Just in time to continue the buzz from Awards Season, the Criterion Channel presents a collection of Oscar winners in what was previously called the Best Foreign Language Film category. (It’s now called Best International Feature Film, which sounds less xenophobic, but, as the rules about the film’s language haven’t changed, feels like a wasted effort.) Moreover, with news that Best Picture winner Parasite is joining Criterion, it’s worth exploring this shelf of the Collection.
“Best Foreign Language Film”: A Fickle Category
The films in this category haven’t always captured the very best on the international stage, which might have to do with the rules for submission. One film per country means that it doesn’t matter if all the amazing movies you saw that year were French or Taiwanese. However, it does mean that a Cambodian film with no distributor has a genuine shot against films whose originating countries are popular in North American arthouses. That the nominated film has to be submitted by a voting body that is, in some cases, more or less that country’s version of the Academy means that the submissions tend to skew to old-guard tastes (like when Spain chose something safer like Mondays in the Sun in place of Talk To Her and watched in horror as Pedro Almodóvar won a screenplay Oscar and shamed them for their foolishness).
For those of us who were once burgeoning film lovers longing to go beyond the shopping mall, the Oscars were our gateway drug. the Foreign Language Film category, while not pointing us directly at Chantal Akerman or Ousmane Sembene, at least got us started on our way.
Here’s my take on the films in Criterion’s current collection, arranged in preferential order.
The Official Story (Luis Puenzo, 1985)
One of my all-time favourites and the gold standard of Argentinean cinema’s reconciling with the Dirty War. This is a terrifying tale of a bourgeois professor who begins to suspect that her adopted daughter might be the child of a “desaparecido.” The investigation of which opens her eyes to the realities of her country’s history.
Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
A letter-perfect film, this adaptation of Isak Dinesen (née Karen Blixen)’s short story distills the longings of the human soul down to the experience of one magnificent meal. It does so in quiet, languid tones that feel as reverent as a prayer.
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
Kurosawa’s breakthrough film is still one of the most fascinating examinations of the power of sympathy in narrative and the notion of truth itself. Criterion’s restoration has made sure it gleams like silver lightning.
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
The movie that made me love Fellini and plunged me into a passion for ’60s Italian cinema, the maestro’s semi-autobiographical rumination on the crippling fears that accompany artistic inspiration still retains its beauty and its anguish. (Although La Dolce Vita is still my favourite.)
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1966)
I happily sat through all eight hours of this film over two nights at Jackman Hall. This is by far the best adaptation ever made of Tolstoy’s desert island read and one of the most spectacular films ever made.
Day For Night (François Truffaut, 1973)
François Truffaut makes the Gone with the Wind of films about filmmaking. Day for Night is a sharp, funny, and briskly energetic tale of a director (Truffaut himself) trying to keep it together on a film set plagued with issues. The words “tub butter” will never leave your mind again.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
A year after La Strada, Fellini once again balances fantasy and grim reality with this tale of a prostitute whose constant bad luck can’t ruin her optimism. A lot of it is funny, but sequences like her religious pilgrimage pierce the heart. Masina deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance.
The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)
This dramatic rendering of a medieval fable proves that Bergman isn’t only a master of movies that ruminate on god and death. It’s one of the few movies he directed without writing the script, and the sequence involving the titular water source is so simple and yet is one of the most magical scenes in film history.
Closely Watched Trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966)
Coming of age has rarely been done with such muted eroticism, sympathy or delicacy. This is a delicious tale of a train conductor who experiences the first blossoms of adulthood but can’t escape a world that has no room for his innocence.
Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)
Fellini’s most personal film is a collection of memories from his childhood in Rimini. His last widely-acclaimed film, it’s also among his most elegant and sweet.
Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975)
Kurosawa couldn’t get movies made in Japan by the mid-seventies, so he went to the Soviet Union and won his first competitive Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the USSR. (The prize was a special award from 1947-1955 when Rashomon won.) It’s a gorgeously shot tale of the titular hunter who befriends a Russian army captain on a Siberian surveying expedition, then moves with him to the big city in order to retire, but with tragic results.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
Luis Buñuel’s light touch makes a masterpiece from a deceptively silly premise. This surrealist comedy is about a group of friends who spend the entire film trying to sit down to a meal but can never do so without increasingly bizarre interruptions.
Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)
Set in Greece, made in French and submitted to the Academy from Algeria, this political thriller came out during turbulent political times in Greece (during which my sister was trapped there as a toddler for a year) and established Costa-Gavras as a director of note. It was the first film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film in the same year and, while I prefer Missing, this film is a classic.
La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)
The world first fell in love with Giulietta Masina’s Chaplinesque facial expressions in this bittersweet tale. La Strada is a road movie about an innocent woman (Masina) experiencing the cruel world thanks to the company of an aggressive travelling showman (a dubbed Anthony Quinn).
The Shop on Main Street (Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, 1965)
A lowly carpenter is thrilled to be made “Aryan controller” of an old Jewish woman’s shop in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but as he gets to know her, he also loses his immature blindness to what’s happening around him. It plays with a deceptively wry tone that leaves you vulnerable to its devastating ending. Ida Kaminska (who only made a handful of films) earned a Best Actress nomination for her almost undetectable work.
The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979)
If you found Jojo Rabbit to be pandering nonsense, you might be better served by Volker Schlöndorff’s terrifying and hard-hitting adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner Günter Grass’s novel. The Tin Drum is about a boy who witnesses adult foolishness and refuses to grow up, expressing himself only via his favourite toy. Incredible stuff.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Paolo Sorrentino’s update of La Dolce Vita is more spectacle than substance, but what spectacle! This time, the protagonist has already lost his soul and is wondering if it’s possible to stop looking for something significant even when everyone around you tells you that it doesn’t exist. Gorgeous to look at, although Sorrentino would go deeper with his next film, Youth.
Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)
A Greek myth is set in Rio during carnival, Black Orpheus makes for a beautiful if not particularly deep film. (I say that having watched it about a hundred times.) Americans became tourists after the war and this film comforts their UNICEF perspective perfectly.
Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
One of those films that everyone loves that I have never managed to warm up to despite seeing it four times, this tale of two siblings growing up in a complicated and unhappy home set a record for foreign language films at the Oscars, taking home a trophy in this category as well as three more for plushness. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Parasite have since taken a quartet of Oscar wins with the help of the foreign language category.
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
The observations of zombie-like humans obsessed with modern conveniences isn’t exactly groundbreaking anymore. However, the mathematical precision with which Tati has his characters operate their funky devices is pretty funny. That said, M. Hulot’s Holiday has more spontaneity and Playtime more grandeur.
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)
It’s sort of the Amélie of its day (aka Foreign Films For Dummies), a film whose direction and plotting are miles behind contemporary stuff like Sansho The Bailiff or Tokyo Story, but it’s also one of the most dazzlingly beautiful colour films you’ll ever see. It deservedly won an additional Oscar for Best Costume Design.
Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)
Gorgeously photographed, this one likely began Bergman’s obsession with filming intimate chamber pieces on his home island of Faro. It’s dark and brimming over with psychological anguish. And, for me, it’s also incredibly boring.