Stalker (1979). Not all subtitled movies are this, people.
Personally, I’ve never understood the hatred people have for subtitles. Sure, there is a level of inconvenience that comes with having to constantly dart your eyes between the visuals and the text; I mean, you’re watching a movie because that’s what you want to do—watch something, not read it. However, in this age of text messages, the internet, scrolling news tickers, and billion hit Youtube videos from around the world, you’d think we’d be over the stigma of subtitles by now.
Oh, but there’s another part to subtitle hatred too: fear of the cliché foreign film. Perfectly framed static scenes, long silences, obscure dialogue, heavy symbolism, black and white photography—you know the exact sort of movie I’m describing. It’s somewhere between Antonioni and Bergman, and the mere idea of it is making you sleepy. I get that. Certainly those foreign films exist, and if that’s just not your cup of tea, no problem. But lets be honest here, that’s more of a fear of being bored than it is of the innocent subtitles you are blaming. There are plenty of movies out there with subtitles that are just as engaging as movies in languages you understand!
Here are my movie choices for people who aren’t typically fans of subtitled movies. These aren’t necessarily my favorite foreign movies, but I’ve found all of these to be very accessible in comparison to others which, while I personally might enjoy them more, definitely fall closer to the cliché of what a ‘foreign film’ is.
Like Animation? Try…
Princess Mononoke (1997) | Dir. Hayao Miyazaki | 134 min.
If you don’t know about Miyazaki, just stop what you’re doing and watch his entire catalogue. Sure you can cheat and watch these movies in their dubbed English, but honestly I would strongly recommend the Japanese language versions. The voice acting is just far superior in the original Japanese, especially in the earlier movies before Disney started to hire well known actors for their dubs.
The story follows young warrior Ashitaka, who falls under a curse, and in the course of traveling to find the cure, he ends up in the middle of a war between industrial humans and massive forest gods. Princess Mononoke is such a complex and mature film, which is why it’s so strong. It’s impossible to tell who is truly good and who is truly evil, the second you think you have your mind made up you’ll find yourself wavering. Definitely one of my favorite movies.
Like Comedy? Try…
Bread & Chocolate (1974) | Dir. Franco Brusati |100 min.
I was introduced to this film by Smug Film’s own Cody Clarke! Thanks Cody! This movie is actually more of a satire than a straight up comedy. The plot revolves around Italian immigrant Nino trying to make his way in Switzerland and find a job. The movie touches mostly on race and immigration issues, yet it remains laugh out loud funny in parts. Nino is just so charmingly optimistic that watching him blunder through the mine fields of prejudice and discrimination is not nearly as depressing as it could be. Overall, a unique and charming movie, and unfortunately very overlooked.
Like Political Thrillers? Try…
Z (1969) | Costa-Gavras | 127 min.
If you’re into political conspiracy films, Z is right up your alley. Based on true events, it might help to know a bit about the Greek political climate in the late 60s, but honestly, the theme of corrupt government versus the individual is pretty universal. The plot follows an investigator trying to uncover the truth behind the murder of a prominent Leftist leader. Overall a pretty brutal and fairly depressing movie, but if you like political thrillers, Z is a classic. For what it’s worth, it also won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
Like Tortured Romance? Try…
In the Mood for Love (2000) | Dir. Wong Kar-Wai | 98 min.
Great movie about a man and a woman who find each other when they realize their respective spouses are cheating on them. The movie focuses mostly on bonding over a shared experience of sadness, and learning how to cope by moving forward instead of wallowing. I thought this movie had a surprisingly healthy message considering the toxic circumstances of the plot. Really lovely camera work and great colors overall. Everything is in a great 50’s style too, so it should satisfy you if you’re in need of a Mad Men fix or something.
Like Suspense Thrillers? Try…
Caché (2005) | Dir. Michael Haneke | 117 min.
Haneke is a king of suspense, and Caché might just be his most intense movie to date. The plot follows television host Georges, who starts receiving strange surveillance VHS tapes of the outside of his house on his front porch. Gradually, the footage starts to become more personal, and memories from Georges’ past begin to haunt him in the present. Now bear with me here because this movie is definitely slow paced, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on the edge of my seat as much as with this movie. I practically had a panic attack by the end of it; it’s a slow build kind of fear. Not terribly much dialogue too, so if you really hate subtitles, it might be an easy one to start with.
Like Feel-Good Movies? Try…
Good Bye Lenin! (2003) | Dir. Wolfgang Becker | 121 min.
What’s an East German boy to do when his staunchly communist mother wakes up from her coma in a world where the Berlin Wall has fallen? Desperate to keep her in the dark, for fear she might suffer from shock and die, Alex does everything he can to keep the dream of East Germany alive in his bedridden mother’s apartment as he himself tries to adjust to the new world he finds himself in. Good Bye Lenin! is really just a sweet movie at heart, but it thankfully edges closer to comedy than corny. There’s a cute love story and some coming-of-age life lessons thrown in there, and overall it adds up to a well rounded and enjoyable viewing experience.
Like Raunch? Try…
Y Tu Mamá También (2001) | Alfonso Cuarón | 106 min.
For those who want the sexual frankness of a foreign film without having to wait too long to see nudity. Y Tu Mamá También follows rich kids Julio and Tenoch as they road trip through Mexico with Luisa, an equally restless older married woman. This movie deals pretty candidly with sex and sexual fantasies, but it also tackles some complex issues involving economic inequality and frivolity. There are laughs to be had, however– the antics and desperation of two teenage boys vying for the attention of an older woman in a confined space leads to some great moments. Y Tu Mamá También is certainly more thoughtful than your typical American road-trip romp, but it’s just as easy to watch mindlessly if you’d like.
Like Gripping War Dramas? Try…
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) | Dir. Srdan Dragojevic | 115 min.
Okay, this one is also depressing, but if you like war movies, that kind of comes with the territory. Set in Bosnia during their civil war, the movie focuses on Milan, a Serb, and his childhood friend Halil, a Muslim, who find themselves on opposing sides of the war. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame tackles the cruelty and emotional toll of war—it’s realistic and brutal, but it’s not oppressively sad and it’s certainly not static. It’s actually been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, but it made a lasting impression, so I think it’s worthwhile recommending. If you’re into the human nature aspects of war, as opposed to just a big flashy battle movie, this is definitely one for you.
Like Kids Movies? Try…
An Ordinary Miracle (1978) | Dir. Mark Zakharov | 138 min.
This is definitely a bit weirder in comparison to the other movies, but there is just something so damn charming about this movie. A Russian fairy tale about a sorcerer who turns a bear into a man, and the only way that the bear can turn back is if he makes a princess fall in love with him and kiss him. The Bear is played by Aleksandr Abdulov in his prime, so honestly, who doesn’t want to kiss him– am I right ladies?!
The plot is simple, there is singing and dancing, and everybody is charming and just a little bit strange. I wish I had seen this as a kid because I have a feeling I would have adored it.
Like B-Movies? Try…
House (1977) | Dir. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi | 88 min.
Okay, maybe this is for the film nerd who still hates subtitles for some reason, as this is definitely one of the craziest movies I’ve seen. The plot is hackneyed (a group of girls staying at a haunted house) but the execution is out of this world. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi was an experimental film director turned television director, and this movie definitely comes across as a mixture of music video and LSD. I can’t really call this movie ‘good’, but the look is fantastically bizarre, and it did make me laugh out loud a handful of times (really great visual gags). If you like B-movies or cult movies this should definitely be on your must-see list.
Give subtitles an honest shot, people. They’re not nearly as much like reading a novel as you may think them to be. Once you get into the groove of knowing how to watch a subtitled movie, it will open up a whole world of cinema—and also, a whole world of cliché, avant garde foreign films that you just might find satisfying. (Hey, a lot of them are considered classics for a reason!)