Oscar Circuit: Best Foreign Language Film

Iran's historic Oscar win for "A Separation" took home Best Foreign Language Film for 2011.
Iran’s historic Oscar win for “A Separation” took home Best Foreign Language Film for 2011.

Always a hot button topic for debate amongst Oscarwatchers and many of us here at Awards Circuit, this year’s nominees for Best Foreign Language Film embody a melting pot of opulence, grit, political commentary, grand and epic adventure, and the true test of a couple’s love and devotion.


 

 

The 2012 Nominees for Best Foreign Language Film are:

  • Amour – Austria
  • Kon-Tiki – Norway
  • No – Chile
  • A Royal Affair – Denmark
  • War Witch – Canada



amour.jpgAMOUR
Austria, Directed by Michael Haneke
This is Austria’s fourth nomination in this category, following nominees “38” (1986) and “Revanche” (2008) and Oscar winner The Counterfeiters (2007).

Much has written about Amour and much more will be authored regarding the film in the next two weeks. In some ways, among Oscarwatchers, this film has become the Little Engine That Could, with more than a handful of Oscar pundits wondering out loud if it could win more than this category. While Best Picture seems completely out of the equation, the wide open Best Directing category and the very competitive Best Actress race could conceivably cut this direction. And if one buys that argument, does director Michael Haneke’s screenplay move into consideration in a complicated Best Original Screenplay category? Are we talking more than one Oscar win here?

Amour is a searing and devastating film, but equally a probing and invasive one. Michael Haneke’s screenplay is incredible in the way in which the events unfold before us and the minimalist, largely one set staging makes the film deeply personal and intimate. Having lost an elderly parent myself in 2012, elements of Amour hit me very close to home, with Anne’s health declining steadily in an irreversible way and Georges’ flickering glimmer of hope becoming only more dim. Amour, built around two storied international actors (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) who are largely unknown to North American audiences, also carries a documentary-type of a feel which compounds the emotional impact. Devoid of any musical score, stripped of vanity, and incorporating only natural sound, Amour is as real and organic a production as you will ever see.

And as I praise Amour, I should also mention that this is a very difficult film to watch with a trademark Haneke moment that will send people’s hearts and minds racing in a thousand different directions. There will be no spoiling here, but Amour is disarming with its final act, leaving us to ponder and question the unthinkable, and dig deep within ourselves to recognize what love, or “amour”, means for all of us. Symbolism is minimal when compared to other Haneke films, but the defaced door and one persistent pigeon’s appearance lingers in our minds long after the final credits quietly appear on screen. Amour begins simple, escalates in intensity and power, and then leaves us at an arms distance, contemplating so many emotions.

I have talked with a couple of non-critic friends who have seen the film and they were devastated in different measures. All three of them praised the film but vowed to never watch it again. In the mind of an Academy voter, they only need to watch it once, and in doing so, the film is unshakable with so many moments that will hit home to not only older Academy members, but anyone who has been so close to someone in their final days. That element may be the connection that carries Amour to heights heretofore unseen in Oscar history. We shall see.

kon_tikiKON-TIKI
Norway, Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg
This is Norway’s fifth nomination in this category, following nominees Nine Lives (1957), Pathfinder (1987), The Other Side of Sunday (1996), and Elling (2001).

A grand and epic scale production, Kon-Tiki is Norway’s most ambitious and expensive production of all time, documenting Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia, via balsawood raft, and the perilous adventures which he and his makeshift team encountered. The directorial tandem of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have spared nary an expense in trying to make this film not only look and appear authentic to its timeframe, but also a film that, on appearances alone, looks like it would fit in with some of Hollywood’s most storied sea-faring adventure epics of the past.

In the leading role, Pal Sverre Hagen is striking as the explorer, and critics have praised his performance as similar to early Peter O’Toole. Heyerdahl cannot swim, his team has next to no sailing experience and undeterred, they set out on a mission teetering between inspiration and narcissism. Attempting to prove that the Polynesian Islands were settled by South Americans and not Asians, Heyerdahl’s extraordinary expedition can be easily envisioned in your mind. Thrashing waves, destruction of the ship, possible deaths among the crew, etc. etc. And while we have seen this all before, critics point to the fact that Kon-Tiki overcomes its genre trappings to become intense and gripping theater.

Kon-Tiki is not a newcomer to the Academy Awards. A documentary of the same name won Best Documentary Feature at the 24th annual ceremony in 1951. Ronning and Sandberg exhaustively recreated key scenes and moments from not just the documentary but also from Heyerdahl’s notes and journals and footage he shot during the voyage. Notably, the Oscar-winning documentary is shot in 16mm black-and-white for all 77 minutes of its running time. That approach would never work today, but Ronning and Sandberg’s meticulous attention to detail allowed them to redefine the power found in the original footage and materials.

No_(2012_film)NO
Chile, Directed by Pablo Lerrain
This is Chile’s first Academy Award nomination
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Pablo Lerrain’s No welcomes the country of Chile to the Academy Award race for the first time and this biting, edgy political film wowed critics and took home the prestigious Art Cinema Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. After a series of festival screenings, Sony Picture Classics purchased the film and will be releasing it in theaters Friday, February 22, two days before this year’s Oscar ceremony takes place.

No is a quirky and inventive look at the organizing and marketing of a referendum called to contest the existing dictatorship of Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Ruling for more than 16 years, Pinochet’s rule came to an end with a 1988 plebiscite which led the way for democracy to rise and secure a foothold and blossom in modern-day Chile. Lerrain’s film is striking and head-turning because it zigs when you think it will zag, and sticks so stoically to its setting and time period that the film feels as authentic as a native documentary.

While most would assume that No gets lost in political speak and may be too insular to understand, the film is moreover a jagged and sharp comedy, which does take us behind the scenes – but also into boardrooms and advertising meetings as Pinochet employs two men – one to sell and convince the Chilean people that he should be re-elected for another proposed 8-year term and Gael Garcel Bernal’s Rene, tasked with the “No” campaign, something Pinochet agrees to allow under international pressure from the scrutiny of a watching world. The marketing campaigns increase in creativity and intensity and the two men go after each other.

Pinochet thinks re-election is automatic but the combativeness between his two appointees leads to surprising results and for Rene, the fear of a dictatorship realizing it may lose its ruling power leads to suspenseful developments and haggard anxiety. No looks different, akin to a late-1980’s, slightly dirty, where-is-the-tracking-button quality VHS cassette tape. Steeped in the era for which it is set, No has an improvisational vibe, some laugh out loud moments (the only nominee with anything remotely close to comedy at all), and sardonic wit. And it also speaks to the power of democracy and a people rising up and hearing their voice for the very first time.

royalaffairA ROYAL AFFAIR
Denmark, Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
This is Denmark’s ninth nomination, following nominees Qivitoq (1956), Paw (1959), Harry and the Butler (1961), Waltzing Regitze (1989), and After the Wedding (2006). Denmark has won three Oscars in this category for Babette’s Feast (1987), Pelle the Conqueror (1988), and In A Better World (2010).

The costume drama: The bane of some people’s existence, yes, but a subgenre of filmmaking which lends itself to opulence, beauty, and scandalous bodice-ripping melodrama. A Royal Affair nails every genre beat and then some in recounting the true story of how King Christian VII’s escalating madness and insanity led to a famed affair between his wife, the Queen, and his personal physician.

Starring Alicia Vikander, who many feel stole much of the show in the 4-time Oscar nominated Anna Karenina this year, the young actress gives a strong and winning performance as Queen Caroline, who wed her first cousin, Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Folsgaard) at the age of sixteen. Although her wedding was not popular, the reasons for it are less about her age and familial connections and all the more about some troubling and alarming characteristics exhibited by the increasingly manic King.

As Christian VII begins to show signs of troubling mental health and distress, Caroline bonds with his physician (Mads Mikkelsen) over remedying the ailing King and passions become alight. Unfolding like a love triangle of sorts, Christian VII and the physician are friends, unwittingly sharing the Queen, and making things complicated all the more so by their actions.

On screen, the cinematography, production design, and costumes found in Nikolaj Arcel’s film are simply without reproach. Those familiar with the history of the time period depicted on screen have complimented the film’s efforts to stick to the facts and if anything, people have complained that the characters’ true demeanors have been tempered down and/or diffused. Arcel’s film may start to wear thin at 137 minutes, but the film is compelling and richly populated with visual beauty, with three fantastic performances navigating through some choppy middle of the film moments to an impressive final hour. While the film focuses on the influence that the affair had on a country’s political ideologies, A Royal Affair works on many different levels.

WarWitchWAR WITCH
Canada, Directed by Kim Nguyen
This is Canada’s seventh nomination, following nominees Monsieur Lazhar (2011), Incendies (2010), Water (2006), Jesus of Montreal (1989), and The Decline of the American Empire (1986). Canada has one Oscar win in this category as The Barbarian Invasions, the sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, won this category for 2003.

With no pun intended to any of this year’s nominees, War Witch is the film which almost literally takes your breath away and potentially could galvanize some voters into selecting this unflinching and completely immersive film as a shocking winner on Oscar night.

As authentic in look, feel, and tone as any nominee on the Academy’s slate this year, War Witch tells the story of Komona, a 12-year old African girl who is abducted by rebel soldiers, and after a shocking and gutwrenching series of events, is forced into a slave’s life of war and poverty. Issued AK-47s, Komona is indoctrinated into a child’s army and told that her weapons are now her parents. However, as she tries to survive, her birth parents haunt her, resembling albinos with doll-dead eyes, ghost-like in their arrival, but emblematic of Komona’s instinctual desire to survive.

Writer/director Kim Nguyen’s film is affecting and opts in and out of visceral, untenable moments to a less-is-more approach regarding the atrocities Komona is experiencing. Refreshingly, as bleak as much of War Witch is, Nguyen punctuates his film with a rich and vibrant score, expertly incorporated, and scenes which fit perfectly with the mindset and outlook any 12-year old child may have. Abruptly and quite appropriately, the film swings back to Komona’s reality and not only does newcomer Rachel Mwanza captivate and entrance with her performance, I would argue she is every bit as good as a certain 9-year old Best Actress nominee this year.

Let’s not split hairs. War Witch, also a nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best International Film, would likely never find an audience like Quvenzhane Wallis and Beasts of the Southern Wild did. With that said, War Witch stays with you long after it concludes. The only problem with its Oscar chances are whether those outside of the Foreign Language Film branch will watch it and consider it. I could not turn away from it, even when I wanted to, and if there was an absence of Amour this year, I would be championing War Witch as the deserved winner of this category for 2012.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

I have had the chance of seeing most of these nominees and while War Witch is stunning and unflinching in its depiction of the atrocities seen and experienced by a child soldier, and A Royal Affair is one of the year’s most beautifully crafted films, Michael Haneke’s Amour is every bit the frontrunner in this category as A Separation was last year. Kon-Tiki’s push from The Weinstein Company, after nabbing the film for distribution, seems to have cocked a few heads and Pablo Lerrain’s No is inventive and unique, although viewed as the lightest of these nominees. While this category lends itself to many surprises on supposed locked frontrunners (Amelie, Pan’s Labyrinth, Waltz With Bashir all came home open-handed), this has essentially been a one-horse race from the arrival of the 71-film longlist and with four additional Oscar nominations in its quiver, Amour losing here would perhaps be the biggest upset of the evening.

If I Had A Vote: Amour
Predicted Winner: Amour

SNUBS

The additional titles on the semifinalist shortlist include Iceland’s The Deep, Romania’s Beyond the Hills, and Switzerland’s Sister. The film that many earmarked as Amour’s strongest competitor, France’s The Intouchables was left home, which likewise meant France’s Rust and Bone was a snub as well, per the Academy’s one submission per country rule.

Of the record-setting 71 category submissions, other notable titles left behind include Lore (Australia), Our Children (Belgium), Children of Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Barbara (Germany), Barfi! (India), Spirit Award nominee Fill The Void (Israel), Bwakaw (The Philippines), South Korea’s Pieta, and The Hypnotist (Sweden).

 

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.