CIFF 09: OscarWatch (Updated)
Cheating a little, since end-of-the-week deadlines at work make it impossible for me to generate a full-on review, but I don't want to default entirely on my daily festival coverage. So, some brief notes about the AMPAS viability of the four official submissions for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar I have seen or am soon to see at CIFF, all of which await their full reviews:
IRAN: About Elly (IMDb) - I can easily imagine this film earning a nomination, and though I'd still regret the more sublime and ambitious Iranian films that have gone unrecognized for so many years, I'd be to applaud a citation for About Elly. The strong ensemble acting, mystery structure, and production values jell much more closely than almost any previous Iranian submissions have with AMPAS's preferred templates, and the film has built-in appeal for nominators who vote with an eye toward cultural particularity as well as those who are looking for Hollywood-friendly "entertainment." Plus, most of the people I have talked to who have seen About Elly can't get over how gratifyingly unusual it is to see an Iranian picture get major play in the U.S. festival market without being a highbrow formalist work about children or about alienated drifters. The immersion among eight young, attractive, middle-class friends on a weekend trip will probably prove even more eye-opening to Oscar voters than to the cinephiles who have already been rallying behind the movie since Berlin.
MEXICO: Backyard (IMDb) - Seems like a threat for a nomination, especially since director Carlos Carreras has scored here before for The Crime of Father Amaro. Then again, the Academy has certainly passed up lots of recent chances to recognize many, many Latin American thriller-dramas that deal with the kinds of criminal investigations and headline-grabbing scandals that power this movie. The complicated but not too complicated female protagonist played by Ana de la Reguera may register well, as might the overtly feminist outrage of the script, less because Oscar has an estimable career as a global feminist than because of the Academy's persistent urge to feel somewhat hypocritically well-schooled about forms of "oppression" and sociological or bureaucratic deadlock that flourish beyond the U.S., as long as they are dissected within slick, commercial, ultimately reductive aesthetics. Note that this is basically the same recipe they tend to prefer among homegrown "political" dramas. The casting of industry fixture Jimmy Smits in a sort of privileged cameo cannot hurt.
SOUTH KOREA: Mother (IMDb) - I would be astonished if this made the cut, and given Korea's prior inability to find any traction in this category, either with period epics (Chihwaseon) or crossover hits (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring) or festival prizewinners (Secret Sunshine), it would be a major plume in Bong Joon-ho's cap to qualify for this defiantly eccentric combination of murder mystery, deep-black comedy, and maternal-sacrifice melodrama. I suspect it will translate as erratic and overworked to most Academy voters, since even the more sympathetic audiences of festival watchers and devotees of aberrant auteurist perspectives have had mixed responses to the film and to the mannered, intense, bravura performance at its center. As far as that goes, see the comments that have already started accruing to this post.
ROMANIA: Police, Adjective (IMDb) - A very tricky case. I couldn't help thinking that the protracted static shots, the repeated scenes of low-intensity stakeouts and zero-speed police pursuits, and the severity of the atmosphere, color palette, and minimal dialogue would be an impossible sell to AMPAS. But then, some pivotal scenes involving a YouTube video, a populist takedown of arcane grammatical rules, and a climactic, tendentious scene with a dictionary that furnishes the movie its title really brought down the house at the screening I attended, which looked demographically like a plausible mirror for what I suspect a Foreign Language Film Committee screening probably looks like. That is, lots of white hair. Police, Adjective works a similar combo of being and of spoofing (or at least generously tickling) a certain kind of arch, minimalist European art form that paid off with a nomination for The Man without a Past in 2002, another Cannes favorite that few had pegged as the Academy's cup of tea. It won't be an easy "get" for a nod, and the snubbings of the even more accomplished The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (longer write-up here) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days still cast quite a shadow. Police, Adjective, though, exposes its very, very dry funny bone early and obviously enough that voters who might like it could be tempted to stick it out for the even bigger payoffs to come.