One thing about the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language category that separates it from the acting, screenplay, director, and best picture categories is that in order to vote, Academy members must prove that they have actually seen all five nominees. In a way, this is good: it means there's less politicking and favoritism and more sincere praise for the film that voters actually believe is best. But on the other hand, the Academy members who have time to go to special screenings of the five nominees are liable to be the old, retired ones, and their tastes might not accurately reflect those of the Academy in general.
All of this was relevant this year, when a Japanese film no one had ever heard of, called Departures, won the Oscar when all the forecasts had been for either The Class or Waltz with Bashir (which, not coincidentally, were the only two nominees that had played in the U.S. at that point). The Academy voters had seen all five films. Had they, in their wisdom, chosen the film that truly was best?
The answer is: eh, maybe. Now that Departures is making the festival rounds in advance of its stateside release in May, we're able to see why it appealed to the voters. As it turns out, it's a perfect Oscar choice, a fine film that's gently funny and moving and not the least bit challenging or controversial. It tells its story with elegant simplicity and is aimed at neither the lowest common denominator nor the highbrow art-house crowd. Pleasantly in the middle is where it sits, and it's happy to be there.