"The Man Without a Past" Tops "In this World" and "Irreversible" As Best Film in indieWIRE's Second Annual Foreign Film Survey
by Anthony Kaufman
Aki Kaurismaki's deadpan meditation on human hope and misfortune "The Man Without a Past" (Finland) takes home the top honors in indieWIRE's second-annual foreign-language film survey. In a year filled with close votes and a lack of consensus, Kaurismaki's film narrowly beat out other best film contenders such as Michael Winterbottom's refugee drama "In This World," Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," Peter Watkins' "La Commune (Paris 1871)," and Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible." Other top winners include Jia Zhang Ke ("Unknown Pleasures" and "Platform"), Oksana Akinshina ("Lilya 4-Ever"), Olivier Gourmet ("The Son"), "In My Skin," and "Japon."
In 2002, indieWIRE inaugurated its first foreign film poll, the only cinema survey dedicated exclusively to films made in a language other than English. If end-of-the-year accolades are meant to raise the profile of worthy films, it is foreign-lingo fare that would appear to need the most help. U.S. ticket sales for overseas movies are down, despite a host of undervalued gems with searing performances and dazzling technical achievements that would put Oscar's bloated contenders to shame.
This year was especially tough: With no "Amelie," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to boost the box office of subtitled movies, American-made documentaries and Sundance standouts grabbing the bulk of the art house audience, and much of the usual Cannes 2003 bonanza either not up to snuff or delayed until 2004 (you can bet Nuri Bilge Ceylan's grand jury prize winner "Distant" will make a strong showing next year), the past year for foreign language films released in the U.S. has been less than stellar. Or to put it more bluntly, according to Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary, "I don't ever remember a year with such putrid pickings."
And yet, artistically, if you looked very closely, it wasn't all that bad. As The Onion's Scott Tobias notes, "Palm Pictures' surprise decision to release 'Millennium Mambo' on December 31 should be heartening to anyone who cares about the future of foreign film distribution. Here's a film that I'm sure many of us assumed would turn up only at the occasional Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective or on import DVD, yet it's entrancing mood and imagery can now seduce a whole new wave of intrepid moviegoers. In the bottom-line business of film distribution, its release counts as an act of charity, the last in a good year for adopted orphans ('Platform,' 'Japon,' 'Pistol Opera,' et al.)."
But this solemn news, bringing to mind some poverty-stricken cinema, shouldn't undercut the accomplishments of the winners in our second foreign film "awards." However, it might explain the lack of consensus in this year's poll. While "The Man Without a Past" won the most number of best film votes, 15 other titles were not far behind, with "In This World" taking second place, and "City of God," "La Commune (Paris 1871)," and "Irreversible" tying for third.
Fiddling with the numbers, "Irreversible," Gasper Noe's brutally audacious backwards leap through rape and innocence lost, actually received more single mentions across all categories than any other film, with most of its votes deservingly garnered in our catch-all category for best technical achievement. The Dardenne brothers' "The Son" -- due to its performances -- came in second for total number of votes, followed by "The Man Without a Past" and "Lilya-4-Ever."
As with last year, when Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" took the top spot, box office results were not a factor in our poll. Though "The Man Without a Past" was Finnish auteur Kaurismaki's most successful film ever released in North America, it made just under a million dollars. In contrast, "Nowhere in Africa," the year's top-grossing foreign language film (more than $6 million), only popped up with a couple votes in the best supporting actor category for African thespian Siside Onyulo, whereas oft-mentioned titles in our poll such as "In this World," "La Commune," and "Unknown Pleasures" made nary a dent in viewers' wallets.
The winner for best director, Jia Zhang Ke, is just such an unbankable figure; his two most recent movies, "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures," barely survived in theaters, but they combine to form a stunning one-two punch of globalized ennui and ironic heartbreak. Jia is one of the young masters of international cinema, with not yet the cine-rabid following of an Abbas Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But give him time.
The poll's most prevailing victor was best actor winner Olivier Gourmet, who received a vast majority of votes for his Cannes award-winning role in the Dardenne brothers' "The Son." As a carpenter who hires the boy who killed his son, Gourmet agonizingly paces through the movie, barely containing his pent up rage and urge to understand his new apprentice. Javier Bardem ("Mondays in the Sun"), Markku Peltola ("The Man Without a Past"), and Lazaro Ramos ("Madame Sata") also received multiple votes.
In the best actress category, two newcomers dominated the category, with 16-year-old Russian actress Oksana Akinshina ("Lilya-4-Ever") receiving the most votes (and sympathy, no doubt) for her devastatingly tragic performance as a young woman abandoned by her mother in Russia and sold into prostitution in Sweden. Director Marina de Van was a close second for her self-portrait of an aspiring businesswoman who grows increasingly obsessed with her own flesh in "In My Skin."
De Van's debut film also tied with Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' Tarkovsky-esque "Japon" for the best first film in our poll. The category also saw the most agreement among our voters, with Argentine director Diego Lerman's minimalist lesbian road movie "Suddenly" coming a close second, followed by two films notable for their minimal use of spoken dialogue, Sylvain Chomet's animated "The Triplets of Belleville" and Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi's hiccupping nature murder mystery "Hukkle."
For best supporting actress, Suzanne Flon garnered the most attention for her role as the bourgeois aunt with a dark secret past in Claude Chabrol's "The Flower of Evil," just beating out another elder, the far more neorealist Magdalena Flores in "Japon." Ludivine Sagnier was also singled out for her exposing work in "Swimming Pool" (which technically shouldn't count because the movie was mostly in English.) Other outstanding actresses included Kati Outinen ("The Man Without a Past"), Paprika Steen ("Open Hearts") and Rachida Brakni ("Chaos"), the latter of whom received votes in both the best acting and supporting acting categories.
For best supporting actor, which saw the least consensus in our poll, the top vote-getters split widely between Charles Berling ("demonlover"), Johnny Hallyday ("The Man on the Train"), Amin Maher ("10"), Morgan Marinne ("The Son") and Albert Dupontel ("Irreversible").
This year's foreign film "academy" consisted of a total of 26 critics, programmers, and journalists from around the U.S.: John Anderson (Newsday), Michael Atkinson (Village Voice), Peter Brunette (critic), Eddie Cockrell (Variety), Mike D'Angelo (Time Out New York), Howard Feinstein (critic), Scott Foundas (Variety, LA Weekly), Stephen Garrett (former film editor, Time Out New York), Laurence Kardish (Museum of Modern Art), Dennis Lim (Village Voice), Mike Maggiore (Film Forum), Gerald Peary (Boston Phoenix), Ray Pride (Chicago New City), Steven Rosen (critic), Matthew Ross (Filmmaker Magazine), B. Ruby Rich (critic, programmer), Rachel Rosen (Los Angeles Film Festival), Rajendra Roy (Hamptons International Film Festival), Peter Scarlet (Tribeca Film Festival), David Sterritt (Christian Science Monitor) and Mikita Brottman (author), Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly), Amy Taubin (critic), Scott Tobias (The Onion), Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune), and myself.
Voters were asked to vote on foreign-language films that received U.S. distribution in 2003. Some foreign tales were mostly English-language, although some of our voters singled out praise for them as well. As critic Steven Rosen wrote, "I'd be tempted to also put "Dirty Pretty Things" on this list, although it's in English. If Winterbottom's "In This World" captured the efforts of refugees to get to England; "Dirty Pretty Things" was about what awaits them there."
While this year's categories catered specifically to fiction features, foreign-language documentaries ("To Be and To Have," "Bus 174," "Balseros," etc.) are certainly deserving of attention. Next year, look out for a new category: Best Documentary.
The breakdown of the top vote-getters is included below.
1. "The Man Without a Past"
2. "In This World"
3. "La Commune (Paris 1871)"
"City of God"
1. Jia Zhang Ke ("Unknown Pleasures" and "Platform")
2. Elia Suleiman ("Divine Intervention")
Peter Watkins ("La Commune")
Aki Kaurismaki ("The Man Without a Past")