Academy Awards or popularly known as ‘Oscar Awards’, were incorporated in the year 1929, in which the U.S. based Academy presented awards to film fraternity and films from the year 1927 and 1928. However, the awards were confined to American films. 20 years later, Academy incorporated awards for foreign language films too.
Previously from the year 1947 to 1955, Academy presented a special or honorary award to the most outstanding foreign language film of the year. From 1956 onwards, Academy awards started having a competitive category of the award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, created for non-English speaking films, and this award is given every year since then.
Academy Award is the most coveted award for anyone who belongs to Film fraternity and each film that has ever won or even nominated for Academy award happens to be a treat to watch for a dedicated Cinephile. However, it would be interesting to pick 10 must watch classic films that have won an Academy Award for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’.
Here is the list of 11 must watch classic foreign language films –
1. Shoeshine  –
This film, shot in the backdrop of post-World War-II Italy, is a story to two ambitious friends who eke out a living by “shoeshine”, and latterly get entangled in crime to fulfill their avaricious desires. The film displays Vittorio De Sica’s penchant for using shadows, his perspective on post-World War-II poverty ridden Italy and more importantly depicted how sensitively he could direct toddlers. Like most of the films directed by Vittorio De Sica, this one also shows the dark side of the world, which makes the film a little disturbing. However, De Sica’s simplicity in storytelling, the performance of actors and the way emotions get culminated at the end makes it one of the best foreign language films that have won the Academy Award. Also, Shoeshine is the first film to get this award.
2. Bicycle Thieves  –
Let alone this list of best foreign language films that won Oscar, any list of must-watch films would be incomplete without the Italian Neorealistic Film, Bicycle Thieves, again directed by the legendary filmmaker Vittorio De Sica. The film had used symbolization wherein Bicycle was a cycle of hope.
It is a story of a man who gets into a job that had only one criterion – the person needs to have a bicycle. He latterly loses his bicycle on the job and embarks on a journey to find it along with his son and what follows is a sequence of events in which he learns important life lessons of compassion and sympathy. The film had intermittent satirical scenes that depicted De Sica’s take on superstitions and Italy’s elite part of society. A simple story that made an emotional impact and ended up with an influential message makes the film a must watch.
3. Rashomon  –
Rashomon is the film that gave exposure to Japanese Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and Japanese Cinema in the world cinema. Rashomon’s marks the first use of flashbacks that were in contradiction with the action they were flashing back to. It is something that can be tagged as “incongruous flashbacks”. The events in the flashback do not reflect the truth, but just a point of view, sometimes or even often lied about. However, what is so special about Rashomon is the exuded ambiguity in the flashbacks, because flashback points of views seem both true and false. The best part of the film is the way Kurosawa has shown emotions and the way Kazuo Miyagawa has juxtaposed light and shadow, which evokes the aura of heat, light, and shade of semi-tropical forests. Watch this film to witness an oddly written yet comprehensible screenplay with a confounding end.
4. La Strada  –
Federico Fellini’s La Strada is a poignant story wherein a traveling entertainer buys a girl. The girl suffers a lot of physical and emotional pain. In the perspective of filmmaking, La Strada seems more like a discovery that has led to Fellini’s other masterpieces like ‘8 ½’, ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘Nights of Cabiria’. This film depicts the weltanschauung of the director and is comprised of scenes that are an integral part of any Federico Fellini Film like a scene from circus, parades, a figure suspended between earth and sky, and seashore. What is so compelling about La Strada is its character treatment, and also the way its screenplay develops them. Right from the protagonist to “The Fool” artist, all the characters have discernible depths with layers. The film’s inexplicably melancholic depth, palpable realism, and excellent performances make the film one of the best academy award-winning foreign language films.
5. My Uncle  –
‘My Uncle’ is the story of a man who visits the technology-driven world of his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but somehow fails to adjust in it. The film works because of many things that it offers – Jacques Tati’s epic sense of humor, appropriate casting, simple storyline, and idiosyncratic use of the camera. There is a scene wherein a woman in a negligee is climbing the stairs while the protagonist is coming down. The moment both of them come face to face, the hero coyly turns away. The scene doesn’t show the hero turning towards us, but it’s done by moving the camera towards his shoes which point towards us. What makes ‘My Uncle’ a must watch is it introduces the audience to a host of different characters and its compelling filmmaking style continuously fascinates the audience.
6. 8 ½  –
By the time 8 ½ released, Federico Fellini had long abandoned his neorealistic roots and had started a journey of personal fantasy. 8 ½ was a film of complex ideas and Federico Fellini’s obsession about image over the idea was quite conspicuous in this biographical drama of a filmmaker who retreats into his memories and fantasies. The story of the film is from the perspective of the director and the protagonist obviously represents Fellini himself.
It again has Fellini’s signature style image of a figure suspended between earth and sky. In this case, it happens to be the protagonist. From a perspective, the film as the story of a director who runs out of ideas. However, from another angle, it’s a story of a director who is on the journey of discovery. Its intermittent humor and the unmistakable balance between realism and fantasy is what makes the film a must watch.
7. Through a Glass Darkly  –
All those who are into world cinema would be pretty familiar with the name Ingmar Bergman. Through a Glass Darkly is the first installment of Bergman’s “Silence of God Trilogy”. It is the story in which the female protagonist rejoins her family after getting released from the mental asylum. She latterly slips from reality thinking that God is visiting her. The film defies the convention of using facial expressions to depict tension and emotions that characters go through. However, this film did not have such close-ups to show emotions. It rather used the characters’ internal conflicts. The film is a must watch because of the way they have shot it. The cinematographer Nykvist’s use of light plays an instrumental part in its success.
8. The Shop on Main Street  –
It is the story of an incompetent Slovak peasant who gets entangled into a journey of greed and guilt when bosses backed by Nazis appoint him as “Aryan Controller” of an old Jewish widow’s button shop. The best aspect of the film is that it doesn’t have any ambiguity. It presents the confrontations with moral evil in a rather starker way. The film showed the cruelty and greed of ordinary citizens that made Nazi’s persecution and subsequent extermination of Jews possible in the years prior to World War-II. What is so good about The Shop on Main Street is that it has its moments of humor. These are juxtaposed with melancholic pathos, and the film shows a perfect balance of both. For all those, who love dark and bleak cinema, the film is a must watch.
9. Day for Night  –
This film, directed by Francois Truffaut weaves the story of a film director’s plight. The protagonist struggles to complete his movie as he goes through a gamut of conflicts. These conflicts have roots in personal life and professional crisis among his cast and crew. Day for Night seems more like a biographical essay of the new wave founder. The protagonist is a film director who seems like an alter ego of Truffaut.
He is not so ambitious when it comes to how his movies should turn out to be. Rather, he is obsessive and is in love with the process of making movies, just like Truffaut himself. The film is very fascinating for a movie enthusiast. It has some scenes in which an audience gets to understand how they make movies. The film has intricate details of how they create snow in the summertime. It is also fascinating to watch how they shoot scenes of the night in the day.
10. Black and White in Color  –
This film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It weaves the story of French colonialists in Africa, who find themselves in a war with their German neighbors during World War I. Subsequently, they make a desperate attempt to train Africans to be perfect, disciplined and ready to fight soldiers. It would be interesting to compare this with Stanley Kubrick’s World War I based film ‘Paths of Glory’. It is also Black and White in Color, and also has elements of satire.
The only difference is this one was less subtle and overtly humorous in its archetype. Moreover, people often address it as “black comedy”. The film is more like a comment on the mere meaninglessness of war. What’s the best thing about Black and White in Color is that the film has very good content. It depicts the relationship between the Colonialists and Africans, like no other film. This type of filmmaking is rare and it makes it one of the best academy award-winning foreign language films.
When it comes to making a list of best foreign language films, there is always a scope of including more. However, we have confined our list to 10 films. On a different note, it also makes a cinephile despondent to know that Jean-Luc Godard’s films never won an Oscar. Head on to the list of must watch movies by Jean-Luc Godard.