Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2010: Foreign Language, Animated, + Documentary Films

Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to least accomplished, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners appear in orange.


1. The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)

1. A Prophet (France)

3. Ajami (Israel)

4. El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina)

5. The White Ribbon (Germany)

I honestly have no idea what will win this category. If you believe “serious” critical sources like the New York Times or Roger Ebert, the big prize will go to that severe (and severely painful) commentary on fascism, The White Ribbon (I’ve already said once why it shouldn’t win). If you have more faith in your Average Blogger or popular ‘zine (Entertainment Weekly, perhaps?), the decades-spanning crime drama El Secreto de Sus Ojos may very well be the evening’s big spoiler. I’m putting my money on the latter; with its universal themes of love and retribution, it’s as decent a prediction as any despite its penchant for overly-romanticized cinematography and cheesetastic lines like the following: “A guy can change anything: his face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion,his God. But there’s one thing he can’t change. He can’t change his passion.” However, it does pack one solid gut-punch of an ending.

But don’t entirely discount A Prophet. Another crime drama, but this one is more The Godfather than The Fugitive with its graphic violence and mafia obsessions. A young Arab (the stunning Tahar Rahim) serves a six-year sentence for a petty crime, and  finds himself ensnared in a dangerous world of warring criminal factions. A gritty and entirely gripping prison drama, this fantastic French film offers some solid competition to the pretentious (The White Ribbon) and the popular (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) choices. And while the ambitious and beautifully acted Ajami convincingly depicts the volatile relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel across multiple story lines which are expertly woven together (its structure is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionare), the film is over-long and stumbles into some clichés.

The one nominee that’s sure to be overlooked, however, is arguably the year’s most fascinating film – foreign or otherwise. The Milk of Sorrow is beautifully shot: single pearls drop with acute promise into a bowl, daunting dessert staircases spiral upward endlessly, and an old woman in intimate close-up sings emotionlessly about brutalities we’d dare not imagine. Along with these stunning images comes a fierce allegory of Peru’s sexually violent and political history: a timid young woman suffers from “the milk of sorrow,” a psychologically damaging disease causing her to take drastic measures to maintain her personal and emotional safety. Harrowing and gorgeously compelling, The Milk of Sorrow is the year’s finest film that Academy voters never saw.


1. Up

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox

3. The Princess and the Frog

4. Coraline

5. The Secret of Kells

There’s always this moment: when something – a film, a band, a novel – earns raves, the hype consequently builds, and it becomes so extraordinarily popular and beloved by both critics and audiences alike that the backlash is inevitable. All of a sudden something that was so fantastic isn’t nearly so fantastic anymore simply because everyone loves it. Somehow it loses its appeal. Somehow, suddenly, the popular thing is to not like it, and to throw support to the “underdog.”

It’s not very cool to love Up anymore. The trendy thing is to dig the argyle-lovin’ Fantastic Mr. Fox with its hipster soundtrack and clever dialogue (and oh, how I do totally dig it).

Wait, that’s so five minutes ago.

Now it’s really all about the flat, abstract illustration of a young Irish chap as he rebels against his monk-father and befriends a wolf-fairy-girl in – a rather dry – pursuit of the legendary book in The Secret of Kells. And while practically everyone suffers from mommy/daddy issues that will always keep us in deep sympathy with the pale goth-girl Coraline as she battles her creepy button-eyed Other-Mother, Tim Burton dark ‘toon has the added misfortune of arriving on the scene before that CGIed tale of the soaring senior, which immediately took all the wind for its own balloon-sails. And the erratically charming The Princess and the Frog arrived terribly late to the game with its outrageously belated first African American princess, tired Randy Newman ‘tunes, and lazy hand-drawn animation. Clearly Disney didn’t want to steal any of its own thunder.

Despite all the backlash, no one can argue that Up (read my full review here) is a sure bet on Oscar night. All you need to do is rewatch that brilliantly calibrated opening montage of love and loss and you’ll laugh, weep, and then laugh and weep again – all within ten wordless minutes sensitively underscored by Giacchino.  How quickly you’ll forget all about those foxes and frogs, and long to take the journey Up all over again.


1. The Cove

2. Food, Inc.

3. Which Way Home

4. The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

5. Burma VJ

Note: This is a quick update to my list, as I just watched Which Way Home this afternoon (3/7/10).

It’s been a year of seemingly endless affliction (as these nominees and others would lead you to believe). The freshly filmed and nicely polished-looking Food, Inc., for example, offers us the comforting knowledge – rather redundantly if you’ve read the novel or seen the cinematic adaptation of Fast Food Nation, that this doc is based on – that everything we eat is terrible for us; and it all goes back, way back, to the inhumane treatment of farm animals and the horrible working conditions within our factories. New information? Not exactly. Perfect blend of the personal, the facts, and smooth filmmaking? Definitely.

The other three docs aren’t nearly as refined as Food, Inc. but The Most Dangerous Man in America is definitely more interesting – at least if you’re anything like me and are solely lacking in the knowledge of this highly historical moment. A well-told story of the one super-smart Everyman who smuggled thousands of Pentagon documents and leaked them to the press, uncovering top-secret governmental policies regarding Vietnam, this documentary simultaneously personalizes and historicizes the essential, vital argument for free press and freedom of speech.

The simple act of filming Burma VJ is an incredible and harrowing achievement. Governed by a repressive military regime, the people of Burma are forbidden to film or photograph anything, and the filmmakers literally risked life and limb to smuggle this film to outside sources. After the initial shock wears off of the uber-necessary stealthy filming techniques and the typical daily treatment of citizens (not to mention the jailing of monks), the doc loses power and yet trucks right along, capturing footage after footage of much the same.

Which Way Home is an interesting doc, but one that seems to sympathize with its subjects more than question them. About children migrating illegally over the Mexican-US border, the kids’ courage and ambitions to better their families lives by finding the “American Dream” is both endearing and frustrating, and their parents’ knowledge of the extreme dangers that they are facing in crossing the border  (and allowing them to take the risk anyway) is infuriating.

It’s strange how a film that is so flawed (and for which I had strong remarks for in my full review) ended up topping my list.  The Cove’s largely personal, highly emotional – and to mention thrilling – mission to uncover the needless and horrifically violent yearly dolphin slaughterings in a cove off of Japan, is by far the most mesmerizing and the most effectual. Sure, the facts are skewed for emotional effect, and the film’s main human subject, a Flipper-trainer-turned-activist, is obviously on a mission of self-redemption, but this personal journey actually ups the stakes – for both the subjects and for us. Revealing passion – even passion that is at times misguided – doesn’t discredit the film, but actually heightens its effect: as enraged as I was at some of the factual shortcomings, I was even more so at the acts of violence being perpetuated. If filmmaking inspires movement and change from its audience, then perhaps the other nominees should take a passionate cue from The Cove.

Next up: Best Actor + Actress


2 comments on “Oscars 2010: Foreign Language, Animated, + Documentary Films

  1. Aaron
    March 7, 2010

    Another thought on Foreign Language: the people who vote on this award are required to see all five nominees. I think it is a thing. And the Academy sets up special screenings for these films. So, you may find it useful to go ahead and actually predict The Milk of Sorrow. It could actually come out on top…


    • Julie
      March 8, 2010

      They are “required” to see all five? What does the Academy do — lock all the voters in a theatre and force them to watch all five?
      I am skeptical.


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