Best Foreign Film – 1980

Official Nominations: Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears. Confidence. Kagemusha. The Last Metro. The Nest.

Official Winner Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears also holds the title for most cliche Russian movie title ever. It’s also very Russian in its style and form – not impenetrable for other viewers but not 100% coherent. It feels to me like an overly long drama, centering on the lives of three women who want to succeed in Moscow. The film’s second half focuses on the later life of one of the women, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Istvan Szabo’s Confidence is a gripping POW film while Kagemusha is one of Kurosawa’s later return to form movies. It’s about two brothers, ostensibly the rulers of a clan in trouble, who find a lowly thief who looks exactly like one of the brothers. They decide he could be a useful political decoy and lo and behold the brother is killed so the decoy takes over. There’s a lot of political intrigue and a multitude of characters and battles, but it’s all about the look – the way Kurosawa composes every shot in gorgeous colour.

The Last Metro is Truffaut again, his final film of any great success. Catherine Deneuve and Heinz Bennent star as a husband and wife who own and work in a small Parisian theatre during the Occupation in WWII. Deneuve must hide her husband while keeping the theatre running, avoiding Nazis, and dealing with the attentions of Gerard Depardieu. It flaunt’s several of Truffaut’s favoured styles and themes and may be a shade too long, but is otherwise great. The Nest makes for interesting and uncomfortable viewing, kind of like a reverse Lolita in which a lonely old widower and a lonely young teenage girl begin a relationship which becomes increasingly intense, the ‘twist’ being that the girl acts like the adult or force and the man becomes childlike and subservient. It’s good, but likely a hard sell for most.

My Winner: Kagemusha

Kagemusha, 40 Years Later: Akira Kurosawa's Overshadowed Epic

My Nominations: Kagemusha. The Last Metro. Cannibal Holocaust. The Changeling. City Of Women. Death Watch. The Gods Must Be Crazy. Inferno. The Long Good Friday. Out Of The Blue.

An abundance of foreign treats for a new decade, ranging in quality admittedly – some of these I’m adding more by their reputation or influence, others in the hope that others will go watch them. Nevertheless, they’re all good. Starting with The Changeling – it’s a film I came late to in horror though its one most in the genre have a lot of fondness for. It has a great look, a few chills, and a good lead performance by Scott – there are better films on the list though. Staying in Canada, we have the cult Dennis Hopper movie Out Of The Blue. It has two strong leads in Hopper and Linda Manz as a father and daughter – she is a precocious punk wannabe while he is a con stuck in prison as she runs wild – it’s gritty and rough and hard and interesting for punk fans.

Back to horror, and you can’t talk about the Foreign Films of 1980 without mentioning Cannibal Holocaust – possibly still the most notorious video nasty of all time. I can’t go so far as calling it tame by today’s standards as it remains one of those films that will leave an impression on anyone who watches – you may feel as if a little piece of yourself has been stolen, or you may feel as if your eyes have been opened to new cinematic possibilities. It’s gruesome, it has plenty of shocking moments and violence, and of course the real animal cruelty is enough to put anyone off – most viewers may want to watch the version which cuts that stuff out. Having said that, it has a gorgeous score, it’s well directed, and it’s incredibly influential. It’s gruelling in the same way as Texas Chainsaw Massacre is and speaks to the primitive and progressive in us all. Dario Argento provides a somewhat classier Italian horror offering with Inferno. As is generally the case with Argento movies, the story can be muddled and takes a back seat to the visuals. While not as immediately captivating as Suspiria there are sets dressed up in such grim lighting that individual moments will leave a lasting impact – whether it’s the haunting stare of a woman, or the sight of rats swarming a man.

Moving to Sci Fi – Death Watch from France features an appealing Western cast to suck in a wider audience – Harry Dean Stanton, Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Max Von Sydow – and it is based on the British sci-fi classic The Unsleeping Eye. Set in a world where death by sickness or disease has essentially been wiped out, a woman named Katherine learns she has an incurable disease and becomes an overnight celebrity sensation. In a move which, I’m fairly certain has already been seen today, a TV company offers her a tonne of money if they can make a reality show out of her final days. It’s a little overlong and somewhat dated in look and tone now, but the cast and core conceit keep it relevant and watchable today. City Of Women takes a light approach to its alternate reality – a world where a womanizer finds himself trapped by a range of angry women. Once again this would be a great film to see realized in modern form today, but it’s doubtful we’d see a version as witty and provocative and certainly not as fantastical as Fellini’s version, and any version would be subjected to savage criticism by all sides.

It’s difficult to find anyone who has seen or heard of The Gods Must Be Crazy, but the South African film was a ridiculous success becoming a worldwide hit falling slightly behind The Empire Strikes Back. It’s an incredibly short-sighted movie in terms of racial and cultural issues, even for 1980, but alongside other riotous comedies of the period it fares very well. The Long Good Friday takes another cultural minefield – 1980s Northern Ireland and its relationship to the British gangster scene – and fares much better by taking the view that you’re probably going to get all sorts of fucked up if you become embroiled with any of the groups involved. It’s a taut, non-patronizing thriller which doesn’t need to be overtly stylish to entrap its viewer.

My Winner: Kagemusha

Let us know your winner in the comments!

TTT – Akira Kurosawa

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Greetings, Glancers! It’s been a while since my last Top Ten Tuesday list, so why not kick it off once more by looking at my 10 favourite films by The Master. Akira Kurosawa is frequently cited by anyone with even a passing interest in cinema as one of the greates directors of all time. His influence is seen in most movies today, from a technical point of view, from a storytelling standpoint, and simply because his sheer bulk of work made the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Fellini etc start making movies. His working has a lasting impact on Japanese Cinema and Western movie makers have taken his ideas and either remade them or added their own touches. There will be quite a few films not making this list as the quality and breadth of his work is stunning, but this is as good a place to start if you are interested in getting into Kurosawa.

10. Kagemusha

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We start with a latter day Kurosawa epic charting the downfall of one particular clan and their attempts to trick those they are warring with by replacing their dead leader with a thief who happens to look like him. Amidst the massive battle scenes we have the old questions of loyalty and honour coming back again again as the thief first only cares about himself but over time sees himself as a de facto leader and member of the clan. It’s that blending of the personal drama offset against the massive scope of warring armies all shot with Kurosawa’s flawless eye for detail which sets Kagemusha apart from the lay man’s epic.

9. Ran

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Continuing with the epic, perhaps Kurosawa’s biggest and most ambitious film, Ran may be the most beautifully shot piece the director created. In many ways it feels more like a Western movie than any other one Kurosawa shot, with a memorable score, vibrant colours, and a bleak and depressing outlook. A gorgeous film to look at, it is a tough watch due to the fact that almost every character is either ruthlessly self-interested or doomed to a needless death. It’s sad to note that at his age at the time of filming Kurosawa was viewing the world with such futility and fatalism, especially considering the heroism and hope in his previous works.

8. The Hidden Fortress

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A rip-roaring old school action movie with samurai fights, scheming, and plenty of laughs. You have the group journey of four characters, each individually has their own plot and life, and they additionally can be split into groups of two – a road movie without cars or spaceships where the quest for gold and honour clash and combine. Like other films on the list, this is a good one to surprise people with when they believe that old black and white or foreign movies can’t possibly be entertaining.

7. Stray Dog

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On the cusp of greater success, both Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made this noir detective thriller which stands out for most people as their finest non-Samurai work. Both borrowing from the US hard-boiled works of the 1940s and in turn adding a style which would be later adopted by the West, it is notable for the great rapport and performances of Mifune and Shimura. Both leads basically invent a thousand tropes as the hotshot rookie and weary veteran team up to chase Mifune’s missing gun around Tokyo as it continues to be used in increasingly barbaric crimes. Another wonderfully shot and well-paced movie

6. Sanjuro

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The partner to Yojimbo is perhaps the more entertaining film due its overall lightness. Mifune returns as the ‘unnamed’ Ronin who has a knack for appearing in the right/wrong place and the wrong/right time and using his wiles and considerable sword skills to sort out the rights/wrongs of a town. There is plenty of violent action here and a surprising amount of laughs, at least for me.

5. Rashomon

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The first true masterwork of Kurosawa’s career, this is a small piece utilizing the immense skill of a talented cast and crew. Most of the crew lived together throughout the shoot to create a sense of family and a one direction purpose to make something as good as it could possibly be. With experimental shots and storytelling techniques, an ambiguous plot, superb performances, rain, silence, light, Rashomon is one which continues to impress and is one of those films which all students of film should watch to vastly increase their knowledge and appreciation.

4. Ikiru

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A motivating tale, one of hope and laughs, of the difference between youth and old age and the impact one can have on the other, also a satire of the working life, of bureacracy, and a discussion on the anonymity and powerlessness we can feel being a cog in the wheel – all topped off with the message that we can each make a difference and overcome the odds and the uncaring world.

3. Yojimbo

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The more influential and more fondly remembered partner of Sanjuro sees Kurosawa and Mifune create an action hero archetype which remains to this day – the nameless wanderer, the anti-hero, the loner in search for person glory, the mysterious stranger. Forming the basis for Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, Mifune is masterful as the wily, fearless, and skilled unnamed ronin who visits a town under the thrall of two warring clans. He conspires with each group, turning them against each other for his own ends and to rid the innocents caught in the midst of the struggle of these gangsters. Even though Kurosawa was influenced by Western Literature in crafting the story, it is the style, tone, and look of his film which had Western filmmakers trying to emulate – the wide shots featuring a lone warrior in the distance, the wry humour, the lack of dialogue from the main character, the violence both on screen and implied – the dog carrying the severed hands in the opening moments telling us the town’s history without needing to hear about it.

2. Throne Of Blood

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One of Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and one of his most direct adaptations, this retelling of Macbeth remains the creepiest version yet committed to film and is perhaps still the closest at getting to the root of the lust for power and the stain of madness which ruins anyone who comes into contact with it. Again Toshiro Mifune leads the way with perhaps his finest performance as the tortured Taketoki Washizu, together with an absolutely terrifying Izuzu Yamada as his Lady Macbeth. We follow the loose plot of a mysterious force whispering honeyed prophecies into the ear of an ambitious warrior, a scheming wife eager for glory and power coaxing a husband into doing what must never be done, and the inevitable downfall – that sense of inevitability pervades every shot, with fog closing in, with shadows growing and becoming denser, until a rain of arrows courses down. The use of Noh imagery is suitable for the plot and adds another layer of mystery and unease for Western audiences, destined to be haunted by the vision of Yamada’s grinning death-mask like face. The climax is still among the most thrilling in movie history and that last arrow is still brutal and shocking.

1. The Seven Samurai.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I believe that the best films of all time must be a mixture of immediate and long-lasting critical and commercial success, be classed clearly as both entertainment and art, be influential on a number of levels both technical and otherwise, and retain ‘watchability’ for a wide audience over the decades. I’ve said before that I believe the best four films of all time which fit this criteria are Vertigo, The Godfather, Star Wars Episode IV, and The Seven Samurai. Its influence on multiple genres from action to drama is clear and it’s as entertaining and engaging today as when I first saw it – presumably it’s just as good as it was upon release. Its influence on filmmakers cannot be understated. It is Kurosawa’s signature film and whether or not you feel it is his best is a testament to his skills. At almost three and a half hours it is Kurosawa’s longest movie, but it flies by like a 90 minute movie. With a large cast we somehow manage to feel empathy and sympathy for all of them, we engage with them and love them, and feel a sense of loss when they fall. The plot on the surface is simple – a village abused by bandits recruits seven warriors to protect them, but the interactions between characters gives a snapshot of life like few films come close to achieving. Modern viewers should not be put off by the length, or the age, or the subtitles – if you watch it for the first time today, you won’t see anything better this year.

What are your favourite Kurosawa films – which ones are missing from my list? How do you convince friends to watch a fifty year old Japanese film? Let us know in the comments!