Predicting the foreign-language Oscar shortlist

Posted by · 6:42 pm · January 17th, 2012

Tomorrow brings the first major cull in what is almost annually the most exasperating of Oscar races, Best Foreign Language Film. As has become the new custom, a shortlist of nine titles will be announced in the morning — six of them voted on by the collected members of the foreign-language branch, with a further three added by a select committee to rectify the larger group’s blind spots.

It is never confirmed which are which, though it can be rather easy to tell: there were no prizes last year for guessing that Greece’s critically adored but thematically dangerous “Dogtooth” was a minority pick rescued by the committee to add cred to the Academy’s roster. It’s an imperfect system, but still preferable to the previous one, which regularly raised howls of critical anguish as such films as “City of God” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” failed even to crack the pre-nomination shortlist.

The committee itself can be pretty wily in their choices — eyebrows were raised when they failed to rescue favorites like “Gomorrah” and “Of Gods and Men” recently — and still can’t do anything about the Academy’s final (and dependably milquetoast) choice of winner, but they’re pushing more adventurous titles into the conversation, and for that, one can hardly be ungrateful.

Under the old system, the very idea of Bela Tarr’s almost comically severe death-and-potatoes opus “The Turin Horse” making the shortlist would have been hilarious; now, you can’t help but consider it –wondering how far the committee is willing to push their luck by making prospective voters sit through it all over again. Not quite that far, I still suspect, but it remains a tantalizing possibility.  

Other far-out options the committee could challenge the branch with include Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” — Ceylan’s last film, “Three Monkeys” made the shortlist, but this cryptic, molasses-paced procedural will prove an endurance test for many — and South Africa’s “Beauty,” an exquisitely observed study of repressed identity with frank gay sexual content that more conservative branch members might struggle with. Both are long shots; neither should be dismissed out of hand.

It seems likelier, however, that the executive committee will use their power to benefit critical causes with more crossover potential. Mexico’s “Miss Bala,” a pulsating, sobering drug-trade thriller that made my personal 2011 top 20, has won raves on the festival circuit and would make a handsome nominee, but might have proved too grimly violent for general voters — an executive-committee save would help an already talked-about film build further momentum. Also on the genre side of things, Brazilian actioner “Elite Squad 2” has critics in its corner but might prove too pulpy for many voters — I somewhat doubt the committee is going to plump for a sequel to a film most voters won’t have seen, but never say never.

An even likelier wild card, perhaps, is Belgium’s “Bullhead,” a dark drama about corruption in the cattle trade that has gathered slow but steady buzz on the festival circuit — it recently won Best Actor at Palm Springs, and took an audience award at the AFI Fest in November. I have yet to see the film, but have had a hunch about it for some time now.

Of course, the executive committee needn’t only save dark or subversive films: it’s impossible to say which seemingly sure-fire favorites might slip through the net in the initial vote. Kris has even heard rumors that intricate Iranian marital drama “A Separation” — the title most pundits are predicting for the win after steamrolling through the precursors thus far — may actually need extra help getting to the shortlist. By hook or by crook, however, it’s the one film certain to show up tomorrow.

I feel strangely confident about Germany’s 3D dance doc “Pina,” even if there’s no precedent for the Academy nominating anything like it before: “Waltz With Bashir” may have broken the documentary barrier in the category three years ago, but Wim Wenders’s non-narrative performance study is an even bolder proposition. (See my interview with Wenders here.) Still, this novelty factor, bolstered by breathless reviews, is ultimately what I expect the committee to find irresistible about it, should its visual and aural wonders not wow enough voters in the first place.

Beyond that, it’s mostly guesswork: I try to ignore reports of what played well at screenings (Italy’s “The First Beautiful Thing” was said to be a sure thing after a warm reception at its Academy screening last year, and was nowhere to be seen on the shortlist), though I’ve heard enough glowing first-hand reactions to an apparent crowdpleaser like Danish comedy “SuperClasico” to take a punt on it, even if I haven’t yet seen the film.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a sinking feeling since Cannes that Israeli comedy of letters “Footnote,” which I didn’t take to, would score here, and there’s no reason to change my mind: director Joseph Cedar was previously nominated here for “Beaufort,” the country has scored three nominations in the past four years and the film curiously netted a Spirit Award earlier in the season for Best Screenplay (an award it also won at Cannes).

Picking nine films from over 60 possibilities is inevitably something of a crapshoot, so the more specific challenge is to predict which seemingly well-positioned films will be surprisingly omitted, even with the executive committee’s grace. The law of numbers alone decrees that there will always be a couple, and I’m taking a few blind risks with my guesses: it’s probably not wise to leave out the sprightly Lebanese feminist musical-comedy “Where Do We Go Now?,” but the film hasn’t built as much buzz as might have been expected from its shock Toronto Audience Award win, and I wonder if its eccentric tonal lurches will be to the voters’ taste. (Also, unfair as it sounds: with “A Separation” in the mix, might they deem the Middle East sufficiently represented?)

I’m also probably being wildly stupid in predicting a snub for Finland’s “Le Havre,” which has been charming critics since its Cannes debut: a gentle nostalgia piece touching on contemporary race and immigration issues, directed by an esteemed former nominee in Aki Kaurismaki, and featuring both a doe-eyed kid and a cute dog, it ticks so many Academy boxes that I’m already wondering why I’m writing this. But the film was also considered a shoo-in for awards on the Croisette and left empty-handed. I went out on a limb in predicting a miss for the seemingly infallible “Of Gods and Men” last year; I’m trusting whatever inscrutable instincts I followed then.

Sorry, that was a lot of talk. The nine titles I’m predicting to show up on tomorrow’s shortlist are:

“Bullhead,” Belgium

“Monsieur Lazhar,” Canada

“SuperClasico,” Denmark

“Declaration of War,” France

“Pina,” Germany

“Footnote,” Israel

“A Separation,” Iran

“Miss Bala,” Mexico

“In Darkness,” Poland

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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