Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Best Foreign Language Film

I've been thinking about the dearth of quality foreign films available right now.  Aside from The Girl With... films, not a whole lot is sparking much interest with me.  Then I started thinking about the foreign film Oscar over the past few years.  The often criticized category that like everything else, seems more politically motivated, than rewarding quality films.  Really the process really should be changed.  Right now, the Academy rules are: a country can submit one film, and a specialized panel is set up, and in order to vote on the foreign language Oscar, one must view each and every film submitted.  Then a semi-final takes place and widdles down the submissions to about 10, out of which 5 will eventually be nominated, and one will win.  Seems like an awful process that only a few working people could actually participate in.  The Foreign Film winners of the last decade were:

2000:  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Taiwan-- directed by Ang Lee
    • The first film to win in the last decade was a hard feat to top.  Not only is Lee's sweeping martial epic one of the most Oscar-ed foreign films of all time, it's all the highest grossing foreign film at the North American box office, a feat it's held for nearly ten years.  It's the only foreign film to over top $100 million, and leads by a significant amount.  Of course, it all validated since the film is gorgeous, and an engrossing mash-up of David Lean aesthetics crossing with Matrix-coolness.  Mr. Lee, a big enough name at the time of release, has done pretty well since I'd say.
    • Box office: $128 million
    • 2001:  No Man's Land, Bosnia-- directed by Danis Tanovic
      • Otherwise known as the film that beat out the audience favorite, Amelie, suggesting sometimes the panel can make interesting and bold choices unswayed by sentiment, because No Man's Land is a fiercely intelligent film, and the only film to win the award from Bosnia-- which seems a bit of a cheat since part of the film is in English, but whatever.  Tanovic is returning with Cirkus Columbia, which will premiere at this years Toronto Film Festival. 
      • Box office: $1.0 million
      • 2002:  Nowhere in Africa, Germany-- directed by Caroline Link
        • Suggesting that perhaps even a perimeter story on Jews will get some Oscar love, this is probably one of the least celebrated wins of the past decade, especially since it's competition included: The Man Without a Past (from master Abbias Kaurismaki) and Hero (from master Zhang Yimou.)  On the same token it's always nice to see a woman joining the boys club.  Link followed up here win with A Year Ago in Winter (2008.)
        • Box office: $6.1 million
      • 2003:  The Barbarian Invasions, Canada-- directed by Denys Arcand
        • Arcand won the top prize for his sequel of sorts to The Decline of Western Civilization (1986, nominated for foreign film in its year.)  He was also nominated in the best original original screenplay category.
        • Box office: $8.5 million
      •  2004: The Sea Inside, Spain-- directed by Alejandro Amenabar
        • 2004 was actually quite a solid year for foreign films, with both Almodovar's Bad Education, and Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries coming out, and not only making solid coin, but receiving plentiful acclaim.  Alas neither film was selected and the big winner was Amenabar's moving biopic of Ramon Sampedro and his thirty year fight for the right to die after a becoming paralyzed.  Javier Bardem starred and is typically affecting.  Amenabar came on the scene in a major way with 2001's The Others, and returned to mixed reviews last year with Agora, a historical epic starring Rachel Weisz.  The Sea Inside is pure schmaltz, I'd say, but of a very high polished kind.
        • Box office: $2.1 million
      •  2005:  Tsotsi, South Africa-- directed by Gavin Hood
        • Tsotsi, the first South African winner, was a hard and fairly unflinching look at a Johannesburg gang leader, and a clear antithesis to the typical more emotional stories that this category tends to go for.  I've only seen it once, and I'm sort of on the fence about it, as well as Hood's filmmaking abilities.  Since Tsotsi, he's moved to Hollywood, as the director of Rendition starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, and Wolverine.
        • Box office: $2.9 million
      • 2006:  The Lives of Others, Germany-- directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck
        • Germany is the only country to have won the prize twice during the course of the decade, and this one probably was more of a surprise.  Likely because, like most foreign films, they never seem to get released until the Oscars come, what with the advertising hook and all.  The Lives of Others was up against a surprise foreign juggernaut in 2006, being Guillermo del Toro's amazing Pan's Labyrinth.  While I concede The Lives of Others is a pretty superb film, I still can't help but be a tad bitter over it.  I know the Academy doesn't really "get" fantasy films, but an exception should be made for the better good ever once in a while.  Also snubbed, Amodovar's Volver, again inexplicably not submitted by Spain; what's their deal anyway?  von Dommersmarck is moving to Hollywood, coming out with The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie some time next year.
        • Box office: $11.2
      • 2007:  The Counterfeiters, Austria-- directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
        • Ruzowitzky, director of Matt LeBlanc\Eddie Izzard WWII drag film All the Queen's Men in 2001 won the big award for this, about a master counterfeiter on the eve of WWII.  I haven't seen this one, and while it hold the distinction of being the first winner from Austria, I am hard pressed to think it's any better than 2007's brightest international piece, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which wasn't nominated, in one of the most erroneous snubs, I believe of all time.
        • Box office: $5.4 million
      • 2008:  Departures, Japan-- directed by Yojiro Takita
        • Again the Oscar's went with emotional schmaltz, over substantial artistry-- Departures competition included the top Cannes winner, French film The Class, as well as Israel's Waltz With Bashir, both of which are far more technically accomplished.  Then again, simplicity works too, when done effectively.  I haven't seen this one yet, because the story just cries for noisy violin sounds.
        • Box office: $1.4 million
      • 2009:  The Secret in Their Eyes, Argentina-- directed by Juan Jose Campanella
        • In an ongoing theme, sentiment wins out over artistic virtuosity, and while The Secret in Their Eyes plays a bit like an episode of Law & Order (Campanella should know, he's also directed episode of L&O: Special Victims Unit, as well as House), and yes the competition including intriguing, provocative think pieces from some of the worlds current best: Michael Hanake's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, we must also remember that the foreign branch of the academy is filled mostly by the very senior contingent, and not the radicals, if any exist.  This marks Campanella's second nomination, his first being 2001's Son of the Bride.
        • Box office: $6.1 million (and counting)

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