As it has for 10 years running now, the American Cinematheque will screen all five Golden Globe nominees for Foreign-Language Film starting Monday, Jan. 8. Featuring the usual mix of prior award winners (Amour, Rust and Bone), crowd pleasers (The Intouchables) and relative outliers (A Royal Affair, Kon-Tiki), the field is fairly standard for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (and, for that matter, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences): decent but hardly reflective of the riches offered by the year's international cinema.
Many words come to mind when describing the films of Michael Haneke, whose Amour (playing Jan. 9 at the Aero) is the clear front-runner for the award. “Love” isn't one of them. (Try “harsh,” “meticulous” or “clinical.”) While his second consecutive Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival is nowhere near as abrasive or audience-implicating as we've come to expect from the Austrian auteur, neither is it as warm and fuzzy as its title might suggest. The actual amour on display is the kind implied by the fine print in marriage vows: in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Telling of two octogenarians, one of whom is dying a slow death after a stroke, the film details her waning days on this mortal coil and her husband's attempts to make them as comfortable as possible. On paper it's a welcome change of pace for Haneke, but his tendency to treat the couple as patients rather than characters — at a cold remove rather than with a warm embrace — feels at odds with the material.
The Intouchables (Aero, Jan. 11) has the opposite problem: Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano give their subject too light a treatment for its life-affirming message to feel earned. Enjoyable but inessential, this inadvertent French update to Driving Miss Daisy about a wealthy quadriplegic and his unlikely (read: black and poor) in-home carer is the kind of movie that often wins these awards — which isn't necessarily a compliment. In aiming for mass appeal — successfully, it's worth adding, to the tune of $420 million worldwide — it touches on a number of topics without saying much about any of them.
Receiving a members-only screening at the Egyptian on Monday, Rust and Bone lands somewhere between the aforementioned films. Occupying the same slot Biutiful did two years ago — star vehicle for a multilingual actor who has already won an Oscar (Marion Cotillard now, Javier Bardem then) helmed by a director who has successfully crossed over from indie projects into the mainstream (Jacques Audiard/Alejandro González Iñárritu) — it's a disappointing use of Cotillard's estimable talent buoyed by striking visuals and inspired use of a Katy Perry song. (It's also still in theaters, so don't worry if you're not a Cinematheque member.)
A Royal Affair (Aero, Jan. 10) is more thoughtful and understated than the average costume drama, but its plotting does become familiar — perhaps there's only so much to be done with a story about illicit affairs and would-be coups. The real draw, as in an increasing number of films, is Mads Mikkelsen's performance, here as an 18th-century Danish doctor who takes a liking to the married queen. He's a master of appeasement and subtle reverse psychology, pulling the Danish king's strings when he appears to be licking his majesty's boots. It's from this interplay that most of the dynamism in Nikolaj Arcel's chamber drama arises, not least because the not-all-there king goes from a contemptible figure to merely a pitiable one — a monarch neutered by his own lack of wherewithal and the competing agendas of those closest to him.
Kon-Tiki (Aero, Jan. 8) is the wild card in the race, as well as the only nominee whose narrative isn't driven by physical or mental ailments. Indeed, it's quite the opposite: Norway's costliest production ever dramatizes the true story of an explorer who sailed 4,300 miles from Peru to Polynesia on a raft in 1947. The mix of storms, sharks and handsome packaging situates this somewhere between an adventure story and typical prestige picture, with the latter elements apparently having helped propel Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's good-but-not-great film into awards season.