Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

A nap for the stupidest Oscar

On many previous occasions, I have given out about the Academy Award for best foreign language picture. I am not alone. The selection procedures for this gong are insane and, even when the correct films make it into the final …

Fri, Jan 21, 2011, 22:14


On many previous occasions, I have given out about the Academy Award for best foreign language picture. I am not alone. The selection procedures for this gong are insane and, even when the correct films make it into the final five, the voters invariably pick the wrong winner. Take last year for example. The Secret in Their Eyes is a decent enough slice of glossy pulp, but it is hardly in the same league as The White Ribbon or A Prophet. Yet the Argentinean film beat both the latter pictures to the big prize. This minor scandal paled, however, when set beside the outrages of 2008. In that year, you remember, neither Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days nor Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis made it onto the shortlist. The ultimate winner was the decent, but unremarkable, The Counterfeiters.

At least, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis were the official selections of their respective nations. In the same year, many Oscar-watchers wondered why La Vie En Rose, a solid, unchallenging Oscar-friendly release, for which Marion Cotillard won best actress, wasn’t in the final five come gong day. Well, as each nation is only allowed to put one film forward, the French had to choose between the ground-breaking animation and the enjoyable biopic. The Oscar voters simply weren’t allowed to plump for La Vie En Rose. This is an absurd situation. It’s one thing to ask a nation such as Albania (or Ireland, for that matter) to limit its choices. It’s quite another to ask cinematically fecund non-Anglophonic countries such as France or Japan to follow the same rule. Why are we getting nations to select films anyway? Aren’t the Academy voters capable of seeking out the year’s more exotic releases on their own? They are supposed to be professionals.

Since its inception, the award has favoured the sentimental and heart-warming over the challenging and pessimistic. The ideal winner is a drama about a muddy-faced child who, despite beautiful poverty, overcomes difficulties — the death of his lovely mother in act two, for example — to gain a kind of sunny transcendence. You know. The sorts of things Miramax used to flog. Life is Beautiful. Kolya. Cinema Paradiso. And so on.

All of which brings us to the long-list for this year. Here we go:

Hors la Loi (Algeria)

Incendies (Canada)

In a Better World (Denmark)

Dogtooth (Greece)

Confessions (Japan

Biutiful (Mexico)

Life, Above All (South Africa)

Tambien la Lluvia (Spain)

Simple Simon (Sweden)

Regular readers of this “blog” will know that I was one of those who heard — and savoured — the dog-whistle that was Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. But the winner of the Palme d’Or always felt a little recherché for the staid Oscar voters. So I can’t pretend to any great outrage. No. The real shocker here is the exclusion of Of Gods and Men. A critical hit throughout the world, runner-up at Cannes, Xavier Beauvois’s film, which is still playing to packed houses in Dublin’s Light House Cinema, seemed like a shoo-in even with this crowd. Was it too obscure? Is it too quiet? You may as well ask the wind why it blows.

The other conspicuous non-nominee is Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Here, alas, we again run up against the preposterous selection procedure. The Italian committee didn’t put the film forward. I haven’t seen La Prima Cosa Bella, the ultimate selection from that country, and it may well be marvelous, but the Oscar voters should have had the opportunity to vote for Guadagnino’s picture.

There is one cause for celebration. The magnificently disturbing Dogtooth, a tale of alienation from Greece, has somehow made it into the semi-final. If it wins I’ll eat my own head.

So, what is going to triumph? Well, back in May, many of my pals urged me not to miss Live Above All at Cannes. Selected for the Un Certain Regard section at the French jamboree, the film is the tale of a South African child who, hindered by a mother suffering from Aids and troubled by a friend who works as a child prostitute, somehow manages to retain dignity and keep the family together. Though the picture features a genuinely jaw-dropping juvenile performance from Khomotso Manyaka (as good as you’ll ever see, in fact), I found it a bit neat, a bit sentimental, a bit too cosily heart-warming. Hang on. Brave child? Pretty poverty? Triumph over the odds? The moment the credits rolled I scribbled the words “best foreign-language picture” in my notes. I’m not sure if any bookies are offering odds on this race yet. But you may, perhaps, persuade a gullible friend into taking your bet. It’s money in the bank, my friends.