'Bullhead,' 'Pina,' 'A Separation' included on foreign language shortlist

Posted by · 10:17 am · January 18th, 2012

The biggest surprise about the nine-film shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is, well, how unsurprising it is. Seven of the titles I predicted yesterday are on it; the two films I didn’t, Morocco’s “Omar Killed Me” and Taiwan’s “Warriors of the Rainbow,” are the kind of could-have-been-anything choices that we know to expect (or not to expect, as it were) by now. Presumed frontrunner “A Separation” naturally made the cut and festival favorites “Pina” and “Bullhead” are present and correct — as is the semi-obligatory annual Holocaust drama, in the shape of Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness.” Check, check, check.

The general predictability of the list makes it harder than usual to speculate what three films may have been rescued by the executive committee. There’s nothing as outwardly subversive as “Dogtooth” or “Confessions” in the group, which suggests to me that the committee may have had their hands full saving consensus critical favorites: if they really did have to come to the rescue of a film like “A Separation,” as has been rumored, that narrows the window for a truly “difficult” film like “The Turin Horse” to slide in.

The omissions? Many will be surprised that Cannes critics’ darling “Le Havre” and Toronto Audience Award winner “Where Do We Go Now?” missed the cut, but I anticipated their absence yesterday — both have eccentric tonal transitions that I imagine turned off some voters, and neither film, for my money, ranks as their director’s strongest work.

More eyebrow-raising, perhaps, is the exclusion of France’s “Declaration of War,” a strong, heartfelt story of parents battling their child’s terminal disease (based on director-star Valerie Donizelli’s own experience) that I, like many pundits, thought would hit the voters where they live; it’s the second year in a row that the French, usually a fixture in the category, have failed to make even the shortlist. It’s one of two films I incorrectly predicted yesterday: the other, Mexico’s superbly steely drug-war thriller “Miss Bala,” was always going to be a tougher sell, though I was optimistically hoping the committee might be persuaded by the critical buzz around it.

The one inclusion I do suspect firmly suspect the committee might have had a hand in is “Warriors of the Rainbow,” an extravagant, 276-minute action epic that isn’t really in the Academy’s regular wheelhouse; I missed the film at Venice, where it received mixed reviews, but I’ve spoken to enough critics who didn’t to know its advocates are fervent ones. (It’s also possible the committee wanted at least one Asian film on the list for the sake of form, and thought this the most enticing of the lot — Zhang Yimou’s Christian Bale-starring “The Flowers of War” may have the profile, but the response to it has been tepid thus far.)

I’m annoyed that I didn’t see Morocco’s “Omar Killed Me” coming — the film, a French-set penal-system drama directed by “Days of Glory” star Roschdy Zem, is probably the selection causing the most head-scratching today, but based on early reviews, I liked its chances when it was submitted back in August. (“Could be one to watch,” I wrote — I should have listened to myself.) Interestingly, it’s the second your running that France’s thunder has been stolen in this category by a semi-French production from a former colony. (Between that and Canada’s “Monsieur Lazhar,” it’s possible the executive committee thought French-language filmmaking was well enough represented without throwing “Declaration of War” into the mix too.)

Critically, I can’t offer much perspective on the list, as I’ve still only seen four of the nine films — some major catch-up work awaits, though I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see most of the other five. My predictions for the category, meanwhile, remain largely unchanged; The Contenders page will be updated shortly.

Here’s the shortlist: 

Belgium, “Bullhead,” Michael R. Roskam, director

Canada, “Monsieur Lazhar,” Philippe Falardeau, director

Denmark, “Superclásico,” Ole Christian Madsen, director

Germany, “Pina,” Wim Wenders, director

Iran, “A Separation,” Asghar Farhadi, director

Israel, “Footnote,” Joseph Cedar, director

Morocco, “Omar Killed Me,” Roschdy Zem, director

Poland, “In Darkness,” Agnieszka Holland, director

Taiwan, “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale,” Wei Te-sheng, director 

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

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