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The 10 Best American Remakes of Foreign Films

Written by on November 27, 2013 

While the word itself can conjure up a variety of negative feelings in the minds of cinephiles, when diving deeper into the world of remakes, a few treasures can be found. Last week we found a few notable examples with directors remaking their own features and in honor of Spike Lee’s Oldboy hitting theaters this week, it’s time to take a look at the best American remakes of foreign films.

In our review of the redo on Park Chan-wook’s cult classic we said, Lee’s film “willfully follows the narrative footsteps of the original. It is all very familiar, with only a few welcome deviations made… The set-up alone establishes that this Oldboy is none too interested in reinventing the formula.” With our latest rundown we aim to find ten examples that skirt this familiar notion, providing a valid reason to revisit the original material. Check out our rundown below and let us know your favorites in the comments.

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam) // La Jetée (Chris Marker)

One way to make a good remake of an already worthy film is to treat the original as source material to be adapted and expanded upon. Of course having a stylistically unique director like Terry Gilliam at the wheel doesn’t hurt either. He takes the experimental half-hour, black and white French short film La Jetée and turns it into a raucous, paranoid, time-jumping headtrip through mankind’s last hope for absolution from an apocalypse that has already happened. What was an evocative, stoic short became an unhinged rollercoaster, while still maintaining the inherent humanity. – Brian R.

The Birdcage (Mike Nichols) // La Cage aux Folles (Édouard Molinaro)

The 1978 French comedy La Cage aux Folles flaunted taboos with the story of gay cabaret owner and his longtime drag queen partner who must play it straight for the conservative parents of their son’s fiancée. Nearly two decades later, director Mike Nichols tailored the film for American audiences with the help of veteran comedic actors Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Set in Miami Beach instead of sunny St. Tropez, the shot-for-shot remake stands apart as a delightfully manic farce made possible by pairing a restrained Williams with Lane’s unbridled drama queen energy. Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest are equally enjoyable as the moral parents of the bride-to-be, but it’s Hank Azaria who surprises the most as a sassy thong-wearing houseboy. – Amanda W.

The Departed (Martin Scorsese) // Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak)

Although The Departed marks the second remake for Martin Scorsese — that first honor would go to 1991’s Cape Fear — it’s the first example, and only time thus far, that the director looked overseas for his source material. In his story of a police office going undercover into the crime world and vice versa he turned to Andrew Lau and Alan Mak‘s Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. The latter film is briefer (although it did spawn a prequel and sequel), while the Boston-based project has a more comprehensive set-up and additional subplots, but this update proves that two versions of this story — each with their own style — are more than warranted. – Jordan R.

Insomnia (Christopher Nolan) // Insomnia (Erik Skjoldbjærg)

The original Norwegian Insomnia, by Erik Skjoldbjærg, is a dark and brooding exercise in making a bad man come face to face with his inherent flaws through a combination of guilt and psychological exhaustion. In remaking it, Christopher Nolan kept the stresses, but changed the man, essentially using the original as a framework by which he could create a new examination of a different person; a good man struggling against bad choices and their poisonous effects. Thus, Nolan makes the best kind of remake – a wholly new journey down a familiar path. – Brian R.

Interview (Steve Buscemi) // Interview (Theo van Gogh)

Directed by and starring Steve Buscemi, Interview is a 2007 remake of the 2003 Dutch film of the same name from the late Theo Van Gogh. It tells of a fading journalist (Buscemi) who is forced to interview a soap star (Sienna Miller) to keep his career afloat. His bitterness and her overbloated ego collide in an extremely entertaining, extremely brisk 80-minute chamber piece. Miller has never been better and Buscemi excels both in front of and behind the camera, making the re-telling very much his own. – Dan M.

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