Wednesday, February 22, 2017

One Category at a Time: Best Foreign Language Film

When the Academy changed its rules to allow the entire membership to vote on Best Foreign Language Film a few years ago, the process of predicting the winner has become somewhat streamlined. No more did pundits have to carefully assess each nominee for factors like subject matter and age appeal. All that needed to be rated was the film's critical hype and level of exposure, with reputation playing more than a trifling part. It's a bit of a shame, actually, because even though the winners from recent years have been a mostly respectable crop, nothing can top the now extinct satisfaction of pegging a surprise Best Foreign Language Film winner under the old system.

But this year we find ourselves in untested territory. How will the Academy respond to a roster from which the most critically revered imports of the year are missing? The Handmaiden wasn't even submitted by Korea and France's Elle failed to be saved by the branch's executive committee when deciding upon the nine semifinalists. These two subtitled phenoms were easily the most buzzed about in December, taking the bulk of regional critics prizes plus the Critics Choice and the Golden Globe respectively. Their absence creates a vacuum here.

So who wins?
It could be Sweden's crotchety old man dramedy A Man Called Ove. I think this is clearly what would have won under the old system, and if enough voters bother to watch all their screeners, it still might; A bathetic geriatric crowd-pleaser. In the absence of a true critical favourite, this category may temporarily revert back to its old habits. Legitimate lurker, right here. I might just have to predict it in order to soften that potentially attrocious scenario.

Traditionally we also could have expected 'the WWII movie' to win, and Denmark's Land of Mine has all the on-paper trappings of what use to be a typical winner, following a crew of teenage German POWs forced to dig up land mines planted in Denmark by the Nazis. It often had me on tenderhooks, but uncomfortably so. Its pendulous sway between bleak and treacly (“bleacly”?) isn't exactly graceful in this critics' view, but it draws out suspense as competently as you'd expect from a movie about digging up land mines, and finds welcome reprieve in Roland Moller's fine performance.

A pleasing inclusion is Martin Butler and Bentley Dean's Tanna. A troublesome Melanesian girl's coming of age and her sister's defiance of an arranged marriage provides the plot, but this forbidden love drama perhaps works better as a cultural snapshot with an almost documentarian eye, made all the more vibrant and authentic for its exclusive cast of local tribespeople. It marks the first nomination for Australia in this category. Kudos to all involved, but I think they're bringing up the rear in this race.
If we truly believe the Academy is voting on critical reputation, then Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann from Germany is the one to beat. The strained relationship between a tightly wound business women and her mischievous father might not draw as many genuine laughs in practice as it does in concept, but it's the sort of absurdist comedy that often has you questioning “what's this all about now?” in a good way. It's very strange, very droll, often unexpected, and – despite its unnecessary length – it's seldom boring. It might make the most weird-ass Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner in my lifetime. So much so I'm hardly convinced that it has this sewn up. Rumours abound that the executive committee had to save this one. Will that even matter when members can vote for it without even watching it?

The finest of the lot, in my humble opinion, comes from Asghar Farhadi, who won just five years ago for A Separation. The Salesman is steeped in the complex morality of an Iranian everyman (a point made somewhat in the nose by his role as Willy Loman in a local theatre production Death of a Salesman) and the strain put on his marriage when his wife is assaulted. It's gripping, beautifully blocked contemporary drama; A fact which might be overlooked if it wins. You can be sure that entertainment journos already have pre-written articles about the Academy's defiance of the president's Muslim travel ban, for which Farhadi has decided not to attend the ceremony. It remains to be seen whether or not all the politically-tinged media exposure The Salesman has already received will help or hinder it, but it actually disappoints me that it's been allowed to dominate the conversation on a film that could (and should) win the Oscar on merit alone.

For my own awards, I'd replace Ove and Land of Mine with  Paul Verhoeven's Elle -- a provocative, snide, challenging twist on victimization and sexual power -- and Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden -- a sensuous genre mash-up that lures you in and tightens it embrace the deeper you sink into it.

Will win: A Man Called Ove
Could win: Toni Erdmann or The Salesman

Should win: The Salesman
Should be nominated: Elle (since The Handmaiden could never have been nominated anyway)

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