The French lay claim to the art and discovery of cinema dating back to the brothers Lumiere. The French film industry is subsidized by the government (etat) and France gives birth to a lot more movies than those few that make it stateside. In the U.S., there are plenty of opportunities to see these, especially in you live in major city like NYC, LA, SF, DC, Chicago, Boston... most major cities have an annual French Film Festival that is sponsored either by the Consulate or the Alliance Francaise.
Here are a few of my favorites that highlight not only the creativity of France's directors and actors but also teach you something about France, its history, culture, and politics.
La Bataille d' Algers : I recently learned that this film was banned from ever appearing on French television and I'm not sure if it played in French cinemas. This film debuted shortly after the end of the Algerian War and is best known for the fact that some of the actors play themselves and that the movie was filmed in Algers.
Une Femme Francaise: This is a movie detailing life on the Franco-German border during WWII and what happens to one family - trying to survive, live, and deal with the war and its aftermath.
La Haine: Cult movie about the outer Parisian suburbs "banlieues" and their youth. Even if you speak French fluently, this movie is difficult to understand as it is almost entirely spoken in argot (French slang) and verlan (French slang language where syllables are reversed in words e.g. femme becomes meuf).
Paris, Je t'aime: the reason I mention this film is that it is comprised of 20 different short films each about one of the 20 arrondissements that make up the city of Paris. This movie shows the viewer the better known arrondissements while also showing the outer arrondissements therefby giving a total picture to this diverse city.
Le Dernier Metro: Another cult film, this time about life in Paris under the German occupation. A must for anyone wanting to learn more about this country and the minds of todays Frenchmen and women.
Indochine: This movie is not only a fantastic love story - it also tells more about France's colonial aspirations and what the lives were like for those French who lived in French Indochina, those who were a different kind of French as Asian foods and customs were more normal to them than those from the hexagon. Yet, they still kept with many traditions such as having a buche de Noel for Christmas dinner.
Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources: These two films make up a very well known movie and its sequel that give you insight into the great art of storytelling and life in Provence. The accents might be hard to understand if you are not familiar with this region and its dialect, provencal.
La Reine Margot: This movie brings to life Alexandre Dumas' story of the Medici family and its rule of France under Catherine de Medici. Back then, religion was the source of many wars and this movie details the war between the Catholics and the Protestants.
There are a myriad modern day films that are very funny and provide insight into what makes the French laugh; Rabbi Jacob, Le Diner des Cons, Le Placard, Bernie, Les Visiteurs...