This was the year Israel was finally going to win an Oscar for best foreign-language film, after coming close in seven previous nominations.
After all, Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” had been named by the National Society of [American] Film Critics as the best overall picture of 2008 and had garnered a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film.
Even after Japanese director Yojiro Takita walked off the stage clutching the statuette for his film, “Departures,” he acknowledged in a backstage interview that “Waltz” had been the frontrunner all along.
However, if the edgy, animated Israeli film about the first Lebanon war didn’t get the top prize, neither did those next in line, Germany’s “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” or France’s “The Class.” So much for the “experts” or, if you prefer, the peculiar ways of Academy voters.
For Israelis, an Oscar win would have meant almost as much as the country’s first Olympic medal, but in the general disappointment it was easy to overlook the stronghold that another Jewish preoccupation, the Holocaust, still exerts on the imagination of filmmakers.
Britain’s Kate Winslet won best actress honors for her devastating portrayal as an illiterate former SS concentration camp guard in “The Reader.”
Even more impressive in its own way was the Oscar for the German live-action short film “Spielzeugland’ (Toyland).
The 14-minute film, which was four years in the making, is set in a small German town in the winter of 1942 and follows the friendship between two 6-year old boys, the Aryan Heinrich and the Jewish David Silberstein.
When the Silberstein family is about to be deported, Heinrich asks his mother where his friend is going, and she tells him that David is taking a trip to Toyland.
Heinrich is intrigued, and when the town’s Jews are packed onto a train, the boy sneaks along for the ride.
In less than a quarter of an hour, the vignette tells us more about the emotional devastation sown by the Nazi regime than many a big-budget feature.
In most respects, though, it wasn’t a good night for the Jewish cheering section, which had to make do with Sean Penn’s Oscar for portraying a gay Jewish politician in “Milk.” Penn is the son of Jewish director Leo Penn, whose own parents arrived as immigrants from Lithuania and Russia.
Veteran comedian Jerry Lewis received the Jean Hershholt Humanitarian Award, recognizing his philanthropic efforts to aid muscular dystrophy victims.
“Waltz” director Folman, his wife and four animators attended the Oscar ceremony, while some 60 supporters, including Israeli diplomats and media, as well as the two German producers who raised half of the film’s budget, watched the broadcast at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
The festive mood turned grim after “Departures” was named the winner in the foreign-language film competition.
Israeli consul general Yaakov Dayan did not hide his disappointment.
“I’ve been in Los Angeles for two years,” said Dayan. “Last year, ‘Beaufort’ was nominated but didn’t win. This year, it was ‘Waltz With Bashir,’ and it didn’t win. Maybe I’ll have to resign before we can take home an Oscar.”
Trying for a more cheerful note, one observer recollected that between the 1984 nomination of Israel’s “Beyond the Walls” to the 2007 nomination of ‘Beaufort,’ some 23 years had elapsed.
“Now we’ve had Israeli films nominated for two years in a row,” he said. “That shows we’re getting stronger. Besides, there’s always next year.”