One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).
This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.
The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.
Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.
Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.
Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.
The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.
After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.
The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.
Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.
The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.
The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.
It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.