In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, Timbuktu’s lucid depiction of innocents rightfully, righteously fighting fundamentalism from within feels especially eye-opening. But given how its Brechtian dramaturgical sensibility stands in such sharp contrast to Birdman’s razzle-dazzling variety, its presence here is immediately surprising. Worse, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Cannes winner, only the second film from sub-Saharan Africa to be nominated in this category, made news last week when the mayor of a Parisian suburb tried to ban the film from a local cinema after deeming it, sight unseen, as “an apology for terrorism,” suggesting that its anti-jihadist message may not be unambiguous enough for the Academy’s peanut gallery.
Fighting an equally uphill battle may be this year’s Golden Globe winner, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Like Timbuktu, it’s elegant and humane, but as political parable, it’s a bitter and heavily veiled brew. In short, the exact opposite of Tangerines. Set shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Zaza Urushadze’s film tells the story of two Estonian men who chose to remain in their Georgian village and find themselves caught in the crossfire between Chechen and Abkhazian rebels. As parable, it’s genial and over-emphatic, an endless font of blandly sentimental and digestible allegorizing. Which is to say, it’s just what the Oscar ordered.
But wait! Wild Tales is also a kind of state-of-the-union address, this one largely concerning the class frictions plaguing modern-day Argentina. It’s cheeky, but also impossibly smug, which would make for a winning combination if this patchwork of stories were more transgressively enraged and purposefully stitched together. Which, then, leaves us to default to Ida, a film that, like Tangerines, works as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure, except here it’s audiences that are tasked with the choosing. Icy in style though warm in affect, pious yet doubtful of faith, the film abounds in ambiguities that, while distasteful to some, most have received as sensitively welcoming their most informed interpretations. Also, because Holocaust.
Will Win: Ida
Could Win: Wild Tales
Should Win: Timbuktu