Whatever you say about the Academy Awards’ most baffling choices, from the wacky grab bag of Best Picture nominees (really, who thinks Extremely Loud deserves to be there?) to the mysterioso ways of the documentary and foreign film committees, this year the foreign language nominees are, amazingly, all absolutely worth seeing. Of course, four of them have the bad luck to be against the Iranian film A Separation, one of the year’s best, most surprising films in any language. And I still can’t believe that Aki Kaurismaki’s beautifully observed, witty and moving Le Havre, with its eloquent nod to French noirs, didn’t make this list (and in this year of homage to old movies!) Still, the list is pretty wonderful.
A Separation is heavily favored to win, but the foreign film category often results in surprises on the order of “Have you even heard of that one?” Remember when the Japanese film Departures won two years ago? (It beat the assumed winner Waltz With Bashir.) Most people still haven’t heard of it.
There’s no excuse for that this year, since all the nominated films have distributors and many are now playing or will be soon. Here’s a run-down of the category, best first and counting down, with a guess at their chances and reasons to see them, win or lose.
1. A SEPARATION, Iran, Asghar Farhadi
This story of an Iranian woman who wants a divorce – and of her young daughter, caught between her parents – is as far from a political tract as you can get. Every turn in the drama is convincing and layered, as the divorce plot expands to include frail parents and overwhelmed health aides. The film, without heroes or villains, brings to mind Renoir’s classic, humanist line, “Everyone has his reasons.” It’s hard to imagine the Oscar going to any other film.
2. MONSIEUR LAZHAR, Canada, Philippe Falardeau
But then .. if the Oscar were to go to a surprise choice, this apparently modest film that sneaks up on you with its deep and lingering emotional impact. When a teacher commits suicide in a classroom. M. Lazhar - played by a comedian called Fellag, with no hint that’s how he made his reputation – takes over the class, but this Algerian immigrant has his own fraught background. Accessible and sensitive without being a tearjerker, the film could be a popular choice with voters.
3. IN DARKNESS, Poland, Agnieszka Holland
Holland’s intense immersion in the details of this fact-based World War II story makes the film an extraordinary experience. Much of the film in spent in the sewers, where a Pole helps a group of Jews hide and survive. It’s a cliche - and true - that Holocaust movies win Oscars, but this film may not seem extraordinary enough to stand out in a very competitive year.
4. FOOTNOTE, Israel, Joseph Cedar
The story of the jealous, uneasy relationship between father-son Talmudic scholars in the same department of an Israeli university is so recognizable and contemporary it might as well take place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Witty and sharply written, it is probably too slight to gain much traction with Oscar voters.
5. BULLHEAD, Belgium, Michael R. Roskam
The oddball entry in so many ways, Roskam’s film about a Flemish mob selling hormone-injected cows at times feels derivative, as if The Sopranos had moved to Belgium and branched out into cattle. But see it for Mathias Schoenaerts’ wrenching performance as a man so brutally damaged as a boy that he must regularly inject himself with testosterone, and who pays a huge physical and psychological price.