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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film

[Note: this post is part of LAMB devours the Oscars, 24 days devoted to discussing the various Oscar categories. If you haven't checked it out yet, I highly recommend it]

Although the Academy has named some pretty solid films as Best Foreign Language Feature in the past, the fact of the matter is that the way the nominees are chosen ensures the ultimate irrelevance of the category. More often than not, the most acclaimed films that international cinema has to offer are overlooked due to the politics of the nomination process. Every country is allowed to submit one film for consideration (which is good for countries with smaller film industries, but bad for countries like France, Germany, Italy or Spain who are in effect penalized for the strength of their film industries) and a committee whittles the list down to nine potential nominees. Those nine films are then screened by a 30 member committee that determines which five will get to go to the big show. It is... not the best system, especially when you consider that so many films made today are the result collaboration (both artistically and monetarily) of people from different countries, which can make it difficult to define what country a particular film properly “belongs” to.

That being said, despite the category’s shortcomings it does serve an important function by bringing attention to films that might otherwise never find an audience in the English-speaking world. This year’s nominees:

The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Germany)

Director: Uli Edel

The film follows the exploits of the Red Army Faction, a group of domestic terrorists who caused chaos in West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s. The members of the RAF are the children of those who lived through the Nazi era and see the current political regime as just another form of Fascism, with many ex-Nazis in positions of power. To combat political oppression, the group employs kidnappings, bombings and assassinations, all in the name of making society more humane.

I’ve seen a couple of German films which deal with the issue of domestic terrorism (The Legend of Rita and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), both of which were fairly sympathetic to the terrorists but were also released pre-2001. I’m very interested in seeing this film to compare how the issue is treated by filmmakers creating in a post-911 world.

Germany’s Track Record: 17 nominations and 3 wins (1979, 2002, 2006)

The Class (France)

Director: Laurent Cantet

The plot sounds like something right out of the Hollywood playbook – a well-meaning teacher takes on students at an inner city school, where his efforts to teach are hindered by the clashing of cultures and the generation gap. He persists even as his students challenge his methods and somehow by the end of the school year he’s accomplished his goal.

Though the bare bones of the plot are familiar from dozens of other movies, by all accounts this film delves deeper than the average “teacher movie.” The students are played by non-actors and the focus is exclusively on their lives in the classroom and the ways that they learn and relate to each other. The film has been incredibly well-received, showing up on a number of Top 10s and winning the Palm D’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

France’s Track Record: 34 nominations, 9 competitive wins (1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1978, 1992) and 3 honorary awards

Departures (Japan)

Director: Yojiro Takita

An unemployed cellist, having given up on his musical aspirations, returns to his hometown and tries to regain a sense of balance in his life. Looking through the classifieds, he finds a job which requires “assisting departures” and decides to pursue it, believing the position to be in the travel industry. When he arrives, however, he learns that the job is in a funeral home and would require him to perform the ceremonial aspects necessary before cremation can take place. He reluctantly accepts and against all odds, finds himself enjoying his new life.

I haven’t heard, well, anything about this one so I’m not really certain how it’s been received by critics, though it has won a few festival awards.

Japan’s Track Record: 12 nominations, 0 competitive wins, 3 honorary awards

Revanche (Austria)

Director: Gotz Spielmann

A thriller about a thug who works for a brothel owner and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. The two run away together to the countryside, where they get involved in a botched bank robbery and are forced to cool their heels on the outskirts of the town. Their lives become tied up with those of a local cop and his wife.

This is another movie that I haven’t heard much about, though it’s been much lauded in both Germany and Austria. The trailer (slightly NSFW – gotta love European cinema) is intriguing, though it seems a bit spoilery.

Austria’s Track Record: 2 nominations, 1 win (2007)

Waltz With Bashir (Israel)

Director: Ari Folman

The film follows Folman as he attempts to remember his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 war with Lebanon. His inability to recall any of the events of this period bother him and in an attempt to understand what happened – and why he might be repressing it - he seeks out former friends, fellow soldiers, a psychologist and a reporter who covered the conflict. The story is related by means of a form of animation which involves classic animation and Flash cutouts.

A mixture of forms and genres, this animated documentary is certainly the leader amongst the nominees in terms of buzz, but is also exactly the kind of film that the Academy has no idea what to do with. It has garnered a number of awards as Best Animated Feature, Best Foreign Language Feature and Best Documentary Feature.

Israel’s Track Record: 8 nominations, 0 wins


T.S. said...

Great essay! This is also one of the clearest explanations I've read of the asinine foreign-language film rules the Oscars have. I'm glad you're taking part in the LAMB Devours the Oscars series... somehow I've missed your blog until now, and I'm happy to have discovered it.

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks. It really is a ridiculous system in need of serious overhaul unless the Academy wants the category to be utterly pointless.

Dragutin Domitrović said...

"Departures" (the winner that year) is the only one from the above list that I saw - and it is absolutely GREAT: a must see.