Academy Awards Foreign films 2014

Academy Awards 2014: Foreign Language Films

A record 75 countries entered the foreign language category this year, and a record 16 submitted films directed by women. (A 76th country, Pakistan, was disqualified for failing to submit a subtitled print of its entry.) I saw 70 of the 75 entries. Here are my comments on the five nominees, as well some non-nominees that I consider noteworthy.

The Hunt (Jagten) (Denmark)

This is the third time that actor Mads Mikkelsen has starred in a film that earned an Academy Award Foreign Language nomination. The previous two were (2006) and (2012). In, he plays Lucas, a beloved kindergarten assistant whose life is turned upside-down when he is falsely accused of exposing his penis to one of his students, his best friend's daughter. The way his close-knit community, including his friends and colleagues, turn against him is chilling. Actual sexual abuse of children is so appalling that the cinema industry has a hard time dealing with it. But false accusations can be tragic as well. Watching The Hunt, I could not help but recall the McMartin Preschool debacle, at the time the longest criminal trial in U.S. history and one that cost taxpayers $15 million without a single conviction. In The Hunt, as in the McMartin case, once a child makes an accusation, even a false one, there appears to be no turning back. Mikkelsen, who is probably best known to American audiences as the villain in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, gives a powerful performance as he goes from incredulity to outrage.

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (Italy)

An homage to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, begins with a huge celebration of the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (played by the wonderfully expressive Toni Servillo). Long ago, Gambardella wrote an acclaimed novella that earned him a place in Rome's heavy-partying artistic high society. His dream was not to be a great novelist, but rather to conquer that society so completely that a party is considered a failure if he doesn't attend. Having accomplished his goal, he is now facing the sad reality that maybe that wasn't such a worthwhile goal after all. The Great Beauty is long (142 minutes), but filled with a range of eccentric, charming, ridiculous, extreme and memorable characters.

The Missing Picture (L'image manquante) (Cambodia)

Most Americans know about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia from the Academy Award-winning film (1984). I visited Cambodia in 1988, nine years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power after killing an estimated 1, 700, 000 people in just four years. As it happened, bootleg VHS copies of The Killing Fields were circulating while I was there. I asked my guide what she thought about the film. She replied, "It didn't show how bad things really were." Since I had been appalled by the atrocities portrayed in The Killing Fields, it was hard for me to comprehend what she was implying.

is a documentary directed by Rithy Panh, who was 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and drove him and his family out of the capital of Phnom Penh and into labor camps in the countryside. Both of his parents died, as did his siblings. Panh escaped, eventually making his way to Paris, where he became a filmmaker. The Missing Picture mixes archival footage with static clay figures to tell the moving story of the tragedy that Panh and his family endured.

I don't mean in any way to denigrate The Missing Picture, and I hope that as many people as possible see it, but last year Cambodia entered a film, , that covered the same ground and, using live actors, was more effective. Written by Kauv Southeary and her husband, Chhay Bora, it centers on daily life under the Khmer Rouge from the point-of-view of Southeary's mother, whose father, husband and four of her children died during that same four-year nightmare. The Academy paid no attention whatsoever to Lost Loves, but gave a nomination to The Missing Picture. Go figure.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film was also nominated for an Academy Award, deals with the difficult subject of a Palestinian who, after he and two friends kill an Israeli soldier, is tortured and agrees to work as an informant for the Israelis. Omar is a complicated tale-even the love story comes with twists and betrayal-and it is not for viewers who want their good guys and bad guys served up in clear and easy terms.

Coincidentally, this year's entry from Israel, , is also about a Palestinian who agrees to serve as an informant. Frankly, I found Bethlehem a more interesting film because it reveals more complex issues among both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Perhaps that's because the script was co-written by a Jewish former military intelligence officer, Yuval Adler, and a Muslim journalist, Ali Waked.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

Good American bluegrass music, two tragic deaths and an anti-George W. Bush message...was there ever any doubt that would earn an Academy Award nomination?

Didier, the leader of a Belgian bluegrass band, and Elise, who runs a tattoo parlor and also sings, fall in love and have a daughter who contracts cancer and dies at the age of six. Not surprisingly, this puts a strain on their marriage. Because the story is told in non-linear fashion, the ugly scenes that follow are interspersed with scenes of love and passion. Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh (who also co-wrote the play upon which the movie is based) are nice to watch and, if you like bluegrass, the music is a pleasure. However I found the flashing around among different timeframes more jarring than illuminating and the life decisions made by the two protagonists unconvincing. Viewers who thrive on tragic love stories might feel differently.

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