Top 10: Best American Remakes of Foreign Films

With this week’s release of “Miss Bala”, “The Upside” earlier this month, American remakes of foreign films are a hot trend in Hollywood right now. Of course, this is nothing new, as American filmmakers have long borrowed from world cinema since the earliest days of the medium. While many of these fail to live up to the reputation of the original films, there are others which have achieved enough popularity to become known as the definitive versions of their stories. As we anticipate a year slated to bring even more remakes, here’s a look back at 10 such outstanding American Remakes of Foreign Films which either equaled or surpassed their predecessors.

10. “Scent of a Woman”

Based on an Italian film of the same name, “Scent of a Woman” is the quintessential 90s Oscar contender. Showcasing a respected actor in a sentimental drama, it’s the kind of film that gave rise to the term “Oscar bait”. Indeed, Al Pacino won his first and only Oscar for his role as a blind man fighting his personal demons, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a teenaged school boy who is charged to look after him. A few decades later, this brand of showy actor’s vehicle has somewhat fallen out of fashion with modern cinephiles. But the performances by Pacino and his endearing co-star Chris O’Connell are still affecting and its storyline still touches the heart.

9. “The Departed”

There are remakes which feel like carbon copies of the original and there are those like “The Departed” which reinterpret their source material in fascinating ways. Martin Scorsese famously won his first Oscar for this remake of the Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs”, successfully translating the narrative to the streets of Boston. It stars Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio as opposing moles in the Massachusetts State Police and the Irish mob respectively, as Scorsese conveys a rich sense of place through colorful language and gritty atmosphere. “The Departed” may not be the most visually inventive of Scorsese’s films, but the captivating narrative and its duplicitous characters serve up nail-biting tension and suspension, delivering another stellar entry to the canon of American gangster films.

8. “Scarlet Street”

Poor Edward G. Robinson, he’s always falling for the wrong woman. After the success of 1944’s “Woman in the Window”, Robinson teamed up with Fritz Lang for another tale of fatal desire in “Scarlet Street“. Based on the novel “La Chienne”, which was originally adapted in French for the big screen, the film casts Robinson as a lowly cashier and aspiring painter who is enamored with a beautiful younger woman who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Unfortunately for him, she soon plots to take advantage of him in a nefarious scheme so scandalous for 1940s audiences that the film was banned in 3 cities. Thankfully, access is no longer an issue for this essential film noir, which remains one of the best films available in the public domain.

7. “Some Like it Hot”

Widely regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made, many persons would be surprised to learn that “Some Like it Hot” is in fact based on the 1935 French film “Fanfare of Love”. Directed by Billy Wilder, this 1959 classic stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians on the run after witnessing a mass murder in Prohibition-era Chicago. Disguising themselves as women to conceal their identities, the pair makes their way to Miami where endless hijinks ensue. And thanks to infectious chemistry between Curtis and Lemmon, in addition to a memorable turn from Marilyn Monroe, “Some Like it Hot” still delivers the laughs 60 years later.

6. “Twelve Monkeys”

Dystopian films are a dime a dozen these days, but before the current deluge of apocalyptic narratives, Terry Gilliam gave us a classic of this sci-fi genre. Expanding on the acclaimed short film “La Jetée”, Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys” follows Bruce Willis as James Cole, a man from the 2030s who is sent back in time to figure out what caused the near extinction of the human race. As Cole traverses through time, the film benefits from Gilliam’s imaginative world-building, through its futuristic cyberpunk aesthetic. Meanwhile, Willis is terrific as the film’s reluctant hero, taking audiences on a riveting race against the clock.

5. “The Birdcage”

Directed by the late Mike Nichols, “The Birdcage” is one of the most beloved comedies of the 1990s. Initially adapted in French and Italian as “La Cage aux Folles,” this remake takes place in South Beach, where a gay couple is forced to play straight when the ultra-conservative parents of their son’s fiancé come to visit. With no shortage of dubious wigs, screwball mishaps and an outstanding cast including Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane, this hilarious comedy will leave you with a big smile on your face.

4. “The Ring”

Before the blockbuster success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, director Gore Verbinski had one of his biggest hits in the form of “The Ring“. A remake of the Japanese horror film “Ringu,” it stars Naomi Watts as a reporter who investigates a disturbing videotape that leads to the death of anyone who watches it. When she herself watches the video, she must solve the mystery before it’s too late. Featuring some of the most haunting images ever put to the screen, “The Ring” was the source of many nightmares for its terrified audiences, especially those who watched the film on home video themselves. Additionally, it’s an influence is still being felt today, as it evolved into a franchise and paved the way for other remakes of Japanese horror films.

3. “The Magnificent Seven”

It may sound almost sacrilegious to say, but when “The Magnificent Seven” hit theaters in 1960, it arguably improved on Akira Kurosawa’s revered “Seven Samurai”. Moving the action from Japan to the American Old West, it follows a group of seven gunslingers who are charged with protecting a small town from a group of bandits. “One of the most satisfying Westerns ever made, “The Magnificent Seven” delivers on the thrilling shootouts, memorable characters and resonant themes surrounding morality and justice which have become the hallmark of the genre.

2. “Victor/Victoria”

Though she is more widely known for her iconic performances in “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins,” fans of Julie Andrews would know that one of her finest hours came in 1982’s “Victor/Victoria“. Andrews stars in the titular role as a struggling singer in 1930s Paris, who reboots her career by posing as a female impersonator in a drag show. As she quickly becomes a star, her love life becomes complicated as she is torn between keeping her secret and revealing the truth to the man she has fallen in love with. Crafted with great attention to the visual details of the period and showcasing Andrews in yet another showstopping musical performance, “Victor/Victoria” offers delightful entertainment from start to finish.

1. “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

Easily one of the most underappreciated films of the much-lauded cinematic year of 1999, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a downright masterpiece. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel which was first adapted as “Purple Noon,” Anthony Minghella’s remake sees Matt Damon replacing Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, a young American sent to Italy to fetch the playboy son (Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law) of a wealthy shipbuilder. Upon his arrival, however, Ripley becomes infatuated with Dickie and his lifestyle and decides to use his skills of impersonation to ingratiate himself with Dickie’s social circles. Brilliantly bringing to life one of the most fascinating literary characters, Matt Damon is both mesmerizing and disturbing in the role, as his character arc explores how class tensions, repressed sexuality, and unrequited love can manifest in the most sinister ways. Aside from its dark undertones, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is also one of the most ravishing period pieces, thanks to its gorgeous Italian setting and an ensemble of rising stars at the peak of their fresh-faced beauty.

What are your favorite American remakes of foreign films? Let us know in the comments below.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.


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