Monday, January 12, 2009

Submitted for the Academy’s Approval

Between the documentary and foreign language film divisions, it is hard to say which set of byzantine regulations have created more embarrassing omissions for the Academy Awards. Strictly speaking, it is the best foreign language film, not simply the best picture international cinema had to offer. If a film has too much English dialogue, it will be disqualified, like last year’s The Band’s Visit from Israel. Academy voters do not simply nominate their favorite foreign films either. Each country (and occasionally Puerto Rico) chooses one submission each year. This year, ninety-four countries have submitted films that met the Academy’s qualifications. That’s a whole lot of dark horses jockeying for one of five slots, when the nominating polls close tonight at 5:00 PM P.S.T.

If this were March Madness, I would pick Israel’s Waltz with Bashir to go all the way. Critical of its own military during the 1982 military incursion into Lebanon, Ari Folman’s animated film appeals to Hollywood’s anti-war prejudices and could be seen as even more topical in light of Israel recent offensive against Hamas’s apparatus of terror. Having won the Golden Globe last night, the Israeli submission seems to have all the momentum in this category. The Academy has also already shafted Bashir in the documentary category, disqualifying it for opening after the late August deadline, so there could also be a guilt factor working in its favor.

In Norway, Odd is a name. In New York, it is an inadequate adjective. Odd Horten is maybe a bit strange, but the protagonist of Norway’s O’Horten (trailer here) is really just a taciturn, reserved Scandinavian gentlemen, facing the uncertainty of his impending retirement from the Norwegian railway. Directed with exquisite deliberation by Bent Hamer, O’Horten vividly captures the snowy vistas and long dark nights that delineated Horten’s well regulated existence. It might be more than a tad slow for some viewers, but Hamer has a keen visual sense and Baard Owe is excellent in the challenging lead role. Without the benefit of any overt expressions of emotion, he perfectly conveys the essence of Horten’s scrupulously guarded soul.

Many commentators give O’Horten at least an outside shot at sneaking past one of the favorites for a nomination. Despite its chilly Nordic exterior, O’Horten has a warm heart that should appeal to Academy voters. It also has the advantage of an American distributor. Look for a full review here when it releases theatrically in April

Macedonian’s Titov-Veles, now known simply as Veles, is dominated by a carcinogenic white elephant leftover from the age of Soviet industrial behemoths. Its dreary backdrop dominates Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I am from Titov Veles (trailer here), which has had some festival distribution here and there.

The blight of Veles accentuates the bleak desperation of three sisters’ lives. Deeply affected by their mother’s desertion and father’s subsequent death, the youngest, Afrodita, desperately clings to her seriously flawed older sisters. Mitevska’s narrative becomes increasingly subjective, seemingly giving Afrodita’s fantasies equal footing with ostensive reality. In other words, Titov is most definitely a festival picture. While casting a critical eye on contemporary Macedonian culture, particularly the gender attitudes of the brutish men the sisters encounter, Mitevska has somehow crafted a film that is both impressionistic and naturalistic. It deserves all due respect, but it is the darkest of dark horses. It screens again at MoMA on January 21st and 25th.

Sometimes, the popular pick might not be the best foot to put forward. India nominated Taare Zameen Par, the story of a dyslexic boy who is misunderstood by his parents and abused by teachers and students alike, until an interim art teacher arrives and solves all his problems in one montage sequence. Its heart might be in the right place, and raising awareness of learning disabilities in India may well be a worthy endeavor, but TZP is cloyingly precious. Aside from the new art teacher’s first day in class (heard in the trailer), the film’s musical interludes lack the over-the-top Bollywood panache, more closely resembling lame Nickelodeon videos instead. It might be beloved by the millions who saw it on satellite TV, but it is not going to make the cut.

Given the subject matter, Thailand’s The Love of Siam (trailer here) might initially sound like it has an outside chance. After the mysterious disappearance of his older sister, young Tong’s family moves away from the painful memories of their formerly happy home. In the process, he is separated from Mew, his best friend living across the street. Years later, they run into each other as high school students, and their rekindled friendship evolves into homosexual attraction. Unfortunately, overwrought does not sufficiently describe the melodrama of Siam. Particularly cheesy are the ballads Mew sings with his up-and-coming boy band. It has no shot.

For the record, here are my predictions (but not necessarily my recommendations): France’s The Class, Israel’s Waltz with Bashir, Norway’s O’Horten, Italy’s Gomorra, and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Complex. That would give Sony Classics sixty percent of the nominations. Hopefully more dark horse films will secure American distribution by virtue of their submission, because several sound quite intriguing. Based on what I have seen so far, I will hope against hope for Titov.

Update: The shortlist has just been released. O’Horten misses the cut, which is slightly surprising. The real controversy though is the exclusion of Italy’s Gommorah, which was a critical favorite (look for a review here next month). Some of its champions are downright apoplectic. Three films on the list, from Mexico, Canada, and Turkey, had yet to secure a U.S. distributor, so maybe one will get a second or third look. Without Gomorrah in the running Bashir becomes a lead-pipe cinch. The full short list is: Austria’s Revanche, Canada’s The Necessities of Life, Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Israel’s Waltz with Bashir, Japan’s Departures, Mexico’s Tear This Heart Out, Sweden’s Everlasting Moments, and Turkey’s 3 Monkeys.