Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 January 2018

The Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Best Foreign Language Film

There are five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. They are:
  • Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father (មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ), 
  • Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless (Нелюбовь), 
  • Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantastica)
  • Fatih Akın's In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts), and 
  • Ruben Östlund's The Square
All of these films have been released for at least a week in the U.S. so far, and I have managed to see them all. More on each in a bit.

Nominees for the Foreign Language category at the Globes work differently than nominees for that category at the Oscars. At the Globes, any foreign language film can be nominated as long as it qualifies (i.e. as long as it meets the U.S. release criteria). What's interesting here is that these are foreign (non-American) journalists choosing a "best foreign language film", that is, a best foreign-to-the-U.S. film. This strikes me as odd, but maybe that just looks weird to me today.

Nominees for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars need to be released not in the U.S. but in the country of origin. In this way, the Oscars are usually several months ahead of films released in the U.S. Many of the films nominated in this category at the Oscars will not yet have had U.S. release dates. Some will, of course, but many will not. Because the films are selected by the countries themselves, and because only one film can be selected by each country, films get left out. France selected Robin Campillo's 120 Beats per Minute this year instead of a number of other options, including one of my favorite films of the year, François Ozon's Frantz. A film like last year's Aquarius, which the Brazilian government felt was critical of its policies, will not get chosen. And a horror film, like Julia Doucournau's Raw (Grave) (another favorite of mine from this year), almost never has a chance to be chosen by a nation to represent it at the Oscars.

In fact, we already know that when the Oscar nominations come out on January 23rd they aren't going to match the Golden Globe list. AMPAS has released a shortlist of nine films from which they will choose their final five nominees. Those films are:
  • A Fantastic Woman,
  • Alain Gomis's Félicité,
  • Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot (פוֹקְסטְרוֹט),
  • In the Fade,
  • Ziad Doueiri's The Insult (ضية رقم ٢٣),
  • Loveless,
  • Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul (Testről és Lélekről),
  • The Square, and
  • John Trengove's The Wound (Inxeba).

These are films from Chile, Senegal, Israel, Germany, Lebanon, Russia, Hungary, Sweden, and South Africa. A fairly nice range, although the Academy has historically ignored films from East Asia, and this list certainly replicates that history of snubbing.

Snubbed Cantonese film Mad World
This also means that the Academy has already decided not to choose films that have been popular with critics, such as France's 120 Beats per Minute, Spain's Summer 1993, Cambodia's First They Killed My Father, Argentina's Zama, or a film I'm really excited about from Belgium, Racer and the Jailbird.

Lots of people complain about the way AMPAS runs this category. I am not one of those people. To my mind, the idiosyncratic way that the Academy deals with foreign language films just puts more films on my radar. See, I'm already planning to see the critically acclaimed films the Academy is ignoring. Zama, Racer and the Jailbird, 120 Beats, Thelma, Tom of Finland, A Ciambra, Happy End – these films are already on my list of movies to see. But On Body and Soul, Félicité, and The Wound certainly were not. ... And now they are. As I see it, the Academy's odd choices just give me more films to see, they direct me toward stuff I wasn't already paying attention to. I see this as just more of a good thing.

In any case, here is what I thought of the five Foreign Language nominees for the Golden Globes:

* * *
I thought First They Killed My Father was a giant leap forward for Angelina Jolie, and is definitely her best film to date. This movie was way, way better than I thought it was going to be. The film represents a marked, significant improvement from Unbroken. Jolie is still interested in characters who are unconquerable – survivors who make it through awful things – but this one is told with real intrigue and nuance. The plot centers around a young woman in Cambodia who is imprisoned in a child labor camp by the Khmer Rouge. We follow her and her troubles very closely, and the camera is intimately connected to our protagonist. Perhaps because it is about a child, Jolie's work diffuses from its normal insistent storytelling and focuses more on experience and fear rather than reportage. It's strong work.

Another thing that this film avoids because it is about a child are those formative "childhood years" sections of Unbroken, where we see some kind of insistent will to survive even as a child that then is later manifest in the adult who manages to deal with such terrible things. First They Killed My Father needs to find that courage in the child herself, and so it looks to the sequence of events that create courage or survival rather than attempting to locate some internal essence of unconquerability. In any case, this is a good film and well worth seeing.

Also, Netflix loves a film about child soldiers. (This is no Beasts of No Nation, to be sure, but it is good.)

* * *
Loveless, Andrey Zvyagintsev's even chillier follow-up to the already very chilly films Leviathan and Elena, is gorgeous. I absolutely loved this film. This is, I think, saying a lot because Loveless is, as you might imagine from its title, not exactly a lovable film. This film is an unflinching and even merciless exploration of one couple's lack of care for their twelve-year-old son. This movie is bleak, y'all.

But what is the point of it? my mother asked me, when I explained this movie to her.  

Loveless is a portrait of modern Russia, of course, but it is much more than that, and I found plenty with which to identify that looks familiar to this North American. Loveless is about the ways that the state has stopped caring about actual people and the issues they face; it's about the bureaucracies designed to assist people that end up getting in the way of helping them. It's also about human selfishness, about our contemporary cult of making ourselves happy – about finding ourselves, about being the best versions of ourselves – and about how those seemingly benign or even healthy ideas often conflict with taking care of the people in our lives, loving those in our orbit, making space for others.

In many ways, too, this is a movie about the horrors of modern progress – what it might look like to focus only on ourselves and our own desires and needs. As I said, this is a cold film. It's a tough portrait of modern life. I found it hard hitting and uncompromising, and I loved it.

* * *
Sebastián Lelio's most recent film, A Fantastic Woman, is a movie about a trans woman named Marina in Chile whose boyfriend dies. She then must grieve, while also dealing with police bureaucracy and the man's hostile family. I had high hopes for A Fantastic Woman, mostly because Lelio made the delightful film Gloria a couple of years ago, and I was so taken by the brilliant performance at the center of Gloria, by the superb actress Paulina García.

A Fantastic Woman is not even remotely comparable to Gloria. Of course, Gloria is a comedy and Fantastic Woman is a rather serious drama, but Lelio's gifts do not translate well to this tragedy. In fact (and paradoxically) the film is best when it is playing for laughs. There are, for example, some delightful sequences in which Marina and her sister banter, and the best sequence in A Fantastic Woman is a fantasy dance sequence, in which the queer club is portrayed as a place of freedom and fabulousness, a space of infinite possibility.

But the real trouble with A Fantastic Woman is that it doesn't have Paulina García in it. Marina is played by singer Daniela Vega, and the actress comes alive when she is singing, but for the entirety of the rest of the film, her performance felt wooden and uncomfortable. She seems to have absolutely no connection with her boyfriend in the movie, and the affectlessness that marked her performance left me bored for most of the movie's running time.

* * *
Honestly, I don't think there is much to say about Fatih Akın's movie In the Fade. It struck me as a fairly generic legal-crime thriller. Diane Krüger won Best Actress at Cannes for the movie, but the best performance in the movie is by Denis Moschitto, who plays her lawyer friend.

The truth is, I've never really loved a Fatih Akın movie. I keep watching them since he first broke through with Head-On, but I thought The Edge of Heaven and The Cut were both good but not great. And In the Fade doesn't break any new ground from the standard revenge drama. In fact, Akın's work is occasionally frustratingly over-the-top. When Krüger first loses her husband she weeps and thrashes at a level ten. When this first happens I thought, where are we supposed to go from here? Indeed, there isn't really anywhere to go, and Krüger weeps through the entirety of the movie.

It isn't that I don't sympathize. The woman is supposed to have lost her husband and son to neo-Nazi terrorist murderers. Fine. But with Krüger having all of the feelings, I didn't really feel invited to have any of my own.

In the Fade is, of course, not completely without merit. As I said, Moschitto's performance is excellent, and there are some great moments interrogating the terrorists' father and German complicity with anti-foreign sentiment and terrorism. But this film doesn't really have much going for it.

* * *
And then there is The Square, which is easily one of my favorite movies of the year. Ruben Östlund, who directed this film, has made an absolutely hilarious satire of art and modernity and decadence. This is a superb, outrageous, jaw-dropping film, and I can't wait to see it again. It stars Claes Bang as a director of a museum, and it so. damn. funny. I can't recommend this movie enough.

The Square follows the dramaturgical structure that I have come to think of as an Asghar Farhadi structure, where some event that seems singular – or, perhaps remarkable but rather simple – begins to grow more and more complicated as more and different people respond to that event. In this way the movie is able to take up numerous perspectives not just on a single event, but also to show its audience where all kinds of different people are coming from, and in this way explore not only this event from numerous angles, but also explore numerous different life-worlds.

You might remember that Östlund's last movie was Force Majeure, which was in incisive exploration of masculinity using this same Farhadi structure. Östlund's new film is equally wise and equally clever, and it's brilliantly well made. The Square also stars Elizabeth Moss (hilarious) and Dominic West (equally hilarious). Watch the trailer and then go see this movie.