By Andrew O’Hehir
Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sets out, in its earnest, lead-footed way, to honor foreign films and documentaries. And every year people in the so-called independent sector of the film business observe this process with a strange blend of longing, affection and outrage. It’s something like watching your sodden Uncle Frank struggle to the Thanksgiving table after eight or nine drinks and seven hours of televised football. Will he fall down the stairs and end up in the emergency room? Or bring tears to our eyes with a sloppy but eloquent toast?
This may just be the year that Uncle Frank shows up sober, shaved and wearing a cologne that doesn’t resemble Old Forester, his steely eyes focused on the future of cinema. As I discussed in this space at some length last year, these categories have a checkered, semi-glorious history. Some great films have won these awards: Luis Buñuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took home the foreign-language Oscar in 1972, as did Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum” in 1979 and Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” in 1983. Among documentaries, Barbara Kopple’s profoundly influential “Harlan County, USA” won in 1976. Other winners have included “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984, “When We Were Kings” in 1996 and “Bowling for Columbine” in 2002.
But, you know: I think I may have seen the Dutch film “Antonia’s Line,” which won the foreign-language Oscar in 1995. But I can tell you nothing about it. I can vaguely remember “Character,” another Dutch film that won in ’97, as sort of a Dickensian period piece. I have absolutely no clue about the Italian film “Mediterraneo” (which was the 1991 winner — over Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern”!) or the Swiss film “Journey of Hope,” which won the year before that (when Zhang’s “Ju Dou” was nominated).
Those may be fine films, but the point is that hardly anyone saw them at the time, and winning the award has utterly failed to rescue them from VHS-grade obscurity. As somebody once said to me, if the Academy simply hired a team of chimpanzees to go through all the official foreign-language candidates and pick five at random, the nomination process would be far more transparent, and the results could hardly be more bewildering.
Similarly, until this decade, when Hollywood belatedly realized that documentary filmmaking was full of new energy, the docu-Oscar was by and large a parade of well-meaning dreariness. There were biopics about Arthur Rubinstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and Maya Lin and Robert Frost. There were backstage-at-the-opera movies. There was “Anne Frank Remembered” and “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School.” Again, I don’t mean to be snarky about those particular films, only to suggest that the Academy typically has not displayed an appetite for anything riskier or more challenging.
All true, but you know what? It’s 2007 and Oscar woke up and smelled the coffee, so it’s time to quit bitching. For the first time in my memory, both categories this year are completely not embarrassing. Over the last decade, Academy brass have tinkered with both categories, in modest but substantive increments, and the results are impressive. Rules for the documentary category seem to shift every year (and I’ve given up trying to understand them), but this year’s nominees — including not one but two documentaries exploring the Iraq fiasco, and not one but two movies that have been attacked as anti-Christian — make an impressive, serious-minded and diverse list. Many people have mentioned the absence of the Dixie Chicks documentary “Shut Up and Sing,” and I was rooting for the death double-bill of “Jonestown” and “The Bridge.” But the five films we’ve got are eminently deserving, even if the winner is almost a foregone conclusion.
One of the biggest problems in the foreign-language category is still with us: Each nation gets only one candidate. Argentina gets to nominate one film and so does Vanuatu. France and Spain, the only European nations to challenge the hegemony of American films in any serious way, get one entry apiece, as do China, India, Russia and Nigeria, all homes of large-scale film industries. That’s ludicrous, but at least the multi-committee process by which the Academy whittles those 90 to 100 official entries down to five nominees has become somewhat more rational.
First of all, there are no outright howlers or head-scratchers among this year’s foreign-film nominees. (Raise your hands if you’ve seen any of these: The Swedish film “Evil,” the Czech film “Zelary,” the Italian film “Don’t Tell” or the Norwegian film “Elling.” Anyone? Didn’t think so. All of those were nominated for an Academy Award within the last five years.) Furthermore — and, believe me, I’m confused to be writing this — four of the five are terrific movies you should see as soon as possible.
In fairness, neither of these categories presents much of a handicapping challenge this year. The foreign films include a major hit, the biggest-grossing Spanish-language film ever released in this country; and one of the documentaries features Mr. I-used-to-be-the-next-president-of-the-United-States. So instead of wasting my time making odds, I called up a couple of these directors for their quick thoughts about their films, what the nominations have meant so far, and whether they’re having fun yet. Sunday evening’s statuettes aside, there’s a lot to celebrate here. Let’s honor the wondrous spectacle of Hollywood getting it right.