Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Top 10 Best Foreign Film Oscar Winners

Two days ago, as I watched the final frames of The Broken Circle Breakdown, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year, I became transfixed by what I was watching. The final shot of that film contains so much power – it literally made me rethink everything else in the film, and left me in a state of stunned amazement. And that’s something all of the Oscar-winning films below share with The Broken Circle Breakdown – that notion of utter transcendence. I hope you enjoy my picks, and do feel free to share yours as well!

Note: My list begins with films made on or after 1956, the year this award was officially enacted.

10. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
dir. Juan José Campanella

Sometimes the best compliment I can give an Academy Award winning film is by comparing it to its competition. Frankly, I hadn’t heard a thing about The Secret in Their Eyes when it beat The White Ribbon and A Prophet on Oscar night. A few days later, I watched Campanella’s ingenious maze of a film. I marveled at its deception, and I blissfully came to understand why it won.

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
dir. by Ang Lee

When I watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon today, it’s still as dazzling as the first time I saw it. I remain amazed by its stunts and visual imagery. It’s simply never lost its power.

8. All About My Mother (1999)
dir. by Pedro Almodóvar

If one thing is certain of All About My Mother, it’s that the film was born and bread solely from the unique mind of Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a comedy about tragedy, a drama that makes you laugh. After a nurse’s son is killed in an accident, she travels to Barcelona to find the father of her son, a transvestite named Lola, who himself was never aware he even had a son. All About My Mother is a hybrid of Almodóvar’s narrative strengths and stylistic flourishes. Easily one of the man’s finest films.

7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
dir. by Luis Buñuel

Attempting to explain Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie proves to be an exercise in futility. It’s a surrealist, plotless movie about a series of dreams and the six people who inhabit them. It’s one of Buñuel’s best, most confounding films, and I adore the Academy for awarding it so highly.

6. 8 ½ (1963)
dir. by Federico Fellini

While stuck in his own unforgiving world of writer’s block and creative discouragement, Federico Fellini decided to make a movie about a film director who was attempting to make a new movie, despite being stuck in the unforgiving world of writer’s block and creative discouragement. 8 ½ is one of the very finest results of a director not knowing what to do next. One of the best examples of art imitating life ever captured on film.

5. Z (1969)
dir. by Costa-Gavras

With so many fictionalized “based on a true story” movies made today – films that manipulate their audience into thinking everything depicted in their film is real, when much of it is anything but – it is so wildly refreshing to watch an angry, searing, truthful movie like Z. In retelling the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, director Costa-Gavras wanted his audience to know who was responsible. He didn’t change names or worry about pleasing the demands of a movie studio. Instead, he told the story through the perspective of the common man’s outrage, resulting in one of the most searing political thrillers ever made.

4. Day for Night (1973)
dir. by François Truffaut

Day for Night is the greatest film ever made about the making of a film. It’s a pitch black comedy in which Truffaut casts himself as a film director trying his damndest to keep his current movie from falling apart. Whether it’s appeasing to the plight of his star actress or getting a stubborn cat to drink from a bowl, Day for Night captures how no matter the size of the problem, any problem on a film can potentially bury the film forever.

3. The Virgin Spring (1960)
dir. by Ingmar Bergman

We conclude with three Oscar-winning films from my favorite filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. First is his unflinching tale of revenge, The Virgin Spring. Given the film’s deeply unsettling content, I cannot believe Bergman was able to get made. But if there was ever a director born to find insight out of a rape/revenge scenario, then Ingmar Bergman certainly was it. An unsettling and important masterpiece, one that inspired Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, and many other lesser films like it.

2. Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
dir. by Ingmar Bergman

Through a Glass Darkly concerns itself with a young schizophrenic woman, Karin (Harriet Andersson), and the three men most important to her: her timid brother, her self-absorbed father, and her older husband. While vacationing at a secluded family home, we watch as Karin’s demons slowly take over her fragile body, while the men around her debate what to do about it. Karin’s struggle concludes with a scene of haunting power, as she proclaims with manic rage that she has seen the eyes of God. Through a Glass Darkly is one of the most personal films Bergman ever made, which itself is quite a grand compliment.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982)
dir. by Ingmar Bergman

Released on Swedish television in 1982, but screened in America the following year, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is an expansive, fascinating telling of the Ekdahls family. The film tracks the Ekdahls through moments of great joy (an epic Christmas evening), to sequences of utter despair (in which our two young title characters are held in a dungeon-like room by their grim stepfather), to moments of tense horror. Fanny and Alexander is a film that constantly, seamlessly changes its perspective, yet always manages to stay the same. Its scope is large, but its sentiments are deeply personal. Fanny and Alexander is the true definition of a film masterpiece.

Ten More I Love
Amour (2012)
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
The Counterfeiters (2007)
In a Better World (2010)
La Strada (1956)
The Lives of Others (2006)
Mephisto (1981)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
The Sea Inside (2004)
A Separation (2011) 


  1. I wish I had seen more of these films but unfortunately I have only seen a couple (still need to see The Broken Circle Breakdown but on your word I believe it will be worth the wait when I finally do!). Certainly can't disagree with Fanny & Alexander being at the top though, of the three films Bergman was nominated for it is far and away the best (in my opinion).

    1. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Broken Circle. Such a fine film there. Fanny and Alexander... ah, one of the all time greats, isn't it?

    2. Having just looked at the winners and candidates for these categories, probably one of the most shocking winners for me was back in 1964 when Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow beat out such amazing works like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Woman in the Dunes. Seriously, that's a crime (there are others I disagree with - as I'm sure you do - but that one is seriously just wtf for me)

    3. Yeah that's a good pick there, I can't believe that won either. God, I need to watch Umbrellas again. I just adored that film.

  2. Of the films in the top 10. The ones I haven't seen are Through a Darkly Glass, Day for Night, and The Secret in Their Eyes. 2 of which are slated to be seen this year. In the alternate list, The Counterfeiters, Mephisto, and In a Better World are the ones I haven't seen. I just love the category as it's always made mostly good picks of great foreign films.

    1. It is a really strong category, for sure. Every year, there are at least 2 or 3 excellent films nominated. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on Through a Glass Darkly and Day for Night.

  3. With only 19 seen of 57 possible candidates, I was almost sure this list would have a lot of films I have not yet seen. But looks like I have chosen well. Only one I haven't seen is The Virgin Springs. Your '10 more' feature 4 I haven't seen. So I guess, I know which 5 I am watching next.

    I guess I am bigger fan of The Lives of Others and lesser of Crouching Tiger. So they would swap places for me but otherwise, no complaints!

    1. I'm a huge fan of The Lives of Others. Very patient, very smart. But I suppose CTHD gets the slighter edge for me. Still, can't take anything away from Others.

  4. I'd add in The Lives of Others as well. I'm not sure if it would be my top spot, but it would definitely be in my top 5.

  5. I haven't seen most of the Best Foreign Oscar winners so can't really give an educated opinion, but A Separation really shook me to the core so it will probably be in my list if I ever make one. Also, The Lives of Others.

    From among your list (of which I have seen 6 so yaay!), All About My Mother is my favourite. What a movie.

    1. Isn't that movie such a unique gem? God, I just love Almodóvar. NO ONE makes films like that guy.

  6. Great list, as always. The Foreign winners are hard to come by for me, but I have Fanny and Alexander on my Blind Spot list, and I look forward to watching it. (I was told to wait until Christmas time)

    1. Thanks! That is a perfect Christmas movie, for its opening sequence alone. Problem is, you're making yourself wait until December to watch it! It's sooo good. (PS, Get ahold of the 5 hour version if you can. I know, I know, it sounds long, but it isn't. Really.)

  7. Unlike the Documentary category, I have seen a reasonable number of the winners in this category - 37 of 59. I'd have:

    1. The Lives of Others
    2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    3. Departures
    4. Cinema Paradiso
    5. Day for Night
    6. The Barbarian Invasions
    7. Nights of Cabiria
    8. All About My Mother
    9. A Separation
    10. A whole bunch of films tied for 10th - Black Orpheus, The Shop on Main Street, Z, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie, Amarcord, The Official Story, Babette's Feast, Mediterraneo, Belle Epoque, and The Secret in Their Eyes

    1. Nice picks. I like that we have so many in common. Just curious, are you not a fan of Bergman?

    2. Not really. I can appreciate his filmmaking skills at an intellectual level, but at an emotional level his films mostly do nothing for me. My favorite film of his is Smiles of a Summer Night. It's probably no coincidence that it's about the only one of the 15 or so of his films I've seen that wasn't depressing and/or about death.

    3. Gotcha. Hey man, fair enough. I love depressing movies, so naturally I'm a big fan of his.

  8. I'm still amazed that Bergman's flicks won back-to-back. Two of my favorite Oscar wins right there. Glad to see Day for Night, 8 1/2 and All About My Mother here as well, and The Secret in Their Eyes is a nice, underrated choice. I'm surprised Amour didn't make the top 10, though.

    1. I honestly thought Amour would be the cut. But those others just barely won out, you know? Still, all great films.

      I love that Bergman back back-to-back. So good.