Monday, February 22, 2016

One Category at a Time: Foreign Language Film

After years of tweaking and finessing, it would seem the Academy has finally redeemed Best Foreign Language Film, turning it from a yearly source of debate to a rather respectable category. Credit the executive committee which gets to save three films for the shortlist -- A necessary evil in the face of the general membership's historical aversion to critically celebrated titles. This year in particular, I'm sure many critics would argue that Best Foreign Language Film is just as good (if not superior) to the Best Picture field.
As is often the case, I don't get out to enough international cinema in a year to produce a personal lineup that's significantly different from the Academy's slate.
I may get to catch up some time later, but for the time being, the only five I've seen are the ones up for the Oscar, so I've no choice to consider these my own nominees (I'm such a bad cinephile!).

Probably the only nominee pundits could consider a mild surprise is Colombia's Embrace of the Serpent. The Amazonian odyssey tracks two expeditions led by a tribal shaman decades apart from each other, offering choice glimpses into how colonialism has eroded indigenous culture, and the differing attitudes it had generated among Amazonia's native peoples. Ciro Guerra starts it off as a fairly straightforward dual journey narrative, but eventually it starts taking as many twisty, unnavigable turns as the titular river itself. I liked it, but I imagine this one needed the executive committee to rescue it.

France can often be counted on to deliver a nominee that's to the volunteer committee's liking, although this latest success story has zero French content. Mustang tells the story of five Turkish sisters whose youthful exuberance becomes reason enough for their tyrannical uncle to lock them up and start marrying them off. This a remarkably mature and confident debut feature from Deniz Gamze Ergüven (sadly one of only two female directors nominated this year), boasting a quintet of sensitive performances, that speaks to the outdated oppression of female sexuality – and not just within Turkey's borders. It would be a legitimate threat in another year.

But this isn't another year, and there's been only one cinematic import in 2015 that's dominated the awards conversation. László Nemes' startling Holocaust drama Son of Saul has been the preordained frontrunner since it won multiple prizes at Cannes, but it might be too easy for us to take its upcoming Oscar for granted. Under the abolished system, whereby only voluntary screening attendees could vote, this may have been too brutal win despite its Academy-friendly subject matter. Rumour has it the executive committee had to save this one; A discomforting notion indeed. But with the full membership chiming in, it seems hard to imagine any other title being called. This will only be Hungary's second Oscar, on its first nomination since the 1980s.

While the outcome may be foregone at this point, it's still fun to speculate which nominee would have won under the old system. My wager: Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb, the first Best Foreign Language Film nominee to come from Jordan. It's a coming-of-age saga that sorta plays like an classical American Western; Boy becomes a man after long desert journey filled with violence and heartbreaking loss, and an actual canyon shootout that could have been shot by Wyler or Mann themselves. It may not have as much on its mind thematically as its fellow nominees, but it's an accessible adventure told through the eyes of a child, once a surefire hook in this category.

Finally, Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm -- who co-wrote the excellent 2012 nominee The Hunt -- gets some Oscar glory of his own with A War, an intelligent, gripping study of modern warfare and its sticky morality. He smartly builds up its first half with parallel vignettes of rigorous on-the-ground combat our hero faces and the battles his family wages at home, which eventually dovetail into a tense courtroom drama that debates his fateful judgment call made in midst of a chaotic firefight. It's a substantial piece of work that may even challenge Mustang for spoiler position, although the odds of either of them actually spoiling Hungary's moment are slim.

Will win: Son of Saul
Runner-up: Mustang

Should win: Son of Saul


  1. Couldn't Boy & the World find a spot here, on your personal ballot?

    1. Trying to avoid double-dipping in these "specialty" film categories.

    2. But hey, if it's a foreign animated film, it's a foreign animated film. It should get it's due in both categories if it deserved it.

    3. Which raises the question as to what extent we should be awarding films just for coming from another country, or for employing a particular medium.

      I use the "ghetto" categories mainly as extra opportunities to spread some attention to good films that don't figure into any other categories. It would defeat that purpose to multi-nominate titles that fall under multiple headings. It's redundant, and gives me less space to recognize other worthy entries.