World Cinema is many different things, at its best it brings a breath of fresh air on the cinematic landscape, and allows you to experience different cultures and individuality. At it’s worst, by no fault of its own, it becomes a platform for people to harbor their own pretentiousness. Just because it’s of a foreign language does not make it great, much like American and British films, you take the good with the bad.
The films on this list are intended to ease you in to a world of films, and the most important thing about them is their accessibility. Making a drastic change from Hollywood to Italian Neo-Realism or Japanese Ultra Violence films is definitely not recommended, but the 5 films on this list are top quality that will ease your transition into the world of foreign cinema.
1. City of God (2002, Brazil)
Director: Fernando Meirelles | Runtime: 2h 10mins | Crime, Drama
Follows the lives of particular people among one of the most violent favela’s in Rio De Janeiro. In particular Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young photographer, trying to lead a cleaner life among all of the chaos.
This seems like an obvious choice, being one of most mainstream international films alongside Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, City of God instantaneously becoming a classic of World Cinema and is still considered one of the best films out there. It has come under some criticism for maybe stylising an otherwise not very stylish setting, but it’s that approach and exceptional direction that make this exciting to watch. It may take a couple of liberties but City of God, as a film, is a relentless reflection of a violent culture that uses fast pace editing and excitement to entertain, and doesn’t forget the grittiness that comes with such a setting.
2. Amelie (2001, France)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Runtime: 2h 2mins | Comedy, Romance
In the heart of Paris, a naive and generous girl called Amelie (Audrey Tautou) brightens the lives of the people around her. When she discovers a photo album belonging to young man, she journeys to return it to him.
In terms of quality and historical significance France is an absolute cinematic behemoth. Producing some of the most important figures and films in cinema history. Godard, Truffaut, Melville and Renoir all make their claim as some of the greatest filmmakers ever. But in terms of accessibility, the experimental nature of the French New Wave can be slightly difficult to get used to. But where do you go to find both class and entertainment, enter Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
His filmography is full of innovation and beauty, and Amelie is the directors crown jewel. As a film and character, Amelie is the purest form of ‘feel-good’. The greatest part of Amelie is the director using his own imagination and projecting it through his leading character, as a sheltered Amelie perceives everything with romanticism and a sense of wonder. The film is quirky, heartwarming and innovative, and I promise you will never fall in love with a film or character quicker than you do with Amelie.
3. Yojimbo (1961, Japan)
Director: Akira Kurosawa | Runtime: 1h 50mins | Action, Drama
In a small Japanese village, two rival gangs find themselves at war with one another. When a sneaky Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) comes across said village, he decides to play the two gangs against each other for personal gain.
Like France, Japan has a rich history of cinema, giving us some of the best films of all time. Whether it’s the Japanese New Wave or the weird and wonderful creations of people like Takeshi Miike, it’s safe to say Japan has made it’s mark on cinema. The focus for this list is on Akira Kurosawa, who’s films are as iconic as the man himself. Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Hidden Fortress, Ran, there is probably no director with as many masterpieces of his genre. The main focus though is his lighter Samurai masterpiece, Yojimbo.
It’s story may be best known in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but Kurosawa’s samurai classic is the original. This choice is mostly for accessibility, due to Kurosawa being a fan of the epic, and Shakespeare, it can make his films a little more difficult on first viewing. But Yojimbo is different, watching Toshiro Mifune hide in barrels and watch with glee, as the rival gangs tear each other part just adds to the charm of the character and overall tone of the film. Yojimbo is a masterclass by Kurosawa, but with the added cheek it gives it a more specific voice in an already stacked filmography.
4. Amores Perros (2000, Mexico)
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu | Runtime: 2h 34mins | Drama, Thriller
An unfortunate car accident connects the lives of three people, a young man (Gael Garcia Bernal) who becomes tied up with dog fighting, a young woman (Goya Toledo) trying to save her dog while dealing with her own fatal injuries, and a lonely homeless man (Emilio Echevarria) who cares for a number of dogs.
Inarritu has a complex filmography, his trilogy of death (which includes Amores Perros) is a gritty three film saga including different people who are all trying to deal with loss and consequence of action. But in his later career Inarritu has found his unique style in more slick and flowing films like Birdman and The Revenant. While he broke into the American scene after only one film, his debut Amores Perros remains one of his best and his most important.
The thematic range of Amores Perros is staggering, each story dealing with their own problems with delicacy, all while having their own connection to each other. Whether it’s the loneliness of an old homeless man or the unbelievable emotional pain of a model dealing with her life altering injuries, there is so much in this film to dissect. But through all the messages of class and loss, Amores Perros has the best representation of it’s culture on this list, the level of consistency on show is brilliant and it’s extremely entertaining as well.
5. Ip Man (2008, China)
Director: Wilson Yip | Runtime: 1h 46mins | Action, Biography, Drama
A partial true story of the man who trained Bruce Lee, Ip Man (Donnie Yen). Taking place during a Japanese invasion of China, Ip Man struggles to maintain a stable living situation all whilst teaching martial arts.
When you think martial arts your go-to films are those of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li. All three used their unique styles to launch the Martial Arts genre to a mainstream level. However, among those names should be Donnie Yen, maybe not as big as the others but certainly up there with innovation and ability, which is very apparent in Ip Man.
Martial Arts may only be a scrape of the Chinese cinematic landscape, but it’s certainly one of the most popular, especially to an international audience. Ip Man is the perfect face of Martial Arts cinema, maybe not as iconic as Jackie Chan’s classics, but definitely fit for a wider viewing. It has everything that makes a great Martial Arts film, beautiful cinematography, stunning choreography and just to add a little extra, a genuinely interesting story.