Martin Scorsese Creates the Ultimate Foreign Film Watchlist

Martin Scorses foreign film list
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Between you and me, I hate Colin Levy.

Only because he got to meet and speak with Martin Scorsese, and then leave the experience with a reading list. As well as a list of foreign films that Scorsese deemed essential to any collegiate or DIY film school experience.

I’m not being very fair to Levy, who I have never met. I just continue to secretly despise and applaud anyone who gets to meet my creative heroes. In all seriousness, I’m happy for anyone who gets such an opportunity.

The bastards.

One of the greatest expressions of love for film that I have ever seen can be found in the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. If you can find it, watch it. If for no other reason than for the fact that it’s a great filmmaker taking you on a wonderful tour of the first few decades in American film.

The expression of love for film that I’m thinking of comes near the beginning. It’s when Scorsese explains that although the documentary is quite long, there just isn’t enough time to cover absolutely everything he wants to include. He says this with a note of embarrassment and sadness.

Martin Scorsese's Foreign films

I guess you can make the argument of Scorsese being a wee bit too obsessive about movies (or music and movies), but I have never seen Scorsese’s passion for cinema as anything along creepy lines. He is a guy that apparently does not stop talking about film, once he gets going (a friend of mine met him after a three-hour lecture and discovered this fact), but it also seems like the guy has a life beyond movies. It just seems as though movies serve as a means of understand and expression for a great deal of things that are either about film, or aren’t about film, if that makes sense.

I’m sure it would make sense to Scorsese. Every film he has ever made is a course unto itself. Read, watch, or listen to him talk about Taxi Driver, Casino, or even After Hours, and he will manage to somehow cover not only his personal creative expression, but the decades-long-and-counting film festival that influenced every decision he made. In short, Martin Scorsese talking about movies for any length of time is a dizzying, intimidating experience. I say intimidating because no matter how hard you try, you will never see as many movies as he has seen.

It just can’t be done. Someone has to be the champion, and it would appear that Marty will have the title for all eternity.

Film students seek his advice and suggestions anyway. Some believe that you have to see absolutely everything to be a filmmaker, an actor, a screenwriter, a scholar, or whatever. That’s bullshit. Your education should be deep and diverse, but it’s always going to be a matter of quality over quantity. Seeing every single Bergman film isn’t going to make a better writer or filmmaker. Being so moved by a Bergman film that you watch it again and again, taking new lessons and ideas from it every single time, is going to help you become a better writer, or whatever it is you ultimately want to do.

Being open to the largest possible universe of cinema is also a good idea. There are successful people in the film industry who despise black and white movies, who mock and find foreign films to be tedious exercises in pretentious pandering. These people are much more successful than you and me, and that’s fine, but I still feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for anyone who closes off entire wings of the endless building that makes up everything film has shown us so far. In the end, it all comes down to personal preferences, and people are entitled to have those. Even so, I still feel sorry for people who dismiss foreign films as a concept, because doing so is just unfathomable to me.

How can anyone completely shut down such a large component of film history? How does that even work?

As a consumer of media, one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life was to work to destroy the biases I had against certain genres and tropes. One example of that is musicals. I have watched several over the past four or five years, and I’m glad I did. Singing in the Rain and West Side Story were legitimately mesmerizing to me.

I probably won’t make it to film school, so take any advice I give you with a very hefty grain of salt. The only thing I would suggest is that if you want to be a filmmaker, a writer, an actor, or whatever you want to do, watching everything is not essential. Reading everything is not essential. What is essential is being open to everything, or at least, as substantial an idea of everything as you can reasonably embrace. You’ll surprise yourself. You’ll have a better education.

And if you are trying to open up to foreign films, it is okay to be a little intimidated. Technically, you’re talking about anything that was not made in your home country, and is not in your native tongue. That is a lot of movies. You’ll never watch absolutely everything, and not just because so many films are lost to time and negligence. It’s just not do-able. Some people give up on trying for that fact alone.

It helps to have a list that can represent a foundation. Create a varied assortment of foreign films to try out, and you get a foundation that can take you in thousands of different, exciting directions. You’ll also learn that you do not have to travel in all of those directions. A handful over the course of your life will do just fine.

Scorsese has clearly learned this in his life, although he still has what can only be gently described as a voracious appetite for cinema. If anyone understands the range of films that are out there, and how intimidating that diversity can be to a young student, it is him. However he learned this, he apparently decided to make a foreign film introduction as straightforward as possible for Levy. He gave him thirty-nine films from a broad range of backgrounds, styles, and cultures.

And guess what? It’s a really good list. There are some odd omissions (no Bergman, no Fellini, although Scorsese has made it clear that he’s a fan of both), and certain filmmakers dominate the list for total number of entries above others (there are a few Kurosawa flicks, for example). That’s why I think it is such a great list. There are definitely some art house essentials to be found here. There are also movies that are not typical participants in discussions like these. It is a very broad list, and it is absolutely perfect for someone who needs to begin a substantial film education, find movies outside of what they see on social media over and over again or see if they can develop an appreciation for movies that are made beyond their country.

The list Scorsese gave to Levy also offers a lot in the way of speculation and insight into what created Scorsese’s view of the world, and how that view was filtered through scripts, cameras, lights, actors, and everything else. Personally, I’m not smart enough to imagine the thousands of little impacts these thirty-nine films had on Scorsese, but it is fun to imagine all the same.

It is also fun to look over the list, and realize I’ve seen most of these. A few, I haven’t, and I’ll try to change that. But I have seen most, and I will say for anyone who hasn’t seen even one, at least one of these movies is going to change your life in some significant way.

That’s a bold statement, but I’ll stand by it.

Continue to the next page for Gabriel’s personal list.

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