Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thursday Randomness

Top 15 International Films

The term "foreign film" has a bit of a negative connotation to me. It suggests that American film is the norm, while films from other countries are somehow not on the same level. The term is also vague--does it mean foreign languages, foreign directors, foreign cast, or a combination of sorts? The Academy Awards use the term "Best Foreign Language Film." I suggest using the term international, which seems more culturally-inclusive, celebrating a country's art in the medium of film. Maybe I'll start something here....

Thus, these are the best international films I have seen (international meaning, "not American.") I am working on watching more international films, as they offer valuable perspectives unseen in American cinema. These are in no particular order:

Amelie (2001): One of my favorite films of all time, this French film about a quirky young woman celebrating life in Paris is sparkling and touching.

Wings of Desire (1987): This German film about angels watching over people in Berlin has some of the greatest cinematography I've ever seen, as well as a great story about the beauty of humanity.

Seven Samurai (1954): Directed by famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, this samurai epic centers on a small village harassed by bandits. When the villagers find seven unemployed samurai to protect them, the out-of-work samurai become heroes. There are some great action sequences, and it's a classic epic film (The Magnificent Seven is based on this film.)

The Bicycle Thief (1948): An Italian film about a father and son trying to survive during tough times. The father procures a bicycle in order to take on a new job, only to have it stolen. The rest of the film follows the father and son as the try to find the bike, creating some moral dilemmas for the frustrated father.

The 400 Blows (1959): From French director Francois Truffaut, this touching story about an adolescent boy coming of age in Paris is especially moving for the youth pastor in me. Misunderstood and neglected by his parents and teachers, young Antoine begins a downward spiral into petty crime as he searches for meaning and love in his life.

8 1/2 (1963): Dream-like and ethereal, this semi-autobiographical film from Federico Fellini follows a struggling director who is trying to outdo his previous great film. As the pressures mount for the uninspired director, he begins to retreat into his dreams. It's the best movie-about-a-movie I've seen; you get the sense that Fellini was writing the screenplay as he was shooting the film, yet it all comes together.

City of God (2002): Fernando Meirelles creates a powerful film about young boys growing up in the violent slums of Rio de Janeiro. Most boys grow up to become violent drug dealers, prowling around the streets in gangs. One boy overcomes and becomes a photographer, turning his violent environment into a tapestry of art. Great directing, great cinematography, and the young actors give very good performances.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): While the story centers around obtaining a mystical sword, the beauty of the film is in its graceful cinematography and martial arts. It's not one of those kung-fu action films; there is intense combat and violence, but it comes across as poetic, not coarse or unnecessary.

Tres Colours Trilogy (Blue, White, Red): Okay, this is really three films directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski; but each play a significant part in an ongoing spiritual story about connection, loss, and the human condition. Blue is the story of a woman dealing with the loss of her husband and child; White is the story of a man in a struggling marriage with a wife who wants to divorce him; Red is about a young model who meets a voyeuristic neighbor listening to people's phone calls. Each story is connected and intertwined in subtle ways, culminating in a powerful ending that focuses on human connection.

Rashomon (1950): Another Kurosawa film, this time about how truth and history are tricky to narrow down. A crime is committed in the woods, and the story is told from three different perspectives in a court. Each account has overlapping details, yet are drastically different from one another. Frustration mounts as the truth becomes something nebulous.

La Dolce Vita (1960): Another Fellini film--many consider it his greatest--the story follows Marcello, a tabloid journalist, as he tries to make sense of his own life and the lives of the upper-class elite that he reports about. There are so many layers to the film and to Marcello's character that it takes multiple viewings to gather it all (the 3-hour running time only adds to its complexity). It's a study of hedonism and the lack of meaning it ultimately brings.

M (1931): One of the first films ever made about a serial killer, Fritz Lang's thriller is about a German town's hunt for a child murderer. The concept is creepy, the sets and lighting are dreary, and the entire film is thrilling. This film set the original standard for the thriller genre.

Metropolis (1927): Another Fritz Lang film, this is the original sci-fi film. You can see it's influence in Star Wars, Blade Runner, and nearly any solid science fiction film. The dystopian future Lang creates is in a giant city divided by the lower-class workers and the upper-class thinkers. In a strange side story, a scientist attempts to recreate his lost love in the form of a robot. The spiritual overtones in the film about idolatry, resurrection, and the connection between the mind and the heart are staggering.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007): The most recent film on my list, this true story about Elle magazine editor Jean-Do Bauby is inspiring. Bauby suffers from a stroke that leaves him entirely paralyzed except for his left eye. His mind is fully functional, yet his body has literally become an immovable tomb for his spirit. His drive to communicate, to dream, and to create reveal that our humanity is not found only in our biology, but also in our spirituality.

Les Diaboliques (1955): This is one of the most tense and thrilling films I've ever watched; it sounds cliche, but I was literally on the edge of my seat for the final 15 minutes. The wife of a cruel boarding school headmaster plots with his mistress to kill him. But after the murder, his body disappears, and paranoia mounts. It's been called a French Hitchcock for its twists and turns.

Runner Ups: Amores Perros, Oldboy, Pan's Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, Wild Strawberries, Rififi

I know I'm missing some great directors: Bergman, Ozu, Almodovar, Tarkovsky, Godard, Herzog. But I haven't seen their films yet, so I include only what I have seen thus far.


  1. My #1 would be Oldboy, which I'm sure you have a hard time believing. Glad to see it in your Runners Up.

  2. It's a great film, and worthy of being on the list! And I know that it's your favorite film, so it gets props for that too! :) I have to watch it again; I haven't seen Oldboy in years.

  3. It's been quite some time since I've seen the movie, too. Mostly because I have a daughter now and that makes the movie extremely hard to watch... in more ways than one.