Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Exploring the World Through Moving Pictures (Subtitled: My Great Foreign Film Adventure)

Seven Samurai movie poster
My Own Private International Film Festival

Last week, I went to a local movie theater and saw a highly enjoyable, newly released film. An intelligent, humorous and poignant political & media satire, it is called Peepli Live. If it doesn't sound familiar, that's probably because it's a Hindi film made in India, one that shows not all Bollywood movies need be 3+ hours long nor have people in overly colorful costumes singing and dancing, although I enjoy some of those too. (Peepli Live is currently at BIG Cinemas in Niles, IL and elsewhere.)

Through Netflix, I recently watched--one streaming, one on DVD--two quite compelling, beautiful and unique "war movies" that gave interesting insights on the life of a soldier. One was a Japanese film from 1956 called The Burmese Harp, directed by Kon Ichikawa; the other was Ballad of a Soldier, made in the Soviet Union in 1959 by Grigori Chukhrai.

And yesterday I viewed a powerful crime/gangster/prison drama called A Prophet, a French film that was among this year's nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though I think the trailer that referenced accolades calling it "as epic as the Godfather" was a bit extreme, it was a very good piece of moviemaking by director Jacques Audiard.

All told, in the month of August, I watched 24 movies. Of these, 19 were films in a language other than English. I'm pretty certain this exceeds the total number of foreign language films I had seen in my lifetime prior to 2009. Since last December I've explored 78 foreign films from 25 different countries in 17 primary languages (none of which I speak or understand). So in addition to plenty of watching, I've also done quite a good bit of on-screen reading.

Although I've never been acutely adverse to watching films with subtitles, and had seen & loved high-profile foreign-language films like City of God, Cinema Paradiso and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it wasn't until late last year that I really began to actively seek out movies from different countries (other than "foreign films" from England, Ireland and Australia).

A Slow-Boat Voyage Into World Cinema

While there are a number of definable reasons for this newfound transition to a much more multi-cultural cinematic existence, which I'll explain shortly, I don't beat myself up too much for my previous myopia.

Developing, and then broadening, one's interests and passions is an evolutionary process and not everyone can, or even should, instantly love everything. As much as I think cultural literacy, and a requisite curiosity, is vital on a variety of levels for people of almost all ages, the truth is that at age 21--half my life ago--my musical tastes were pretty strictly limited to mainstream rock, my appreciation for art extended only to impressionism, reading rarely extended beyond what was on the syllabus and I knew next to nothing about theater, jazz, blues, opera, classical music, architecture or anything else except for the traditional American spectator sports. My horizons weren't all that greatly expanded by age 30 and some of aforementioned art forms I still don't know or love as much as others--and likely never will. And to be honest, given the deliberate pacing of many foreign films and even older & better Hollywood ones, "world cinema" is still to a large degree a taste in the acquiring process.

Now, like almost everyone, I have loved movies--in a general sense--for as long as I can remember. Except for television and perhaps music across all its various forms, I think film is our most unifying medium; I don't know, or even know of, anyone over the age of five who doesn't have some affinity for movies. Sure there are some people who don't like actually going to movie theaters and there are others who don't care much for modern movies and there are many who only like movies of certain genres, but everyone or so it seems likes movies and smiles at the recollection of certain favorites.

Undeniably, at any point in time, there are new movies of vastly differing quality. But I feel fortunate that many of the highly popular movies of my adolescence were actually pretty good films;  Rocky (even II & III), the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and even sophomoric humor movies such as Animal House, Stripes, the Blues Brothers, Airplane and Fast Times at Ridgemont High seem to hold up pretty well all these years later.

But beyond the movies that all my friends saw, at a relatively young age I was turned on--primarily by my father--to more classic fare such as Bridge Over the River Kwai, Marty, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The Hustler, Singin' in the Rain and even substantive then-current/recent films like Network, Annie Hall, Breaking Away, The Marathon Man, The Sting and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At a young age, I also fell in love with the Kinks' Celluloid Heroes and wanted to know everyone Ray Davies was singing about.

I had a cinema class in high school and Film Studies were part of my college major--I still remember acing a term-paper on the auteur theory as it pertained to Sidney Lumet--and thus was also indoctrinated to movies like A Face in the Crowd, Cool Hand Luke, Citizen Kane (about which and Casablanca I wrote this lengthy post in April) and foreign masterpieces such as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (which I revisited this month) and Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game.

Although my screenwriting and movie directing ambitions--which prompted a move to Los Angeles after college--pretty much died on the vine, I have always considered myself a low-grade film aficionado.

Initially on VHS and then DVD, I have amassed a pretty large and wide-ranging film collection and have always seen what seemed like a solid array of new & old, popular & acclaimed movies in theaters and at home. While these included selected foreign works like Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, Hero, Wings of Desire, Talk to Her, Saraband, Tsotsi and many favorites coming out of Britain & Ireland--among them In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Bend It Like Beckham, Billy Elliot and The Last King of Scotland--until late last year, my cinematic worldview was largely limited to what Hollywood chose to distribute and promote. Although they've existed for years, I was rarely inclined to venture to the Music Box Theatre, Facets Multimedia, Siskel Film Center (all in Chicago), the Chicago International Film Festival (held in October) or even the World Cinema shelves of my local library.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Foreign Films

Aishwarya Rai
Again, I've never had an active disdain for non-English films, having loved City of God when I saw it back in  2003 (and naming it My Favorite Movie of the '00s last December), seeing La Vie En Rose soon after Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008, enjoying the French take on one of my favorite American mystery novels, Tell No One, and going to Facets to see a fine Israeli film called The Secrets prior to a trip to Israel in March 2009. After taking note when Roger Ebert called Indian actress Aishwarya Rai "the world's most beautiful woman" back in 2004, I made a point of seeing some of her films, and some time in the last couple years, I finally got around to watching and enjoying Life Is Beautiful.

But it wasn't until mid-December 2009, and much more avidly in 2010, that I began to truly delve into the foreign film canon. The reasons are split between the motivational and the logistical, but include:

- Time to explore (at least in a reel sense). Due to a lack of full-time employment, which unfortunately (at least financially) remains my situation today, I have had more time to watch movies and pursue new interests. But consequently, I have not had the means to travel abroad, which led me to seek...

- An alternate way of exploring global culture. I was fortunate to travel beyond U.S. borders in 8 of the past 10 years, to places as disparate as Italy, Australia, Spain, Paris, London, Prague, Amsterdam, Cairo and Israel. This has given me an appreciation for how "other people" live, about which films from various locales further my familiarity and, at present, serve as an important and enlightening substitute for real adventures.

- The Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group - I have been a fan of and participant in several Meetup groups (including a BritPop group I used to host) for several years. At the suggestion of my friend Dave, I started going to the Film Discussion Brunch in December, quickly realized how relatively constrained my film focus had been and within a week watched the Italian classic The Bicycle Thief, the German escapist flick Run Lola Run and, at the Music Box, a Romanian film called Police, Adjective. Although I rarely make it to movie screenings at which Meetups are also organized, I love the monthly (sometimes twice-monthly) discussions over brunch at the Holiday Club, at which we have focused on topics like films of Tarantino, Kubrick and Altman, as well as Italian and Japanese cinema.

- Friends With Broader Film Tastes - In addition to benefiting from and contributing to the film meetups, my interest in world cinema has given me more to discuss with friends who were already well-acclimated. From people like Dave, Paolo, Bob and Jordan, I have been pointed to many rewarding films, including Rififi, Rashomon, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Munyurangabo, The Wind That Shakes The Barley and several I have yet to see.

- Skokie Public Library - Although when I lived in Glen Ellyn (which itself has a fine library) I was chagrined that SPL policy excludes lending materials to anyone without a card from within the North Suburban Library, once again being a resident of my hometown has reminded me what a great resource I have available. In addition to a vast collection of World Cinema films--befitting a highly diverse community--the library screens a foreign-language film on the first Monday of each month (open to everyone). This month, a week delayed because of Labor Day, the SPL is showing Coco Before Chanel (starring Amelie's Audrey Tautou and on Roger Ebert's list of Best Foreign Films of 2009) at 7pm on September 13. Although my borrowing of foreign films (which I can have put on the Bookmobile to pick up a block from my home) has slowed inversely to my use of Netflix, just today, I took out Pan's Labyrinth, Central Station, Two Women and Lagaan (along with A Fistful of Dollars and The Fountain; the next Film Discussion will focus on the latter's director Darren Aronofsky along with David Fincher, two of my favorite American filmmakers). While not all libraries may not have a foreign film section as vast as Skokie's, probably every library has more than enough good ones to choose from, often for free.

- Netflix - Although Netflix has long been championed by several friends, I resisted becoming a member until this past January. My reasoning was that between the movies I already owned, the library, HBO & other cable movie channels with plenty of On-Demand selections and Redbox, which charges only $1.00 for nightly rentals (no wonder Blockbuster is going bankrupt), plus seeing a fair number of films in theaters, I couldn't really justify spending $8.99 per month to get one movie at a time by mail. And as I don't enjoy watching movies or TV shows on my computer, instant streaming  capabilities (i.e. movies that run online) were no lure. But in January, I got a Blu-Ray player (this one from Sony, which I recommend once the price comes back down to $138 on Amazon after they get more in stock) that enables me to stream Netflix' selection of instantly streaming movies--more vast than I imagined and ever growing--I decided to get my feet wet with a 2-week Netflix trial. Soon I took the plunge, but in paying $10.99/mo. (including a $2 surcharge to receive Blu Ray discs), I've canceled all my movie channels, stopped renting from Redbox, haven't bought more than two movies all year and can watch films at home not all that long after they play cinemas. In 8-1/2 months, I've watched 28 streaming movies and 27 discs that have arrived in my mailbox about a day after shipping--including 21 foreign films that HBO, et al, don't provide. In turn, Netflix' complex algorithms (which an acquaintance named Meta Brown explains in this insightful video) are constantly recommending more global choices that it thinks I should like.

- Roger Ebert - Long my favorite film critic, even when Gene Siskel was alive and battling him At The Movies and writing for the Chicago Tribune, Roger has always championed great films from all ends of the earth. You can access all his reviews and many other writings through the excellent and his Great Movies book series--III was just released--would make a wonderful holiday gift for any film buff. In April, Dave and I went to Champaign, IL, for the Roger Ebert (nee Overlooked) Film Festival. One of the two movies we saw was from England called I Capture the Castle. I've also seen 6 of 15 films on Ebert's Best Foreign Films of 2009 list and intend to see several more.

- IMDB,, Wikipedia, Yahoo Movies and Fandango - From filmographies of most worldwide directors to plot summaries of a gazillion movies to composite user ratings to local showtimes, a ton of information to help you better discover, learn more about and appreciate foreign films is at your fingertips. There also myriad other great online and published resources, some more explicitly focusing on world cinema, but these should provide a great starting point. Those interested can see all of my IMDB ratings here, as although I rate all movies seen through Netflix on their site and have them fed to my Facebook page, you need to be a member of those websites to see them.

Where to Possibly Begin (or How To Continue)
Your Exploration of World Cinema

As should be fairly apparent, I am by no means an expert on movies in general and foreign ones in particular. Although I have watched a good assortment over the past 9 months, the important films I don't know vastly outnumber the ones I have (and who's to say what's "important" anyway?).

In no particular order, I will provide a list of foreign films that I have found to be excellent, but please don't mistake this for a comprehensive list of the best films of world cinema. For more in-depth guidance, refer to Ebert, IMDB,, Empire magazine's recent 100 Best Films of World Cinema list (easier to see in full here), Academy Award winners and nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, Paste Magazine's opinion on the Most Essential Foreign Films of the '00s and a ranking of the decade's top grossing foreign language films.

Hopefully, some of my movie buff friends and readers will add some more great choices in the Comments and you likely have friends and relatives happy to share opinions of their own. These are just a smattering (not all) of the globally-produced movies that I have seen since December 2009 that I would give at least @@@@ (and many a full @@@@@), broken down by country of origin. I won't list the languages but all are available on DVD or through Netflix instant streaming with English subtitles. (I also cited some famed directors from the various regions; not all are represented in the lists that follow, nor should inclusions be viewed as comprehensive.)

France - The big directors are Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer
The 400 Blows
Shoot the Piano Player
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
A Prophet
The Concert - This one should still be in selected U.S. theaters. Not perfect, but quite worthwhile.

Italy - Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Leone
La Dolce Vita - My favorite Fellini movie of the four so far seen, but La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and 8-1/2 also belong here.
The Bicycle Thief (aka Bicycle Thieves)
Cinema Paradiso
Il Postino

Japan - Kurosawa, Ozu, Ichikawa, Kobayashi
The Seven Samurai
The Burmese Harp

China/Taiwan - Yimou Zhang, Ang Lee
Raise the Red Lantern
To Live

Germany - Herzog, Fassbinder, Wenders
The Counterfeiters
Run Lola Run
(The White Ribbon) - I didn't love it, but many did and I should watch it again

Belgium - The Dardenne brothers
The Son
Lorna's Silence

Sweden - Bergman
The Seventh Seal
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - I thought these were very good interpretations of the books
The Girl Who Played With Fire

Y Tu Mama Tambien
Sin Nombre

Ballad of a Soldier - Russia
The Chaser - Korea
Munyurangabo - Rwanda
Broken Embraces - Spain (Director: Almodovar)
Peepli Live - India
Maria Full of Grace - Columbia
The Barbarian Invasions - Canada (French)
Song for Sparrows - Iran
The Damned United - England
The Wind That Shakes The Barley - England/Ireland
The Secret in Their Eyes - Argentina - The best new movie from anywhere I've seen in 2010


Greg Boyd said...

Interesting piece. I just love Netflix, even more so now that they've added a ton of new movies just yesterday: including all three "Godfather" films.

I notice you've only mentioned one Ingmar Bergman film down here. "The Seventh Seal" is a magnificent film, but you should absolutely check out "Scenes from a Marriage" (I watched the abridged version, but the miniseries version might be even better). I plan on checking some of his other films out through Netflix's streaming service very soon, including "Persona" and "Wild Strawberries".

One big director you've missed is from Japan: the modern master of anime, Hayao Miyazaki. I heartily recommend you check him out if you haven't already. "Princess Mononoke", "Spirited Away", "My Neighbor Totoro", etc... all wonderful films.

Seth Arkin said...

G, thanks for finding & reading the post so early. Glad you liked it and I appreciate the recommendations. Bergman is certain someone I need to explore more and I've never watched any anime (except the part in Kill Bill). Will put Spirited Away on my short list.

Hope you don't mind that I added your fine site to my Blogroll and would be grateful if you might do the same.

Greg Boyd said...

My pleasure. Odd that this foreign film post occured at the exact same time I've posted my 2009 awards for Best Foreign Film.

Seth Arkin said...

Yes, I noticed your foreign film post when I added your blog to my blogroll, but was already well into writing mine. I've seen The White Ribbon and 35 Shots of Rum and have had Summer Hours in my instant queue since day one on Netflix. I really recommend you see A Secret in Their Eyes if you haven't already and have heard good things about Ajami.

Unknown said...

Your interesting partial list of foreign films sparked my interest in writing down some of my recent favorites, some of which may interest you if you haven't already seen them. Almost all of them have been released on DVD and all are vivid and memorable for one reason or another. Here they are, approximately following your country list order.

The Grand Illusion (1937) - Jean Renoir
Le Plaisir (1952) - Max Ophüls
Small Change (1976) - François Truffaut
Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) - Louis Malle

Open City (1945) - Roberto Rossellini
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) - Roberto Rossellini
Bread, Love and Dreams (1953) - Luigi Comencini
Two Women (1960) - Vittorio De Sica
Titus (1999) - Julie Taymor

The Human Condition (1959) - Masaki Kobayashi
Dersu Uzala (1975) - Akira Kurosawa

Hong Kong/Taiwan/China:
The Emperor's Shadow (1996) - Xiaowen Zhou
The Drummer (2007) - Kenneth Bi

The Nasty Girl (1990) - Michael Verhoeven
The Lives of Others (2006) - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Czech Republic:
Closely Watched Trains (1966) - Jirí Menzel
I Served the King of England (2006) - Jirí Menzel
Who's Afraid of the Wolf (2008) - Maria Procházková

Zero Kelvin (1995) - Hans Petter Moland
Insomnia (1997) - Erik Skjoldbjærg

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Guillermo del Toro
The Orphanage (2007) - Juan Antonio Bayona
Fermat's Room (2007) - Luis Piedrahita & Rodrigo Sopeña

Australia/New Zealand:
Muriel's Wedding (1994) - P.J. Hogan
The Price of Milk (2000) - Harry Sinclair

United Kingdom:
The Man in the White Suit (1951) - Alexander Mackendrick
Night of the Demon (1957) - Jacques Tourneur
Sink the Bismarck! (1960) - Lewis Gilbert
Five Million Years to Earth (1967) - Roy Ward Baker
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) - Peter Webber

I agree with your comment about "The Secret in Their Eyes." Its an adult paced movie that sneaks up on the viewer. Best film of 2010.

Seth Arkin said...

Thanks for sharing your list Ron. Since my posting, I have seen Pan's Labryrinth and Two Women. I especially loved Pan.

My next Netflix disc is the German film by Herzog, Aguirre Wrath of God. But your list of recommendations will be a great guide in the coming months.