By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 18, 2013 at 3:18PM
Of all the Academy award categories the Foreign Language one has probably been the most mystifying, arcane and hard to predict. Traditionally, and unlike in most other categories, nominees have been decided by a committee rather than by a wider voting branch and it's often led to controversy, with some of the most acclaimed international films of a given year missing out. Recent years have seen some changes for the better—films like "Dogtooth" or "Bullhead" would never have been nominated a decade ago—but controversy still circulates around this category.
For one, a recent rule change requiring that a film had to open in its country of origin by September 30th has caused a bit of ruckus, after it meant that one of the most acclaimed films of the year, Palme D'Or winner "Blue Is The Warmest Color," would be shut out as it didn't open in France until October. Also, local nominating committees often end up making political choices, with several festival hits passed over in favor of no-hopers. Further rule changes, including possibly radical ones, could be in the works for future years but for now this is the system we're stuck with.
Still, there could be one major shift this year. This is how the process works: three or four committees divide up the total number of nominees (76 this year, the most ever), rank them numerically, and come up with the top six, to which three more are added on "merit"—a rule that hopefully ensures a place for more challenging fare. Then, the longlist of nine, announced at the start of January, is whittled down to five for the nominations on January 16th. But this year, rather than making select voters attend screenings of all five, voting will be open to the entire Academy membership, with screeners of the nominated movies sent to all voters. It should make the process to decide a winner on more of a level playing field, even if the nomination process remains a little oblique.
So what's actually in contention this year? The 76 films were announced a few weeks, and we've run down the serious propositions below—divided by continent (excluding Antarctica, who curiously didn't submit this year...). Take a look, and let us know who you're rooting for in the comments section.
All too often the richness of African cinema has been overlooked by the Academy branch, but they have had some degree of success: Algeria has had multiple nominations over the years, including a win for Costa-Gavras' "Z," while the Ivory Coast took the prize for Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Black and White In Color" in 1976, and South Africa were victorious for Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" in 2005. Algeria haven't submitted this year but there are two fairly serious African contenders, in the shape of Chad's "Grisgris" and Egypt's "Winter Of Discontent." The former is a rare contender from sub-Saharan African and was reasonably well-reviewed at Cannes (though we weren't totally enamored), and with its mix of disability, dance and crime, is very much in academy voter's thematic wheelhouses. "Winter Of Discontent," which premiered at Venice in 2012, is probably less likely but may win some attention due to the nature of its political content (it shows the 2011 uprising from a number of different perspectives). Meanwhile South Africa had a cracker on their hands with the black-and-white noir "Of Good Report," but it was overlooked in favor of coming-of-age drama "Four Corners," which is unlikely to break into the race. Similarly, Morocco's "God's Horses" will likely be on the outside.
While Japan has been a frequent nominee or winner in this category it's been rarer to see other eastern Asian foreign language nominees of late: the rare Asian films to make the final five in the last decade have come from the Middle East (most notably "A Separation," the winner two years ago, and no Japanese or Chinese film has been nominated since "The Twilight Samurai" in 2003 (more remarkably, given the strength of the nation's output, no South Korean film has ever been nominated). And to be honest, that's unlikely to change this year.
Japan had what felt like a sure-fire nominee with "Like Father Like Son," but Hirokazu Koreeda's acclaimed Cannes contender was overlooked in favor of another, much less likely film called "The Great Passage." A nomination there would be rather unlikely. Similarly, India passed over crowd-pleasing festival hit "The Lunchbox" in favor of "The Good Road," which is also unlikely to win favor. Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmasters," from Hong Kong, which will have a push from The Weinstein Company, is a better bet but the director has never fared well with the Academy (remarkably, he's never been nominated), and our gut says that the film will miss out here as well. Singapore's "Ilo Ilo" is a potential dark horse, but the one to keep an eye on from East Asia is "The Missing Picture," an extraordinary documentary involving a recreation of Khmer Rouge atrocities with clay figurines. Given that the film won the top prize at Un Certain Regard at Cannes, it's certainly in contention for a nomination, even if its non-fiction format might make it a harder sell.
Otherwise, Russia have the big-budget IMAX 3D blockbuster "Stalingrad," but with the film unlikely to be screened for many in its intended format, it may lose much of its power (plus, it looks to our eyes like a Zack Snyder-ish action-heavy take, so probably not a natural fit). Instead, it's the Middle East which again provides a wealth of potential nominees. Israeli thriller "Bethlehem" is certainly a possibility, perhaps more so than Palestine's "Omar" (the latter comes from Hany Abu-Assad, nominated for "Paradise Now" in 2005, but the film's been less well-regarded than that one). Meanwhile, though there was some back-and-forth about the film and its submission (it was shot in France, and mostly backed with French money, plus the country sat out the process last year in protest over "The Innocence Of Muslims"), Iran have officially submitted Asghar Farhadi's "The Past." The film's not quite as sublime as 2011 winner "A Separation" but it's not too far off, and another one that sits very comfortably in the Academy's wheelhouse, so should be a strong contender for a nomination.
But the real force here is likely to be "Wadjda." We've been talking about Haifaa Al-Mansour's film for well over a year now and it proved to be a solid hit once it rolled out in the U.S. and elsewhere. As the first-ever submission from Saudi Arabia, and directed by a woman no less, it's got political value that would probably see it nominated even if it was terrible. Luckily, it's far from it, a real crowd-pleaser of warmth and compassion, and bar the film being passed over by the nominating committee (always a possibility in this unpredictable category), it's probably the frontrunner to win.
Other films submitted by Asian countries, which probably won't figure in bar a huge surprise, are Afghanistan's "Wajma: An Afghan Love Story," Azerbaijan's "Steppe Man," Bangladesh's "Television," China's "Back To 1942," Indonesia's "Sang Kiai," Kazakhstan's "The Old Man," Lebanon's "Blind Intersections," Nepal's "Soongava: Dance Of The Orchids," Pakistan's "Zinga Bhaag," The Phillipines' "Transit," South Korea's "Juvenile Offender," Taiwan's "Soul" and Thailand's "Countdown. "
The smallest and (excluding Antarctica) least-populous continent, and yet quite often the key to a game of risk, it's not surprising that Australasia has never provided a Foreign Language Oscar nominee, given that its major nations are mostly English-speaking, and given that Peter Jackson hasn't yet made a film entirely in Elvish. But that could be about to change.
New Zealand have only submitted once before—"The Orator" in 2011, which wasn't nominated—and the Maori-language "White Lies" will likely suffer the same fate. Australia have come closer, with six submissions since 1996, and with the excellent "Samson and Delilah" making the nine-strong shortlist a few years back, though falling at the final hurdle. But Kim Morduant's Laotian-language "The Rocket," which won Best First Feature at the Berlinale and the Audience Award at Tribeca, might be their best chance yet: it's had very strong reviews (including our own), and is very much in the right area for this kind of thing. A definite possibility.
Usually the behemoth in this category, the bulk of winners and nominees have traditionally come from the other side of the Atlantic, though its dominance has shifted a little in recent years; in the last ten years, half the winners, and 26 of the 50 nominees, have come from Europe. Still a substantial chunk, but probably less than what it might have been historically.
This year, with strength from the Middle East and elsewhere, it's possible that we could only see a single European nominee. Perhaps the most serious contender is "The Hunt:" though the film premiered 18 months ago at Cannes it's a work of real power and Denmark has had some success in recent years, including a nomination for the similarly Mads Mikkelsen-blessed "A Royal Affair" last year. That said, it's a very divisive film, and given the nominating process, those infuriated by the film might be enough to see it excluded.
Beyond that it's a rather thin field. Romania's "Child's Pose," Germany's Liv Ullmann-starring "Two Lives" and Poland's "Walesa: Man Of Hope" could end up figuring in but feel realistically like films that could hope for the longlist at best. There's also the potential for a rare nominee from the United Kingdom, in the Phillipines-set "Metro Manila," a hit at Sundance, but it's also likely an outsider.
It's harder to know what to make of the chances of "The Great Beauty." I adored the film, but it's not quite for everyone, and rather out-of-step with the sort of thing that tends to be nominated in recent years, so it may not be Paolo Sorrentino's year. A much better chance is Playlist favorite "The Broken Circle Breakdown" -- the Belgian weepie packs a real emotional punch, and has been building buzz since its stateside release, especially with a brace of European Film Award nominations recently. Our gut says it could well be nominated alongside, or even instead of, "The Hunt."
Beyond that, very little seems to be viable. France's "Renoir" (which took the place of the disqualified "Blue Is The Warmest Colour") hasn't had much love while the Netherlands' "Borgman" doesn't have the complete critical raves of something like "Dogtooth." Other submitted films that are mostly outsiders are Albania's "Agon," Austria's "The Wall," Bosnia & Herzegovina's "An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker," Bulgaria's "The Color Of The Chameleon," Croatia's "Halima's Path," Czech Republic's "The Don Juans," Estonia's "Free Range," Finland's "Disciple," Georgia's "In Bloom," Greece's "Boy Eating The Bird's Foot," Hungary's "The Notebook," Iceland's "Of Horses And Men," Latvia's "Mother I Love You," Lithuania's "Conversations On Serious Topics," Luxembourg's "Blind Spot," Moldova's "All God's Children," Norway's "I Am Yours," Portugal's "Lines Of Wellington," Serbia's "Circles," Slovakia's "My Dog Killer," Slovenia's "Class Enemy," Spain's "15 Years And One Day," Sweden's "Eat Sleep Die," Switzerland's "More Than Honey," Turkey's "The Butterfly's Dream" and Ukraine's "Paradjanov."