The nominees and winners for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars each year are always set slightly apart from the rest of the Academy Awards, and the 2012 ceremony is no different.
Unlike other Academy Awards, this Oscar is not meant to be for a specific individual, but for the submitting country as a whole.
And for much of its history, that winning country was in Europe, typically in countries in the West. Of the 63 foreign language films chosen for the Oscar, 51 of them have been European films, and the majority of the nominees come from countries like Italy, France or Spain.
This year, the 2012 Oscars offer films from Iran, Belgium, Israel, Poland and Canada, all of them stunning portraits of what a movie can convey of human brutality, beauty, dignity, fragility and suffering.
In typical Academy tradition, these films have the chance either to gain international acclaim, as with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and The Lives Of Others (2006), or sink back into relative obscurity.
Regardless of box office success, however, the nominees chosen for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film are all of them reason enough to immerse yourself in the Academy Award-nominated films.
From a tale of backbiting and redemption between a father and son in Israel, to a gritty domestic drama of two families unraveling in Iranian film A Separation, here are brief introductions to the five nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at Oscars 2012, and five reasons (to start) why these movies should be the next films you see.
1. Bullhead (Rundskop): Belgium
Matthias Schoenaerts stars in this Michaël R. Roskam-penned and directed drama as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a young Limburgish cattle farmer approached by an unscrupulous veterinarian to become part of the hormone mafia with a notorious West-Flemish beef trader, trafficking in drugs used to fatten up cattle for slaughter
When the assassination of a federal policeman puts the heat on the hormone mafia underground, however, a secret from Vanmarsenille's past is brought to light, setting off a chain of events with far-reaching and fatal consequences.
The film is mainly spoken in Limburgish, a recognized regional language, but Roskam's film has mainly drawn the attention of critics and audiences for its exploration of the line between man and animal, and for Schoenaerts’ breakout performance, which has drawn comparisons to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and Tom Hardy in Bronson.
The actor literally takes the metaphors of his bull-headed character to the limits and is never less than believable or mesmerizing, The Daily Beat raves. His head bowed low, always ready for a fight, Schoenaerts glares at the world from under his brow, making Jacky’s vulnerability (caused by a horrifying event 20 years ago) as palpable as his tremendous capacity for violence. Working from his own script, Roskam makes sure we feel for his monster.
Watch the trailer for Bullhead below:
2. Monsieur Lazhar (Monsieur Lazhar): Canada
Directed by Philippe Falardeau, this movie, developed from a one-man play by évelyne de la Chenelière, stars Mohamed Fellag as the Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant hired by an elementary school in Montreal to replace a teacher who has committed suicide. As Mr. Lazhar and his students overcome the cultural barrier between them, his new pupils are unaware that their teacher is struggling with a personal tragedy of his own, and that his status as a refugee means that he could be deported at any time.
Starting from the basic story of a teacher's impact on his students, Monseiur Lazhar beautifully weaves themes of guilt, grief and regret with one poignant phrase that the titular character takes from his late wife: Nothing is ever really normal in Algeria.
“There were situations where I could explore poetry because the character [Lazhar] is unique and singular, Falardeau told Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. He’s a fish out of the bowl.”
Those phrase could also be used to describe the man who plays him, Mohamed Fellag. An Algerian stand-up comic revered by North Africans in France and in Quebec for his no-holds-barred political acts, Fellag himself fled Algerias in the 1990s when artists were being persecuted by the regime. Falardeau was drawn to Fellag for his dignity and his fragility, combined with his courage and his humor, and those are the qualities Monsieur Lazhar epitomizes in the film.
“When he saw the film he was very moved, Falaradeau said. I think he underestimated his work.
Watch the trailer for Monsieur Lazhar below:
3. A Separation (Jodái-e Náder az Simin): Iran
This drama, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, stars Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader, an upper-middle class couple on the verge of divorce. The film starts with a choice: Simin wants to leave Iran in order to give her 11-year-old daughter Termeh a new life. Nader, however, refuses to leave with her, insisting that he must stay to take care of his father as he descends into Alzheimer's, and the couple begin a custody battle over their daughter.
Complicating and greatly nuancing to the film, however, is Nader's decision to hire Razieh, a young, pregnant and deeply religious woman from a poor suburb, to help take care of his father while he's at work.
The shock waves from that decision, from Razieh's neglecting to get her husband's permission to work to a miscarriage that she blames on her employer, spins the plot in riveting and eye-opening directions. It forces the viewer to question the motivations of everyone in the film, while still drawing the audience inexorably closer toward understanding those same characters.
The Los Angeles Times has called A Separation both totally foreign and achingly familiar, and painted it as both a domestic drama on human behavior and a compelling look at what goes on behind a particular curtain that almost never gets raised.
NPR contributor John Powers, meanwhile, feels that if audiences see any movies from the Academy Award roster, it should be this one. I'm not kidding when I say that it's better than any of the Hollywood films being touted for the Oscar, he writes.
Watch the trailer for A Separation below:
4. Footnote (He'arat Shulayim): Israel
Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, this tragicomedy stars Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi as Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, a father and son who are both rival professors in the Talmud department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
While Eliezer's methodical, exacting approach to the Talmud wins him little recognition, his son Uriel's interpretative and accessible scholarship helps to make him a world-renowned scholar. But when Eliezer is mistakenly given a top prize meant for his son, Uril must decide whether to admit the honor is his or let his father have the glory.
Cedar's script, and the prickly chemistry between Ashkenazi and Bar Aba, has already earned teh film Best Screenplay from Cannes and nine prizes from the 2011 Ophir Awards from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television.
Hannah Brown of The Jerusalem Post called the film brilliant and audacious, praising Cedar for using dramatic cinematography, music and visual effects to signal that this is a film about an earth-shaking battle, at least in its protagonists’ hearts and minds.
Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, cast the movie as, in its own way, a Talmudic lesson in itself. There’s real philosophical depth and clarity to the script, she wrote, adding that it was also funny and smart... told with wild, inventive cinematic flourishes and experimental grace notes.
Watch the trailer for Footnote below:
5. In Darkness (W ciemno?ci): Poland
This film, directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Robert Wi?ckiewicz, is based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty thief in Lvov, Poland, who uses his knowledge of the city's sewer system to hide a group of Jews from the Nazis. The movie is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshal, who collected the memoirs of survivors and combined them with his own research in 1991.
Holland, the director of 1990's Oscar-nominated film Europa, Europa, worried that the film's powerful story would be marred by Hollywood actors delivering bad accents when screenwriter Davdi Shamoon approached her, so producers shot the film in Poland using Polish actors and techs.
As part of the film's research, Shamoon, Holland and producers Eric Jordan and Paul Stephens went into Lvov's sewers. We lasted for 45 minutes, Shamoon told CTV News. It was the most terrifying experience I've ever had. These people lived in them for 14 months.
But according to the only living survivor, Krystyna Chiger, Shamoon and Holland's vision was spot-on.
Eric, Jordan and I flew down to New York to screen a rough-cut for her, said Shamoon. After the screening, she couldn't stop crying.
‘That's how it really was,' she told me, said Shamoon.
Watch the trailer for In Darkness below: