When I began working on my Film Studies degree in 2002, I had no idea exactly what I wanted to do with it when I finished. I was hoping the program would allow me to answer that by the end of it. By the time, I finished in 2004, I still had no idea. Did I want to become a critic and review films, becoming the next Roger Ebert? Did I want to become a film historian a la Robert Osborne? My strength was in writing and I thought to myself that I could use the degree to write a screenplay. (NEWS FLASH: You actually don’t need a film degree to become a screenwriter…in fact, you don’t really need a degree.)
I reached out to different critics, but by the time I had graduated, most of them were being laid off. And so I decided to stay in the career of….hospitality.
Now the reason why I’m telling you this is not to discourage anyone from obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies or to lose hope as a screenwriter, film historian, critic, producer, or any other career associated with films. There was something that I did get out of the degree and that was a vast knowledge of films from outside the Hollywood system and today, I use many of those films as an example in my writing. They allow me not to follow a formula that is common in many Hollywood films and strengthen my plots and characters in various ways.
And so here are 10 great films outside of Hollywood that you would enjoy. My only rule was to not have more than one film representing a country.
- Burnt by the Sun (1994) (RUSSIA)
Nikita Mikhalkov’s film “Burnt By The Sun” is about a Russian Commander and his family when they’re caught in the middle of an anti-Stalinist agenda by a returning family friend. The film begins with a happy outlook that is helped by the performance of Mikhalkov’s real-life daughter as Nadia, but when Dimitri enters the picture, the family’s past comes back to haunt them.
- The 400 Blows (1959) (FRANCE)
This film, part of the French New Wave, was directed by Francois Truffaut (who, along with Jean-Luc Goddard) is considered the defining filmmaker during the movement. The film is about a youth, Antoine Doinel, who finds himself trying to navigate the world of adolescence. (If you enjoy this film, you can follow Doinel’s further adventures in subsequent films in the series with the same actor.)
- The Shop on Main Street (1965) (CZECHOSLOVAKIA)
“The Shop on Main Street” is about a man named Tono who has to seize control of a small store owned by a Jewish widow during the Nazi Occupation in World War II. When he begins to care for the woman, she becomes a motherly figure to his disheveled world. It is the final moments of the film that bring about a haunting ending and a tragic coda to their relationship.
- Y Tu Mamá También (2001) (MEXICO)
This film is about two immature best friends (played by real-life best friends Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) who embark on a road trip with an older woman in the hopes of satisfying their own sexual appetite. What they learn, however, is a lesson in the real meaning of friendship and adulthood. Before directing “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Gravity”, Alfonso Cuaron wrote and directed this coming-of-age story.
- A Separation (2011) (IRAN)
This Iranian film is about a couple who decide to get a divorce and are blinded to the effects it has on their daughter. Truly, there’s a theme here about how we make our own lives more complicated by our own desires rather than those of the people we care about.
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) (ITALY)
The film “Bicycle Thieves” was made during the Neo-realistic era of Italy and is directed by Vittorio De Sica. It depicts a day in the life of an impoverished father who gets a bicycle stolen needed for work. Along with his son, they go in search of the culprit. Much like “A Separation”, this film shows the selfishness of a parent and how we can become blind to our children.
- Sholay (1975) (INDIA)
Loosely taking elements of “Seven Samurai” (See Below), the film is about two criminals who are hired by a retired police officer to catch another notorious criminal. It has all the elements of a Bollywood film (Songs and action and melodrama, oh my!), but it also has the themes of sacrifice, friendship and love.
- The Lives of Others (2001) (GERMANY)
I can’t say enough for the performances in this film about an East German officer who is told to listen in on conversations between an actress and her love, a West German writer. Soon, he realizes that he’s sympathizing with their emotions and feelings and has to decide whether he wants to turn them in or help them. There are two final shots in movies that I find which wraps the film’s theme into its central character’s facial expression. One is Chaplin’s “City Lights” and the other one is this film right here.
- The Seven Samurai (1954) (JAPAN)
This film is an epic in every way. Directed by famous director Akira Kurosawa (a notable inspiration for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg), and great cinematography and editing aside, the film boasts a wonderful depiction of Japan’s homeland and characterization of seven different Samurai warriors with seven different personalities (highlighted, as in many of Kurosawa’s films, by the performance of Toshiro Mifune).
- The Last Emperor (1988) (CHINA)
Technically not considered a Chinese film (but since this is my list, I bent my own rules a little) “The Last Emperor” is based on a true story about Pu Yi, China’s last emperor. The film literally takes you from his early childhood to his final moments and is highlighted by Bernardo Bertolucci’s direction, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting score and the depiction of the history in 20th Century China.
Last MOment: Do you agree with the list? Are there other great foreign films you would add? Share your comments.