The Top Ten Movies from Ten Different Countries

Dec 30, 2002

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The Bottom Line If you had to pick one movie from each country, what would it be? Here are ten of my favorite movies from ten different nations.

Foreign movies come in a variety of languages, cultures, emotions, genres and themes. That is their beauty. I love American films and find the ones that I see very entertaining, but the real surprises, the ones that actually provide new insights and delightful world commentary, come from overseas. My last geography class was over 30 years ago, but I am still learning about the people, cultures and civilizations of the world through movies.
Earlier in my career I spent two years out of the country, speaking another language (Spanish) and living in a different country. Those years did not prepare me to write this article, but it did show me that not everyone thinks like an American, and that art and the life realities it represents are totally different from a different culture's perspective.
To pick one movie to represent a country is actually absurd. Can anyone pick a movie to represent the United States? I can't and I have seen more Hollywood movies in the last year that I have probably seen foreign movies in my life. But if someone, out of curiosity, is interested in seeing a movie from a different country in a different language, then these are the ones that I would recommend.


The Shop around the Corner - 1965
There have been some great movies that have come out of the Eastern European countries both before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Poland and the Czech Republic have created my favorites. The Shop around the Corner is a film about the Holocaust from a small community and distinctly occupied country point of view. It tells the story of a simple laborer whose authoritative family member gives him the ownership of a Jewish button shop. The real owner is a feeble senile old lady that has no idea what is going on around her and does not realize that her world is coming to an end. The new owner plays along for as long as he can. Just like the actual history, the story becomes more tragic as events transpire. This film won an academy award for Best Foreign Film, and despite not speaking a word of English in the movie, Ida Kaminska was nominated for her terrific performance as the shopkeeper.


The 400 Blows - 1959
I don't know how many "coming of age" films have been made. This one seems to provide more insight, than most of the other films combined. Supposedly, based on Director Francois Truffaut's stormy childhood, the story looks at how a good normal boy can be tempted to do things because of situational, environmental and attitudinal influences. Those decisions in a young boy's life create consequences that continue to build throughout the movie and judging by the last scene, throughout his lifetime.


Aguirre, The Wrath of God - 1972
The feature about this movie that I found most fascinating was the German interpretation of the exploration of South America as seen through the eyes of Klaus Kinski's explorer Lope de Aguirre. Europe conquered South America through might, treachery, and broken promises as it pursued gold and riches. This is all represented in the true historic account of one Spanish explorer, whose total motivation was power and fame. Although not a movie about Germany, the film illustrates the attitude of the divine European conquering nation that has been paralleled throughout history.


The World of Apu - 1959
Director Satyajit Ray made three installments of the life of an Indian peasant Apu. The previous movies, Pather Panchali and Aparajito, centered on the childhood of Apu, whereas the latest installment tells the story of his marriage and fatherhood. Hollywood would never make a trilogy around a basic family drama, but that is what makes this movie so unique. Although intended for an Indian audience, the movie provides a great understanding as to food, shelter, recreation and family roles as they existed and still exist in India.. The differences between my environment and Apu's are extreme yet the similarities are just as extreme. Loving one's mother, suffering though a boring class, and building confidence to find a job are universal and affectionately portrayed in this movie.


Cinema Paradiso - 1989
I think that I have an special love for Italian movies over most other countries. Fellini films are remarkable and they get better with each showing. I was very tempted to list 8 1/2 as my selection, and it would have been a good one and I recommend that everyone see it. But Cinema Paradiso is a love note to cinema. The story is about a young man, a projectionist, a theater, and a small town. All of the movies that come to the city are prescreened and censored by the local Priest, before they can be enjoyed by the whole community. The theater, on one side of the central plaza, is the centerpiece of the movie, the people's lives, and the young man's heart. This is a film that views movies as a movie lover view movies.


The Seven Samurai - 1954
Akira Kurosawa has made a lot of good movies but I find this one the most entertaining. It has been remade several times, most successfully as The Magnificent Seven, but I see the same elements in several movies that combine different individuals, with different strengths and traits under a common cause. The most recent Oceans Eleven comes to mind. Although moviemaking and cinematography have come a long way in the last 50 years, this plot will hold up forever and it is well worth seeing the original idea.


The Exterminating Angel - 1962
Director Luis Bunuel was a communist and good friend of Salvador Dali. That may or may not have anything to do with this movie. The film takes place at a dinner of upper class guests that find that they cannot leave the room. It is never explained why they can't leave the room, or why the crowds that gather outside the house can never come in, it just happens to be that way. As the people become more desperate with their plight, the story becomes more bizarre. It reminds me of the lyrics to "Hotel California." The movie actually starts out saying that it is not about anything but even that is deceiving, and was probably intended to be.


Burnt by the Sun - 1994
Main actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov examines what it was like to be loyal and yet disregarded by Stalin. The Russian aristocracy was very much alive and supportive of the revolution and this movie shows the beauty, naivety, and repercussions of that class of society during Stalin's reign. Although Stalinism has been downplayed for years, this story could not have been presented or this movie made prior to the last decade.


The Seventh Seal - 1957
It took me a long time to see the movie because I could not get past the brooding and dark scenes that I had seen in clips on television. But clips do not do justice to this great film that is neither as dark or brooding as I had anticipated. This may be the definitive movie about life and death and the journey between the two. The material is certainly opinionated, as defined by Ingmar Bergman, but it is also very clever and it has been the source of countless parodies.


The Up Chronicles - 1963, 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998
An argument has been raised that English films do not count as foreign films since they do not involve a foreign language. My argument to include this film under the foreign heading is twofold. 1) It is certainly foreign as it was not created on US soil and 2) a US filmmaker has never created a movie like this one. Michael Apted filmed fourteen seven year olds in 1963, depicting different social strata. Each child was interviewed about his life and goals and the boys and girls provided cute and entertaining answers regarding their dreams and ambitions. Apted filmed the same (now teenagers) kids in 1970, then again in 1977 and every seven years thereafter until, most recently, he updated their lives in 1998. Over the course of these films, each complete with flashbacks, the viewer experiences changes that take place over 35 years of an individual's life. Every one of these people have faced decisions regarding school, jobs, marriage, children, death, disappointment and happiness in the same way that everyone faces it as we grow older. It is just recorded here for the world to see and we can all relate to these lives in one way or another. In talking with others that have watched these films, you can't help but become attached to these special people and you can't wait to find out where they are at and what they are doing in the next installment.

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