I have mixed feelings about the Academy Awards. I have no problem with calling attention to noteworthy movies released during the year, and it's good to see a bunch of fine movies — The Queen, Babel, Children of Men, Volver, Notes on a Scandal, and Little Children, for example — being recognized in the various categories.
But then it comes time to pick just one movie or person from every category, and that's what drives me crazy (along with all the glitz and tacky production values, of course). Is there really such a thing as a "Best Actress" when the nominees are Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslet? I've seen all five movies involved in this award, and it seems just plain arbitrary to pick one at the expense of all the others.
Of the nominees for Foreign-Language Film, I've seen four (all except After the Wedding). While these four movies have some similarities — all take place in the past and all have strong political content — they are so different that choosing a "best" is a disservice rather than a help. I discussed Water in a blog entry last August and Pan's Labyrinth in a blog entry about a month ago.
Days of Glory (in both Arabic and French) is a rather episodic film that portrays the recruitment of men from the French colony of Algeria to fight with the French army during World War II. As the Algerians demonstrate their loyalty to France, they also often speak of how France will reward them for their service. The unspoken event that hangs over the narrative is, of course, the long battle for Algerian independence that ended in 1962. But that's another movie (specifically, The Battle of Algiers).
The Lives of Others is a masterful work that takes place in East Germany beginning in 1984. A crack interrogator for the Ministry of State Security (the infamous Stasi) is called upon to bug the home of a famous playwright and his actress girlfriend. It's probably best that you know not much more than that before you see this movie, except that it's the first feature film made by it's writer and director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which is a wonderful name for a terrific filmmaker that I hope to hear much of in the years ahead.