Handicapping the foreign-language Oscar race

Posted by · 4:18 pm · October 31st, 2011

Amid Kris’ regular weekly predictions update, you might notice something new amid the Contenders pages: our first ranking for the season of the Best Foreign Language Film submissions. Needless to say, in a category this eternally uncertain, it’s a rough list, to say the least: drawn from a vague voodoo combination of gut feeling about the films I’ve seen, hearsay about the films I haven’t, and doubtless foolhardy underestimation of the films I currently know nothing about.

The rankings will no doubt shift as I see more of the submissions, but this one category where precursor awards are really of very little help: there’s no way of logically deducing what will show up on the nine-title shortlist  that precedes the nominations in January. The fun, for me, lies in predicting two opposing concerns: which seemingly obvious favorites the voters will snub (as happens to certain high-profile entries on an annual basis), and which left-field surprises the branch’s more discerning executive committee might shoehorn onto the list. What’s this year’s “Of Gods and Men,” and what’s this year’s “Dogtooth?”

These questions swan into my mind while I was reading Mike Goodridge’s typically thoughtful analysis of the category in Screen Daily. Essentially shadowing the January shortlist by singling out 10 titles to watch in the race, he sides with several of the apparent frontrunners — Iranian critical darling “A Separation,” Lebanese audience-tickler “Where Do We Go Now?” and Polish WWII drama “In Darkness” — but also throws in a few potentially canny surprise picks.

Among them is a film I hadn’t thought to include in the upper reaches of the list: Nikita Mikhalkov’s bloated sequel to his previous Oscar-winner “Burnt By the Sun.” The selection of Mikhalkov’s film over more acclaimed Russian fare was controversial enough even to arouse protest from the head of the selection, but Goodridge senses Academy voters might not be bothered by that.

The first film won the Oscar in 1994 and although Nikita Mikhalkov”s sequel was savaged by critics when it screened in Cannes last year, I have a suspicion that Academy voters might respond far more favourably to its wartime spectacle and heart-tugging melodrama. Its Hollywoodized storytelling to which critics objected could work in its favour in this forum.

He has a point there — enough of one to persuade me put the widely panned Russian film in our top 30, though no further than that. Should Mikhalkov’s poorly received film worm its way onto the Oscar list in place of more sophisticated, challeging foreign fare like “Miss Bala,” “Le Havre” or even “Pina,” the result would be an outcry on the scale of… the one that pops up every year these categories are announced. Perhaps Goodridge is onto something.

Check out our foreign-language Contenders page here.

Comments Off on Handicapping the foreign-language Oscar race Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: HitFix · In Contention