Saturday, February 21, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film

The Polish film Ida is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Foreign Language Film

The nominees are:

Wild Tales

Not that anybody asked me, but I think Federico Fellini is the greatest film director of all time. If you would like to discuss that ranking, I am happy to have that conversation another time, but for now, all that matters is that the greatest director of all time never won a competitive Oscar (if your loyalties lie elsewhere, feel free to insert Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa in place of Fellini). He was nominated in the screenplay categories eight times and four times for best director, but he never won, though he did receive a lifetime achievement award in 1993.

Fellini died later that year after receiving his honorary award, so you may be wondering why I would bring up a director who has been dead more than 20 years. Well, I will tell you. Despite never winning an Oscar in his unparalleled career, Fellini directed four films that were nominated for and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. However, since its inception at the 1956 ceremony, the award has officially gone to the country of origin and not the filmmaker. No longer.

Beginning with this year’s ceremony, the Oscar statuette for Best Foreign Language Film will have the director’s name engraved on it along with the country of origin. The change has been a long time coming. Though the Academy of course will not be retroactively awarding the directors of past winners in this category, future winners will have the privilege of not succumbing to the same Oscar fate as some of the medium’s greats. It is impossible to say if any of this year’s nominees is the next Fellini or Kurosawa, but if they are, the Academy can take pride in having rewarded them here.

Ida (directed by Pawel Pawlikowski) – In spite of a tremendous cinematic heritage that includes greats such as Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, no Polish film has ever won the award for Best Foreign Language Film. Pawlikowski’s small but potent Ida seems set to break that streak. Concerning an orphan raised to be a Catholic nun who finds out her true heritage just days before she is to take her final vows, Ida is a story of faith and forgiveness in a world where both of those qualities are seen as weaknesses.

Gorgeously shot – the film is also nominated for Best Cinematography – and stunningly told, Ida is one of the true gems of the year. Pawlikowski’s film is tiny in scope but big on ideas and has a clear moral center that is never muddied thanks to the straightforward plot and no-frills filmmaking. It is a true testament to the power of a good story well told.

Leviathan (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev) – I do not know that there is much more I can say about Leviathan, my No. 1 film of the year. It is a dark, brooding masterpiece that is filled to the brim with pitch-black humor, hardline political commentary, and riveting drama. Zvyagintsev speaks for a generation of Russians who came of age under communist rule and who are now watching the country slip back into extremism and antagonism. Zyviagintsev and his cast and crew take all the anger they feel over the current governmental situation and spew it back out as bile onto the screen.

The film follows Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who simply by living his life runs afoul of the local mayor. He compounds his problems by attempting to fight back against the crushing behemoth that is the Russian governmental bureaucracy. He winds up in a downward spiral of despair, from which he seeks solace in religion. He finds none. Zyagintsev’s film is an uncompromising descent into the bleakness of a country ruled by a power structure that sees no citizens, just enemies. He provides no easy answers and no happy endings because when you come face to face with the leviathan, your best hope is a quick end.

Timbuktu (directed by Abderrahmane Sissako) – Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) is a cattle herder who lives with his family outside the city of Timbuktu. The city is controlled by a strict Muslim regime that imposes its will on the citizens of the town in increasingly draconian and absurd ways. Living among the dunes, Kidane and his family have mostly been sheltered from the violence and oppression of the city, but such peace cannot last long in this place.

Timbuktu has already had a good week. The first film from Mauritania to be nominated for an Academy Award, Sissako’s critically beloved drama about faith and freedom just won seven Caesar Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, including best feature and best director. This is the kind of important, hard-hitting film voters like to reward in this category for bringing a faraway struggle to light for the world to see.

Wild Tales (directed by Damián Szifrón) – Argentina has had the most success in this category of any of this year’s nominated countries with two previous wins, including as recently as 2009 for The Secret in Their Eyes. Szifrón’s odd, darkly comic anthology film had been tapped by some as the film to beat this year before the nominations were even released, but against this set of this set of films, Wild Tales seems perhaps the slightest and least likely winner.

Composed of six standalone stories, any one of which would have made an intriguing Best Live Action Short nominee, Wild Tales is a simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous meditation on violence and vengeance. Despite its often dark subject matter, Szifrón’s film is easily the most enjoyable sit of the five nominated pictures just from an entertainment standpoint, and that cannot be underestimated when it comes to guessing what Academy voters may choose.

Tangerines (directed by Zaza Urushadze)Tangerines reminds more than a little of 2001 Best Foreign Language Film winner No Man’s Land, which also concerns soldiers from opposing sides of a conflict trapped together in the middle of a battlefield. Writer-director Urushadze throws in the added twist that the combatants are being housed by a neutral third party, raising questions about the nature of war and the reality of collateral damage.

An Estonian village is caught in the middle of an uprising against the Georgian government. The village is deserted, except for two men, one of whom will leave as soon as he has harvested his tangerine crops. After a particularly bloody battle, the wounded are left behind in the village, and Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) takes them into his home. It is a classic story about two sides of a conflict finding they have more in common than they would have thought, helped along by someone caught in the middle who sees the absurdity of it all. Tangerines is the first film from Estonia nominated in this category and certainly fits on this list.

The final analysis

Though Wild Tales is the most outright enjoyable of the nominees just for delivering the wild ride its title promises, voters tend not to be swayed by such considerations when making their choices. Plenty of popular films from well known directors have been nominated in this category but went home empty-handed because voters opted for more challenging or esoteric choices. If any film is going to surprise in this group, Timbuktu is the most likely candidate.

Ida is the frontrunner here, having picked up the majority of the early season awards, though Leviathan earned the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Leviathan’s Golden Globe triumph stands as my single favorite moment of the Oscar season thus far, and if it pulls off the mild upset with the Academy, it would be easily my favorite win of the night. Ultimately, the low-key charms of Ida should rule the day.

Will win: Ida
Should win: Leviathan
Wish it had been here: Force Majeure

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