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The 10 Best English Language Debuts by Foreign Filmmakers

Usually, it doesn’t work. Just ask George Sluizer, John Woo, or Wong Kar-Wei. Few foreign filmmaker make it to Hollywood with their aesthetic intact. For some, it takes movie after movie after movie (and, perhaps, a move back home) to achieve the kind of artistic success that had Tinseltown calling in the first place. In rare cases, however, little gets lost in translation. For the 10 filmmakers here, their first foray into Western moviemaking was not only a triumph, but telling indeed. They proved that, as long as the studios stayed out of it (or, at the very least, tried to), great things could be had.

#10 – Funny Games (Michael Haneke)foreignfilmmakers10

Never before has a filmmaker chiding his audience with such satiric glee as Haneke did with this shot for shot remake of his own Austrian thriller. Taking on the concept of violence, privilege, and our unnecessary romanticizing of each, the director dug deep into our post-modern psyche, delivering a love/hate denouement that still divides viewers some six years after its release. While Haneke would go on to “play nice” with films like The White Ribbon and Amour, this is his true cinematic testament.

#9 – Leon: The Professional (Luc Besson)foreignfilmmakers9

Besson was already a fan favorite thanks to the whiz-bang action antics of his La Femme Nikita. Translating his talent to English, he came up with a cult classic that many today see as his finest film. Jean Reno is a hitman who takes on a young Natalie Portman as a problem/protege after her murders her family. With Gary Oldman as an out of control cop and Danny Aiello as Reno’s mob boss, there’s a classicism here that’s missing from most of Besson’s later work.

#8 – Fury (Fritz Lang)foreignfilmmakers8

German Expressionists had a hard time making the transition to Hollywood. Their idea of a celluloid dream factory was much darker and more twisted than anything Tinseltown wanted at the time. Still MGM brought on the man who made Metropolis and gave him the reins of a serious story about a man (Spencer Tracy) who escapes a near lynching and his plans for payback. Moody and menacing, the studio was taken aback by Lang’s cynicism and interfered with the final cut.

#7 – Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee)foreignfilmmakers7

After three films dealing almost exclusively with the modern Asian experience both in the East and as part of the American immigrant experience, what was the next logical step for the soon-to-be Oscar winning director? Why, a take on Jane Austen, that’s what. When producers saw his Wedding Banquet, they knew he was capable of conveying complex interfamilial dynamics to audiences no matter the barrier (language, time period). Lee proved them right, delivering an award worthy effort.

#6 – The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles)foreignfilmmakers6

As far away from City of God and its Brazilian slum settings as you can get, Meirelles was brought on to bring John le Carre’s knotty novel to life. Hiring Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat in Kenya trying to solve the murder of his wife (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz), he turned the hoary old whodunit into a complicated character study and political think piece. Unfortunately, he would go on to blow it all with the horrible future shock allegory Blindness.

#5 – 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu)foreignfilmmakers5

After finding himself nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (for the amazing and ambitious Amores Perros), Iñárritu came to Hollywood and upped his creative ante significantly. Casting a veritable who’s who of A-listers (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Benicio Del Toro) he told the compelling tale of a group of people whose lives are forever changed after a tragic automobile accident. Sprawling between characters and time frames, the film would go on to start a trend in such non-linear dramas.

#4 – Stoker (Park Chan-wook)foreignfilmmakers4

With his Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) and such genre oddities as I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK and Thirst, Park proclaimed himself ready to make the leap into the world of Western moviemaking. For his first foray, he decided to riff on a solid cinephile fave — Alfred Hitchcock — and deliver the kind of psychological thriller that few in today’s Tinseltown could even envision. The resulting masterpiece of style and substance remains one of 2013’s strongest so far.

#3 – Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier)foreignfilmmakers3

Lars Von Trier has always been a bit of an artistic agent provocateur. He’s dabbled in porn while proposing (and playing by the rules of) his cinematic doctrine of no filmmaking frills, Dogme ’95. Stuck smack dab in the middle of his major motion picture production paradigm shift came his first English language film, the story of a young woman who uses her faith — and her sex — to cure her crippled husband. Shockingly, it took home one of Cannes’ top prizes and has been cited as one of the greatest films of the ’90s.

#2 – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)foreignfilmmakers2

When the Sight and Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time came out in 2012, this title sat right at number five. Granted, it is a silent film (so the “English Language” debut part can be argued over by purists), but there is no denying the impact that German Expressionist F. W. Murnau had on the medium. Invited by William Fox himself to come to America and make a movie “his way,” the results hold up to repeated viewers. It is a beautiful, desperate masterwork.

#1 – Bforeignfilmmakers1lowup (Michelangelo Antonioni)

While a few of his previous films had featured English as part of their language elements, this was Antonioni’s first all-Western work. Filmed during the groovy days of swinging ’60s London, it features David Hemmings as a photographer who may or may not have captured a murder on film. Playing on the concept of perception and his usual identity crisis themes, Antonioni would announce himself as a major presence in the peculiar flux of Hollywood before the post-modern movement. While Zabriskie Point and The Passenger were equally challenging, this was his mainstream masterpiece.

Comment (1) on "The 10 Best English Language Debuts by Foreign Filmmakers"

  1. Is Ang Lee really a foreign filmmaker? With the exception of Eat Drink Man Woman (his third film) and eventually Crouching Tiger (his seventh), he’s shot pretty much everything at least partially in English and mostly in America, plus he spent most of his young adulthood in America in college.

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