Hollywood votes -- and the world complains

From a nightmare in Lebanon to a schoolroom in Paris to '70s terrorism gone glam, Oscar's always-perplexing foreign films offer puzzles and delights.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 19, 2009 12:10PM (EST)


From left, images from "The Baader Meinhof Complex," "The Class," "Revanche," "Departures" and "Waltz With Bashir."

Read more in Salon's Oscar guide.

Instead of trying to write a bunch of new jokes about the lameness of the Academy's foreign-language film nominations, I wonder if anyone would notice if I just republished a few greatest hits from my last three years' worth of bitching and moaning? As I recall, I came up with some real zingers! For you completists: Here's my column on this topic from last year, when "The Counterfeiters" won and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Persepolis" weren't even nominated. Before that came 2007, when "The Lives of Others" beat out "Pan's Labyrinth" (and, OK, both were reasonable choices. If my arithmetic skills are working, the year before that was 2006, when the winner was "Tsotsi" (Gesundheit!) and, thanks to the Academy's bizarre one-movie-per-nation rule, such films as "Caché" and "Kings and Queen" weren't even eligible.

It should go without saying that the foreign-language Oscar bears no relationship to whether given movies are, y'know, actually any good, or to whether any paying audiences, American or otherwise, want to see them. In fact, it's difficult to say what the furrin-film Oscar measures, other than providing readings from an especially eccentric focus group: What kinds of movies with subtitles would a bunch of cranky, seniorish film-industry professionals in Los Angeles County like to watch, if they actually liked to watch movies with subtitles?

Apparently rankled by easy, snide humor such as that, the Academy this year installed some kind of special expert committee, allegedly conversant in world cinema, that could add three films to the semifinal short list of six films selected by the membership. And that assortment of geniuses still wound up not even short-listing the red-hot Italian crime drama "Gomorrah," which just got done sweeping the major categories at the European Film Awards and breaking opening-weekend box-office records at New York's IFC Center.

As many bloggers have noted, Oscar also snubbed the widely adored Swedish vampire flick "Let the Right One In," but while I enjoyed that film a lot myself I have three things to say. 1. It was ineligible because it wasn't the official Swedish selection. (Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments" was, which got short-listed but not nominated.) 2. It was also ineligible because it didn't open in Sweden until after Sept. 30, and those are the rules, dumb though they may be. This raises the hypothetical possibility that Sweden will submit "Right One" next year, but I wouldn't hold my human-blood-flavored breath waiting for that to happen. 3. Does any part of you believe it's possible that a movie about an androgynous, not-male-not-female child vampire who commits many murders and kidnaps an all-too-willing child victim in the Stockholm suburbs might win an Oscar? If so, pass the pipe, homey.

All that said, once you get past the omission of "Gomorrah," an operatic-ironic near-masterpiece that was indeed the Italian submission and did indeed meet all the arcane Academy criteria, at least three of this year's nominated foreign films are excellent choices (and one of them comes as a startling surprise). Handicapping this category involves a certain amount of cynical mind-reading -- one looks for the formally unchallenging, bucolic pictures, or for war-and-politics dramas with emotional payoffs -- films, preferably in bucolic settings involving children and/or old people -- but everybody in world cinema views Laurent Cantet's "The Class" as the favorite. I'm afraid this Parisian-set high-school docudrama has been a victim of worldwide faint praise ever since its Cannes premiere; it's not quite a film for art-house devotees, but outside France it isn't going to be a mainstream success either. Some viewers may have been scared off by a superficial similarity to "To Sir With Love" or "Finding Forrester," but if you haven't yet seen "The Class," rest assured that it's pricklier, more ambitious and far less sentimental than those models would suggest.

Fine as it is, "The Class" isn't my personal favorite. Ari Folman's amazing animated war-memoir cum psychological exploration, "Waltz With Bashir," was the one film released in 2008 that had the irresistible narcotic undertow of visionary cinema, and that also explored new possibilities for the medium. If I were running the Academy, it would be up for this prize along with best animated feature (where it was eligible but not nominated), best documentary (not technically eligible) and, hell, best picture and best director too. There are many other reasons we should all be grateful that I am not running the Academy.

There are two nominees this year I haven't seen and can only make guesses about. That's a bit unusual but certainly not unprecedented. (Two of last year's nominees, Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn" and Nikita Mikhalkov's "12," are only now finding American release.) For some reason, the United States distributor of the Japanese film "Departures" has chosen not to screen it for critics before Oscar night, and "The Baader Meinhof Complex," a big-budget terrorism-action flick from Germany that was a major surprise as a nominee (and would be a huge shocker if it wins) still has no U.S. distribution and may go directly to digital and/or DVD release.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" (Germany; directed by Uli Edel) Germany's two biggest actors, Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu, play charismatic 1970s crazy-terrorist couple Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader in this action-adventure from writer Bernd Eichinger ("Downfall") and director Edel, whose hodgepodge American career ranges from "Last Exit to Brooklyn" in 1989 to episodes of "Homicide" and the miniseries "Julius Caesar." The most expensive film in German history, and while it's done well at the Euro box office, reviews have been mixed to negative. Just to seize one at random, Jonathan Romney of the Independent (London), calls it "deadly earnest" and "decidedly mainstream," while promising alluring visions of nubile babes reading Trotsky in the bathtub. Where do I sign up? Then again, the film runs 149 minutes and features a roster of characters and a wacko domestic terror outfit (Baader and Meinhof's Red Army Faction) that Americans know virtually nothing about. No plans for U.S. release at this writing, and the longest of Oscar long shots.

"The Class" (France; directed by Laurent Cantet) Real-life Paris teacher François Bégaudeau adapts his own bestselling book, and stars with a cast of real inner-city kids. This isn't a documentary, though, but a semi-improvised drama that captured all of France's attention with its story of racial and ethnic strife at a struggling multicultural school in one of the City of Light's forgotten arrondissements. Terrific performances from an entirely nonprofessional cast. Another absorbing and technically ambitious yarn from Cantet ("Heading South," "Time Out"), who seems devoted to having no identifiable style. The odds-on favorite.

"Departures" (Japan; directed by Yojiro Takita) Haven't seen it yet, but this low-key, low-budget Japanese character drama certainly sounds like Academy fodder. Screen veteran Masahiro Motoki (who generated the original idea) stars as a classical cellist, unemployed after his orchestra folds, who moves his family back to his hometown and ends up taking a job as a "Nokanshi," or traditional funeral director, who cleans and clothes dead bodies in preparation for burial. Tears, laughter and lessons about life and death apparently follow. Very few English-language reviews exist at this writing, but the Japanese public embraced this film. Sounds too quiet and too culturally specific to generate much of an American audience, or to win the Oscar.

"Revanche" (Austria; directed by Götz Spielmann) Now I'm going to take back all the mean stuff I've written about the Academy and thank them for nominating this gorgeous, brooding, unpredictable neo-noir, because it's dynamite and I might never have seen it otherwise. Combining the gutter-level "dirty Europe" realism of the Dardenne brothers or Ulrich Seidl with the rootless aesthetic of a '70s American thriller, writer-director Spielmann spins an always-surprising yarn around monosyllabic Alex (Johannes Kirsch), a low-end criminal and security guard who works in a Vienna brothel, where he's having an illicit affair with one of the working girls, Russian transplant Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Of course Alex and Tamara's attempt to rob a bank and escape goes terribly awry -- but that's when "Revanche" really gets interesting, as Alex finds himself propelled into a strange new rural life, working on his grandfather's farm and locked in a strange adulterous relationship with the cop's wife next door. Want to lay odds that an Austrian film could win back-to-back (after last year's "Counterfeiters")? Won't happen, but this may give the immensely talented Spielmann his first crack at a U.S. audience.

"Waltz With Bashir" (Israel; directed by Ari Folman) I've said what I'm going to say about this one -- so let's say it again. An intensely powerful, mind-melting experience that grabs you from the first nightmarish images and never lets go. That Folman could turn a personal exploration of his memories of a pisspot regional war that happened 25 years ago into something this universal and this hypnotic still amazes me. How in the world does he follow this one up? Deserves much more than a mere Oscar -- which it's not likely to win anyway.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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