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Favorite Films – By Country

These days, with the global economy and multi-ethnic artists creating works of art without regard for national borders, it may seem like an anachronism to categorize films by their country of origin.  Even if you can find some value in making such distinctions (and I do), it is not always an easy task.  Amour was written and directed by an Austrian, but the actors are French and the title and dialogue are in French.  Three companies co-produced the film: one from Germany, one from Austria, and one from France.  When Amour won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, it won for Austria.  If I have to pick one country, I pick Austria-but some would say the best answer is an Austrian/French/German co-production, since that’s where the money came from. (That’s also what the Internet Movie Database says.)  Another example is a director who works in multiple countries.  Michelangelo Antonioni made his early films in Italy, but then he made Blow-Up in England and Zabriskie Point in the U.S.  Does that make Zabriskie Point an American film?  (IMDB says it is and that Blow-Up is a U.K./U.S. co-production – no Italy!)  Luis Buñuel, a Spaniard, made many of his films in France, but also some in Spain and others in Mexico.  Should all Buñuel’s films be labeled Spanish?  What about Peter Jackson?  He is from New Zealand and he filmed his Lord of the Rings trilogy there.  Are they therefore categorized as New Zealand films?  (IMDB says they are N.Z./U.S. co-productions.) Is it all just as simple as “Show Me the Money” and I’ll show you the country of origin?

I respectfully disagree. As a film watcher, where the money came from is much less important that who wrote it, who directed it, who performed in it, who did the cinematography, sound, editing, etc. In other words, to me, determining the country of origin requires looking at the artists, not the financiers. If a spaceship full of venture capitalists flew down from Mars to make a movie, and they hired Martin Scorcese to write and direct it, with an all-American cast and crew, I would call the result an American movie, while IMDB would probably label it “Mars.”

True co-productions, with director, cast and crew, production location and language(s) of dialogue drawn from multiple countries, pose more of a problem, and I haven’t quite solved it. I chose Austria for Amour, but I think France would be a legitimate choice as well. I might choose Italy or U.K. (or both) for Blow-Up, although for some reason Belle de Jour seems clearly French to me, despite Buñuel’s Spanish origins. Sergio Leone is an interesting case. IMDB lists A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as Italy/Spain/West Germany co-productions, but says that Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America are Italy/U.S. co-productions.  When I list my favorite Italian movies, I include four out of these five without hesitation.  Not that director’s country of origin always controls (as seen above with Buñuel). The many expatriates who came to Hollywood over the years from Europe and elsewhere made American movies once they arrived (Chaplin, Murnau, Lang, Hitchcock, Curtiz, Wilder, von Stroheim, Preminger, Forman, and on and on…).

An interesting current case is Ang Lee, who was born in Taiwan in 1954, but moved to the U.S. in 1978 before making his first film.  Two of his early movies, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink, Man Woman, were Taiwan/U.S. co-productions.  Both featured primarily Mandarin dialogue, and Eat Drink, Man Woman was filmed in Taiwan.  After making some non-Taiwanese films, Lee made what some think was his masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/U.S. co-production filmed in Mainland China with all-Mandarin dialogue.  It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Taiwan.   How should we identify these films?  Should Lee’s Taiwanese background matter any more than Fritz Lang’s German origins (and Lang actually directed films before he left Germany)?  If former British citizen Alfred Hitchcock had filmed The Birds in Cornwall with English actors, would it have been a British film?  Or look at The Last Emperor, in which Bernardo Bertolucci (Italy) films in China with actors speaking four or five different languages, mostly English and Mandarin.  It is listed as a co-production between China, Italy, U.K. and France.  If you had to pick one country, what would you pick?  If this were one of your favorites and you were making a list, “Best Chinese Films of All Time”, would you list it?  What about “Best Italian Films of All Time?”

Ultimately, in making “Favorite Films of [Country]” lists, I took all the above factors into consideration and added some intuition.  That is not to say I winged it, but when logical reasoning didn’t produce a clear answer, I had to go with my gut.  That’s usually how it works out, and I’m OK with that.

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