The Academy’s Facebook page recently posted a behind the scenes video of the 1990 Oscar ceremony, produced by the late Gil Cates and hosted, for the first time by Billy Crystal. The theme: “Movies Around the World—“ the ceremony itself being streamed live in five different countries. That ceremony was one of the first I remember because I entered a predictions contest in the Memphis Tennessee paper, The Commercial Appeal, and did quite well predicting both Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker for “My Left Foot.” I honestly have no idea if I had any insight or if it was blind luck. Pretty much exactly how I feel today when I have a great prediction year.
The very next year was the first time I became invested in every nominee for Best Picture. My parents forbade me to watch “Silence of the Lambs” but I managed to see the other four nominees. In 1991 I also saw my very first (at least, as I remember) foreign film: “Europa Europa” It won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards and I somehow stumbled upon it on HBO. I watched it late at night, alone in my bedroom (just as I would watch “Silence” a few months after it won Best Picture once I convinced the local video store owner that I was mature enough to rent it due to my self labeled young Oscar afficianado status).
I can recall being incredibly moved by the emotions that Marco Hofschneider tapped into as Saloman, the young man who tries to conceal his Jewish identity by joining Hitler’s Nazi Army. Not only was “Europa” my first foreign film, it was the first time I saw how fickle the Academy could be. How could this film that moved me so much win the Globe, get nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar and not get a Foreign Language Film nomination? These are the types of questions we Oscar progs still try to tackle when examining the process.
My journey with this category and with foreign films in general pretty much ran parallel with the general public for the next several years. I rarely saw a foreign film unless it sneaked into the Best Picture race– “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life is Beautiful” are the examples that immediately come to mind. That is until 2006—when I had a dear friend introduce me to a while new world of cinema. We saw “Sophie Scholl” together, which let me to other nominated films that year: “Tsotsi” and “Paradise Now.” I began to fall in love with world cinema. The stories they tell are often so necessary, so imperative—, exposing, defining, sometimes defying. The filmmakers behind these stories seemed to work as if they had nothing, or perhaps everything to lose.
When I first starting thinking about the five nominated films from this year I saw a central underlying theme of death. Death appeared to be the watchword. Two of the films had lines that struck with me so fiercely that I wrote the down, and only when I began to go through my notes did I realize how similar they were. In “Tangerines” the Estonian entry, Ivo a neutral tangerine farmer caught in the middle of the Georgian conflict ends up housing two wounded men on both sides of the war. When speaking to his friend, also a pacifist, he states that they two men “are children of death.” In “Timbuktu,” the French-Mauritanian film, Timbuktu has been occupied by the jihadist Ansar Dine. The film looks at how life attempts to go on in Timbuktu, singing, dancing, sports, only to show the final consequences of living. One of the main characters suggests “we are all children of death.”
Death may be part of all five films, but the true common thread between “Tangerines,” “Timbuktu” and “Leviathan” is that all three films tackle issues the individual countries are facing today or at least very recently. American cinema is not afraid of tapping into the zeitgeist of our society, but rarely do I see a narrative feature go to such lengths to show us the truth of our current flaws.
“Leviathan” tells the story of Kolya, who lives with his wife and son in a small town in northwest Russia, as he is about to lose his home to a very currupt mayor. Koyla enlists his friend Dmitri, a laywer from Moscow to lawfully facilitate, an appeal. When the law doesn’t work, Dmitri looks to blackmail the evil mayor, but as you can imagine–this does not go well. “Leviathan” the film was clearly influenced by Thomas Hobbes’s book of the same name, which calls for a protecting sovereign with complete supreme authority, an undivided government protecting “all from all.” Both the film and the treatise come from the Book of Job in the Bible. Leviathan is a sea creature presented to Job by God as a lesson–since man cannot contain this beast, man should not question God in relation to the inhabitants of God’s earth. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is clearly questioning the Russian authority over its people. And in a deeply thought provoking way. And not without a bit of humor to boot. The characters throw in quite a bit of vodka and adultery to go with all of the symbolism and metaphor.
On a completely different spectrum we have “Wild Tales—“ possibly the most entertaining film I have seen in quite a long time, consisting of 6 separate chapters. I went into this film knowing almost nothing about it, and I truly believe that is the best way to enter the world navigated by Argentinian writer/director Damian Szifron. That being said, here are some mostly spoiler free thoughts. I was riveted by each of the 6 vignettes, so much that I wanted more. The film begins in what I can only describe as “Final Destination” as conceived by the likes of Pedro Almodovar. (One of the film’s producers). It is almost impossible to pick a favorite story. Perhaps it is the road rage revenge segment that has hints of “Death Proof” only without the kitsch factor, more gruesome and equally as funny. Or the interesting look at how a family deals with a possible scandal due to an accident their spoiled son causes, flip flopping the tables on the theme of advantage taking. And then there is the final segment, starring Erica Rival, sure to find her way to Hollywood after this, in the most exciting post wedding reception I have seen on film. “Wild Tales” may not delve as deeply into the issues of the world at large, but it is certainly a standout.
Finally we have “Ida.” The film begins with Anna, a novice orphan preparing to take orders to become a nun, being visited by her Aunt, a former state judge who has come to break the news that Anna is Jewish and that her parents are dead–byproducts of Hitler’s holocaust. Mother Superior tells Anna to go with her Aunt, taking as long as she needs before returning. Watching “Ida” I couldn’t help notice how impeccably framed the shots were, the stunning cinematography, the fantastic production design and the stellar acting. All things you aren’t necessarily supposed to “notice” when you are watching a film.
I’m not exactly sure the moment that my critical mind let go, allowing my entire emotional being to take over the viewing the film. Days later, it is still in my heart. I have never seen a film say so much in such a simple way. I am still haunted by the way director Pawlikowski framed his muses, (Agata Tzrebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, both incredible), especially in closeup, un-centered, with a void of space surrounding them. To share the other moments of the film that continue to bring chills deep in my bones would be to share too much.
Writing about the Oscars has always been about discovery for me. And when the Academy nominates a film I have yet to see or haven’t even heard of I get very excited because I know I am almost always going to find a treasure. I hope you seek these films out as well. And on the 22nd, when most of America takes a break during the few minutes they announce the nominees in this category, and eventual winner you can get that warm feeling in your chest like I do knowing that you got to experience something special, something you wish more people would have the chance to feel. But secretly glad that it is your own private cinematic treat.