Top 10: Best English Language Debuts From Foreign Directors

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When foreign filmmakers transition to English language cinema, there are often mixed results. Some of them land right out of the gate but others have a difficult transition. This week, French director Claire Denis makes her English-language debut with “High Life.” Meanwhile, Hirokazu Kore-eda is making his debut as well. After “Shoplifters” earned a Foreign Language Film nomination, Kore-eda has “The Truth” which could be a possible awards contender. In honor of their upcoming efforts, here are the ten best English language transitions from foreign filmmakers.

10“Prisoners” (2013)
dir. Denis Villeneuve

If you had a loved one that went missing, how far would you go to get that person back? Would you go far enough to hurt or even kill someone? Those are the kind of questions that the mystery/thriller “Prisoners” asks us. There is a sense of horror, too, because it’s something that could happen to anyone. Also, its look is very bleak and colorless. But despite how uncomfortable it is, “Prisoners” is extremely well-acted and an effective morality tale. It’s one of those movies where you can’t be in too happy of a mood to watch it. Otherwise, it’ll be even more depressing. It is a worthy watch.

9“Stoker” (2013)
dir. Park Chan-Wook

Despite its title, “Stoker” has little to do with the author of the famous novel, “Dracula.” However, it still is quite an effective creeper with Hitchcockian flare. It boasts some breathtaking art direction and a chilling performance from Matthew Goode. As the mysterious Uncle Charlie, Goode radiates sensuality and mystique whenever he’s on screen. As an added bonus, Nicole Kidman gets to have a show-stopping monologue done in one long take.

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

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” may be a British secret agent movie, but no martinis or Aston Martins are involved. It is a tremendous yet old fashioned espionage thriller, where secret agents rely on tact and their wits to find their mark. In this particular case, the formerly retired Smiley (Gary Oldman) tries to uncover a Russian mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. As the mystery progresses, it becomes one of chilling intrigue and meditative brilliance.

7“Disobedience” (2018)
dir. Sebastian Lelio

After directing the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman,” Sebastian Lelio delivered another complex portrait of queer women finding their voice. Set in a conservative Orthodox Jewish community, “Disobedience” follows two women looking to rekindle their romance. As the women who engage in a forbidden romance, both Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are utterly captivating. Weisz displays fiery vulnerability as Ronit while McAdams does career-best work as the refined Esti. In addition, Alessandro Nivola remains the film’s unsung hero as Esti’s neglected rabbi husband Dovid.

6“Snowpiercer” (2014)
dir. Bong Joon-Ho

The world has succumbed to global warming. All of Earth’s survivors have ended up on a train that continuously runs around the globe. What follows is a masterfully crafted sci-fi tale about class, totalitarianism, the environment, and survival. From the use of expositional dialogue to vivid costume design, co-writer/director Bong Joon-Ho effortlessly demonstrates the film’s thematic material. Plus, Tilda Swinton gives a killer performance. As the dictatorial Minister Mason, Swinton is an embodiment of sneering bureaucracy.

5“Jackie” (2016)
dir. Pablo Larrain

With “Jackie,” director Pablo Larrain has redefined how to make a historical biopic. In what could’ve been a straightforward telling of a person’s life, ends up being a cerebral psychodrama. As newly former First Lady Jackie Kennedy grieves over the assassination of her husband, it’s like walking into a literal nightmare. The hazy cinematography from Stephane Fontaine and the eerie score by Mica Levi create a continuously unsettling feeling. In addition, the film is a strong showcase for Natalie Portman whose performance is among the best of her career.

4“The Others” (2001)
dir. Alejandro Amenabar

The Others” is a masterful subversion of the traditional haunted house story. Mystery lurks around every corner and grips you until the film’s surprise ending. The deserted, foggy countryside setting only adds to the unsettling atmosphere. Nicole Kidman is the film’s strong center as a mother a little too protective of her children. As it turns out, with this and “Stoker,” Kidman is a rather unsung presence in the horror genre.

3“The Lobster” (2016)
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos is a master at both the macabre and the absurd. His English language debut, “The Lobster,” is a fine example of his crazed genius. Its story involves a dystopian society that pressures people into finding a companion, providing slight shades of our current era of dating apps. In some ways, it doesn’t seem far from where we are now. Thankfully, in real life, we don’t get transformed into an animal for being single. Also, there’s no villainous Olivia Colman forcing your hand in a toaster.

2“Repulsion” (1965)
dir. Roman Polanski

Rosemary’s Baby” may be the most prolific horror film that Roman Polanski has done, but the terrifying “Repulsion” came first. It’s the first film in his Apartment trilogy which includes “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Tenant” (1976). “Repulsion” is a never-ending exercise in psychological terror. It is a claustrophobic and harrowing insight into a woman’s damaged psyche. Leading actress Catherine Deneuve is flawless as Carol, an introverted hairdresser. She does more acting with just her eyes than what actors can do with pages of dialogue.

1“Breaking the Waves” (1996)
dir. Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier’s films aren’t known for being cozy. However, despite the cynicism, he still puts his own unique spin on various genres. “Breaking the Waves” is his version of a love story. After Bess (Emily Watson) marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), he becomes paralyzed in a work accident. Bess then embarks on a sexual odyssey per Jan’s request. In the process, she challenges the Calvinist community she lives in.

The film is a rather exaggerated demonstration of the things people do for love. It boasts a naturalistic leading performance from Emily Watson who portrays Bess as a woman of defiance and purity. It’s easily one of the best acting debuts ever portrayed on screen.

What are the best English language debuts by foreign directors? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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