Top Ten Crossover World Cinema Directors
When is world cinema not world cinema? When it crosses over into the mainstream and the US and UK audiences take it into their hearts, maybe? The number of foreign language films that get worldwide appeal are frustratingly small, but the number of foreign directors developing films for Hollywood studios has never been short, so here’s a rundown of our Top 10.
The first on the list is one of many directors that are so synonymous with the great Hollywood machine that it’s actually kind of hard to consider them as not being American.
Paul Verhoeven came to America in 1985 after a increasingly successful track record in his native Holland. His US first film, Flesh + Blood, starred his oft-used leading man Rutger Hauer, and a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a gory medieval romp that was, thankfully, well received by the Hollywood press. Consequently, Verhoeven got handed some adventurous projects and set out his stall as the go-to extreme filmmaker in America. Sci-fi masterworks Robocop and Total Recall were followed by his crowning glory, Basic Instinct, which was one of the defining films of the 1990s.
Often castigated for his exploitative filmmaking and the unabashed largess of his themes, characters and style he stunned his detractors by going back to Holland and producing the artistically and narratively superb WWII drama Black Book.
Another surprise foreigner for those obsessed with the big, bad Hollywood blockbuster. This time a man who has, in recent years, taken ownership of that staple of the American movie landscape – the disaster movie.
After earning his creative stripes writing, directing and producing science-fiction films in his native Germany, Emmerich was invited to America by legendary producer Mario Kassar. After a few false starts, he first helmed the Jean-Claude Van Damme howler Universal Soldier, followed by stepping up a creative gear with Stargate, before smashing Hollywood open with Independence Day.
Although his output hasn’t been artistically outstanding, he hasn’t stopped with the epics and blockbusters, with Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000BC and 2012 packing them in. Confounding his critics now with Shakespearean mystery Anonymous, Emmerich is pushing the envelope still.
Although ‘on the run’ from Hollywood, or America rather, since 1978, Roman Polanski remains one of the most significant directors in the world, maybe in history, and his films from Hollywood studios are amongst his best.
After a run of moderately successful films in Poland and England, legendary producer Robert Evans brought Polanski to the US in 1968. Side-stepping the film he went there to do, Polanski went straight into the development of Rosemary’s Baby and promptly made cinematic horror history. A couple more films, then the outstanding Chinatown, before a sexual assault charge and an indecisive judge sent him running away to France where he’s continued to churn out filmic masterpieces almost every other year.
Now a genuinely international movie-maker, Polanski had two films constructed, set and made in America which have become templates for their genre, and inspirations for those that came after.
Taiwan’s most successful film export so far has covered his fair share of topics, and garnered most awards going, yet has somehow managed to stay below the radar of public recognition.
Lee’s first films, in Taiwan and then Taiwan and China, brought him to widespread international acclaim, especially Eat Drink, Man Woman. His first Western film was the Hollywood production, filmed in England, of Sense And Sensibility. The emotional resonances within became a trademark and, in The Ice Storm, he built on this further by transferring the sensitive personal interplay from 1800s England to 1970s Connecticut. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a true multi-national production, made both Lee and epic Chinese cinema mainstream, but both were short-lived. The disastrous Hulk suggested a serious wobble until Brokeback Mountain two years later redressed the balance, and then some.
Ang Lee is still making waves in Hollywood and is showing no signs of slowing down, and nor does his ability to introduce emotions that continually catch his Western audiences off guard.
Guillermo del Toro
Responsible for some of the most watched and admired foreign language films of the last decade, Guillermo del Toro is the standard-bearer for beautifully adventurous fantasy films.
Following the very watchable Cronos, made in Mexico, del Toro’s film career in his mother country was cut short by a kidnapping that, although thankfully resolved, led to an elective exile with his family to the US. Soon after his move, he made Mimic, a tawdry horror/fantasy, for Miramax. However, as a filmmaker, he has been profligate ever since. His Spanish/Mexican films, The Devil’s Backbone and especially Pan’s Labyrinth, are his most lauded as a director, but he has made Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II (for which he turned down a wealth of other big movies) for Hollywood and, if it weren’t for MGM’s money troubles, he’d have been the man helming The Hobbit films, too.
Writer, producer, director and general promoter of creative enterprise, del Toro is a welcome addition to America, even if it wasn’t by free choice entirely.
Like Roland Emmerich the year before, John Woo’s first film on US soil was also a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. This time, though, it was the not-totally-rubbish Hard Target. Unlike Emmerich and his sci-fi background, Woo came to Hollywood with a rip-snorting back catalogue of high quality action films, which formed a template for his future career.
Fed on a diet of European art house films, Woo broke the typical kung fu and comedy Hong Kong film world apart with his balletic gun-play movies, exemplified by A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and the peerless Hard Boiled, the last of which saw Hollywood come calling. Following Hard Target, Woo directed Broken Arrow and then peaked with Face/Off, showing American audiences what they’d been missing in their thrillers thus far.
Mission: Impossible II marked a downward slide, and after Windtalkers lost over $65m two years later in 2003, Woo went back to Hong Kong and made the epic, award-winning Red Cliff films.
Sharing the same mythical landscape as Gus van Sant, as an artist filmmaker touched with obsessive madness, Herzog’s Hollywood work has been more permissive than thankful.
The temptation to write about Herzog’s back catalogue, with Aguirre, Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo, is almost impossible to contain, especially when added to his great relationship with Klaus Kinski. It’s hard to understand why he bothered to try Hollywood. However, Werner Herzog did decide to work in Hollywood, and his output has been typically auteur-esque. Breaking Dawn, with Christian Bale, told the true story of war, imprisonment, murder and escape, and was more of a typical story-arc movie than anything he’s ever done. His re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant in 2009 with Nicolas Cage is a bona-fide classic in the making.
Hugely admired and studied, Herzog, like Polanski, is a genuine international director who’s popped into Hollywood and popped out again.
To call Fritz Lang a legend is to deliver an understatement of the highest order. Producing genuine benchmarks of cinema history throughout his long life, Lang is true cinematic royalty.
Between WWI and WWII, Lang pushed the envelope of Expressionist cinema and, with Metropolis and M in particular, made his mark in filmic history. The onset of WWII, and a brush with the Nazis, made Lang’s decision to flee to Paris and then to America. With Fury, he started a run of over twenty films in which his influence on the overall development of the American cinematic style has been confirmed. Film noir, one of the few truly artistic styles to belong to the US, was embedded and developed at either end of Lang’s Hollywood career. Unflinching narratives that supported the stories and characters, instead of the audience’s sensibilities, especially in Fury and The Big Heat, are his Hollywood legacy.
A 100% cinematic legend, who may have produced his more iconic work in Germany, but the vast majority of his catalogue is pure Hollywood.
Such a staple of the Hollywood elite nowadays, it’s very difficult to remember that Jackson is an avowed Kiwi national, and has done a powerful job in rebooting New Zealand’s filmmaking economy.
With cult classics Bad Taste and Braindead making people sit up and notice the young Jackson, it was Heavenly Creatures, Oscar nominated and featuring the young and lovely Kate Winslet, that put him on the international map. The Frighteners, his first film with US filming, extended his cult status as a director who could make the ridiculous believable, even with Michael J. Fox involved.
The Lord Of The Rings trilogy made movie history, and New Zealand Tourism a lot of money, and he’s never looked back. King Kong, The Lovely Bones and the anticipated Hobbit films make Jackson an import that will not be leaving Hollywood anytime soon.
Jeunet is one of the, unfortunately, growing group of very talented and exciting directors who have had an awful time in Hollywood.
Having forged an early creative working relationship with artist Marc Caro, he produced a staple of any world cinema enthusiast’s library, Delicatessen. Following this up with the fantasy film The City Of Lost Children, he was invited to the US to take over the much troubled Alien franchise, with Alien: Resurrection. He produced a good looking film, but the Alien mythology was gone, and the film was not well received.
So, returning to France, he picked up a script he’d been working on, for a film he was thinking of calling Amelie, which he had written before America came calling, and, well, you know the rest.
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