The spotlight on International cinema has never been greater than it is right now, after “Parasite“ claimed the Best Picture award this year and “Roma“ came very close the year prior. However, International cinema has always been incredibly strong, with decades of extremely powerful performances that have resonated not just in their original countries, but all across the world. This list celebrates the very best of the bunch, from the 1960s and 70s all the way through to today.
“Life is Beautiful” (Italy, 1997)
This list kicks off with one of the three entries to win their nomination, as Benigni bested acting royalty Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen and Edward Norton to take home the Best Actor prize for “Life is Beautiful.” Roberto Benigni is incredibly charming in the film he also directs, with the film mixing outright comedy with emotional scenes. The film was a huge success in his native Italy and his careful touch through a delicate subject matter is something only he could have done.
“The Story of Adele H.” (France, 1975)
François Truffaut is regarded as one of the most influential French filmmakers of all time, with his debut film “The 400 Blows” often cited as one of the very best French films. However one of his lesser spoke about films also features one of the best performances, as Isabelle Adjani stars as the true-life figure Adèle Hugo. At just 19-years-old, Adjani gives a very complex and engaging performance, articulating one woman’s self-destruction over unrequited love with the maturity of a veteran actor. It’s a performance that helped launch a multi-Cesar award-winning career, but this will always be her standout.
“Volver” (Spain, 2006)
The first of two Pedro Almodovar entries on this list, much of the success and fame earned by Penelope Cruz stems from her performance in “Volver,” a film focused on a mother and her daughters, along with a supernatural element. It still remains the best performance from Cruz to this day, effortlessly charming and elegant every time she is on screen. Her presence is powerful and it’s no wonder she’s become the superstar she is today.
Max von Sydow
“Pelle the Conqueror” (Denmark, 1987)
Max von Sydow had a terrific career, with his death earlier this year sparking many to recollect on many of his best performances. At the top of that is “Pelle the Conqueror,” with the near-three hour film telling the story of two Swedish immigrants searching for a better life. Von Sydow won plaudits from critics around the world for his extraordinary performance, citing it as the reason the film works as well as it does.
“Central Station” (Brazil, 1998)
“Central Station” starts by showing Fernanda Montenegro’s Dora as a very resentful woman, a retired teacher taking advantage of the illiterate by writing letters on their behalf and pocketing the money without sometimes ever sending them. However, when she has no choice but to take care of a young boy after his mother’s death, the road trip that ensues shows Dora has much more heart and compassion than it first appears. Montenegro is endlessly watchable and entertaining in the role, including some great banter and bickering with the younger actor.
“Pain & Glory” (Spain, 2019)
The most recent entry in this list, Antonio Banderas managed to crack the Best Actor field this year in an incredibly competitive category, which is a testament to the strength of his performance in “Pain & Glory.” Banderas plays somewhat of a version of director Almodovar, and he mesmerizes in what is no doubt a career-best performance for the Spanish actor. It’s nuanced and subtle but hits all the right emotional beats, in which there are many. It’s a performance that will be etched long in the memory of Spanish cinema and one that will define Banderas’ long and illustrious career.
“Two Women” (Italy, 1960)
Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” brought home an Oscar for Sophia Loren, focusing on the struggles facing a mother and daughter fleeing the horrors of war. It’s a harrowing and powerful performance from Loren who captures the terror of her character astonishingly well, adding to the film’s gritty atmosphere. It’s a performance that launched Loren’s career as one of Italy’s most recognizable actors, and she returned to the Oscars in 1964 with a nomination for “Marriage Italian-Style.”
“Amour” (France, 2012)
If the plot to Michael Haneke’s “Amour” isn’t devastating enough, it’s made even more so by the truly astonishing performances from leads Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Riva, in particular, pulls off an extremely difficult task, as the condition of her character Anne deteriorates throughout the film. Riva won the BAFTA as well as a handful of critics awards for her performance, which was no doubt the crowning jewel in the late French actress’s terrific career.
“Autumn Sonata” (Sweden, 1978)
Of all the iconic roles Ingrid Bergman played throughout the years – “Casablanca” and “Gaslight” in particular – none are as heartbreaking as her role as Charlotte Andergast in Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata.” The film is an acting showcase, centered around a mother and daughter reuniting after years apart to talk through the pain they’ve been through. The chemistry between Bergman and Liv Ullman is terrific, elevating this two-hander to something emotionally shattering. It would turn out to be the final Oscar nomination in Bergman’s treasured career, as she sadly died four years after this project.
“La Vie en Rose” (France, 2007)
Either of Marion Cotillard’s nominated performances was viable contenders for this #1 spot, with “Two Days, One Night” also a spectacular performance based around a woman’s race against the clock. However, her Academy Award-winning role as Edith Piaf is undeniable, featuring dazzling musical scenes as well as powerful confrontations. Boosted by Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald’s terrific makeup job – which also won the pair Oscars – Cotillard’s “La Vie en Rose” sits atop the mountain of outstanding International Film performances and will take something special in future years to ever be topped.
Are there any standout performances that you think deserved to be included in this list? Let us know in the comments below!