Fairly soon, the first formal contenders will start trickling into the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as individual national committees make their official selections and submit them to the Academy for consideration. It’s a trickle that will swiftly turn into a flood as the submission deadline of October 1 nears. Last year, 71 countries entered the race — an all-time record that could well be beaten this year. But in a race that’s all but impossible to handicap at this stage — dependent as it is on the whims and politics of different countries, rather than the Academy itself — what are the films we’re expecting to see in the mix?
One high-profile title we know won’t be in the running this year is France’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in May. With French distributors Wild Bunch having confirmed a local release date of October 9, that narrowly takes Abdellatif Kechiche’s vastly acclaimed romantic drama out of the eligibility timeframe: Academy rules stipulate that entries for this year’s award must be released in their home countries between October 1, 2012 and September 30, 2013. So “Blue” could feasibly be entered next year — rather like “The Intouchables,” which was entered into last year’s race over a year after its San Sebastian festival debut — but the French will have to consider other options this year.
That may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the French — who are never short of candidates for entry, after all. A Palme d’Or winner tends to be a practically mandatory entry in the race: you have to go back to 1997 to find a foreign-language winner of Cannes’ top prize that failed to be entered by its country for Oscar consideration. (The films were joint winners “A Taste of Cherry,” from Iran, and “The Eel,” from Japan.) So while “Blue” might well have been the French committee’s first choice this year, it might not have been the most tactical submission. The Academy’s been getting more adventurous in this category in recent years (the nomination of “Dogtooth” three years ago being a crowning never-say-never moment), but a sexually explicit, three-hour study of young lesbian love would certainly have been an extreme test of this older-skewing branch’s limits.
What safer options might the French consider this year, then? The other French-language critical hit of this year’s Cannes fest, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” will strike many as the obvious alternative — and certainly, this powerful domestic melodrama could find many fans in the branch, particularly among those who would Farhadi in high regard from his “A Separation” triumph. But the French are not in the habit of submitting films by non-French directors. (The last one was Israel’s Moshe Mizrahi, whose “Madame Rosa” won the Oscar in 1977.) Meanwhile, the film will probably be deemed insufficiently Iranian to be submitted by Farhadi’s home country — not that the political odds favor them submitting an emigrant production anyway.
If the French are feeling parochial, Francois Ozon’s acclaimed literary comedy of manners “In the House,” released late last year and rewarded with multiple Cesar nods, is a viable alternative. They could also consider Ozon’s follow-up, teenage prostitute study “Young and Beautiful” — though that’d be a less wise choice. They could submit Michel Gondry’s “Mood Indigo,” a high-whimsy adaptation of a local cult novel starring Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris — but for all the name-recognition factor, it’s an eccentric vision that many in the Academy simply wouldn’t jive to.
Speaking of Duris, it’s quite possible the French could submit fluffy retro-romcom “Populaire,” about a winsomely amorous typist in the 1950s. This attractive, somewhat over-cute film — pitched optimistically on the UK posters as “‘Mad Men’ meets ‘The Artist!'” — hasn’t gathered the buzz The Weinstein Company was presumably hoping for when they acquired it last year, but they’d certainly hawk the hell out of it if it’s submitted. In a considerably less sweet vein, it’s hard to gauge how the Academy might respond to Bruno Dumont’s austere historical biopic “Camille Claudel 1915.” They like Juliette Binoche, who’s on fierce form in the Berlinale entry, and they nominated a previous, more melodramatic telling of Claudel’s story back in 1989, but Dumont’s rigid formalism would be a turn-off to many.
Kiddie charmer “Ernest and Celestine,” already a likely contender in the Best Animated Feature race, would be a real wild-card choice. While animated films have been entered before (and “Waltz With Bashir” broke the barrier by landing a nomination in 2008), they’ve been in a more adult vein than this adorable bear-and-mouse friendship tale — the film’s all but impossible to dislike, and its gentleness and novelty factor could work in its favor.
No need to pity the French, then: that was just a superficial glance at the various other irons they have in the fire. But what other countries could find themselves in the running? The world is obviously too vast to give a complete rundown of the possibilities, but here are five filmmaking nations who could really make an impact on the race with the right selection:
Denmark: I’ve been saying this for over a year now, but if the Danes submit Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” soon to be released in the US, they could be the ones to beat. Interestingly, this popular moral drama has been in a comparable situation to “Blue is the Warmest Color”: a hit at Cannes last year, where it won Best Actor for Mads Mikkelsen, it couldn’t be submitted for the Oscar because it was only released at home this January (unusually, well after it was released in several other European territories). Other Danish options have emerged since then, but none with the crossover appeal (and global star power) of this one: I personally find this story of a schoolteacher falsely accused of pedophilia by his small community contrived and disingenuous, but I sense it could hit many voters right where they live.
Romania: The much-vaunted Romanian New Wave has yet to score an Oscar nomination, but they landed on the shortlist for the first time this year with Cristian Mungiu’s bleak convent drama “Beyond the Hills.” Could Calin Peter Netzer’s “Child’s Pose” do the same, or even go one better? I think so. The film was a well-received winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February, and after catching up with it in Karlovy Vary this morning, I can confirm that it’s sensational — I’ll offer further detail in a review, but this riveting tale of a mother doing whatever it takes to save her doltish son from manslaughter charges should keep wowing audiences on the festival circuit. Romania’s made a habit of submitting their biggest festival hit of the year, and this is the one.
Italy: Another country that routinely has much to choose from, Italy could benefit this year by going for the less obvious solution. Paolo Sorrentino’s lavish portrait of contemporary Roman social decay, “The Great Beauty,” found many admirers at Cannes, but his indulgent vision could be a bit rich for Oscar voters. Actress-turned-director Valeria Golino’s “Miele,” however, might be a smarter option. The film was one of the surprises of this year’s Un Certain Regard crop: a stylishly composed story of a young euthanasia practitioner, it’s moving and thought-provoking in the way that voters respond to, without being overly provocative.
Chile: The clear choice for Chile, which nabbed its first ever nomination last year for “No,” is Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria,” a vastly entertaining but emotionally substantive tale of middle-aged female liberation that proved a huge crowdpleaser in Berlin, where it won the Best Actress award for unlikely breakout star Paulina Garcia. What’s particularly interesting is that the film was picked up for US distribution by Roadside Attractions: an indie outfit that been a savvy Oscar campaigner of late. Even if the film somehow doesn’t get submitted, they could do a lot worse than try and make Garcia this year’s Fernanda Montenegro.
Japan: The Japanese rarely pick the film most favored by festival-watchers, often plucking a local hit that has yet to build an international profile. So while there’s no guarantee that they’ll select Cannes Jury Prize winner “Like Father, Like Son” this year, they’d be wise to do so. I was no fan of this schematic, sentimental story of two families on opposite sides of the class divide discovering that their sons were switched at birth, but I’m in the minority: it’s an effective heart-tugger that had grown men in tears at Cannes, and softer-hearted Academy voters would eat it up with a spoon. The Japanese selectors submitted director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s last Cannes winner, “Nobody Knows,” in 2002, so there’s reason to believe they might favor him again — and if they do, it’ll be a major threat for the award.
So, there’s a brief taster of the kind of speculation you’ll be hearing a lot of over the next few months, as we track the submissions as they come in. It’s entirely possible none of these films will end up in the mix — even the most high-profile countries can make perverse choices in some years. As for “Blue is the Warmest Color,” fingers crossed for 2014.