-countries.

1. Hero (2002): A love story pretending to be a martial arts film, this Jet Li film boasts amazing scenery and imagery, strong characters and a strong story. Watch this on a big screen.

2. Diva (1981): This is a fascinating film about an obsessed French mailman who steals a dress from a washed up Opera singer and then returns it to her while he finds himself being chased by the mob and corrupt cops. Of all the films on the list, this one feels the most foreign and it's kind of the most interesting... in an odd sort of way.

3. Tampopo (1985): Done in the style of a spaghetti western, this film involves a truck driver who comes to town and teaches a woman to make the best noodle restaurant in the area. This is another one of those films where you get real cultural differences and a surprisingly funny and heartwarming film. By and large, this film is very accessible, though there is a narrator (a hedonistic gangster and his girlfriend) who feels very out of place.

4. Ikiru (1952): Akira Kurosawa is perhaps the greatest director of all time and this is his most touching film. This is the story of a lowly bureaucrat who learns he is dying. He decides to do what he can to get a playground created against the wishes of "the system." His funeral is infuriating. The film quality is really poor because this was filmed in low quality black and white in post-war Japan, but this one is absolutely worth seeing.

5. Das Boot (1981): Starting life as a miniseries, this was recut into an unmatched film about the realities of submarine war. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Jurgen Prochnow, you can't help but feel the pride, joy and ultimately horror these men experience as they struggle to survive impossible odds. If you ever want to imagine how it would feel to die at the bottom of the ocean, this is the film for you.

6. High and Low (1963): I could fill this list with Kurosawa films, but I'm refraining. Apart from Ikiru, this is my other personal favorite. Toshiro Mifune, one of the best actors ever, plays a shoe company CEO who learns his son has been kidnapped. Things change for the worse when he learns that it was actually the son of his employee who was kidnapped and everyone still wants him to pay a ransom that will bankrupt his company.

7. Lola rennt (Run Lola Run) (1998): Starting Franka Potente as Lola, this film involves Lola receiving a call from her boyfriend, who is desperate for cash and is about to rob a grocery store to get it. She runs to stop him. She fails. So the film resets and she tries again. With each pass, we see alternate histories for the characters presented in a series of snapshots. This is a fascinating and bizarre film. Unfortunately, there are some serious mistranslations in the film that might confuse you (it's best to speak German), but it's still well worth seeing.

8. Jean de Florette (1986): Gérard Depardieu plays a likable man who moves his family to the country only to have a rotten neighbor sabotage his efforts at farming. Yeah, that doesn't sound like much, but the film really works.

9. My Sassy Girl (2001): You know how in every rom-com the heroine will be a bitch (in a very safe and cliche manner) and drive away the male love interest, only to have him return when he realizes that he does love her and that he accepts her the way she is? Aw. Oh course, we also learn that the heroine is not really a bitch because no American starlet would accept such a part as they all want to be "America's sweetheart," so her bitchiness is written off as a mistake or misunderstanding. Well, not here. What I love about My Sassy Girl is that for once, the heroine really is being a bitch and she's trying hard to drive away this guy. He just won't leave and they fall for each other. The ending is heartbreaking too.

10. La Femme Nikita (1990): It's hard to say if this should be included because, while it is French, director Luc Besson would soon make it big in America and this film feels very Hollywood. This idea was also imported here for a film and a television series. Still, the original is quite good.

Honorable mention to Black and White in Color, in which a bunch of bumbling colonialists decide they need to go to war since Europe has gone to war, to all the Japanese horror films that got copied and became The Grudge, The Ring, and Dark Water, and the Korean The Wishing Stairs, which is a horror story in a girls school but strangely ends up as a solid lesbian romance movie. Yeah, weird. You can't go wrong with Godzilla either.

I do wish I liked Lost in Translation better.



Floyd R. Turbo said...

1. Fritz Lang's "M" (1931). Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert -- a child murderer (probably sexual sadist) who terrorizes an unnamed German city. The cops crack down on those city putting a crimp in all underground activity. The criminal gangs go on a manhunt and find him putting him on trial... the kangaroo court scene is genius -- still very effective even if the acting is a bit old-fashioned. German Expressionism...

2. Speaking of German Expressionism -- Nosferatu. Still damn creepy.

3. Le Joyeux Noelle (2005)... a French film about the Christmas Truce in 1914 in WW1.

4. The Lives of Others (2007). The single best example of what living in a totalitarian state must be like. Riveting, sad, and gut wrenching as an East German snitch listens in on others and comes to regret it.

5. Alexander Nevsky (1942), Damn that commie bastard Sergei Eisenstein... the Battle on the Ice against Teutonic Knights. I know it's Commie propaganda, but what propaganda. And Prokofiev on soundtrack.

6. The Russian Ark (2002) by Alexander Sokurov. A single tracking shot (think Touch of Evil over 90 minutes) tracking Russian history through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is quite effective... mysticism, history, beautiful art and music and poetry... worth a watch.

7. Kung Fu Hustle (2005) -- funny martial arts film with great nods to American slapstick.

8. Ong Bak:Thai Warrior -- great martial arts out of Thailand

9, The Battle of Algiers (1966)... again a propaganda movie... but nevertheless a pretty unflinching look at the Algerian Revolution against France and a precursor to the urban warfare of the modern battlefield in many ways. Morricone's score is very effective here too. Very well done.

I went with none Angloshphere movies otherwise... a ton of Irish/Aussie/UK, etc.

tryanmax said...

I don't avoid foreign films, but I don't exactly go out of my way for them, either. So my knowledge is limited to the "big" ones. Amelie is very good. In some ways, it's the typical quirky-girl film, but in other ways, it is undeniably foreign. Gotta see it to understand.

And although it is from an Anglo country, I have to cite the Irish film The Secret of Kells which I reviewed about this time last year. It's very different from what you'd expect from an American cartoon studio.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I've gone pretty far into the deep end on foreign films looking for something original. I've found it a couple times -- especially in China and Japan -- but often strange is just strange without really offering much more than strange. The films I list here should be pretty accessible to people even if you aren't into foreign films that much.

As a aside, I generally don't like the "big" ones because they are often so close to being Hollywood productions that they don't even feel foreign to me. They are the McDonalds of foreign films.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, An excellent list. I thought Battle of Algiers was positively riveting. You know it was propaganda, but it was so well done and it felt so real -- it felt like it was all live news footage, that you literally wanted to believe everything you saw. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Very well done!

Yeah, if we add Anglo-countries, then the list becomes unmanageable because they've produced so many good ones. Plus, many of them don't really feel foreign, even though they are, because the language and culture is so similar to our own.

The Lives of Others is still on my "to see" list. I've heard great things.

Outlaw13 said...

"Kung Fu Hustle" is also a favorite of mine.

I enjoyed the anime "Wings of Honneamise" sorry no tentacles in this one.

I don't think you would have ever seen "Hero" if it wasn't for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Zhang Ziyi is a beautiful woman...I would watch almost anything she was in.

Anonymous said...

When I started my Netflix subscription more than 10 years ago, I went on a foreign film kick, but at age 20, what the hell did I know? I'm not sure exactly what I got out of Grande Illusion and Amarcord. I must make a point to watch them again. :-)

And some others from the Criterion Collection like Tout Va Bien and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie put me to sleep.

I liked Jacques Tati's movies, though. Or at least I appreciated them. And I enjoyed this Czech New Wave film called Closely Watched Trains:

"At a village railway station in occupied Czechoslovakia, a bumbling dispatcher’s apprentice longs to liberate himself from his virginity."

I sympathized. :-)

Breathless is supposed to be this hip revolutionary movie but I thought it was a pretentious bore.

I just watched Luc Besson's The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec which is based on a series of French comics. Think Indiana Jones meets Amelie. There were some things I didn't like, but on the whole it was cute.

Dwizzum said...

I went on a foreign film binge in my youth. There was no Nextflix so a was limited by what I could borrow from the Chester County library. Some standouts that I remember include.....

Three Colors:Red (1994) (France)

Rampo (1994) (Japan) This is a weird one.

Hard Boiled (1992) (Hong Kong)

A Better Tomorrow II (1989) (Hong Kong)

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) (Japan) This is a heartbreaking and often misunderstood film.

Tennessee Jed said...

I never really looked for anything different in foreign films, but just whether I enjoyed them. Admittedly, growing up, that was not always an easy task since there seemed to be this notion that foreign films had some sort of built in gravitas. That said, here a a few that I really liked (in no particular order.) "O Lucky Man", "Z", "Gosford Park" "A Night to Remember", "Cyrano DeBergerac", "Diabolique". "Local Hero" "The Seventh Seal".

Anonymous said...

Well going by Andrews three point description of what he looks for in foreign films, as an Australian I could include some American or British films. But I tend to think of foreign films as non-English speaking films, that may be a too simple description though.

At first thought the majority of foreign films I watch are Martial Arts movies, mostly made from Hong Kong, coming in second would be foreign War
movies. I don't really have a list, I could put down a heap of movies but will keep it short.

Once Upon A Time In China (Great Chinese epic with Jet Li)
Ong Bak (Shwoing the brutilaty and beauty of Muay Thai)
The Killer & Hard Boiled (made the west wake up to John Woo)
Bruce Lee's movies...

Das Boot is a classic, I really liked Run Lola Run and La Femme Nikita which was better than the Hong Kong and American remakes.


AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, That's true. Crouching Tiger, which is also excellent, opened the door for Hero and some other films from that genre.

PikeBishop said...

Agreed on Diva, just a wonderful cinematic experience, well written and beautifully shot and acted. Some absolutely gorgeous moments on screen.

How about the simple cinematic joy of "The Gods must be crazy?"

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, "I sympathized." LOL!

I've seen most of the ones you mention and didn't think much of them. They struck me as films that were meant to be consumed by American audience as "foreign films." I don't like those.

AndrewPrice said...

Dwizzum, I enjoyed Hard Boiled a lot. I've enjoyed a lot of the Hong Kong films. Some are total rip offs, but a lot of them are really very well done and interesting. I haven't seen Grave of the Fireflies.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, "Diabolique" is excellent! I enjoyed "Cyrano DeBergerac", a lot as well. The reason I look for something different is that starting probably in the 1990s you got a lot of "foreign" films that felt a LOT like they were just Hollywood Oscar-bait done in another country. In fact, they would even sneak in American/British actors sometimes. Those left me cold, so I started looking for films that were meant for local consumption, which typically meant stranger, more interesting films.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, "Non-english speaking" is another good way to look at it, though I look for a little more actually. The problem I've encountered is that a sizable number of foreign films feel to me like they were made to be sold to American audiences and those tend to be nothing more than the Hollywood "drama" formula using foreign actors (and sometimes even the random American actor) and they tend to have descriptions like this:

A woman and her daughter open a chocolate shop in a small French village that shakes up the rigid morality of the community.Chocolat (2000)

So basically, everyone learns to be more American. What's the point?

I enjoy the Hong Kong action films a lot. I like the Japanese Samurai films too, and the Japanese gangster films of the 1960s. I love Bruce Lee.

As an aside, there are a bunch of Australian films I've really enjoyed -- Breaker Morant, Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Romper Stomper, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Sirens...

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Agreed on Diva, just a wonderful cinematic experience, well written and beautifully shot and acted. Some absolutely gorgeous moments on screen.

Exactly! And very well said. There are some truly beautiful moments in that film. I love the opera background theme and the music is fantastic. The film is so strange and yet very relatable. It's just one of those moments that somehow hit lightening in a bottle in ways you never expect.

I really liked The Gods Must Be Crazy. I have no idea what was going on the first time I saw it -- saw it in theaters when I was 12 or 13 or somewhere around that age, but it made an impression on me. When I watched it again a few years later, I enjoyed it a good deal.

Outlaw13 said...

I forgot one... "The Beast" it is about a Soviet tank crew during the 1st Afghan war...really good movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I don't know that one. I'll have to look for it.

Anthony said...

Listed in no particular order.

1. Pan's Labyrinth - Amazing movie. A very dark fairy tale whose setting is the Spanish Civil War.
2. City of God - Beautiful but brutal movie which shows how the drug trade in Brazil became increasingly violent (though its very much a character focused movie).
3. Spirited Away - A beautiful movie from about a young girl who finds herself bereft of her parents and trapped in a very, very strange world.
4. Hero - I really enjoyed the action and visuals of this movie (stunningly gorgeous) though the plot is also nothing to sneeze at.
5. The Protector - Brutal kung fu movie starring Tony Jaa (who is trying to rescue a baby elephant from the organized criminals). All the fights are awesome, but the highlight is him climbing up a tower and making his way through an army of goons.
6. Chopper - Very rough movie based on a real life Australian sociopath who robbed drug dealers for a living. The only thing crazier than the movie is the fact that the craziest stuff action happened.
7. Akira - Amazing movie. I heard a lot about it but I didn't believe it until I saw it. The plot doesn't make much sense, but the action and visuals were stunning.
8. Hard Boiled - John Woo just and Chow Yun Fat just nailed it. IIRC Woo was the guy who popularized heroes using two guns in action movies.
9. Ninja Scroll - It epitomizes everything right and wrong with anime (in terms of the violence and the sexual content). Extremely badass fight scene at the end.
10. Supercop - Jackie Chan's finest.

Backthrow said...

Another great list, Andrew. I especially love High and Low, Lola Rennt, Tampopo and Ikiru. I've seen them all, except for Diva, My Sassy Girl, Jean de Florette and Black and White in Color.

I also concur with the recommendations of:

The Lives of Others
Alexander Nevsky
Russian Ark
Kung Fu Hustle
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Grave of the Fireflies
The Seventh Seal
The Killer
Once Upon a Time in China
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Pan's Labyrinth
City of God
Spirited Away
The Protector

Some further faves/recommendations to follow...

Backthrow said...


Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Elevator to the Gallows (1957)
Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)
That Man From Rio (1964)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Viva Maria! (1965)
The Bride Wore Black (1967)
Le Samourai (1967)
The Sicilian Clan (1969)
Rider on the Rain (1970)
Le Magnifique (1973)
Delicatessen (1991)
Amelie (2001)
Bon Voyage (2003)
A Very Long Engagement (2004)


The Last Laugh (1924)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Fitzcarraldo (1982)
The Princess and the Warrior (2000)
Downfall (2004)


La Strada (1952)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
8 1/2 (1963)
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
The Icicle Thief (1989)
Volere Volare (1991)
Malena (2000)


The Seventh Seal (1957)
The Magician (1958)
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Under the Sun (1998)
Let the Right One In (2008)


Intacto (2001)
The Orphanage (2007)


Backthrow said...


One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
Stray Dog (1949)
Crazed Fruit (1956)
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
The original, 25-film series (1962-1973) of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman
Red Beard (1965)
Shall We Dance? (1996)
Perfect Blue (1997)
Battle Royale (2000)
Millennium Actress (2001)
Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
When the Last Sword Is Drawn (2003)
Paprika (2006)

China/Hong Kong/Taiwan:

Mr. Vampire (1985)
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
To Live (1994)
The Emperor and the Assassin (1998)
Together (2002)
Ip Man (2008)
Red Cliff (2008)
The Grandmaster (2013)

South Korea:

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
The Host (2006)
The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008)


Chocolate (2008)


Black Book (2006)


Babette's Feast (1987)


Dark Blue World (2001)


No Man's Land (2001)

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, Nice list! Definitely some excellent choices. Supercop was a ton of fun. City of God was really fascinating.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Backthrow. High and Low is a great film. Shall We Dance was really good too.

Voz said...

Downfall, The Lives of Others, Brotherhood of the Wolf are probably my favorites...Jean Reno has done lots of films that never came out over here such as Crimson Rivers...

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, Jean Reno is one of my favorites.

djskit said..., not the one with George Clooney.

PikeBishop said...

How about one of the best foreign films and one of the ten best vampire films ever made, Sweden's "Let the Right One In," a haunting, beautiful tale of pre-adolescent friendship and an absolutely amazing, never before seen look at the worn out vampire drama and its attendant motifs. Watch this one before watching the good, but not excellent, American remake "Let Me In."

Anonymous said...

The King of Masks (1996)

The tale of a Chinese street performer who longs for an heir to teach his craft to. Not that I've seen many, but this is probably the best non-martial arts Chinese movie that I've seen. Warning: this film will tug at your heartstrings.

Unknown said...

Interesting lists and discussion as always, but I have to raise issue with your first two criteria, Andrew, as they seem rather parochial at first blush.

"A film that gives me a feel of having been to a foreign country" is something to seek/expect in a film set in a foreign country, rather than made in one. More precisely, a film should transport the audience to its setting(s), which applies as much to a film set in North Dakota as one set in North Korea. This is particularly important when a film is a travelogue with several settings, as discussed here in the context of Bond movies, for example.

"A film that gives me something Hollywood never could or would, i.e. the "stranger" the better." This seems to imply that if Hollywood could potentially make a film, foreign films are doomed to be inferior. Yet, as discussed here on many pages, there are many flaws in the Hollywood machine, This can be seen when Hollywood attempts to cash in on a successful foreign film by making its own version.

Take Nine Queens for example, remade as Criminal. The latter is little more than an entertaining but implausible con movie, while the former provides not only a more plausible setting, but broader reflections on capitalism and society, through the prism of the Argentine banking collapse and corruption in society more widely.

In other words, it really capitalises on its setting. That may be what you meant to say, but it applies to all movies, no matter where they are made.

Unknown said...

Other non-English films I like not mentioned so far include:

Goodbye Lenin (nice insights on the GDR and the problems reunification would face)

Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (just plain fun)

In the mood for love (Brief Encounter turned on its head)

Life is beautiful

I also like Lucas Belvaux's Trilogie as an opus, and don't have a problem with Chocolat: by "everyone learns to be more American", I assume you mean "South American"!

AndrewPrice said...

John, your first two criteria, Andrew, as they seem rather parochial at first blush.

Not at all. I think you've misunderstood my point. When I watch a foreign film, I want something that reflects the culture of the country where it was made. I don't want something that mimics a Hollywood film, which is what a lot of foreign films are doing now.

I've been all over the world and I've experienced many different cultures. People have different values, different hopes, different fears and different tastes. They take life at a different pace. Being part German, I have a genuine sense of that, that we do see the world differently, and that is what I want to see in a foreign film.

It's fascinating to me to see the Korean take on horror or the how the staid Japanese relate to something like ballroom dancing lessons or what the Chinese make of honor or the Germans make of chaos or the Italians make of romance. The nuances are great to see: the pacing, what they consider appropriate and inappropriate, all the little differences you never see here.

What I don't want to see is a film that is shot in say Tokyo or Berlin, but mimics Hollywood in terms of production style, pacing and even values.

Look at something like Fast and Furious (Brazil), which I know isn't a foreign film but provides a good example. I know a good number of Brazilians, so I have some familiarity with their culture, and I can tell you that this film presents ZIP in the way of Brazilian culture. What it presents is American actors (both the good guys and the bad guys) in a Southern-California style car chase film played out against the American stereotype of Brazil: Brazil consists of one city on the beach... their cops all openly work for drug lords... the city is rich and beautiful and crawling with 3 women in bikinis for every man ("the Hollywood party ratio")... we learn there are slums however, where good people live who have electricity, running water, nice clothes and all the consumer items Americans love, and best of all -- they are all just like everyone else in Southern California, right down to the midnight car racing scene.

None of that is real. None of that interests me.

AndrewPrice said...

To give a further example, consider Diva. Diva is a movie Hollywood could never make because it simply doesn't fit the film making structure Hollywood embraces. It's too slow. It's too deliberate. It's too random. The values are wrong -- Hollywood would need to make the mailman more heroic and less weird. The singer would need to be younger and more horny. The Vietnamese girl would need a new race. The corrupt cops would need to be more brutal. The soundtrack would need to be punched up and modernized. And the resolution would need to be more violent.

That's what I mean. I want to see films that do things and take chances Hollywood simply could not do because Hollywood would never have the nerve.

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