Oscar Circuit: Best Foreign Language Film

And the Nominees Are:

Bullhead – Belgium
Footnote
 – Israel
In Darkness
 – Poland
Monsieur Lazhar
 – Canada
A Separation
 – Iran

If I were king for a day…well, a lot of things would happen, but one of them would be to get rid of this damn category and force Academy members to venture out of the U.S. and Britain once in a while!  Kidding aside, this is what I would call one of the “ghetto” categories.  It’s a way for the Academy to begrudgingly recognize a certain type of film without going through the messy business of actually acknowledging it for one of the major awards (see also: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature).  Further grinding down any vestige of internationality from their competition are the trends of who historically wins in this category.  Culturally-specific films that highlight intricate and/or contrasting perspectives of the world rarely win or even get nominated, while compromised films from other countries that fit more comfortably within Hollywood’s myopic sense of “universal” values emerge victorious nearly every year.  Not that this means the Foreign Language Film winners are always of inferior quality, necessarily, but it is a depressing exception to the general trend that I observed in my Sizing Up articles.

Looking at history suggests that films about the past haunting the present, the meaninglessness of war (bonus points if it’s about The Holocaust), feminist sexual liberation, and “think of the children!” fables are Academy favorites.  Keep in mind that this is one of the only categories where viewing every nominee is mandatory to vote for it, which is most likely why it is usually prone to surprises more than the others.  Even more interesting a wrench thrown into these works is that ever-debated Executive Committee, installed after the shocking snub of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days from the 80th Academy Award nominees to ensure that critically acclaimed, “difficult” arthouse hits would be recognized from then on.  Last year their influence on an otherwise, shall we say, longshot submission was pretty obvious, but now?

Belgium’s Bullhead (which hopefully some of you saw this weekend?) may be the one that benefitted from their influence.  After all, depressing, convoluted crime epics about bovine steroids are not what one immediately calls to mind when thinking of Oscar bait.  Winner of the Next Wave Award at its premiere at Fantastic Fest, Michaël R. Roskam’s feature debut certainly looks intriguing but falls way outside of the Academy’s comfort zone and will most likely have to settle for a nomination.  Belgium has had five previous nominees in this category with no winners so far.

The scholarly tragicomedy Footnote is Israel’s entry in the race.  A father and son are both professors of Talmudic Studies and professional rivals at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and their relationship is pushed to its limits when the son’s star rises in academia faster than dear old dad.  Conquering the Ophir Awards (Israel’s version of the Oscars) and walking away from last year’s Cannes Film Festival with Best Screenplay, Joseph Cedar has once again proved himself the most celebrated director in his country’s history.  While his films have been awards magnets despite being very specifically Israeli, this caustic comedy may prove to be a little too heady and vicious for the Academy.  Israel has had nine previous nominees in this category with no winners so far.

The likely winner will probably be Poland’s entry In Darkness, if for no other reason than its Oscar-friendly premise which would almost come off as suspicious were it not for its director’s personal history.  Based on a true story, the film centers on a sanitation worker named Leopold Socha who assisted several Jews hiding in the Lwów sewer system during World War II.  Critics have described it as a brutally harrowing if sometimes simplistic recounting of an amazing story, which is exactly how Oscar likes its Foreign Language Films.  This is also a return to the Academy for Agnieszka Holland, who was a Best Adapted Screenplay nominee for her most acclaimed film Europa, Europa (also about The Holocaust) and had a previous Foreign Language Film nominee in Angry Harvest in 1985.  Before any of you think of dismissing Holland as a shameless awards hunter, it should be noted that her family history is rooted in that time period, with her mother heroically saving lives in the Warsaw Ghetto while the rest of her family perished there.  It looks like her emotional convictions in portraying this historical event will finally pay off this year.  Poland has had eight previous nominees in this category with no winners so far.

Monsieur Lazhar is brought to you by Canada, and yes, they do produce foreign language films there.  About an Algerian immigrant with a dark past hastily hired to replace an elementary school teacher that committed suicide, Lazhar also boasts the kind of subject matter that the Academy goes gaga for (children learning painful lessons while putting aside their differences and coming together?  Cha-ching!).  While the competition appears too tight this year, the sorta-like-The Class-but-not film should not be completely counted out just yet.  Canada has had five previous nominees in this category with The Barbarian Invasions being their sole victor so far.

Last but absolutely not least is Iran’s astounding A Separation, the only film that seriously challenged The Tree of Life as my favorite of the year.  But I’m hardly the only one celebrating it; the film currently sits at a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, was Roger Ebert’s #1 of the year, and was hailed by fellow Awards Circuit writer Michael Ward.  Beginning with the dissolution of a marriage and spiraling into something far more devastating, Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece is being pegged by many – including our Editor – as the one to beat.  I am less sure.  Frontrunners are far less locked in Best Foreign Language Film than in the other categories, and it did miss out on a Best Picture nomination despite its screenplay citation.  The film’s biggest advantage is its uncompromised brilliance being so apparent that even Academy voters may not be able to pass it up.  Iran has only had one previous (and unsuccessful) nominee in this category.

Clearly my emotional chips are with one of these nominees, but the Oscar prognosticator in me finds this category a lot hazier than his contemporaries.  Tell me your own thoughts on this race, and stay tuned for Mike’s analysis of Best Documentary Feature!

Prediction: Poland’s In Darkness

Snubbed:
Miss Bala – Mexico
Pina – Germany
The Turin Horse – Hungary