Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An Introduction to Foreign Language Film

Last month, I wrote an article about my ten favorite directors. I also promised to write a companion piece, revealing the ten foreign language directors that I admire the most. However, after giving that topic much thought, I realize that I am simply not qualified to write such an article. I love a lot of foreign language films, but my knowledge is too limited to make the claim that my list is some kind of definitive Top 10. Consider it more of a beginner's guide.

If you were to make a list the Top 50 foreign language directors, I would probably have seen films by 20 of them. So, instead of making a list of that nature, I'm going to mention directors who have made films that I enjoy. I can only comment on what I have seen. This list will probably be of use to anyone who is just starting to explore foreign film. Many films will be recent, rather than delving too far into the past. In fact, more than half the names on the list are still working today. I find that I tend to identify with modern styles better than older ones, but that might not be true for you.

The following directors have all made films that had an impact on me for one reason or another. As before, I will list them alphabetically:

Vittorio De Sica

I've barely scratched the surface with De Sica's films, but find them to be extremely moving and realistic. The Bicycle Thief is my favorite, and features the simple story of a father trying to earn enough money to support his wife and son. Arrow has released a Blu-ray version in the UK, but I am holding out for the inevitable Criterion release. One title that Criterion has released on Blu-ray is Umberto D, which was the last film I watched in 2012. The presentation was unbelievably good for something made more than 60 years ago. De Sica was responsible for around 30 full-length films, so I am looking forward to exploring them. If you enjoy realistic drama, the two I have mentioned are a good starting point.

Here's a trailer for The Bicycle Thief with praise from actors, directors and critics:

Michael Haneke

I'm looking forward to seeing Amour when it is released here in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to see that veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is involved. Haneke's previous three films are in my collection. Funny Games and The White Ribbon are both good, but it's Caché which prompted me to include Haneke on my list. It's a wonderful film, with a strong story, genuine suspense, and some of the strongest acting you will ever see. Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil both shine in their roles and it's some of the best work they have produced. You'll have to watch closely for any kind of resolution, but it's there. This is the kind of film which captures my imagination and reveals something new each time I see it.

Here's a trailer for Caché:

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The best foreign language film I have seen from the past 10 years is probably The Lives of Others. It tells the story of how a few artistic people coped with the regime in East Germany during the 1980s. It's an important film as well as a great one. The transformation of the principle character is nothing short of stunning. If you have never seen a foreign language film, this might be the one I would suggest as the best starting point, but that depends on your taste. It certainly encouraged me to explore European cinema. Unlike typical Hollywood releases, here's a film that focuses on story and characterization. You'll care deeply about the characters if you give it a fair chance.

Here's the trailer:

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Here's a director with a unique vision. Unlike many of the names on this list, I've seen every feature he has ever produced. His films range from good to great (with the exception of Alien: Resurrection). The three that would fall into the great category are Delicatessen, A Very Long Engagement, and Amélie. He likes to work with the same actors, so you'll see familiar faces if you explore all of his films. His sense of humor is what separates him from the pack; it's clever, original, and genuinely funny. I think it's clear that Jeunet's brain is wired differently. If you like Wes Anderson, you'll probably appreciate Jeunet's humor. Amélie is as good a place as any to begin. If you don't like that, you probably won't appreciate any of his films.

Here's the trailer:

Krzysztof Kieslowski

The most beautiful live action films I have seen have been directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. That said, I have yet to see The Decalogue, which is often mentioned as being his best work. I'm holding out for a Criterion Blu-ray release. He makes this list on the strength of the four films I own. Three Colors is my favorite trilogy of any kind, not just foreign language. The Double Life of Veronique is also a film of extraordinary beauty. One reason for that is the presence of Irene Jacob in both works, who may be the most beautiful actress I have ever seen. But her acting ability is the reason I love the films so much. Three Colors can be seen in a single viewing if you have five hours to spare, and it's worth your time. Juliette Binoche gives an outstanding performance in Blue, but Red is the highlight, and stars the aforementioned Jean-Louis Trintignant alongside Irene Jacob. Kieslowski's films should be treasured.

Here's a trailer for Three Colors Red:

Louis Malle

Malle would make the Top 10 regularly if you were to conduct a poll of professional film critics. With 19 feature films to his credit, I have a long way to go before I can appreciate his career as a whole. He makes this list because Au revoir les enfants had a huge impact on me. The story is powerful, but when you realize that Malle is portraying an event which happened in his early life, it's strength is increased.

Here's Criterion's trailer:

Hayao Miyazaki

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I continually rant about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I could probably write a book about my love for his films. Unlike the other titles recommended in this list, you have the choice to watch Miyazaki's films in English, as they are all animation. I'm a big fan of Pixar, but Studio Ghibli produces better films. The main reason is that they have more heart. Miyazaki's characters work because you care about them, rather than any special abilities they have been given. His stories appeal to all ages, so don't make the mistake of dismissing them as solely for children. I would start with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro, but I genuinely think that every film is too good to miss. Titles directed or written Miyazaki make up more than half of my Top 20 animated favorites. His understanding of human nature is a big reason for his ability to reach people emotionally, but his drawings are superb in their own right. The messages in these stories are a great example for children. Miyazaki is creative and inventive, and you won't see ideas that have been done to death over the years. I mentioned that Kieslowski made the most beautiful live action films; Miyazaki has that title when it comes to animation. You need to see these films.

Here's a trailer for the Oscar-winning Spirited Away:

Götz Spielmann

I have only seen one film by Austrian Götz Spielmann, but it was more than enough reason to recommend him. I'm anxious to see his other work. Revanche was nominated for an Oscar, and contains refreshing ideas. Most thrillers follow a similar path, so it's nice to experience something original. It's the kind of film that makes you question what you might do if you were in the same position as one of the characters. It's unusual, clever, and masterfully done. The Criterion Blu-ray is exceptional, and is the best way to watch the film unless it's somehow being shown at your nearest art house cinema.

Here's the Criterion trailer:

François Truffaut

I have seen a few François Truffaut films, but my favorite remains his first full-length feature, The 400 Blows. It's easily one of the best stories about childhood that I've seen to date, and I enjoy visiting that world. The film is said to resemble Truffaut's own childhood and the character of Antoine (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is always interesting. I'm glad that I have other Truffaut works to explore, because I like everything I have seen from him so far.

Here's the trailer from the British Film Institute:

Wong Kar-Wai

My final suggestion is also the first mention of Asian cinema, which is responsible for some of the most original films being made today. Wong Kar-Wai's films have a very distinctive look. He loves to use blurred motion and all manner of colors and light. Some scenes remind me of dream sequences. He's another director with an offbeat sense of humor, and I love the feel of his stories. If you want to check out his work, you don't have to watch a foreign language film: My Blueberry Nights is in English, and will demonstrate his unique style and approach. But this is an article highlighting foreign language films, so my first choice would be Chungking Express. It tells the story of two characters and is a delicious mix of romance, humor, and weirdness. If that doesn't work for you, In the Mood for Love might do the trick, but Chungking Express has always been my favorite.

Here's a trailer for Chungking Express:

If I have failed to convince you to watch Chungking Express, maybe Quentin Tarantino can do a better job?

That's it. Thanks for reading. If I have omitted one of your favorite foreign language directors, such as Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Bunuel, or someone else, it is for the reasons I stated at the beginning of this article. As my experience increases and I see more films, I'm sure that my list will change dramatically. It will be interesting to see how it has evolved five years from now.

I hope that you will check out at least one of my suggestions. The trailers should give you some idea of what to expect.

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  1. This is great. My favorites directors listed here are Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut. 'Au Revoir Les Enfants' remains one of my favorite movies of all times. Some of the other foreign directors I am unfamiliar with, but this is most helpful and I am also forwarding this excellent article to some other movie goers who have a particular interest in Foreign films. Many thanks. Agnes

    1. If you watch one film that you otherwise wouldn't, it was worth the five hours. Some of the great directors simply don't do it for me, but there's a huge amount of stuff I want to check out.

  2. A good list of directors and films Steve. A fair few of my favs are missing, but as you say narrowing down any list is nigh on impossible. Dekalog is fantastic and if you haven't seen them so are A short film about Love and A short film about killing. The only one of the films you mentioned that missed me by was Revanche, which I will have to check out. I can't remember if I have mentioned this to you are not, but a really great overview of world cinema is Mark Cousins' brilliant 10 part doc called The Story of Film: An Odyssey

    1. Thanks Paul.

      I will eventually pick up the rest of Kieslowski's films, but I will definitely wait for Dekalog on Blu-ray. I'm sure it will happen. Previous Criterions have included short films among the special features, so I will see what they do there too. You did mention Mark Cousins. I'm gradually exploring, depending on what is available. I can't afford to blind buy anything at the moment.

    2. maybe they'll show The Story of Cinema on tv. That's where I got to watch it.

    3. It's possible, but we don't get many shows of that type in Canada. Even Ebert Presents At the Movies had a short run.

  3. Off the top of my head: Jean Pierre Jeunet, Jorge Michel Grau, Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Asgar Farhadi, Jacques Audiard... so mostly Latin and French guys.