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.
German director Fritz Lange considers M (1931) the best movie of his career, no small feat given a filmography that includes Metropolis. The first known serial killer picture and Lange's first foray outside silent cinema, M features Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, a psychopathic child murderer. Most of the film's narrative is spent with police and underworld figures trying to catch Beckert. Lange's film is often credited for creating the roots of both the serial killer film and the police procedural. M is filled with dark shadows and smoke-filled rooms. It has a gritty, dirty feeling that reflects how Lange saw Germany at the time, when the Nazis were rising to power.
Among its many other innovations, M attempts to understand the mind of the serial killer. This notion appears again and again in these types of films, from Silence of the Lambs to Memories of Murder. Se7en, directed by David Fincher, owes much to M, which should come as no surprise, given Fincher's long-standing love of German expressionist cinema.
Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is often cited as one of the best foreign films ever made, despite being a critical and box office disaster when it was released in France in 1939. Renoir said of his film, which could just as easily be described as a comedy, satire, or drama, "People go to the cinema in the hope of forgetting their everyday problems, and it was precisely their own worries that I plunged them into."
The Rules of the Game provoked such derision during its opening night in Paris that audiences became overtly hostile, shouting at the screen. In response to the public outrage, distributors cut Renoir's comedy of errors from 113 minutes to 80. Thankfully, the director was able to restore the film to its original length in 1956. The film plays like a mixture of the savage satire of classic Ealing comedies and the melancholic whimsy of Marcel Carne.
Marcel Carné's 1945 drama is considered by the French to be one of the country's best films, and also its lost masterpiece. It was voted the greatest film of the 20th century in a 1995 poll of French critics and film professionals. Made during the German occupation of France during WWII, and set in the theater scene in the 1840s, Chidren of Paradise tells the story of the mysterious Garance and the four men who are in love with her.
The epic film is three hours and 15 minutes long and divided into two parts: "Boulevard du Crime" ("Boulevard of Crime") and "L'Homme Blanc" ("The Man in White"). It was divided into two parts because the Nazis forbade the French from making films longer than 90 minutes; the filmmakers split the movie in half and pretended it was two separate works. Children of Paradise was sold to Americans as the French answer to Gone With the Wind. It's unbelievable to think such an elaborate, beautiful, romantic film was made under the horrific circumstances of a massive war.
Vittoria DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves (1949) is the quintessential film from the Italian neo-realism movement, a genre defined by its employment of non-professional actors, focus on common people, and use of real locations and natural light. The film follows patriarch Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) through ravaged postwar Italy as he lands a hard-to-find, much coveted job because he has a bicycle. When his bike is stolen, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) set out to find the ever-important vehicle.
The end of Bicycle Thieves may be one of the biggest heartbreakers in world cinema, as audiences witness the disappointment in Bruno’s eyes as he sees his desperate father succumb to the primal survival instincts of human nature, and do the one thing that he thought his father (and hero) could never do.