Saturday, April 22, 2017

OVP: Foreign Language Film (2007)

OVP: Best Foreign Language Film (2007)

The Nominees Were...

Beaufort, Israel
The Counterfeiters, Austria
Katyn, Poland
Mongol, Kazakhstan
12, Russia

My Thoughts: So far, if you've been following along, 2007 has been a bonanza of "category-bests" for me.  I've been watching as field after field yield some of the best slates we've come across in the Oscar Viewing Project, including Cinematography, which I'd argue is the best lineup we've yet assembled in any category in all of the years of the OVP we've done.  Knowing some of the upcoming nominees, this is likely to continue with future categories, but Foreign Language Film is sadly not in the same pantheon of 2007.  In fact, it's one of the weaker lineups of movies I've encountered in the Oscar Viewing Project, so while there are some movies to enjoy (and I admittedly have to pick a winner), read on knowing that insults are about to be launched.

The most traditional film of the group, in terms of this category, would surely be The Counterfeiters, which focuses on the most prominent subject here, World War II, specifically the Holocaust.  The film   centers around a Jewish master-counterfeiter, forced during World War II to try and forge the British Pound and the American Dollar while in a concentration camp, in order to bankroll the Nazi war effort (against his will).  The movie itself is occasionally compelling, and definitely tells an untold chapter of the war, but it feels very rudimentary compared to, say, something like In Darkness, which came a few years later and bordered on a masterwork.  This is merely a finely-crafted, handsome production that tells its tale well, but doesn't really rise above in the way you'd expect (or hope) the Best Foreign Language Film winner to do.

Katyn occasionally peters toward greatness in a way that The Counterfeiters never can, though it isn't remotely as consistent of a film.  The movie, also about World War II (in this case the Katyn Massacre), is one that was clearly very personal to director Andrzej Wajda (his father died in the attacks), but is narratively unfocused and lacks a real center.  There are moments that are fascinating (the performance by Danuta Stenka being a particular highlight), and arguably has the most compelling clip of any of these movies where a man is driven to his death by being forced to lie, but by-and-large it reads more as a series of random well-acted scenes rather than a whole plot or movie. It doesn't even have the "short story" feel of a Mike Leigh film-it just feels like a picture that got lost in bad storyboarding.

Our third film about war (and no, its not the last one in a year that didn't care much for variety) leaves the 1940's behind and instead moves to the turn of the century, where the Beaufort Castle is under siege.  The problem with Beaufort as a film (I told you-I'm not wild about any of these pictures) is that the first half has very little to say that's new to the world of cinema.  "War is hell" is a mantra that never entirely loses its potency, but if you can't find a new way to encounter it, the film drags ferociously.  In the second half, the picture improves greatly, particularly when it points out the nasty political ramifications of staying in a war that neither side's government wants to be fighting anymore.  The arbitrary nature of dying for a cause that no one believes in becomes a nasty and eye-opening moment in the film, and the second half of the movie captures that, particularly in light of the fact that this was during the height of the anti-war movement against the Bush administration (it's easy to see why this got nominated).  Oshri Cohen's solid performance adds to the film, and by the end you've almost forgiven the first hour for wasting your time.

One more film about war, but here we have to travel back a millennium or so to the age of Genghis Khan.  Mongol is one of those movies where you can figuratively see producers ruining a picture.  The film itself is cool, with battle scenes, cinematography, and some magnificent costuming on-display, enough so that you'd normally forgive a lapse in the plot because everything seems to pop with a "wow factor."  However, the plot is disastrously repetitive, to the point where I felt like I was watching the same twenty minutes over and over again, and the characters remain completely two-dimensional.  The film never rises above the clearest of problems (we know that Genghis Khan wins), creating side stories that are more riveting or "unknown" to those who aren't students of history, and in a bid to make sure every dollar spent is seen on screen, the editing makes the film far too long.

Though none of these movies impress on an "Oscar-winning" scale, 12 is the only one that crosses from poor to truly awful.  The movie, way too long at 160 minutes, is a Russian retelling of Sidney Lumet's masterwork 12 Angry Men, but lacks none of that film's strong acting, sharp editing, and claustrophobic directing.  Instead, we get a series of caricatures (including two principle characters that feel like they've been borrowed from a scenery-chewing zoo), and the ending is one of the worst I've seen from a serious movie, where the film hearkens away from being a legal drama and more into a piece of action-movie propaganda in favor of Vladimir Putin.  Even in 2007, before Putin was as hated as he is now by American liberals, it's surprising that Oscar gave the film a pass.

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 HFPA wisely chose none of these nominees, with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly being picked over 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, The Kite Runner, Persepolis, and Lust Cauton.  It's also worth noting that The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (Portugal), Days of Darkness (Canada), The Unknown Woman (Italy), and The Trap (Serbia) were on the January shortlist but didn't get the nomination.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I know the Academy disqualified it, but it seems ridiculous that Taiwan's Lust Caution couldn't have been a submission, particularly considering that it's better than every single one of these movies.  The more unforgivable sin for AMPAS, though, is that 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which was eligible from Romania, wasn't counted.  The film is a marvelous, minimalistic look at social classes and intensely better than every single one of these pictures, to an almost comical degree when you consider they were competing for the same prize.  That it was eligible and wasn't nominated is heartbreaking, especially considering it could have so easily held up the high standards 2007 imposed on other categories.
Oscar’s Choice: Given a banal lineup, Oscar took the easiest choice of The Counterfeiters.
My Choice: As I said, I don't love any of these movies, but will probably copy Oscar and pick the same, as it's the solidest overall picture of the five.  I'd follow that with Beaufort, Katyn, Mongol, and 12 way in the back.

Those are my thoughts-what about you?  Does anyone really like one of these movies, or at least like it better than The Counterfeiters?  Why won't AMPAS lighten up a bit when it comes to Lust, Caution?  And even ten years later, is anyone else still steamed that 4 Months... didn't get its due here?  Share your thoughts below!

Past Best Foreign Language Film Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013, 2014

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