We are living in what the New York Times called “a golden age of foreign films.” But American audiences wouldn’t know it unless they are lucky enough to live near an art-house cinema or can tolerate subtitles on rented DVDs.
The rising quality of foreign films over the past several years is in sharp contrast, frankly, with the ordinariness of many Hollywood offerings. This summer’s celluloid epics have mostly been as limp and flavorless as wet popcorn.
Here are 2011’s “summer blockbusters,” thus far: “Scream 4,” “Thor,” “Bridesmaids,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “The Hangover Part II,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Fast Five,” “Green Lantern,” “Cars 2,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” “Captain America” and “Cowboys and Aliens.”
That’s a pretty depressing list, if you ask me: eight sequels; three comic-book action heroes; two lame cartoons; one film inspired by a ride at a theme park; another inspired by a toy. This is what Hollywood presented to the world this summer as its peak cinematic offerings. Except for the antic “Bridesmaids” and the iconic Harry Potter finale, what a sorry array.
The two best films I saw this summer were foreign-made — with small budgets but big, emotionally powerful themes. Both movies moved me to tears, but I suspect I’m a pushover. (One of my daughters once asked me: “Daddy, do you cry at all movies?”) As it happens, I saw both on the same weekend, when the dominant film at the local multiplex was “Green Lantern.”
The first of these foreign gems is “Incendies,” a film by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve whose title translates roughly as “Scorched.” It is a searing story about a brother and sister who are propelled by their mother’s mysterious will to find their roots in a savage Middle Eastern country that could only be Lebanon.
“Incendies” is based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, and I can’t tell you much about the plot without giving away the astonishing denouement. Critic Michael O’Sullivan was not overstating things when he wrote in The Washington Post: “It knocks you off your feet and leaves you shaken.” How many recent American films could you say that about?
The second remarkable foreign film was “Biutiful,” directed by the brilliant Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. This one is better known, thanks to an Academy Award nomination for its star, Javier Bardem. It’s a story that might not sound appealing, about a father in Barcelona who realizes that he’s dying of cancer and wonders what to do with his children. But it’s so beautifully imagined and filmed that it achieves the kind of poignant universality that people once associated with classic American films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “On the Waterfront.”
All of Inarritu’s movies examine the suffering and joy of the migrant workers who are in constant motion in our globalized world. Remember his film “Babel,” with Brad Pitt, which wove together plot details from Morocco, Japan and the Mexican-American border. In “Biutiful,” the dispossessed are African and Chinese migrants who live in constant fear but never lose their dignity. This Mexican director reaches to capture the big themes of 21st-century life in a way that most American directors don’t even attempt.
“Incendies” and “Biutiful” were both nominated for the foreign film Oscar this year (“Biutiful” won). But despite this push, they’ve had puny box-office runs. Sure, you can see them on video, but they deserve to be seen in a theater. In multiplex-America, where the game is selling popcorn and sodas to teenagers, forget about it.
Foreign languages seem to be a killer for monolingual Americans. How else to explain the non-distribution of the most entertaining gangster films of the past few years: Jacques Audiard’s 2009 masterpiece, “Un Prophete,” and Jean-Francois Richet’s two-part “Mesrine” series. These movies bear comparison with our gangster epics, such as the “Godfather” movies, but they’ve had tiny audiences in America. Too bad for us.
Americans are making some fine “indie” films. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an ambitious if difficult work, and last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” by Debra Granik, was an especially powerful movie. But many of these small-budget films have small imagination and ambition, too. They are offbeat coming-of-age narratives, or chronicles of life at the margins.
For a really big movie this summer (in other terms than its special-effects budget) you probably have to look at a small screen, and put on your glasses to read those subtitles.