Hey, remember “Nowhere in Africa?” Sure you do. The Caroline Link movie about Jewish WWII refugees in Kenya? Not ringing any bells? Oh. Well, what about “The Counterfeiters?” The Nazi banknote forgery film. Yeah, you know the one – though perhaps you had to think a moment. Never mind. Let’s move on to “Departures.” Everyone loves that one. The Japanese one about the cello-playing mortician… what, you never saw it? Whatever.
Many of you might remember, perhaps more clearly than you do the film themselves, that these titles all won Oscars in the past decade for Best Foreign Language Film. I suspect fewer of you will remember feeling that they were the finest non-English films of their respective years – a position that can’t have gained many subscribers in the intervening years, either. They’re hardly freak examples: from “Mediterraneo” to “Tsotsi,” from “To Begin Again” to “Character,” the 55-title list of winners in the category (plus a few special award winners from pre-competition days) is littered with films that few audiences or cinephiles really care about these days… or ever did. If the Best Picture award somehow confers a lasting patina of memory upon most of its winners, well-received or otherwise, its foreign-language counterparts offers no such insurance.
Back in February, for the first time in several years, the Academy handed the award to a comparatively renowned director, Susanne Bier. That, though, hardly futureproofs the winning film, “In a Better World” – a heavy-handed child’s-eye tract some way off her best work, that was widely shrugged off by critics and audiences when it hit US theatres a few weeks after its triumph.
No doubt the Oscar is a box-office selling point for these films, but that’s largely because most recent winners have had low profiles before hitting big with the Academy: it’s worth noting that none of the last three winners premiered at a major competitive festival. (Interestingly, Cannes is the festival most frequently monitored by Oscar-watchers for fodder in the category – but you have to go back to 2003’s “The Barbarian Invasions” to find a winner that played the Croisette.)
We scarcely need to recap the reasons why the category is so often resistant to major international titles: they begin with the trust placed in national committees to pick, pageant-style, a single film to represent an entire film industry, and end with the conservative taste of the famously age-skewed votership. The Academy’s attempted partial fixes to the system – including those that warmed the chilly hearts of many a critic when “Dogtooth” somehow snuck onto the nominee list this year – are appreciated, but the category can never pretend to be authoritative or even representative of what’s going on in world cinema.
This year, however, the stage has been set for the Academy to make more relevant choices than usual – if, of course, they rise to the occasion. Looking down the final list of 63 official submissions for the award, announced earlier today, it’s striking how many of the films on it already come with sizeable critical fanbases: “A Separation,” “Le Havre,” “Miss Bala,” “Pina,” “Attenberg,” “The Turin Horse,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and several others all attracted acclaim on the critical circuit, and lend the longlist some cred.
Flare-ups over countries blatantly choosing the wrong film were fewer than usual this year: only Russia sparked outright controversy by cosying up to Nikita Mikhalkov and his roundly panned “Burnt by the Sun” sequel. (They could instead have gone with one of the year’s best films, Andrei Zyvagintsev’s Cannes-lauded “Elena,” but spilt milk and all that.)
Some of those titles you can dismiss with some confidence. Even with the executive committee’s most adventurous efforts, it’s hard to imagine the general voters warming to “The Turin Horse,” Béla Tarr’s impressive but colossally grim ode to death and boiled potatoes. And having successfully rallied for “Dogtooth” last year, it’s unlikely the committee will push their luck by forcing in a second consecutive Greek provocation under the Lanthimos label – so good luck, “Attenberg.” Every year, the list is never short of nice-try-but-as-if hopefuls from the most rarefied corners of the festival circuit: I have a place in my heart for countries who play the dangerous game rather than the cynically tactical one.
But the Academy’s hand may be forced this year by the number of high-class contenders entering the race with palpable festival buzz. It’s hard to remember the last time a single film so quickly assumed frontrunner status in this race, and harder still to recall when it was a film as searing and sophisticated and unsentimental as Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” but the volume of support for this one makes it very difficult for the Academy to ignore – it should be sufficiently accessible and rich with feeling to appeal to the general voters, but the executive committee will be obliged to step in if it inexplicably misses the mark with them. (One reason it might is discussed in an excellent piece by Australian blogger Glenn Dunks: with the award being one for the country rather than the filmmaker, might some voters feel reluctant to reward Iran at a time when the country couldn’t be less conducive to artistic freedom?)
Less sure is the fate of “Miss Bala,” a dynamite art-thriller with considerable crossover appeal that could either excite the Academy sufficiently for them to drop their usual stylistic hang-ups (as they did for Mexico’s “Amores Perros” a decade ago) or leave them numb. The backing of a major studio brand, in this case Fox, is such a rarity in this race that it’s hard to tell if it could work for the film or against it. (Could more perverse voters think it too mainstream?)
Wim Wenders’s “Pina,” landing in the race with a healthy combination of festival buzz, European box office and an esteemed veteran director, but it’s plainly the novelty wild card of the race: voters and/or committee members might think it cool to have a landmark 3D dance film in the running, or they might think it doesn’t belong altogether. “Le Havre” seems like it can’t miss – it’s warm, fuzzy, features kids and contemporary social issues and comes from a director they’ve nominated before – but we all assumed it would charm the Cannes jury too.
As any practised Oscar-watcher knows, there are no certainties at any stage when it comes to this most slippery of categories – which one suspects might be a reputation this section of Academy actively cultivates to an extent. Voters don’t like to feel pressured into voting for the “right” film by a vocal critical majority, particularly if it’s one they respect more than they like; as I’ve said before, they vastly prefer championing something they discovered (or have craftily been allowed to feel they discovered) themselves.
That’s how, for all the head-scratching by many observers, “Departures” upended “The Class” and “Waltz With Bashir”; that’s how “The Secret in Their Eyes” trumped “The White Ribbon” and “A Prophet”; that’s why, for all the buzz in its favour right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see “A Separation” trampled by a less acclaimed pretender; Toronto audience favourite “Where Do We Go Now?” and Agnieszka Holland’s baity Holocaust drama “In Darkness” are currently being primed for that position, but it could just as easily be one of the 50-odd films we haven’t yet clocked – oh, let’s say Canada’s “Monsieur Lazhar.” We’re in a position to have the most nourishing winner in this addled category since 1999’s “All About My Mother,” but perhaps the best way to encourage this outcome is to keep quiet about it.
[Updated Oscar predictions here.]
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