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A Barista’s Guide to Global Cinema

While I’ve spent most of my career as a barista, barista trainer, and all-around coffee nerd, my first job was at the movie rental mega chain Blockbuster Video, a statement that I’m told both “explains a lot about me” and ages me terribly. I will never forget one of my earlier customer interactions there. A man asked me if I knew of anything ‘interesting and novel’ that had come out recently.  I began to direct him towards a French film that had just come out on video and he replied “let me stop you right there. I don’t go in for foreign films. We Americans are genetically predisposed towards movie-making”.  His statement will forever haunt me, both for how nonsensical it was (genetically predisposed? really?) and for how sad and small this man’s world was.

America consists of only 6% of the world’s landmass and 4% of the world’s population. To say that no one outside these borders can make a good movie is preposterous. One of the greatest powers of cinema is the ability to experience the world through different eyes, and personally, I can’t imagine limiting myself to only hearing the stories of my fellow Americans. Still though, as different as the lives are of people from around the world, their stories resonate with my experiences a lot of the time. In our differences, we can experience our similarities.

As a coffee pro, here are a few films from around the world that really speak to me:

From Spain

Volver (2006, Spain, dir. Pedro Almodóvar) Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar is a treasure. His films are equal parts well-written intellectual fare and trashy sexy fun. It’s tough to pick one of them among his long and storied career, but as a hospitality professional, I admire the gumption of Volver’s Raimunda (played by Penelope Cruz) for both deciding on a whim to open a restaurant in a closed space without anyone’s permission, and for her gumption to store her dead abusive husband’s corpse in the restaurant’s chest freezer.

From France

Amélie (2001, France, dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet) One of the greatest joys of working in a coffee shop is getting to know your regulars and being a small part of their lives and all their weird interpersonal dramas. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sparkling magical comedy captures this beautifully as its title character experiences bits of her regulars’ lives (and meddles with them) by serving them at the Montmartre café “Les Deux Moulins”.  Also a perfect romantic watch for Valentine’s day.

From Ireland

The Commitments (1991, Ireland, dir. Alan Parker) Many baristas harbor dreams and ambitions of being writers, actors, or in the case of yours truly, musicians. Hundreds of movies have been made about musicians and their struggles, but most of them are about the famous and successful ones. The Commitments perfectly captures what it feels like to be in a band that likely will never make it big, and one where your bandmates are mentally unwell idiots you can’t stand, but where the joy of performance outshines all those drawbacks. 

From Japan

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, Japan, dir Hayao Miyazaki) One of the great pains and also great joys of working in coffee service is witnessing your customers come in as giant grumps, sleepy and stressed, and seeing the simple act of kindness of giving them breakfast and coffee turn them into gentle and caring human beings. There’s more to Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece than that (fire demons! animated turnip-head men! air-to-air combat!) but the protagonist’s acts of care —including cooking an amazing-looking breakfast— for the perpetually grouchy wizard Howl are what really hit hard for me.

From China

Chungking Express (1994, Hong Kong, dir. Wong Kar Wai) No one does grand romantic longing quite like Wong Kar Wai, and there’s plenty of romantic longing in the service industry world. Every barista I know has had at least one “crushtomer” at some point in their career, and Chunking Express is the movie that dares ask “what if you and your crushtomer actually got together?”

From Canada

Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006, Canada, dir Éric Canuel) I’m gonna level with you here, there’s no coffee connection to this movie. I include this purely because for so so many people the idea of “foreign cinema” is “slow-paced arthouse stuff that’s gonna make me think serious thoughts”. While this is true about some of it, it’s not true about all of it.  People in other countries also love turning their brain off and watching big dumb action movies, and nothing quite drives this home like Bon Cop Bad Cop.  A hockey executive is found dead with his body straddling the Ontario / Québec border, so a by-the-book Anglophone detective from Toronto and a loose canon Francophone detective from Montréal need to team up to solve the crime. There are explosions, there are car chases, and there is a detailed explanation of how to cuss in Québécois French. It’s amazing.

Photo of Jackson O'Brien

Published by Jackson O'Brien on February 10, 2023.

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