THE LONG SHOT: Mind your language

Posted by · 3:38 pm · October 28th, 2009

(from left) Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in A ProphetYou might not be aware of it, but the competition is already formally under way in Oscar’s most perennially problematic category, Best Foreign Language Film.

For almost two weeks now, official Academy screenings of the longlisted contenders in the race have been in progress, and will continue through January, until all 65 titles have been subjected to the foreign-language committee’s scrutiny.

Pete Hammond has details of the screening schedule and voting rules, as well as some gossip on audience reaction to the screenings thus far: Mexico’s “Backyard” and Switzerland’s “Home,” starring Jimmy Smits and Isabelle Huppert respectively, have apparently gone down well; Croatia’s “Donkey,” thanks to incomprehensible subtitles, not so much. Add a pinch of salt to taste.

Coincidentally enough, courtesy of the London Film Festival, I’ve been simultaneously working my own way down the contenders list, though my personal tally has stalled at eight titles. (It could have been 11, if scheduling and admin obstacles hadn’t kept me away from the Australian, Colombian and Serbian entries. I am but one man.) Only 57 to go, then.

I will offer a more detailed assessment of the films in another post, but by and large it’s been a pleasure making their acquaintance. Of course, my own selection has been filtered through that of the fest’s generally thoughtful programmers, safeguarding against any real horrors – but I don’t mind saying that an unembarrassing list of nominees could theoretically be assembled from just my scant sampling of the longlist.

“Theoretically,” of course, is the operative word. For while the film lover in me thrilled at this a cross-section of challenging global cinema, much of it already garlanded with festival gold, it was also hard to suppress the mordant gallows mentality of my inner Oscar-watcher.

For even as my cinephile’s appetite was sated by the wicked whodunnit structure and surrealist flourishes of Bong Joon-ho’s Korean entry “Mother,” or the slow-burn character games of Iran’s “About Elly,” or even the radiant imagery of Peru’s ponderous but intriguing Berlin champ “The Milk of Sorrow,” after nearly every screening a cynical voice smirked in the back of my mind: “Well, that’s not getting nominated.”

AjamiOf the less name-driven selections, only Israel’s “Ajami” – an earnest but affecting ensemble crime drama, less audacious but more rewarding than Samuel Maoz’s Venice champ “Lebanon” – gave me some pause when considering its Oscar chances. And even that, admittedly, stems perhaps more from the baity media angle it offers, being a collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli directors, than the content or quality of the film itself.

Even the category’s two biggest heavy-hitters have given me considerable cause for concern. Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” and Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” have been positioned by most awards-watchers as the joint frontrunners for the Oscar ever since they topped the Cannes winners list back in May, though that owes more to a slightly lazy tendency among many pundits to fall back on Cannes as a world-cinema authority than a close reading of the films themselves.

(Those assuming that Haneke’s Cannes triumph gives him a leg up with the Academy may want to check the records: no Palme d’Or victor has won this category since “Pelle the Conqueror” over 20 years ago. Only two have managed nominations since.)

I instinctively never put “The White Ribbon” in my own predicted five, finding it hard to imagine this most conservative of Academy branches grooving to Haneke’s notoriously clinical creative sensibility. After finally seeing the film, I stand by that guess: it may be the director’s most humanistic effort to date, but it’s nonetheless a cool, despairing work with unflinching scenes of bodily harm. Laudable it certainly is; “Departures” it certainly ain’t.

But it was with a heavier heart (and, I admit, a hopeful touch of reverse psychology), I scratched France’s stunning “A Prophet” from my predictions this week. As I expected, it turned out to be a far warmer film than Haneke’s, and its rich narrative more closely aligned with Hollywood storytelling traditions, but I fear its copious blood-letting and youthful male perspective might have as much trouble finding favor with more genteel voters in the category as “Gomorrah” did last year.

The White Ribbon(With that said, one or both of the films will surely find its way onto the preliminary nine-title shortlist in May, thanks to the newish security measure whereby a supposedly more discerning executive committee gets to pick a third of the contenders. If it falls to them, I like the chances of Haneke’s more overtly rigorous and ‘important’ film more.)

To be fair, however, it’s always risky to second-guess these voters based on a generalized perception of their values: somehow this usually squeamish and strait-laced bunch took a shine to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s brutal “Amores Perros” and Aki Kaurismaki’s frankly batshit “The Man Without a Past” in years past.

In short, they like what they like – as opposed to what they’re told, or even expected, to – and as infuriating (and occasionally cretinous) as their taste can so often be, it’s difficult to deny that the foreign-language committee is, in its own peculiar way, the most honest branch in the Academy.

Sneer at milquetoast choices like “Departures,” “The Counterfeiters” or “Nowhere in Africa” all you like (I certainly do), but all these films won for the simple reason that voters personally responded to them most. Prestige and precursors count for little with these guys; story and emotional accessibility are everything. Which is why the safest way by far to call this ever-perplexing race is to actually watch the films. Anyone know where I can find 57 screeners?

Guy’s Oscar Predictions

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18 responses so far

  • 1 10-28-2009 at 4:13 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I e-mailed Kris the brilliant teaser for the Belgian entry “The Misfortunates”. I was hoping it would appear somewhere on the site.
    Anyhow, I saw that film yesterday and I must say it is really touching and emotional. Despite the black humor and incredibly dramatic events. Alcohol abuse, children abuse, sex, marital problems, disfunctional family. It’s a beautiful film, I really hope it’ll get nominated.

  • 2 10-28-2009 at 4:57 pm

    Michael said...

    I really hate the foreign language category. I just don’t think it’s fair at all and it is impossible to lump the best “foreign” films from all over the world into a selection of five nominees. Why can a country only submit one film? I just have a lot of problems with this category. This is not to say that I don’t like foreign films (I love them), I just feel like they are perennially shortchanged at the oscars and it is not fair at all.

  • 3 10-28-2009 at 4:58 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I agree completely … but my list of problems with the category would fill a separate column.

  • 4 10-28-2009 at 5:23 pm

    Bryan said...

    Cretinous and milquetoast in the same article. Guy, your coolness points just went up by 1000.

  • 5 10-28-2009 at 5:37 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yay! What’s my score now? (You better not say 1000.)

  • 6 10-28-2009 at 6:11 pm

    Chris said...

    I still think “A Prophet” will get in. I will make it happen by the mere power of my mind.

    (God, that sounds creepy.)

  • 7 10-28-2009 at 6:15 pm

    James D. said...

    Did anyone make it through The Counterfeiters? A cinephile that watches movies in bed is able to most accurately show how he feels about such things by getting in some z’s.

  • 8 10-28-2009 at 7:11 pm

    red_wine said...

    Love all the Basterds noms that you are predicting. I’m not very sure it’ll get nominated for Best Picture but if the actors get behind it, it just might. Afterall its an actor’s film with a big cast. The only snag maybe the huge no. of European thesps otherwise a SAG nom might have been guaranteed. Even the writers branch might like it, its the talkiest blockbuster since Ratatouille!

    And we still haven’t heard from you about A Serious Man and Vincere. Many people besides Kris have been claiming that A Serious Man is this year’s bona fide American masterpiece. In a separate column hopefully.

  • 9 10-28-2009 at 7:14 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***but it’s nonetheless a cool, despairing work with unflinching scenes of bodily harm…***

    Then how did Ingmar Bergman win so many Foreign Film Oscars, not to mention the awesome Best Picture nominated for “Cries and Whispers?” Are those times really completely past?

  • 10 10-28-2009 at 7:15 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Dang I’m making a lot of spelling errors recently. That should be “nomination,” not “nominated.”

    Speaking English isn’t speaking it very well, ironically. ;)

  • 11 10-28-2009 at 7:32 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    As I said, the branch is still capable of strange moments of clarity.

    But I’m afraid I can’t see how a “Cries and Whispers” would get a Best Picture nod these days. The Oscars were just smarter in the 70s, in my opinion. Perhaps the same goes for audiences.

  • 12 10-28-2009 at 7:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red_Wine: I’m sorry, this week has been chaotic, so I’ve got behind on my coverage. I do have thoughts on “A Serious Man” (which I only saw this morning) coming. Meanwhile, I’m very sad to say that I couldn’t get into “Vincere” — for whatever reason, the film generated significant word of mouth and the afternoon screening completely sold out, leaving a lot of grumbling journos out in the cold.

  • 13 10-28-2009 at 8:27 pm

    Mr. F said...

    Coraline for adapted screenplay? Interesting. I never thought about it until now. It could happen in Focus pushes it hard enough

  • 14 10-28-2009 at 8:56 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Is it hopelessly bourgeois to think The Counterfeiters at least deserves higher marks than the other two you mentioned? It’s a modest success, but at least it’s a success, unlike The Sea Inside, Tsotsi, Antonia’s Line, or The Barbarian Invasions. I’d take it in a heartbeat over any of those, and many other winners, aesthetically subdued though it is.

  • 15 10-28-2009 at 8:57 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’m glad that as more people see it, the deafening chorus of “OMGHANEKEISTHEFAVOURITE!” have rapidly vanished.

    “The Counterfeiters” is dreadful.

  • 16 10-28-2009 at 8:58 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Meanwhile, I was hoping that “I couldn’t get into Vincere” meant “I just couldn’t groove to the tawdry, hollowly flamboyant Vincere,” not, as it happens, “I couldn’t get a seat in the theater.” I can keep hoping!

  • 17 10-28-2009 at 9:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Nick: Nope, I’m afraid it simply meant I couldn’t get a seat. And your withering take is a large part of the reason I was so grumpy about that — it contrasts so strongly with the ECSTATIC word that I’ve been hearing around the festival for the film that I was more intrigued by “Vincere” than just about anything else. Oh well.

    I will allow that there’s more to “The Counterfeiters” than there is to “Departures” or (gag) “Tsotsi,” but then I will probably earn your eternal scorn by admitting that I love “The Barbarian Invasions.”

    Glenn: Agreed, though I was never on that chorus.

  • 18 10-28-2009 at 11:52 pm

    han said...

    i saw the screener of argentina submission “the secret in their eyes” and i believe the academy will fall for it….nomination is a sure thing i guess…..