Now that the list of foreign language films has been whittled down from 71 to just nine, the question becomes which five will be nominated for the Oscar.
Four of the nine -- “Amour” (Austria); “The Intouchables” (France); “A Royal Affair” (Denmark); and “Kon-Tiki” (Norway) -- found love at the Golden Globes; their fifth nominee, the Gallic “Rust and Bone,” was not eligible in this category.
“Amour,” “Beyond the Hills,” and “No” all premiered to much acclaimed and accolades at this years Cannes Film Festival, while “A Royal Affair,” “Sister,” and “War Witch” won prizes at Berlin.
The film with most of the buzz is Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” a chillingly realistic drama about an older couple facing death. Haneke’s last film, “The White Ribbon,” was a contender in this category in 2009 but lost to “The Secret in Their Eyes.” That film, like “Amour,” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and had been a popular choice amongst critics groups. There’s even talk of "Amour" crossing over into other categories such as Picture, Director, Actor (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Actress (Emmanuelle Riva), and Screenplay.
Yet for all its acclaim and accomplishment, “Amour” is quite a downer. After all, it’s about a woman in her eighties who’s dying. With the average age of an academy member upwards of 60, how many of them will really want to sit through the film, especially if they’re presented with a more pleasing alternative.
Enter “The Intouchables,” the highest-grossing foreign language film of the year and the all-time box office champ in its native France. Though not as critically acclaimed as “Amour,” the film is a crowd-pleaser, and its story of friendship despite odds could warm the hearts of enough voters to get it a win. Add to that “The Intouchables” is being distributed by the Weinstein Company, which also has “Kon-Tiki,” so you can expect a full-bodied campaign.
If “Amour” and “The Intouchables” are the two likeliest nominees, then “A Royal Affair” isn't too far behind: it’s the kind of lavish, sumptuous period film the academy loves and, like “Amour,” there’s the chance of it turning up in other categories such as Costume and Production Design.
So what semi-finalists nab the last two slots?
Christian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” was famously shut out in 2007, so perhaps goodwill could propel his follow-up film “Beyond the Hills” to a nomination. The film won Best Actress (a tie for Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan) and Best Screenplay at Cannes, which doesn’t hurt. Yet the film is dark and brooding, not really the academy’s thing.
Another Cannes champ, “No,” could also crack the top five. It’s a highly charged political thriller with a rambunctious visual style (shot entirely on 1980s video stock). The film was singled out by the National Board of Review as one of the Top 5 Foreign Films of the Year (along with “The Intouchables,” “War Witch,” and winner “Amour”), but hasn’t found much love elsewhere.
“Sister” won a Special Award for director Ursula Meier at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, while “War Witch” won Best Actress (Rachel Mwanza) and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.
“The Deep,” an Icelandic survival story, has been gathering acclaim, and word of mouth says it had a very good official academy screening.
This is a branch that goes its own way, so trying to predict them is always risky. A high profile contender can be been left off for a more obscure title, so don’t be surprised by seemingly left-field inclusions and shocking exclusions. Remember, just because a film did well at film festivals doesn’t mean it wowed Academy members.
While the last two winners -- "A Separation" (Iran) and "In a Better World" (Denmark) -- were not surprising, there was that 2009 race where "The Secrets in their Eyes" prevailed. The year before, "Departures" (Japan) won over the acclaimed "The Class" (France) and "Waltz with Bashir" (Israel). And in 2006, despite earning an Original Screenplay nomination and winning three technical Oscars, "Pan's Labyrinth" (Mexico) lost this race to "The Lives of Others" (Germany).