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The 10 Greatest Nations in Cinema History

28 March 2015 | Features, Other Lists | by Dylan Rambow

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Cinema is nothing if not a global enterprise. Especially today, just about every country on the planet has the capability of turning out brilliant and innovative films.

More inspiring films are coming out of countries from the Middle East (2011’s A Separation, Iran), Africa (2005’s Tsotsi, South Africa), and South America (2001’s City of God, Brazil) than ever before. And who can predict what marvelous films the rest of the world will proffer in the future.

The current state of global cinema would not be possible without the pioneers of cinema in these nations. From the first days of cinema in the late 1800s on through today, these ten nations have led the way, producing countless revolutionary films, groundbreaking filmmakers, as well as insights into film theory and advances in filmmaking equipment and techniques. Cinema owes its illustrious history to these nations.

 

10. Sweden

the-seventh-seal-chess-game

Like many of the nations that managed to make this list, they required a visionary filmmaker to come along and set the stage for their country to develop its cinema. For Sweden, that man would be Ingmar Bergman.

Unrelated the (arguably) more famous Ingrid Bergman (also a Swede but did most her work in England and Hollywood), Bergman is the renown Swedish director responsible for The Seventh Seal, Persona, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries.

All of his films are deeply philosophical, and require multiple viewings in order to fully appreciate. All told Bergman has a whopping 29 films in the Criterion Collection. Seventh Seal and Hour of the Wolf are examples of the influence of expressionism and noir, but Bergman of course put his unique perspective on the film. Both films star Max von Sydow, another Swede who went on to do great things in Hollywood.

let the right one in

But before Bergman, another great that deserves mentioning is Victor Sjöström. Without his work on great silent films like The Phantom Carriage, Bergman’s success would never have been possible. Sjöström was even the star of Bergman’s Strawberries. The best Swedish film in recent years was Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Who knows where his career could go from here? And hopefully he might revive the rest of Sweden’s potential genius filmmakers with him.

 

9. Poland

Three Colors Blue (1993)

There is something of a belief in us that great art often comes from great struggle. Some even say that great struggle is necessary for great art. This certainly seems to be true in film. Many European nations offered many great works following the devastation that was World War II. Poland was certainly devastated by the Nazis and certainly made some great contributions to the cinema.

Poland features a quartet of brilliant filmmakers: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Zulawski, and Roman Polanski. All three began their careers just after the War, and used the chaos of post-war Poland to spark their genius.

Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds gives a stark depiction of life during this time, which peace and war, occupation and freedom coming and going just like love affairs. Coming a bit later (’71), Zulawski’s Third Part of the Night likewise depicts the barbarism of the Nazis and the in-this-case failed attempts to get on with life for the Polish people.

Ashes-and-Diamonds

Other directors channeled their stress about life after the war into their films in other ways. Before he left for England and the US, Polanski made Knife in the Water in his native Polish, a film about a love-triangle, the tensions therein comparable to post-war Poland.

Zulawski’s best film, Possession, use the post-war chaos to create some of the best editing ever utilized in this bizarre but captivating film.

Kieslowski didn’t produce his best work until late in his life with his Three Colors films, which center around a Polish immigrant adapting to French society. But he did manage to make A Short Film about Killing, most shows his abhorrence for the death penalty and, by extension, much of the horrors of the Nazis and the War.

The struggles of the Polish people to move on from the war continue to unfold on screen; Ida, which just won the Oscar for best foreign film, concerns a Polish nun learning about her family’s history with the Nazis.

 

8. India

Pather-Panchali

Bollywood! Well, actually, “Bollywood” only refers to the Hindi-language films based out of Mumbai. There are other films made in other languages around India that are not part of the Bollywood system. That being said, Bollywood is the world-leading part of Indian cinema, its greatest influences being its elaborate and lovely song and dance numbers.

There had been musicals in other parts of the world before Bollywood, but not with anywhere near the same flair and excitement. These sequences have influenced recent Western films like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago. The most celebrated performer to come out of Bollywood would be the exquisite actress Aishwarya Rai (now Aishwarya Rai Bachchan after her marriage).

Monsoon Wedding

Outside of the song and dance numbers, the great filmmakers to come from the country are Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray, with their works constantly considered required viewing for any film connoisseur. Ray has six films in the Criterion Collection, and these don’t include perhaps his best known films, the Apu Trilogy, which includes Pather Panchali.

 

7. UK

Vertigo (1958)

If Japanese cinema can begin and end with Kurosawa, then British cinema can begin and end with Hitchcock. His films encapsulate so much of the British cinema that it is hard to see any British film made recently that does not owe a great deal to Hitch. Hitch’s films first saw acclaim in the mid ‘30s, with The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Of course he went on to make such greats as The Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and many more. He currently has nine films appearing in IMDb’s Top 250 films, the most from any director. He is often called the master of suspense, the inventor of the thriller, and many similar such titles. And he deserves them all.

Britain of course has had many other phenomenal filmmakers in its history, such as David Lean, Nicolas Roeg, Carol Reed, and more recently Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.

Despite this impressive list, UK sits at number 7 on the list because many of them did their best work in Hollywood, with mostly American actors, writers and sets. So can it be said that their work is part of the British national cinema? Does a director’s place of birth really determine the nationality of a film?

the third man

There are however traits of British performers that can be considered to be qualities of other performers from the UK. The Monty Python guys set the table that is the particular British style of comedy, and ex-Python Terry Gilliam has continued in the great British tradition of science fiction begun by many novelists like Arthur C. Clarke, Gene and others.

Stanley Kubrick would be one counter-example, an American-born filmmaker who did the bulk of his work in the UK. Even if all the directors mentioned above, and countless more actors and writers, did their work in the States, the contributions to cinema of the British people cannot be ignored.

 

6. Germany

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Like Russia, Germany is a country that owes most of its influence on global cinema to the silent era. Coming out of the Expressionism era in painting, many directors sought to bring that same sensibility to the big screen, and they did to great effect.

The classic example of German expressionism, with its long black shadows and harsh lighting, would be Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Other important films from this era would be F.W. Murnau’s films Nosferatu and his take on Faust, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi behemoth Metropolis, Boese’s The Golem (before it was swallowed into obscurity by the Nazis for its Jewish themes), and the works of G.W. Pabst.

It was Lang’s later works, such as M, and the works of Germans who moved to Hollywood, like Billy Wilder and William Wyler, who transitioned Expressionism into Film Noir, whose immense influences are still easily seen today.

After World War II, German cinema really took a hit. The Nazis, particularly Joseph Goebbels, turned the German Cinema into a propaganda machine, and the industry never really recovered.

m 1931

Considering what wonderful works German filmmakers created in the early, it is arguable that Goebbels is the greatest enemy to cinema in its history. No one knows to what amazing heights the German cinema could have risen had not Goebbels and the Nazis so crippled it.

Germany is slowly recovering. The most well-known German filmmakers since the War are Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Fassbinder’s films were beautiful and often powerfully depressing, and reflected the forlornness of post-war Germany.

Werner Herzog is one of the most important documentary filmmakers of all time, and his early fiction films had similar themes of absurdity and a lack of hope that Fassbinder’s had.

 

 

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  • Milo Cremer Eindhoven

    What about Powell & Pressburger for British cinema

  • Brandon Thompson

    While it shouldn’t be on this list but Australia has made some good stuff over the years with the likes of Peter Weir, George Miller and Andrew Dominik (and Jane Campion who was Australian trained)

  • Darren

    What a pathetically nieve and uninformed article.

  • Brian Lussier

    Just to be clear, Harry Potter may have been made in England, and Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit in New Zealand, but they’re still American productions as far as their financing goes. I mean, a lot of the Star Wars films were shot in Tunisia. Does that make them Tunisian productions? No!

    • Nicolas Botti

      In fact the Star Wars movies were mainly shot in UK. And no financing is not the only criteria to decide the nationality of a film (for exemple the BFI in UK has a lot of criteria to establish if a movie can be seen as a british film or not) . But well if you look at the producers of the Harry Potter movies, you’ll see Heyday Films (UK). There is a lot of international money involved now in the cinema industry

      • Brian Lussier

        I don’t deny that, LOTR employed mainly a New Zealand or Australian crew, for instance, but they are American productions nonetheless. And yes, most of Star Wars was done in the UK, but still a lot was done in Tunisia. And yes, Heyday Films were producers on Harry Potter, just like Wingnut Films were on LOTR, but they were Warner Bros. films. However, 14% of The Hobbit was financed by the New Zealand government, that’s true, which is a big number for a big-budget American production.

  • Grzegorz Główny

    You say Poland, I say W. J. Has

  • Rajarshi Banduri

    The works of three or four great filmmakers shouldn’t grant India a place on this list simply because of the huge amount of garbage it keeps on producing every year. It robs many countries of a spot(Spain,Iran,Denmark,Brasil come to mind). Even South Korea since 2000 has gifted more to cinema than India has since the 1970s.

    • Ankur Deb

      I love how indians themselves are most critical of bollywood.
      But, seriously India doesn’t it’s place in the list.

  • Johann S.

    Great to see Sweden there.

    • Brian Lussier

      Agreed. But I wish Jan Troell was mentioned. The last great Swedish film was not Let The Right One In, but Troell’s Everlasting Moments, a complete masterpiece.

      • Johann S.

        Yes. Great movie indeed. I had the honor of meeting him at the premiere of The Last Sentence, in 2012. Interesting man. He has achieved marvelous things in his career.

  • Arnab Sen

    How is Iran not on this list and India is? Iran, a country very such strong censorship laws as well as heavy government restrictions regarding content of films has produced outstanding works of world cinema. Works which will go down as among the greatest films ever made, directed by directors who despite their limited scope regarding subject matter have made such classics.

    India’s bollywood is primarily known for the quantity of films it makes as opposed to making great films. Bollywood makes only commercial musicals and does not deserve a place in this list over countires such as Iran, South Korea or Denmark.

    Both South Korea and Denmark’s film industries are a lot more younger than India’s and yet have made far greater films in this short amount of time. Also, directors from both these countries have gone on to hollywood, enjoying success, even there.

    • Mromz W

      Agreed. I would also add HK and China. I’ve been so into it lately and discovered wonders. I heard great things about Iranian cinema and even downloaded a movie but didnt go around watching it.

      I feel the writer was given a list in that order and was told to write the article. Even when he mentions indian movies he doesn’t go deep. I love Japanese cinema (my fave of all times) but his description of it didn’t really explain why it’s number two.

  • Nalan Madheswaran

    Where is the Iran in the List?

    • s.terzic

      More inspiring films are coming out of countries from the Middle East (2011’s A Separation, Iran)…

  • Distracted Ashiq

    Where is Iran?

  • Donde esta Mexico?

    • RVal

      Enserio? Dónde está Argentina entonces? Buen cine pero no se comparan con los de la lista. No vale decir Buñuel.

      • Well, I was just asking that jokingly in Spanish as I only know little but I do think Mexico should be in the list. As should Spain, Brazil, and Argentina.

  • Robert Comanoiu

    France? Based on which statistics? Based on what historical performance?

  • Nicolas Botti

    I’m french and of course i don’t agree. US still deserves the first place for its incredible influence on the rest of the world (including the french new wave !). And I would put UK in a better position ! UK has a unique position in cinema history, torn between US and Europe. British cinema has always been in a crisis but US cinema wouldn’t have been the same without the very powerful contribution from UK directors, actors, cinematographers,… And it still has its own unique taste : Michael Powell for me still remains one of the best directors in the whole cinema history. There are a lot of masterpieces to be rediscovered. And of course with UK you can’t ignore the connection between cinema and TV (more than anywhere in the world – or you would ignore a lot of masterpieces including TV movies and series by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh).
    in France, we have only cinema (and it includes a lot of really bad comedies). TV fiction has been always mostly rubbish.
    The UK cinema history force us to have a less simplistic view of cinema (including questions about the medium, the part of the director or the nationality of a film).
    This article is too much driven in its choices by the auteur theory which i tend do disagree with. In its extreme interpretation, it has given too much importance to the director, consigning the other individuals as simple technicians, puppets in the master’s hands.
    (PS : I must say i’m not totally unbiased, I’ve got a whole website about British cinema and it’s in french : cinemaderien.fr – the name of the website being an allusion to Godard’s quote about english cinema)

  • Jake

    Terry Gilliam is not British. He is was born and raised in America.

  • sula

    ummmmmm, where’s Spain? WTF?

  • Alexandra Isabel Begazo

    Where is Argentina?

  • Tristan

    This concept, and subsequently the list, is worthless. There’s no reason or way to compare in an ordered fashion the cultural output of a country. It’s simply pompous and naive.

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    I feel Hong Kong (or maybe China) is missed

  • HLLH

    A film’s nationality is determined by the budget’s origin not by the director’s. Most of Hitchcock’s movies are American, and so are Ridley Scott’s.

  • Guest

    Russia? I guess it was supposed to be USSR, not Russia.

  • Still D.R.E.

    US should be number 1 even if we’re not being Bias America has the best movies then France then UK then Japan then Sweden

  • asalways

    China (both mainland and diaspora) should have a place in cinematic history. I personally feel Chinese cinema overall, including the Mainland and Hong Kong, is growing in quantity but not so much quality. But Chinese cinema has a great history, but its availability and popularity are limited by the language and other things.

  • Darren

    What a pathetically nieve and uninformed article.

  • Kunwar Kanhaiya

    India doesn’t deserve a place in this list..

  • Qualiarella18

    plz, join this cinema forums !!
    http://www.welikecinema.com/

  • Sergio

    México is the leading nation in latin american cinema, historically. Spain has it important, also. And don’t forget nations like Denmark, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Iran, Argentina and Cuba. But I agree with this list, may be not in the order, and I’m pretty sure that Chaplin was english not american, but It’s ok.

  • Pingback: Wild Strawberries (1957) – stema cinematografului suedez | Lumea Filmelor()

  • LDV1960

    This list seems to have been created from a very low point of knowledge. It’s a look at importance of cinema in certain countries through the ages, and they start out with Sweden, a solid choice, but focus solely on Bergman, for then to casually mention Victor Sjöström (and Thomas Alfredson) glossing over the fact that Sweden was arguably the greatest cinema nation in the world during the 1910s, and the importance of Mauritz Stiller.

    What other country had an enormous impact during the 1910s? Italy! Which is described as “Having not much say in the early days”. Ever heard of epics like Cabiria or their influence of the femme fatale.

    Then you have the statement: “After World War
    II, German cinema really took a hit. The Nazis, particularly Joseph
    Goebbels, turned the German Cinema into a propaganda machine, and the
    industry never really recovered.” – despite mentioning several new wave greats almost right below. German New Wave was one of the most important cinema movements in the late 60s into the early 80s.

    At least german silent cinema gets it’s fair due, as does the soviet union, which makes the statement: “The heyday of the silent cinema consisted mostly of American films” all the more puzzling. Especially when one states: “Japan was not a huge player in the silent era (the most significant such film would be A Page of Madness)” ignoring the fact that Japan was almost the sole reason why silents continued well into the 30s. I encourage everyone to seek out the silent films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially “I was Born, But …” and “That Night’s Wife”. Sadly most of Japan’s silent era films are lost – but they had an enormous degree of production. 30 of Ozu’s 54 films were silents and Kenji Mizoguchi Made about 70 silent films – to which extremely few still exist.

    Also, to imply that British cinema begins and ends with Hitchcock, when most of his important films are American, and using a picture from the American film Vertigo as the cover is simply really strange. One could make the case that the focus is where someone was born, but Luis Buñuel is counted with the french.

    Another note: The Three Colors trilogy is not a trilogy about a polish immigrant in France. Three Colors: White has a polish protagonist, but the two others have french protagonists.

    I’ll leave it at that.

  • Anonymous

    1. USA
    2. FRANCE
    3. JAPAN
    4. UK
    5. ITALY
    6. RUSSIA
    7. GERMANY
    8. SWEDEN
    9. IRAN
    10. DENMARK