A closer look at Oscar's foreign-language shortlist

Posted by · 1:10 pm · December 22nd, 2012

I’ve been saying for some time now that the Academy’s cull of the foreign-language field from 71 to nine contenders would be a heartbreaker, and so it was.

Among the standout films eliminated from the competition after yesterday’s announcement are: Australia’s vivid, perspective-bending WWII tale “Lore,” Belgium’s wrenching domestic drama “Our Children,” Hungary’s brutal Berlin Silver Bear winner “Just the Wind,” Mexico’s disquieting conversation piece (and Cannes Un Certain Regard champ) “After Lucia” and Germany’s acclaimed, elegant Stasi-era character study “Barbara.” We salute them, and many others: here’s hoping they find the international audiences (and, in some cases, distributors) they deserve in spite of this setback.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the films that did make the cut are, by and large, a deserving lot, representing a healthy balance between populist and more provocative voting instincts. Some will carp about the inevitable selection of the middlebrow crossover smash “The Intouchables” over more artistically accomplished fare — but there are many more who legitimately love it. Others will complain that, with seven of the nine selections hailing from Europe, the shortlist isn’t as representative of world cinema as it might have been — but would we really want the Academy to vote in a more tokenistic fashion? 

In any event, how many will argue against the immaculate construction of universal critics’ favorite “Amour,” the technical daring and political wit of “No,” or the visual panache and scrappy emotional kick of “Sister?” Some of 2012’s best films — foreign-language or otherwise — are still in the hunt for this too-often compromised award. For that, the Academy deserves some credit, even if they’d have had to work hard to make too many egregious mistakes in a banner year when most countries, for once, chose their submissions wisely.

Boiling down a planet’s worth of international cinema to a mere nine (and, in a few weeks, five) films is always going to be a problematic, borderline-absurd process, but that’s the nature of the awards-season beast: perhaps, with the Best Picture category now permitted up to 10 nominees, its multilingual counterpart deserves the same courtesy.  

The Academy didn’t spring many surprises with the shortlist. Seven of the selections — “Amour,” “The Intouchables,” “A Royal Affair,” “No,” “War Witch,” “Sister” and “Kon-Tiki” — were already featured in the top nine on our Contenders chart for the category. The remaining two were hardly off the radar, either. Icelandic maritime survival thriller “The Deep” is the only title on the shortlist I haven’t yet seen, but was reported to have played extremely well at its Academy screening. Romania’s “Beyond the Hills,” obviously, has been a high-profile arthouse property since its Cannes debut.

Most have received ample exposure on the festival circuit and, in some cases, on general release. In addition to “Beyond the Hills,” “Amour” and “No” are Cannes babies, having triumphed in the Competition and Directors’ Fortnight sections respectively; “A Royal Affair,” “Sister” and “War Witch,” meanwhile, all debuted (and won prizes) in competition at Berlin. “The Intouchables” and “Kon-Tiki,” both being distributed Stateside by The Weinstein Company, don’t have quite the same festival cred, but hardly need it: the former is already the year’s highest-grossing foreign-language film, while the latter, a robust seafaring epic that is the most expensive production in Norewgian industry, also boasts crowdpleasing potential. 

What six titles were chosen by the general branch voters, and what three were “saved” by the executive committee? Since the voting procedure was changed in 2008, that’s the guessing game played by most Oscar pundits following the announcement of the shortlist, and it’s a particularly tough one this year. Only one film strikes me as an obvious executive-committee pick: “Beyond the Hills.”

Cristian Mungiu’s gruelling, somber parable on matters of spiritual and moral corruption, arguably represents a challenge to the branch’s more conservative members — who, after all, controversially shut out Mungiu’s last film, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” in 2007. Given that the “4 Months” omission is widely viewed as the final straw that led to the Academy’s revision of the voting system, one might view the inclusion of “Hills” — which hasn’t been quite as unanimously acclaimed as its predecessor — as an apology of sorts on the executive committee’s part. Either way, it’s nice to see the Romanian New Wave, one of world cinema’s most celebrated recent movements, finally acknowledged to some extent by the Academy.

It’s harder to pinpoint the other executive-committee saves, though it’s safe to say “The Intouchables”isn’t one of them. As unbelievable as it may seem to some reader, Kris even hears whispers that “Amour” — installed by many pundits as the putative frontrunner since Cannes — might have needed the committee’s help. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if that were the case: for all its cross-category buzz, the film is a typically severe auteur piece from Michael Haneke, and while some older voters may be moved by its unblinking study of the perils of aging, many might find it too tough a sit.

I maintain that the upbeat, broadly accessible buddy narrative of “The Intouchables” makes it the one to beat, however banal its aesthetics and iffy its social politics. It has just enough intended pathos and worthy thematic aspirations to be taken seriously by the comedy-shy Academy, plus a galvanizing star turn from Omar Sy. If I’m right, it’ll be perennial nominee France’s first winner in exactly 20 years; perhaps its a sign that their last, the sudsy Catherine Deneuve melodrama “Indochine,” was similarly unremarkable.

Those two — both of which could feasibly have been France’s entry this year — seem the most secure candidates for the final five, which could boast as many as four French-language nominees. The other two are impressive child-driven stories that, while hardly sentimental Academy bait, should tug at voters’ heartstrings.

Switzerland’s entry, “Sister,” is actually favorite film on the shortlist: since Berlin, I’ve been raving about Ursula Meier’s smart, surprising, sneakily moving study of a semi-feral youth surviving on the moneyed slopes of a tourist-infested ski resort, and recently made a long-shot Oscar plea for teenager Kacey Mottet Klein’s quick-witted lead performance (though Lea Seydoux also turns in career-best work as his barely adult guardian). It’s a sharp, nippy little film with an unexpected wallop of an emotional payoff; I’m hoping the gloss lent by Gillian Anderson in supporting role (not the mention the great Agnes Godard’s luminous cinematography) is enough to lure more cautious voters.

Perhaps a likelier bet is Canada’s “War Witch,” which had grown men in tears at its first screening in Berlin, where it won the Best Actress award for remarkable 14 year-old newcomer Rachel Mwanza. Playing a pregnant child soldier abducted by rebel forces in an unnamed African nation, she’s the backbone of a strong-blooded film, infused with magical realism, that is nonetheless just redemptive enough to appeal to the broader votership; for me, it doesn’t quite land the bodyblow of the superior, similarly-themed “Johnny Mad Dog,” but it’d be an exciting nominee.  

I expect one of these films to make the cut, alongside fellow Berlin favorite “A Royal Affair.” Long earmarked as likely bait in this category — it’s a literate, lavishly appointed historical biopic, after all — its chances are helped by the recognizable star presence of Mads Mikkelsen, as well as up-and-coming “Anna Karenina” standout Alicia Vikander. (It was their co-star Mikkel Folsgaard, meanwhile, who won Best Actor at Berlin.) Steve Pond, however, hears word that the film wasn’t as well-received at its screening as you might expect — perhaps because it’s a younger, brisker, sexier film than outward appearances suggest.

Add in Gael Garcia Bernal in “No,” which I discussed in some detail at Cannes, and this could be the category’s starriest lineup in some time. Some have speculated that director Pablo Larrain’s witty, thematically crucial decision to shoot the film in funky, 1980s-style video stock, could be a turn-off for voters, but I think the film is too absorbing (and ultimately rousing) a political thriller for that to be a significant obstacle.

It’s one of several options now open to the Academy that combine comparatively mainstream entertainment smarts with sinuous, singular artistry — a compromise of sorts between the arty austerity of “Amour” and “Beyond the Hills” and the loud crowd appeal of “The Intouchables.” I’d rather voters didn’t opt for the latter, but either way, this strong shortlist has all but safeguarded the Academy against making a choice that will please nobody.

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