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The Oscars are almost upon us, with all their unpredictability. You don’t need an oracle to tell you what will happen. You don’t even need a film critic. You need someone who sees into the very souls of the Academy voters. You need a Straight White Man.
Okay, so you guys weren’t exactly waiting on tenterhooks for this one. In a more sensible world, I’d have saved the acting and directing awards for last, like the actual Oscars do, but in the real world there was one last movie I was holding out for, hoping to see it while there was still time. I’m pleased to report that I was successful; I’ve now watched four of the five foreign films, including the overwhelming favorite in the category. This leaves me exactly one feature film and three short documentaries shy of having watched everything, which I think is really pretty good.
Here are your nominees for Best Foreign Language film.
A War (Denmark) – I can’t get on board with one of the core premises of this film, to wit: That there’s a genuine ethical question whether it’s right to evade responsibility for a deadly war crime so that your children won’t have to live without their father for a few years. That said, A War doesn’t truly let its protagonist off the hook in the end, and in the meantime there’s a lot to like here. Pilou Asbaek brings sincere hesitation and uncertainty to the film’s difficult battlefield decisions as unit commander Claus Pederson, and Tuva Novotny, as Claus’s wife, does well conveying her character’s weariness with holding together a household on her own. It’s an intelligent, nuanced war movie, even if its core conflict doesn’t quite have the weight it’s supposed to have.
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia) – You can’t see this in Austin, and as far as I know, you never could, but it sounds like a hell of a trip: The story of an Amazonian shaman who accompanies two scientific expeditions with the same goal, 21 years apart. I’ll be keeping an eye out for if after the awards for sure.
Mustang (Turkey) – An ensemble girl-power comedy-drama about five sisters who are sequestered in their home for the mortal sin of playing chicken-fight on the beach with boys. Mustang is funny throughout, but as the sisters’ grandmother works to marry each daughter off in turn, the movie never lets you forget about the very real stakes for these girls in a society that doesn’t truly recognize their self-ownership. The ways they push back against their constraints make for compelling drama, and the ultimate payoff—a classic jailbreak scene—is positively thrilling.
Son of Saul (Hungary) – I’ve never seen a movie that was shot quite like Son of Saul. Most of the film is moving close-ups on Saul Ausländer—played with grim determination by Géza Röhrig in one of the best performances I’ve seen this year—following either his face or the back of his head and shoulders. As far as I can tell, this approach does at least four different things: It puts the film’s most graphic atrocities mostly out of frame or at least out of focus, it gives the action a fevered, nightmarish quality, it works as a visual metaphor for Saul’s narrow-minded focus, and it emphasizes the physicality of the numerous moments when Saul is literally pushed or pulled from his intended path. There’s a fairly cynical cliché about the Foreign Language category that you never bet against the Holocaust drama. But like last year’s Ida, if Son of Saul wins, it’ll be for reasons beyond the grim subject matter.
Theeb (Jordan) – Theeb‘s as well-made a movie as just about anything nominated, and it delivers the most shocking moment I’ve seen in any movie in at least a year. The story drags a bit in places, but the cinematography is first rate, the score is excellent, and overall this is a more than solid historical epic with a strong performance from child star Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat.
Will Win: Son of Saul.
Upset Special: Mustang. Critics not backing Son of Saul seem to have rallied around this one, and that’s cool with me.