Billy Wilder once told his cinematographer "Be sure to get a few shots out of focus; I want to win the Oscar for best Foreign Film." The reference is a little dated, but I do think the Academy still has a stereotype of what a great Foreign film is. It must be really depressing. (Same with documentary, the only uplifting film was SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, reviewed here.)
I have only seen two of the films nominated for the Oscar for Foreign Film this year, though, WAR WITCH and AMOUR.
WAR WITCH is what I referred to as a "hybrid" foreign film last year. It is a Canadian film, in French, shot in the Congo by a Canadian director (whose parents emigrated from Vietnam) and taking place in a fictional country in central Africa. The film has been nominated for the Oscar and the Spirit award.
The film is not without flaws. The first half of the film takes itself as seriously as a heart attack without taking much time to explain what is going on or why we should care about specific characters. It definitely has the feel of a "war is bad" film. The film covers two years in the life of a young girl who is forced into war at age 12. It picks up significantly halfway through when she falls in love and gets married. And the final act of the film is quite moving.
But the real story in this film is the young actress Rachel Mwanza, now 16, who grew up on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo, having been abandoned by her parents. Director Kim Nguyen saw her in a documentary and cast her in the film, even though she was illiterate. Much like the young star of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (which I still need to review), this film is really carried by her amazing performance, and it is worth watching for that.
Although AMOUR is in French, takes place in France, and uses a predominantly French cast and crew, the film was the Austrian submission for the Oscar (presumably because writer/director Michael Haneke is Austrian), making it another hybrid nominee. Today it won the Spirit Award for International film.
This is without a doubt one of the most depressing films I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot. The title of "Love" refers to the bond between an aging and ailing couple, but the film deals more with the difficulties of aging and the decisions that must be made. The film is beautifully shot, and very European in style, using virtually no music (and all of it is source music) and extremely simple sound design. It is an extremely moving film but this film is not for everyone.
In addition to the Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film, the film has several other nominations, including Best Picture (very unlikely it will win), Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva, who is outstanding (although lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is equally good). Of these two films, this one is far superior.
I did see France's submission for the Oscar, which was not nominated, THE INTOUCHABLES, a comic drama based on the true story of a wealthy paraplegic and the young ruffian he hires to take care of him. The film has some nice moments, but it was a little saccharine for my taste.
I also saw RUST AND BONE, another French hybrid (with Belgium) which was nominated for the Spirit award. A nice cast, including Marion Cotillard and good direction made it an enjoyable but ultimately forgettable film. It did win the Motion Picture Sound Editors GOLDEN REEL. (INTOUCHABLES was also nominated, along with AMOUR).
I do find more and more as I age that I enjoy the foreign films and documentaries more than the American fiction films.