Argentina’s foreign language film entry in this year’s Academy Awards puts even the Best Picture nominees to shame.
In all likelihood, Wild Tales, Argentina’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, is entirely too good for the insane, violent, and idiotic world it so expertly ridicules. Beginning with what has to be one of the ballsiest cold opens in recent cinema history, director Damián Szifrón’s anthology of thematically interconnected, darkly comic short films draws first blood with an explosive warning shot. By the time the opening credits show up, it’s apparent that Szifrón’s only interest in audience expectations is in hearing the sound of them shattering. A couple of the anthology entries fall short of the high standard set by the rest, but from that jaw-slackening opening sequence onward, Wild Tales seems calculated to draw audible gasps and giggles, and begs to be viewed in a packed theater.
Unfortunately for U.S. film geeks, a collective American aversion to subtitles might make finding such a collection of moviegoers nigh impossible. While a mostly empty theater often seems appropriate for watching monochromatic melodramas or other stereotypical art-house/foreign fare, Wild Tales is a ruthlessly effective crowd-pleaser of a caliber we so rarely see these days (nothing nominated for Best Picture this year comes close) that not experiencing it en masse seems like a terrible affront. The laughter inspired by the movie is delighted and life-affirming. The sound of an audience appreciating that they’re seeing something special—genuine human behavior at its most gleefully horrendous.
Each of the six “tales” centers around revenge, betrayal, and frustration. About five minutes in, the body count has already climbed too high to keep track of. Revenge plots years in the making pay off in shocking split seconds; minor conflicts and misunderstandings end in brutal murders; a demolitions expert snaps on parking enforcement á la Michael Douglas in Falling Down but with far more interesting and subversive results; fire extinguishers are weaponized in multiple ways; and, depending on your perspective, a wedding is either completely ruined or made infinitely more honest. All the while, the crowd is laughing, cheering, loving Szifrón for yanking the rug from under each and every carefully crafted card house he creates.
Szifrón has fashioned exactly the kind of work so many film lovers lament the increasing endangerment of: an original, well-directed, non-genre film that takes risks. A film that feels a little dangerous, that makes full-grown adults genuinely think, all without a cape or a licensed CGI cartoon character in sight. It’s the kind of movie that was once called “a rollercoaster” back when critics used the expression to mean that a film made viewers experience a wide range of emotions in a short period of time—and not to compare a film to the amusement park ride on which it is based. The biggest chance Wild Tales takes might just be that it expects audiences to go along for this zany ride, too. If they do, it’ll be the cinematic thrill of a lifetime.