Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sets out, in its earnest, lead-footed way, to honor foreign films and documentaries. And every year people in the so-called independent sector of the film business observe this process with a strange blend of longing, affection and outrage. It's something like watching your sodden Uncle Frank struggle to the Thanksgiving table after eight or nine drinks and seven hours of televised football. Will he fall down the stairs and end up in the emergency room? Or bring tears to our eyes with a sloppy but eloquent toast?
This may just be the year that Uncle Frank shows up sober, shaved and wearing a cologne that doesn't resemble Old Forester, his steely eyes focused on the future of cinema. As I discussed in this space at some length last year, these categories have a checkered, semi-glorious history. Some great films have won these awards: Luis Buñuel's "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" took home the foreign-language Oscar in 1972, as did Volker Schlöndorff's "The Tin Drum" in 1979 and Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" in 1983. Among documentaries, Barbara Kopple's profoundly influential "Harlan County, USA" won in 1976. Other winners have included "The Times of Harvey Milk" in 1984, "When We Were Kings" in 1996 and "Bowling for Columbine" in 2002.
But, you know: I think I may have seen the Dutch film "Antonia's Line," which won the foreign-language Oscar in 1995. But I can tell you nothing about it. I can vaguely remember "Character," another Dutch film that won in '97, as sort of a Dickensian period piece. I have absolutely no clue about the Italian film "Mediterraneo" (which was the 1991 winner -- over Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern"!) or the Swiss film "Journey of Hope," which won the year before that (when Zhang's "Ju Dou" was nominated).
Those may be fine films, but the point is that hardly anyone saw them at the time, and winning the award has utterly failed to rescue them from VHS-grade obscurity. As somebody once said to me, if the Academy simply hired a team of chimpanzees to go through all the official foreign-language candidates and pick five at random, the nomination process would be far more transparent, and the results could hardly be more bewildering.
Similarly, until this decade, when Hollywood belatedly realized that documentary filmmaking was full of new energy, the docu-Oscar was by and large a parade of well-meaning dreariness. There were biopics about Arthur Rubinstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and Maya Lin and Robert Frost. There were backstage-at-the-opera movies. There was "Anne Frank Remembered" and "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School." Again, I don't mean to be snarky about those particular films, only to suggest that the Academy typically has not displayed an appetite for anything riskier or more challenging.
All true, but you know what? It's 2007 and Oscar woke up and smelled the coffee, so it's time to quit bitching. For the first time in my memory, both categories this year are completely not embarrassing. Over the last decade, Academy brass have tinkered with both categories, in modest but substantive increments, and the results are impressive. Rules for the documentary category seem to shift every year (and I've given up trying to understand them), but this year's nominees -- including not one but two documentaries exploring the Iraq fiasco, and not one but two movies that have been attacked as anti-Christian -- make an impressive, serious-minded and diverse list. Many people have mentioned the absence of the Dixie Chicks documentary "Shut Up and Sing," and I was rooting for the death double-bill of "Jonestown" and "The Bridge." But the five films we've got are eminently deserving, even if the winner is almost a foregone conclusion.
One of the biggest problems in the foreign-language category is still with us: Each nation gets only one candidate. Argentina gets to nominate one film and so does Vanuatu. France and Spain, the only European nations to challenge the hegemony of American films in any serious way, get one entry apiece, as do China, India, Russia and Nigeria, all homes of large-scale film industries. That's ludicrous, but at least the multi-committee process by which the Academy whittles those 90 to 100 official entries down to five nominees has become somewhat more rational.
First of all, there are no outright howlers or head-scratchers among this year's foreign-film nominees. (Raise your hands if you've seen any of these: The Swedish film "Evil," the Czech film "Zelary," the Italian film "Don't Tell" or the Norwegian film "Elling." Anyone? Didn't think so. All of those were nominated for an Academy Award within the last five years.) Furthermore -- and, believe me, I'm confused to be writing this -- four of the five are terrific movies you should see as soon as possible.
In fairness, neither of these categories presents much of a handicapping challenge this year. The foreign films include a major hit, the biggest-grossing Spanish-language film ever released in this country; and one of the documentaries features Mr. I-used-to-be-the-next-president-of-the-United-States. So instead of wasting my time making odds, I called up a couple of these directors for their quick thoughts about their films, what the nominations have meant so far, and whether they're having fun yet. Sunday evening's statuettes aside, there's a lot to celebrate here. Let's honor the wondrous spectacle of Hollywood getting it right.
"After the Wedding" This is the only real outsider among the nominees, and the only film that has yet to be released. It's also the category's biggest surprise, a marvelously crafted family melodrama, with elements of thriller, from a European director whose big international breakthrough is still to come. Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has become a buzzed-over name thanks to her earlier films "Open Hearts" and "Brothers." This lively, engrossing story of a 40ish Danish man's ambiguous homecoming, after many years in India, makes it clear why. Mads Mikkelsen (the arch-villain in "Casino Royale") plays Jacob, who is summoned back to Copenhagen from the Indian orphanage where he works by a self-made zillionaire who apparently wants to give him money. But why is the garrulous Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) suddenly interested in Jacob's do-gooder projects? At Jorgen's daughter's wedding, Jacob comes face to face with someone from his past, and the plot thickens. Just a terrific blend of classic European film and Hollywood-friendly storytelling, with emotion to burn. It's no surprise that Bier is now working on her first American film, the forthcoming "Things We Lost in the Fire," with Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro.
"Days of Glory" This classic World War II flick from Algerian-French director Rachid Bouchareb caused a big stir at Cannes last year, and provoked a major social self-examination in France. It won't have the same effect on Americans, of course, but it's still a moving, bloody saga of sacrifice and discrimination. Charles de Gaulle's "free French" army was established in North Africa to fight the Nazis, first there and later in Europe, and recruited heavily among the Arab, Berber and black populations of the French colonies. They signed up by the thousands, believing that the republican promise of liberty, equality and fraternity might actually apply across racial and religious lines. Bouchareb tells the story of a small group of Arab and Berber soldiers who fight their way through Morocco, Italy and finally France, killing and dying to liberate a "motherland" none of them has ever seen before. Nothing in "Days of Glory" -- the original title is "Indigènes," or "Natives" -- is especially surprising, including the systematic racism of the French authorities, during and after the war. But if you're in the mood for a sobering, terrifying journey back to the last so-called Good War, I preferred this to the gloomy cave-dwelling saga of Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima."
"The Lives of Others" Everyone had been telling him for weeks, says director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (is that the best name in world cinema, or what?), that his terrific film about life in the East German police state, "The Lives of Others," was a shoo-in Oscar nominee. So it was a relief to get it behind him. "Even though it was totally out of my hands," he says, "I would have felt that I was letting down all kinds of people in Germany who were really hoping that it would happen. So I almost feel happier for them than for myself."
Being nominated was exciting, says Donnersmarck, and he's gratified that the film has clicked with big-city American audiences so far, despite its highly specific historical setting. He doesn't kid himself that he's likely to be up there with that little golden dude on Sunday night. "I don't really expect to win, being up against Guillermo del Toro's film ['Pan's Labyrinth']. But Guillermo is such a great guy, it's pretty hard to feel bad about it." (This may be movie-industry caution, but it's also true that del Toro is a friendly, unpretentious guy, well liked in the business.)
"The Lives of Others" resulted from years of meticulous study of East German history and first-person research, but it also had roots in Donnersmarck's childhood. "My parents are both from the East, and came over [to West Germany] in the aftermath of the war, before the Berlin Wall was built. So I had been to the East, and I heard a lot about the Stasi and the way they operated. I mean, the movie is based on history; it's not based on my experiences. But without those experiences, I might never have had the idea, or gotten interested in the first place. It planted the seed."
In recent years, there's been a trend among younger Germans identified as "Östnostalgie," or nostalgia for the former Communist regime in East Germany and its alleged simplicity of life. Donnersmarck didn't start out trying to counteract this, but he's glad if he did. "That tendency angers me quite a bit. It's so ungrateful of people, frankly. They don't appreciate the liberty that they've been given through the demise of the dictatorship. It's really silly to long for its return, and in fact it's quite dangerous." Affectionate TV presentations of East German life has led, he says, "to the fact that young people now don't even understand that it was a dictatorship. There has really been a distortion of history, and I hope my film does something to correct that, I really do.
"There's a current of opinion like that, not just in Germany but all over Europe: Communism wasn't so bad, we were fighting for a good cause. This was a system that killed and tortured people who wanted to leave! We're in danger of forgetting that."
Donnersmarck spent part of his childhood in the U.S., and when I invite him to compare the East German security state with the post-9/11 paranoia of American life, he hesitates a little. "It's true that when you come to America as a foreigner now, it feels harder and colder than it used to. You're treated as something between a dissident and a dangerous herd of cattle. There's something so unbending, so ideological, about the feeling of America now.
"Maybe it's not my right as a European to say this, but from my perspective, what's going on in your country is very un-American. America was always about giving power to the individual and not the state. Suddenly, you're allowing the government to wiretap anybody they want, essentially. And you didn't put up much of a fight about that! Many of us in Europe couldn't understand that. We had always looked to America as an example of not giving too much power to the state, and now you've given powers to the state that we never would."
"Pan's Labyrinth" Along with various other film critics, I was convinced that Picturehouse's plan to sneak Guillermo del Toro's anti-fascist fantasy out at the tail end of the holiday season might backfire. The movie is an odd blend of elements, the historical and geographic setting is fairly obscure, and it's got subtitles. Dudsville, right? OK, so nobody's paying me for my marketing expertise, and here we are 25 million bucks later and only a little bit smarter. "Pan's Labyrinth" has gone from geeky underdog to blogged-against and overhyped Oscar favorite in about two months. Well, listen. I really like this movie, but no, it won't stand up to the combined works of Mizoguchi, Bergman and whoever your favorite no-budget splatter director is. It's still thrilling and scary and satisfying, and I'll never forget sitting in a roomful of sunstroked, zoned-out critics at Cannes, cheering and crying like teenagers. So let's watch del Toro collect his Oscar and enjoy the experience for what it is.
"Water" Well, I don't know if they have VH1 in India, but now I know what it might look like. Deepa Mehta's languorous Romeo-and-Juliet tale has positively rapturous cinematography -- it re-creates the look and feel of 1930s India on sets built in Sri Lanka -- and beyond that here's what's interesting about it: 1) Hindu fundamentalists tried to stop it, I guess not because it looks like a perfume commercial but because it depicts the terrible fate of widows in traditional Hindu society. 2) It wouldn't have been eligible in previous years, because it's a Canadian film made in Hindi, and before 2007 a film had to be in a principal language of its home country. This is a sensible shift that should open Oscar's doors to all kinds of outcast films. 3) The two leads, Lisa Ray and John Abraham, are drop-dead gorgeous, although they look a whole lot more like "Subcontinent Idol" contestants than like a lower-caste widow and a Brahmin intellectual in pre-revolutionary India. "Water" is so supernaturally pretty that it does exert a powerful spell, for a while. It handles tragic and serious material, but does so in a completely conventional, even simplistic manner. Which might make it the outside candidate here, if Academy voters for some reason turn away from "Pan's Labyrinth."
"Deliver Us From Evil" When I called director Amy Berg at her Los Angeles home, she was having an "Oscar moment." Someone had just showed up at her house with a pile of potential Oscar-night gowns, and she had to talk to me about her intensely serious and wrenching film about Oliver O'Grady, a former California priest who might have been the worst sexual offender in any Roman Catholic diocese of North America.
"I can only hope that getting this nomination keeps this issue in the spotlight," she says. "I'm a journalist and I know how these things work: There's a threshold for how much coverage the media can do on a given story, and this one has faded off the front page. This film can create a sort of sidebar to the bigger story. It can provide some acknowledgment for people that have been through something horrible" -- at least 100,000 victims of clerical abuse have come forward in the U.S., and everyone believes there are many more who have not -- "and it reminds us that all these people who hid the truth for many decades are still running the church and haven't answered any of the questions."
"Deliver Us From Evil" has been attacked as anti-Catholic in some quarters, but as Berg says, that response can only come from people who haven't seen it, and their opinion isn't valid. "We've been completely respectful of church imagery and of people's faith. The people we spoke to for the film want their church back. They don't want to destroy it, really quite the opposite."
"Deliver Us From Evil" has reopened theatrically in a few cities since its Oscar nomination, with DVD release still ahead. In terms of Berg's own career, she says, the nod is unlikely to mean a dramatic shift, but if it opens a few doors and gets her phone calls returned, so much the better. "I really feel fortunate. I want to tell important stories, and I have been lucky enough to find people who want to help make films that can shift people's consciousness." Before the next consciousness-shifting moment, though, she's got to pick out a gown -- and hit the Vanity Fair party on Sunday night.
"An Inconvenient Truth" Heard about this? It's pretty good. Al Gore is in it. Actually, the great story here is director Davis Guggenheim, a veteran TV director (episodes of "Deadwood," "The Shield," "Alias," "24," etc.) who parlayed this improbable idea into a worldwide hit. The world will be shocked if Guggenheim isn't clutching a statue on Sunday night. As director James Longley of "Iraq in Fragments" says (see below), it's a chance for Academy members to vote for Gore, and actually have him win.
"Iraq in Fragments" "There were times when I thought to myself, 'You know, this could turn out to be a good movie,'" James Longley says from his home in Seattle. "But in all honesty, the Academy Awards was not high on my list of concerns." Building character and incident like a narrative film, "Iraq in Fragments" follows three disparate stories in three different regions of post-invasion Iraq: one in a Sunni section of Baghdad, one in the Shiite heartland dominated by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and one in the Kurdish north. It's a marvelously compelling film and one all Americans ought to see.
"There's definitely a lot more interest in the film" since the Oscar nominations were announced, Longley observes. Hits on his Web site are 10 times higher, and people like me are calling him every day. "On the other hand, this is a documentary in a foreign language, with subtitles, and the audience that's willing to see that is pretty specific. Ultimately the people who were going to see my film were pretty likely to see it, with or without the Academy process."
Like everybody else in this category, Longley expects "An Inconvenient Truth" to win -- and after double-checking that voting has ended, he says that he doesn't especially want to win. "I'm not so emotionally wrapped up in the process that it's going to throw me for a loop either way, but it might be easy for me to say that now," he laughs. "It's almost ideal to be nominated and not to worry about winning.
"Getting nominated means that people are taking you seriously. You can get a meeting. The main issue in my life is being able to make my next film without going completely broke again, and that problem is solvable given the success of the current film. It might be great to win, career-wise, but just dealing with that also might take up a lot of extra time that I hope to use making a film."
"Jesus Camp" Given how leery Hollywood usually is about potentially pissing off the Christian right, it's remarkable that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's alternately hilarious and terrifying documentary, largely set at a North Dakota camp for ardent evangelical youth, was even nominated. Of course, many of those Christian right people shut up about "Jesus Camp" after a while, most notably when the Rev. Ted Haggard -- who is presented here as a blow-dried, cynical bastard, and who led the charge against the film -- became a less desirable ally. This film ended up playing well in the big cities where we're all terrified of the Christian know-nothings, and not so well in the heartland (despite a noble marketing outreach), but that really isn't Ewing and Grady's problem. "Jesus Camp" is fundamentally fair and open-minded, and doesn't pretend to portray the evangelical Christian world in all its complexity.
"My Country, My Country" This moving and tragic portrait of an Iraqi doctor's family as it faces the crumbling social world of post-Saddam Iraq is definitely the more obscure of the two Iraq documentaries nominated this year -- and "Iraq in Fragments" director Longley went out of his way to praise it. "Let me tell you what should win this year," he said before getting off the phone, "and that's Laura Poitras' film, 'My Country, My Country.' What she accomplished is really significant, in showing us the educated, politically aware class of Iraqis who are really trying to reverse the downward slide in that country. And she came to Iraq, by herself, to make that film, after I had already decided it was too dangerous and gone north to the Kurdish country. That's the kind of courage the Academy ought to be honoring." I couldn't put it any better.