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.
The Band's Visit (2007) -- Having hopped the wrong bus, Egypt's Alexandria Police Band disembarks in a remote Israeli town, far from where they are scheduled to perform the next evening. With no other options, they are taken in for the night by sexy shopkeeper Dina (Sasson Gabai), while a somewhat clueless friend whose wife is celebrating her birthday also agrees to shelter a few of the reticent musicians. How each group passes a most unusual night forms the substance of this offbeat, highly affecting feature. Visit, written and directed with assurance by Eran Kolirin, is a subtle, charming, deeply human film that will touch all who see it. At the heart of it all is the platonic yet ultimately abiding connection that develops between Dina and the band's seemingly stiff senior leader, widower Lt. Colonel Zacharya (Ronit Elkabetz). Nothing that occurs between these two characters, who would normally never meet, strains credulity, and both performers alternate in stealing their respective scenes. In the mood for a feel-good romp? Here's your movie.
I Served The King Of England (2007) -- Aspiring to be a millionaire hotelier in 1930s Czechoslovakia, opportunistic Jan (Ivan Barnev) enters the hospitality business as a waiter, hoping to work himself into the good graces of the rich and well-connected, while sleeping with every chambermaid and prostitute in sight. Eventually, he shacks up with leggy Aryan Liza (Julia Jentsch), a fervent Nazi whose fateful trip to the Russian front when war breaks out will finally help Jan realize his dream of fortune, but not quite in the way he expected... The justly celebrated Czech New Wave pioneer (Closely Watched Trains) Jiri Menzel brings his characteristic mix of dark humor and absurdist fantasy to this buoyant story of social climbing in WWII-era Eastern Europe. Zesty, whimsical, and tragically serious despite its self-deprecating veneer, England leaves a lasting impression thanks in large part to Barnev's straight-faced, Chaplinesque performance.
Tokyo Sonata (2008) -- When Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job, he avoids telling his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) and instead dutifully leaves for work every morning. Meanwhile, his oldest son has dreams of joining the American military, his youngest boy learns he is a secret piano prodigy, and Megumi grows increasingly restless as she tries to hold increasingly fractured family together. This oddball slice-of-life drama had the potential to be a dour slog, but director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's lightly surreal touch ensures that Tokyo Sonata glows with an inner warmth. The quietly empty Tokyo the film's Sasaki clan inhabits is a far cry from the neon-blasted megalopolis we're used to seeing, and the film beats to the recognizable rhythms of daily life. You'll come out loving the Sasaki clan as well as respecting their strengths and forgiving them their weaknesses. And when the film takes a dark third-act twist, you'll be relieved when Kurosawa steers the foursome towards reconciliation and growth. Sonata's gentle coda might just leave your eyes a little wet.
Mademoiselle Chambon (2009) -- Jean (Vincent Lindon) is a construction worker living happily with his small family. One day, his son's teacher, the quiet, pretty Veronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain) invites him to speak at the school about his work, a simple request that sets in motion life-changing events. A tender romance emerges as these two opposites, one earthy and simple, the other educated and artistic, find that they bring out surprisingly deep and tender emotions in each other. But can this unexpected love survive in the harsh light of reality? This exquisite love story subtly evokes the nuances and complexities of real-world romance. Lindon and Kiberlain (formerly husband and wife off-screen) completely embody the hesitant affections of two adults who share an obvious attraction but are unsure how and if to act upon it. An afternoon they share together, which culminates in Veronique performing an aching violin solo for the uncomplicated Jean, achieves a spellbinding cinematic lyricism. This is mature, adult filmmaking at its best. Once you meet Mademoiselle Chambon, you just might fall in love yourself.
Shirin (2009) -- The 12th-century Persian love story of Khosrow and Shirin is as famous in Iran as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. Here, we watch as over 100 Iranian actresses of stage and screen view, and react to, a cinematic retelling of the story. In a unique twist, the women are filmed entirely in close-up, and we never see the screen they're watching -- we only hear the soundtrack. Their reactions may tell us everything we need to know about the twists and turns of Shirin's tale. Director Kiarostami's work has consistently pushed the boundaries of what movies can be, and Shirin may be his boldest, most radical and compelling experiment to date. Using just close-ups of a bevy of beautiful, expressive female faces (watch for French star Juliette Binoche) Kiarostami fashions a mesmerizingly romantic meditation on how great stories -- and great films -- transport us, and in the process, the director reveals the very face of human empathy. Don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering throughout if the group is even watching a film in a theater at all -- the guessing game is half the fun. A stunningly original work, and a must for cinephiles everywhere.
The Secret In Their Eyes (2009) -- Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darin), long retired from his work in Argentina's justice system, decides to fill his free time writing a novel about a particularly brutal murder that's stuck with him for decades. Old habits die hard, and as he retraces the twists and turns of the investigation, the case's many loose ends pique his sleuthing instincts. Along the way, he runs across his former supervisor, Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), and as the two reminisce about the crime, and their efforts to solve it, their long-suppressed attraction rekindles. That the two may still be in love many years later is just one of the secrets Espósito uncovers in his quest for the truth. It's no easy feat to balance a decade-spanning police thriller with a romance of suppressed passions. Director Juan Jose Campanella pulls it all off with aplomb, spinning his tale via flashbacks that put past and present on a collision course towards a wholly credible and satisfying conclusion. Instead of detracting from the central murder mystery, Benjamín and Irene's failure to connect is cleverly framed as a case to be solved in its own right. After you watch this, you won't need any further clues to explain why Secret took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. (Even so, I'm willing to bet most of you haven't seen it!)
Soul Kitchen (2010) -- The loveable but luckless Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) has more than his share of problems: his beloved "Soul Kitchen" diner is headed downhill, his nutty brother Ilias (Moritz Bleibtreu) has just gotten out of prison and needs help, his girlfriend Nadia (Pheline Roggan) decides to head off to China, and the tax collector is breathing down his neck. When he meets recently unemployed top chef Shayn Weiss (Birol Unel) by chance, the two strike up a partnership that will give Zinos' restaurant a fresh menu, and, if he's lucky, a new lease on life. Writer/director Fatih Akin (Edge of Heaven) may be best known for intricately plotted dramas of immigrant identity confusion, but here proves equally adept in the realm of comedy and romance. This zany farce serves up hilarity in generous portions, and doesn't skimp on pleasing culinary types, with plenty of in-kitchen action. But Kitchen doesn't just tickle your funny bone and taste buds -- it also has a heart. Amongst all the madcap antics you'll find a sensitive depiction of one charismatic outsider trying to make his dreams come true. Be sure to get a reservation to watch this charmer.
Mid-August Lunch (2010) -- It's Ferragosto (a large mid-August Italian national holiday) and Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio) is broke and trapped in Rome caring for his cantankerous, aged mother (Valeria de Franciscis). His building manager is eager to leave town, so forces his own mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) on the penniless bachelor, promising to erase some of Gianni's debts in return. Marina can't possibly live without her sister, Aunt Maria (Maria Calì), so before the weekend has even begun the tally of elderly Italian ladies occupying Gianni's cramped apartment has already tripled. When Gianni needs a house call from the doctor but can't afford to pay, it turns out he'll have to add one more strong-willed woman, the Doc's own Mama Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) to the already volatile mix... Brimming with humanity and humor, this warm, totally disarming farce clocks in at a breezy 75 minutes, but is so pleasurable you're sorry to see it end so soon. Di Gregorio's prior stint as a co-writer on the gritty crime drama Gomorrah didn't exactly signal the light comic touch on full display in his screenplay, direction and lead performance -- a triple-threat tour de force. As good as Di Gregorio is, however, he's constantly upstaged by his quartet of Italian grannies -- non-actors all, they own the screen like the divas of old. Sometimes, a light Lunch is just what you're hungry for.
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