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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Here We Go Again: The Foreign-Language Oscar Shortlist

Published under Oscar Outsider.

The Oscar shortlist for foreign films was announced yesterday, and in spite of the rules changes that were supposed to stop such things from happening, Matteo Garrone‘s Gomorrah failed to make the short list. Really shocking omission, considering the film won the the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Silver Hugo, and has been well-received critically; it does kind of feel like a repeat of last year’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days brouhaha, which the rules’ changes were supposed to help avert. Guess that process still needs a wee bit of tinkering.

In addition to Gomorrah another Cannes winner, Tulpan, failed to make the cut. Set in the desert of Kazakhstan, Tulpan is about Asa, a young man recently returned home to the isolated desert farm where his sister and brother-in-law live with their children and sheep. He dreams of having his own farm and herding sheep like his brother-in-law, but the brother’s farm is in trouble because every new lamb that’s born to his herd is dying, and Asa cannot have his own farm until he proves himself with sheep and gets married. Unfortunately, this being the remote Kazakhstan desert, there aren’t a great many dating options; only one girl, Tulpan, is of age and lives near enough that he can pursue her, but when he and his brother-in-law go to meet with the girl’s parents, Tulpan, peeking out from behind a heavy curtain, declares that she will not have Asa because his ears are too big. Distraught but determined, he continues to dream of making Tulpan his bride and having his sheep farm, doing all that he can to prove himself worthy.

The film had good critical buzz coming out of Cannes and also played the Toronto International Film Festival; I saw it there, and while I liked it well enough, but I found it’s slow pace irritating. I’m not one to normally be bothered by meticulous pacing, but two hours of blowing sand and not a lot of plot to work with dragged the film down, and it would have benefited from more of a sense of urgency. Also, a little girl, Asa’s niece, sings throughout the entire film; it’s charming the first time, but after the twelfth or thirteenth, I was in total sympathy with the girl’s father, who kept telling her to shut up. After seeing the film at Toronto, I was rather surprised that it beat out Steve McQueen‘s Hunger to win the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes; the latter, I think, is a much stronger film.

I was happy to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s 3 Monkeys, one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen all year, make the Oscar shortlist cut; it’s an interesting film, beautifully shot, and deserves to be on the short list, so I’m happy to see it getting a shot at a nomination. The film uses the metaphor of the “three monkeys” (see no evil and his brothers, hear no evil and speak no evil) to explore ideas about human judgment and the consequences of trying to hide — or hide from — the truth. It’s a bit of a slow burn of a film that grows on you, and while the storyline in interesting and the characters engaging, its visual style that set this film apart for me when I saw it at Cannes. The tonal shifts and moods Ceylan evokes with many of the shots in the film are powerful. It’s painterly in its beauty, even though the color palette is overwhelmingly toned with shades of black, brown and grey; it reminds me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting brought to life — if the Pre-Raphaelites had focused on muted grey and brown palettes instead of vibrant color, and painted average people caught in moments of desperation instead of mythical and spiritual themes.

Sweden’s Everlasting Moments is another solid shortlist choice, and I expect it will make the final cut. Jan Troell has made a lovely film out of the life story of his wife’s grandmother, Maria Larsson, an abused wife and mother of a large brood of children in the early 20th century, when women didn’t have a lot of choices. It’s a difficult film to watch at times, as Maria deals with the constant challenge of being married to a man who’s charming and engaging when sober but a carousing, womanizing philanderer when he’s drinking — which is much of the time — but Maria Heiskanen carries the lead role with a moving, engaging performance.

The Class, France’s submission, is also likely to end up on the final list of nominees (though with the Oscar foreigns, one never knows, so take all these predictions with the proverbial grain of salt). Director Laurent Cantet adapts Francois Begaudeau‘s novel Entre les Murs, written based on Begaudeau’s own experiences as a junior high teacher in a rough section of Paris, and casts Begaudeau as, essentially, himself, heading a classroom of real kids cast as real kids. The Class was enormously well-received at Cannes, becoming one of the films everyone who saw it was talking about.

Waltz with Bashir, which beat Gomorrah out for the Golden Globe, is the Oscar frontrunner, almost assured a nomination at this point — and I certainly wouldn’t bet against it for the win. When it showed at Cannes, it was immediately compared to Persepolis, last year’s deservedly lauded animated documentary about a girl growing up in post-Revolution Iran, but other than being animated and set generally around war, the two have little in common. Waltz with Bashir‘s animation is vivid and evocative; director Ari Folman videotaped much of the 90-page script with live actors first, and then his small team of animators recreated the scenes with hand-drawn animation. The effect is quite stunning, lending a verite feel to an animated film, although the sound is not burdened with verite noise levels; Folman, as he noted in this interview with Studio Daily, “was firm about was recording crystal-clear sound, without distractions of a cinema vérité style recording.”

After opening with a friend’s nightmare about being chased by a pack of vicious dogs brought to life, Folman retells nine tales from his friends, Israeli soldiers s scarred as he is by what they did and witnessed. Folman made the film as a way of dealing with gaps in his memory surrounding his unit’s role in the (first) Lebanese war and the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in West Beirut refugee camps, and the film is as much a record of — and a coming to terms with — traumatic memories as it is a reenactment of particular events, until the final moments of the film, which shift abruptly to real news footage of the aftermanth of the massacre. It’s a powerful, compelling film whose message is as relevant to the wars around us today as it is to the one by which Folman and his friends are haunted.

I’m generally feeling very behind on the foreign entries this year, having only seen four of the nine films that made the shortlist; I saw an awful lot of foreign films this year, but just happened to miss the ones that ended up making the cut, so now I need to catch up with several of these onscreeners post-haste.

The complete short list:

Austria, Revanche (dir. Gotz Spielmann)
Canada, The Necessities of Life (dir. Benoit Pilon)
France, The Class (dir. Laurent Cantet)
Germany, The Baader Meinhof Complex (dir. Uli Edel)
Israel, Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman)
Japan, Departures (dir. Yojiro Takita)
Mexico, Tear This Heart Out, (dir. Roberto Sneider)
Sweden, Everlasting Moments (dir. Jan Troell)
Turkey, 3 Monkeys (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon