Outside cinephiles and film students, most American movie-goers do not watch foreign films. It’s just a fact of cinema life. Even the most acclaimed international films and directors are often ignored stateside. Here are the best foreign films Americans missed.
These are the best movies not in English, so we can automatically exclude most of the films out of Great Britain and Australia (even if you need subtitles for Trainspotting, it's in English). The main reasons most Americans missed these movies are fairly obvious. The first hurdle these esteemed films cannot clear is subtitles. Once a typical American movie-goer hears the word “subtitle,” they’ve already decided to put on another installment of Fast and Furious.
The second reason why these are movies Americans missed is because several explore deep themes, and do not follow traditional Hollywood narrative patterns, which end with a beautiful bow and a pat, happy note. Foreign films are often character studies, and refuse to conform to generic plot points. They are from very different narrative traditions than that of Hollywood, and ask the audience to consider profound questions. Pictures like A Separation, Bicycle Thieves, and City of God are difficult to watch because they are rooted in reality. Whereas most American movies are made to entertain, these films often focus on serious problems like poverty and crime, or consider troubling philosophical questions.
Don’t be put off by subtitles and heavy themes. There’s a time for light-hearted entertainment, but don’t forget about these best movies in foreign languages the next time you’re looking for a great film to watch.
Rashomon (1950) is arguably the magnum opus of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's impressive filmography and considered one of the best films ever made. It also won an honorary Oscar in 1952. Rashomon unfolds as four characters (a bandit on trial for murdering a samurai and raping his wife, the rape victim, the murdered man's ghost, and the wood cutter) tell their versions of the crime. The four stories contradict each other, and the audience is left to decide what really happened. It's high concept cinema at its best, it makes us question the validity of memories and fundamental idea of truth.
Rashomon was the first Japanese film to become an international success, and gave rise to the term Rashomon effect, a narrative device by whcih different versions of the truth are narrated by different characters. This idea appears in dozens of films and TV episodes, including Gone Girl, Hero, Courage Under Fire, episodes of X-Files, Star Trek, and basically the entire fourth season of Arrested Development. There's also a pretty funny bit from The Simpsons about Rashomon.
Tokyo Story (1953), directed by Yasujiru Ozu, is one of the great Japanese films of all time (and one of the great films in any language), released just one year before both Seven Samurai and Gojira. While all three films explore Japan in periods of great transition and turmoil, Tokyo Story couldn't be more different from the bombastic violence and epic sweep of those other two movies.
Ozu began his career making silent films, and his use of imagery to tell stories, especially the relationships between characters and their environment, is unique to his background. Tokyo Story is ostensibly about an elderly couple's trip to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren. But really, the film examines the passing of an old concept of Japan, from the pre-war era, and the emergence of a new idea of Japan, in the post-war era.
Akira Kurosawa's epic historical drama set in the 16th century features the story of a village of poor farmers who must hire a group of warriors to protect them from invading bandits. Seven Samurai (1954) is a three-and-a-half-hour, action-filled thrill ride. We can see its influence of several American films that use the trope of putting together a team in order to carry out a specific mission, like in The Magnificent Seven (which is a remake of Kurosawa's film) and The Dirty Dozen.
Yet, as with all Kurosawa films, Seven Samurai is not simply an action movie. The film looks at social relationships between heroes, villains, and the masses, depicting the decline of individual exceptionalism in the face of the rising power of groups, and the death of the samurai code of honor and self-sacrifice. Kurosawa has been criticized as elitist for his depiction of exceptional heroes from elevated classes (the samurai were far from the dregs of society), and yet, the death of the culture of individual responsibility and heroism and the rise of groupthink directly gave rise to the Japanese invasion of China and the beginning of the Pacific theater of World War II.
The story of the making of Satyajit Ray's early masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955) is just as legendary as the film itself, if not more so. Made with amateur actors and shot on location in West Bengal, India, the movie had an inexperienced crew who made a number of formal mistakes. Filming was stopped at one point due to funding problems, but the production soldiered on and finally managed to finish.
While that may sound like a disaster in the making, hindsight is 20/20. Pather Panchali won several awards, including India's National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1955 and the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival, and is considered an all-time classic. The movie examines the lives of a poor Indian family, and was revolutionary in its realistic depiction of the dispossessed. Pather Panchali is totally unique, combining aspects of Italian neo-realism and French humanism. It is also the first film in Ray's storied Apu Trilogy.