Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Winners

After this weekend, where I watched the latest foreign language Oscar winner, the disappointing Japanese film Departures, I felt the urge to go back and look at what won this award in the past to remind myself that sometimes the Academy actually gets this award right – or at least gives the Oscar to a truly great film. There were many to choose from. In addition to the 10 listed below, I could have easily have added Samurai: The Legend of Musashi, La Strada, Nights in Cabiria, The Virgin Spring, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, Day for Night, Amarcord, All About My Mother and No Man’s Land – and those are just the ones I’ve seen. Too often, The Academy gives this award to something unworthy, but these ten certainly deserved it. I had a hard time ranking the top three films on this list. Ask me again tomorrow, and I may put them in a different order.

10. The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003)
Would this film be on the list were I not Canadian, and this wasn’t the only film from my home country to win this Oscar? Maybe, maybe not. But regardless, The Barbarian Invasions is a truly great film – probably Denys Arcand’s best. Picking up 20 years after his film The Decline of the American Empire left off, his characters are older, but I’m not sure any wiser. They still talk of sex, still act like snobby intellectuals – and still don’t connect with their kids. But all that changes when Remy (Remy Girad) is diagnosed with cancer, and starts dying. Suddenly, all his friends come back to see him, his son tries his best to make him comfortable, even though he hates the man. The film is heartbreaking and brilliant. The performances, not just by Girard, but also by Marie Jose Croze (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes that year for her performance of a drug addict who helps out) elevate the movie to truly great status.

9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
To fans of Asian cinema, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon didn’t seem as new and different as it did too many Western audiences. They had been doing things like this for years. But what Ang Lee’s film did, that so many before it failed to do, was tell a touching, emotional story to go along with the great action set pieces. Chow Yun Fat, a star of multiple John Woo films, was never given a better role, and neither was Michelle Yeoh, as two warriors off to find a stolen sword. Zhang Ziyi burst onto the cinematic landscape in a powerful performance (unlike those other two though, she would be given a better role a few years later in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a magical film, and not just because of those incredible fight sequences.

8. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
In my review of Departures, I complained that it was a foreign film for people who do not like foreign films. I think the same could be said of The Lives of Others, as the film certainly takes more from Hollywood films, then it does from its German ancestors. Yet I cannot deny the simple power the film has. It tells the story of a Stasi agent in the waning days of the Cold War, who is assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright, who finds himself sympathizing with the man, and refuses to file real reports about him. Both an intricate thriller, and a powerful character study, featuring a subtle, brilliant performance by the great Ulrich Muhe in his final screen role, The Lives of Others is a wonderful film.

7. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos, 1965)
I think most people have forgotten about this powerful little film from Czechoslovakia, but it is the best of all the many Holocaust films to have won this prize over the years. When the Germans take power in the country, they assign citizens to take over Jewish businesses in order to ensure everything runs smoothly. Antonin (Jozef Kroner) is assigned to run the shop of an old widow Rozalie (Ida Kaminska in an Oscar nominated performance). She is confused, and thinks he is looking for employment, and hires him. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her why he’s really there. The two grow close over the time they spend together, and so when the authorities start rounding up the Jews to ship them off to concentration camps, he tries to protect her. Since she has no idea what is going on, it does not end well. This is an emotionally powerful movie. A forgotten masterwork.

6. The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1949)
A long time staple of Best of All Time lists, Vittorio DeSica’s film is deceptively simple. It tells the story of Antonio, impoverished after the war, and struggling to support his wife and son, who is so happy when he gets a job hanging posters for upcoming Hollywood movies. All the job requires is a bike, and he has one! But when his bike gets stolen, he travels around Rome trying to find it with his son, finally deciding that he should steal someone else’s bike – but he’s not much of a thief. The film is heartbreakingly simple and emotional. A staple of any serious film scholars movie education.

5. Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)
Ingmar Bergman is one of my favorite directors of all time, and I think Through a Glass Darkly is one of his most underrated films. A family lives together on a secluded island, and tries to deal with their various issues. Karin (Harriet Anderson), has just been released, not for the first time, from a mental hospital, and her father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), husband Martin (Max von Sydow) and brother Minus (Lars Passgard) try to deal with her. But when she says she saw God in an upstairs room, and that God is a Spider, they fear they have lost her again. The film is essentially a chamber piece, made up of conversations between some or all of the characters – who all seem to have their own problems, Through a Glass Darkly is filmmaking at its best.

4. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement, 1952)
This film probably features the two best performances by child actors in cinema history. Paulette (Briggitte Fossey) is a five year old French girl, fleeing from Paris with her parents and her dog as the Nazis attack. Her parents, and dog, are killed, and she is taken in by a nice peasant family, and bonds with their 10 year old son Michel (Georges Poujouly). Together, the two of them cope with all the death and destruction around them by creating an animal cemetery, starting with her dog, and then expanding to any dead animals they find – stealing crosses from the local cemetery to mark the graves. The film is an emotional powerhouse, featuring great performances, and impeccable filmmaking by master Rene Clement. The film is about the power of friendship, and innocence lost, and does so without becoming condescending or snide, like Life is Beautiful.

3. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
Fellini’s 8 ½ is perhaps the greatest film about filmmaking in history. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is a successful film director, supposed to be concentrating on directing a new autobiographical science fiction film, when he loses interest. The film is essentially interwoven between Guido’s present, and flashbacks and dream sequences that merge with reality at several points. An intensely personal film, Fellini exorcised his demons about his own fears about making something profound, by putting it all on film. A complex film, and perhaps the cornerstone of Fellini’s work, the film is one of the most influential and critically praised in history. Later this year, you can catch Rob Marshall’s 9 with Daniel Day Lewis, which is based on the musical which was based on this film.

2. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1983)
Perhaps Bergman’s best film was one of his last. His epic Fanny and Alexander tells the story of two siblings, who upon the death of their father, and the remarriage of their mother, are brought to live in their new stepfather’s huge house. The stepfather is a religious strict man, who demands absolute obedience from his new children. They live as virtual prisoners, are haunted by ghosts, but are finally set free with the help of some magic. Fanny and Alexander weaves all of Bergman’s favorite themes into one epic film that runs the gamut from strict authority, to the existence of God, to supernatural ghosts, to family dynamics, and everything else. It is a complete and utter masterpiece – one of the best of all films.

1. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)
Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and while I would have preferred the Academy to give this award to something like Seven Samurai, Ikiru or Ran, there is no doubt that Rashomon is a masterpiece. The film is about the nature of truth, as it tells the story of a rape of a woman and the murder of her husband, through the eyes of four different witnesses – the rapist, the woman, the murder victim (through a medium) and a woodcutter who says he found the body. But the film is more complex than that as the stories of each of the witnesses is told by the woodcutter and a priest to a third man as they wait out a rainstorm in a house marked Rashomon. None of the stories match, although perhaps none of the people are lying – they simply perceive the events differently. Complicated by the added wrinkle of each of their stories being retold by others, we are never really able to get the truth of what happened. This is a complex, brilliant film by one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

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