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7 Great and 6 Disappointing English Language Debuts by Foreign Filmmakers

7 Great and 6 Disappointing English Language Debuts by Foreign Filmmakers

Snowpiercer,” South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language feature, is already earning some pretty rave reviews, The film’s probable success got us thinking about our favorite films from directors who took the plunge and dove headfirst into making their first English language films. Some of them turned out great. Some of them not so much. Here’s our list of seven favorite U.S. debuts from foreign filmmakers and the six that didn’t work. 

READ MORE: Was ‘Snowpiercer’ Worth the Battle for Director’s Cut?

“Blow-Up” Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1966)

By 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was an internationally celebrated Italian auteur of mystifying and beautiful films, chief among them “L’Eclisse” and the Golden Bear winner “La Notte.” His increased popularity–working with the best of European actors, including Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni–led him to sign a contract with producer Carlo Ponti (to whom we are also thankful for “La Strada,” “Cléo from 5 to 7,” and “Contempt”) to shoot three English-language films for MGM. The first was “Blow-Up,” an unforgettable, quintessentially postmodern film. Inspired by a short story by Argentinean author Julio Cortázar and set in London, the film follows a professional photographer (David Hemmings) as he pursues his obsession with a bewildering park scene he witnesses and captures on camera—to later blow up into cryptic images from which he deciphers a murder. From the eccentric photo shoots to the closing vision of apocalyptic mise-en-abyme, “Blow-Up” is a truly memorable and affecting film, proving Antonioni could be as startling and insightful in English as he was in his native Italian. (He received some help from the British playwright Edward Bond.) He would go on to create another English-language masterpiece with 1975’s “The Passenger,” starring Jack Nicholson as a man who adopts the identity of a dead stranger. (Melina Gills)

“Breaking the Waves” (Lars von Trier, 1996)

Anyone who was concerned that Lars von Trier would lose his dark edge with his first English language debut need not have worried. In “Breaking the Waves,” von Trier by no means soft-pedals the bleak subject matter. If anything, he takes the themes he explored in his earlier films, such as the darkly comic “Europa,” and delves deeper in an attempt to achieve cinematic honesty. Relying only partially on the Dogme 95 manifesto — which demands telling contemporary stories shot on location, in natural light, with a handheld camera using location sound — “Breaking the Waves” (which was filmed partially in a studio) focuses on the sexually and emotionally destructive relationship between the child-like Bess (Emily Watson) and the Norweigian oil rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) to whom she is devoted. Featuring a raw and literally naked performance by Watson and hand-held camera work that lent a documentary air, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival as well as many other awards. “Breaking the Waves” cemented von Trier’s reputation as an international auteur with worldwide arthouse appeal. It’s proof that von Trier’s brand of filmmaking is compelling in any language. (Paula Bernstein)

“The Constant Gardener” Dir. Fernando Merirelles (2005

Before Fernando Meirelles began his steady fade into obscurity with the awards-contender-turned-bomb “Blindness” in 2008, and way before he made his latest English-language film “360” (does anyone even remember the 2011 film starring Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins?), the director was regarded as one of the best in the business. When? Around 2005. Why? He helmed “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener” back to back, both of which won favor at the Academy Awards. Many may remember these films longer than the man behind them, but that doesn’t lesson his accomplishment in transitioning from his native tongue to the language of Hollywood. “The Constant Gardener” is another John le Carre novel adapted by a foreigner for English-speaking audiences — and he doesn’t write easy novels perfect for wading slowly into the proverbial pool. It’s a deep end nose dive, and Meirelles scored a perfect 10. Maybe he should think about returning to those roots before it’s too late. (Ben Travers)

“Fury” Dir. Fritz Lang (1936)

A self-exile to Hollywood after the Nazi rise to power in Germany where he worked for UFA, Austrian director Fritz Lang made his English-language debut with the indelibly powerful and visually iconic “Fury,” a mixture of thriller, noir, and melodrama, much in the same vein as the films that had made him an international star. Lang’s most well known work is likely the silent science-fiction noir “Metropolis” (1927), a technical achievement that is one of the most formally innovative and stunning films ever made. Yet, his further collaborations with wife Thea von Harbou (his first talkie “M” being a personal favorite), as well as his Hollywood pictures, have also been sources of great inspiration for filmmakers and cinephiles. “Fury” is centered on the mistaken indictment of Joe Wilson (a superb Spencer Tracy) and the trial that ensues after he is thought to have burned to death during a failed public lynching. In one of its many audacious scenes, Lang depicts the blood-hungry, enraged mob via a film within a film, containing revelatory freeze-frames. “Fury” remains a strong condemnation of the systems in place that abet violence and nourish hate. Away from home and family, Lang was yet able to create a cinematic sensation, underlined by potent social commentary as relevant to what he had escaped as it was to where he now lived. (Melina Gills)

“A Little Princess” Dir. Alfonso Cuarón (1995)

After starting out his career in Mexican television, Alfonso Cuarón tackled his first feature, the romantic comedy “Love in the Time of Hysteria.” His first English language, U.S. release was this adaptation of the beloved children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Cuarón embraced the imagination and magical storytelling of the main character, Sarah, allowing for his signature otherworldly style to grow. The fantastical elements Cuarón used in “A Little Princess” would go on to inform 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (which is considered by many to be the best of the franchise), 2006’s “Children of Men” and last year’s hit 3D blockbuster “Gravity.” (Casey Cipriani)

“Sense and Sensibility ” Dir. Ang Lee (1995)

You wouldn’t think that the perfect director for a Jane Austen adaptation would be from Taiwan, but Ang Lee’s English-language debut captured the reserved dignity of 1800s British society as well as the intense emotions underneath its surface.  Even though Lee was inexperienced at things like sheep-wrangling (he allegedly vowed never to work with sheep again, a vow he broke ten years later for “Brokeback Mountain”), he still led a cast of British greats, including Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant to create one of the greatest literary adaptations ever. (Liz Shannon Miller)

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Dir. Tomas Alfredson (2011)

Alfredson broke into the collective American consciousness…well, he hasn’t yet. But he did generate a fervent cult fan base with “Let the Right One In,” a unanimously beloved (nearly) art house vampire film that has yet to be topped in the genre — and there has been competition. Many wondered what he would do to follow it up, and the Swedish director set his sights high as he took on the immense challenge of adapting John le Carre’s complex novel, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” into a two-hour feature film as compelling as the six-hour BBC miniseries from the ’70s. Did he pull it off? Absolutely. His 2011 film is even more impressive when considering it’s not told in Alfredson’s native tongue, a shocking realization knowing the intricacies of the plot. While he’s yet to follow it up, his ever-growing fan base is eagerly anticipating what he’ll show us next. (Ben Travers)
And the worst…

“My Blueberry Nights” Dir. Wong Kar Wai (2007)

Wong Kar Wai built an empire for himself. He topped the East and fashioned a generation of filmmakers inspired to make a difference, to state their names aloud and have a respected unified identity. His auteur, visually unique and mesmerizing style awarded him the honor of being the first Chinese director to win the Best Director Award of Cannes Film Festival (for his work “Happy Together” in 1997). In 2006, he was the President of the Jury at the Cannes before making a giant step in his career. He came to the United States where he decided to make his first English language film. Oddly though, he cast Norah Jones in the lead role. She was only one of the issues inherent in “My Blueberry Nights,” a saddening flop of epic proportions. The romantic pseudo-road movie is desperate, madly parodying his own prior work, and will definitively be a black mark on Kar-wai’s glorious career for years to come. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Dark Water” Dir. Walter Salles (2005)

Anticipation was high on Walter Salles English-language debut “Dark Water” when it opened in 2005. This marked the Brazilian filmmaker’s big Hollywood gamble following his much beloved foreign hit “Central Station” (nominated for two Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for Fernanda Montenegro) and his well-received Academy Award winning Che Guevara biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Salles was admittedly an odd choice to helm “Dark Water,” a remake of the 2002 Japanese horror film of the same name, back when remaking Japanese horror was all the rage (“The Ring,” “The Grudge,” etc.). Turns out he was the wrong choice. He got a great performance out of Jennifer Connelly as a woman tormented by a ghost. That was expected ; he’s always had a way with actors. What he couldn’t pull off was eliciting solid scares out of the material. The flimsy storyline and lame twists didn’t help matters. (Nigel M. Smith)

READ MORE: TV Shows That Should Have Ended After Their First Season

“Hammet” Dir. Wim Wenders (1982)

Wim Wenders’ first English language film has all the elements to be truly great. It’s a homage to pulp fiction and film noir; a fictionalized story about writer Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man”) trying to put his ‘detective days’ behind him, only to be pulled right back in. Francis Ford Coppola, who was executive producer on the project, also assisted the production, re-shooting scenes and (forcibly) sharing his expert opinion. Tragically, none of these things really mattered in the end. Maybe it was too many cooks in the kitchen. Who knows? The film just didn’t work plain and simple. Though stylish, it’s an unmitigated bore and will put most to sleep. One can understand that the film is intentionally unoriginal but that doesn’t mean it should so uninspired. It completely lacks the panache of his similarly themed works, “The American Friend” (1977) and “The State of Things,” (1982) which detailed Wender’s undying love and fascination with Hollywood and its classic works in a memorable manner. Simply put, the film lacks edge and suffers the price. (Oliver MacMahon)

“Hard Target” Dir.  John Woo (1993)

It’s not easy, being a foreign director newly arrived in Hollywood. No matter how much success you might have had in your home country, you’re still expected to prove yourself — and sometimes, that means directing a generic Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie. “Hard Target” didn’t get the worst reviews of Woo’s career — the Ben Affleck time travel thriller “Paycheck” and ill-fated World War II drama “Windtalkers” performed far worse. But it marked an inauspicious American debut for the man who revolutionized Hong Kong cinema. (Liz Shannon Miller)

“Stoker” Dir. Park Chan-wook (2013)

Korean master Park Chan-wook is responsible for two of favorite revenge thrillers of all time: “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance.” Profane, profound, moving and totally ludicrous, they are films (part of his Vengeance Trilogy) that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. His English-language stars an A-list ensemble that includes Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode and looks absolutely phenomenal (it was lensed by his frequent collaborator Chung Chung-hoon), like all of his work. Where it goes wrong is in the screenplay department. The script, written by “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, thinks it’s our generation’s answer to Hithcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” but doesn’t even come close to matching that screenplay’s deft handling of suspense. The “twists” can be seen from a mile away and every character is undercooked. With “Stoker,” Chan-wook did the unthinkable. He made a dull film. (Nigel M. Smith)

“The Tourist” Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2010)

The reason “The Tourist” failed is simple: It was doomed from the second they wrote that ending (for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I suggest watching simply to be astonished at the preposterous nature of the twist). Why Florian Hencel von Donnersmarck, the Oscar-winning director of “The Lives of Others,” returned after quitting the movie over “creative differences” early on is more of a mystery. Perhaps he, too, wanted a vacation in Italy (like star Angelina Jolie). Perhaps he thought he could overcome it. Perhaps he wanted a pay day. All we know for sure is he hasn’t made a movie since — and it’s been almost four years. It may be more complicated than blaming the bombing of this would-be awards contender (somehow, it earned three Golden Globes nomination), but it couldn’t have helped. Come back to us, Florian. We know you can do better. (Ben Travers)

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