It dawned on me that I can’t very well expect those with a phobia of foreign film — or who just find them too tedious to sit through — to develop a love and appreciation for them without offering up a few recommendations. In no way am I saying that you’ll find all of the movies in this post to your liking. What I am saying? Scratch that. What I’m guaranteeing is that there’s at least one film on this list that you’ll fall in love with, even after it knocks you on your arse.
For all intents and purposes here, I’ll define the label “foreign film” to include any that is made in a language other than English. Some people include English-language films that originated outside of the U.S. If that’s as exotic as you care to get at this point in your movie-watching life, then by all means, check out the U.K.’s In the Loop, a satirical comedy about the U.K. and U.S. pursuing an ill-advised war in the Middle East while key players in both governments try to avoid a catastrophe. Or Australia’s Animal Kingdom, which tells the story of a young man who’s just lost his mother and now must adjust to life with his unfamiliar and criminal relatives. Or Ireland’s modern-day musical drama, Once, which will assuredly change the way you look at musicals forever. Alas, the focus here will be on foreign-language films, for I imagine it’s those that receive the majority of unwarranted criticism.
Let’s break down some barriers, shall we?
City of God (Brazil, 2002) I’m wasting no time here bringing out the heavy artillery. City of God may be my favorite foreign flick of all time. If you like it gangster, then try it Rio de Janeiro style. Two childhood friends grow up together on the streets of this notoriously brutal city. Over time, their lives take dramatically different paths. Rocket pursues his passion for photography. Li’l Zé becomes the city’s most feared drug dealer and one of the most memorable characters ever on screen.
Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008) Beautifully animated, director Ari Folman walks you through his personal testimony when he interviews fellow military colleagues about their invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Folman remembers almost nothing about the ordeal but is convinced that a recurring nightmare in which he’s hunted by vicious dogs holds the key to unlocking his memory. The story is authentic, original and will grip you from the get-go. The animation will haunt you long after it’s ended.
Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000) Mexico’s version of the Traffic/Crash movie that intertwines multiple storylines in an entertaining and intellectually stimulating tour de film. Whereas Traffic revolves around drug trafficking and Crash emphasizes race, Amores Perros concentrates on love and its potential to motivate us to do the unthinkable. Perros may compare stylistically to the two popular American features, but I say it trumps them as an overall film.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia, 2002) An incredible true story about three Aboriginal girls ranging from ages 8-14 who were taken from their family by the government in order to be “domesticated.” They escape the girls’ home where they were dropped off but must travel thousands of miles through the outback if they want to see their family again. The film has some English but is mostly in an Aboriginal language and still managed to keep the attention of my sixth grade class. Yeah, I’d say that’s a positive.
Cinema Paradiso (Italy, 1988) A charming love letter to the movie-going experience, this Italian flick will warm the heart of any sucker for cinema. It’s about movies, plain and simple. Why we love them; why we need them. How they provide an escape, a reprieve. How they inspire us and change us and hold up the mirror that allows us to look into our own lives and souls.
Oldboy (South Korea, 2003) So, you like revenge films. Bronson’s killing spree in Death Wish. Denzel’s bone-breaking tactics in Man on Fire. Uma’s samurai shite storm in Kill Bill. Oh Dae-Su was kidnapped and has spent the last 15 years in a makeshift cell inside a hotel room. Without explanation, he’s set free one day and given clues about his captor whom he still knows nothing about. The twist carries the force of a hammer to the face (pun intended) and gives you plenty to mull over while you recuperate.
El Mariachi (USA, 1992) I’m kind of breaking my own rules by including this one. Technically, Mariachi is considered an American film, I suppose, because director Robert Rodriguez hails from Texas. Aside from that, it’s a Mexican film. The actors are Mexican. It’s set in Mexico. The entire movie’s in Spanish. Did you even know that Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico were part of a trilogy? This one’s the best of the three despite the fact that it was made for just $7,000. You heard me. $7,000.
Paradise Now (Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2005) Two childhood friends who grew up in the religious time bomb that is Palestine are recruited by Muslim extremists for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. As their mission draws nearer, the two begin to question their motives and the life-altering effects their actions will have. Aside from some English, the majority of the movie is in Arabic. Religious fundamentalists beware; this may not be the one for you.
A Prophet (France, 2009) If A Prophet were an American film, in 20 years it would be spoken of with the same esteem as we speak of The Godfather and Goodfellas today. As it stands, it’s an absolutely phenomenal French gangster flick that unfortunately many people won’t have the opportunity to see. That’s a travesty. Malik is a no-name criminal starting a relatively modest prison sentence. However, by the time he leaves, no one will ever forget him. The final shot may be the best I ever saw.