If the same people complaining about Volver’s exclusion from this category were as angry about the cold shoulder given to The Cave of the Yellow Dog, L’Enfant, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu last year, we might actually see changes in the way the Academy chooses to reward the foreign-language picture in the future. But we are what we know—or, rather, what we see—and it’s difficult to rally for films we haven’t seen, and without the privilege of being directed by Pedro Almodóvar, who knows if we’ll ever get to see the films that failed to make the cut here and, thusly, be able to tell if they were legitimately given the shaft. Presumptuous as it is for the Almodóvar fan club to bemoan Volver’s slight without having seen the five contenders in this category, the Spanish filmmaker’s film is in fact superior to every nominee here with the possible exception of Water. Still, let us not egoistically shortchange what is a vast improvement over last year’s reprehensible slate. Indeed, the worst of this year’s batch isn’t even half bad: Days of Glory, a film that’s sparked great political change in France but whose release in the United States has been predictably manhandled by the snaky Brothers Weinstein. At best, the film suggests an interesting flipside of 49th Parallel; at worst, it suggests the hammiest tendencies of war films like Joyeux Noël. This is to say that the film is not nearly as stupid as your typical winner here. Much more intelligent, and thus out of the equation, is the year’s most surprising Oscar nominee: Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding, a drama about a dying rich man who conspires to situate another man into his family nest. Heart-pacingly written and well-performed, the film is spoiled by Bier’s aggressive shooting style, which I’m surprised didn’t turn off more Academy members. Tempting as it is to give this one to Pan’s Labyrinth, which is nominated for five other awards this year, it would be foolish to ignore that the Guillermo del Toro film caters to a certain Comic-Con sensibility that may be foreign to the tastes of this category’s older-skewing voting bloc. The achingly—if, perhaps, too achingly—photographed Water provides a much warmer film experience, and though the film has been handsomely promoted, the softees who vote here will likely opt for The Lives of Others instead. Grossly overpraised, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, a huge success all over the world and a winner of several precursor awards here in the States, works as a thriller but fails in exactly the area where it will most find its appeal: as a maudlin character study of a mean Stasi officer who turns to the good side while spying on an artist couple in 1980s East Germany. Character trajectories have never come this easy—at least not since Tsotsi last year.
Will Win: The Lives of Others
Should Win: Water