Viewing in Tongues – the Foreign Language Oscars

The Internet is often accused of shining too much light upon magic. No longer do blokes down the pub chat about the match without somebody flinging out their black mirror to quote every OPTA stat like an autistic vidiprinter. Stumbling over a potential classic read in a bookstore has become something of a minority interest sport, not just because bookstores are closing at a rate comparable to Working Men’s Clubs, but one quick scan of Goodreads gives you enough crib notes to appear as the most well-read member of your book club. With amateur YouTube accounts and news aggregator sites such as BuzzFeed and Cracked reducing everything from current affairs to album released into bite-sized cue cards, it’s little wonder that the pervasive opinion is that of the facilitation of diluted information somewhat reduces the anticipation, excitement and general thrill of how things used to be.

Partial credit for that view, as the drawing back of the curtain made possible by the Internet does have its positives points. What used to seem mysterious or oblique, such as the drawing up of nominated people in various award ceremonies, has become broadly open and available for comment. The ‘longlist’, so rarely mentioned before the expectation of transparency brought about by the Internet, is now part and parcel of the bauble giving process. No more is such openness exciting and, just perhaps, symbolic of the ‘window of the world’ ideal of on-line life, than the longlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (more correctly labelled by the august gentlefolk at BAFTA as ‘Film not in the English Langugae’, but who am I to suggest that our American cousins have an unfortunately skewed opinion of ‘foreign’.)

This year nine films from over seventy submissions have been put on the initial longlist, and I have endeavoured to find at least a trailer somewhere for a select few to chin-stroke for your delectation. In the spirit of the New Year, I will hand over to other Failed Critics to consider  those I have missed from both the longlist and unsuccessful others, out of a duty to be fair, and because I hope somebody else can stomach watching the entry from Thailand. No, I’m not doing it, watching it for research purposes was quite enough. Ask James.

From Bosnia-Herzegovina comes ‘An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker’ (‘Epizoda u životu berača željeza’). Low on laughs, this one. Director Danis Tanović explores what he considers to be the ‘omnipresent’ injustice in a country many years removed from the devastating civil war of the 1990s. A woman, Senad, falls ill during pregnancy, but has no means of paying for treatment when the child she is carrying dies. The trailer is unremittingly bleak. I recall watching Bosnia’s winning submission ‘No Man’s Land’ some years ago (it beat ‘Amélie’), so I know that their cinema has a somewhat downbeat side, and who could blame them? Stark and courageous as this clearly is, I think it’s not one for me to settle down of an evening to watch.

Similarly serious is the entry perhaps best known in the UK thanks to much broader distribution rights, Denmark‘s ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jagten’). This claustrophobic tale of mass hysteria in a small village beats particularly relevant drums in this country due to the ongoing concerns about paedophilia in the media and the well-known mob justice attacks on innocent people (including a disabled Iranian man earlier this year, and the infamous attack of a paediatrician.) As many fans of Nordic Noir will attest, ‘The Hunt’ speaks of shadow and light as close partners. It’s been a good time to be a Danish screenwriter, with ‘A Royal Affair’ making similar waves last year. The trailer for ‘The Hunt’ in its native language does look so much like ‘The Killing’, I’m just saddened by the lack of chunky knit jumpers.

I was taken aback by just how unexpectedly lovely ‘The Missing Picture’ looks. Already awarded the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the third ever submission from Cambodia could well be the kind of film the Academy award themselves. Looking at the atrocities from the country’s dark past through a mix of animation and filmed segments, ‘The Missing Picture’  looks to be as much docu-drama as film, and is none the less compelling for that. The entire film can be found, without subtitles, on YouTube. From what I saw, this brave and moving piece would be a humbling and informative film and perhaps a companion piece to ‘The Art of Killing’, although not perhaps on the same night, or if you’re prone to emotional outbursts.

Hong Kong has made the longlist with ‘The Grandmaster’ (‘一代宗師’), a retelling of the story of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man. It is the first submission from the former British colony to make the January cut-off since 1993, and I can see why it’s been picked up for wider release. Slick, dark and beautiful in ways only East Asian martial arts films can pull off properly, ‘The Grandmaster’ is also notable for including scenes unique to whichever of the three edits you happen to find (original, European release and world-wide version). It could well follow in the ‘Crouching Tiger…’ tradition by crossing over into cult status if the mood is right, and I see no reasons why this isn’t possible.

These four take only but a sliver from the full seventy-odd entries from countries as diverse as Nepal, Italy and even The United Kingdom. I’ll await the results of the Academy’s considerations with interest. It’s worth the light being shone upon the world sometimes.

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Academy Awards

It’s that time of year again. Yes, the draw for UEFA 2012 is only 6 days awa…Oh, right, the Oscars. And after months of speculation surrounding the “opening up” of the Academy Awards to more “mainstream” movies than in years past, things haven’t changed to my mind that drastically at all…

Best Film is now open to 10 movies, increased from 5. The smart money will be on Avatar, natch, which suggests Best Director will go to Kathryn Bigelow for Iraqi invasion drama The Hurt Locker. Newspaper copy written right there, without much effort.

Of the others nominated for Best Film, Precious appears to have been far better received in the US than the UK, A Serious Man may well be the best Coen Brothers film not to receive the Oscar for Best Film, and District 9 is the only true “popcorn attractor” to get a nod despite the opening up of the field supposedly was done for that very purpose.

Great news for fans of The Thick Of It will be very pleased to see the film adaption, In The Loop, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Or as writer Armando Iannucci put it;

Bloomin heck. In The Loop nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Bonk me purple.

Okay, so neither Thick Of It, nor In The Loop, are quite Yes, Minister, but that has a lot to do with the times we live in. Yes, Gordon Brown, you unstable Stalinist walking disaster, I am talking about the likes of you with your sudden pre-election conversion to a pro-Labour voting system.

Anyhoo, the acting awards. Best Actor is probably a defo for George Clooney, whose role in “feelgood film of the moment” Up in the Air has been received in the same swooning fashion as all his recent roles. I must be the only one – or is it because I’m a bloke? – who wonders why Clooney is not treated with the “same old same old” criticism given to Hugh “Bumbling Englishman Out Of Context” Grant?

If you want to put a cheeky fiver on the Actor slot, I’d go for Jeff Bridges. You heard.

Best Actress will probably be Meryl Streep, because the Academy hasn’t awarded her in at least 5 minutes and it’s a kind of Hollywood by-law. If Americans have by-laws. They probably do. It’s the same one, or at least somehow associated, which has helped Helen Mirren receive a nod for a film about being married to Tolstoy. No, wait, sorry, “It’s about marriage, not being married” as I heard her explain to marshmallow-brained Christine on The One Show last week. Adrian seemed to be the only person bar Mirren who had even heard of Tolstoy. Bless. His long-long-long-lost decedent is standing as UKIP candidate for Witney, didn’t you know?

(Tolstoy, not Adrian Chiles. Can you imagine…)

Das weiße Band/The White Ribbon is the runaway (if that’s quite the right word) favourite for Best Film not in the English Language. Being a bit of a geek, I am more interested in the run down of films which didn’t even make the short-list in this category, so in no particular order, and with thanks to Wiki, here is an arbitrary list of films which didn’t make the cut. What is the Internet for – as Stephen Fry would no doubt say – if it is not for suggesting you all go out and find obscure movies in a language you’ve never heard spoken before?

* J’ai tué ma mère / I Killed My Mother [Canada, is an exposé on the complexity of the mother and son bond]
* 梅兰芳 / Méi Lánfāng / Forever Enthralled [China, follows the life of Mei Lanfang, one of China’s premiere opera performers]
* Келін / Kelin [Kazakhstan, ‘Looking like a cross between a goth goddess and a fairy-tale queen, Kelin (Gulsharat Zhubayeva) is about to be married. High in the Altai Mountains, her father bargains with two suitors who are each vying for her hand. Unfortunately, her true love, Mergyen (Kuandyk Kystykbaev), loses out to the richer bachelor, Baktashi (Erzhan Nurymbet). Before losing the competition, however, Mergyen takes a blood oath to eventually claim Kelin for his own’]
* El baile de la victoria / The Dancer and The Thief [Spain, ‘attractively shot, energetic romp, and a likeable genre-bending tale of crime and love among the lost and marginalised of post-Pinochet Chile’]
* Samson and Delilah [Australia, in English and Warlpiri, which as you know is one of the Ngarrkic languages]

All that aside, then, what else? Are these radical and different Academy Awards than usual? Is the likelihood of The Hurt Locker winning anything to be cheered? Will Terry Gilliam be upset at all for the almost total blanking of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, picking up as it does nominations for the “technical awards” of Art Direction, and Best Costume? Are we to be cheered at all by the 4 nominations – count them, FOUR – for Star Trek?

Insofar as these awards mean anything, it at least suggest cinema is someway healthy. Somehow there exists screenwriting and ideas away from franchises and sequels, torture porn and anything “staring” Will Ferrell. Sensible money should be put down this year, surprises seem abundant in the nomination process, but this is no “Heath Ledger” year, this seems to be a set up for someone saying “The Winner is…” without too many gasps at the end…