The sad truth is: Yes.
While Hollywood continues to dominate the global film industry in both dollar and distribution terms, it is increasingly evident that they no longer make the best movies -- that is, if you happen to be a reasonably well-educated adult.
Tinseltown still rules when it comes to escapist fare for kids and young adults: special effects laden blockbusters, be they thrillers or science fiction entries, gross-out comedies, splashy animation vehicles, and comic book adaptations.
But when it comes to what I call "human-scale" films -- chiefly original dramas and more sophisticated, literate comedies and romances, the rest of the world is eating our lunch. (The one area where we still prevail is the documentary form.)
As someone who's devoted the last decade of his life to finding such films -- whether produced here or elsewhere -- I regret we no longer lead the industry in quality as well as quantity (we certainly used to). I'm also frustrated to think that we Americans only hear about a fraction of the great stuff that's out there from other corners of the world.
A.O. Scott wrote an illuminating piece in the New York Times addressing this topic right before this year's Oscars telecast ("A Golden Age Of Foreign Films, Mostly Unseen", 1/26/11). In it he observed that the strange assortment of nominees for Best Foreign Language film this year (did anyone see Dogtooth? Yikes!) clearly reflected a process that was broken -- but also one that nobody at the Academy particularly cared to fix.
Case in point: You'd think that with all the fabulous international features released each year, the Academy might want to increase the number of foreign language nominees to ten. Rather than make that sensible move, instead they increase the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, thus clearly favoring the more commercial and all too often inferior Hollywood entries.
Perhaps in a pop culture so chock full of banality I should not be surprised, but it appears that in this instance, the cream does not rise to the top.
Scott also questioned the faulty conventional wisdom for why foreign releases don't do better here. The tired argument goes that we the public don't want to go to the trouble of reading subtitles. Personally, it infuriates me when moviegoers get characterized as lazy, incurious louts who just want purely escapist entertainment fed to them with a spoon.
Beyond insulting our intelligence (hey -- I know how to read!), it's nonsense. Here's the way it really works: Sometimes we're in the mood for escapist fare, sometimes we're up for something more serious and challenging. Sometimes we want to keep our feet on familiar ground, while other times we welcome the prospect of visiting a different culture for a couple of hours, drinking in Paris locales or a rural Japanese landscape.
There are very particular, very special rewards to watching a great foreign film; for me, it comes down to an added layer of fascination that comes with perceiving the differences in other cultures, and -- just as important -- the similarities.
Cinematically speaking, I think most viewers would like the best of both -- or maybe all -- worlds.
Finally, A.O Scott hit on what I think is the central issue: what he termed a "superabundance" of information and choice brought on largely by technology. With Hollywood using its enormous marketing clout to keep us focused on their product while countless other countries try to compete by pumping more films into the global pipeline, how is an already distracted populace supposed to keep up?
The short answer is, it's challenging... but not impossible.
Ironically, it's the very technology that distracts us that can also rescue us from this conundrum. Movie sites like imdb.com (and may I humbly submit, my own) can make it somewhat easier to hone in on the best movies -- even features that, for whatever reason, have fallen slightly under the radar.
If Scott is correct in proclaiming this "a golden age of foreign films" (and I'm convinced he is), then let's embrace it. Listed below are just a few outstanding recent titles from all over the world to give you a head start.
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