Read any good movies lately?
Chances are you have. This time last year, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” had a record number of moviegoers forgetting their subtitlephobia so they could crouch in seats. At $130 million, the box office for “Crouching Tiger” doubled the previous foreign record-holder, “Life Is Beautiful.”
And “Amelie” has been playing on screens for more than five months, grossing $30 million, amazing for an R-rated movie in which the characters are more likely to say “Quel desastre” than “Hands up, dirtbag.”
If this article were a foreign movie, the phrase, “Quel desastre,” would have had a subtitle under it that read, “What a disaster.” And, if you go to the movies much, odds are you’re used to reading subtitles like that one. It’s a learned behavior, and the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Which is why “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Postman” were big hits, even among people who don’t parle Francais or sprechen Deutsch.
Why are foreign-language films finding bigger audiences? A combination of reasons.
First, subtitles have become more a part of the landscape – when they start showing up in ads and music videos, it’s a good bet people are becoming comfortable with them.
In addition, the foreign films that play in America have changed. In the `60s, when foreign films were widely discussed by American critics for the first time, movies from France and Italy were mostly plotless bummers in which epicene men and dour women played croquet while contemplating suicide (critic Paul Kael called “Last Year at Marienbad” and other films of this ilk “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe” movies).
Nowadays, foreign moviemakers are more apt to make American-ish movies, but with different diphthongs. You can debate about whether that’s a good thing, but the French “With a Friend Like Harry” is basically Alfred Hitchcock with a beret just as “A Pure Formality” is Hitchcock, Italian-style. The German chiller “Anatomy” and the Danish shocker “Nightwatch” could have been made by George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”).
The success of a few foreign films has begotten more success. Theater owners have realized occasionally devoting one screen to an off-the-beaten-path title with commercial appeal can pay off. Especially since so many new theaters have been built in recent years that they’re desperate for product, even if that product has umlauts over the vowels and upside-down exclamation points.
If you ignored foreign films until you discovered “Amelie” or “Das Boot,” you probably found yourself thinking, “Mon dieu. What have I missed?”
The answer is, “Plenty.” Dozens of fine foreign films play in theaters each year, and hundreds more are available on video.
Daunting? Maybe. But we can give you some ideas where to start. Here are some recent classics for those of you who want to read/watch a little extra credit.
If you came to the foreign-film party late, these late-model titles are really good and really fun to watch.
– “Delicatessen.” If you fell in love with that enchanting “Amelie,” this one’s for you. From the same director, Jean-Paul Jeunet, it’s an endearing French comedy with a quirky visual style, a tender little romance and – trust me – an amazingly funny sense of rhythm.
– “The Vanishing.” This brilliant, exciting, intelligent shocker about a woman who disappears at a rest stop would have been a gigantic smash if it weren’t for the fact that it’s in Dutch. You may have heard of the wrong-headed American remake, starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. Don’t even think about renting that one, but I guarantee the original will scare the pants off you.
– “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Director Pedro Almodovar won an Oscar for “All About My Mother,” but this zesty farce is just as full of life and sex, and it’s 10 times funnier. Plus, it’ll show you how much more appealing Antonio Banderas was in his native tongue.
– “The Celebration.” One of the great things about foreign films is we tend not to be familiar with the actors, so we have no preconceptions about the kinds of characters they play. This Danish comedy/drama about a colossally messed-up family at an uncomfortable reunion has character types you’ll recognize, but just about everything else in it is surprising.
– “Cinema Paradiso.” Italian Giuseppe Tornatore made the gorgeous, under-appreciated (and English-language) tribute to American culture, “The Legend of 1900.” This Oscar winner is his affectionate, deeply moving tribute to movie magic.
– “Chungking Express.” The story is a puzzle – something about two sets of lovers who can’t quite connect – but this minty-fresh, Hong Kong-set romantic drama is so jazzed by the ways the camera can chop up, re-order and redecorate time that watching it leaves you breathless.
– “Sonatine.” The supercool Japanese equivalent of “Pulp Fiction” is a ruthless gangland drama that taps into the pure, undiluted thrill of stylish mayhem.
– “To Live.” Miss the old days when folks like David Lean (“Dr. Zhivago,” “Lawrence of Arabia”) made involving romantic adventures, set against turbulent historical backdrops? This shimmering, beautiful gem about a Chinese family’s struggles brings them back.
– “Run Lola Run.” Maybe this German action film is too well known to be included on this list, but you really should see it. Few films provide more cheeky, lightning-paced fun.
– “Mouth to Mouth.” Recent Oscar nominee Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) stars in a comedy/romance/thriller set in the world of dial-up sex, that recalls the Cary Grant/Grace Kelly “To Catch a Thief.”
– “Nights of Cabiria.” One of the movies’ most unforgettable heroines – a plucky streetwalker – is the focus of this hopeful drama.
– “The Bicycle Thief.” He steals more than a bike in a simple, moving story about poverty, dignity and honor.
– “The Seven Samuari.” It’s tempting to pick “Rashomon,” also by Akira Kurosawa, but this epic adventure is so widely imitated (by “Star Wars,” among others) that you need to see it.
– “Fanny and Alexander.” Other Ingmar Bergman films are more provocative, but his final film, a family drama, presents his work at its most compassionate.
– “The Blue Angel.” Marlene Dietrich became a star, but it’s Emil Jannings you’ll remember as a professor who risks everything – including humiliation – for the women he thinks he loves.
– “Diabolique.” As in “diabolical.” As in one of the creepiest, twistiest thrillers ever – a boiling cauldron of intrigue set at a quiet boys’ school. (And another movie with a remake to avoid.)
– “Potemkin.” This Russian classic invented some of the cinematic “vocabulary” that’s still used today. The baby-carriage-going-down-the-steps scene is one of the movies’ most famous.
– “The Sorrow and the Pity.” A monumental subject: the Holocaust. A monumental film.
– “Jules and Jim.” A woman and two men who love her. Yawner, right? Wrong. It’s exciting, vital moviemaking with a shining central performance by Jeanne Moreau.
– “Breathless.” Romance has never been fresher, younger or hipper than in Jean Luc Godard’s motorbikes-and-kisses-on-the-neck adventure.