Could ‘Departures’ upset ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the foreign language film category?

Posted by · 10:09 am · February 20th, 2009

DeparturesNow that I’ve finally seen Japanese foreign film contender “Departures,” the last of the year’s nominees that had yet to cross my path, I thought it a good idea to go ahead and toss up a final look at the foreign language film category.  Over the last few weeks I’ve dived into the short film nominees, the doc shorts and the doc features.  This is the last of those categories, which require voters to see all of the nominees before being permitted to vote.

I spent the last two days with all of the foreign contenders, re-watching “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” “The Class” and presumed frontrunner “Waltz with Bashir” and finally taking in the bleak “Revanche,” as well as “Departures.”  The question I’m left with, much as I was in the documentary feature category a few days back (in a piece that was largely taken out of context across the net) is this: have we succumbed to the group think yet again?  Because I have a feeling “Departures” is waiting to spoil.

It’s a beautiful film in a lot of ways, certainly not a more artistic achievement than “Waltz” but the kind of soft, safe, solid work that tends to take out the frontrunner in this category time and again.  It deals with death in a really affecting way, at once eerie, humorous and, ultimately, moving.  When it threatens to pass into trite territory, it finds a way to stay fresh and alive, very human and absolutely satisfying.

When you look back over the history of this category, you see a certain bias against non-traditional filmmaking.  The fantasy of frontrunner “Pan’s Labyrinth” fell to the straight-forward “The Lives of Others,” a moment relatively few of us saw coming but seemed totally rational for many in hindsight.  The epic “Hero” and the artfully renderd “The Man Without a Past” both lost out to the classic stylings of “Nowhere in Africa” while the whimsy of “Amélie” fell to “No Man’s Land.”  It happens.

So why, exactly, is it a foregone conclusion that an animated documentary hybrid film will walk away with the Oscar?  Certainly the excuse isn’t: “Because it’s the best of the nominees,” right?  It’s a sentiment I happen to agree with, but that argument never holds water.  What’s more, the film is a mere 90 minutes, while every other nominee stretches past the two hour mark.  You might think a shorter entry would be a respite to voters, but only three times in the last 10 years has the shortest film won.  And each of those was more than 90 minutes long.

I wrote up a brief review of “Waltz” back in August, a few months after the Cannes premiere (where the film actually lost the Palme d’Or to another contender here, “The Class”).  It has grown on me more and more and I definitely smiled at that NSFC victory.  The final moments of the film hit you in the stomach, and Ari Folman is a charmer, I’d say.  The film’s message is righteous and self-reflective, a real work of art.  But the Academy has already shown in its snubbing of “Revolutionary Road” that downer cinema isn’t all that compelling given the country’s state of economic and political flux.  Just look at the big frontrunner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” one of the most hopeful, energetic films of the year.

Götz Spielmann’s “Revanche” is probably bringing up the rear for these reasons.  It is a very flavorful film, one built on the subdued performances of its actors.  But it is a stark film as well, one that is hardly the easy, life-affirming watch that “Departures” is, and if something more sober is to win, it’s likely going to be “Waltz” before this Austrian entry.  I’m somewhat surprised “Revanche” could find room where “Three Monkeys” could not, however.  Maybe the sex was a turn on.  Hey, I’m just guessing!

Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” is largely seen as Folman’s competition.  It is a fascinating social study, one that raises insight after insight and certainly found a certain appeal in an increasingnly multicultural Europe (not that we’re far behind in that regard).  But it is also extremely talky in a way that could make voters feel as if they’re taking a crash course in speed reading.  I don’t think I buy it as a formidable contender to Israel’s preseumed throne this year.

“The Baader Meinhof Complex,” to round it out, is the most accessible film of the lot.  At 150 minutes, it boasts the most impressive run time (the longest nominee has only won twice in the last 10 years), but it also captures the zeitgeist in a different, more conventional way than “Waltz.”  I like it quite a bit.  But all that adherence to “convention” and “accessibility” might come off as pedestrian as a result.  There’s not necessarily anything here we haven’t seen before.  And while “Departures” is certainly pedestrian on some level, it is also quite an original vision, rendered in different hues and unusual brushstrokes throughout.

I see this morning that Tom O’Neil is predicting the Japanese entry for the win, while others seem to be coming around to the notion that it’s likely nipping at Folman’s heels, so be warned.  This year, one of inflated likelihoods and “boring” expectations is ripe for surprises.

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 2-20-2009 at 10:41 am

    karol said...

    only chances in this cateogory have Waltz with Bashir and The Baader Meinhof Complex.
    the latter is a sh*t so Waltz is a default winner here.

    AMPAS is always going for the foreign movie recognized by Golden Globes…and i think this year will be the same.

    Waltz is the first animated documentary nominated here,and that actually means something!! there is some love for the movie.
    it won many awards…

    the fact it is coming from Israel is a plus.Israel (many members are connected to this country;)) has 8 nominations and still no win.

    The Class is great.Departures is powerful but quite strange for members’ taste.Revanche doesn;t stand a chance-it’s too European…

  • 2 2-20-2009 at 10:49 am

    Michael McKay said...

    I noticed your going with The Dark Knight now to sweep the sound categories, interesting…you have some inside information, or just going out on a limb??

    I actually like The Dark Knight in sound mixing as well, but am leaning toward Wall-E for sound editing.

    Also, you changed your opinion on original screenplay…now picking Milk. Probably a smart choice…though I’m stubbornly hanging in there with my Wall-E pick.

    I’m going to stick with Walt with Bashir in foreign film, though I have ZERO confidence in my selection. But, then again, I would have ZERO confidence in any of the five choices in that category this year.

    I still think Sean Penn wins Best Actor, because it just seems, based on the nomination tally, that the Academy liked Milk a lot more then The Wrestler. Probably faulty logic…LOL!!

  • 3 2-20-2009 at 10:54 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yeah, the final predictions column will be up in just a few.

  • 4 2-20-2009 at 11:02 am

    James D. said...

    I can’t help but think The Class is still the second. I hope it becomes first.

  • 5 2-20-2009 at 11:10 am

    han said...

    I just think The Class feels more “right” to win based on previous winners.

  • 6 2-20-2009 at 12:49 pm

    Josh said...

    “Departures” is also the least-screened nominee–if you didn’t see it at an AMPAS members screening, you probably didn’t see it. That’s an old strategy, restricting the pool of voters to the people who’ve gone out of their way to see your movie. It doesn’t often work…but in this case, you may be on to something. The kind of voters who didn’t even nominate “Gomorrah” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” might well find the other nominees a bit cold, and go for a gentler movie that’s lovely, lyrical and a touch melodramatic.

  • 7 2-20-2009 at 7:00 pm

    rosengje said...

    I have to disagree with some of the statements you make about previous winners. Most people thought that “The Lives of Others” was going to upset because of the rule stipulating that voters are required to see all nominees. I also believe many people would make a compelling case for “Lives” being a better film than “Pan’s Labyrinth,” even though the latter enjoyed more popular support. Finally, I do not know if you have seen “No Man’s Land,” but it is a great movie that is in no way a safe or traditional selection.

  • 8 2-20-2009 at 7:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    rosengje: Sorry, everyone was predicting “Pan’s Labyrinth” that year. You must have just been one of the few who knew what goes into voting in that category because “Pan’s” was the clear favorite among the dozens of pundits I follow.

    I have seen “No Man’s Land,” way back at time of release, and in the face of “Amelie,” it is much more traditional.

  • 9 3-01-2009 at 10:40 am

    Erik said...

    … and so it turns out to be Departures. It does make sense considering the voting process, and I ws juggling the Class and Departures for my final predix (Japan’s previous losses probably also counted a little in the equasion).

    I have to agree with rosengje, by the way: there was considerable speculation of the Lives of Others upsetting. You’re right that most of the major pundits predicted Pan, Kris, but the fact alone the their final pick was one film doesnt undermine the fact that many discussed the possibility of another upsetting. Thats why they call it an upset. Just like two years ago everyone predicted Brokeback, but most at least discussed Crash upsetting, without actually predicting it.

    Also, as far as No Man’s Land is concerned, I think there’s a case of 2 films competing, neither of which is “safe” or “traditional”. In the end, I believe the deciding factor was the fact that Amelie wasn’t “serious” enough. Even though No Man’s land is essentially a satire, it has a serious subject matter, and doesnt have the same breezy quality of Amelie. It felt more like an “important” film. By that logic the Class should have won this year, btw, but whatever.