OSCAR GUIDE: Best Foreign Language Film

Posted by · 9:31 am · February 22nd, 2011

The race for Best Foreign Language Film has been covered diligently by Guy Lodge here at In Contention throughout the season. I confess that I failed to see most of the 65 submissions and, as usual, waited until the shortlist was unveiled before I really dug into the titles.

This category has, of course, been mired in controversy ever since “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” became the last straw for quality films failing to register with a general committee that has, well, questionable artistic taste. The implementation of a band aid executive committee scenario hasn’t done much more than elevate the cynicism surrounding the process, however.

The nominees are:

“Biutiful” (Mexico)
“Dogtooth” (Greece)
“In a Better World” (Denmark)
“Incendies” (Canada)
“Outside the Law” (Algeria)

The way I hear it, two films were “saved” by the executive committee this year. One you could probably guess. The other might surprise you. And no, I won’t publish the titles here. Nevertheless, it’s probably a three-horse race for the win.

One film that a number of pundits glommed onto as the likely winner, mainly because of the presence of actor Javier Bardem in the lead actor category, is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful,” the entry from Mexico. The film is a somber slog that never lets up (even though, personally speaking, it’s not even the most depressing film of the bunch). It is a thoughtful piece that doesn’t fully work, but it is most certainly a stand-out for Bardem’s performance. With Hollywood heavyweights like Julia Roberts stepping up to bat for the film, a few heads could be turned. It certainly has hit the gas in the last few weeks. But it’s unlikely the general committee will have warmed up to it enough to vote accordingly. Nevertheless, it seems to me the most likely alternative pick.

The film you can certainly expect will go nowhere with the general committee is “Dogtooth” from Greece. If you heard last week’s Oscar Talk then you got an earful of my thoughts on Giorgos Lanthimos’s controversial film. While I appreciate the overall parable and the thoughtfulness behind it, it is nevertheless a point rarely fleshed out and not all that profound in the end anyway. But I won’t dig into that any further here. I will say that it’s the easiest film to bet against of any nomination across the 24 Oscar categories this year. It simply turned off most of the committee when it screened for them earlier in the season and, most assuredly, those opinions haven’t done a 180. So fans of the film can cheer and be happy it was “recognized” by the Academy, but the road ends there.

My pick for the win is Susanne Bier’s touching, poignant, naturalistic take on vengeance (a common theme of a few of this year’s nominees), “In a Better World.” The film, submitted by Denmark, surprised many by winning the Golden Globe and could well keep the good fortune going with an Oscar. It’s easily the most accessible of the nominees, which can be an asset with this staunchly traditionalist committee, but don’t mistake that for mediocrity. It’s wonderfully acted and tremendously thought-provoking. It has some stiff competition, however. The last time I got this category wrong, I believe, was 2001, but I wouldn’t say I’m as confident this year as I have been in recent seasons. Nevertheless, this one feels like the most likely option to me.

Most seem to think Canada‘s entry, “Incendies,” from director Denis Villeneuve, is in the frontrunner position. It could well take the award, but here is a film well-acted, well-directed, beautifully structured, that ultimately shoots itself square in the foot with an arbitrarily tragic conclusion that doesn’t appear to say anything it probably thinks it says. Nevertheless, it has proved moving for a great many, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won over a number of committee members.  Though it does strike me as the “Ajami” of this year’s crop, a seemingly easy call that is actually too specific to register properly. It has a lot in common with Bier’s film, however, so it’s possible those wanting to award a film that tackles international discontent could split, allowing for Iñárritu’s film to score.

Speaking of which, we round it out with Rachid Bouchareb’s follow-up to the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film nominee “Days of Glory” and the entry from Algeria, “Outside the Law.” It’s a film with glorious production value, the design aspects, the cinematography, all top notch. The story is a grand one in the mold of historical familial documents such as “The Godfather” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” giving it an epic quality that actually makes it stand out from the rest of the pack. But, truth be told, it’s a tedious journey, unrefined structurally and, ultimately, a bit of a thematic blur, not as crisp as as the other films dealing with similar ideas. As a result, I’m tempted to say it’s pretty far down the list, but I very much doubt it will be long before Bouchareb gets his due in the form of an Academy Award.

Will win: “In a Better World”
Could win: “Biutiful”
Should win: “In a Better World”

Should have been here: (abstain)

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

[Photos: Kino International, Sony Pictures Classics]

→ 30 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Oscar Guide

30 responses so far

  • 1 2-22-2011 at 9:37 am

    Ken said...

    “And no, I won’t publish the titles here”

    Are you averse to reporting? Or you just don’t have solid information?

  • 2 2-22-2011 at 9:39 am

    Armando said...

    I’ve only seen two of the: Biutiful and Dogtooth. Dogtooth get my vote.

  • 3 2-22-2011 at 9:39 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s just something that wants to, and probably should, remain off the record, even if a great many are well aware.

  • 4 2-22-2011 at 9:41 am

    Will said...

    In A Better World is the one I’m predicting.

  • 5 2-22-2011 at 9:41 am

    Armando said...

    I mean “two of the nominees”

  • 6 2-22-2011 at 9:44 am

    han said...

    My money is on Incendies.

  • 7 2-22-2011 at 9:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Will win: In a Better World
    Could win: Incendies
    Should have been here (of the official submissions): The Temptation of St. Tony
    Should have been submitted (and won this entire damn thing): White Material

    I’ll hold off on a “should win” vote until I see the two films predicted above, but if either of them tops Dogtooth for me, I’ll be pretty stunned. I personally think Kris and Anne are way off on that one.

  • 8 2-22-2011 at 9:51 am

    red_wine said...

    I also have seen Biutiful and Dogtooth only and Dogtooth gets my vote as well. One of the great films of the year.

    Should Have Been Here: Based plainly on what was submitted (and from those that I manged to see) …

    Uncle Boonmee
    If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle.

  • 9 2-22-2011 at 9:51 am

    Maxim said...

    I can resepect that.

    That said, reading this article armed with just the barest amount of knowledge leaves no doubt as to what that other title is ;).

  • 10 2-22-2011 at 9:54 am

    Maxim said...

    And that, by the way, makes it a little easier to predict the winner, assuming it’s actually true.

  • 11 2-22-2011 at 9:57 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, guys, you can’t say Kris isn’t dropping you a heavy hint in the text. (I always thought it was one of the rescued three, though some people closer to the process told me I was nuts.)

  • 12 2-22-2011 at 10:13 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    as a Romanian, I’m happy you’ve mentioned “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”! such a big unjustice for not even making the finalists’ list that year.

    also, The Death of Mrs. Lazarescu, 2 years before that.

  • 13 2-22-2011 at 10:18 am

    Andrej said...

    I’ve only seen Dogtooth, so I can’t appropiatedly make a will/could/should list here. :(

    But for now, I’ll just cling to the very small thread of hope that if the Academy bothered to not just put in the bake-off list (even if that was the action of the executive committee), but to nominate it as well… maybe its chances aren’t so faint.

    Who knows. Same story with Exit Through the Gift Shop, it had a similar word-of-mouth of ‘it’s awesome but they’ll hate it’, yet it got there and it even might even win.

  • 14 2-22-2011 at 10:21 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    Will Win: ?

    I think Denmark will win with In a Better World!
    But Canada with Incendies is very close behind!

  • 15 2-22-2011 at 10:27 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I didn’t actually aim to drop any hints, FYI. It’s not Biutiful.

  • 16 2-22-2011 at 10:32 am

    Maxim said...

    Either way, the guide had all the information necessary for a simple process of elimination followed by one hint you did drop.

  • 17 2-22-2011 at 10:51 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I’ve only seen “Incendies” and “Dogtooth”, and will be seeing “Biutiful” before Sunday night.

    Both that I’ve seen are fantastic films that are easily among the best of the year, but I think that “Dogtooth” takes it for me. I can’t wait to see the other three.

    I disagree very strongly with Kris regarding “Incendies”. I view the film as


    a modern-day Greek tragedy about how an ordinary person can demonstrate extraordinary resilience in the face of unspeakable horror, and about defeating evil by channeling it into good. Greek tragedy was always “arbitrary” in the way the tragic elements came to pass, so Kris’s argument doesn’t sit with me, since I view this film as an homage/response of sorts, as an exercise in form. “Incendies” goes one further than classical Greek tragedy, in that it examines the power of forgiveness and way in which it restores free will and agency to the tragic victim, resulting in a narrative far more human and heartfelt than the form of classical Greek tragedy can inherently offer.

    It’s truly an outstanding film. Villeneuve is a master of suspense. The acting, editing, and cinematography are also exceptional.

    And that’s my opinion. :)

  • 18 2-22-2011 at 10:57 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “a modern-day Greek tragedy”

    That’s the typical reading, but it tries to have it two ways, IMO, and doesn’t really gel as a result.

  • 19 2-22-2011 at 10:58 am

    Jeremy said...

    Any reason for the abstention on “should have been here”? Is that a policy matter, or do you just not have any passion for any of the non-nominated films?

    I’ve only seen two of the nominees thus far, and I’ll certainly take “Dogtooth” over “Biutiful”, though “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remains my top pick.

  • 20 2-22-2011 at 11:16 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I just didn’t see enough to have an educated opinion.

  • 21 2-22-2011 at 11:45 am

    Andrej said...

    Maybe Turkey’s Bal could have gotten in. It’s a bit slow paced, but it’s nicely acted and the movie’s sound and atmosphere are great.

  • 22 2-22-2011 at 12:11 pm

    Rex Okpodu said...

    I agree with Kris about Dogtooth. It seemed to do nothing but take great pleasure in trying to break a few taboos rather than give a coherent story intent on going somewhere.
    …And in the end when it got there…fell totally flat for me.
    IMO, Dogtooth should have been trimmed into a Live Action Short film submission

  • 23 2-22-2011 at 3:07 pm

    daveylow said...

    In a Better World deserves to win. And if it had been released in 2010, it would belong on a 10 best list, it’s that good.

  • 24 2-22-2011 at 5:31 pm

    via collins said...

    Guy, I adore your fearsome devotion to White Material, long may it run!

    I think that In a Better World is the best bet in this lot. And heaven knows what previous year’s line-ups have offered, but I would say this is the highest quality line-up I can recall seeing. I’ve seen all bar Biutiful.

    Lots of quality, lots of diversity. One thing Bier has going for her that the Academy has rewarded time after time is making better films on the same theme. Rewards for rock solid commitment, or something like that. IMHO of course.

  • 25 2-22-2011 at 11:14 pm

    Simon Warrasch said...

    It should! It was an awsome movie! But for me it doesn’t matter wich movie will win. Because 2 of the most brilliant films wich has been nominated for foreign language film at the Oscar (2o09 – Revanche and in 2010 – The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)) have lost to ridiculous films! So…

  • 26 2-22-2011 at 11:41 pm

    Someone said...

    Will win: “Dogtooth” (everybody said that it won’t be nominated – but it is – so I predict that it will win despite the fact that no one believes it’s possible)
    Could win: “Incendies”

  • 27 2-22-2011 at 11:52 pm

    James D. said...

    Dogtooth is the only one I have seen, but I can’t imagine that the other four are as good as it. Alamar, I Am Love, and Everyone Else would all be nice to see on here, but I don’t know if their countries picked them or all of that hoopla.

  • 28 2-23-2011 at 5:04 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Someone: But are you aware of how Dogtooth got nominated? We’re not talking about the same voters here at all.

  • 29 2-23-2011 at 10:20 pm

    Mike D. Meyers said...

    These should have been the 5 nominees:

    1. In a Better World
    2. Biutiful
    3. Incendies
    4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
    5. I Am Love

  • 30 2-26-2011 at 11:28 am

    Tabb said...

    Kris, just a point of clarification here – regarding your reference to voting committees. Both here and in your summing up of Best Documentary Feature, there is an implication that a committee (general committee) decides the winner.

    [ “But it’s unlikely the general committee will have warmed up to it enough to vote accordingly…(Biutiful); The film you can certainly expect will go nowhere with the general committee is ‘Dogtooth’; ” it has proved moving for a great many, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won over a number of committee members (Incendies). And for Documentary Feature: “It’s important to keep in mind that this is one of five categories voted on by committee, so voters have to see all the nominees in order to have a say.”]

    Perhaps you’re defining “committee” as anyone who ultimately votes in these categories – but voting is open to any active Academy member who can verify they have seen all 5 nominees in a theatrical screening. It’s a hurdle that certainly reduces the actual numbers of voters, but voting is not limited to committees that had a role in moving the films toward nominations, or even limited to those respective branches.

    Apart from this – terrific and helpful category summaries across the board. Thanks.