The Non-English Language Film Survey

Ah, lists! Like all fans, film aficionados are collectors, and every now and then, all collectors enjoy sifting through their stash to trot out their favorite baubles, arranged one way or another, to show them off to the world. Look! I’ve got three of the ultra-rare green kind, and oh, how that marbled one catches the sunlight just so! Toying with the objects of our affection in this way makes us feel happy and safe. In the world of movies, that’s what we call a list.

The movies we’ve seen (and can remember) are our stash and currency, and the best and shiniest of them will have to bear the scrutiny of any passers-by. As members of NYFCO, Marcy and I do this once a year, and recently, I’ve been asked, along with a number of bloggers and critics, to help put together a list of best films made in a language other than English before 2002. The list of nominations is out now at Edward Copeland’s site, and it’s a good one. You can go vote on your favorites, and a final tally will be published soon.

For the goal-oriented, that should be the end of the story, but I always find that democracy and criticism make an uneasy fit, and to me, the final result is somewhat beside the point. Instead, you might be happier taking a look at the individual ballots (or adding your own) here, at Jim Emerson’s site, at the House Next Door, or on your own damn blog. The fun is in the arranging of the marbles, the weighing of their comparative beauty, the debates over which ones have been overlooked or could be traded in for shinier ones. (It’s also a terrific way to fatten up your Netflix queue.) For the avid collector, the list is never an end in itself — it’s just a way to spend a little bit more time with some of our favorite things.

So here’s the snapshot of movies I considered worthy of inclusion according to this particular set of parameters on this particular day–culled from a much longer list of close contenders while LH 182, after three hours delay, finally began its initial descent on Berlin-Tegel, a fact I mention only because it may help explain the heavy Teutonic emphasis: I literally found myself in the Himmel über Berlin. Feel free to add your 25 favorites in the comments, and don’t forget to vote at Edward Copeland’s site. In alphabetical order:

8 1/2 Federico Fellini, 1963
Aguirre, The Wrath of God Werner Herzog, 1972
Akira Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988
Au Hasard Balthazar Robert Bresson, 1966
Band of Outsiders Jean-Luc Godard, 1964
Black Orpheus Marcel Camus, 1959
City of God Fernando Meirelles, 2002
Day for Night Francois Truffaut, 1973
M Fritz Lang, 1931
Nights of Cabiria Federico Fellini, 1957
Run Lola Run Tom Tykwer, 1998
Seven Samurai Akira Kurosawa, 1954
Solaris Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Spirited Away Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
Stolen Kisses Francois Truffaut, 1968
The Lovers on the Bridge Leos Carax, 1991
The Man Without a Past Aki Kaurismaki, 2002
The Rules of the Game Jean Renoir, 1939
The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman, 1957
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Jacques Demy, 1964
The Wages of Fear Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953
Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987
Y Tu Mama Tambien Alfonso Cuaron, 2001
Yojimbo Akira Kurosawa, 1961
Zur Sache, Schätzchen May Spils, 1968


Danny Boyle sends a group of astronauts–Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and Rose Byrne among them–on a mission to deliver a giant nuke in order to restart our dying star and save mankind. Confined to a ship that instantly brings to mind 2001‘s Discovery, they send video greetings to their families and tend to Silent Running oxygen gardens. But no matter how many millions of miles from home, when a distress signal arrives, it’s clear that we’re in some very familiar territory: lethal space walks, ticking countdowns, mysterious ghost ships, malfunctioning life support systems, a computer with a melodious voice denying urgent requests, tripped-out deep-space epiphanies. Nothing new under the sun.

At a post-screening Q&A at Tribeca Cinemas this week, Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) made it clear that he is very much hip to the sci-fi classics. Like the crew of the Ikarus II hiding out behind their giant space umbrella, Sunshine labors in the shadow of Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris — and the books by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem they were based on — with some additional nods to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Perhaps it’s not even possible to send people into space without referring to these touchstone films, and yet, the question remains: why has it been decades since anybody managed to put a brand-new spin on the genre? Fox Searchlight respectfully asks critics to keep mum about the third-act revelations and reversals that work hard to keep Sunshine surprising, but really, there’s no need: if you’ve watched any sci-fi at all, you have seen it before.

Which is not to say Sunshine isn’t a handsomely crafted, engaging, even nerve-wrecking space adventure. The CGI sun, seen through the filtered glass of the ship’s observation deck or shooting over the edge of the heat shield, is a blast of glorious, almost supernatural light. Boyle also does an outstanding job at vividly rendering the astronauts’ extreme vulnerability to the elements. The burning heat of the stars, the razor cold of space, everything is orders of magnitude more threatening than on Earth. The plant life on board the ship in particular becomes more precious than ever. Surely, this heightened state of perception is one of the reasons we go to the movies in the first place. So what if Kubrick already said it all? Set the controls for the heart of the sun anyway. Sunshine will open in the US on July 20.

Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. ***

Bonus videos: Pink Floyd at Pompeii, the trailer, and–just because he happened to turn up in the search–Bill Withers.