Toss out whatever country you were born in here. Maybe it’s a dictatorship run coalition such as Uzbekistan or a free loving nation such as Canada, most of the time. What is most important is the realization that everyone in the world goes through very similar ups and downs in a general perspective. I am an American, but thinking my life has been better or worse in the grand scheme of things is naive. We all live a different story in this world. Out of respect for the cultures around Earth, these are my Top 10 Foreign Language Movies. Each country here is only represented once. This is not an endless list of Bergman or Fellini movies.
10. “The Band’s Visit” (Israel):
I don’t mean to sound like a softy, which I am, but what a charming and kind-hearted movie this is.“The Band’s Visit” is about differing cultures, ages, and sexes as people on earth are coming together through music. A traveling band of Egyptian police officers are making their way to perform at the inaugural Arab Arts Center Gala until the group takes the wrong bus and gets stuck in the middle of nowhere Israel. The disciplined group of blue uniformed men are suddenly out of their structured element. At first hesitant to head into the city full of Muslims that are not the same Muslims they are use to, the band and those they encounter learn a lot from each other. They eat, laugh, and even have a brief taste of temporary love. Sometimes the best experiences in life come while spending time with total strangers.
9. “Amores Perros” (Mexico):
Before he was winning multiple awards the auteur Alejandro G. Innaritu made what to this day remains his opus in my book. Why not pick say a Brad Pitt starring multi-cultural story such as “Babel” or a tour-de-force Javier Bardem led “Biutiful” you might ask. The answer, “Amores Perros” is raw genius made before the guy knows that he is a master behind the lens. A movie made on a budget Innaritu was not yet accustomed to, “Amores Perros” is an intertwined story of three different main character scenarios that are all connected by a horrific car accident. You’ve got a young Gael Garcia Bernal desperately trying to escape the slums by getting into the world of dog-fighting. BTW the dog-fighting scenes, while no animal was harmed, is straight up raw. Then you have Valeria (Goya Toledo), a beautiful supermodel that gives Octavio a sliver of hope to possibly escape the slums. Finally, you have Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), an old ex-guerilla vagabond fighter who is haunted by abandoning his little daughter years ago. I know it sounds like a mess, but believe me it is anything but. “Amores Perros” is the least pretty movie about real life. Which is also what makes it so beautiful.
8. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Thailand):
It was certainly a shock when a spiritual meditation on life that includes a haunting jungle monkey with red eyes that pops out of nowhere won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes film festival. Bizarre does not even begin to explain “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”. Yet, when you take a step back and analyze this, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul created one of the most positive looks at death any filmmaker has ever crafted. The titular character Boonmee is dying of kidney disease. In his final days in this world the man spends time with his family in his Thailand jungle home. He is also visited by the ghost of his deceased wife and a forest spirit that use to be his son. There is plenty of buddhist and Taiwanese infused metaphorical moments that may have you just as confused as me. What makes “Uncle Boonmee” so special is that no matter the culture everyone can appreciate just how romantic death can be if given the time to embrace it. Father Time will never lose, but it can never take away the experiences we have had with loved ones throughout life.
7. “City of God” (Brazil):
To this day the fact that “City of God” is based on a true story completely blows my mind. Life in this atmosphere quite frankly SUCKS! for a lot of us right now. But it is nothing for most compared to growing up in this situation. Director Fernando Meirelles made an instant classic based on a novel written by a young journalist trying to survive growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Buscape aka ‘Rocket’ and his best childhood friend ‘Lil Ze’ have a boyish charm while playing soccer on the dirt but are hit with reality very quickly when rival gang violence hits their shanty-town style community. The two friends take very different paths with one becoming a photographer and the other becoming one of the most cold-blooded killers imaginable. Who can forget the scene when Lil’ Ze, at this point still actually ‘Lil’, goes into a hotel and murders everyone in sight simply because he can. Ze’s rise to the drug kingpin top is littered with him and his fellow gangsters doing some of the worst things ever, including shooting little kids in the alleyway. All that Rocket can do is fight back by telling the story of just how violent and distraught this atmosphere is and will continue to be.
6. “Viridiana” (Spain):
Director Luis Bunuel didn’t just offend people, he straight up got kicked out of countries. For making a movie, REALLY?! France told him to f-off when he had a character slap the shit out of their leader in his early silent classic “L’age D’or”. A two second moment, REALLY?! Mexico told him to f-off after the release of his 1962 classic “The Exterminating Angel” because it insulted the upper-class. REALLY?! Bunuel was clearly not pulling any punches from the start, and my favorite of the king of sarcastic cinema has got to be “Viridiana”. Before getting the boot from Mexico, and mostly shot in Spain I might add, Luis was able to squeeze in an all-timer dark comedy centered around a nun visiting her rich uncle before taking her final vows. Seems pretty straight forward. Turns out the young woman looks just like uncle’s deceased love and he is ready to get back in the saddle, even if it involves banging his niece. That is also just the start. From a girl jump-roping through the rope the deceased used to hang herself all the way to a recreation of the Last Supper from the Bible with drunk homeless people, “Viridiana” is not afraid of anything. It even goes into the foot fetish circle. Please believe what you want of course, but if you just chill for two hours Bunuel is going to crack you up with the highest level of intellect behind it.
5. “The Decalogue” (Poland):
Perhaps the most ambitious movie series in international history, the late great filmmaker Krzystof Kieslowski decided to make an anthology of individual stories based on the 10 Commandments. “The Decalogue” is a biblical tale without actually being a biblical story but rather an observation of humanity. Kieslowski, along with his long time co-writer Kryzstof Piesiewicz, decided to create an original work based on the most famous part of the story of Moses beyond parting the sea. The key here, each one hour installment tackles one of the commandments in a practical way, all of which taking place in and around a small tenement community in Poland. All of the religious cornerstones Christians around the world believe are covered. The sanctity of god is told through a tragic sequence involving a math professor and his son convinced a computer is the last word when the young man wants to skate on a frozen lake. The sanctity of marriage is explored with a husband spying on his wife as he knows she is having an affair. Thou shall not kill is explored in a tale involving a taxi driver and his unfortunate run in with an angry 21-year-old armed with a rope and rock. Like myself, you do not have to be religious to see what the core of “The Decalogue” is all about, and that is humanity in general.
4. “The 400 Blows” (France):
Ah yes, we have come to the Francais. Let us break out some wine and cheese. From the late 50’s to early 70’s France produced multiple visionary moviemakers that shocked audiences at the time. Godard, Demy, Varda, Rohmer, etc. etc… My favorite has always been Francois Truffaut. This guy created the French New-Wave movement along with Godard by making artistic cinema when everybody was expecting another cowboy shoot-em-up shipped in from America. “The 400 Blows” brings to light an issue people weren’t supposed to talk about in 1959, childhood angst and neglect. A young boy named Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) routinely causes trouble both in class as well as on the streets. Glimpses of petty crime and pestering with his teacher in the classroom are shown, but the kid is just acting out. His parent’s marriage is slowly falling apart even though they won’t admit it does not help either. What makes “The 400 Blows”such an all-timer is how Truffaut is able to portray the life of a child so honestly. Little Antoine is not a bad kid, nor is he a good one. The understanding as opposed to hatred of that fact is key. Oh and side note; that final shot is all-time great.
3. “Rashomon” (Japan):
Ridiculous trivial fact, do you know the first movie with spoken words to intentionally have a lens-flair? Also, what was the picture that created the ‘Best Foreign Language’ category in 1951? That would be legendary auteur Akira Kurosawa and his groundbreaking classic “Rashoman”. The idea of a twist ending or stories with multiple points of view was sparse in the film industry at the time. For Kurosawa to come out with this all-timer, particularly just a few short years after WWII, is a miracle. Toshiro Mifune, perhaps the best in his class of Japanese actors, plays a thief who tried to rob a skilled samurai while also raping his future bride. Allegedly… “Rashoman” was one of the first international level films that centered around the idea of telling a story in which the viewer gets to make their own decision about the events. “Pulp Fiction” would not exist without what Kurosawa did 45 years earlier. Kurosawa’s opus is also just captivating as a story itself.
2. “Fanny & Alexander” (Sweden):
Anybody calling themselves a film lover has come across several of the late director Ingmar Bergman’s films. He made masterpieces, and yes some duds, for more than 4 decades. While “The Seventh Seal” is his most recognizable, particularly with the portrayal of playing chess with death himself, “Fanny & Alexander” is his most personal project and one of the best reflections of youth when life hits you in the face before you have the capability to process it. A loose autobiography of Bergman’s life growing up, “Fanny & Alexander” starts off with such joy. A huge family of crazy personalities led by the theater owner father hosting the entire group of happy people during a Christmas dinner. Yes they have money, but you can also feel the genuine kind-hearted spirit in all of them. Out of nowhere, dad dies and mom is distraught. Facing the idea of not being a wife during a time when that was not acceptable, she quickly remarries the ultimate example of pure evil. I do not say that because the man is a priest, most priest’s around the world are good people. I say that because this man uses the cross to torture and destroy you both physically as well as mentally. It is up to Fanny & Alexander’s Jewish family friend and magician to rescue them from what is nothing short of a prison. Listen, there are some majestical moments that may not make sense in the real world. That is also what makes “Fanny & Alexander” so special as it fully embraces telling the story from the perspective of a child.
1. “8 1/2” (Italy):
Italian icon Federico Fellini was on an absolute roll during the 50’s and early 60’s. Already a critical darling, Fellini became the epitome of cool around the world after making “La Dolce Vita” in a time when cool was at its peak. Anita Ekberg dancing in the famous Trevi Fountain was Europe’s ‘Marilyn Monroe Upskirt’ moment. At the top of the international movie game, Federico had a problem. Writers block. Given a blank check to produce a big budget sci-fi movie, the auteur became clueless as far as to what to do while giant sets are being built at the major movie studios. So what did the director do for what was suppose to be his ninth film? He made an honest movie satirizing how ridiculous the creative process of making art can become. Working with his longtime collaborator Marcello Mastroianni playing the director himself, no movie has ever captured the ups and downs more honestly than “8 1/2”. It is one part an ode to romanticizing art while also an indictment on those who claim to be artists. There are plenty of movies about making movies. “8 1/2” is head-and-shoulders the best as well as the most legit about the subject. The dream sequence with the main character being surrounded by beautiful women in precarious situations sums this masterpiece up perfectly. Plus we can’t forget the ending featuring a band including ‘short-people’ dancing around the expensive real life set that never hosted a sci-fi film. Moviemaking is no doubt a circus.