The DVD Report #17

Oscar has never been kind to films made in languages other than English. Even in the waning days of silent films when all films shown in the U.S. were released with English subtitles, masterpieces such as Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (both of which are available in Criterion Special Editions) never stood a chance. Of course it can be argued that those films were ignored not because they were foreign made but because they weren’t talkies, the same fate which kept Charles Chaplin’s City Lights from getting its due from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That argument, however, goes out the window when early talking films made in foreign languages were dubbed into English for American audiences and became hits, but were still ignored by Oscar.

Rene Clair’s French musicals Under the Roofs of Paris and Le Million, and his comedy A Nous la Liberté which inspired Chaplin’s Modern Times, were extremely popular in the U.S. and appeared on numerous ten best lists but only A Nous la Liberté received an Oscar bid, and that was for its art direction. All three are available on Criterion DVDs.

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the influential film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to world audiences, didn’t stand a chance with Oscar even though it was filmed in both German and English. It doesn’t help that the English language version, which was the only version shown in the U.S. at the time, was so sanitized for puritanical American audiences that it lost its zing. The Academy, to its credit, did nominate the von Sternberg-Dietrich follow-up Hollywood film, Morocco, which accounted for Dietrich’s only Oscar nomination. Both versions of The Blue Angel are included on the Kino DVD. Morocco is available as part of Universal’s Marlene Dietrich Collection.

Fritz Lang’s M, a Criterion Special Edition DVD, was a highly popular and influential German film that brought both its director and star, Peter Lorre, to Hollywood, but the German film stood no chance with the Academy either.

French films maintained their popularity with American audiences from the mid-thirties through the early forties as films made in mid-thirties French films were slowly released here. Mayerling appeared on numerous ten best lists in 1937, but failed to charm the Academy despite the fact that its star, Charles Boyer, was by then a major Hollywood star, winning his own Oscar nomination that year for Conquest. Neither Mayerling nor Conquest are available on commercial DVDs in the U.S.

Finally in 1938, with World War II looming, the Academy saw fit to nominate Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece, Grand Illusion, another Criterion Special Edition, for Best Picture (which holds the distinction of being the first foreign film ever nominated for Best Picture – ed.).

To be fair, English-language foreign films didn’t fare any better with the Academy during this period. None of Alfred Hitchcock’s British-made films were nominated for Oscars, not even the masterpieces The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, both of which are available as Criterion Special Editions. On the other hand, Oscar loved Hollywood-produced English films such as The Citadel and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

It wasn’t until after the war that foreign films reached American audiences in appreciable numbers, the Academy opening its arms widest for English-language foreign films such as Olivier’s Henry V and Hamlet, Lean’s Brief Encounter and Great Expectations, and Powell-Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, all of which are available as Criterion Special Edition DVDs.

Having overlooked Roberto Rossellini’s masterworks, Open City and Paisan in 1946 and 1947 respectively, the Academy belatedly decided to bestow official recognition on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist film, Shoeshine, by giving it its first Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Open City and Shoeshine are available on DVD in the U.S.; Paisan is not.

Foreign films did not receive a category of their own until 1956. In the meantime, the Academy singled out a foreign film released in the U.S. for each year between 1947 and 1956 with the exception of 1953. Among the films honored during this period were De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games. Federico Fellini’s La Strada became the first recipient of the competitive award. All these films are available as Criterion Special Edition DVDs.

Under the Academy’s new rules, films are submitted for consideration by country of origin and voted upon for nomination by members of a select committee. This practice has done a lot for bringing otherwise obscure films to the forefront. On the other hand, it has resulted in shutting out some highly popular films in the years when the country of origin either failed to select their most obvious choice or otherwise had too many good films to choose from.

Aside from the Best Foreign Film category, the most popular foreign films have been nominated in other categories as well, including Best Picture. Foreign language films were at their peak of popularity in the U.S. in the early-to-mid-1970s when, for three straight years from 1972 through 1974, a foreign language film managed to be included in the nominations for Best Picture. Those films were Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night. In the 31 years since, only three more foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture: Roberto Benigni’s’s Life Is Beautiful (1998), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) and Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006). The latter may be in a foreign language but it is very much an American film in which most of the dialogue just happens to be in Japanese.

The 2006 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film was The Lives of Others, which has just been released on DVD. The film, by first time feature director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is a triumph both as historical drama and taut thriller. Set in 1984 with chilling Orwellian references, it is accurately described by the director on his commentary as a truthful story, as opposed to a true one. The detailed tactics of the Stasi (East German Secret Police) before the fall of the Berlin Wall are all based on well documented actual practices. Ulrich Muhe, the greatest actor in East Germany, and later in unified Germany as well, was himself the victim of Stasi informants that included his own wife, the mother of his only child. The actor, who died in July of stomach cancer at the age of 54, is riveting as a member of the Stasi who develops a conscience, ultimately saving the life of the playwright he is at first eager to spy upon. With references to Anna Karenina and the Pieta as well as 1984, the film’s moving redemptive ending is one of the most satisfying in all of cinema. It is easily one of the three best films released in the U.S. so far this year, all of them released in their country of origin in 2006. The others are The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Black Book, both of which are available on DVD now in Region 2 and will soon be available in Region 1.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) made his directorial debut with the lean and mean House of Games (1987) which has been given a spiffy new Criterion upgrade. Mamet’s wife at the time, Lindsay Crouse (Places in the Heart) stars as a psychiatrist and best selling author involved with con man Joe Mantegna (TV’s Joan of Arcadia). Lilia Skala (Lilies of the Field) brings her considerable charm to the role of Crouse’s mentor. The film itself is a matter of taste, but it sure does look good in its new transfer.

Despite a plot with holes enough to drive a truck through, Fracture, directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) is a tense courtroom thriller with Anthony Hopkins (The Remains of the Day, Shadowlands) chewing up the scenery while Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, Half Nelson) slowly figures out what is going on.

The always interesting Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin, Brick) and Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home, The Squid and the Whale) are the principal reasons for latching on to a copy of The Lookout, writer Scott Frank’s (Out of Sight, The Interpreter) directorial debut. Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of the brain damaged protagonist is easily the screen’s best portrayal of a “slow” character since Tom Hulce’s retarded garbage collector in Dominick and Eugene. Daniels has some nice moments as his blind roommate in this tale of a bank robbery gone wrong.

DVDs of TV series have become big business. They seem to serve two main purposes, providing viewers with pristine copies of their favorite shows and giving others the opportunity to catch up with shows they may have missed while watching something else without the benefit of a DVD recorder or similar device. As we get ready for the new TV season, those who spent last season watching Veronica Mars – Season 3 can find out what went down on House – Season 3. Similarly those who were glued to their sets watching Survivor – Seasons 13 & 14 can find out why their friends and neighbors were so fascinated with Ugly Betty – Season 1 and those that supported 24 – Season 6 to the bitter end can find out what was so great about Heroes – Season 1. The under-viewed Friday Night Lights – Season 1 should at last find the support it deserved all along.

Peter J. Patrick (August 28, 2007)

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(August 19)

  1. Wild Hogs
              $9.94 M ($9.94 M)
  2. Disturbia
              $7.58 M ($17.3 M)
  3. Fracture
              $6.71 M ($6.71 M)
  4. Vacancy
              $6.36 M ($6.36 M)
  5. 300
              $5.85 M ($27.2 M)
  6. Are We Done Yet?
              $4.8 M ($11.6 M)
  7. Hot Fuzz
              $4.32 M ($16.0 M)
  8. The Number 23
              $3.73 M ($21.6 M)
  9. Zodiac
              $3.6 M ($20.9 M)
  10. I Think I Love My Wife
              $3.36 M ($7.22 M)

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(August 12)

  1. 300
  2. Disturbia
  3. TMNT
  4. Are We Done Yet?
  5. The Simpsons: The Complete Tenth Season
  6. Hot Fuzz
  7. Pathfinder
  8. I Think I Love My Wife
  9. Shooter
  10. National Lampoon’s Animal House

New Releases

(August 28)

Coming Soon

(September 4)

(September 11)

(September 18)

(September 25)

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