Mexico's terrific 'Miss Bala' leads latest crop of foreign Oscar entries
I had barely finished typing up yesterday's foreign-language Oscar submissions update when news landed of a further three high-profile candidates: with the deadline a mere eight days away, the list is virtually growing by the hour. I could have added the newcomers as a postscript, but given that I've seen all three -- and that one of them is among my favorite films of the year -- I thought I'd wait until the morning.
I've seen only 11 of the 39 films submitted so far, and while I'm delighted thus far with the presence of entries like "A Separation," "Pina," "The Turin Horse" and "Attenberg," no announcement has pleased me quite as much as the news that Mexico has opted for Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala," a blinding drug-trade thriller that was one of the clear hits of this year's Un Certain Regard crop at Cannes.
The selection is hardly a surprise: aside from the film's festival sensation status, the studio backing of 20th Century Fox always ensured a high US profile for Naranjo's film, which hits theaters next month after a final festival stopover in New York. It's on that basis that I've been predicting a nomination for it since June, even if its tough, socially-conscious genre trappings hardly represent a soft lob to general voters in this Academy branch.
Still, it might not even need the executive committee's assistance: the combination of critical hype and propulsive on-screen energy led voters to nominate Mexico's comparably rough-and-tumble "Amores Perros" ten years ago.
I'll finally review "Miss Bala" in more detail next week (I missed it, much to my consternation, at Cannes and caught up with it a few weeks ago), so I'll save further discussion of the film's virtues until then. For now, I'll just say that the Mexican committee, whose selective instincts have been repaid with four nominations this century, has done itself proud here.
Speaking of Latin American drug-trade thrillers -- smooth segue there, if I do say so myself -- it hardly seems seven years since American director Joshua Marston made an auspicious debut with "Maria Full of Grace," an ace little US-Colombian co-production that fired up critics and landed an against-the-odds Best Actress Oscar nod for breakout star Catalina Sandino Moreno. If you're wondering why it wasn't accompanied by a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, you can blame an arcane, now-defunct Academy rule: Colombia submitted the film as its entry, but was disqualified due to Marston's US nationality.
Happily, that rule has since been dropped, which means that Marston now enters the Oscar race with his long-awaited follow-up feature, "The Forgiveness of Blood" -- though his adopted country this time is Albania, where the director set and shot this languid domestic study of the country's seemingly archaic but still-prevalent blood-feud culture. The film premiered at the Berlinale in February, where it earned Marston the Best Screenplay prize. (Note how that wintry festival, to which scarcely anybody paid attention from the outside, keeps cropping up in this year's foreign Oscar conversation.)
The less happy news, I'm afraid, is that "The Forgiveness of Blood" isn't a patch on Marston's debut: measured, intelligent and finely acted by its youthful leads (whose faces raise the question of whether or not Andrew Garfield and Mia Wasikowska have abandoned twin siblings in the Balkans), it's nonetheless a somewhat dry and over-earnest exercise.
I could have sworn I reviewed it in Berlin, but it seems I didn't; "polished and porridgey where Marston's predecessor was frayed and propulsive," I tweeted, anyway. I wouldn't be entirely surprised to see Academy voters take to this dutifully commendable work, but if they do, the ghost of "Maria Full of Grace" should feel entitled to sulk a little.
Finally, Israel, whose hot Oscar streak of three consecutive nominations in the category was interrupted this year, is hoping to get back on track with Joseph Cedar's "Footnote" -- which, as is their usual custom, was named the country's submission after winning the top prize at the country's own national film awards. I wouldn't be surprised to see them do it, not least since Cedar's previous film, "Beaufort," started the aforementioned hat-trick in 2007.
"Footnote," a rather solemn comedy about a father and son, both literary professors, who find themselves in competition for the same academic award, found a number of admirers at Cannes, where it played in competition and landed the Best Screenplay award. I was not among them: "'Footnote' is regrettably the word for Joseph Cedar’s busy, shrill but strangely dour comedy of letters," I wrote in my review. "The central conflict inevitably recalls the old adage of academic politics being so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." Still, I can see its fussy dramatics finding fans in the Academy.
The current list of submissions:
“The Forgiveness of Blood”
Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Elite Squad 2″
“The Colors of the Mountain”
“Declaration of War”
“A Simple Life”
“The Turin Horse”
“As If I Am Not There”
“Where Do We Go Now?”
“Back in Your Arms”
“Omar Killed Me”
“The Woman in the Septic Tank”
“José and Pilar”
“Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel”
“Montevideo, God Bless You!”
“The Front Line”
“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”
“The Rumble of the Stones”
“Thang Long Aspiration”