Five Foreign Film Favorites

New Year’s resolution: Watch more foreign films.

Watching foreign cinema is a lot like eating your vegetables. You know you must do it to maintain a balanced and healthy diet, and while you may actually find you enjoy them once you taste them, it’s so much easier to just load up on cheeseburgers and fries.

Maybe I’m just speaking for me, but I would guess those sentiments articulate the unfortunate habits of many a movie fan. To be clear, I have absolutely zero aversion to foreign films (I have no problem “reading” while watching a movie)—I just don’t watch nearly as many as I “should.” I find them just as rewarding—or not, as the case may be—as American-made films.

Trying to narrow down five favorites to recommend among the many I have seen was revealing to me; I discovered that, apparently, I have more of an affinity for certain countries’ films and/or filmmakers than for others. You won’t find one Italian movie here. Why? Not because I don’t think Italian cinema is important, or great, or list-worthy. Of course it is.

The reason you don’t see, for example, Italian films or filmmakers here is because I decided to simply assemble this tiny list with as little organized thinking as possible; I just went totally from the gut, as they say, for those films I see myself returning to again and again. These aren’t my choices for “the best foreign films,” “the foreign films you must see,” “the most important blah blah blah…”—no attempts to evenly cover the globe in five films, or include the most renowned filmmakers, etc.

These are just my personal favorites.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

There has never been a “definitive” film made from the book Don Quixote. Many have tried. Many have met with mixed success. The effort to make a Quixote film might just drive Terry Gilliam mad one day; for a modern interpretation of the tale, you won’t find anything better than Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (yes, it is a Don Quixote film, which anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the book will easily discover). As for films about madness in general, however, there is no cinema maestro who maintains a more mesmerizing grasp of the topic than Werner Herzog. I could populate a top five, top 10, or top 15 list just with his films alone, but I will restrict myself to recommending the second Herzog film I saw after first discovering his eccentric output by watching his Nosferatu remake.

The film also represents the first (and I would argue finest) collaboration between Herzog and Klaus Kinski, who is at his wild-eyed and boiling best as 16th-century explorer Don Lope de Aguirre, second-in-command of the Pizarro expedition to locate the fabled El Dorado. As his group succumbs to the perils of a brutal wilderness and experiences multiple attacks from Indians hiding in the brush, Kinski’s oddly-postured lunatic takes command of their journey and enters his own personal heart of darkness. This film—like all of Herzog’s works—is rich with grand and puzzling gestures of sight and sound.

One intriguing factoid about Aguirre is that it was shot with the actors speaking in English, and only in the post-production phase was the dialogue in German looped. Yes, if you watch the English-language version, it still “counts.”

(His 1979 remake of Murnau’s unauthorized Dracula film took this one step further, as Herzog shot the dialogue scenes once in English and then again in German)


Betty Blue

First thing’s first: You will never forget the opening scene of Betty Blue. A delicious entry in the “Oh, my God, she is really crazy” subgenre of erotic drama, this steamy, funny, and unpredictably strange offering from French helmer Jean-Jacques Beineix is the story of writer Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and his volatile relationship with Betty (Béatrice Dalle), the woman he loves (and makes love with, often) despite her increasing outbursts of seeming lunacy. Roger Ebert posits in his one-and-a-half star review that many admirers of the film “miss the point” of it, and that it is simply “about Béatrice Dalle’s boobs and behind, and everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.”

Oh, yes. Agreed. And while it might be more fashionable to revere Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, for all of that film’s opulent Brando baring, I admit that I find that saucy classic a bit more of a slog (and less of a joy) to revisit these days than this cheeky and carnal treat.

The Family Game

One of these days I’m going to shell out the money for the DVD release of this droll Japanese comedy from 1983. The shame of it is that the film is not readily available at a reasonable price, so my VHS copy has been taking a real beating. The film centers on the story of a slacking teenage boy (Ichirôta Miyakawa) who lives in the shadow of his older brother’s (Junichi Tsujita) academic successes and is having trouble with his studies. His mother and father (Saori Yuki, Jûzô Itami) —both curiously neurotic in their own quiet ways—hire a tutor to come to the house. The tutor (Yûsaku Matsuda, who delivers a show-stopping performance of what can only be called ballsy restraint) turns out to be a sadist of sorts who enjoys playing disturbing mind games as much as encouraging better study habits.

The precisely paced narrative is driven by the escalating weirdness that takes place between the tutor and every member of the family, and it boasts a finale of uncommonly mind-busting peculiarity. I took pains to include the name of every member of the principal cast here, because this is truly an ensemble piece where everyone is given a chance to shine. This is one of my favorite comedies in any language.

Seven Samurai

Yes, Akira Kurosawa’s film is an unmatched epic of suspenseful action, but it is also teeming with thematic material relevant to our everyday lives. Seven Samurai shows us what courage, loyalty, and well-developed skills can accomplish; it reveals the powerful benefits of teamwork; it teaches us that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re probably part of the problem. We see ourselves (as men, anyway; I wonder how much this movie connects with women, as they play a relatively miniscule role in the story) a little bit in each of the samurai—both who we want to be, and who we really are. Imitated often; never equaled.


Wings of Desire

Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel, has what must be the universe’s most exhausting job—enlisting himself in the act of listening to the whole of human thought at once, delicately filtering it and focusing on individuals who draw his particular attention, and then occasionally providing those people with unseen, but sometimes deeply felt, connections to his divine curiosity and compassion. Sometimes he remains more passively distant, but he still absorbs the emotional impact of the world’s people in full.

Wim Wenders’ haunting and moving spiritual drama manages to translate the celestial Damiel’s predicament—the urge to “get away from it all”—into a situation with which every mortal can relate. And so it is that, when Damiel’s desire to descend into the physical world and experience its corporeal pleasures is fulfilled, we are pulled into both the vicarious thrill of living utterly in the moment and the more abstract contemplation of the special gravity of human existence.

The film, photographed in both black-and-white and color (you will see these as obvious choices), plays with the otherworldliness of fable but is also ingeniously grounded by one of Peter Falk’s most touching performances—as “himself.” To say anything more to those who have yet to see the film is to say far too much. (UPDATE 1/21/14 **Though I found a way to indeed say a lot more about this amazing movie, while still preserving some of its surprises, in my longer exploration of the film here**)

My runners-up would have included Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, both deceptively slow-moving films of unusually affecting power; a focus on more recent discoveries would certainly have included the outrageous Spanish film The Last Circus, by Álex de la Iglesia (a fine recommendation courtesy Movie Irv).


But, you start to see the problem. An entire world of movies always remains to be discovered, and I’m eager for extensive travel.

Give me your itinerary.