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Foreign film nominees cause controversy

Why did Academy voters avoid some of the riskier choices?
/ Source: Reuters

Movies about impending death and the high cost of funerals for Samurai mothers are among the themes dominating foreign-language nominations at this year’s Oscars — a category that, as usual, is stirring controversy.

Critics of this year’s nominations say the films appear to have been chosen by a retirement-age nominating committee who ignored cutting edge films in favor of middle-brow fare that senior citizens enjoy.

Most notably, critics say the committee failed to recognize three of the year’s most highly acclaimed foreign films; Afghan Siddiq Barmak’s Golden Globe winner “Osama,” German Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye Lenin” and Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return.”

Last year, the foreign language film nominating committee created a storm by failing to nominate Brazilian Fernando Meirelles’s violent but highly acclaimed “City of God.”

Academy members indicated their disdain for the committee’s decision this year by giving “City of God” nominations for directing, adapted screenplay, film editing and cinematography.

The make-up of the estimated 500-strong volunteer committee which faces the daunting task of selecting the nominees from 56 countries has come under fire for being essentially too old and too middle-brow.

One former committee member told Daily Variety that the membership of the committee “skews retired, way retired in some cases” and that there are moves under way to revamp it.

Of the five movies chosen this year, four are set in the late 1950s or earlier.

“The Barbarian Invasions,” a French Canadian film directed by Denys Arcand, is considered by most to be the front runner to land the award this year. It centers on a dying womanizer as he spends his last days surrounded by family, friends and former mistresses.

The movie has won praise from many critics, particularly for its screenplay, which has been also been nominated for an Oscar. Critic and Hollywood historian Leonard Maltin described it as “a joy to behold, and it’s my favorite film for 2003.”

Backing for the movie — the only contemporary one nominated — was, however, far from unanimous with the New York Post’s V.A. Musetto calling it “schmaltzy and contrived” as well as “sickeningly anti-American.”

The film’s use of footage from the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York also sparked a hostile response from some who saw it as exploitative.

Impoverished samuraiNominated Japanese movie “The Twilight Samurai”, directed by Yoji Yamada, deals with another subject close to the hearts of an older audience, the cost of paying for a funeral.

Set in 19th century Japan, it tells of the struggles of a widowed samurai, caught between the responsibilities of supporting a family on his meager salary as an office clerk and his duty as a warrior. His dilemmas include whether he should sell his sword in order to pay for his mother’s funeral.

Ondrej Trojan’s “Zelary”, the Czech Republic’s entry, takes place during World War Two, a favored setting among Oscar voters. The movie is set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and tells of a smart young nurse forced to hide in a backward mountain village where she meets a rugged blacksmith.

“Evil,” a coming-of-age drama directed by Mikael Hafstrom, could become the first Swedish winner in the category since Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny & Alexander” more than 20 years ago.

It tells of teenager Erik who is violently abused by his stepfather and then sent to a boarding schools where he is violently abused by older pupils.

“Erik has violence in him. It is like a plague. He has been beaten all his life. What he learns throughout this story is how to use his brain instead of his fists,” director Hafstrom told Reuters in an interview.

“Evil” has at least one thing in common with its illustrious predecessor. Bergman’s actor son Mats has roles in both. In “Evil” he is a schoolteacher with Nazi sympathies.

The Dutch nominee, “Twin Sisters” directed by Ben Sombogaart, tells the moving story of Anne and Lotte who were separated in 1925 after their parents died.

The two sisters have very different lives, one raised by a wealthy aunt in Holland and the other in difficult circumstances on a German farm.