It’s been a few days since I’ve updated the longlist of submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — and, with the deadline exactly two weeks away, a few days amounts to a tall pile of new entries. I haven’t yet had time to investigate the finer points of such exotic-sounding submissions as Croatia’s “Cannibal Vegetarian” — cursory research tells me it’s less about cannibals than junkie gynaecologists — but a few higher-profile possibilities have entered along with the probable filler.
Before I get to those, however: I figured that with the submissions count up to 28 (expect that to double in the next fortnight), we have enough films to begin playing with some predictions. So you’ll find a highly malleable top five on the right-hand sidebar, drawn the pool of entries so far, with further rankings on the relevant Contenders page. None of it is to be taken too seriously, of course — least of all in this eternally confounding category.
One film I pushed straight into that top five, though I remain concerned about how the branch’s more comfort-inclined voters will feel about it, is also one of the better films I’ve seen all year. Joachim Lafosse’s devastating, fact-inspired domestic drama “Our Children” was the film I most regretted missing at Cannes, where many critics questioned its placement in the Un Certain Regard strand rather than in Competition; catching up with it a month later at Karlovy Vary, where I reviewed it at some length, it proved to have been worth the wait.
So I’m delighted that Belgium has entered the film as their Oscar hopeful, continuing a recent streak of challenging selections that don’t play right into Academy voters’ hands. That gutsiness paid off last year with “Bullhead,” a brooding, violent farmland thriller that wound up among the final five nominees, I suspect with a little help from the branch’s more discerning executive committee. “Our Children” may or may not require similar assistance. It certainly has the raw emotional impact voters often respond to, but some may find its fictionalized account of the true-life case of a married Belgian mother-of-three driven to the most desperate of measures by a combination of spousal neglect and post-partum depression — I’ve leave it that for the spoilerphobes, though the film does begin where it ends — a little hard to take.
Working in its favor are comparatively familiar faces in the cast, with strong work from former “A Prophet” co-stars Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, and a staggering lead turn from “Rosetta” star Emilie Dequenne that, in a perfect world, would be right in the thick of the Best Actress conversation. (She was rewarded by the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes, which doesn’t normally hand out acting prizes.) The film skipped the Toronto fest, but will be having its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, where its hunt for US distribution can continue. (It’s also at the London fest next month.) It may be my personal favorite film in the race at this stage, but I think it could be one to watch regardless.
Another major festival title to enter the race over the weekend is a more recent unveiling: Kim Ki-duk’s “Pietà,” which won the Golden Lion at Venice earlier this month (albeit in somewhat controversial circumstances) and also played Toronto. That may have made it an apparent no-brainer for South Korea’s selection board, though they’re an inconsistent bunch: they may have submitted Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed “Mother” a few years back, but surprised in 2010 by slighting Lee Chang-dong’s Cannes winner “Poetry” in favor of an internationally obscure football drama.
This time, they’ve opted again for the highest-profile choice, though I don’t think that’ll help the country land their first nomination in the category. (They’ve never even made the shortlist.) If voters didn’t respond to “Mother,” it’s hard to see them really warming to Kim’s cruder, bloodier melodrama, which, going on to Toronto notices, looks to be more divisive than its initial keen reception on the Lido suggested. (As I said in my review last week, I wasn’t really sold.)
Every year brings some eyebrow-raising omissions in this category, thanks to various blind spots in the voting process — and the biggest of the season so far comes at the hands of Portugal. Most critics (myself included) were rooting for the Portuguese to submit Miguel Gomes’s black-and-white post-colonial romance “Tabu,” the clear cinephile sensation of this year’s Berlinale — I raved about it there, and have mentioned several times since that it remains my top film of 2012 so far.
Whether the Academy would have felt similarly enthused about this dreamily experimental wonder is debatable, but in any case, we’ll never know the answer — since Portuguese selectors have instead thought practically by submitting “Blood of My Blood,” a TV-rooted family melodrama that was the country’s buggest box-office hit of 2011. (It missed last year’s eligibility deadline by a mere week.) Reviews were respectable when it bowed at Toronto a year ago — Variety’s Robert Koehler deemed it a “high-class telenovela” — though nothing approaching the hosannas for “Tabu.” Oh well, something always has to slip through the net.
Another high-profile Berlin premiere rejected by its home country is Brillante Mendoza’s “Captive,” a visceral hostage thriller starring Isabelle Huppert that found few admirers at the February fest, though I was among them. The Philippines electors had the film on their shortlist, but instead elected to enter “Bwakaw,” a gentle story of the friendship between an elderly gay man and his dog, which Academy voters may find more palatable.
Also joining the list is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s “Children of Sarajevo,” a story of siblings orphaned during the Sarajevo siege that was warmly reviewed in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and could well impress voters. The Czech Republic was once a relatively regular nominee here, but hasn’t cracked the shortlist in nine years: they’ll be hoping to reverse that with “In the Shadows,” a 1950s-set police thriller about a Communist detective whose investigation of a seemingly commonplace robbery leads him into a clash with a Zionist German investigator.
Joining the still-modest number of entries I’ve actually seen in Slovenia’s “A Trip,” a boisterous European riff on “Y tu Mama Tambien” that I encountered at Karlovy Vary, where it screened as part of Variety’s 10 European Directors To Watch programme. I rather liked its mordant answer to fratboy humor and its budget-conscious visual resourcefulness; I’m less convinced that older Academy voters will get it.
Also tackling youth ennui, apparently, is Bulgaria’s entry “Sneakers” — not, I presume, a remake of the underrated Phil Alden Robinson caper. A more large-scale contender arrives from Norway in “Kon-Tiki,” an epic portrayal of the famous titular Pacific voyage undertaken by six scientists in 1947. The most expensive Norwegian feature produced to date, it’s been a box-office smash at home. Reviews at Toronto were more reserved, but Academy voters are often sympathetic to international attempts at Hollywood-style filmmaking.
That, I think, brings us up to date — though in the time I spent writing that piece alone, any number of new entries could have been announced. Check out the Contenders page for the full list as it stands.