Monday, May 02, 2016

OVP: Foreign Language Film (2014)

OVP: Best Foreign Language Film (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Ida, Poland
Leviathan, Russia
Tangerines, Estonia
Timbuktu, Mauritania
Wild Tales, Argentina

My Thoughts: This is a truly random aside but has anyone noticed that movie studios are petrified in recent years to give their films long titles?  I saw that this past year when I named my Best Picture nominees and only one of them had more than one word in it, and looking at this list bizarrely the same thing is true-this didn't happen in movies even a decade ago.  Anyway, that was an odd tangent for a slate of movies that in hindsight feel very discombobulated, a sea of deeply depressing films (par for the course here), with one sole exception that focus quite frankly on the hardships of the world around us (again, with one sole exception).

Timbuktu is in a weird position on this list as, because of the wonkiness of release dates, it actually very recently started winning a series of trophies for Best Foreign Language Film, despite its moment in the sun at the Oscars happening over a year ago.  It's the sort of film that sticks with you, even if you're hoping that it would go away.  The movie is dour and incredibly depressing, with a series of violent, though sadly real moments about the way that a dictatorial militia can come in and destroy pretty much any sense of progress or happiness.  The original sin scene is still the best one, where we see a man driven to his limits by an odious action from a soldier, and then he pays an incredibly high price for his unwillingness to stand and take it.  The film's wandering narrative occasionally feels a bit much, and the editors would have done well to maybe cut a story or two in the movie, but overall it's a film with a punch, something that can't be said for all of the films listed here.

Take, for example, Tangerines, a film that feels less like it belongs in such a modern list of movies and instead was something AMPAS would have nominated in this category thirty years ago.  The film is simply a study in prejudice, watching how war in Eastern Europe has created deep-seeded ethnic hatreds, which has resulted in multiple people making assumptions about others that are categorically untrue.  It's not that this sort of "we're all the same, there's good in all people" sort of message isn't needed (look at the way that Donald Trump has risen in American politics based off of xenophobia and hatred and you can tell that it's a lesson western audiences need this season), but it feels so basic, and the principle players feel more like caricatures than actual human beings onscreen.  All-in-all, considering the state of world cinema and the incredible directions it has gone, it's disappointing to see something like this make the final five.

Leviathan at least manages to maintain its place as a provocative film, even if by American standards it would be considered a relatively tame attack on the government.  It's worth noting that the film is a brave study against the Russian government (it's always worth judging a little bit on a curve when a film like Leviathan or A Separation a few years ago is brought forth because of exactly how heavily monitored these films are in terms of creative control).  The movie is great when it relies on this political metaphor, and the rotting whale, dead at the beginning of the film (in many ways similar to the hopes of our main character), is a marvelous visual but its random asides at the church in addition to the government feel muddled and out-of-focus.  Leviathan also has issues with its main character in terms of him being likable enough, as our sympathies for him stretch only so far as the film progresses.  Still, it occasionally is quite brilliant and it still remains in the "see it" column, if nothing else.

Ida is a film that stays with you, like Timbuktu, long after the film is done rolling, but here we have a case where you are pondering different angles of the movie and what the hidden meanings behind a specific moment or glance were.  The film is so centrally-focused on two women (Dawid Ogrodnik is really only there to make the two women, and let's face it, the audience, horny) that it becomes a weird duet between two women, one completely open and the other a closed book, and our goal of learning more about them through the lens of a heinous crime and unsolved mystery.  It's a shockingly effective near-noir film, and it casually breaks our heart in the way that real life can randomly throw you a devastating curveball.  The film may occasionally be too subtle, but the central focus on Ida, who is so impenetrable, is a wonderful story and one that I feel like will continue to haunt me even after repeat viewings.  That this is the film that finally broke Poland's losing streak is great (quality, and not sentiment, ruled the day).

Finally we have one of the oddest Oscar-nominated films I've ever seen, Wild Tales.  I still remember the shock at the beginning of the film, not knowing that it was essentially a series of Tales from the Crypt-style dark humor vignettes, and wondering how they could start a movie with every major character about to die.  Wild Tales is not the type of picture that would remotely be nominated for an Oscar if it were in English, but I have a feeling we'd go even broader and it wouldn't actually work.  The film suffers from a bit of a balance problem (some of the stories aren't nearly as fascinating as the others), but overall it never stops being funny or entertaining.  I imagine that amidst a sea of pictures about the Holocaust, prejudice, war, and oppression that the foreign film committee may have taken a look at this particular installment and said, "sure, why not?" hoping to end on a lighter note.  The formula and the juxtaposition to the other films surely works, though.

Other Precursor Contenders: Awards ceremonies like the Goyas and the Cesars aren't good representatives here since it's typically honoring the main films of a specific country, so I usually only count the Globes amongst the awards bodies we check-in with for Foreign Language film.  The Globes went with the politically-charged Leviathan over Oscar nominees Ida and Tangerines, as well as Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem and Force Majeure.  Additionally, the shortlist for 2014 included four other films (randomly they go with nine instead of ten), so we know Corn Island (Georgia), Accused (The Netherlands), Force Majeure (Sweden), and The Liberator (Venezuela) were all very close to being included on this list.
Films I Would Have Nominated: Admittedly the rules are always against me here (over what is eligible), and I am missing Force Majeure which I've heard nothing but raves about (I want to say it's somewhere, lounging about on my Netflix queue, but I'll have to check), but I would have definitely included Winter Sleep, which was a marvelously complex movie, and was Turkey's official submission in 2014.  France didn't pick Stranger by the Lake as their entry (can you blame them considering the subject matter?), but it was hands-down my favorite foreign-language film of 2014, and is an absolute necessity if you love noir and aren't turned off by admittedly explicit nudity.
Oscar’s Choice: Oscar ended Poland's long drought, giving the country the top prize over (I suspect) Leviathan and Timbuktu, in that order.
My Choice: Oscar got it correct-without Winter Sleep to compete against, Ida is easily the best of these movies.  Wild Tales, Leviathan, Timbuktu, and Tangerines bring up the rear.

Those are my thoughts-what about you?  Are you with both AMPAS and I on Ida being the clear winner, or were you hoping for a different palette?  Do you find it weird when a film like Timbuktu randomly wins a bunch of trophies the year after it was eligible for the Oscar?  And why do you think Winter Sleep, so brilliant, got snubbed for the nomination even after winning the Palme d'Or?

Past Best Foreign Language Film Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013

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