Predicting the foreign-language Oscar shortlist

Posted by · 5:25 pm · January 18th, 2011

Tomorrow, we get the last of the Academy’s crucial pre-nomination shortlists, as the list of 65 entries for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is slashed to just nine titles, from which the eventual nominees will be announced in a week’s time. Predicting these nine is a vague and mostly thankless task, but I am nothing if not vague and thankless, so let’s give it a go.

Remember, here’s the system as it currently stands: six of the nine titles on the shortlist are voted in by the general committee of volunteer voters in the category, based on the scores given at each film’s official Academy screening. The remaining three are selected by a hand-picked executive committee, with the specific intention of “saving” significant and/or challenging titles that didn’t win the approval of the larger, more conservative body of voters.

This curious system was set up two years ago, following the uproar that greeted the exclusion of critically beloved Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in the 2007 race.

Since that measure was taken, the category has been more accommodating towards festival hits that aren’t particularly bluehair-friendly: it’s debatable whether the likes of “A Prophet,” “The Class,” “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Milk of Sorrow” would have found their way to Oscar night without the help of the executive committee. (We’re never told which three inclusions are theirs, though it’s easy to speculate.)

That said, the system is still no safeguard against controversy: in its first year, the Academy still came in for flak when lavishly acclaimed Italian gangster drama “Gomorrah” was ignored by both the general and executive committees. In other words, there are still no safe calls in this race. Meanwhile, the system hasn’t been in place long enough for us to know the precise limits of the executive committee’s boldness. Are they ballsy enough to save Greece’s wondrously warped critics’ fave “Dogtooth,” for example? I suspect we’re not there yet.

Using a combination of buzz, grapevine gossip and my own insight gleaned from watching a selection of the contenders, here are the nine countries and films I’m betting will show up tomorrow, thereby ensuring that at least half of them won’t:

Canada (“Incendies”): Denis Villeneuve’s drama about French-Canadian twins journeying to the Middle East to piece together their family history was greeted with breathless critical acclaim at Venice and Toronto, and was promptly snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics, who know their onions in this category. I have yet to see it, but it reportedly has enough raw emotional power to win over the general voters, despite being no easy ride.

Czech Republic (“Kawasaki’s Rose”): File this under: why the hell not? Something under-the-radar always pops up in the shortlist, and Jan Hrebejk’s involving, beautifully calibrated drama of political and familial entanglements is the kind of moving art-soap that voters might take a shine to, though it has been seven years since the country scored a nod in this race. Still, I called this one at Berlin in February — why disembark now?

Denmark (“In a Better World”): Based on a combination of positive buzz for the film and the relative celebrity of director Susanne Bier (who was nominated in this category four years ago, and has since worked in Hollywood), this reportedly devastating family melodrama was a favorite even before it beat “Biutiful” and “I Am Love” to the Golden Globe on Sunday night. Once again, the formidable Sony Pictures Classics is steering the ship.

Iraq (“Son of Babylon”): Cynic that I am, I admit I’ve had a feeling about this one ever since I read the synopsis months ago: a young boy and his grandmother journey across Iraq in search of his father, who never returned from the war. Watching the film, I found it less polished and calculatedly sentimental than I had expected, but it’s been warmly received on the festival track, and voters are suckers for child-driven narratives in this category.

Italy (“The First Beautiful Thing”): I didn’t think much of Paolo Virzi’s derivative, flashback-heavy family saga, but then I didn’t think much of the last three films to win the foreign-language Oscar, so that’s practically a point in its favor. I keep hearing, however, that older voters loved this old-fashioned tale of mother-son reconciliation, which is eminently plausible — though recently, Italy hasn’t performed as well in this category as you’d expect.

Mexico (“Biutiful”): I was this close to predicting Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critically divisive catalogue of human suffering as this year’s semi-annual surprise snub in the category, but name recognition and the growing Best Actor buzz for star Javier Bardem should at least push it onto the shortlist. If it comes down to the executive committee, however, I’m not sure they’d feel obliged to save a film with such mixed reviews.

South Africa (“Life, Above All”): I declared Oliver Schmitz’s modest but effective drama about the impact of AIDS on a rural community a surefire Oscar nominee at Cannes way back in May, and I’m not budging. Count the pluses: child’s-eye narrative, weighty contemporary issue, Sony Pictures Classics again, a country with a recent win and nom in the category, and the endorsement of Ebert. All that, and it’s actually good.

Thailand (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”): This is where I’m guessing the executive committee makes its presence felt. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative, Palme d’Or-winning reincarnation fantasy is revered by numerous critics, but is surely too languid and left-of-center to impress the general voters — leaving the smaller group to shoehorn it into the list for credibility points. (Not to mention geographical balance: no other Asian title looks likely to feature.)

Turkey (“Honey”): Another case for the executive committee, I’m thinking. Semih Kaplanoglu’s film is yet another story of young children and absent parents, this time with trickier arthouse trappings that will likely test the patience of many general voters but could easily enchant others. Last year, presumably thanks to the new system, “The Milk of Sorrow” converted a Berlinale Golden Bear win into an unlikely Oscar nod; I’m guessing this one follows exactly the same trajectory.

And that makes nine. Yes, that means I’m predicting a surprise snub for France’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Of Gods and Men” — but the true-life religious drama could strike many voters as something of a slog, and the executive committee might have its hands full saving other illustrious festival favorites. Plus, is there room for all four of Sony’s ponies in the shortlist? My gut tells me one of them has to miss. What does yours say? Share your predictions in the comments.

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35 responses so far

  • 1 1-18-2011 at 5:38 pm

    Ken said...

    Swap out Iraq & Thailand, and swap in France and Chile, and that’d be my guess.

  • 2 1-18-2011 at 5:59 pm

    Ibbs said...

    I think France would be one of the first that the executive committee puts in.

  • 3 1-18-2011 at 6:30 pm

    TJ W said...

    Disappointed not to see Bibliotheque Pascal on that list. Loved the Terry Gilliam-ness of it all.

  • 4 1-18-2011 at 6:56 pm

    Thiago said...

    You forgot the Germany submission, When We Leave! It will be among the nine, you can count on that! I would love to see the Peruvian film “Undertow” among the nine, but I think that a foreign gay movie is a little too much for the comitee…

  • 5 1-18-2011 at 7:03 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I didn’t “forget” When We Leave — everything was duly considered.

    It’s a wide-open race at this stage: I can certainly see how Germany could make it, though I think the film is dreadful.

  • 6 1-18-2011 at 7:15 pm

    JR said...

    Guy, how tickled would you be to see the film from Greenland make the shortlist? It has a Greenlandic snowball’s chance in hell, but hey, we can dream, right?

  • 7 1-18-2011 at 7:32 pm

    red_wine said...

    Of Gods And Men is the kind of film that would get in even without the committee. It is almost Oscar bait for this category.

    I would be truly and honestly delighted if Dogtooth makes it in. The committee changes e every year, so maybe we may luck out if it is younger skewing this year?

    I think they would have loved Uncle Boonmee had they understood it. The mellifluous cinematography, and the poignancy of an old man dying (also a plus with these guys) would have forwarded its cause. I know its just wishful thinking but if it is snubbed, it could perhaps make a play for Best Director nomination in the next Oscars.

  • 8 1-18-2011 at 7:59 pm

    Paul Outlaw said...

    So there is not a single Holocaust-themed contender this year, not in the Foreign Language, Documentary or Best Picture race?

  • 9 1-18-2011 at 8:15 pm

    Michael said...

    I have not seen enough of the films (I am actually curious if anyone has ever tried to catch all the longlist titles), but of the ones I have seen my favorites are definitely Dogtooth, The Temptation of St. Tony, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. I honestly do not think any of those three will get nominated (especially not Dogtooth and Temptation of St. Tony) but I have a feeling that at least Uncle Boonmee will get shortlisted, as you mentioned. I just don’t see France not getting nominated, so I really think it is safe to include that one, but besides that I think you have whittled it down to a smart group of films.

  • 10 1-18-2011 at 8:51 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    When I finally saw the critically acclaimed “Gomorrah,” I was hugely disappointed, so I won’t blame either the general committee or the executive committee if they leave off some critically acclaimed titles. As Pauline Kael once pointed out, sometimes buzz fizzles out about midway over the Atlantic Ocean, and all you’re left with is the quality of the films (or lack thereof).

  • 11 1-18-2011 at 9:52 pm

    Andrej said...

    I don’t think I have seen any of these foreign languages film yet (sorry! I’ll get to them ASAP), but based on word-of-mouth, accolades, and random picking, I think the 9 preselected movies will be…

    – Mexico, Biutiful.
    – Russia, The Edge.
    – Israel, The Human Resources Manager.
    – Denmark, In a Better World.
    – Canada, Incendies.
    – South Africa, Life, Above All.
    – Estonia, The Temptation of St. Tony.
    – Thailand, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

    and …

    – Greenland, Nuummioq. (yeah, I truly haven’t seen any of these… but just let me dream before I wake up to the harsh, cold truth).

  • 12 1-18-2011 at 10:03 pm

    Jeff said...

    My shortlist predictions are:

    “Hors la Loi” (Algeria)
    “Incendies” (Canada)
    “In a Better World” (Denmark)
    “Of Gods and Men” (France)
    “When We Leave” (Germany)
    “Son of Babylon” (Iraq)
    “La Prima Cosa Bella” (Italy)
    “Butiful” (Mexico)
    “Life Above All” (South Africa)

  • 13 1-18-2011 at 11:25 pm

    GlenH said...

    I have to agree with those above me who think the HR Manager will be on the shortlist. I’m not really a fan – many to the characters were a little too caricatured for my taste – but it is otherwise well executed and it has both the sentiment (not too overplayed) and political relevance that the academy seems to favour.

    Out of curiosity has anyone actually seen Greenland’s nominee? If it is any good and not to far out there it might be an outside chance given what a great story its making/path to nomination is.

    And I believe someone on this site was plumping for Outside the Law. Which seems like a definite possibility from what I’ve read of it. Was there a change of heart on its likely fortunes or did I get that wrong?

  • 14 1-18-2011 at 11:26 pm

    GlenH said...

    Argh – *too far

    I need to proofread.

  • 15 1-19-2011 at 12:50 am

    julian said...

    impressive work, Guy. Good to see anyone really doing an extensive groundwork on this under-appreciated category. I will be greatly surprised if In A Better World does not win the oscar (Biutiful is, as you rightly assess, too divisive), BUT Italy and Sweden should be ashamed for not going behind I Am Love and The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, respectively. Those two would have been surefire nominees and both would have been favourites along with Bier’s movie (it is interesting to note that the director of TGWTDT is actually Danish, Niels Arden Oplev, so along with Bier, that would have made it a proud year for Denmark!).

  • 16 1-19-2011 at 3:22 am

    Stefan said...

    Germany (When We Leave), France (Of Gods and Men) and -YES- Finland (Dogtooth) in. Dreadful? Guy….

    Don’t see Czech Republic, South Africa and Italy.

  • 17 1-19-2011 at 3:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    GlenH: I was predicting Outside the Law, but changed my mind at the last minute — it seems like something the executive committee wouldn’t bother to save, and the general committee might lean toward more emotionally accessible fare. But I still think it’s a distinct possibility. Good film, too.

    Julian: Sweden wouldn’t have been able to submit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this year, as it was released too early at home to qualify. They could have submitted it last year, but instead chose “Involuntary” — an infinitely more interesting film. So there’s no reason for them to be ashamed.

  • 18 1-19-2011 at 3:51 am

    julian said...

    ok, guy, I didn’t know that TGWTDT was ineligible this year. But what I do no know is that Sweden (unlike fx Denmark) has a long tradition of choosing “difficult” films to represent the country in the foreign language category. Choosing a film like TGWTDT would be the easy, but wise option, if you want to put your country on the Oscar map (by the way, I agree with you, Involuntary was the better film!) Denmark, on the other hand, never picks the best film quality-wise, but goes for the film that is most likely to garner Oscar-attention. A very good ex of The Danish Film Academy’s way of thinking is this year: they very well know Bier has a name in Holywood and that In A Better World would probably hit the right oscar buttons, so they chose it. BUT on homeground, the Danish Academy completely neglected the film in it own awards ceremony , where it is not even among the five nominees for best Danish film of the year!! Can you imagine?

  • 19 1-19-2011 at 4:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    According to Steve Pond, Sweden’s submission this year played well with the general committee. So “Simple Simon” — which I thought was lousy — may yet have the last laugh.

  • 20 1-19-2011 at 5:09 am

    julian said...

    Simple Simon is no good, I agree. And I just want to add that this is no attempt to blemish the proud Swedish film tradition, I just think they tend to make some strange choices Oscar-wise. But also some brave ones, once in a while: fx sticking up for Lukas Moodyson films twice. And let’s not forget the eight oscar nominations and three wins for good old Bergman…:)

  • 21 1-19-2011 at 5:15 am

    jon ballosie said...

    son of babylon will be in the last five list ..remember me of the best films i have seen for long time ..this film a gem!!!

  • 22 1-19-2011 at 5:19 am

    Logan said...

    Thank you for the heads-up that today (Wednesday) is the day when the Best Foreign Language shortlist will be revealed. You’re the first blog, to my knowledge, to share this information.

  • 23 1-19-2011 at 5:40 am

    Rafael said...

    Here in Brazil they chose a movie that was a boxoffice flop and had awful reviews. We had much better options. I think the problem is that most of the times the comittes don´t pick the best movie the country has to offer, but what they think the academy might like.

  • 24 1-19-2011 at 5:53 am

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    If “Incendies” doesn’t get at least a nomination, there is no justice!

  • 25 1-19-2011 at 7:08 am

    Doug said...

    Argentinian movie is excellent.
    Pity that nobody saw…

  • 26 1-19-2011 at 7:10 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I saw Carancho and reviewed it a few months ago, Doug.

  • 27 1-19-2011 at 7:31 am

    hh. said...

    I think:
    Safe choices:
    Incendies (Canada)
    Biutiful (Mexico)
    In a better world (Denmark)

    Of God and mens (France)
    Life, Above All (S. Africa)
    Hors la loi (Algeria)

    Kawasaki Rose (Czech)
    Honey (Turkey)

    Just a hunch:
    Undertown (Peru)

    Other possibilities:
    Son of Babylon (Iraq)
    Carancho (Argentina)
    The Human Resources Manager (Israel)
    Mamma Gógó (Iceland)

    But I’m just guessing, I’ve only watched 6 of this (Peru, Argentina, France, Algeria, Mexico, Turkey) I’ve also watched: Greece (Dogtooth), Spain (Even the rain), Uruguay (La vida util) and Austria (La Pivellina)

  • 28 1-19-2011 at 8:06 am

    Evan said...

    My predictions for the nine:

    Canada: Incendies
    France: Of Gods and Men
    Denmark: In a Bettter World
    Germany: When We Leave
    Italy: La Prima Cosa Bella
    Japan: Confessions
    Mexico: Biutiful
    South Africa: Life, Above All
    Sweden: Simple Simon

    I’m hearing a lot of buzz about China too. Sounds terrible to me!

    Just based on synopses, I’d love Chile, Finland, Greece, and Thailand to get in with Canada, Denmark, and Mexico. Don’t care about the other two.

  • 29 1-19-2011 at 8:27 am

    Evan said...

    ETA: add Peru to my “hopeful” list.

  • 30 1-19-2011 at 8:31 am

    Andrej said...

    I’ve commented this somewhere else, but if for some reason Chile gets preselected for The Life of Fish I’ll have a mental BSOD of biblical proportions.

    But I’d be very happy for our local filmmakers, obviously ☺

  • 31 1-19-2011 at 9:02 am

    John said...

    Anyone know what time the announcement is at?

  • 32 1-19-2011 at 9:11 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Last year’s post was at 10:18 am. Can’t remember if I was on top of it or got around to it a little later, but either way, I’d expect within the hour.

  • 33 1-19-2011 at 9:42 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The shortlist has been released:

    Guy will be writing it up shortly.

    I’m stunned Dogtooth made the cut. Chalk one up for the exec committee.