When people think of movies, they think Hollywood. Hollywood is the undisputed king of filmmaking. However, the world is a big place — what about Bollywood and Japanywood? What do you mean that's not a thing? There are so many talented creators working all over the world, so why should we not explore as many as we possibly can, and why should we let the simple fact of spoken language stop us from doing so?
With that in mind, here are my top 5 favorite international drama movies of the 21st century that you need to check out. Do keep in mind that I said "drama." So as great as movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero are, you won't find them here. Sorry!
5. Victoria (Germany/2015)
Victoria is fantastic. I've put it at the No. 5 spot as it is not strictly non-English. It is a good starting point if you're new to international cinema and perhaps not used to reading subtitles.
Victoria follows, well, Victoria — a Spanish girl having moved to Berlin who does not speak any German, so the film is about fifty percent English. Victoria was filmed in one single take, with a script of just twelve pages (most of the dialogue being improvised) between about 4:30 AM to 7:00 AM on April 27, 2014 in the Kreuzberg and Mitte neighborhoods of Berlin. Director Sebastian Schipper completed the filming in three attempts.
Victoria starts off with dancing in a nightclub and making new friends in a country in which our titular character does not yet know anybody. As the night continues, things all go a bit differently. I really don't want to go into too much detail as I think it's better you go in knowing as little as possible. And because it was filmed in a single take, over a few hours, there isn't really much I can say without spoiling something. Just go find it. Seriously.
4. Dogtooth/Κυνόδοντας (Greece/2009)
Dogtooth is weird. Really weird. This Academy Award nominated Greek film by director Yorgos Lanthimos is not for the faint-hearted. It follows a family living in isolation, with the children never having seen the world beyond the family's land well into adulthood.
The family's names are never revealed; there is a mother, father, brother and two sisters. The only person to ever leave the land is the father, who only ever seems to go to the factory he owns. The only television they've ever seen is their own home videos and they believe that they have another brother on the other side of the very tall fence, whom they've never seen or heard. They are told that the only safe way to leave is by car and that they will not be ready to leave until they lose a dogtooth. The children entertain themselves with endurance games such as holding their hands under boiling water to see who can last the longest, as well as other fun things!
This is a film about the impacts of being isolated and about being scared. It's about the myths and lies told to maintain the idea of normality. It almost makes you question your own existence and makes you question life itself. Much of the film takes place in small, boxy spaces, emphasizing this feel of claustrophobia. The almost monotone dialogue (however, excellent performances), use of sexual manipulation and blackmailing and a scene involving a cat and a pair of pliers, makes you feel uncomfortable the whole way through. It feels like you are watching the private home videos of a family that has something very wrong with them. Home videos that you should't be watching, and almost don't want to, but finding yourself just unable to look away.
Dogtooth is a film that ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers — that question most likely being "What the heck?" It's a psychological drama filled with social commentary. Just watch it, it's too difficult to explain.
3. Curse Of The Golden Flower/滿城盡帶黃金甲 (China/2006)
There are a lot of excellent Chinese films. If I made a list of the best of them, It'd be an awfully long one! I chose Curse of the Golden Flower mainly because of one reason: Gong Li's performance. Gong Li is undoubtedly one of the finest actors working today, and she showcases that here.
Curse of the Golden Flower is like an epic Chinese Shakespeare play. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the man behind House of Flying Daggers and Hero, It is one of the most visually stunning movies I have ever seen and the most expensive Chinese film to date at the time of it's release. It is a melodrama about family feuds, greed, power, corruption and betrayal — all that good stuff! Taking place in 928 A.D., It tells the story of China's emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), who is secretly slowly poisoning his wife (Gong Li). Meanwhile, the empress is having an affair with Prince Wan (Ye Liu), her husband's son from a previous marriage, but the prince secretly wishes to run away with Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the imperial doctor.
So, as you can see, it's a pretty dysfunctional family. Curse of the Golden Flower is a wild ride. Everything happens rather quickly towards it's climax (or anti-climax — I'm not entirely sure). In fact, it all becomes so intense that it gets a little overwhelming and even stressful. It messes with your emotions so much in such a short space of time that by the end, you aren't entirely sure how to feel. So, if you're sensitive to that kind of thing, be warned.
Despite it's what could be flaws, Curse of the Golden Flower is an impressive piece of film making by one of China's finest directors, starring some of China's finest actors and being visually absolutely stunning with a truly epic battle sequence.
2. Amores Perros (Mexico/2000)
The Academy Award nominated Amores Perros was the feature length film debut of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman and The Revenant, as he continues to prove himself as one of the finest working directors in the industry today.
Amores Perros is an anthology film following three separate stories that are all connected by a car crash in Mexico City. All the characters are from different backgrounds and classes, have their own lives and their own issues, but are all briefly brought together in a single moment.
It is told from all three perspectives with the timeline going back and fourth. The first story follows Octavio and his sister-in-law Susana, with whom Octavio is in love and wants to run away, not liking the way his abusive brother, Ramiro, treats her. In order to make enough money to do so, Octavio enters the business of dog fighting (which is quite graphic, be warned). The second follows a successful magazine publisher named Daniel, who plans to leave his wife for his lover, Spanish supermodel Valeria, and the third following El Chivo, a mysterious man seen also appearing in the other segments, who is trying to get back into contact with Maru, the daughter whom he left behind.
The film has many overlapping themes. All of the characters have a strong bond with a dog, representing the central theme of loyalty. Loss plays a large part for all the characters and so does disloyalty. It explores the link between moral change and physical change, nature versus nurture, and how the real world is more frightening than the fictional world. It's deep, complex, emotional and tragic. One thing that really struck me about Amores Perros is how real it all felt. It's one of the few films that almost made me forget that I was watching a fictional piece of cinema.
Amores Perros is absolutely one of the best non-English films ever made. Anybody who is a fan of films like Pulp Fiction or television series's such as Sense8, will enjoy what this has to offer. If you like this and haven't already, check out Alejandro González Iñárritu's two other unrelated follow up films that make up the directors "Trilogy of Death" — 21 Grams, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
1. Love Exposure/愛のむきだし (Japan/2008)
Love Exposure is a damn masterpiece. Masterful director Sion Sono's (Cold Fish) four-hour-long tale easily ranks in my top five films of all time. Sono is one of the bravest and most unique fimmakers working in the industry today. Sono deals with topics and goes places that other filmmakers would't dare. Having said that, Love Exposure is one of his tamer flicks but for me, his absolute best.
Love Exposure tells the story of Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima), a well-behaved 17-year-old raised in a devout Christian family. His mother dies when he is young and some years later, his father, now a priest, is seduced and then heart broken by another woman. Following this, Yu's father forces his son to come to confession everyday to confess his sins, which he does not have. In order to appease his father, Yu becomes a sinner, meets a beautiful girl named Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) while dressed as a woman after being on the losing end of a bet and they instantly fall in love. There are only two problems: Yoko thinks that the person she met is a woman and a religious cult leader named Kioke (Sakura Ando) is carefully manipulating both of their lives. We see the story told through all three characters' perspectives.
Love Exposure is part satirical black comedy and part psychological drama; the first half is noticeably different in tone to the second. Love Exposure is about self-discovery, manipulation, the influence of religion and how far one would go for someone they love. It is a completely insane ride. It gets a little slow during the middle but picks right back up and just doesn't stop. Of course, being a Japanese film, boundaries are pushed just a little bit further. There is one scene in particular (you'll know exactly which scene I mean when you see it) where you think "there's no way that's gonna happen, no way... They aren't gonna go that far." Spoiler alert: They do!
Love Exposure is the only film that I have ever purchased twice, on Blu-ray and digitally. I've sat through it's four-hour duration countless times and each time is better than the last. Any film that can hold my attention for that long and not have me bored for a single second must be pretty special. There really isn't enough good things I can say about it. Along with its fantastic everything, it also uses a great soundtrack of funky tunes along with classical and church sounds such as Beethoven. In Love Exposure, laughs are had, tears are shed and boundaries are pushed to the limit. If the run time isn't too daunting for you, go watch it right now. And if it is, get some coffee (not that you'll need it) and go watch it right now! You need to see this.