Denmark's Oscar choice between 'The Hunt,' 'The Act of Killing' and 'Northwest'

Posted by · 4:05 pm · August 15th, 2013

As a rule, I don’t tend to report on the shortlists of films being considered by individual countries for their Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission — the process is protracted enough without dwelling on the films (many of them low-profile) that might enter the race. However, when the shortlist presents a choice as intriguing and diverse as the one revealed by Denmark’s selection board this year, it’s worth making an exception. The Danish Film Institute today announced that the final three films in the running are Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and Michael Noer’s “Northwest.”

Ever since “The Hunt” premiered at Cannes last year, winning Best Actor for Mads Mikkelsen, I’ve been saying that it has all the makings of a heavyweight contender in this race. The moral melodrama was released domestically too late for the Danes to enter it in last year’s race — just as well, since they scored a nomination for their eventual submission, “A Royal Affair.” The advantage of this delay is that the film would arrive in the race with nearly two years’ worth of accumulated buzz.

Not that it would really need it: my guess is the film’s worthy but accessible social agenda, combined with the crossover star power of Mikkelsen, would already make it highly appealing to this branch of voters. (It’s a softer lob than Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” fruitlessly submitted by Denmark in 1998.) Last month, I even wondered if Mikkelsen could figure into the Best Actor race as a (very) dark horse — probably not, but stranger things have happened. In any event, “The Hunt” would enter the foreign-language race as a widely predicted nominee, and even a potential winner. Why look any further, right? 

Well, the shortlisting of a very different festival sensation, “The Act of Killing,” makes things interesting. This one-of-a-kind documentary from Copenhagen-based American filmmaker Oppenheimer has been startling audiences since premiering at Telluride nearly a year ago, racking up a daunting pile of festival prizes, inspiring some of the year’s most extravagant critical superlatives and building a healthy head of controversy — inevitable for a film with the simultaneously powerful and outlandish premise of inviting Indonesian death-squad leaders to cinematically re-enact their past massacres.

It’s a film that will surely receive significant attention in the year-end documentary awards, though it remains to be seen whether the Academy’s doc branch is brave enough to shortlist it. It goes without saying, however, that it hardly resembles a typical Best Foreign Language Film player. “Waltz With Bashir” is a rare (if not the only) example of documentary cracking this category, and while the Academy has relaxed its rules about the national identity of submissions, it’s safe to say that Denmark submitting an Indonesian-language co-production with Norway and the UK, from a US-born director to boot, would raise eyebrows in some quarters. 

“The Act of Killing” wouldn’t be the most strategically sound of choices — it certainly wouldn’t win — but it could well be an attention-grabber. If it winds up as a surprise submission, it’s not impossible to imagine the branch’s executive committee stumping for its novelty.

If the Danish selectors feel like neither the safe choice nor the overtly dangerous one, their third (and lowest-profile) option is “Northwest,” a reportedly gritty crime drama about an 18-year-old boy who enters the Copenhagen criminal underworld to fend for his family. I haven’t seen it, but festival reviews out of Rotterdam and Gothenburg (where it won a FIPRESCI prize) were warm. It would appear to be the long shot in this particular contest.

Denmark, incidentally, is shooting for its fourth straight year of making the nine-film Oscar shortlist in this category: “In a Better World” won the 2010 award, “A Royal Affair” was nominated last year, while 2011’s football comedy “SuperClasico” missed the nomination cut in between. 

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