Search for foreign films about everyday people
May 31, 2009 2:58 AM   Subscribe

What foreign film titles are there that involve remarkably realistic characters -and- settings as part of the plot and use a contemporary setting?

I watched the recent Italian film The Son's Room, and plot aside I found an angle here that I really liked -- the drama of everyday people in another country, with both characters and setting presented with stark realism and minimal music scoring. This made it a surprisingly immersive movie. So I'm wondering what else might fit this theme to show bits of what ordinary life is like in other cultures and countries, short of going down the road of documentaries or reality programs (which is really a totally different genre).

In other words, rather than what foreign films typically offer: lush stylized settings (Amelie), epic events (Journey from the Fall), suspense and crime (The Lives of Others), or older family sagas (Heimat); I'm interested in believable 2000s-era characters in realistic settings faced with whatever problems the plot brings their way. The Finnish The Man Without A Past might be an example, though with that the story probably leans a bit toward the fanciful side.

Examples of US and other English-language films are perfectly fine if they stand out in some way, but I'm a bit more interested in other cultures.

I do concede that this is a hard question for me to frame and I'm a little short on sleep; hopefully I'm making sense.
posted by crapmatic to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
You might like Caramel about women in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Band's Visit is about an Egyptian band that gets stuck in a small Israeli town.

Tsotsi is a great film about a young gang leader in South Africa.

Also Maria Full of Grace from Colombia.

Am on I the right track?
posted by bluedaisy at 3:09 AM on May 31, 2009

Many if not most Japanese movies are like this -- lack of budget keeps them pretty grounded and sparse. Vibrator certainly meets the "everyday" requirement, if a touch "NSFW".
posted by @troy at 3:53 AM on May 31, 2009

Bombón el Perro - A lovely film about a dude and a dog. Very naturalistic, because the director used non-actors in the main parts.
posted by afx237vi at 4:41 AM on May 31, 2009

Not foreign, but the films of Kelly Reichardt—Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy—would be right up your alley.
posted by The Michael The at 4:41 AM on May 31, 2009

Every Eric Rohmer film is remarkably realistic, and most have a contemporary setting.
posted by rottytooth at 4:56 AM on May 31, 2009

Caramel is probably the best example of what you don't want. I can't think of a more OTT, lushly presented film. Other than Amelie.

I'd recommend anything by the Dardenne Brothers - Le Fils, Rosetta, La Promesse, L'enfant. Truly fantastic films, very ordinary people, highly naturalistic handling.
posted by fire&wings at 5:00 AM on May 31, 2009

For Japanese movies:

Linda, Linda, Linda - An all-girl punk rock band is ready to play their high school festival when they lose their lead singer. They end up recruiting a Korean exchange student with pretty rough language skills.
Honey and Clover - A romantic comedy about a group of art school students who try to scrape by, barely earning enough money buy food and pay their rent.
Train Man - This one might be a touch too fanciful, but it's a cute comedy about a Geek trying to win the heart of a pretty girl with the helpful advice of an internet forum.

I tend towards comedies and lighter fare myself, but these three movies all had elements that were very true to my memories of living in Japan.
posted by Caravantea at 5:42 AM on May 31, 2009

The films of Pedro Almodóvar are pretty good for this. I'd particularly recommend Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother and Talk To Her...
posted by benzo8 at 5:43 AM on May 31, 2009

You'll be wanting the films of British director Mike Leigh which are English language but very realistic. Particularly good examples being Life Is Sweet, and Secrets And Lies.
posted by merocet at 5:45 AM on May 31, 2009

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:47 AM on May 31, 2009

I came here to recommend L'enfant, but fire&wings beat me to it. Such a fantastic film with exactly the minimalist and naturalistic style you are looking for.

The Finnish movie 'Paha Maa' (translated as Frozen Land, though the literal translation would be 'Bad Land') is a good look at the idea of Finnish misery and how one bad deed can cause a ripple effect that ends in tragedy for someone else. It's not the most realistic movie, but it has a great sense of place and mood.
posted by slimepuppy at 6:04 AM on May 31, 2009

I'd recommend Nil by Mouth which is the most realistic portayal I've seen of poor working class life on one of South London's many council estates.

Directed by Gary Oldman and starring Kathy Burke & Ray Winstone.
posted by selton at 6:26 AM on May 31, 2009

My Son The Fanatic (A taxi driver is pitted against his family in a clash between Pakistani and Western culture in late 1990's England.)

Love Serenade (Oddball Australian sisters compete for the attention of their new neighbor, a macho creep.)

Seconding Life Is Sweet, above, which is an excellent, bittersweet and very unpretentious portrayal of a working class family.
posted by applemeat at 6:35 AM on May 31, 2009

You seem to be tucking in a lot under the heading of "foreign film" -- surely the cinemas of hundreds if not thousands of countries around the world can't all be making films with "lush stylized settings, epic events, suspense and crime, or older family sagas"?

That aside, I think you might find Iranian cinema to be a treasure trove of what you seem to be looking for. The films of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and the Makhmalbaf clan are almost always about everyday Iranians and the social issues they face.

While there are far too many titles to recommend, if I had to pick one for each I'd say Taste of Cherry (Kiaostami), The White Balloon (Panahi) and, well, I really wouldn't know where to start with the Makhmalbafs -- Samira's The Blackboard (made when she was a teenager) might be a start.

I'm sure other Mefites will weigh in with more recommendations.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 6:58 AM on May 31, 2009

Have you seen Le Déclin de l'empire américain and its sequel Les Invasions barbares? The conversations between friends and lovers are very well-written.
posted by saucysault at 7:18 AM on May 31, 2009

Together (Tillsammans) is good, if you don't mind that it's set in 1975.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:23 AM on May 31, 2009

- Human Resources, the first feature film of Laurent Cantet (The Class), about a young business-school student who returns to his hometown to take an internship in the management of the factory where his uneducated father has spent his life as an ordinary worker.

- Yi Yi, the much-loved Taiwanese family drama.

- Tulpan, a dramedy about a young Kazakh man who's just completed military service and has forgone the upward mobility of city life in developing Kazakhstan to live simply on the steppe with his sister's family.

Of the movies recommended above that I've seen, I especially enjoyed Linda Linda Linda and Secrets and Lies.
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh at 7:27 AM on May 31, 2009

You might like Paris, je t'aime, at least parts of it. It's a series of short vignettes, some of which are fanciful and stylized, but others which might be what you're looking for. There are descriptions of the stories here (minor spoilers).
posted by illenion at 7:27 AM on May 31, 2009

Also, the movies of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu: Tôkyô monogatari is the most famous, but I like Bakushû. Both are stories about ordinary post-WW2 Japanese families and everyday dramas relating to marriage, life, death, etc.
posted by illenion at 7:38 AM on May 31, 2009

Code Unknown and Piano Teacher (all of Haneke's films fit the bill, I think, though some are "thriller-esque"; none of them use any music score--the only one I would avoid as it doesn't fit the bill is Time of the Wolf)

Anything by the Dardenne Brothers (L'enfant was already mentioned but The Son and Rosetta also fit)

The Dreamlife of Angels


I'll second The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Nil By Mouth.

I'm surprised there's so many mentions of Mike Lee. I love his films but think Ken Loach is more what you're asking for. (Sweet Sixteen, Raining Stones, Riff Raff)

If it doesn't have to be 2000s then Scenes from a Marriage absolutely fits the bill. Find the 6-part version.

Again, avoiding the 2000s, 400 Blows practically defines what you're talking about. It would be hard to imagine the Dardenne's films existing without Truffaut's first film.

If you disregard the talking fish (I know...), Maelstrom fits the bill. It's my favorite Canadian film and is in french.

Polanski's first film, Knife in the Water, fits the bill, but is 1960. Very sparse in every regard except emotion.

My favorite Scottish films are a trilogy from the 70s. Black and White and extremely bleak: My Childhood, My Ain Folk, My Way Home.

An American film called Keane would fit the bill, I think, as would Laws of Gravity and Claire Dolan. John Huston's Under the Volcano (in english but takes place in Mexico) is fantastic. It was made in the 80s though.

In other words, rather than what foreign films typically offer...

Wow, I find this to the the opposite of my findings. The films you mentioned are the exception to the rule regarding foreign films. What you wrote is what I think of as American films. Small, intimate dramas are what I think of as foreign films.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:33 AM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The ultimate movie for exactly what you're describing is Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures which is about the "new" generation of 2000s-era Chinese youth. It's literally plot-less -- just a depiction of their day-to-day lives.

American films in the vein include the unfortunately named "mumblecore" films, the best of the bunch is Funny Ha Ha. It's "about" a bunch of upper middle class post-grads sitting around complaining.

As others have suggested, you are really off the mark in your description of most "foreign films" (and as a side note, what an idiotic phrase we Americans use to describe 99.5% of the movies produced on the planet). Any major film festival will be packed to the brim with dozens of films that are essentially semi-dramatic representations of modern life in x, y or z country.

And what's wrong with documentaries? Plug for one of my all-time favorite documentaries which based on your criteria you would most certainly enjoy: Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death
posted by hamsterdam at 9:33 AM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that many foreign films are smaller and more intimate than American films. But here's one that is incredibly well~done, small, touching and real: The Visitor,
,a beautiful film.

I lived in Denmark and found some great Danish films: After The Wedding, The Inheritance, Adam's Apples, Kinamand, The Celebration.

Two others come to mind: Lilya 4-Ever (iife for a pretty young girl in eastern Europe), and This Is England.

All these films are available from Netflix.
posted by davoid at 9:36 AM on May 31, 2009

How about The Class which follows a Parisian teacher and his multi-ethnic inner-city students.
posted by mmascolino at 9:42 AM on May 31, 2009

I'd recommend anything by the Dardenne Brothers

So would I; they fit the bill perfectly (here's an NYT piece about them from a few days ago). L'enfant is just astonishingly great - a realistic, sharply filmed human drama about a lowlife guy who sells his girlfriend's newborn child, which also happens to have a couple of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful scenes I've seen in years.

Also strongly seconding Mike Leigh, any of his films satisfy your criteria. His most recent film, Happy-Go-Lucky, is a sunnier example of his work, but for amazingly well-crafted, often improvised examinations of working class people's problems and joys, it's hard to beat High Hopes, Secrets and Lies or the mostly pretty grim but not hopeless All or Nothing. Japan's Yasujiro Ozu also specialized in closely observed films about real people. Tokyo Story is often called one of the greatest films of all time, and it's very good, if melancholy, but for immersion in a foreign world, I loved his accessible 1959 comedy Good Morning; it involves you completely in a small middle-class Japanese neighborhood as television starts to creep in. The details of the characters' everyday lives are just wonderful. Other Ozu films are similarly highly regarded.
posted by mediareport at 10:08 AM on May 31, 2009

oh, I've only started exploring Chinese cinema but Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is also rather "cinema verite".
posted by @troy at 10:14 AM on May 31, 2009

Oh, yeah, davoid's right about Tom McCarthy's sad and beautiful The Visitor, a very real, very dark story about ordinary people and immigration. I enjoyed his first film, The Station Agent, even more.
posted by mediareport at 10:14 AM on May 31, 2009

I'll second Lilya 4 Ever and add The Celebration.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:19 AM on May 31, 2009

The first thing I thought of was the Dardenne Brothers, but I'd also recommend Hou Hsiao-hsien's film Cafe Lumiere -- it's kind of a tribute to Ozu, and is lovely.

A phrase you might want to look for is "neorealism".
posted by SoftRain at 10:36 AM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:47 AM on May 31

Oh, lord. Yes, it does fit your profile, but it's about as entertaining as watching paint dry. I saw it at a film festival screening with a bunch of Romanians in attendance (it's a Romanian film), and to a man their reply at the end was "There's no film left in Romania anymore!" (Though I will say after living here, it's a pretty accurate portrayal of what it's like to deal with state-run institutions. Doesn't mean I don't still wish I'd gone to see "2001" in 70mm that night instead.)

Others you might like: Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa's last film; Children of Nature, and 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 12:45 PM on May 31, 2009

Fucking Åmål (retitled Show Me Love for the English-speaking market) struck me as the first Swedish movie I've seen where people speak like they do in the real world. It depicts Swedish (teenage) small-town life very accurately, and outperformed Titanic in the Swedish box office. Same director as for Together (mentioned above).
posted by martinrebas at 1:13 PM on May 31, 2009

A few movies that fit your criteria that I enjoyed recently.

Days and Clouds: Italian film about a middle-aged couple facing new financial circumstance that strain their relationship.

Water Lilies: French film about young girls facing the problems of growing up.

Live in Maid: Brazilian? film about a spoiled middle-aged rich woman and her long suffering maid of similar age. The rich woman finds that her money is running out and this prompts changes in their relationship.
posted by Pantalaimon at 1:43 PM on May 31, 2009

Maborosi (Japan), The Wind Will Carry Us (rural Iran), Los Lunes al Sol (Spain), Lost Paradise (Japan), Y Tu Mamá También (Mexico).

These are all that I can think of, but Maborosi and Lost Paradise are kind of a stretch because they were made in the 90s.
posted by olaguera at 8:59 PM on May 31, 2009

Gaz Bar Blues: a family-owned gas station in 1989 Quebec City. Mon oncle Antoine: a general store in the 1940s in the Eastern Townships (I know, I know, not contemporary).

Denys Arcand's (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions) other fiction movies tend to revolve around crime or showbusiness, but if you discount Stardom, they're all very sober and character-oriented.

There's also Micheline Lanctôt's Sonatine (about two kids who don't quite fit in) or Lea Pool's stuff (La femme de l'hôtel, for instance) -- you may have seen Lost and Delirious.

As others have pointed out, dramas about the lives of ordinary people are common the world over, including the United States. Witness You can count on me or All over me.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:13 PM on May 31, 2009

You've cast a wide net. Here are some older films:

Post-war Italian neorealism?

Rome: Open City
Umberto D. (re: aging)
The Bicycle Thief

Everyday people? Ozu in Japan, from
"I Was Born, But..." re: kids in the 1930s to
"Tokyo Story" aging parents in the 1950s

From France: Agnes Varda's "Vagabond" (1986): a less bucolic "Wendy and Lucy."

For a portrait of an everyday housewife, for nearly all day, see Belgian director Chantal Ackerman's
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

For an actual documentary depicting life on an island in Galway Bay, see Robert Flaherty's "Man of Aran" (1934).

There are plenty of British "Kitchen Sink" dramas from the late 1950s and early 1960s (films so gritty and realistic that they'd show British working-class dishes in the kitchen sink), such as Lindsay Anderson's "This Sporting Life" (Richard Harris is a rugby player), or "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (Albert Finney). Director Ken Loach, always gritty as a mouthful of sand until his recent "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (2006), started in television with the teleplay "Cathy Come Home" (1966), regarding homelessness.
posted by doncoyote at 11:40 PM on May 31, 2009

The Three Colors series by Kieslowski.
posted by cotterpin at 1:23 AM on June 1, 2009

Oh, lord. Yes, it does fit your profile, but it's about as entertaining as watching paint dry.

Completely disagree. I also saw it at a film festival and thought the film was fascinating begin to end. By no means did I find it to feel long.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:55 AM on June 1, 2009

Temporada de Patos from Mexico.
posted by subajestad at 5:03 PM on June 1, 2009

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