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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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If We Picked the Winners 2017: Best Foreign Language Film

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Matt Fagerholm makes the case for the Best Foreign Language Film of 2016: "Toni Erdmann." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.


There are few moviegoing experiences more thrilling than when an actor’s onscreen performance earns spontaneous applause from an audience. I saw it happen at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, after Javier Bardem flipped a coin to determine the fate of a convenience store clerk in “No Country for Old Men.” And it happened again at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, after Sandra Hüller, playing an uptight management consultant in “Toni Erdmann,” delivered a show-stopping rendition of Whitney Houston’s R&B gem, “Greatest Love of All.” In both cases, I felt as if I were stumbling upon a moment that was destined to become a classic.

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What makes German writer/director Maren Ade’s comedy such an exhilarating achievement is its refusal to cleave to the contrivances of any particular genre, unlike so many Hollywood comedies allegedly preaching against nonconformity. It’s difficult to believe that the film’s American remake will have a shred of its predecessor’s audacity, which includes some of the funniest graphic nudity ever to grace the screen. Rather than compress all her gags into a tight running time, Ade luxuriates in her intricately-nuanced narrative for 162 minutes, allowing us to become fully immersed in the troubled relationship between Ines (Hüller) and Winfried (Peter Simonischek), her tireless prankster of a father.

After his beloved dog dies, Winfried leaves Germany to pay a surprise visit to his estranged daughter in Bucharest. Clad in ghoulish fake teeth and a wig that appears to have been swiped off Tommy Wiseau’s head, her father’s Mrs. Doubtfire-esque portrayal of the fictional Toni Erdmann is a source of unending embarrassment for Ines, though she has nevertheless inherited her father’s compulsion for performance. At work, she’s required to promote the implementation of outsourcing as if it will benefit her clients, knowing fully well that it will result in massive layoffs. Traces of Ines’ repressed unhappiness only intensify her father’s desire to upend her daily routine until she reveals a startling boldness of her own, culminating in a climactic set piece that got the biggest sustained laugh I’ve heard in a theater since 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Though “Toni Erdmann” was initially the front-runner in this category, many Oscar prognosticators are betting that voters will choose “The Salesman” instead, since its Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, is skipping the ceremony to protest President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban. “The Salesman” is a fine film, but it’s not as great as Farhadi’s 2011 Oscar-winner, “A Separation.” After being snubbed at Cannes despite receiving nearly unanimous raves, “Toni Erdmann” deserves to take home the gold this year.


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