Oscar Watch – Animated Feature Film, Documentary and Foreign Film

Best Animated Feature Film – Nominees
Coraline: Henry Selick
Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson
The Princess and the Frog: John Musker, Ron Clements
The Secret of Kells: Tomm Moore
Up: Pete Docter

Yes. For all those who are wondering, I have indeed seen ‘The Secret of Kells’. I believe it’s an Irish-French-Belgian production but with mostly Irish voice actors. It’s a story that you’re more or less familiar with; a community set within ‘the wall’ and nobody is allowed to go beyond said wall because it is said to be dangerous. Obviously, out little protagonist did. Like I said, there’s nothing really fresh about the plot but the hand-drawn animation totally blew me away. Its not to say beautiful like Pixar’s, but its unique in its own way. The art director, I have to admit, has some really whacky imagination. I was also taken away by the beautiful Celtic score and there is this one song that was sung by this little girl Ashley, which was like something I have never heard of before; beautiful and eerie at the same time. But seeing that this movie is unheard of and the fact that there is nothing really new in terms of plot and lack of character development, it has a very low chance of winning the Award.

Then we have ‘Coraline’, my personal favorite. The movie taught me that you’ll never know what you’re missing until you miss them. Or something like that. Thing is, I have a soft spot for stop-motion films. The effort and the patience required to make such films is just incredible that if it were up to me, I would just go up to Henry Selick and present him the Oscar. I love the storyline and the whole stop-motion work. I dare say that this is the most stunning stop-motion work I have seen to date. In my personal opinion, I love this film more than ‘Up’. Somehow, I just don’t feel ‘Up’ the way most of you do. For me, ‘Coraline’ was more touching and more visually appealing. Sadly, it will definitely lose to ‘Up’.

Even black princesses are obligated to look at stars.

‘The Princess and the Frog’ is supposed to mark Disney’s triumphant return to hand-drawn animation, together with songs and dances. However, in terms of the storyline itself, this movie kinda sucks. There’s just nothing great to it. The only thing that I like the most about it is the music. It has some really good jazz songs in it. Besides that, Tiana isn’t really one of the best Disney princesses out there. I am not discriminating her because she is black, but she doesn’t seem like a very loveable character and spends most of her screen time as a frog and not as a human. For me, it was more of Prince Naveen’s show rather than hers and I like that they’ve cast one of the finest voice actors around (Keith David) as the villain, The Shadow Man. Unfortunately, he had little screen time. And yeah, Lottie was freaking annoying.

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was an interesting film. I intended to test out the movie for five minutes but ended up glued in front of the TV till the end. The story itself is rather interesting and reminds me a lot of those fables that I’ve read when I was a kid. Wait a minute, it is based on one of those, is it not? Anyway, like what I have mentioned in my Best Original Score post, the movie also has some interesting music to it. However, in terms of the stop motion work, I wasn’t really impressed with it (besides the fur). But it is after all Wes Anderson’s work and I believe that it is his intention to make the film look the way it does and it somehow works. I guess most importantly, the story was go good that you tend to forgive them whenever there’s bad animation. In the event that Up doesn’t win (for whatever reason), it seems like a tough call to decide who will win instead. Its certainly between ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and ‘Coraline’. ‘Coraline’ has beautiful stop motion work but ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ seem to gain a little more advantage in terms of the storyline. It is difficult to call, so I am not going to call it at all. I shall just go with a primary prediction and what movie will that be….well, look down.

Yes, ‘Up’ is down. The thing with Pixar is that I’ve fallen in love with their films because first and foremost, they’re telling stories that relate to us from the point of view of non-humans (rats, fishes, robots, monster, bugs, toys and superheroes). Here, it’s from the point of view of an old man. I mean I have no issue with Carl Fredricksen or Charles Muntz for that matter, but I would rather see the same characters in the form of say a tiger or a grizzly bear or a jaguar instead. It doesn’t have that special Pixar feeling to it, in my personal opinion. Yes, I still like the movie but I wouldn’t go down saying it’s the best Pixar work to date, like what most of you are saying. But I have to admit that Carl and Ellie’s Married Life sequence is one of the most beautiful and touching scene of the year. It nearly reduced me to tears but it didn’t. Seeing that it’s also nominated for Best Picture, this seems like a sure win in the Animated Feature category.

Primary Prediction: Up
Secondary Prediction: None
Personal Favorite: Coraline

Fazil needs sleep.

Best Documentary, Features – Nominees
Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land: Anders Østergaard, Lise Lense-Møller
The Cove: Louie Psihoyos, Fisher Stevens
Food, Inc.: Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Which Way Home: Rebecca Cammisa

Before I proceed any further, a disclaimer: two out of the three nominees, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ and ‘Which Way Home’ are actually television documentaries. They were commissioned by American television stations for exclusive broadcast on their stations, and as such, proved to be exceedingly difficult to get a hold of. As a result, I was unable to watch them, and thus my predictions will be based without accounting for their respective achievements.

Getting started with ‘Burma VJ’, however, I suppose I should point out another disclaimer. I had seen this documentary a long time ago (perhaps at the tail-end of 2008?), during a special screening at a human rights gathering. Though I did remember being suitably impressed, once again, for the purposes of this review, I didn’t manage to watch it again. Resisting the temptation to actually read other people’s review for that, I’ll rely on my own memory for this film. It’s a good thing, then, that the documentary itself is a memorable piece of work. It tells the story of undercover reporters reporting on the real life situation on the ground in Burma (I am still somewhat torn between calling it Burma and Myanmar, though I am more inclined towards the latter). The roughness of the film’s quality makes it feel like you’re watching a Paul Greengrass movie at times. That should be of no surprise, since Greengrass himself had plenty of experience as a video reporter. Footage from the reporters in Burma managed to capture and tell more than thousands of words what mere thought and imagination could not: the march of the monks as they protested against the militaristic rule of their government. Putting aside whatever political leanings you may have, seeing thousands of monks in that situation, being harassed the way they did, actually “fighting” for what they believe in is something to be seen. The nomination’s list says a bunch of Westerners did the main jobs. Admirable though their intent and efforts may be, it pales in comparison to what the video reporters and the protestors themselves went through. This award, if they do win it, should go to them.

He didn't realise that they're about to move in for the kill...

Of course, that’s a big if. I say that, because I believe that the dolphin-saving ‘The Cove’ is the frontrunner here (or, should I say, the frontswimmer). Once again, not unlike ‘Burma VJ’, the bulk of the credits should go to the man who’s actually on the screen rather than those behind it: Ric O’Barry. I had written more extensively about this previously: ” There is something inhumane, something painful in seeing how some of the dolphins are treated. How much of this is something that we truly believe in? How much of this is merely a ploy that has been performed by the media for years, for decades?”  What I mean by this is why should we care about dolphins, and not about other kinds of fishes? I feel that how we really feel about dolphins would picture how we react to this documentary about the illegal slaughtering of dolphins in Japan. And therein lies the crunch: a lot of people like dolphins. A lot of people in America like dolphins. A big part of this craze, ironically enough, had much to do with O’Barry himself, who trained dolphins for the show ‘Flipper’ for many years. I believe it is because of this point of view that the reaction to ‘The Cove’ has been very positive. This positive reaction may lead to it winning the Oscar, but I have no doubt that if O’Barry were to think a little bit deeper about this (and not just about the potential wave of publicity that could wipe out the said dolphin operations in Taiji), he might feel a little bittersweet.

At the very least, the bittersweet taste left in his mouth won’t be as artificial. It didn’t come under the purview of ‘Food, Inc.’, that’s for sure. A documentary that looks at the production and manufacture of food in America, it also has a relatively strong chance of winning. The strength of that chance, however, comes on the back of the neatness of the film. There’s a lot of beautiful shots, eye-pleasing visual effects, and a consistent format throughout the film. While ‘Burma VJ’ had technical deficiencies, and ‘The Cove’ themselves didn’t quite shoot in the most comfortable of situations, ‘Food, Inc.’ has the advantage of the luxury of time and space. Time to conduct their interviews. Space to set up their beautiful shots. Wireless mics on their interviewees. As a result, it is the slickest of the three documentaries to be written of here. Quite frankly, I expected no less; the same production company also backed ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which was also a slick and neat production. That may well be its trump card, but that’s not to say that it is without other advantages. It also gamely offered the chance for the opposite side to pose their views; the mere fact that they refused only added to the credibility of this production. Of course, like I said earlier, the other two documentaries didn’t really have the same opportunities, but this is an opportunity that they had and grabbed with both hands and more. In any other year, they may well end up winning the vote.

It is unfortunate, then, that dolphins play better to the hearts.

Primary prediction: The Cove
Secondary prediction: Food, Inc.
Personal favourite: Burma VJ

Best Foreign Language Film – Nominees
Ajami (Israel)
Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (Germany)
El secreto de sus ojos (Argentina)
Un prophète (France)
La teta asustada (Peru)

Another, far more interesting omission: out of all the films that I didn’t manage to watch, it is a French film. You’d think that ‘Un prophete’ would be somewhat available, at least at the local Alliance Francaise branch. But non monsieur, have it they did not, and so we have to strike one film off this list. A pity, really, given that it had earned plenty of nice reviews along the way.

One movie that has earned itself another slew of good word is ‘The White Ribbon’. Set in a rural community somewhere in Germany, the period is the time before the way. As a series of mysterious events escalate to become more and more brutal, we find ourselves somewhat unable to…escape. That’s the word I was looking for: unable to escape. Claustrophobic. Enclosed. Chained. When I say these words, I mean that this film feels like an allegory or a metaphor or a symbol used to represent what present society is. According to the director himself, the film is about every kind of terror, about their origins. It’s an intriguing point to be made, but it is also true. Such fear and terror is bred and born from mistrust, and we see that growing throughout the film. For my part, I was actually reminded of a few of the Malaysian New Wave filmmakers. Some of them, like James Lee and Tan Chui Mui, amongst others, have had plenty of practice with the long takes, and the compositions I see in ‘The White Ribbon’ is one that reminds me of their films (see ‘Before We Fall In Love Again’ for reference; it also helps that it’s in black and white). Here, everything is so measured, so repressed, that you can’t help but feel that such burst of ‘accidents’ are inevitable. It could also be read in many different ways, but the most prominent of all is the idea of the enclosed community somewhat crumbling under its own weight of expectations. I’m also reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, a novel that tells the tale of a community whose century-long existence was eventually forgotten. I had much of the same sense of…inevitability.

The Argentinian 'Bones' had a more mature audience.

Is it inevitable for it to win, though? In many ways, yes, but coming in from a more left-field approach, would it be too much for me to put forth ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ as a possible winner, too? Of course, it’s possible for it to win since it’s nominated. What I mean is that it could very well win on its own accord as well. Set in Argentina in 1999 (duh), the film follows a former court officer who spent a chunk of his life being captivated and haunted by a case he couldn’t solve. He decides to revisit the old ghosts and write a book about it. We are then transported back in Argentina in the mid-70s, as the story is told mainly in flashbacks. I have to admit, I didn’t give it much of a chance to begin with. I recognised the actor, Ricardo Darin, well; he was one of the leads for ‘XXY’. In fact, truth be told, I had mistaken and forgotten that this film is Argentinian, rather than Spanish. Darin, then, became the marker and the catalyst for this little enlightenment, and also the drive for the plot. His relentless chase after the killer, his chemistry with his colleauge Santoval, his unspoken love for his boss Irene, they were all portrayed with almost-effortless cool. He made me smile a lot. He didn’t quite make me cry, but then again, few ever really does. Having said that, there are two main points that really hooked me unto this film. The first is an impassionate speech that Sandoval gave in a cafe that gave them a huge lead in their case: “A man may change his face, his identity, but he may never change his passion.” The second is actually the scene immediately after that: a long, single-take shot measuring almost 5 minutes in duration that started off as an ariel view of a football match, before sweeping down to focus on the officers chasing after the accused all the way throughout the stadium, culminating in an on-pitch arrest. Absolutely, totally, utterly brilliant. The money shot of almost any movie of this year, I think. Brilliant stuff.

I wish that I could say the same for ‘The Milk of Sorrow’, but I couldn’t, unfortunately. It probably shouldn’t have been that way, though. I have to say, though, that the title is rather brave. It literally means ‘The Frightened Teat’, and it should be applaued for it invokes a number of images (no, not of that kind). Such a title wouldn’t have passed in Malaysia and perhaps a number of Asian countries, but it’s a very good title in two different ways. One, it caught your attention (especially if you’re a Spanish speaker). Secondly, it made you feel. At least, it made me feel. The image of a teat shrinking from fear is one that is not very comfortable. As such, it perfectly encapsulates not only the movie, but the story that the film represents. It is not very comfortable to watch in many different ways. In the film, the main character is suffering from what is called the Milk of Sorrow (hence, the title), a disease transmitted through the breast milk of pregnant women who were abused. It doesn’t make for bedtime readings, does it? What it does make for is a film that doesn’t quite have the required energy to make the final leap to the top step of the podium. I am not saying that it is not good, and in fact I will further discuss this in a future review of the film, but I do feel that while the film is accomplished, it may well reach only a few interested parties. I do, however, find myself being rather intrigued by the events the movie is based and inspired by, and so I think I may well read up on that a bit more.

Catatonia's 'Road Rage' was a big hit on the West Bank.

Finally, ‘Ajami’ is a movie that immediately gets good marks from me for not necessarily being about the Israel-Palestine conflict in any way. Well, I should rephrase that and put in the word ‘directly’ in there somewhere. It follows the fortunes of several different characters in a rough neighbourhood called…Ajami (what are the chances?). Just reading that alone makes it feel like a story set somewhere along the lines of ‘Love Actually’. Actually, I’d akin it closer to ‘Crash’. No, scratch that: I’ll bring in ‘City of Gods’. If you like that, then you’ll like ‘Ajami’: it is frenetic, it is raw, it is rough, it is…not all that easy to watch. It is, however, a very worthy film because of the performances of the actors. I shouldn’t say performances, really, since they are not really professional actors. Bearing that in mind, it makes this film that bit more remarkable. What’s just as remarkable is the fact that this is the first Israeli film to be submitted that is mostly done in Arabic (I didn’t notice too many Allahs from the characters, though…)

In conclusion, although all the films (including ‘Un prophete’, I’m sure) are worthy films to be seen, in the end, there can be only one. If I had to pick one, I’d go for ‘The White Ribbon’.

Primary prediction: ‘The White Ribbon’
Secondary prediction: ‘Ajami’
Personal favourite: ‘The White Ribbon’/’The Secret in Their Eyes’ (I can’t decide, sorry)

Fikri feels weird discussing a film’s award merits instead of just their own merits.

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