That’s right! Good job Academy! It’s not often I get to say that because it’s easier to talk about the Academy’s odd and stupid choices. (Hello Blind Side.) However they have created this trend of pleasantly surprising me with the Best Foreign Film category. I say surprise but this is the category I keep getting wrong in my Oscar pool.
It started in 2006. During this year, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth wowed the world. People who don’t typically see movies with subtitles ended up buying a ticket and becoming really emotionally attached. For good reasons, it’s an excellent film. It is about a young girl who retreats to a dark fantasy world during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Guillermo del Toro directs it and he’s allowed to show his mastery with emotion and magic. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, which is rare for foreign films. It picked up a bunch of early ones during the ceremony, but didn’t end up winning Best Foreign Film. Everyone thought it was a lock, but instead the Academy gave it to The Lives of Others. Like many people, I went to the theatre with my arms folded and wondering what could have taken the trophy away from Pan’s.
It turns out the Academy was right. The Lives of Others is masterful. It is this German film about the secret police during 1980s. An officer is asked to spy on a playwright and is increasingly intrigued with the life. Everything about the emotional arc feels completely earned and realistic. There are also incredible scenes of suspense and paranoia equipped with an ending that is just perfect.
Not many really paid attention to this category in 2007 because it wasn’t that interesting. 12, the Russian remake of 12 Angry Men, is worth a rental though. Onto 2008…
All of the magazines and theorists were saying the award would go to either The Class or Waltz With Bashir. Both of them are solid films. The Class, which won the Palm D’or, is an excellent examination of a public school in France. It was very good, but suffered from simply not being The Wire Season Four. (Don’t know what I mean? Rent The Wire immediately. I don’t care that it’s a TV show and not a film; it’s better than everything in the theatre right now.) Waltz With Bashir was a very inventive animated account of one man’s memory loss from the Lebanon War.
But once again the Academy through a curveball and awarded Departures as the Best Foreign Film. It was the only one of the five nominees that no one knew what it was about. It only played at the Hawaii Film Festival. So like last time I went to the theatre to see what the fuss was and once again I was blown away. Departures was a more emotional movie than the other two. It’s about a guy who loses his job as a musician and out of desperation he gets a new job at a funeral home. It’s seen in their society as a lower job, but he finds a lot of nuances and peace with it. It’s really a beautiful movie.
Then a few months ago, the Academy fooled me for a third time. I know. This story is repetitive, but everyone thought The White Ribbon was the frontrunner with A Prophet being the underdog. So, logically, The Secret in Their Eyes won. Once again, like a sap, I went to the theatre with illogically low expectations. Surprise, I was astounded. First off, it was a mystery which automatically sparks my interest. It also had a great narrative style. 30 years after a difficult case, a lawyer decides to write a novel about his experience. This causes him to revisit what happened with the help of the woman who got away. It’s a wonderfully constructed puzzle. Every single element is there for a reason even down to the broken typewriter. It’s a great great movie.
Of all the categories why is the Academy getting this one right so often? It is probably because of a new rule they instated. With this category, everyone who votes is required to see every film that is nominated. There are special screenings of each movie where I hear they have to clock in. This brings up a scary concept of people can technically vote for the other categories without having seen some (or any) of the films. It would be harder to regulate, but I wish this rule was for every award at the Oscars. Within just a few years, the credibility of the category has skyrocketed. It was also become a bit unpredictable which is also a nice change of pace with the Oscars. It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve learned my lesson.