As one of the single most profitable industries in the world, the movie business is so varied that just about anyone can find a film that fits their tastes. Between riveting tales and bewitching special effects that defy the law of physics, the movies are a place to escape into other worlds. The sky’s not even the limit when it comes to storytelling in movies, with hits like Gravity taking us to other planets and favourites like the Lord of the Rings transporting us to parallel universes.
‘Hollywood’ is often employed as a byword for the film industry, and undoubtedly Tinsel Town has brought us some of the most imaginative, most profitable and most popular cinema the world has ever seen. Some of these movie budgets are vast, and some are small and limited but with a decent camera and a strong artistic vision, film-makers have shown us that the possibilities are endless when it comes to telling a story. But in order to create a profitable film, the story needs to be able to reach the widest possible audience: With Americans spending millions at the box office weekly, and with English being the dominant language in the U.S., it’s not surprise that historically the majority of the impressive box office hits have been Anglophone movies.
However, while the United States dominates the film industry, foreign films consistently break through the language barrier and make their way to North America. These films are often met with critical acclaim but they find commercial success much less frequently. It’s common for foreign movies to explore new styles of film-making and atypical storytelling, differing from the traditional and mainstream films familiar to the Hollywood-dedicated cinema goer. But thanks to the technology of subtitles – and, for the lazier watchers among us, dubbing – foreign films are now more accessible to a wider audience than ever before.
So whether you’re feeling adventurous, want to move out of your comfort zone or want help learning a new language, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the biggest foreign language films to hit the U.S.A. according to statistics provided by boxofficemojo.com. These classics have proven themselves to be timeless masterpieces, transcending barriers of language and culture.
10. La Cage aux Folles (1978) – France, $20,424,259
‘La Cage aux Folles’ is a French-Italian film adapted from the 1973 play of the same name. The film was released in the United States in 1979, and dealt with issues which were relatively controversial at the time. This was one of the first notable movies to deal with the now common theme of boy-meets-girl, boy’s-family-meets-girl’s family: It tells the story of a gay couple whose son is engaged to a girl from a conservative family, and the shenanigans that ensue in preparation of the first meeting. This entry on our list is unique in that the cast dubbed the film in English themselves, for the most part. Because of the creative comedic elements and the touching ending, the film became a hit worldwide. La Cage aux Folles even inspired a Broadway musical of the same name in 1993, and an American remake in 1996 starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the movie, The Birdcage.
9. Like Water For Chocolate (1992) – Mexico, $21,665,468
‘Like Water For Chocolate’ is a Mexican film based on the 1989 book of the same name. It was released in the United States around 1993 and became the highest grossing Spanish language film of its time. The film tells the story of the unrequited love of Tita and Pedro, forbidden to marry due to enduring family tradition. Pedro marries Tita’s older sister instead, in order to be close to Tita. To cope with the tragedy, Tita puts her emotions into the food she cooks, causing the consumers to cry, vomit, and even strip naked and chase revolutionary soldiers.
8. Il Postino (1994) – Italy, $21,848,932
Released in the United States as ‘The Postman’. ‘Il Postino’ is an Italian film released overseas in 1994 and in the US in 1995. It tells the story of a postman who learns to fall in love with poetry while delivering mail to a famous poet. He uses his new-found passion for poetry, combined with courage and encouragement from the famous poet, to woo the local beauty of the town. Il Postino was released with critical acclaim around the world and was extremely well received in North America; after its release in the U.S. the film went on to win several awards.
7. Jet Li’s Fearless (2006) – China, $24,633,730
‘Fearless’ was released in China, the United Kingdom, and North America in 2006. Also known as “Huo Yuanjia”, the movie starred Chinese actor Jet Li. The story is loosely based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist who defeated foreign fighters in highly publicized matches during the era that would herald the Republic of China. The film stirred up some controversy as the grandson of Huo Yuanjia sued Jet Li and the production company for misrepresenting his grandfather as a troublemaker instead of a hero. The film was well reviewed by critics worldwide for its plot and its stunning fight choreography.
6. Amelie (2001) – France, $33,225,499
This 2001 French film, also known as ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’, is still highly regarded as one of the greatest foreign films to hit North America. This cult classic had a wide release in Belgium, France, and Switzerland and – despite a limited release in North America – it fast became an international hit. Between its playful plot, charming music, and simple storytelling, Amelie became a character that many audience members could relate to. The magical depiction of Paris, and the colourful, almost absurd cinematography ensured that ‘Amelie’ would secure a place as one of the most successful modern exports of France’s film industry.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Mexico, $37,634,615
This dark fantasy, also known as ‘El laberinto del fauno’, was released in 2006 and directed by Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican movie boasted spectacular animatronics and CGI, quickly establishing itself as an international hit with worldwide critical acclaim. The film, set in 1944, tells the story of a young girl named Ofelia adjusting to life after her mother marries her stepfather – a ruthless and heartless military captain hunting down rebels of the Francoist regime. The film blends real life and fantasy with monsters and mythical creatures merging with reality. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and took three home for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup.
4. Instructions Not Included (2013) – Mexico, $44,467,206
Another Mexican film that has recently shot to fame through widespread critical acclaim, ‘Instructions Not Included’ tells the story of Mexican playboy named Valentin. He finds a baby girl on his doorstep, who transpires to be his daughter. In an attempt to return the baby to her birth mother, Valentin goes to Los Angeles. There, he stumbles through a series of comedic events which see him remaining in LA to work as a stuntman in Hollywood. He raises his baby daughter but seven years later her birth mother returns, and disease threatens to shorten Valentin’s time with his daughter Maggie. Even though the film received mixed reviews from critics, audiences in North America reacted positively to the film with its blend of comedy and drama.
3. Hero (2004) – China, $53,710,019
The second film on our list starring Chinese actor Jet Li, this film was directed by American director Quentin Tarantino. ‘Hero’ is a Chinese film with a team of powerhouse industry experts behind the production. The story is based on the 227 BC assassination attempt on the King of Qin, Qin Shi Huang. The film received extremely positive reviews and was dubbed a masterpiece by Time Magazine. Commercially, it was received positively in North America – themes which were historically interesting, ‘Hero’ has been praised for shedding light on complex issues like a political system of totalitarianism and the concept of reunification of China.
2. Life Is Beautiful (1998) – Italy, $57,563,264
‘Life is Beautiful’ is an Italian comedy-drama, also known as ‘La vita è bella’. The movie is set in World War II Italy, and tells the story of a young Jewish man named Guido. Guido attempts to shield his young son Joshua from the horrors of Nazi concentration camps by using his imagination; the pair touchingly play the internment as a game, so that Joshua remains oblivious to the gravity of the situation. Some negative feedback came from those who criticised the movie’s employment of comedic and light-hearted elements in association with the horrors of the Holocaust. Defenders of the film maintain that the story was sensitive to the subject matter and was handled objectively. If awards are anything to go by, the naysayers have been proven wrong – aside from commercial success, this film won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Best Music, and Best Original Dramatic Score. ‘Life is Beautiful’ was also the winner of the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Taiwan, $128,078,872
This film is not only one of the highest grossing foreign language films in American history, but is also hailed as one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of film. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was directed by Ang Lee and receives continuous praise for its cinematography, story, and martial arts choreography. It’s considered to be a ‘wuxia’ film – a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures and journeys of martial artists. The budget for the film was $17 million and it was filmed entirely in Mandarin. ‘Crouching Tiger’ was nominated for ten Academy Awards, one of which was for Best Picture, and it won the accolade for Best Foreign Language Film.
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