As much as Hollywood boasts a variety of films to entertain, shock, and mystify us, our continental friends across the pond have often tread similar territory with bolder attitudes and more unexpected results. If you can’t remember the last time you went to a film that had subtitles, it’s time to Google that obscure art cinema nearby or check out the foreign section on Netflix. Though the following is only a minuscule portion of a hugely diverse range of films, this list tries to capture some of the exhilarating, daring, and thought-provoking cinema that has emerged from different countries in Europe in the last few decades. This summer, swap those tiresome, repetitive film formulas for some classic European cinema and pat yourself on the back for seeking out something different.
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“Chocolat”, “Julie&Julia” -> “Mostly Martha” (“Bella Martha”) – Germany
For those cinephiles that also consider themselves foodies, there’s nothing better than kicking back and watching a film that warms the heart and waters the mouth. “Bella Martha” captures the dichotomy between the joy of cooking and the precision exercised by chefs, embodied in the eponymous protagonist. Martha has her perfectly ordered life and kitchen thrown into disarray when she is suddenly made the sole guardian of her orphaned niece. Things take an even more chaotic turn with the arrival of a cheerful Italian sous-chef whose improvisational style of cooking violently clashes with her meticulous one. There is a decidedly German, intimate feel to the film; leaning more towards drama than the light and wispy tones of “Julie&Julia”, it nevertheless remains an uplifting and beautiful film. Steer clear of its American remake, “No Reservations”, which twists the story into such utter predictability and rom-com nausea that even the delicious dishes onscreen can’t make up for it.
“Bridesmaids”, “Sex and the City” -> “Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown” (“Mujeres Al Bordo de Un Ataque de Nervios”) – Spain
If you’re in the mood to see a bunch of kooky women make absolute fools of themselves, look no further than Pedro Almodovar’s “Mujeres Al Bordo de Un Ataque de Nervios”. Rightly considered one of the director’s finest films, this comedy ridicules its central female figures even as it sympathizes with them, achieving a degree of humanity in its absolutely nutty plot. These women are more than ‘on the verge’; setting beds on fire, throwing phones out the window, and racing through the streets on mopeds, they are all trying to come to terms with the extensive damage done by one philandering man. Yet throughout it all, they remain impeccably stylish and fierce, harboring a strict no-bullshit attitude as only Spanish women can.
“Do the Right Thing”, “Boyz in the Hood” -> “Hate” (“La Haine”) – France
Though thematically different from the first two – racism figures less prominently than class differences – “La Haine” nevertheless maintains strong parallels in terms of its focus on the margins of society and the criticism of needless violence. Shot entirely in slick black and white, this is Paris as you’ve never seen it before – through the eyes of three suburban youths as they wander around with a gun recently recovered from a riot. Director Matthieu Kassovitz (you might know him as Nino, the love interest in “Amelie”) has crafted a gritty yet stylish look at the disturbing consequences of the ennui and devaluation of youth, in a climate where the threat of violence is forever lingering in the air. From the stunning central performances (this was the film that propelled Vincent Cassel to fame) to the catchy hip-hop soundtrack and the memorable slang-ridden dialogue, “La Haine” is one of those films that sticks with you for a long time after its final haunting frame.
“Taken”, “The Bourne Identity” -> “Point Blank” (“À Bout Portant”) – France
If you think that fast-paced action thrillers are solely the domain of big budget, star-studded Hollywood productions, think again. The French “À Bout Portant” stands on equal ground with the best of them, and head and shoulders above some. Eschewing unbelievable subplots and corny characters in favor of a relatively credible story and a hero who’s just an average guy, the film races along its short 80 minutes with impeccable drive. The viewer is thrown headfirst into the story of a male nurse (a very un-Hollywood choice for a protagonist) whose wife is kidnapped after he threatens a prominent crime boss. The film makes no pretensions to unnecessary depth or complexity; instead, like any quality thriller, it focuses on delivering pure visual action and keeping the audience on the edge of its seat.