By Spencer. The beautiful thing about soccer’s World Cup is that it brings together so many diverse peoples over their common love of a single form of entertainment. And we get to see how styles of play can differ so distinctly between countries — Italy flops, Brazil finesses, Germany kills you with precision, and the United States just tries to belong. Well, what’s true of soccer is true of movies. And so over the next few weeks, S&N will be conducting a World Cup of its own: a World Cup of Cinema, looking at the best films each country has to offer and pitting them against each other in a competition that, much like a FIFA match, will be decided mostly by poor officiating and maybe even a little corruption.
Here are the ground rules. A single film will be picked for each country, with that film representing arguably the “best” movie ever to come out of that country — with all of the arbitrary nature that such a selection implies. (Needless to say, if you’re dissatisfied with any of our rulings, feel free to tell us how stupid we are in the comments section — that’s part of the fun of all this!). National eligibility is determined not by filming location or language but by where the film was produced. So, for example, The Lord Of The Rings movies, while filmed in New Zealand, are still American films. Sorry, Kiwis.
For the preliminary rounds, sixteen countries will compete in groups of four. Films will be evaluated head-to-head (on a sliding scale, taking into account the time period in which they were filmed) in each of the following five categories:
- Historical Importance: How does the film stack up in the annals of greater film history? How influential or technically innovative was it?
- Direction/Visual Appeal: How good does the film look? How does it make use of B&W/color, camera angles, framing and composition?
- Story: Do we care what happens? Do we sympathize with the characters? Is the dialogue (if any) effective?
- Acting: Do I really have to explain this one?
- National Flavor: Does the film capture the unique cultural flair of its host country?
In the head-to-head matchups, the film that best captures each category will receive a point for that category, with the match going to the film with the most points. A single winner will emerge from each Group and proceed to the semifinals. Semifinals winners will proceed to a final showdown that will no doubt cause some sort of international incident when it’s all over.
So without further ado, let’s begin with Group A:
United States: Citizen Kane (1941)
Other Films Considered – The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, Star Wars
Hollywood is the undisputed heavyweight of moviemaking, and so the United States has more viable options to compete on its behalf than probably any other country. While Citizen Kane has lost some of its luster among today’s casual viewers (who typically don’t see what all the hype is about), its place in film history is unquestionable. For decades, many filmmakers and critics have hailed it as the best movie of all time. This is because of the countless innovations it introduced — innovations so influential that they are virtually ubiquitous in the films which follow it. And so it is that Citizen Kane‘s huge influence is actually the very reason why it seems so unremarkable to modern eyes: because now, this is just the way all movies are made.
Citizen Kane featured an innovative plot structure: the movie begins with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, then looks back over his rise and fall through a series of flashbacks as related by the people who claimed to know him. It’s therefore a prime early example of the “unreliable narrator,” in that we as the viewer can’t be entirely sure that what we see on screen is what actually happened — it’s quite possible that each vignette is biased in its account, or even an outright fabrication, given the enemies that Kane collected and the hearts that be broke in his lifetime.
But Citizen Kane‘s innovations were also largely technical ones: the use of deep focus to let us see both foreground and background in one gorgeous shot, giving cinematography real depth and multiple layers of action; the way the sound and the music cut to the next scene just a split second before the shot changes, creating a smoother transition and a quicker pace; the use of makeup to allow one actor to play a single character from young to old, rather than employing substitutes for various ages; and a drive to combine realism and grandeur, suggesting for the first time that movies could be beautiful and bigger-than-life but still feel tangible and recognizable as the world we inhabit, rather than some sound stage.
For these reasons, the United States is represented by Citizen Kane
Mexico: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Other Films Considered – Los Olvidados (The Young And The Damned), Like Water For Chocolate, Amores Perros
You probably know Alfonso Cuaron as the director of last year’s most groundbreaking film, Gravity, or his similarly brilliant work on Children Of Men and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. But before all that, he made a film called Y Tu Mama Tambien that established his reputation as the most talented filmmaker to come out of Mexico. It’s an unsettling film, depicting the realities of Mexico’s class stratification alongside the frank sexuality of two teens battling their lust and each other over a beautiful older woman suffering from heartbreak and terminal illness. The images it paints of Mexican street life and politics are gritty and unromantic, even as its nostalgia for adolescence is endearing and universal.
Directed and co-written by Cuaron, with stinging performances by Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, and Maribel Verdu, here’s the trailer for Mexico’s representative, Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Russia: Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Other Films Considered – Russian Ark, Strike, The Cranes Are Flying, The Mirror
Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is one of those films that critics and historians all seem to love, while the rest of us have never even heard of it. Some of that is the time period; how often do you watch silent movies for fun these days? Some of it is historical circumstance; certain events between 1925 and 1991 made Soviet films a less-than-marketable commodity with American audiences. But that’s a shame, because those who take the 70 minutes or so to watch Battleship Potemkin are treated to some stunning imagery that is decades ahead of its time.
Most famously, I’m referring to the Odessa Steps sequence, shown below. Battleship Potemkin is a Soviet propaganda film about a real-life 1905 naval mutiny that led to a pre-revolutionary uprising among the peasantry in nearby Odessa. In the film’s climax (though not in actual history), the Tsarist military responds with a brutal massacre of the demonstrating townsfolk. The sequence is so famous for the way it introduces flash cuts and montage into cinematic technique. Watch how the scene starts slowly, the Cossack soldiers staring down the demonstrators. They fire. People begin to flee. The soldiers march ominously down the steps, continuing to fire. The camera follows close behind them, cutting quickly between close-ups of the terrified people and wide shots of the broader panic. A tearful mother carries her injured child in her arms, facing down the troops in an appeal to stop the violence. They gun her down. The rest of the peasants scatter, dead bodies littering the steps. Another mother, this one with a baby in a carriage, is hit. The carriage dangles precipitously as her baby cries, then tumbles down the long stairway, the camera following it for what seems like forever as our hearts stop. The camera cuts are rapid-fire now, the images of violence drowning each other out. Then the camera stops, trained on the fading image of an old woman, shot through the eye.
Without words, it tells a story. No one had done this before — not like this. It’s the precursor to the way modern action scenes are filmed, and a model for visual storytelling of all kinds. This is Russia’s greatest film, Battleship Potemkin.
Ireland: Once (2007)
Other Films Considered – In The Name Of The Father, The Boxer, My Left Foot
Jumping forward over eighty years, we have Ireland’s Once, a film dear to both movie and music lovers. Shot on a pittance of a budget, it tells the story of two songwriters in Dublin, whose names we never learn, as they meet and fall in love while recording a demo. They’re played by real-life musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, performing their own songs in real time. That, combined with the undeniable chemistry between the two (they were a couple in real life for several years after this), gives the film an almost documentary-like realism.
For instance, watch here as the two pen a song together in the back of an empty music store. It’s an impressive feat of acting and musicianship to watch the two of them believeably combine their separate performances, just a bit at a time, into a single coherent song. But what makes the scene unforgettable is how it slowly unfolds that here, in this moment, they’re also falling in love.
Behind all of this is a beautiful, funny, and distinctly Irish film about love and guilt and family and loss. Representing Ireland, it’s 2007’s Once.
Group Play Match #1: United States vs. Mexico
Our first match is a border war! While Mexico clearly has the edge in soccer, can it take down a Goliath in movies?
Historical Importance: Goal for the U.S.! There’s simply no comparison — Citizen Kane is ranked by many as the greatest film of all time. It remade movies from a technical perspective. United States, 1 – Mexico, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Score another one for the Americans. Orson Welles was a 25-year-old rookie director when he made Citizen Kane, but you would never know it from these shots. That shouldn’t take away from Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is gorgeous in its own right. United States, 2 – Mexico, 0.
Story: This one’s closer. Y Tu Mama Tambien makes you care about its characters more, but give the narrow edge to Citizen Kane for its innovative plot structure. United States, 3 – Mexico, 0.
Acting: This one goes to Mexico! Bernal, Luna, and Maribel are shockingly good, giving performances that are almost painful to watch. I mean that in a good way. United States, 3 – Mexico, 1.
National Flavor: Another point for Mexico, but it’s too little too late. Citizen Kane is in many ways an American story of success and failure, but Y Tu Mama Tambien, in its story and in its scenery, captures virtually every facet of what makes Mexican life distinctly Mexican. United States, 3 – Mexico, 2.
Group Play Match #2: Russia vs. Ireland
This one has all the elements of a mismatch, but will Ireland surprise?
Historical Importance: The Russkies have the clear advantage here. Once is a sweet but small film, while Battleship Potemkin has endured for generations. Russia, 1 – Ireland, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Russia scores again. Sergei Eisenstein was a true innovator of the craft, and the imagery of Battleship Potemkin never leaves you. Russia, 2 – Ireland, 0.
Story: Ireland strikes back! The story of Battleship Potemkin is slow and the characters are one-dimensional, which is exactly what you’d expect of a silent-era propaganda film. Once, on the other hand, presents two unforgettable characters with sophistication and restraint, and the ending — well, I don’t want to ruin anything. Russia, 2 – Ireland, 1.
Acting: We’re all tied up! Hansard and Irglova nail it as both actors and musicians. Without them, this could’ve been a bland romantic comedy. With them, it breaks hearts. Russia, 2 – Ireland, 2.
National Flavor: In a tough decision, the tiebreaker goes to … Russia. Both movies capture their nations well, but Potemkin is so quintessentially Russian that, hundreds of years for now, you could show it to an audience who knew nothing of the Soviet era and all would be understood. Russia, 3 – Ireland, 2.
Quarterfinals Match #1: United States vs. Russia
It’s a Cold War grudge match! Who wins between Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin?
Historical Importance: Both films are hugely influential, but you have to give the edge to Citizen Kane. It’s just the more advanced, more memorable, and more essential film. United States, 1 – Russia, 0.
Direction/Visual Appeal: Another point for the Americans. While Battleship Potemkin has the strongest sequence in the Odessa Steps scene, Citizen Kane is packed from beginning to end with perfect imagery. United States, 2 – Russia, 0.
Story: Again, Citizen Kane. While Battleship Potemkin is full of drama, patriotism, and violence, Citizen Kane tells a story as big as life itself, and only in the final twist does it answer the question haunting the entire movie: what is Rosebud? United States, 3 – Russia, 0.
Acting: This is officially a beatdown. Silent-era acting is rarely on level with “talkies,” and Welles and Joseph Cotton carry what could have been a hokey premise to a satisfying conclusion. United States, 4 – Russia, 0.
National Flavor: A consolation goal for Russia. Citizen Kane doesn’t aspire to be a purely American movie — while Battleship Potemkin is as Russian as borscht. United States, 4 – Russia, 1.
The United States will move on to the semifinals to meet the winner of Group B, who will be selected next week!