I'm a little disappointed with this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees, which usually fall into the 400 screen or less category, but I'm also a little excited. When the category was established back in the 1950s (it was an "honorary" award from 1947 to 1955), the statue very often went to great works of art by great filmmakers. Winners included Federico Fellini (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2, Amarcord), Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), Ingmar Bergman (The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Fanny and Alexander), Vittorio De Sica (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), Jirí Menzel (Closely Watched Trains), Luis Buñuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), François Truffaut (Day for Night) and Akira Kurosawa (Dersu Uzala) -- and that's not even taking into account all the great films that were nominated and lost.
Then, sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Academy started picking other types of films, usually movies with a kind of social conscience rather than artistic excellence that were also lightweight and easy to understand. This resulted in forgettable winners like Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, The Official Story and Burnt by the Sun. The award has not gone to an honest-to-goodness masterpiece since Fanny and Alexander in 1983. The closest we've come was in 1999, with Pedro Almdovar's All About My Mother.
Over the course of six films, Guillermo Del Toro has begun to emerge as an exciting new auteur, or a master filmmaker with a specific signature style. Whether making Spanish-language films or Hollywood popcorn films, they all retain certain elements, as well as a singular enthusiasm and intelligence. His Pan's Labyrinth (currently playing on more than 400 screens, but not enough screens to contend with the likes of Epic Movie) is currently nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and may actually win. It's certainly the most popular of the five nominees, but this category is known for being unpredictable.
Last year, the Academy nominated four boring films and one strong film, Sophie Scholl. Then they gave the award to the worst of the lot, Tsotsi. This year, there's another stinkeroo among the five, Deepa Mehta's Water (currently on video). This silly film purports to explore the abhorrent conditions under which widows live in India, but it's really a ridiculous romantic tragedy, using the most pedestrian means available. It was one of the most excruciatingly bad films I saw all year. Given that the equally bad Tsotsi won last year, there's nothing to keep Water from winning this year.
The main culprit is the method by which the nominees are chosen, which is severely outdated and more than a little pathetic. Nine of the ten best foreign films of the year according to the Film Comment critics' poll weren't nominated and eight of them probably didn't even qualify. They were: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Army of Shadows (3 screens), L'Enfant, Volver, Three Times, Pan's Labyrinth, Climates (3 screens), Clean, Gabrielle and Woman Is the Future of Man. (Letters from Iwo Jima was in there, too, but I'm counting it as an American film.)
Another nominee, Days of Glory, is an utterly routine war film with an utterly routine title assigned to it by the film's American distributor, the Weinsteins. (The real title, Indigènes, translates to "natives.") The film pretends to be about the racial inequality experienced during WWII as soldiers born in French Morocco fought for the French army, but really it's your standard-issue war movie with all the standard-issue ideas. The real mystery is how the Academy could have seen this film at the same time as the far superior Letters from Iwo Jima and decided that it was worthwhile. (Days of Glory briefly opened for awards consideration in December, but is being withheld until its scheduled release.)
The fourth nominee, The Lives of Others, is something else, a well-made espionage movie set in East Berlin in the 1980s. A state-approved playwright, to honor his mentor, decides to write a subversive play and, without his knowledge, winds up with his flat bugged. The twist comes when his eavesdropper begins to take a liking to him, and especially his beautiful, actress girlfriend. It's no Pan's Labyrinth, but it's a very good film. Likewise, this one played briefly for awards consideration and will open again later this month.
I haven't yet seen the fifth nominee, After the Wedding, but it's scheduled to open in March. It's from the Danish-born director Susanne Bier, who made the very good, very intense "Dogme 95" film Open Hearts (2002). The only thing I can tell you about it is that it stars Mads Mikkelsen, that creepy-looking guy who looks as if his face is about to dribble off.Speaking of Mads, who plays Le Chiffre, can I just say once again how much I enjoyed Casino Royale (364 screens)? Strangely, Rotten Tomatoes just named it as the best-reviewed wide-release film of 2006. Why didn't it get any nominations? If any film from 2006 will still be watchable 30 years from now, it'll be that one. And how about that Judi Dench? Sure, she's fine in Notes on a Scandal and whatnot, but what about that unspoken byplay between her and Daniel Craig? That's just masterful stuff. The Academy wouldn't know a good film if it rolled over them with an Aston-Martin.