Top 10: American Remakes of Foreign Films

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On paper, there is something so grossly American about remaking a foreign film. It screams cash out and insinuates American audiences won’t read subtitles. With this week’s “Ghost in the Shell” remake drawing cries of whitewashing, the practice hasn’t seemed to earn any new fans. However, it’s a longstanding tradition and has yielded some true American classics. Even directors as prestigious as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese engage in this trend from time to time. Rather than cash in on remaking a film most Americans haven’t seen, some storytellers are able to bring American nuances to these projects and end up with a unique piece of art. Other times, filmmakers use the logline as a jumping off point for something wholly original.

The following films do just that. Keeping this week’s release of “Ghost in the Shell” in mind, without further ado, check out our picks for the top 10 English language remakes of foreign films.

10. “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2015)

Remake of: “El Secreto de sus Ojos” (Argentina – 2009)

After a shocking Oscar upset, it was only a matter of time before we got an American remake of the Best Foreign Language winner, “El Secreto de sus Ojos.” STX Entertainment’s fledgling remake was unceremoniously dumped in Oscar season with little fanfare. This was quite sad, as the film ended up more potent and entertaining than critics made it seem. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman are flirtatious FBI agents whose worlds are rocked when their colleague’s (Julia Roberts) daughter is murdered. They take on the burden of finding the killer amid a hostile political climate. In setting the film in post-9/11 Los Angeles, the story becomes an interesting commentary on Islamophobia over time. While it may not be at the level of the original, it is still a strong piece of work worth checking out.

9. “Brothers” (2009)

Remake of: “Brødre” (Denmark – 2004)

A Danish drama got the premiere remake treatment from Irish director Jim Sheridan in 2009. Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film was pegged to be an Oscar contender due to the talent involved and the potent wartime changes made. Both films dealt with a man shot down in Afghanistan and captured as a prisoner of war (Maguire in the American film). Back at home, his wife (Portman) and ne’er-do-well brother (Gyllenhaal) struggle to cope with his assumed loss. They end up romantically involved, only for the soldier to be rescued and come home to a completely different family dynamic. While somewhat bombastic, the fragile heart of the film is still there. The conflict is potent, and the actors are more than up for the task. While it wasn’t the runaway hit people expected, it’s a personal gem that sticks with you.

8. “Nine” (2009)

Remake of: “8 1/2” (Italy – 1963)

My lifelong status as a “Nine” apologist couldn’t be stronger. Rob Marshall’s misunderstood 2009 musical was met with a critical drubbing and box office failure. However, the star-studded film remains an ambitious and creative reimagining of the classic Fellini film. Daniel Day-Lewis takes on the role of Guido Contini, a womanizing Italian director going through writer’s block. He calls upon the women in his life to both set him straight or douse on the conflict, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), confidant (Judi Dench) and star (Nicole Kidman). The art house sensibilities of Fellini’s masterpiece aren’t there, but a rousing and emotional musical replaces it. “Nine” succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to be either an American retelling of a classic or a modern update. It’s its own beast, for better or worse. That’s what makes it a thrilling companion piece.

7. “Unfaithful” (2002)

Remake of: “La Femme Infidéle” (France – 1968)

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the lead role than Diane Lane. The former child star gives a career-best performance as Connie Sumner, a perfectly nice suburban mother and housewife. After a particularly blustery day in the city, Connie falls into the arms (and bed) of a handsome stranger (Olivier Martinez). The love scenes are salacious, but the journey of joy and culpability that Connie goes on drives the film. There’s something almost stereotypically French about the movie. The drama, the lust and the tension all make it feel like a classic French film. Director Adrian Lyne knows a thing or two about filming lusty adultery dramas (see “Fatal Attraction”). Paired with Lane’s game performance, they are able to bring out the smolder and sensuality the material deserves.

6. “The Ring” (2002)

Remake of: “Ringu” (Japan – 1998)

“The Ring” scared millions of Americans upon its sleeper 2002 run and issued in a new wave of foreign horror remakes. Unlike many other titles on the list, “The Ring” ended up popularizing “Ringu” among American audiences. While “Ringu” maintains its status as a foreign horror classic, the remake managed to keep all the menace and reach a mass audience with its PG-13 rating. Naomi Watts plays a journalist who watches a mysterious videotape that tells her she will die in seven days. The race against time sets in and paranoia builds until you never want to see a VHS tape again. Even over 15 years later, studios tried to reinvigorate the franchise with this year’s “Rings.” However, the original still remains within the cultural lexicon. Once you see Samara climb out of a TV, you’ll never forget it.

5. “The Birdcage” (1996)

Remake of: “La Cage Aux Folles” (France – 1978)

The original “La Cage Aux Folles,” based on the play of the same name, surprised at the Oscars upon its release. It picked up nominations for Best Director (Édouard Molinaro), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. With that type of pedigree, it seems like a tough act to follow in a remake. However, the SAG ensemble-winning cast assembled for “The Birdcage” in 1996 was up for the task. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple in Florida who must pretend to be straight for their son’s right-wing fiancee. However, they live in the drag club they own and perform at, The Birdcage. What may seem problematic on paper turns into a fun, heartwarming comedic romp that prides and champions the differences between its characters. Plus, Lane has never been funnier. To date, the film is still the top grossing LGBT film domestically.

4. “The Sound of Music” (1965)

Remake of: “Die Trapp-Familie” (Germany – 1956)

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music 1965The hills were alive with the sound of music even before Julie Andrews roamed them. The story of a nun assigned to a family who ends up marrying into it amid invading Nazis caught attention quickly. The memoirs “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” was published in 1949. From there, a German film named “Die Trapp-Familie” was made in 1956 and became one of the most successful German films. It even begat a 1958 sequel, “Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika.”

However, the story did not truly know the bounds of success until Robert Wise brought the story to America. “The Sound of Music” starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer became an uncontrollable phenomenon. The film grossed $158 million in the U.S. Adjusted for inflation, this remains the third-highest grossing American film of all time, behind “Gone with the Wind” and “Star Wars.” On top of that, the film won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. There’s a reason the film remains a yearly television fixture and unmistakable pop culture icon. The central storyline is powerful and sprawling. Also, Andrews’ performance radiates love and happiness in ways other films just can’t replicate.

3. “The Departed” (2006)

Remake of: “Infernal Affairs” (China – 2002)

Who would’ve thought a remake of a Chinese thriller would bring Martin Scorsese his first Oscar win? The Best Picture winner took the Cantonese language film and gave it a distinct Boston flare that helped it seem new and refreshing to American audiences. The film now follows a Boston mobster who pretends to be a crooked cop (Matt Damon) and an ambitious cop tasked with masquerading as a mobster (Leonardo DiCaprio). The cat and mouse game revolves around the eccentric boss who runs the town, Frank Costello (Martin Scorsese). What makes the film work is it takes the structure and logline of the original film, but chucks the rest out. Scorsese and writer William Monahan do a great job at changing the DNA of the script to read purely American. The fear and imagery of being caught as a rat permeates the rough-and-tumble chess match of the game.

2. “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

Remake of: “Purple Noon” (France – 1960)

Even in the American remake, the heart and soul of the film remains purely European. Originally based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, France was quick to put the novel to film just five years after its initial publication. The film received strong reviews and made a star out of Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, but didn’t have the gumption of the novel. Nearly forty years later, maestro Anthony Minghella captured the epic nature of the mystery. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a con artist sent to Italy to convince a wealthy playboy, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) to leave Italy and come back home. The two develop quite an adversarial friendship punctuated by Ripley’s fascination with the gregarious Greenleaf.

The ensuing crime and cover-up continue to build upon each other. The tension reaches critical mass by the end, in sublime fashion. Even better than the plotting is the acting. The film represents a career best for its young trio – Damon, Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, as Dickie’s fiancee. Early turns by Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman continue to up the game of the film. Across Italy and Paris, the film is a spectacle to look at. It’s a beautiful, sun-drenched drama that enthralls at every turn. It’s hard to imagine a more definitive turn.

1. “Some Like it Hot” (1959)

Remake of: “Fanfaren der Liebe” (Germany – 1951) and “Fanfare of Love” (France – 1935)

Few films are more distinctly American than the classic comedy, “Some Like it Hot.” In fact, the American Film Institute named it the No. 1 comedy of all time. Thus, it came as quite a shock to learn it was a remake of both a French and German comedy. The ability to recall either of those films speaks to how Billy Wilder’s rendition remains the definitive version of the comedy. In fact, it remains one of the definitive comedies of cinematic history.

The film follows two unemployed musicians who bear witness to a murder (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis). To save their lives, they pose in drag and join a women’s band to get out of town. However, both develop feelings for the flighty lead singer of the crew, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe in a career-defining role). Few scripts mine as many laughs out of an ever weaving story that continues to build. Even more impressive is how progressive the film treats its desperate protagonists in drag. It never goes for the easy laugh, especially in its final and famous line. “Nobody’s perfect,” but this film is about as close as it comes.

What are your favorite American remakes of foreign films?
Is this something you would like to see Hollywood do more of? Let us know in the comments.