By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 4, 2011 at 3:35PM
Arguably the most frequently controversial of the Oscar categories, Best Foreign Language Film is a minefield at almost every stage, full of complex rules and loopholes that make sense to almost no one. First a film has to be nominated by its local committee, where personal grudges and political statements can stop deserving films from being nominated. A film has to be principally in another language, but these days, it doesn't have to be the main language of a particular nation. Unless you're American, in which case you're ineligible. Unless you're Puerto Rican, when you are (committees don't have to be tied to a particular nation, but territories can qualify as well -- hence nods in the past for Hong Kong and Palestine, among others). The movie has to play in a U.S. theater for a week, and furthermore, there has to be a certain degree of participation from the home nation; director Joshua Marston ("Maria Full of Grace") has now had two films disqualified. Oh, and co-productions, like, say, "The Motorcycle Diaries," can sneak through the net. Still with us? Didn't think so.
Once a film is put forward as an official entry, they are submitted to the shadowy Foreign Language Film Award Committee, who after a ballot, pick a short-list of 10, from which a smaller committee then pick the final five. When it comes to voting for the winner, unlike almost every other category, it's not open to the entire Academy membership. Those who wish to get involved have to see all five nominees at official screenings -- watching screeners doesn't count. Madness, but there is at least reason behind it -- it's to stop whatever crossover hit of the year from walking away with it every time.
But there are also down-sides, namely, the aging, esoterically taste of those who actually vote here -- generally retired veterans who have the time to watch all of these films. While efforts have been made to shake things up a bit, baffling choices have been made in recent years; "Departures" over "Waltz With Bashir," "The Secret in their Eyes" over "A Prophet," "In A Better World" over "Biutiful" and "Dogtooth." As such, it's one of the trickiest categories to take the temperature of, certainly in picking a winner. But based on the taste in past years, there are certain guesses that can be made.
First of all, there are particular films that can be basically ruled out altogether. Films from principally-English-speaking territories can mostly be counted out; Welsh/Spanish picture "Patagonia" is the British entry because, well, it's the only British film to be made in a language other than English. Some just don't seem likely to gel with the tastes of the Academy Committee, like Brazil's action heavy sequel "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," or Taiwan's lengthy John Woo-produced war film "Seediq Bale." Similarly, "Dogtooth" may have been a happy surprise of a nod last year, but "Attenberg" isn't likely to repeat the trick this time round, especially so swiftly on the tail of its predecessor, and Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" might be his last film, but it's not the stuff that Oscars are made of.
So, what does stand a chance? On the very fringes of the conversation, there's the potentially patience-testing procedural "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia." The genre won out a couple of years back with "The Secret in their Eyes," but we suspect that the Turkish picture, not being as showy, won't have the same appeal. Russia's Nikita Mikhalkov returned with a sequel to his category-winning "Burnt by the Sun" -- "Burnt by the Sun 2: The Citadel" -- but the film is considered to be a lesser cousin of its predecessor, and it slaughtered by critics at its Cannes debut last year (and its nomination alone sparked a major controversy at home), so unless members are swung by nostalgia for the first film, it's a stretch to see it on the shortlist.
Standing more of a chance, albeit still on the fringes somewhat, is "Postcard," an unsentimental war film from 99-year-old Japanese helmer Kaneto Shindo. It's the sort of thing the branch often flips for, but its profile is pretty low, even considering the category. Also hanging around as long-shots are pictures like the Czech "Alois Nebel," South Africa's "Beauty," Korea's "The Front Line" (another war film), Portugal's "Jose & Pilar" and Argentina's "Aballay."
Then we get into the regular fixtures in the category, nations like France and Spain, many of whom have, as is traditional in the category, shunned bigger-name pictures which had proved successful on the festival circuit. Spain, for instance, controversially picked Catalan picture "Black Bread" over Almodovar's "The Skin That I Live In." In fact, it's not a bad decision. The Almodovar film isn't really in the category's wheelhouse, while Agusti Villaronga's firmly is, as well as having won an impressive nine Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars). Even so, it's probably got a tough road to a nomination. France, meanwhile, who have more nominations than any other nation, presumably decided that Best Picture front-runner "The Artist" was getting enough attention, picked "Declaration of War," from internationally-little-known director Valerie Donizelli, about a couple whose child is diagnosed with cancer, while Belgium shunned the Dardenne Brothers' "The Kid With The Bike" in favor of farming drama "Bullhead." Norway went with "Happy Happy" over Joachim Trier's excellent "Oslo August 31," and Chile chose "Violeta," a biopic of national hero Violeta Parra, over more acclaimed festival pictures like Pablo Larrain's "Post Mortem" and Raul Ruiz's final epic, "The Mysteries of Lisbon." Also in the mix, and probably worth a mention: Italy's "Terraferma," an immigration-themed film that went down well with the home crowd in Venice, Iceland's "Volcano," Austria's "Breathing," and Hong Kong's "A Simple Life," another Venice entry.
So what films do stand a real chance, then? Sweden's "Beyond," might stand out from the pack thanks to a lead turn by "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows" star Noomi Rapace, and a prize from the 2011 Venice Film Festival. China similarly have a big star on board, thanks to Christian Bale starring in Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War," although its degree of English-language dialogue might end up counting against it. Israel have been frequent nominees in recent years, and academic comedy "Footnote" has its fans, and seems to be the kind of middlebrow fare that fares well in the category.
Having said that, it's relatively light, and there's already two fairly upbeat pictures looking like strong contenders in a category that tends to lean dour: Finland's "Le Havre," from the great Aki Kaurismaki, and Lebanon's "Where Do We Go Now?" which surprisingly beat "The Artist" to the Audience Award in Toronto, a prize won in recent years by the likes of "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire." Both seem to be likely contenders, and could shut out "Footnote" -- indeed, the Lebanese film might end up being the winner. On a more serious note, Canadian drama "Monsieur Lazhar" won praise in Toronto, although two Quebecois films in a row, after last year's "Incendies," seems like a stretch.
Otherwise, Mexico's "Miss Bala" is one of the more vivid and gripping foreign films of the year, albeit not quite in the Academy's wheelhouse, but it's got the best chance of pulling a "Dogtooth" and being pushed into the nomination process, we reckon. A more likely winner would be "In Darkness," the Polish Holocaust drama by Agniesza Holland, who already has one nod under her belt; the film has strong reviews from Telluride, and the might of Sony Pictures Classics behind it. Another veteran filmmaker, Wim Wenders, has a horse in the race too, the 3D documentary "Pina," the official German entry. The film has wowed audiences worldwide (including a Best Foreign Independent Film nod at the British Independent Film Awards this week), but there is, it should be said, not a lot of precedent for docs in the category, let alone 3D dance docs.
But the one our gut says will win out is Golden Bear winner "A Separation." The Iranian drama has picked up almost unanimously ecstatic reviews since premiering in February, and seems to be something of a perfect storm. It's the kind of worthy, tasteful film that does so well in the category, while never letting 'worthy' and 'tasteful' become bad things -- it's really, really good, so much so that that seems to be the biggest problem. How often has the winner of Best Foreign Language Film been, well, the best foreign language film. But if it ever happens, this could be the year. Nomination guesses and this week's Best Picture chart below.
"A Separation" (Iran) "In Darkness" (Poland) "Miss Bala" (Mexico) "Pina" (Germany) "Where Do We Go Now?" (Lebanon)
1. "The Artist" (-) We happened to be in a theater lobby this week when a press screening of "The Artist" was letting out, and noticed first-hand the glow of warm contentment and the faces of embittered film critics. It's a crowd-pleaser in the best possible sense.
2. "War Horse" (3) Finally being seen, albeit not yet by critics, and the word is strong, albeit with a few naysayers who found it manipulative and sentimental. But find us a Spielberg film that doesn't have naysayers who found it manipulative and sentimental.
3. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2) We can't see a scenario in which it isn't nominated, but we wonder if the 9/11 subject matter might still be a little close to the bone, compared to its nostalgic rivals.
4. "The Descendants" (7) We've come to terms with the fact that we're firmly in the minority in being disappointed in the film (indeed, we'd like to rewatch it to see if we revise our opinion). But doesn't seem like a plausible winner, and if "Young Adult" catches on, it might face a threat.
5. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (6) A healthy haul at the BIFAs this week, not necessarily a natural home for the film, attests to how well liked it is, particularly among the British contingent. But we do continue to wonder why Focus aren't screening it more so far? To break late in the narrative?
6. "Moneyball" (5) Keeping the momentum up from a September opening is always tricky, and it feels like the film has slipped from the spotlight somewhat. Box office has stalled well south of "The Social Network" as well, and as a Brad Pitt movie, it really should have lapped it.
7. "In The Land Of Blood And Honey" (4) Now the dust has cleared from that impressive trailer, the difficulties remain; it's full of unknowns, and looks likely to be a tough watch. But it does also have the undivided attention of the biggest female star on the planet, and super-producer Graham King.
8. "Young Adult" (14) Reviews, or reactions at least, finally broke from an LA screening that week, and word was positively glowing, with most calling it timely, and Jason Reitman's best to date. Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt look like good bets, whether the film can follow remains to be seen, but it's certainly in a better position than a few weeks back.
9. "The Help" (-) We're grudgingly accepting the idea of this being in the mix, but it will depend on the level of first-choice votes it gets; with such a big proportion of votes likely to go to "The Artist," it could find itself standing outside.
10. "The Ides of March" (8) Dropping off at the box office, it'll be lucky to make it to $50mil -- not fatal, but not helpful for everyone's sixth favorite movie of the year, but nobody's favorite. Clooney's presence in "The Descendants" will keep it in the conversation, but don't be surprised if it misses out.
11. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (-) Looks handsome, and Rooney Mara looks strong in her category, but we maintain that the film's probably too pulpy to make it through the throng, and David Fincher's likely too prickly for people to feel that he's owed for "The Social Network" missing out last year.
12. "Shame" (13) We remain impressed by the campaign that Fox Searchlight are running for it, and more than any other film, it could prove popular with the younger, edgier demographic, the people who nominated "Black Swan" and "Inglourious Basterds" and "There Will Be Blood." And for that group, the NC-17 shouldn't be a problem. But it is a small group, and a difficult film.
13. "My Week With Marilyn" (11) Question: can you see anyone picking this as their first choice film, with all the other options available. It might do well from the 'people who only saw one movie this year, and it was called "My Week With Marilyn" demographic, but Michelle Williams is the prize here.
14 . "Midnight in Paris" (12) So we finally saw this this week. It's fine. Better than most Allen films of late, to be fair. But one of the best films of the year? Again, the heat in the summer seemed to come from a lack of options than anything else; it'll likely have to settle for a screenplay nod.
15. "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (-) The film's been a massive surprise hit in the UK, accompanied by glowing reviews. It's also more accessible than we suspected. It's a very long shot, still, particularly as it's at the relatively small Oscilloscope, but could find itself catching the popular imagination when it hits the U.S.
16. "Hugo" (15) The NYFF screening didn't really get the buzz going in the way that the studio were hoping; only an (unlikely) box office smash can help here. But bear in mind Marty's last four pictures have all been his four biggest grossers ever, each taking more than the last, so don't count it out yet.
17. "J. Edgar" (20) Reviews aren't quite as bad as expected, and DiCaprio looks locked back into Best Actor where we'd possibly counted him out in the past, but no one seems to love it; it's more "Changeling" than "Letters to Iwo Jima."
18. "The Iron Lady" (-) Not even a whiff of it being shown, although the film is at least finished (it has an MPAA rating). What buzz we've heard has been bad; again, Streep is likely the prize on this.
19. "The Tree of Life" (16) With this week's announcement, those with their fingers on the pulse know that they have four more opportunities to honor Malick, with the next, the Affleck/McAdams picture, looking more Oscar-friendly already. And those without their finger on the pulse probably didn't make it more than twenty minutes into the movie.
20. "Rampart" (-) A Playlist team member was present at an absurdly star-studded Academy screening for this film this week, and it went down a storm. Best Picture is a very long shot, but Woody Harrelson's so well-liked that he could be a very good shout for an acting nod, especially as he managed one for a less showy turn in "The Messenger."
Bubbling Under: "Martha Marcy Marlene" Doing nicely, on limited release, but Fox Searchlight have other priorities, and it doesn't have a sure fire nomination like Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone" to carry it home. "The Muppets" It's screened, and the word is that they've knocked it out of the park. Obviously not going to be a Best Picture nominee, but Best Original Song might be a good shout, and it could well end up with a Golden Globe nod in the Comedy/Musical category.
Out: "The Wettest County" The Weinstein Company tell us this won't hit until 2012, so definitively out of the running, as we'd suspected. "The Flowers of War" Still doesn't have a US distributor, so looks like Foreign Language only. "The Adventures of Tintin" It looks like "War Horse" delivers the goods, so we're not going to get two Spielberg movies in Best Picture, plus, while the film's performed strongly in mainland Europe, it done good but not great business in the UK, suggesting it might struggle against tough Christmas competition in the US.