Vital Subtitles: 12 Great Directors from Other Countries
Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie Only God Forgives starring Ryan Gosling opened in limited release a few weeks ago. Set in Bangkok, its minimal dialogue transpires (Gosling is especially stoic here) mostly in English, which may come as no surprise to you, since Winding Refn’s last few films — Drive, Bronson, Valhalla Rising — have also been in English. During the rest of Only God Forgives the characters are speaking Thai, Gosling included. But Winding Refn is from Denmark and his early movies, like the Pusher trilogy, were in Danish. You should go watch them right now; they’re violent genre films that aim for something more than a splatter of bullet-riddled guts, the kind of movies that rightfully inspire cults of art dudes to obsess over their gleaming, gore-slicked surfaces.
Oh, you won’t watch movies that aren’t in English? Sorry to hear that. Go run along and play in the traffic with the other children. Grown Ups 2 is there with them and it’s sure to be great fun for all of you. No, seriously, go away. We’re no longer speaking.
Okay, adults still in the room, now we can talk. I know you still like Fast & Furious 6 and Transformers: Whatever the Latest One Is. I do, too. Fighting over it isn’t necessary. I won’t be forced by opposing camps of the great cinema divide to pick a team and you shouldn’t have to either. But that’s a rare problem, nothing compared to the one the big, bad culture has created, the one where you’re suckered into believing that the tentpole releases are the only films that matter, the only voices to choose. And unlike NWR, some of the world’s best filmmakers will probably never shoot a movie in English. Or half-Thai/half-English. Whatever.
So here’s a list. Like all lists it’s laughably incomplete and weirdly subjective. My criteria were that the people on it a) have to be not dead, which means that legends like Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Andrei Tarkovsky (The Mirror) and Ousmane Sembène (Moolaade) aren’t on it, and b) still making films, which means that Hungarian art tormentor Bela Tarr is also not here, since he up and quit after The Turin Horse, which you should see because it will make you deeply unhappy in the very best way. If you find this criteria or the list that follows lacking you should go complain to your therapist instead of me. Here goes:
Claire Denis – Uncompromising but not always so serious, the French Denis is formally precise and as interested in sound, space and bodies in motion as she is with telling a conventional story. She faces down the darkest aspects of humanity, like in the grueling regret fest The Intruder or the sex-cannibal-populated Trouble Every Day. But she also makes sure that love, care and tenderness is given a fair shake (35 Shots of Rum). Her masterpiece is 1999′s Beau Travail, which she freely adapted from Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, turning it inside out. No easily connected dots pull this sun-blinded story about male desire together. It’s narrative second, hypnotism first. Doomed men buying transplant organs on the black market, soldiers exercising themselves into erotic fatigue in the desert or Vincent Gallo trying to eat you — you can pretty much start anywhere with Denis and come away happily deranged.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul – From Thailand, he encourages people having difficulty with his name (aka anyone who isn’t Thai) to call him “Joe.” His films glide along on an idiosyncratic cloud of serenity, employing a dreamy Buddhist logic to make spiritual sense of the harsh realities of life. In his Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this involves the journey of a dying man as he makes peace with his past, the future (in whatever world lies beyond), his own previous incarnations on Earth and his only somewhat disconcerting discovery that his long-lost son has mutated into a monkey ghost. I know, I just sealed the deal with that bit of plot detail. You’re welcome.
Johnnie To – If you’re a fan of Reservoir Dogs you’ll want to see the films of Johnnie To. Hong Kong’s To is one of Tarantino’s favorites, a filmmaker who puts guns into mens’ hands and drills in deeper to uncover ideas about violence and violent men's relationships to the world, honor, crime, each other and that precious weaponry. And he’s about as prolific as you can get: since 1980 he’s directed 55 features. His latest, Drug War, opens in July. Start there, work backwards, you’ll be done in five years if you don’t go crazy with the bathroom and snack breaks.
Kleber Mendonça Filho – Okay, yes, sure, one narrative feature under his belt and he makes this list. But in defense of his placement here I offer you the following statements of fact: 1) It’s a really good movie. 2) Shut up and go write your own list. Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, about a well-off neighborhood on lockdown, is as confident and stylistically assured as it gets, relevant for right now, not just in his home country Brazil but in any densely packed city where wealth and poverty collide and dance around each, hoping for a little mutually assured destruction. It drifts and meanders and surprises like a vintage art film — or a randomly circuitous YouTube time-suck when you should be busy working.
Souleymane Cisse – From Mali and most active in the 1970s, he still releases films sporadically (the most recent was 2009′s hard-to-find Tell Me Who You Are) and he’s regarded as one of the most important filmmakers on the African continent, exploring the old ways of living as they crash into the new. His highly acclaimed 1983 film The Wind is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story, about a teenage boy whose background is tribal falling for a girl from a modern, military family. Its sparks come from the friction between that cultural divide. If everything you see of the Africa in current movies involves genocide and blood diamonds, this is a gentler, rewarding flipside.
Sion Sono – If you have a free afternoon sometime soon, sit down with Japanese director Sono’s insane Love Exposure. It’s a four-hour (hence your need for a free afternoon) head-spinning freakout and its subject is what it means to be young and wild and… religious and… a committed up-skirt photographer. Catholicism, faith, sin, confession, violence, transvestism, girl gangs, cults, vengeance, sexual mutilation, mass murder, mental hospitals, panties and true love all get their moment because Sono is a master plate spinner and zigzag artist. When you’re done with it you’ll be torn over whether to tackle his other films or just watch all four hours again immediately.
Manoel de Oliveira – Old. I mean old. As in 104 years old old. Made his first film in 1927 old. He’s been there and outlived people born after him. This guy is cinema. Still making stylistically diverse, theatrically minded films right now, the acclaimed Portuguese director is already in production on his latest project, The Church of the Devil. His most well-regarded movies can be hard to find unless you manage to a) live near a nice repertory theater or museum and b) have some kind of pull with the programmers, but start with 2001′s moving story of — what else — aging, I’m Going Home. Then give a shot to whatever else you can get your hands on. His work is cold and hot, distant and personal — unless he decides not to be any of those things. He can even be occasionally boring, which pretty much defines difficult filmmaking at its most maddening and erratic and challenging and awesome.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien – The veteran Taiwanese director is for lovers of the long and slow. Formally innovative, his thoughtful, gentle films reward you with fresh information and beauty every time you revisit. One of the great experiences in moviegoing tranquility I’ve had in the past decade was seeing Hou’s 1985 A Time to Live, a Time to Die. It’s about a child who moves with his family to a new country. He experiences adolescence and a new culture that contradicts with family traditions, forcing him to make choices that will connect him to a better future or to a street gang. It’s perfectly composed and in love with the big questions without grandstanding or feeling like an imposition; and like all Hou’s work, its influence can be seen in the films of younger directors like critical favorite Tsai Ming-liang. Start here, go there next.
Giorgos Lanthimos – From Greece, Lanthimos’ gut-grabbing brand of strange can be seen in his most recent films, Alps and the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth. The latter is about the weird goings-on in a voluntarily isolated family, one where the parents have sequestered the children and raised them to believe the opposite of facts. Meanwhile, Alps involves a troupe of actors for hire who stand in for the recently deceased and ease the transitional grief of surviving family and friends. Are Lanthimos’ darkly funny, weirdly disturbing films a fictional transposing of his troubled country’s ongoing economic, political and cultural crisis? Probably. But they also function as first-date litmus tests, the kind of films to weed out unsuitably literal-minded candidates from the love pool.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne – Part of very small crew of seven filmmakers who’ve won the Palme d’Or twice — enough to populate their own lonely 18k island — these Belgians are the modern masters of humane social realism. The unemployed, the forgotten, the displaced, the desperate, the abandoned children, the people forced to live outside the law: those are the Dardenne brothers’ favorite people. And their frequently sorrowful stories never wallow in misery or exploitation; just the opposite, they’re instructively empathetic, intimate and urgent. Take a look at last year’s The Kid with a Bike and work your way back chronologically to witness Belgian star Jeremie Renier — a Dardenne mainstay — get younger before your eyes.
Jafar Panahi – The Iranian filmmaker relentless persecuted by his own government — his documentary about being placed under house arrest, This Is Not a Film, had to be smuggled out of the country on a USB stick inside a cake (which is, come on, pretty classically cinematic and awesomely stealthy on both old- and new-school levels) — Panahi’s direct, plainspoken, powerful approach to social justice on film is laudable and terrifying. The Circle, his nightmarish story of trapped Iranian women in a theocratic culture that restricts their every movement, is devastating and essential. Every time his name isn’t mentioned in protest and solidarity during an acceptance speech by somebody winning an Academy Award, a Hollywood demon gets its horns.
Aleksandr Sokurov – The current reigning Russian total god of you. His long takes, spiritual themes and classical form make him the kind of filmmaker other directors revere and learn from. His incredibly moving Mother and Son is one of the most emotionally wrenching films of recent history and his technical achievement in Russian Ark — a movie filmed in one long take, starring hundreds of people, intricately rehearsed and choreographed as the camera glides through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum — is staggering, the kind of thing that would make any filmmaker even a little unsure of him/herself just give up.
I told you this was incomplete, but, you know, See Also: Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodovar, Matteo Garrone, Patricio Guzman, Andres Wood, Mariely Rivas, Emir Kusturica, Sebastian Silva, Lucrecia Martel, Zhangke Jia, Tsai Ming-liang, Hirokazu Koreeda, Arnaud Desplechin, Gaspar Noe, Bong Joon-ho, Wai Ka-fai, Takeshi Kitano, Christophe Honore, Catherine Breillat, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Bertrand Tavernier, Carlos Reygadas, Bahman Ghobadi, Aki Kaurismaki, Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Michel Haneke, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Francois Ozon, Olivier Assayas, Abderrahmane Sissako, Park Chan-wook and Thomas Vinterberg. And the hundred others I forgot. Happy hunting.