Thursday, October 11, 2012

World Cinema Guide: Introduction

In December 2005 I completed a ‘World Cinema Guide’ E-book that I’d worked on for 6 months. It was a mammoth list - in various versions, and with various add-ons - of the 3952 most critically acclaimed sound movies ever from 93 different countries. I’d researched it with a pathological rigour by checking dozens of sources. I sold it on Ebay for a while and then forgot about it.

This was how the films were distributed amongst the top 30 countries

Recently I’ve thought about trying to update it to 2012 but to do it as thoroughly as I had before would entail a huge amount of work which I don’t have time for. So instead of just letting it languish completely I thought I’d post the extant list here in manageable country-size chunks. For anyone interested in film history who can overlook the absence of anything since 2005 I think it’s still pretty useful since it amalgamates so many other sources and, especially for the more obscure film-producing nations, it provides information that is hard to come by elsewhere.

Below is the original text I used to sell it on Ebay. It explains a lot more about how the choices for inclusion were made. Plus there’s a section - ‘Notes on technical matters’ - that was included in the E-Book, for anyone interested in the real nitty-gritty of compiling a book like this.


Original Ebay ad:

This collection contains a massive list of ALL the critically acclaimed sound films ever made, from 93 different countries, dating from 1929 up to and including December 2005.


With nearly 4,000 recommended movies (the actual total is 3952. It is deliberately not padded out with lesser titles just to reach a round number), this is larger than any other ‘best of’ film list by far. Yet this has been achieved not by filling up the list with moderately good English-language movies and sacrificing quality, but by researching in a far more thorough way than has ever been done before into what are the best movies from every country in the world. The book is a treasure trove for world cinema fans since it is the ultimate, truly international summary of great cinema.

Like other ‘greatest movies’ lists that appear in the media, this E-book contains all the Hollywood classics, and the work of the well known masters of cinema- Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock, Kurosawa etc. But the lists for English language films, and the films from other countries usually well represented in those lists- France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, etc-  go way beyond the usual tired old re-tread of familiar titles every film fan knows, taking in avant-garde films, documentaries, and even a few short films.

Then with films from other, usually less well represented, countries, this E book really marks itself out as special. I started with the idea that for Mexican cinema, for example, there must be more than just Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amoros Perros.  For Chinese cinema there must be more than just Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the well known Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige films. For Spain, there must be more than just the works of Bunuel, Almodovar, Amenebar and Carlos Saura. For Iran, more than just the films of Abbas Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs.

And in every case I found there WAS more, much more. For Mexico I discovered 45 acclaimed films, between 1933 and 2005. For China, I ended up with 102 titles, with 21 of them from the 1930’s and 40’s. For Spain the total was 96 and only 33 of them came from Bunuel, Almodovar, Amenebar and Saura. For Iran since the late 60’s up to 2005 I found there were 54 films which have been critically acclaimed.

Other countries seemed to suffer from being well known only in certain periods and I set out to redress that balance. Many movie fans know German cinema of the 70’s, and Italian cinema in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. But had these two major film-producing countries produced nothing of note in the last 3 decades except the odd hit like The Son's Room or Run Lola Run? Of course not!

If you want to know ALL the recommended films from Korea in the 2000’s, Brazil in the 1960’s, Taiwan since the 80’s, from any country in any period in fact, the answer’s here. I go further into each national cinema and suggest more new gems than any other guide since this is an amalgamation of all their recommendations.

This book also serves as an excellent reference point and summary. For those who are interested in say French cinema, this book provides the perfect way to check back and find ALL the potentially good French films of say the last ten years. Or maybe you’re from Australian or New Zealand and want to see, gathered together in one place, a list of ALL the films from your country which have ever been critically acclaimed.

Within these comprehensive lists there are in effect ‘best of the best’ lists – The most critically acclaimed 10-20% of films from each country are marked with a *. So if you’re new to, say, Taiwanese cinema and 48 films are too much to get your head around, you can concentrate on the 10 or 15 films that are asterisked; these are the ones which have been acclaimed by nearly every critic.


This list represents the ultimate consensus of critical opinion on film, since it is a result of cross referencing between many sources; a film qualifies if it has garnered at least two glowing recommendations, and didn’t inspire an equal or larger number of negative reviews.

1.            It first of all collects together recommendations from over 20 trusted, authoritative film encyclopaedias, film histories and film guides published in book form.

2.            It puts that together with reviews (including archived reviews going back many decades) in the main film magazines in the US, the UK and France.

3.            It then factors in awards and festival prizes. The films here are the ones which have won major prizes at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA’s, the Cesars (the main French Film Awards), the David Di Donatello Awards (the main Italian Awards), the European Film Awards, or at Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Venice and other film festivals…. unless they have had a generally negative reaction from critics.

4.            It considers university film courses to see what they take to be the ‘essential’ films from particular countries.

5.            And lastly, it takes into account recommendations from hundreds of movie websites where the opinions expressed seem authoritative and professional, and if a consensus about a film can be ascertained.

This is a work of serious research into world cinema which is the result of 6 months’ hard work. It is a copyrighted work which is not for sale by any other seller on Ebay. It is a book compiled by a movie fanatic, and aimed at other movie fanatics, especially those who want a comprehensive, up-to-date, reference book which will lead them to 100’s of interesting, acclaimed films from around the world which they don’t yet know about. (I guarantee that not even the most knowledgeable world cinema fan will know all the recommendations here.)


As mentioned before, I have worked on the basis that a film qualifies if it has at least two recommendations. But of course one needs a sense of proportion when applying these rules. If you look in any newspaper or film magazine, you’ll see that virtually every new film has two or more recommendations carefully co-opted from reviews, yet just because a couple of tabloid newspapers think I, Robot, for example, is ‘thrill-a-minute’ stuff doesn’t mean it’s going to be included here.

I have factored in the awards and prizes a film has won but there are many films that have won prizes that have justifiably vanished without trace; just look at the early years of the Sundance festival, for example. Some films garner lots of awards but when examined for actual worth by critics are found wanting. If a film has won prizes but also provoked a great number of negative reviews then I haven’t included it. Hence you won’t find the likes of The Sound of Music (1965), or Life Is Beautiful (1997) in these lists.

When I’ve discovered very obscure films which have won a festival prize or two, I have always looked for further confirmation. I have carefully weighed up all the award information, and assumed that many awards is better than one, and an international award is worth more than one from the film’s country of origin. The films included in this list should appeal to a general audience so specialist genre awards – such as at horror or sci-fi film festivals- have not counted for much in themselves since they may only indicate that fans of that particular genre will like the film. The bottom line has always been to present a list of films which the majority of people who know about films think are not just ok, but very good.

The emphasis has been on breadth of reference rather than depth of investigation into individual films, presenting a range of cinema as international as possible. I do not give details of plot or actors and this is not a book of reviews. Films are given with director, year and country and this book is designed to be used with a film guide or a movie database on the net which gives you more information on each film. It’s ‘just’ a list; but it’s a very special list, a list like you’ve never seen before.


Some books which are already out there for sale also list films according to country. Here are some differences between this work and those books.

a)     some books list all known films from that country but they are not necessarily good ones. You’d have to read the reviews of each- and sometimes there’s hundreds of them- to find out which are the ones worth seeing. I’ve done that work for you. I list only the best films from each country.
b)     Some books list films with no year or director, no clue as to their provenance; I include year and director.
c)     When it comes to international co-productions, many books list films under countries which have done nothing more than provide financial backing. That may be technically correct but it is misleading too. I have decided on a rigorous approach for deciding which country a film should be listed under. It is described fully in the introduction of the book (Note from Oct 2012: See 'Deciding on the nationality of a film' below) but the bottom line is that it reflects the national origin of the artistic talent involved in any particular film.


Notes on technical matters:

Foreign language titles. 

Titles of foreign films are usually given in English, except for where the foreign title is more familiar to most English speakers than the translation e.g. L’Avventura (Italy, 59) not ‘The Adventure’. This applies mainly to certain Italian and French titles.

The Spanish director Bigas Luna for example has one film listed here in Spanish, Jamon Jamon, but others in English: The Tit and the Moon and Golden Balls. In this I am simply following the lead of most film reference works in the English speaking world. Our distributors tend to use the original title if it is short and pithy and sounds better than the English translation, rather like some foreign words – e.g. ‘déjà vu’- stay in their original form when used in English language. So some titles get translated, and some don’t. I apologise if I can offer no more coherently logical policy, but it is ever thus when it comes to foreign films, I’m afraid.

German, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Czech, etc titles are always given in English, except for the odd occasion where there is no official translation. With quite a few Indian titles, for example, there is no well known English translation, and in these cases I have used the original Indian title

Conflicting information about year of release. 

Different sources sometimes quote different years for the same film. This has happened for about 3% of the films listed here. They all claim to be ‘authoritative’ but then one of them must be wrong. Where I have come across such discrepancies between three or more sources I’ve gone with the majority opinion. Where the discrepancy is between only two sources I have chosen the earlier year to quote. I’ve done this on the basis that films often get premiered at festivals in one year and don’t go on general release until the next, or get premiered in different countries in different years, and the earliest year the film was seen anywhere in its complete form is surely the correct year to quote as year of release.

Deciding on the nationality of a film

Where a film officially has only one country of origin, then of course it will be listed in these E books under that country. This accounts for probably 80-90% of all the films in these E-books. A strange recent example of how this rule prevails above all else is The Machinist (2004). It’s in English, and has an American director and a Welsh star, but it is officially a Spanish film and so is listed here under ‘Spain’.

In the case of co-productions, however, things get more difficult. In these E books every film has been assigned one nationality and one only, because each country selection is meant to represent the work of its indigenous film-making talent, i.e. where the director and/or actors come from that country. But it can sometimes be hard to choose the country most invested in the film.

My first rule was that if a film is in one language only and it is the language of one of the credited countries but not the other(s) then this factor should take precedence. This seemed logical to me also because it almost always reflected the setting and the nationality of most of the cast too.  E.g. End of Violence is a German/U.S. co-production with a German director, but it is in English with American actors and set in the U.S., so is listed as an American film.

There were a very few cases where international co-productions were in the different languages of both/all the producing nations. I then decided based on the director’s country of origin.

A more common problem was when both co-producing nations shared a language. Co-productions from the Republic of Ireland proved particularly difficult to classify so I’ll use it as an example of how I made my decisions.

Co-productions with the U.S. set in Ireland, but where the main star and director are non-Irish, like The Dead (John Huston, 1987) with Angelica Huston, are excluded from the Irish section, and listed as American, since they’re not primarily reflecting indigenous Irish talent. However Circle of Friends (Pat O’Connor, 1995) with American actor Chris O’Donnell, is included, because the director is Irish. Other famous Ireland-set films like The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952) are officially U.S. only productions and so are automatically excluded.

Some Irish/U.K. co-productions set in Northern Ireland (such as Angel, In The Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son, and The Boxer) are listed in the Irish section because their directors are from the Republic of Ireland. Most other famous Northern Ireland-set pictures, like Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947), Hidden Agenda (Ken Loach, 1990) and The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992), are officially U.K. only productions so the nationality of the director is immaterial: they will be in the U.K. list if they are listed at all.

Occasionally it was very difficult to decide: The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) for example was a U.S./Germany/U.K./Argentina/Chile/Peru/ France co-production. It has a Brazilian director and Mexican lead actor but neither Brazil nor Mexico are amongst the producing countries, so I have put it in the Argentina section because the second billed actor is Argentinean. This is an extreme example though; 99.9% of films present no such problem.

Capitalisation of titles

The basic rule for film titles is that you use title case except for articles, prepositions, and the word ‘and’ (e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Harold and Maude). This is, of course, unless the article, preposition, etc is the initial word (e.g. In the Name of the Father, And Then There Were None). I have followed this policy for all titles given in English.

However confusion frequently reigns when it comes to how this applies to foreign titles; most of the authoritative film reference works differ in some way. With French titles for example, many capitalise only the first word in titles and nothing else e.g. La crabe dans la tete. Others capitalise according to English rules e.g. La Crabe dans la Tete. Others don’t seem to have a coherent policy and it varies according to title. That’s before even getting into what are the articles in German, Spanish, Czech, Chinese etc

With so much potential to go wrong – working out what to do about ‘de’ and ‘la’ etc in French, not to mention all the equivalents in other languages- I thought it best to just stick to one policy for foreign titles and I’ve given everything title case e.g. La Crabe Dans La Tete. I don’t think it seriously impinges on anyone’s understanding of which film I’m referring to.

However I felt I had to come up with some coherent policy as regards capitalising words that come after L’ , D’ and S’ in French. I’ve seen, for example Cedric Khan’s 1998 film listed as l’Ennui, as L’Ennui, and as L’ennui. The correct version would seem to be the second since that’s what’s on the DVD cover. I have thus worked on the basis that letters are capitalised after L’, D’ and S’ in French the same way words in general are in English i.e. always if it’s the initial word (e.g. L'Enfant Sauvage), but otherwise not (e.g. Le Juge Et L'assassin) except when it’s a proper name (e.g. Le Parfum D'Yvonne).

Foreign Accents

Again the authoritative film reference works disagree with each other and often with themselves when it comes to including foreign accents on letters in film titles. Books that do include accents usually do so only for French titles, and even then sometimes omit it when the accent is on a capital letter; Godard’s breakthrough 1959 film, for example, gets rendered as A Bout De Souffle (i.e. with no accent on the ‘A’). If they’re right and the rules for accents are different with capitals than they are with lower-case letters, then there are a whole lot of other reference books which must be wrong, because they have it as À Bout De Souffle.
With so much disagreement about the subject, I decided to not include accents at all. We’re quite used to the lack of accents with titles in other languages; accents in German and Scandinavian languages, for example, are almost never used in English-language film reference books. So I felt readers could handle the lack of accents in French too. While this occasionally causes problems -Michael Haneke’s film Caché for example seems slightly wrong when rendered as Cache- I felt it was a small price to pay in the end. I’m not an expert on world languages and this is not supposed to be a grammar course- just a guide to good films- so I hope readers will forgive me if they occasionally disagree with my decisions and find some detail that meets with their displeasure.

Movie/TV programme grey areas.

Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom and The Kingdom 2, Kieslowski’s Dekalog, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz are all not included here. It was tempting to include such works especially because they were created by film directors. But I didn’t because if I included them why not ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ or ‘Roots’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth’? The line had to be drawn somewhere. However, works that were both TV series and (usually in a shorter version) also had actual theatrical releases, like Fanny and Alexander, are included.

For documentaries I took a slightly more lenient approach. I researched far and wide to get an idea of what were the best documentaries of feature length (i.e. over 60 minutes) ever made and since it wasn’t always possible to establish if a film had had a theatrical release or just been made for TV and then released on video and/or DVD, in the end I decided to include all such acclaimed documentaries if their reputation was high enough, regardless of origin. I did this since the group of films I was concerned with were a small number of classics of the documentary genre like the works of Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple and Errol Morris. It doesn’t mean I’ve ventured into the 1000’s of documentaries made every year strictly for TV. I’ve included far more titles than many film books do, but there are still probably little more than 100 documentaries in the total number of 3952 films here.

A note on Chinese (and Japanese and Korean) language names.

With Chinese (and Japanese and Korean) language names, where one can argue over which order the names should appear in, I have simply followed the policy of those who make the posters and DVD cases in the English speaking world. The confusion arises because Chinese convention is to list family name first and given name second; the name ‘Yimou Zhang’ , for example, is starting to be seen more and more but since his name on the official poster for House Of Flying Daggers (2004) is still Zhang Yimou I decided to stick with that.

Though some sources like to refer to the director of Chungking Express, for example, as Kar Wai Wong (and insist that this is more correct), the vast majority still prefer Wong Kar Wai. Similarly with Japanese names, Donald Richie, renowned expert on Japanese cinema, refers to the likes of Kurosawa Akira in his books on Japanese cinema. But to the vast majority of the world, the director of The Seven Samurai is still Akira Kurosawa.

Throughout these E books I have stuck with the conventional, most well known, order of names for Oriental directors, even if some insist it is incorrect.

Also, many Honk Kong and Taiwanese directors, like Edward Yang and Stephen Chow, adopt English first names to save us poor Westerners any confusion, so it seems to me if you were to insist on using the Chinese language order of names you’d have to refer to them as Yang Edward and Chow Stephen, and that just doesn’t seem right.

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