Wednesday, February 18, 2015

One Category at a Time: Foreign Language Film

Once considered a critical laughing stock for its arcane regulations and the dubious qualities of its nominees and winners, Best Foreign Language Film has slowly but surely gained some legitimacy over the last few years. Sure, the system ain't perfect (nor will it ever be), but the implementation of the executive nominating committee has yielded some solid rosters lately.

Of course, the general nominating membership is still prone to some of their milquetoast tendancies...

Under the old voting system, Academy members had to attend official screenings in order to vote on this ghetto category. In theory it was a necessary step, as you couldn't rely on voters finding a way to see all five nominees of their own accord. The unfortunate side-affect of this power check, however, was that the demographic of attendees reflected tastes that really did not gel with the best of world cinema, resulting in winners that wouldn't pass critical muster. Were that system still in place, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Estonia's Tangerines coming out on top. The self-contained tale of an old tangerine harvester in Georgia who has both sides of the 1990 military conflict fall upon his doorstep feels more like a one-act play than a movie. Not even a good one-act play. Though well intentioned, this flick is an absolute snooze, complete with droning score, lethargic cinematography, and barely enough story material to sustain its scant 87-minute runtime... Just the way the Academy likes it!... under the old system, that is.
With voting now opened up to the entire organization via screener DVDs, there's little chance of Tangerines defeating more invigorating, higher profile fare.

Indeed, in this new era of honour system voting, any subtitled contender with more media exposure and critical accolades has an immediate advantage. It may seem like a perfect storm for Poland's Ida, which tells of a novice nun discovering her Jewish heritage in post-war Poland. Only under the old system would the indirect Holocaust connection play in this film's favour, but what really makes it a significant threat for the win is that it's a swift, artfully told story, and one that already enjoyed a successful theatrical run back in the spring of 2014. The more people have seen it, the better its chances. The recent BAFTA win is tempting evidence that the film is certainly not forgotten. But I wonder if the soft-spoken (very soft-spoken) drama might be a tad too reserved for the broader membership. Last year's victory for The Great Beauty suggests that a bit of visual flare and tonal energy can go a long way in winning the support of any viewer who is easily turned off by the notion of having to "read" a movie.

Argentina's Wild Tales, though not at all a conventional Oscar winner in its structure (it's basically an anthology of six thematically connected short films), has a zing to it that may be just what it needs to stand apart from it competition.
It has become a crowd-pleasing favourite on the festival circuit this season, running the gamut from riotous comedy to high-octane thrills within its separate chapters. The Academy is a crowd too, nearly 7000 strong, and this accessible laugh-in could be the perfect tonic to the more depressing nature of the other four nominees. It becomes a question of how many voters have seen it. The film doesn't get a U.S. release until this Friday, well after polls are closed. Have enough of them popped in their screeners? Besides a win from the National Board of Review way back in December, there have been no subsequent wins from critics or industry groups to recommend it.

Critical validation is indeed an important ingredient in persuading casual viewers to even give a foreign movie a chance. The case is all the more convincing if the movie has an air of social/political significance fueling the media fire. Russia's Leviathan is a prime example of a movie that some voters will feel deserves the prize simply for being made and being (somewhat surprisingly) selected by its motherland to represent it in this international contest. The allegorical drama about a man trying desperately to protect his home from a conniving mayor is quite damning of corrupt municipal politics in Russia, a nation that is always in the news these days for its seedy administrative machinery. But the film is also a real downer, however artfully told it is. Comparisons to the trials of Job are quite blatantly made in the film, and such miserablism may not play to well to the Academy masses.

Rounding out the field is another depressing feature that also takes aim at local politics, if you consider religion a form of politics, which it is in its region of origin. Mauritania's Timbuktu rolled out a rapid release schedule in the wake of the nation's first ever nomination in this category, and most who have thus had the chance to see it are glad. The film, set in the titular city in northern Mali after it has been overrun by radical jihadists, is a pretty rich, multidimensional examination of the moral complications of sharia law. It may be the most overtly emotional of the five contenders here, with flourishes of visual spark and humourous grace notes to help the tragedy go down. Nominations for African films are rare, victories even more so, but this may be a spoiler to watch...
as much as any of these films can be considered a spoiler. With no true frontrunner, it feels like any of them could triumph.

Will win: Ida
Runner-up: Wild Tales

Should win: Ida
Should have been nominated: Force Majeure

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