“Moolaade” Tops indieWIRE’s ’04 Foreign-Language Film Poll, Sembène and Godard Named Best Directors
by Anthony Kaufman
Defying low box office numbers and a throng of big-name competitors, veteran Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène‘s “Moolaade” topped indieWIRE’s third annual foreign-language film survey. Other big winners in this year’s poll included Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s ode to loneliness “Distant,” Jean-Luc Godard‘s elegiac cine-essay about war and representation “Notre Musique,” and Zhang Yimou, for his two Chinese martial arts spectacles “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
But with the exception of Zhang’s work, the winners in this year’s poll were art films that most U.S. audiences never got a chance to see. While a number of foreign-language pictures received high profiles and substantial marketing campaigns in their race for Oscar (e.g. “A Very Long Engagement,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “The Sea Inside,” and “Maria Full of Grace”), our voting body of 31 film critics, journalists, and festival programmers (all listed below) preferred the work of auteurs like Sembène, Ceylan, and Godard for the major categories.
For best film, Sembène’s humanist masterpiece “Moolaade,” about one woman’s struggle against female circumcision, just edged out “Distant,” followed by “Notre Musique” in third place. Also receiving multiple votes were Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s “Blissfully Yours,” Michael Haneke‘s sobering post-apocalyptic drama “Time of the Wolf,” and Korean director Kim Ki-Duk‘s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” the only top entry in our “best film” selection to make a considerable dent in the U.S. box office.
Despite the many foreign language successes in 2004, many of the year’s masterpieces were sorely overlooked by audiences, as our poll winners suggest. “It’s very regrettable, for instance, a great film like ‘Distant,’ multiple prizewinner at Cannes 2003, took so long to play the major urban markets, and once it did, the interest and attention had faded,” wrote Chicago critic Patrick McGavin. “The fact that the director’s first two features, excellent, fascinating works in their own right, never played here commercially says a lot about the current state of foreign language film exhibition.”
As further evidence, master filmmakers Sembène and Godard, who tied in our poll for Best Director, also saw extremely lackluster releases. Best Director runner-up Nuri Bilge Ceylan came a close second with “Distant,” followed by Walter Salles for his young Che Guevera travelogue “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Zhang Yimou, for “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” and Andrei Zvtagintsev, for “The Return,” his little-seen Venice-winning gem about two Russian boys contending with the father they never knew.
Zvtagintsev’s debut also received the most number of votes for Best First Film, followed closely behind by Chinese filmmaker Li Yang‘s cunning portrait of Chinese economic corruption “Blind Shaft,” and Julie Bertucelli‘s contemplative cross-generational drama “Since Otar Left.” There was a tie for forth place between Siddiq Barmak‘s Golden Globe winner “Osama” and Joshua Marston‘s celebrated Spanish-language Sundance hit “Maria, Full of Grace.”
The presence of Marston’s debut could be said to complicate matters: what is an American director doing in our foreign film poll? But our criterion is simple: the film must be in a language other than English and must have distribution in the United States. As some of our poll participants suggested, however, these rules may not be enough. “Foreign and foreign-language are getting more and more squishy,” wrote journalist Leonard Klady. “‘Maria’ and ‘Passion of the Christ’ are U.S. productions and so is ‘A Very Long Engagement.’ Culturally, there are distinctions, but in general I think you have to sharpen up the definitions.”
Despite the complications in defining a “foreign film” in the year 2004, there’s one area where nearly all of our participants agreed: the year’s best documentary. Jorgen Leth‘s “The Five Obstructions,” his cinematic game of wits with Lars von Trier, was the top nonfiction pick among half of our respondents, followed by Rithy Panh‘s chronicle of atrocity, “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” and “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” the Oscar short-listed doc directed by newcomers Davaa Byambasuren and Luigi Falorni.
In the category of Best Screenplay, Abbas Kiarostami‘s script for “Crimson Gold,” Jafar Panahi‘s stunning look at inequity in contemporary Tehran, won the most number of votes, followed by “Moolaade” and “Maria Full of Grace.” Other multiple vote-getters were Lucas Belvaux‘s ambitious three-film, three-genre innovation “The Trilogy” and first-timer Christoffer Boe‘s po-mo rom-noir “Reconstruction.”
For Best Actor, Javier Bardem emerged as the clear first choice for his turn as quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro battling to die with dignity in “The Sea Inside.” The runner-up was Jean-Pierre Darroussin, for his hazy drunken tour-de-force performance in “Red Lights.” Young heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal was also singled out for his affecting roles in “Bad Education” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” and Muzaffer Özdemir, star of “Distant,” was heralded for his portrayal of an embittered photographer.
Eric Caravaca, who plays the gay brother and caretaker of his dying sibling in Patrice Chereau‘s little-seen “Son Frere” was also hailed, as was Ivan Dobranravov, the fierce and fragile younger boy in “The Return,” who split his votes between best actor and best supporting actor.
For Best Supporting Actor, Rodrigo de la Serna, playing Alberto Grenada, Che Guevera’s real-life sidekick, won the most number of votes. Lagging behind were Anthony Wong in “Infernal Affairs” and John Malkovich as the captain in Manoel de Oliviera‘s “A Talking Picture.” (“What a strange performance,” wrote Chicago International Film Festival programmer Helen Gramates, “but the last frame makes it all worth it!”)
The year’s foreign-language Best Actress, according to our voters, was Catalina Sandino Moreno, the understated star of “Maria Full of Grace.” But Esther Gorintin, the sharp, Stalin-loving grandmother in “Since Otar Left,” was not far behind, splitting almost the same number of votes for best supporting and best actress. Fatoumata Coulibaly, as the rebellious heroine of “Moolaade,” was also singled out, as were Moon So-ryi, who plays a severely handicapped lover in Korean director Lee Chang-dong‘s “Oasis” and Carole Bouquet, the chilly wife in “Red Lights.” Other actresses drawing votes from both best and supporting categories were Zhang Ziyi for “House of Flying Daggers,” Maya Maron for “Broken Wings,” Ludivine Sagnier for “La Petite Lili,” and Katrin Sass for “Goodbye Lenin!”
In our catch-all category for best technical achievement, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero” won the most number votes, with many ballots highlighting the specific contributions of cinematographers Xiaoding Zhao and Christopher Doyle. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique” was not far behind, with specific respect to the film’s opening war montage “Hell” sequence. Cinematographers Eric Gautier (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Son Frere”) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant”) were also praised, as were the production designers for “A Very Long Engagement and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.”
This year’s foreign film “academy” consisted of a total of 31 critics, programmers, and journalists from around the U.S. (and one from Canada): John Anderson (Newsday), Michael Atkinson (Village Voice), Liza Bear (critic), Peter Brunette (critic), Mike D’Angelo (critic), Matt Dentler (SXSW Film Festival), Howard Feinstein (critic), Scott Foundas (Variety, LA Weekly), Helen Gramates (Chicago International Film Festival), Tom Hall (Nantucket and Sarasota Film Festivals), Laurence Kardish (Museum of Modern Art), Anthony Kaufman (indieWIRE writer), Leonard Klady (journalist), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot, Film Comment), Dennis Lim (Village Voice), Helen Loveridge (Seattle International Film Festival), Sandy Mandelberger (journalist), Mike Maggiore (Film Forum), Patrick McGavin (critic), Wendy Mitchell (indieWIRE writer), Gerald Peary (Boston Phoenix), Mark Peranson (Cinemascope), Ray Pride (Chicago New City), Jeff Reichert (Reverse Shot), Steven Rosen (critic), Matthew Ross (FILMMAKER Magazine), Rajendra Roy (Hamptions International Film Festival), David Sterritt (Christian Science Monitor), Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly), Amy Taubin (critic), Scott Tobias (The Onion).
The breakdown of winners per category is included below.
3. “Notre Musique”
4. “Blissfully Yours” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and
5. “Time of the Wolf”
1. “The Five Obstructions”
2. “S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine”
3. “Story of the Weeping Camel”
4. “Born into Brothels”
5. “Arna’s Children” and “Control Room”
1. Jean-Luc Godard (“Notre Musique”) and Ousmane
2. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant”)
3. Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”)
1. “Crimson Gold” by Abbas Kiarostami
2. “Moolaade” by Ousmene Sembene
3. “Maria Full of Grace” by Joshua Marston
1. Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”)
2. Jean-Pierre Darroussin (“Red Lights”)
3. Gael Garcia Bernal (“Bad Education”/“Motorcycle
Best Supporting Actor:
1. Rodrigo de la Serna (“The Motorcycle Diaries”)
2. John Malkovich (“A Talking Picture”)
3. Anthony Wong (“Infernal Affairs”)
1. Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”)
2. Fatoumata Coulibaly (“Moolaade”)
3. Esther Gorintin (“Since Otar Left”)
Best Supporting Actress:
1. Esther Gorintin (“Since Otar Left”)
2. Katrin Sass (“Goodbye Lenin!”)
3. Dinara Droukarova (“Since Otar Left”) and Shiang-chyi
Chen (“Goodbye Dragon Inn”)
Best First Film:
1. “The Return”
2. “Blind Shaft”
3. “Since Otar Left”
4. “Osama” and “Maria Full of Grace”
5. “Born into Brothels,” “Noi Albino,” “The Outskirts,”
“Reconstruction,” “Silent Waters,” “The Story of the
Best Technical Achievement:
1. Xiaoding Zhao, Cinematography (“House of Flying
2. Christopher Doyle, Cinematography (“Hero”)
3. Jean-Luc Godard, Editing (“Notre Musique,” “Hell”