Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2012
Academy Foreign Language Films Short List.
Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2012
Academy Foreign Language Films Short List.
By LARRY ROHTER
Two films from the Islamic world and one from Israel. An Asian historical epic with a strong resemblance to the futuristic “Avatar.” And a dance meditation that’s also a contender for best documentary. The shortlist for the Oscar for best foreign language film, announced Wednesday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, can always be counted on for surprises and intrigues. This year’s semifinalists, which include a Canadian entry, underlined a shift away from the Academy’s Eurocentric focus in the past, with just four films from Europe rounding out the group.
Any discussion of the shortlist has to begin with Iran’s Oscar submission, “A Separation,” which on Sunday won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and has been picking up prizes at festivals all over the world and in critics’ polls. An unusual mixture of marital drama and detective story directed by Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation” is clearly the front-runner. It may also resonate with voters because of its director’s potentially risky involvement in trying to keep open the House of Cinema. That Iranian organization, the country’s only group devoted to independent film, was recently shuttered by the government, and Mr. Farhadi has sought a vote on the decision.
But the shortlist also contained several surprises, among them Morocco’s “Omar Killed Me,” based on the real-life case of a Moroccan immigrant accused of murder in France, and Taiwan’s “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.” That film, about an uprising of aboriginal people against Japan’s harsh colonial rule, is extremely violent, with a score of graphic beheadings and a mass suicide, and runs four and a half hours in its original version, factors that would not normally play well with Academy members, who tend to skew older and more conservative in their taste than typical film audiences.
In the past, however, the committee overseeing the shortlist selections has shown a fondness for historical epics, which may have worked in favor of the film, directed by Wei Te-Sheng and co-produced by the Hong Kong action film director John Woo. It also features a story line strikingly similar to that of “Avatar.” In both, an indigenous clan-based people living in harmony with nature find their way of life threatened when violent interlopers from another culture arrive, intent on seizing their natural resources and enslaving them.
A committee of several hundred Los Angeles members chose 6 of the films on the shortlist from 63 submissions offered by the foreign equivalents of the American Academy. Their selections were augmented by three films chosen by an executive committee, a procedure introduced in 2008 after the broader committee had ignored a critically acclaimed Romanian film, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” the year before.
The nine films will now be winnowed to five, after screenings in Los Angeles and New York this weekend for a specially invited committee. No one says publicly who’s on the committee, but in the past it has consisted of prominent actors, producers and directors. The five final nominees will be announced on Jan. 24, along with nominees in other categories, and the full Academy membership gets to vote.
Though “A Separation” is the odds-on favorite, there has been growing buzz about the chances of two dark-horse entries, one from Canada and the other from Israel. The Canadian “Monsieur Lazhar” is an affecting drama about a Montreal school thrown into turmoil after a teacher commits suicide. In its favor: the director, Philippe Falardeau, who adapted the script from a one-man play, coaxed sensitive performances from child actors and took the bold step of casting a little-known Algerian comedian, Mohamed Said Fellag, in the title role, that of an Arab immigrant brought in as a substitute teacher.
Israel’s submission, “Footnote,” directed by Joseph Cedar, has won festival prizes, especially for its clever screenplay. The film, which mixes drama and comedy and satirizes academic ambition, examines the complicated relationship, personal and intellectual, between a father and son, who are Talmudic scholars at the same Jerusalem university. Mr. Cedar, born in Manhattan, is hoping for his second nomination, having advanced to the final stage with “Beaufort” (2007), a war drama about Israeli troops in Lebanon.
Two other films from the Middle East that were considered strong contenders were passed over, however. Turkey’s submission, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” which was co-winner of the Grand Prix at the last Cannes Film Festival, is a highly regarded mixture of existential drama, murder mystery and road movie, while the Lebanese entry, “Where Do We Go Now?,” takes a satirical look at tensions between Christians and Muslims in that country.
The remaining directors include international luminaries like Agnieszka Holland of Poland, competing with “In Darkness,” a Holocaust drama, and Wim Wenders of Germany. But some other well-known directors, like Aki Kaurismaki of Finland and Zhang Yimou of China, were lost out in favor of new or unfamiliar names.
Mr. Zhang’s film, a war epic called “The Flowers of War,” has Christian Bale, an Oscar winner last year, in the lead role and is the most expensive film ever made in China. But it has received reviews that could be called lukewarm at best, and a December incident in which Mr. Bale, in China for the film’s premiere there, was roughed up by government security agents as he tried to visit a human rights advocate, may have further hurt the film’s prospects.
Even among the European contenders there were some departures, most notably Mr. Wenders’s “Pina,” a documentary about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. Documentaries have advanced this far before — the animated Israeli “Waltz With Bashir” won a nomination in 2009 — but Mr. Wenders has raised the bar: “Pina” is shot in 3-D, is not a narrative film, involves nine languages and is also competing in the best documentary category.
Also striking was the inclusion of Belgium’s controversial submission, a crime drama called “Bullhead.” Another Belgian film, the Dardenne brothers’ “Kid With a Bike” was the other winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes last spring, but was passed over by the Belgian selection committee, a decision that was the subject of much second-guessing and criticism at the time.
As in years past Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed last year’s winner, the Danish film “In a Better World,” has again fared well. The studio is represented not only by “A Separation” but also by two other films on the list, “Footnote” and “In Darkness.”
Welcome to a mid-week edition of the Subway Cinema News. Jan has some many films lined up we had to send 2 emails in 1 week!
Dante Lam's The Viral Factor opens this Friday at the AMC 25 and Village 7 in Manhattan. Trailer and info can be found here.
Mega-huge Korean War movie The Front Line also opens at the AMC 25. The film is from the director of NYAFF fave Rough Cut and boasts an all-star cast. Trailer can be found here.
Meanwhile over in Brooklyn, Nitehawk Cinema continues their excellent run of kick-ass HK movies with their upcoming showings of The Legend of Drunken Master, info here. And a special live guitar scored performance of The Storm Warriors, info here. Be sure to check them out.
Well Go USA has provided Subway Cinema with 5 pairs of tickets to see The Front Line. These are "run of engagement" passes and are good for 2 tickets to any non-sold out show during the film's run at AMC 25. To win, reply to this email with your mailing address and the answer to the following question: What previous NYAFF film featured lead actor Shin Ha-kyun in a much more comic take on the Korean War?
Jang Hun’s pulpy military thriller The Front Line is set during the waning days of the Korean War, as the commanders know they’re about to hammer out a truce, but the grunts in the field are still shooting at each other, under orders to seize as much territory as possible, for added leverage at the bargaining table. Shin Ha-Kyun plays a lieutenant sent to the Aerok Hills to file a report on a ragtag company where discipline is slack, and where an officer has recently turned up dead with a South Korean bullet in his brain, possibly at the hand of a rumored North Korean mole. When Shin arrives, he finds war orphans milling about, a baby-faced CO shooting up morphine, and soldiers wearing North Korean uniforms over their own to keep warm. In short, the lines between ally and enemy have long since been blurred, and these men are now fighting to survive long enough to see the peace they’ve been promised for years.
Though The Front Line won awards at home and is South Korea’s official Oscar candidate, it’s hardly a prestige picture. Jang and screenwriter Park Sang-Yeon (who also wrote the novel on which Park Chan-Wook’s 2000 hit Joint Security Area was based) are perfectly content to work in the language of war-movie clichés, reducing characters to types: the angel-faced kid, the pudgy joker, the embittered veteran, the ambitious careerist, and so on. And Jang’s command of the visual grammar of the old-fashioned combat sequence is in sync with Park’s corny dialogue and stock conflicts. The Front Line’s action sequences aren’t pitched as gritty you-are-there realism; they’re about sniper bullets zipping through the frosty air, and tracking shots that defy geometry to make it look as though soldiers are running up a perpendicular mountain.
But just because the script and direction of The Front Line are more over-the-top than the average awards-bait doesn’t mean the movie is a trifle. Jang and Park keep returning to a meaningful central image: a box buried in a trench in a plot of land that each side periodically re-takes. The men pass messages and share booze via the box, creating their own off-the-books cease-fire. The action in The Front Line is bloody and tense, but the movie also reduces war to its simplest terms, defining it in terms of the reluctant soldiers who know that only accidents of birth and location determined which side of the battlefield they inhabit.