Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Thirteen Best Foreign Movies Ever

In the spirit of my previous effort--The Thirteen Best Movies Made in the USA--I have decided to make a similar list for foreign films. Please remember that this list comprises the entire history of foreign cinema and there is necessarily a long list of worthwhile entries that had to be omitted (such as personal favorites Breaking the Waves, The Leopard, Talk to Her, and Jules & Jim--sorry!).

8 1/2 (1961, Federico Fellini, Italy)
Fellini was a master and as hard as it was to leave La Dolce Vita and I, Vitelloni off this list, life is all about hard choices. Quite simply, this is the best portrayal of a tortured artist ever put to film. Part autobiography, part fiction, part comedy, part tragedy, 8 1/2 at once bleeds truth and fantasy. Has there ever been a more likable guy than Marcello Mastroianni? Doubtful, as he is the heart and soul of 3 of the best movies ever made...

Seduced and Abandoned (1964, Pietro Germi, Italy)
This movie bursts with life. It perfectly blends the absurdity of propriety-for-propriety's-sake face-saving Italian customs, the twisted utility of religion as a social institution in the provinces, the absurdity of the Italian legal system, and the lengths men will go to in order to quench their lust. And it's not only really funny and unpredictable, but chock-full of fine performances across the board. There is no way you can watch this movie and not fall in love with Stefania Sandrelli, who also appeared in Germi's previous masterwork, Divorce, Italian Style, alongside Marcello Mastroianni (who shines in a comedic tour de force performance for the ages).

L'Eclisse (1962, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Italy)
Although some people find Antonioni dreadfully boring, I happen to enjoy a scene that is full of such ripe silence that a small oscillating fan is able to become a veritable character, as happens in the opening stretch of my favorite of all his works, L'Eclisse. To paraphrase Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, "there's silence in life, baby" and Antonioni is one of the few who not only realizes that, but uses it expertly in the sonic landscapes of his tales of obsession and lust. I also recommend The Passenger (starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider), La Notte (another Marcello gem), and Il Grido (if you're not scared away by what is essentially a fictional documentary about working class life in a small seaside Italian village).

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany)
Although I could list a handful of Fassbinder movies that should be on any list of the best foreign films (Martha, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and American Soldier chief among them), I decided I should limit myself to no more than one per director. As such, I chose The Marriage of Maria Braun not only because it is a fabulous, stand-alone story marvelously told, but because I think of all his movies this one perfectly encapsulates what he was often trying to say about the difficulties of life in Germany. His epic 13-episode miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz may have perfectly recreated life in the Weimar Republic between the World Wars that devastated Germany more than any other nation, but it is more than a bit long, uneven, and as unrealistic as it is beautifully and sadly realistic. As far as personal, emblematic, postwar German struggles go, The Marriage of Maria Braun is more my speed. After WWII devastates both her life and her country, Maria Braun is left with nothing save her intelligence, cunning, ambition, and sexuality. She employs all of these tools expertly in her meteoric rise from peasant to wealthy businesswoman, but then discovers that in many ways, she is no better off where she ends up--a magnificent epic from the master of melodrama (sorry, Douglas Sirk, but as much as I like you, I think the pupil outperformed his master).

The Celebration (1998, Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)
By far the best of the Dogme95 movies, this movie is a perfect example of what I like to refer to as Chateau Films--The Rules of the Game, Gosford Park, and even The Big Chill also belong to this genre. However, unlike those films, The Celebration has the the added bonus of extreme realism (and thus believability, relatability) that renders the weighty secret hanging over the revelers that much more devastating and creates an enthralling tension too-often absent from those movies. Probably the best example ever of why you don't need a lot of money to make a great movie.

Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)
This beautifully tragic portrait of an ultimately doomed marriage is right up there with Fanny and Alexander as Bergman at his best, in my opinion. Sure, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, and The Seventh Seal are good, but there is something too stark and deliberate about those for me. I enjoy the later Bergman quite a bit more, when he took that fatalistic view of humanity and clothed it in a bit more understanding, made the characters supremely relatable despite--or sometimes because of--their flaws, and didn't so much tell a story as hold a camera up as life unfolded for his characters. Of course, the same morals are there, ultimately, but they are delightfully obscured and, for that reason, carry a lot more weight for me. Chief among these late-career films is Scenes from a Marriage, which was both a television miniseries and a (much shorter) theatrical release, and explores exactly how and why a perfect marriage can still disintegrate over time.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Luis Bunuel, Spain/Mexico)
Viridiana, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Tristana...Bunuel's late-career surge (all of those movies were made after he turned 60) is chock-full of captivating tales focusing on the frivolity of powerful men and the seductive power of women--whether they like it or not, in many cases. All are great movies, but I believe Bunuel finally nailed it with the last film he ever made--That Obscure Object of Desire. Blending in a bit of his earlier, more experimental work, the female lead is played by two very different women--different both in looks and comportment, symbolic of the two faces of a woman--but this is a far more straightforward film than Un Chien Andalou. Told in flashback, a man rivets an assembled audience in a train compartment with a tale of frustratingly unfulfilled lust after being seen dumping a bucket of water on a woman's head as the train pulled away from the station. That's it, but it is fun to watch. Trust me.

Murmur of the Heart (1971, Louis Malle, France)
The best coming-of-age, goddamn-I-wanna-get-laid movie ever made. Think of it as the '70s-French American Pie and then end all similarities there, as the protagonist is not just some stupid high school schlub, but rather a more intelligent, French version of Max from Rushmore. Fifteen-year-old Laurent Chevalier is tops in his class, deeply involved in every club at his posh private school, a volunteer for charity, a dreamer with a bright future, and a horny teenager yearning to be an adult like his brothers and parents. Always sumptuous, often inviting, occasionally uncomfortable, this movie is a highly enjoyable ride through adolescence among the moneyed French elite.

Masculin Feminin (1966, Jean-Luc Godard, France)
I chose this in a narrow victory over Jules et Jim for yet another French entrant simply because I enjoy this movie a lot more. The hipness in Godard's movies can sometimes be too much to take, but here it is employed to perfection--both onscreen and behind the camera. Consciously-cool characters, jarring edits, fantastic music, self-reflexive intertitles, sexy young stars, endless topical references, hilarious and/or fascinating tangents (especially the lecture on aspect ratio given to a projectionist)...it all works here in a simple tale of lust and love between two teenagers in France during the 1960s. Unlike other movies with similar subject matter, this movie is better because you are immediately aware that these characters represent man and woman, as opposed to merely players in a self-contained story; no matter who we are, or who we would like to think we are, we see a little bit of ourselves in them. Another Godard movie I recommend along the same lines is A Woman is a Woman.

Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
As previously stated, I remain steadfast in my declaration of this as the best vampire movie ever made (Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre is a close second, if only due to the terrifying Klaus Kinski in the lead role). Tired of all the bullshit American vampire movies and TV shows these days? Well, sink your teeth into this charming tale of friendship, love, loneliness, and blood-thirst in frigid Sweden. The fact that it involves a child vampire who may or may not have sliced off her genitalia should only entice you more...

The Lives of Others (2007, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)
The clever ploy of having a Stasi agent eavesdrop on two of the artistic heavyweights in Eastern Germany not only allows us access to both worlds--the cultural and political--but also to better see where, when, and how they overlap. A necessarily delicately told story, which mirrors the delicacy required to survive on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, it nonetheless manages to hammer home a nuanced attack on communism, compromise, those politicians of every stripe that abuse their power, and the people who let them get away with it by staying silent. Von Donnersmarck provides an interesting answer to a difficult question: who are the real heroes of war?

La Collectionneuse (1967, Eric Rohmer, France)
As intellectual as you may find Godard, Truffaut, or Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer blows them all out of the water--for better or worse. He made an entire movie about Pascal's stance on religion, after all--My Night at Maud's--and is therefore appropriately more obscure than the other New Wavers. Although many people are bored to tears by his movies, I am a huge fan and recommend these other efforts of his, as well: Claire's Knee, The Aviators Wife, Summer, and Pauline at the Beach. La Collectionneuse is probably my favorite of his philosophical musings on love and lust because of the delightful sexual warfare his leading man and women are engaged in throughout the entire movie--many battles are won, equally as many are lost, and ultimately they both lose because they are too proud to pretend that it meant anything. If you are interested in learning more about Eric Rohmer and his movies, check out my in-depth analysis of his career here.

Black Book (2006, Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands)
I've seen just about all of Verhoeven's movies and recommend his pre-Hollywood Dutch efforts--such as Turks Fruit (essentially the Dutch Love Story, but far better), Soldier of Orange, and The Fourth Man--in addition to his deceptively-intelligent Hollywood films: RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers. Oddly, though, it is latest effort that most impresses me. With Soldier of Orange, Verhoeven showed the world a unique and interesting Dutch viewpoint of World War II, through the story of several friends involved in the Dutch Resistance; in Black Book, he once again mines this very personal material (he lived through frequent German bombing attacks as a young boy in Amsterdam and, thus, felt the effects of the grueling war far more intimately than most filmmakers) but with greater success. Essentially, Black Book is the movie that Paul Verhoeven was not only meant to make, but has been preparing for his whole life--it is at once heartfelt, cheesy, violent, introspective, intelligent, populist, and obscure. Not too many people I know have seen this movie, but I want you to because as bold a statement as I know this is, I think it's the best movie ever made about World War II.


The tallies:

Italy - 3
France - 3
Germany - 2
Sweden - 2
Denmark - 1
Netherlands - 1
Spain - 1

1960s - 5
1970s - 4
1980s - 0
1990s - 1
2000s - 3

As you probably noticed before the tallies made it abundantly clear, I am a man with my heart in the 1960s & 70s and not a big fan of Asian cinema (specifically Ozu and Kurosawa...no thanks!), although I don't mind a Kar Wai Wong, Chan Wook-Park, John Woo, or Zhang Yimou movie as much; don't even get me started on Bollywood.

But what can you do, right? I know what I like and I do a good job of liking it a lot.

Since narrowing down the history of foreign cinema to thirteen films is hardly an easy task, I'm sure there are many y'all think were left out. I encourage you to share your own list in the comments below.



Anonymous said...

i may formulate a more complete response at a later date, but all i'll say for now is - no bertolucci? where's the love for "il conformista"?

Goodtime Charlie said...

I love Bertolucci, but I had to make some hard choices and I prefer Antonioni, Fellini, and Germi. I also had to leave off Visconti (The Leopard, White Nights, Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers...) but at one point it was starting to look like a list of the Best Italian Movies Ever Made and I had to back off because that just wouldn't be fair to the rest of the world.

I'd love to read your Top 13, if you get the chance to make a list, since it's clear you have great taste.

Karl said...

As I think you can probably see by your tally, it's time for you to dig a little deeper into Asian cinema. Particularly in the last 10 years, it's giving every other region of the world a run for its money.

Karl said...

SOMEBODY wishes he was an aimless, effortlessly wealthy European living in an idealized post-war cosmopolitan milieu while spending his days chasing Women!

btw, which one was Collectionuesse? have I watched that with you? is that the one at the beach?

Goodtime Charlie said...

Well, it isn't "Pauline at the Beach," which is what I think you're thinking of, although there is a rocky beach involved in "Le Collectionneuse." This is the one where an art dealer goes to spend a couple months in the remote villa of a friend, only to discover there is a sexy girl there who is banging everybody in town. He lectures her on why she is an idiot, then lusts after her. Sound familiar?

(And I don't mean to your own life...)

Karl said...

Oh yeah, we saw that one. I like his movies a lot, but it's REALLY hard to keep them straight in my mind. The easist is "Calire's Knee", because the hero drives around in a boat the whole time....

Goodtime Charlie said...

I agree. HOWEVER, one of the reasons I like Eric Rohmer's movies--despite their strong and sometimes confusing thematic similarities--is that I always enjoy sitting back with a bottle of wine and watching seven different flavors of dork strike out with a fantastic assortment of women in a variety of beautiful settings while being loquaciously philosophical about their failure to be the virile men they imagine themselves to be.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it