10 Great Must-See Foreign Movies
"Which movies do you recommend?"
I got asked this all the time. Back when all of us were using VCRs, video rental stores were in their hey day. Unlike today where you can pay one price per month and never have to worry about late fees to rent DVDs (Netflix) or still go to Blockbuster to rent but pay one fixed price or even rent DVD for only $1 a day just by simple swiping your debit or credit card at a vending machine at your local supermarket (Red Box). Yep, those days are long gone when you were charged fifty cents for not rewinding a movie! Safe to say that VHS is the thing of the past and if you ask me, DVDs are going to be around for a while yet, especially because of Blu Ray. During that era, I was just a teenager working as a clerk and was learning about the movie industry without knowing that I was. One big thing that is missing is customer service side of things? It's not easy to get honest one-on-one recommendations on movies like it use to be. Well here are just a few foreign films that I HIGHLY RECOMMEND. I hope you like them even half as much as I do, even if you have to put up with some subtitles! Enjoy!
Seven Samurai Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai (1954)
No one leaves film making school without knowing this movie! This is the hallmark of modern cinema. The famous American Western "The Magnificent Seven" with its all-star cast credits this movie as it's Original. "The Magnificent Seven" in all fairness, is a remake of this astounding movie that was directed by Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa who also directed "Hidden Fortress" which was basically rehashed my George Lucas in the phenom "Star Wars: A New Hope." Many critics believe that Seven Samurai is the best movie ever made! It is an absolute must-see. Its simplicity is nothing short of brilliant and was, at its inception, generations ahead of its time (1954). The movie stars longtime Kurosawa favorites Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. To give you a quick synopsis, a farming village is attacked by bandits and is forced to pay tributaries to them in during the harvest season. Village elders devise a plan to hire free-lance samurai (ronin or master-less samurai in Japanese) to help to ward-off the bandits. But the problem of how they are going to pay these samurai arises, as the farmers are very poor and can barely afford to feed themselves and are more than aware of the sex appeal these samurai have over their young and beautiful daughters. Nothing in this movie is forced and each its scenes develop naturally and realistically. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is an absolute masterpiece and should be enjoyed for a millennium to come. Note: The horsemen riding into the sunset has been copied to death in western films.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Les Pacte des Loups) (2001)
Traslated in English, Les Pacte des Loups means, "The pact of the wolves" in French was directed by Christophe Gans. Many people I've spoken to, for some reason or another, have never heard of this gem of a film. People seeing this for the very first time will recognize Monica Belluci from The Matrix Reloaded and its sequel, The Matrix Revolutions or more recently, Shoot Em' Up alongside actor Clive Owen. Brotherhood of the Wolf stars Mark Dacascos and actor Samuel Le Bihan. The movie takes place in 18th Century France where the mysterious Beast of Gevaudan is terrorizing the countryside. King Louis XV of France decrees that taxidermist Gregoire de Fronsac (Le Bihan) and his companion Mani (Dacascos), an Iroquois investigate the matter and capture the beast. There is much to say about this movie and as I don't want to give it away, I will say that this movie has everything: Mystery, suspense, action, as it has some of the best fighting scenes ever captured on film (comparable to the Matrix), has a love story, has great acting, breathtaking cinematography, and even has a bit of French politics as well. I trust you'll agree.
If you have never seen Amelie, you are definitely missing out on one of the most uplifting romantic comedies to date. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it stars Audrey Tautou as Amelie who is a 23-year old waitress who works is a small Montmarte Cafe, The Two Windmills. While growing up, she is isolated from all the rest of the children in the neighborhood. This is in part is due to her father, who as her doctor, believed Amelie to have a heart condition of sorts, all because she got overly excited on the rare instances when her father would listen to her heart with a stethoscope (as it is the only time he would physically touch her). One day, after finding a hidden box of childhood memorabilia, she finds the now adult owner and gives it to him. After doing so, he is overwhelmed with joy from her act of kindness. Amelie then vows to herself that she will devote her life to helping others find happiness. Some of my friends and members of my family who have seen this movie praised it as having changed their lives. Amelie certainly changed mine.
Tae Guk Gi Part One
Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) (2004)
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War was an absolute rare treasure I found while perusing my local electronics superstore. At the time, I frowned at its $24.99 price tag because I never heard of the movie and also because I hated spending more than $20 for any DVD movie! But I took a gamble on it and decided to by it because I hated renting movies only because I hated returning them back to the video store. Wouldn't you know it? My meager investment certainly paid off. In some ways I prefer this movie over Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan because of its brutal honesty. The movie takes place during the Korean War (or Korean Civil War) which was fought between North Korea and South Korea and follows the story between two brothers: Jin-tae Lee, who owns a shoe shine stand and his younger brother Jin-seok who is a student. At the outbreak of war, on June 25, 1950, Jin-seok, the family's best hope for a better future, gets conscripted to the South Korean Army to fight in the war and so boards a train. In a rush to save his brother from the jaws of war, Jin-tae ends up getting swallowed up by the throng of draftees. An absolute must-see, as it exhibits filial piety, love, sacrifice, patriotism, the horrors and senselessness of warfare, and the strength of the human heart. It is, hands down, one of the best war movies ever made. It is important to note too, that taegeukgi is the name of the South Korean flag and is the name of the pre-Korean War flag as well.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
I'm sure you've heard of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It's a good bet that you probably know who Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal is too. But what about Tony Jaa? Have you ever heard of him? The last time I checked, Ong-Bak did not get nominated for any Academy Awards, any Golden Globes, not even a BAFTA...There is a plot to the movie, but some sketchy acting and cheesy dialogue and low-budget flare helped it to evade radar detection. So why, do you ask, am I recommending this movie? Fight sequences, that's why, because it rivals among the best ever produced, without the use of stunt-doubles, camera tricks, or even CGI. You'll have to see it to believe it. Jackie Chan was the grandmaster of this art and Bruce Lee preceded him. Enter Tony Jaa who hails from Northeast Thailand or Issan--a Lao and Thai speaking province once ruled by the people of Laos. Jaa's Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing) is unheralded and its stunt scenes nothing short of spectacular. Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior should be a must for martial arts fans and moviegoers alike.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Unless you've been stranded on a desert island this past year, chances are you've heard of the widely acclaimed movie, Slumdog Millionaire, as it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and ended up taking home 8, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also won seven BAFTA awards, including Best Film, five Critic's Choice Awards, and four Golden Globes. Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire is based on Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup's Q & A (2005). Shot and filmed on location in India, Slumdog Millionaire follows the story of a young man, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who was orphaned as a boy when anti-Muslims raided his neighborhood and kill his mother. The movie is a series of flashbacks in which the older Jamal is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Interestingly enough, Jamal is not an extremely intelligent or educated person that advanced onwards, answering a slew of difficult (nearly impossible) questions on the game show, but that his own life experiences formulate his answers for him. And the reason that he is on the game show in the first place is to find the childhood sweetheart, Latika (Frieda Pinto). This movie an absolute gem and should well be viewed by all.
Another Akira Kurosawa film, Rashoman introduced the rest of the world the beauty, tragedy and uniqueness of Japanese cinema. In 1951, the Venice Film Festival requested that a Japanese Film be contributed to the annual event. At the time, the Daiei Motion Picture Company (the top Japanese film producing company at the time) and the Japanese government shared like views and so believed that Kurosawa's films were, "not representative enough of the Japanese film industry." Their first choice was Yasujiro Ozu. Despite their grumblings, Rashoman was received and so went on to win several awards including a Golden Lion. The film was indeed well received by both western audiences and directors alike who were intrigued by the young director's innovation of shooting directly into the sun and using its reflection to shine upon the faces of his actors. Being one of the most duplicated films, Rashoman is an original of the Point-of-View narrative, as a wife of a samurai, a woodcutter, a bandit, and a priest share their side of an incident involving a rape and a murder. What is interesting is that not everything is what it seems and the question of 'who does one trust?' resurfaces again and again. Movies that owe credit to Rashoman include: The 1964 western, The Outrage starring the late Paul Newman, Hero, Vantage Point, The Usual Suspects, Courage Under Fire and Hoodwinked!
Theme to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
In director Ang Lee's epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a modern-day martial arts masterpiece. With a budget of only $15 million, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a phenomenal success as it grossed over $128 million in the United States alone and so became the highest grossing foreign language film in U.S. History. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon centers on the beautiful wuxia fighting style and stars Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. The fight choreographer for the movie was none other than Yuen Woo Ping, who also did the fight choreography for The Matrix. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won over 40 awards internationally, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Taiwan), and was also nominated for six other Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film also won three BAFTAs and two Golden Globes, including Best Foreign Filmas well as additional nominations for ten BAFTAs including "Best Picture." The movie credits China's popular singer Coco Lee and world famous celloist Yo-Yo Ma for contributing to the movie's soundtrack. Please watch and listen to the theme to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I thought to use a trailer at first, but thought that this would be much better. Please enjoy!
Okay, by now you should realize that I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa as this is my third film that I'm recommending directed by him! This is the my last film that I'm recommending (as I didn't mention Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Kagemusha, Stray Dog, or even Redbeard, to name a few more) and many movie critics will tell you that three isn't enough! In many instances, director Akira Kurosawa credits poet and playwright William Shakespeare as his source of inspiration. Ran (meaning, "revolt" or "chaos" in Japanese) is based on Shakespeare's play, King Lear and the legends of Sengoku-era daimyo or warlord, Mori Motonari. Ran proved to be Kurosawa's last epic and was the most expensive Japanese film of its time, boasting a running budget of over $12 million. The film was celebrated for its powerful imagery and color, as costume designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for Costume Design for her innovative work on Ran. The film used 1,400 extras that required 1,400 uniforms and also used 200 hundred horses that were shipped from the United States. Although he directed three other films after Ran, it would prove to be his last and best film. In 1989, he was honored with an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement and in his career, he had directed 30 films. Akira Kurosawa died on September 6, 1998. He was 88 years old.
The Last Emperor (1987)
To conclude my list, The Last Emperor is one of my all time favorite films, whether foreign or not. Some of you might argue that Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor is NOT a foreign film, but I will concur, as the ONLY reason why it's not considered a foreign film is attributed to it's DOMESTIC financial backing of Columbia Pictures. Bertolucci was unable to get enough investors without foreign aid, as the Italian film industry was unable to help him. To help my argument, about half of the film is in fact not without subtitles! The Last Emperor is a biopic about the last descendant of the Kingdom of China who is swept up by the throes of Communism. The movie begins in 1950, where an adult Puyi (John Lone) gains re-entry into the newly formed People's Republic of China and is tried as a war-criminal and prisoner. The dynamics of Puyi's roles in the movie are astounding, as with the use of Bertolluci's direction, Puyi in one scene is a regal young emperor and in another scene, a beaten and broken prisoner. The Last Emperor clearly illustrates eye-popping cinematography, music that will tug at your heartstrings and unforgettable performances by all its actors. It won a total of 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. It's also important to note that the filming of the movie is the first time Communist China allowed the shooting of a movie inside the Forbidden City of Beijing. The Last Emperor is the epitome of what a great movie should be.
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