Here’s the rest of my list. These top five films are international movies that have impacted me so uniquely that they rank among the most powerful movie experiences I have ever had.
5. Come and See (1985)
This is one of the most disturbing, horrific depictions of World War II ever put to camera. When a boy, Flyora, discovers a rifle buried in the ground he goes off to join a band of Soviet forces against the Germans. After his family is killed in an attack by German raiders, Flyora is plunged into the deep, dark reality of war. He flees across the countryside, dodging warplanes and gunfire, and witnesses firsthand the atrocities committed by the SS. This film shows you the worst of it, which is one of the things that makes it so impactful. Many times when we think of war casualties we consider all the fallen soldiers in battle. But this movie gives us a tongue in cheek look at some of the most tragic casualties we rarely think about: the civilian population.
4. Raise the Red Lantern (1992)
I was literally left breathless after this one. Raise the Red Lantern is the tale of a young woman, Songlian, who goes to live as a concubine for a wealthy master in 1920s China. One of the striking aspects of this movie is its use of color. Red features prominently, as whichever concubine the master chooses to sleep with, has a lantern in their chamber lit this color. There are four concubines in all and the movie focuses on the fourth one, Songlian, as she struggles to adapt to her new lifestyle, eventually succumbing to madness. Another striking thing about this movie is how claustrophobic and disturbingly quiet the atmosphere seems at times. The camera never goes beyond the wall of the household, as the movie is meant to make you feel trapped there, just as the four women are. The film ends on a very tragic, poetic note, as we realize the inevitability of Songlian’s fate.
3. City of God (2002)
This film is a huge eye-opener when it comes to showing you life in the slums of urban Brazil. A young boy, Rocket, struggles to make his way as a photographer while many of his friends become caught up in the drug trade. One of them grows up to become the ruthless Li’l Ze, the head of a notorious drug militia in an escalating series of turf wars. It’s an undeniably violent movie at times, going back and forth between shootouts to senseless murders, but this, you come to realize, is unfortunately the world that these teenagers are forced to live in. The camera is constantly in motion, taking you through dilapidated towns and giving you an unflinching look at the lives of the people who live there. In the midst of all this chaos we have Rocket, a young man with a talent who, like so many others in his situation, desperately wants to break out and make a better name for himself.
2. Andrei Rublev (1966)
This one’s pretty difficult to summarize. I’ve read that it takes multiple viewings to grasp the complexity of this movie and after having watched it only once I can honestly agree. However it only took one to convince me that this was a truly unique film. It tells the story of Andrei Rublev, a famous medieval Russian artist who dedicated his life to painting icons. The film is shown in segments, eight in total, which give a glimpse into the life of Andrei. He comes to work at a cathedral and later finds his faith tested after witnessing a horrific attack by a band of Tatar invaders. More than just the story of the man himself, the film is a story of Russian history. Its last segment, where the protagonist is mostly absent, is the tale of resilience in the face of adversity, ingenuity in the wake of tragedy. All of this is represented by the construction of a bell, a symbol of art that ultimately restores Andrei Rublev’s faith in mankind and gives him the inspiration he needs to resume his practice.
1. The Apu Trilogy:
- Pather Panchali (1955)
- Aparajito (1956)
- Apur Sansar (1959)
I had to pick all three movies for this one, because together they form the most emotional, impactful movie experience I had ever had in a theater. Yeah, I know this technically counts as 12 movies on the list. But this is the gold standard: Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece that tells the story of a poor boy growing up in West Bengali and all the hardships and loss he faces over the course of his life. We follow young Apu and his poverty-stricken family when he is just a little boy (Pather Panchali) to his teenage years (Aparajito) to his young adult years (Apur Sansar). First, he is a happy frolicking boy, then a young man trying to get an education in order to make a better life for himself, then a struggling writer/husband/father. It’s a coming of age story with a dark tone to it: there are losses, plenty of heartbreaking moments that make you wonder if young Apu will ever find true happiness in life, but there are also many moments that are joyful with a rare simplicity shown in movies that we can all relate to. There are the tender moments between Apu and his sister, Durga; the relationship between Apu and his mother; young Apu’s journey into adulthood; his marriage to Aparna, and lastly the final moment of the last film, Apur Sansar, where he finally establishes a relationship with his son. Once you’ve seen these movies, you feel as though you’ve seen life in its most precious and intimate form.