Palm Springs Festival: Winners and the Short List

Every year around this time my fellow local critics and myself  look at the short list of Foreign Language Oscar Nominees nominees and we say, “Huh?

These are the nine films selected by an Academy committee from the 60 odd submissions from individual countries to be voted on by the Academy at large for the five final nominees. Invariably most have not been seen or released here in the US -- the distributors no doubt waiting to see if they get any Oscar cachet before they take the plunge. This year, however, I was able as FIPRESCI juror at the Palm Springs Festival to get an early look at these and many more, and my first observation is that the choices are a lot edgier than the usual combination of schmaltz, sex and subtitles.

Maybe this year the final choices will also be a bit challenging, though when the selections go before the whole Academy I doubt it. At any rate, here are my thoughts on the elite nine and their chances to make the final cut and win the big prize (hey, I already stuck my neck out on the other major nominations, this should be a piece of cake).

They are:

“The Baader-Meinhof Complex.” Uli Edel’s frenetic account of the decades long reign of terror of those murderous, fun-loving pseudo-Leninist loonies left me torn between an impulse to overthrow the establishment and revulsion at what idiots they were. For those who didn’t connect the dots while these events were in the headlines, this is a valuable educational experience, but I can’t see the limousine liberals or crusty codgers in the Academy going for it.

“The Class.” I was happy that my fellow jurors were as stymied as myself at the high praise (not to mention the Palm d’Or) this verite-like tale about a dysfunctional Parisian high school class has been receiving. The teacher is an idiot and the kids are insufferable; call it “To Sir, With Hate.” It might squeeze in, but I’d say it won’t make the grade
“Departures.” Yojiro Takita’s often lovely, funny and moving fable makes death, loss and broken families seem okay and was the audience prize winner at Palm Springs. The average age of the Palm Springs attendee is at least 65, which probably matches that of the average Academy member, so this is a surefire nominee. My guess is that it will win as well.

“Everlasting Moments.” With the emphasis on everlasting. Veteran Swedish director Jan Troell’s period family saga is a crock, but with its often gorgeous photography, showy performances, platitudes posing as profundities and a talking horse named Kropotkin, it fulfills Hollywood’s definition of arty foreign film and is therefore a shoo-in.

“The Necessities of Life.” That old formula of lonely adult/stricken child never fails and Benoit Pilon’s restrained and poignant tale of an Inuit taken from his family to a TB clinic in the city is an outstanding example of it. The FIPRESCI jury gave its Best Actor Prize to Natar Ungalaag for his limpid, heartbreaking performance. But that shouldn’t stop the Academy from nominating “Necessities.”

“Revanche.” Austrian director Gotz Spielmann puts a perverse, personal stamp on the film noir in this twisty, detached and weirdly redemptive tale of crime, punishment and revenge. Of course the FIPRESCI jury chose it as Best Picture and the majority of Academy members probably won’t make it through the first half hour.

“Tear This Heart Out.” Mexican director Roberto Schneider’s big showy, over-produced period drama based on a pulpy book with plentiful, tasteful female nudity balanced off by a pseudo-empowered heroine. This has nominee written all over it.

“Three Monkeys.” I am stupefied and delighted that Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s  minimal, amoral morality tale, not his best but still a near masterpiece, got this far. An oversight that will be corrected, so he should enjoy the attention while he can.

“Waltz With Bashir.” Another anomaly, and Ari Folman’s animated tour of hell, a.k.a the Invasion of Lebanon 1982, might even win. Hey, a black guy got elected president. Anything is possible.

 As for the other FIPRESCI award, we gave our Best Actress Prize to Martina Gusman as the pregnant woman jailed for murder in Argentine director Pablo Trapero’s “Lion’s Den.” No Oscar here, I’m afraid, at least not until Angelina Jolie is cast in the inevitable Hollywood remake.
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