The Best Foreign Language Film category was first introduced by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences in 1956 and the very first winner was Federico Fellini’s La Strada, although Special/Honorary awards for foreign language films have been given since 1947, of which Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine was the first recipient.
Since then, all sorts of terms were coined to categorize these imported foreign language films, the most popular being the term ‘world cinema’ and ‘arthouse films’, the latter presumably coined because most of these films played only in arthouses back then as they’re usually a bit more of an acquired taste and quite challenging when compared to the relative ease of digesting mainstream pop films.
While these categories have immeasurably helped in bringing to the world everything from Italian Neorealist films to French New Wave films and beyond, it also meant that a very healthy amount of people (i.e. your average Joe) associate foreign language films with being artsy fartsy, difficult to digest and just plain not entertaining.
This association has also meant that foreign language films that are made for the mainstream market in their home countries tend to be set aside when it comes to attention from the press, distributors and audiences, especially the mainstream ones. Once in a while a hit will register with the masses like Slumdog Millionaire, Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life Is Beautiful, but there really should’ve been more of these.
The recent rapid growth of the fanboy market have helped matters a bit when it comes to audience friendly foreign language genre films like horror flicks and thrillers, but the fact remains that the lack of mainstream exposure means that quite a lot of these films never registered beyond said fanboy market. Things are even worse for foreign language films that fall under patently un-cool genres like rom-coms and slapstick comedies, no matter how well made and entertaining they may be.
With this in mind, this list hopes to present to you a merry bunch of all sorts of audience friendly foreign language films, most of which huge hits in their home countries, awaiting the same kind of love from more people worldwide, especially that good friend of yours who think that subtitled films are boring!
20. Easy Money (Daniel Espinosa, 2010, Sweden)
It probably says a lot about how pop a film is when both its star and director have gone on to have Hollywood careers. That star is Joel Kinnaman (who’s been in Run All Night, the upcoming Suicide Squad and is of course the new Robocop) and that director is Daniel Espinosa, who went on from this film to directing Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington in Safe House and the recently released Child 44 with Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Noomi Rapace.
Based on the bestselling novel by Jens Lapidus, Easy Money is a crime thriller that’s distinguished by its Robert Altman-esque narrative structure, which conspires to bring together the seemingly unrelated main characters as it speeds towards its climax.
It’s such a successful formula that even the film’s two sequels, the first of which directed by Babak Najafi who’s now gone on to direct episodes of US TV show Banshee and the upcoming London Has Fallen, has more or less followed it to a tee to still undiminished returns.
19. Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011, Mexico)
One of the rare films on this list that can actually play well in both multiplexes and arthouses, Mexico’s official entry for the 2012 Oscars is a film that satisfies both the brains and the brawns.
A story about a young woman who enters a beauty pageant in hopes of becoming a beauty queen, only to see things escalate at a very alarming rate as she gets caught in the crosshairs of the Mexican drug wars, Miss Bala contains all the twists, turns and shootouts that one would expect from an action thriller involving Mexican drug lords and the police, but it’s elevated by Gerardo Naranjo’s decision to shoot most of the stuff in fluid and expertly orchestrated long takes, making for a rather classy yet gun happy thriller.
18. Pee Mak (Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2013, Thailand)
Banjong Pisanthanakun has proven to be a true expert at making hit movies in Thailand, early on with the excellent horror flick Shutter (the less said about the Hollywood remake, the better) which, along with the game-changing Nang Nak, set the tone for the endless deluge of Thai horror movies that came in the wake of the J-horror and K-horror craze.
He then set another trend with the equally huge success of the rom-com Hello Stranger, which set the tone for numerous Thai rom-com exports that are obviously indebted to the slick Korean rom-coms that were all the rage back then. He proved his mettle in a bigger way with his comic retelling of the Nang Nak ghost story Pee Mak, which rang up a very impressive US$33 million in box office takings across Asia.
A hilarious slice of slapstick-y Asian humor, Pee Mak’s irresistible good humor and touching love story between a husband and his ghost wife will charm anyone willing to give it a try.
17. Barfi! (Anurag Basu, 2012, India)
Imagine a Hindi film that combines the silent comedy magic of classic Chaplin and the quirky and meticulous mise en scene of Wes Anderson, and you won’t be far off with the delightful Barfi!
One of the rare cases where a movie is blessed by Indian film royalty (as opposed to blatant cases of nepotism), the title character is played by Ranbir Kapoor who is the grandson of Indian legend Raj Kapoor (who himself developed a character people have called India’s own version of Chaplin’s the Tramp during his heyday in classics like Awara and Shree 420), a hearing and speech impaired young man who falls in love with the beautiful Shruti, who sadly gave in to parental pressure and marries a ‘normal man.’ Years later they meet again, and it’s where this film goes after this that makes it such a joy.
16. Gallants (Clement Sze-Kit Cheng & Chi-Kin Kwok, 2010, Hong Kong)
Kung fu films (not kung fu comedies!) are rarely funny, which is a testament to how fine a line it was that Jackie Chan walked during his heyday. Gallants is a valentine to kung fu films of yore, even going so far as to cast familiar actors from the Shaw Brothers era to act out its tale of old school kung fu masters and new students joining up to save their beloved tea house from an evil property developer.
It’s your classic ‘save our neighborhood’ story in terms of narrative, but its magic comes in the assured comic and emotional chemistry between the old timers, especially the hilarious Teddy Robin, and the hugely impressive old school kung fu fight scenes. Definitely one that will make you smile.
15. Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, 2013, Philippines/Great Britain)
Even though it’s made by British director Sean Ellis, Metro Manila, like Chris Smith’s The Pool or Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness Of Blood, is a great example of an English speaking director making a film in a totally different language and succeeding brilliantly at it.
It may technically be a British independent film, but it’s a Filipino film in spirit through and through as actors Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla and Althia Vega gave performances of heartbreaking quality, giving the film’s heist thriller plot mechanics an immense humanity that not only makes it such a thrilling an entertaining watch, but also a touching document of human spirit in the face of poverty.
Its Audience Award win at Sundance in 2013 is proof of how appealing the film is, so it’s a crying shame that nowhere near enough people got to see it, or in some cases even know that it exists.