In a surprising victory, French maverick Arnaud Desplechin's fifth feature "Kings and Queen" was voted best picture in indieWIRE's fourth foreign-language film survey. Wong Kar-wai's sumptuous sci-fi romance "2046" was the runner-up choice for best film, but was the highest vote-getter across all categories due to its high scores for best technical achievement.
Michael Haneke's post-colonial psychological thriller "Cache" ("Hidden") was another popular entry, winning the most votes for best director and much praise for its cinematography. Other favorites in this year's poll (in order of total votes) were Agnes Jaoui's "Look at Me," Fatih Akin's "Head-On," Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl," Jia Zhang-Ke's "The World," Ingmar Bergman's "Saraband," and Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," all of which also scored votes for best feature. Single-vote best-picture contenders included "The Intruder," "Cafe Lumiere," "Pulse," "Turtles Can Fly," "Tropical Malady," 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped," and "Memories of Murder."
The poll's most decisive win came in the year's best foreign language documentary. Hupert Sauper's "Darwin's Nightmare" gives a devastating chronicle of globalization as seen through the effects of the predatory Nile perch in Tanzania.
While Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now" failed to score any major votes, several of those surveyed singled out the film with special mentions. "While I think that '2046' is the best foreign film of the year," wrote Screen International's Peter Brunette, "'Paradise Now,' the brilliant film about the lives of two suicide bombers in Palestine, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, is the most important."
In a slow year for foreign language films at the box office, few of the survey's top films broke a million dollars. "Kings and Queen" -- which not only was voted best film, but star Emmanuelle Devos was a widely popular favorite in the best actress category -- made a paltry $290,000 in theaters after 30 weeks in release. "Look at Me" was the highest grossing top-rated film, at roughly $1.7 million, while "2046" was not far behind with nearly $1.5 million in ticket sales. The rest failed to crack the $1 million mark.
Many of the pollees -- 29 critics, programmers, and journalists this year --used the word "criminal" to describe the lack of attention given to these new foreign classics. "As documentaries continued to seize control over art houses, foreign-language films receded further into the margins than any time in recent memory," said The Onion critic Scott Tobias. "There's always the problem of smaller distributors lacking the resources to support these films -- though energetic companies like Wellspring and Tartan Films made some headway -- but even giants like Sony Pictures Classics had trouble selling them this year."
Chicago critic Patrick Z. McGavin echoed the concern. "I still curse that films as interesting and distinctive as the two by Bellochio, 'My Mother's Smile' [and] 'Good Morning, Night,' or Benoit Jacquot's 'A toute de suite,' or 'Tony Takitani,' open and disappear so quickly," he wrote.
And as Time Out New York film critic Joshua Rothkopf noted of the year's biggest foreign import -- "the de-frenchified "March of the Penguins" -- "It would be too bad if more foreign films became little penguins too. Then again, some of them already are: For every 'The World' letting us vividly into a foreign culture, there's an 'Oldboy,' which only lets us into our own schlocky studio past."
But Rothkopf's swipe at "Oldboy" is not universally shared. The film's Korean director Park Chan-wook was voted the third best foreign language film director of the year, behind Michael Haneke and runner-up Wong Kar-wai.
In the category for best screenplay, "Kings and Queen" scribes Desplechin and Roger Bohbot ("The Dreamlife of Angels") just edged out the popular French team of Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri's' Cannes-winning screenplay for "Look at Me."
"Kings and Queen" star Mattieu Amalric was also hailed for his depiction of a hospitalized neurotic father. Los Angeles critic Leonard Klady called the French actor's portrayal "a truly funny, frightening, charismatic performance one rarely sees." But in the race for best actor, Amalric dropped behind two very different performers who tied for highest number of votes: Bruno Ganz (for his riveting portrayal of Hitler in "Downfall") and Romain Duris (for his conflicted piano player/thug in "The Beat That My Heart Skipped").
In the best actress category, "Kings and Queen"'s Emmanuelle Devos was the definite winner, but Zhang Ziyi would have come an extremely close second -- for her icy, anguished beauty in "2046" -- if her votes hadn't split between best actress and best supporting performance. German-Turkish starlet Sibel Kekilli also generated a small cult of fans for her wrist-slitting performance in "Head-On." Her co-star Birol Unel was also lauded, as were the young Japanese cast of "Nobody Knows," particularly young Cannes winner Yuya Yagira.
The best debut of the year, according to the survey, was a tie between Hungarian newcomer Nimrod Antal's subway thriller "Kontroll" and French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic's strange tale of prepubescent girls "Innocence." "Beautiful, baffling, and terribly under-seen," Sarasota film programmer Tom Hall wrote of "Innocence," "this story of a community of young girls guiding one another along the road to sexual maturity is a fully realized fairy tale unlike anything else seen this year."
If "Innocence" barely registered on box office charts, the poll's most eclectic vote was for Sabyasachi Mukherji, the production designer of "Black" -- "a Bollywood drama without a single musical production number," wrote Leonard Klady "hands down the most visually stunning picture of the past year -- vivid, impressionistic, mesmerizing." But for Village Voice film editor and critic Dennis Lim, "the real foreign-film event of the year" was Film Forum's Mikio Naruse retrospective, "Naruse: the Unknown Japanese Master," a 31-film program of the director's long forgotten works. Let's hope the same fate won't befall this latest batch of masterpieces.
This year's foreign film "academy" consisted of a total of 29 critics, programmers, and journalists from around the U.S.: Erica Abeel (indieWIRE), Michael Atkinson (Village Voice), Peter Brunette (Screen International), Mike D'Angelo (critic), Matt Dentler (SXSW Film Festival), David Fear (Time Out New York), Howard Feinstein (critic), Scott Foundas (LA Weekly), Helen Gramates (Chicago International Film Festival), Tom Hall (Sarasota Film Festival), Eugene Hernandez (indieWIRE), Laurence Kardish (Museum of Modern Art), Anthony Kaufman (indieWIRE contributor), Leonard Klady (journalist), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot, Film Comment), Dennis Lim (Village Voice), Mike Maggiore (Film Forum), Patrick McGavin (critic), Ray Pride (Chicago New City), Jeff Reichert (Reverse Shot), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Steven Rosen (critic), Matthew Ross (FILMMAKER Magazine), Rajendra Roy (Hamptons International Film Festival), David Sterritt (Christian Science Monitor), Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly), Amy Taubin (critic), Scott Tobias (The Onion), Ryan Werner (Woodstock Film Festival).
1. "Kings and Queen"
4. "Head-On," "The World" and "Saraband"
1. "Darwin's Nightmare"
2. "The Three Rooms of Melancholia"
3. "Cinevardaphoto," "The Goebbels Experiment" and "Siberian Mammoth"
1. Michael Haneke ("Hidden")
2. Wong Kar-wai ("2046")
3. Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy")
4. Lucrecia Martel ("The Holy Girl")
5. Jia Zhang-Ke ("The World") and Arnaud Desplechin ("Kings and Queen")
1. "Kings and Queen"
2. "Look at Me"
3. "Hidden" and "Walk on Water"
1. Bruno Ganz ("Downfall") and Romain Duris ("The Beat My Heart Skipped")
2. Matthieu Amalric ("Kings and Queen")
3. Daniel Auteuil ("Hidden"), Birol Unel ("Head On"), Yuya Yagira ("Nobody Knows")
1. Emmanuelle Devos ("Kings and Queen")
2. Sibel Kekilli ("Head-On")
3. Zhang Ziyi ("2046")
Best Supporting Actor/Actress:
1. Zhang Ziyi ("2046")
2. Maurice Benichou ("Hidden")
3. Hiam Abbas ("Paradise Now," "Syrian Bride"), Juliette Binoche ("Hidden"), Jean-Pierre Bacri ("Look at Me"), Mercedes Moran ("The Holy Girl"), Mathieu Amalric ("Kings and Queen")
4. Marilou Berry ("Look at Me")
Best First Film:
1. "Kontroll" and "Innocence"
2. "She's One of Us"
Best Technical Achievement:
2. "Hidden" (cinematography)
3. "Tropical Malady"