Thursday, August 3, 2017

Top 15 Movies About America (made by foreign directors)

Sometimes it takes a foreign eye to truly capture America at its darkest hours. Other times, an outsider’s perspective can shed sardonic light on American stereotypes like suburbia, middle America, white trash, and so on. There’s an interesting theme to this list, that foreign directors are less afraid to show America at its worst. Below are a handful of great films about America that were directed by foreigners. There were many to include here, so do feel free to list your favorites as well!

Honorable Mentions
Top Gun (1986) and Thelma and Louise (1991)
dir. by Tony Scott and Ridley Scott (both British)
Thelma and Louise is one of Ridley Scott’s best films; a masterpiece of Americana filmmaking. And whatever you think of Top Gun (I’ve never been a huge fan), its place in pop culture is secured as one of the most broo-ha-ha, America Fuck Yeah! films ever made.

The Apartment (1960)
dir. by Billy Wilder (Polish)
Billy Wilder made several great movies about America. Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, and especially Sunset Boulevard, could all earn a place on this list, but there’s some inherently American about The Apartment. This movie is New York, in all its black and white glamour. The Apartment is one of the classic, American big city films; one that still very much holds up today.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
dir. by John Schlesinger (British)
The New York City in Midnight Cowboy is the antithesis of the New York City in The Apartment. Schlesinger’s New York is cold, gritty, and rat invested. Schlesinger was interested in the dregs of the city – the pimps, the johns, the creatures of the night. The result is one of America’s best, most purposefully upsetting classics. I still can’t believe a major studio (United Artists) made this movie in 1969, let alone pushed it to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Deliverance (1972)
dir. by John Boorman (British)
Deliverance is the best backwoods ass American film ever made. Nothing in the genre can match its terrifyingly realistic dread. The film was written by James Dickey, a poet/war hero/Southern wild man, but directed by a cinematically radical Brit, John Boorman. Deliverance displays the worst of Deep South stereotypes with such an unflinching eye. Perhaps it took a foreigner to deliver such madness so effectively. 

Chinatown (1974)
dir. by Roman Polanski (French-Polish)
There are a lot of good movies about Los Angeles, and a lot of good movies set in the innocence of the 1930s, but I can’t think of any that are better than Chinatown. It’s stunning that such a naturally American movie was made by a foreign filmmaker. Every frame of Chinatown is the Los Angeles of the era. What an endlessly fascinating picture. 

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
dir. by Sergio Leone (Italian)
Once Upon a Time in America is one of the great epics about America. It was Sergio Leone’s last (and arguably best) movie, one that he spent nearly a year shooting all over the world – from Venice to Rome, Paris to Quebec. Yet the film remains wholly indebted to New York City. Once Upon a Time in America captured New York in a way few films do, displaying the city’s unique, complex beauty to such iconic results.

Paris, Texas (1984)
dir. by Wim Wenders (German)
Paris, Texas is pure, blue-blood American cinema. It was co-written by a masterful American playwright (Sam Shepard, rest in peace), and starred Harry Dean Stanton, whose entire presence exudes American working class. Yet the film was made by the great German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. What’s so interesting about the movie is it proves that visual poetry can transcend setting. Wenders knows how to tell a story with few words and vast landscapes, location be damned.

Mississippi Burning (1988)
dir. by Alan Parker (British)
Mississippi Burning is about the FBI investigation of the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the ‘60s. British filmmaker Alan Parker doesn’t hold back in his indictment of the FBI and the KKK, ultimately delivering one of the most unflinching films about the Civil Rights Movement. American filmmakers often end their civil rights films with moments of hope. Parker told it straight, and proved that in 1960s Mississippi, true justice was hard to come by.

The Ice Storm (1997)
dir. by Ang Lee (Taiwanese)
Ang Lee has one of the keenest eyes for American life of any contemporary filmmaker, let alone a foreign one. He’s made movies about the Civil War, Woodstock, and the war in Iraq. Hell, he’s the only filmmaker listed twice on this list, and for good reason. The Ice Storm is a complete, American portrayal of suburban life in the 1970s. The sex, the drugs, the music, the booze. The film takes place over just a few days, but it captures the full essence of America at the time. Lee’s eye for detail in the film is incredible, especially considering that he didn’t even live in America during the time period depicted in the film.

American Beauty (1999)
dir. by Sam Mendes (British)
American Beauty and The Ice Storm make a perfect double feature of American suburban hell. Mendes’ film was the more popular one, ultimately winning the Best Picture Oscar. And while I’m not sure it will hold up as well as Lee’s film, American Beauty is a film of its time. It’s a capsule portrayal of teenage angst, marital woes, and unorthodox self discovery, all under the still trees of an anonymous American town.

Dogville (2003)
dir. by Lars von Trier (Danish)
Though set in Colorado, Dogville was shot entirely on a massive sound stage in Sweden, purposefully decorated with crude props (i.e., chalk on the floor to signify a door), and shot with consumer-grade, hi-def cameras. Von Trier said Dogville is a movie about how evil can arise anywhere, including a tiny American town in which the seemingly quaint citizens slowly begin to prey upon a quiet stranger, played by Nicole Kidman. The film is considered by many to be a brutal, anti-American satire of our country at its worst. There’s just no way an American would make a film as sardonically critical of America as Dogville

In America (2003)
dir. by Jim Sheridan (Irish)
In America presents an outsider’s portrait of the American Dream. And it does so realistically, by showing how hard it is to actually attain that dream. What is The Dream, anyway? Stability? Independent wealth? Move here, work hard, make money, be free? People have different interpretations of this, but Sheridan’s is quiet, sweet and gently harrowing. 

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
dir. by Ang Lee (Taiwanese)
I’ve always wondered, what if Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar packed up and headed to New York City after their first summer together? It was the ‘60s, they could’ve moved to the Village, hung with the Beats, openly been in love. But they didn’t, because they couldn’t. Ang Lee’s film is a devastating portrayal of American men stuck in a time and place, unable to break free and live their full lives.

United 93 (2006)
dir. by Paul Greengrass (British)
The events of 9/11 have been told and retold several times for narrative purposes. Yet without question, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is the best, most important film made about that day. It is gripping, masterful cinema that will remembered and discussed for decades.

12 Years a Slave (2013)
dir. by Steve McQueen (British)
It’s true, the best film ever made about slavery was not made by an American filmmaker. This was discussed a lot upon 12 Years a Slave’s release, that it took a foreigner to fully unveil a grotesque period of American history. Steve McQueen’s film is a brutal triumph; it shields us from nothing, while still managing to be wholly emotional.

American Honey (2016)
dir. by Andrea Arnold (British)
Andrea Arnold’s films depict regular-to-impoverished working class people in turbulent times, but American Honey was her first feature set in the U.S. Everything about this movie bleeds middle America – the rotten food, the second-hand clothes, the ceaseless smoking, the day binge drinking. It’s an epic film on a small scale, something only Arnold could pull off so effectively. 

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28 comments:

  1. Really cool list dude! Now for "Top 15 films made about foreign countries by American directors" lol.

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    1. Thanks man! Haha that's not a bad idea. Where to begin....

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  2. With the exception of American Honey which I haven't seen, I can standby this list though I'm sort of mixed on American Beauty as I think it's a flawed film but still worth watching. I've been thinking about Paris, Texas a lot lately due to Sam Shepard's passing as it is really one of the best films I had ever seen about America through the eyes of a foreigner.

    There's a documentary by Louis Malle called God's Country that I think is probably one of the best films about America from the perspective of an outsider as it is about this small town in Minnesota that Malle encounters as he gets to know these people and then visits them six years later to see what it had become. It's worth checking out.

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    1. Glad you like the list. Sam Shepard... what a loss. I got into his plays last year, and they made me respect him so much more. What a talent.

      Damn, I haven't even heard of God's Country. Looks really interesting. Need to see that one soon.

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    2. God's Country is available on Criterion's Eclipse release of Malle's Documentaries. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dvd-documentaries-of-louis-malle/12100298?ean=0715515023825 Two days left in the sale!

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    3. Ohhh shit. Didn't make it in time, but I'll track it down one way or another.

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    4. They've expanded it an extra week until the 14th. You got time.

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    5. Ohhh it's on Film Struck. (Film Struck is the best by the way.)

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  3. Excellent list! I've seen most of these, most recently American Honey, and I would agree most are excellent films. That said, I'm not a fan of Brokeback or Deliverance. On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in America is one of my all-time faves. I'd have also been tempted to include Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. I'm also a little surprised Hitchcock didn't make the list, particularly North by Northwest and Psycho.

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    1. Thanks Dell! Ohh I'm surprised you even mentioned Brokeback by name ;)

      I did think about Hitch, but there's a certain (purposeful) artifice to his films that don't tie them to a specific place, if that makes sense. They way he relied on interiors and sets, that sort of thing. Admittedly, that's a flawed statement, because movies like The Birds and Vertigo live out in the open, but I don't know, I guess I never got a sense of "Wow, that's life in America" from his work.

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    2. Put that way, I agree. His examinations are more singular in nature rather than a look at a culture.

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    3. But still, it was a great call on your part. North by Northwest definitely has great scenes in the open.

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  4. Great list. Okay, full honesty- I didn't know Billy Wilder wasn't American. Like whoa!

    Hehe maybe one day I will make such a film :P

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    1. Thanks! Crazy, right? Because Wilder knew America so well... better than many American directors, I'd say.

      Maybe you will! Just gotta keep fighting and creating.

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  5. Fine work. Sometimes the perspective of someone not familiar with America can pay dividends.

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    1. Thanks! And yes, that is certainly true.

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  6. Wow!! I had no idea Billy Wilder was from Poland!! He's one of the greatest Hollywood director's of the past century!!
    Ang Lee deserves the double recognition, you've honoured him with. He truly is one of the greatest director's of our time, the here and the now!!!

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    1. Thanks for the comment! It's crazy to think that Wilder wasn't American, because he capture America so well. Same with Lee. Such a keen eye for American detail.

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  7. Just watched Brokeback Mountain for the first time a few weeks ago and i loved it. Such an heartbreaking movie. Heath Ledger really was a brilliant actor gone way too soon. I can't really think of any more movies about America made a non-Americans right now. It's a very specific, but interesting list. Gonna have to think about this one. Made me want to check out a few more of these though that i haven't gotten around to yet.

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    1. Good stuff man. Really happy you liked Brokeback so much. That one really holds up. It actually gets better and better with time. Poor Heath. Really miss the guy.

      Ha, I guess it is sort of a randomly specific list. The idea just popped into my head, and I was stunned to find so many worthy films!

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  8. Man, this is some good shit right here. Sadly, I haven't seen nearly enough of these movies, but what I have seen, clearly you've made some stellar picks.

    I think there's certainly something to being an outsider that both drives your love of the subject and the level of detail and appreciation you inevitably handle it with. It's a bit like that bad-movie cliche of the nerdy guy who knows the girl better than her actual boyfriend, you know? That dude's had time to study.

    Damn, man. I gotta read more of your stuff.

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    1. Haha thanks man, so glad you dig the list! I totally get what you mean too. Love the insight foreigners can bring to American subjects.

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  9. Well, you could back to Lubitsch and Heaven Can Wait and Renoir with The Southerner. And there's always a choice from Milos Foreman: Taking Off, Hair, Ragtime.

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    1. Solid picks right there. I didn't even consider Hair, which is a really great choice. People vs. Larry Flynt, too.

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  10. I hated Dogville with the burning passion from the half of the movie because that's when Von Trier just couldn't help himself and had to go all psycho on the audience. I wanted to see American Honey until I heard about Riley character stealing dog from its owner and it just sounds too distressing.

    I always forget Mendes is not American, it's shocking considering he made that movie. And I really need to see Paris Texas it's embarrassing that I didn't.

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    1. Yeah, Dogville is a touch one to appreciate. Such a fucking brutal movie. Though, "Go all psycho on the audience," made me laugh out loud.

      What Mendes did with American Beauty is really something else, in terms of capturing where suburban American was at that moment.

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  11. In the area of Mississippi Burning, are your thoughts on Parker's 'The Wall' Alex? Painfully auterial album that soars when given a little visual context, rough but quite unlike anything I've ever seen. Great list.

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    1. Yeah man, that is one hell of a unique film. I actually need to see that again - it's been well over 10 years.

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