Best & Worst of Oscar’s Foreign Contenders, Part 3

The Cannes winner that could fall flat with Oscar voters, and the contender that might also be the year’s best movie

After working my way through reviews of the 38 foreign contenders I've seen – which comprise about 58 percent of the total field of 65 – I've come to realize that most of them are pretty good. Oh sure, there are some stinkers – Azerbaijan and Korea come to mind – but most countries have submitted respectable movies.

That doesn't mean we'll have a year as strong as 2009, when the final list included "The White Ribbon," "A Prophet" and "Ajami," or 2006, when "The Lives of Others" went up against "Pan's Labyrinth" and "After the Wedding." But if the lineup is short on great, landmark movies, it's solid nonetheless.

Here's the final installment of reviews, and musings on how the films I've seen might play with the "general committee" that chooses six of the nine films on the shortlist, and the executive committee that adds the final three.

BiutifulMexico: “Biutiful”
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
I've written plenty about this movie in the past; I find it to be the most powerful film of 2010, a haunted, crushing tone poem highlighted by a staggering performance from Javier Bardem as a world-weary Everyman grasping at life in the face of death. Even if it's too dark for the mainstream committee voters, I would be astonished if the executive committee doesn't add it to the shortlist, and surprised if the second-round committee doesn’t give it a nomination.

TirzaThe Netherlands: “Tirza”
Director: Rudolph van den Berg
In a dark year, the Netherlands offers another dark film. Based on the acclaimed novel by Arnon Grunberg, the film deals with a middle-aged, recently laid-off, divorced man who travels to Namibia to track down his missing 18-year-old daughter, finding an unlikely ally in a child prostitute. The man's predicament starts out tough and gets tougher; "Tirza" can be an uncomfortable movie to watch (not usually the ticket for these voters), but in the end Gijs Scholten van Asschat's potent performance helps make fairly powerful and effective.

UndertowPeru: "Undertow" ("Contracorriente")
Director: Javier Fuentes-Leon
It'd probably be unfair shorthand to call this "Brokeback Mountain" in a seaside Peruvian village, but Fuentes-Leon's first feature is the mournful and affecting tale of a married fisherman carrying on a not-entirely-clandestine affair with another man, to the shock and dismay of his entire village. Part ghost story and part magical realism but mostly a gentle, finely nuanced character study, the film – which was developed in the Outfest Screenwriting Laboratory – quietly reaches for a measure of understanding and acceptance in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

All That I LovePoland: "All That I Love"
Director: Jacek Borcuch
Set in Poland at a time when the appetites and imagination of the country was expanding to a degree that threatended the Soviets, Borcuch's film shows the promise of Poland's early '80s Solidarity movement (and, for teenagers, the anarchy of punk rock) running into a wall of repression: imagined freedoms replaced by harsh limits.  For a film dealing with restriction and anger, in the end it's really a pleasing if unspectacular coming-of-age story, with a sweetness that lingers.  

The EdgeRussia: "The Edge"
Director: Alexei Uchitel
It's set at the end of the World War II – and if history is any indication in this category, that's good. It's a bold and energetic story set in a Siberian labor camp and the surrounding forests, full of brutish, grimy Russian men, the steam trains they love, and the women they tolerate. And while Uchitel reaches for points about the evils of Stalinist repression and the growth of unexpected love in hard places, his ideas are buried beneath smoke and hysteria and cartoonish melodrama; in the end (and I'd expect the committees to agree), "The Edge" is a big, powerful locomotive roaring noisily down a track that goes nowhere.

The BorderSlovak Republic: “Hranica” (“The Border”)
Director: Jaroslav Vojtek
The second documentary in the competition (Finland's "Steam of Life" being the first) is a standard-issue doc about a Czechoslovakian town abruptly cut in half by a fence in 1947, with friends, neighbors and sometimes family members split between the Soviet and Czech sides. The story is intriguing, but the film is slow going, and stylish or fresh enough to turn into anything other than a run-of-the-mill look at an interesting subject. 

Live Above AllSouth Africa: "Life, Above All"
Director: Oliver Schmitz
After releasing three of last year's nominees, including the winner "The Secret in Their Eyes," Sony Pictures Classics has four of this year's strongest contenders – and I wouldn't be surprised to see three and maybe all four on the shortlist, and two or three among the final five. I've already discussed Canada's "Incendies," Denmark's "In a Better World" and France's "Of Gods and Men"; SPC's final entry is this heartbreaking South African story about a teenage girl fighting to overcome the stigma and superstition surrounding AIDS in her community. With a compelling lead performance by Khomotso Manyaka that could give Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld a run for their money in the resourceful, committed teen sweepstakes, its grim but eventually healing blend of emotional potency and social relevance could prove very attractive to voters. 

Tambien La LluviaSpain: "Tambien La Lluvia" ("Even the Rain")
Director: Iciar Bollain
A director (Gael Garcia Bernal) shoots a movie about Christopher Columbus, and his exploitation of the natives, in Bolivia; we see parts of the film, plus the way the movie company itself exploits the locals, plus drama over an outside company trying to control the water supply. The parallels between Columbus and the movie crew are way too obvious and heavy-handed, though when it abandons the political didacticism to focus on the human drama, the film becomes far more effective. And it's got a recognizable star in it, which could help with some voters.

Simple SimonSweden: “Simple Simon”
Director: Andreas Ohman
The story of a young man with Asperger's Syndrome and the brother who knows how to deal with him, the Swedish entry is charming, playful and eventually moving – funny and friendly rather than big and important. After seeing it, I figured it was probably too slight to register with the voters – but after talking to some of them, I think it has a real shot. Being funny and touching when most of what's around you is dark and depressing can be a pretty good way to get noticed.

La Petit ChambreSwitzerland: “Le Petit Chambre”
Directors: Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond
Did several countries enter films about elderly people because the Academy's general committee is known to be made up mostly of older voters? There's no telling, but the Swiss entry is one of a couple that focus on nursing homes and the folks who don’t want to go there. "Le Petit Chambre" is a straightforward and reasonably effective and affecting look at a cantankerous old man and the nurse who tries to help him to fill a void in her own life, though I suspect that the age of the electorate won't be enough to push it onto the shortlist.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThailand: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Magical, strange, funny, perplexing and boring, "Uncle Boonmee" is a reverie that encompasses life and death, the spirit world and strange characters in monkey costumes. I get the feeling that while many critics loved it, and Tim Burton's Cannes jury flipped for it, it's just too weird, in an arty but narratively unfulfilling way, for Oscar voters. ("The emperor's new clothes" is a phrase I heard.) Unless the executive committee finds that Palme d'Or awfully persuasive, I suspect this'll supply this year's "how dare they not nominate it!" controversy.

BalTurkey: "Bal" ("Honey")
Director: Semih Kaplanoglu
Part of a trilogy set in the remote Anatolian provinces in Turkey (the first two being "Egg" and "Milk," with the story running in reverse chronological order between the films), "Honey" is the dreamlike, poetic, sad and haunting story of a young boy who is nearly mute with everyone but his father, who harvests honey from hives he keeps throughout the forest. Its deliberate pace, languorous and potentially soporific if you can't embrace the rhythms and the poetry, will likely prove a substantial stumbling block with voters. But I saw it in Palm Springs on a day when I saw four of the Foreign-Language contenders, including one I loved ("The Life of Fish") – and I have to admit that this film's images are the ones that stuck with me.

HermanoVenezuela: "Hermano"
Director: Enrique Aular
A much tougher and better film than the other soccer-themed movie in competition (Korea's "A Barefoot Dream"), Aular's tale of two brothers torn between futbol and gang life in a Venezuelan barrio still suffers from some of the common drawbacks of the inspirational-sports-movie genre, piling up the obstacles that the brothers must overcome as it dispenses wisdom like "life will always score goals against us." The ending, though, puts a harder twist on things, which may give it a little boost just as voters are reaching for their scoresheets. 


Day 1: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Croatia.

Day 2: Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan.

Coming up: What's going to make the shortlist?