Oscar Whittles Foreign Language Film to 9

The Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars is always one of the most contentious, at least from the standpoint of critics. The Foreign Film nominees are determined by a small committee that sits and watches every single entry into the race (or is supposed to, anyway); now, we don’t know exactly who is on this committee, but it’s not hard to imagine that the kind of Academy members with the time to sit around and watch 60-odd films are the retired ones. And these crusty curmudgeons have proven to be loathe to embrace the boldest, most daring and/or freakiest work being done in the international cinema community. Reliably, the most critically acclaimed pieces are snubbed in favor of films that are not necessarily worse, but certainly follow safer and more traditional modes of filmmaking. After Romanian Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was snubbed three years ago, the Academy established a new executive committee, which acts as a sort of safety net, with the ability to advance 3 films that the regular committee had already scuttled to the 9-film shortlist.

It’s been a nice addition, since from the 9-film shortlist, it seems to be a whole new ballgame to get a nomination; last year, Peruvian entry “The Milk of Sorrow” wasn’t generally expected to make the final five, as it was obviously one of the executive committee’s orphans. Yet, there it was on nomination morning.

Not that there wasn’t still some controversy to this year’s list; after all, how can you whittle down the thousands of films made outside of the U.S. every year down to only 5 worthy candidates? You can’t do it. There’s too much stellar work being done, and something high-profile is going to fall through the cracks. This year’s main snubs went to France’s Algerian religious drama “Of Gods and Men” and Thailand’s mystical, meditative head-trip “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” winners of the Grand Prix and the Palme d’Or at Cannes last summer, respectively. C’est la vie.

While the executive committee couldn’t save those films, they gave the film community a pleasant shock by moving Greece’s controversial entry “Dogtooth” through to the shortlist. The outré submission by Yorgos Lanthimos, about a husband and wife who keep their children imprisoned within their house for their whole lives while pretending this is normal, touches on inter-sibling sex and feline homicide with a pitch-black sense of humor; hardly the Academy’s normal cup of tea, but the film has received widespread critical acclaim. I’ll post the trailer at the end of this entry so you can take a look for yourself, but this seems to be a sign that the executive committee really works, especially if “Dogtooth” can pull off the upset nomination come Tuesday morning.

In other news, Denmark’s “In a Better World,” the latest film by Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding,” the original “Brothers,” “Things We Lost in the Fire”), and winner at the Golden Globes, looks like a strong bet for nomination and perhaps even the win. Alejandro Iñarritu’s “Biutiful” should have the star power and prestige to push through, and Gael Garcia Bernal’s cache likewise gives Spain’s “Even the Rain” a possibility of coasting to a nod. South Africa’s “Life, Above All” hits a lot of the Academy’s buttons (sentimental, topical drama told from the eyes of a child), while Algeria’s “Outside the Law” seems to be the kind of polished, old-fashioned thriller that won last year with “The Secret In Their Eyes,” and director Rachid Bouchareb has been nominated before (in 2006, for “Days of Glory”). In fact, it seems like the only particular weak link here is Sweden’s “Simple Simon,” a slight comedy about Asperger’s syndrome; then again, the fact that a negligible feel-good piece like that made it even this far could be a red flag, especially with the fogies we’re talking about. Anyway, here’s the shortlist – dig around on your own and decide which 4 you think will drop out in a week. Seriously, your guess will be as good as mine.

  • Algeria: “Outside the Law”
  • Canada: “Incendies”
  • Denmark: “In a Better World”
  • Greece: “Dogtooth”
  • Japan: “Confessions”
  • Mexico: “Biutiful”
  • South Africa: “Life, Above All”
  • Spain: “Even the Rain”
  • Sweden: “Simple Simon”
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