With a little over a week to go before the official deadline — though there are always a couple of stragglers and switches afterwards — submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar are now flooding in faster than I can write about them. The last two days, in particular, have brought in a bounty of high-profile new entries, many of them laden with festival awards and acclaim.
Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve seen more of the submissions — 15 at present, with the upcoming London Film Festival set to bulk up that number a bit — than is usual for me at this early point in the game, but even with another 20 or so entries still to be announced, this is looking like an unusually high-class crop of contenders. Not only are a great many strong films in the running, but many of those are, to some degree at least, Academy-accessible. The shortlisting process is going to be ugly; the race for nominations competitive. And while most pundits agree that “Amour” (with some heat from “The Intouchables”) is leading the race for the win, that’s not to say there aren’t equally (or even more) deserving films in the mix.
In other words, however it pans out — and allowing for an inevitably questionable call or two on the voters’ part — some great work is going to get left out in the cold. A few of titles announced yesterday, however, seem to me to be better positioned than most. Let’s go through them one by one.
“A Royal Affair” (Denmark): Our friend Anne Thompson may have mentioned in yesterday’s Oscar Talk podcast that Cannes is the leading hunting ground for foreign Oscar contenders — but on the evidence of the submissions so far, the less fashionable, less attended Berlinale is proving equally fruitful. Nikolaj Arcel’s lavish historical drama is the latest example of this. Screening late in the festival to critics who were mostly expecting stuffy corset-porn, this brisk, literate, sexy account of the love triangle between 18th-century Danish monarch King Christian VII, his wife and the royal physician was met with surprisingly keen reviews and a brace of awards for Best Screenplay and Best Actor.
The latter award went to Mikkel Folsgaard as the monarch, though as time passes, many will mistakenly attribute it to Mads Mikkelsen instead: the international crossover star is no less prominent or impressive in the film. (Given that he won the same award in Cannes three months later for “The Hunt,” everything worked out rather neatly.) Also registering strongly in the film is Alicia Vikander, who is currently earning glowing notices for her wonderful supporting work in “Anna Karenina.” The rising profiles of Mikkelsen and Vikander give an extra boost to a film whose crisp storytelling and plush visual spectacle (it’s a dark horse in the Best Costume Design race) should already play well to voters.
An arthouse hit in the UK over the summer, the film should perform equivalently well Stateside when Magnolia release it in November. That “A Royal Affair” was submitted as Denmark’s entry in the first place is already a minor victory, given that it had two viable new films from previously Academy-honored directors — Susanne Bier’s Venice-premiered “Love Is All You Need” and Bille August’s period biopic “Marie Kroyer” — to overcome. For those wondering why the aforementioned “The Hunt” — a popular but dubiously trumped-up melodrama from Tomas Vinterberg — wasn’t considered, that’d be because, in a curious distribution pattern, it’s only released in Denmark in January, long after it opens in other territories. Should Denmark submit it next year, they’ll have a heavy contender on their hands; as it stands, the one they have is pretty formidable.
“Sister” (Switzerland): Sticking with Berlinale hits, I made my love for Ursula Meier’s gently jagged study of unchecked adolescence at a Swiss ski resort quite plain at the festival, it won a special award from Mike Leigh’s jury. There, I wrote: “Many might cry heresy, but this briskly funny, softly moving study of near-feral youth is, for me, the film so many critics see in the Dardennes’ ‘The Kid With a Bike.'” It remains one of my favorites of 2012, and I look forward to seeing it again at the upcoming LFF.
It’s harder to tell how this one will fly with Academy voters: while they often like child’s-eye narratives, this is a cooler and more contemporary work than the rosy nostalgia pieces they’ve rewarded in the past. On the other hand, the film has been popular on the festival circuit, and it’s hard to imagine that the warmth, humor and family-oriented message of Meier’s film — alongside the visual joys of the great Agnes Godard’s cinematography — won’t find a fair few fans in the branch, some of them hopefully within the executive committee. Also helping its cause is the presence of some familiar faces in the cast: young newcomer Kacey Mott Klein may be the irresistible star of the film, but he’s bolstered by strong work from Lea Seydoux (now recognizable to multiplex audiences from her turn in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) and a French-speaking Gillian Anderson.
“Fill the Void” (Israel): In recent years, Israel has been a more consistent presence in this category than any other country: they have yet to nail down the win, but Israel’s submission has wound up nominated in four of the last five years. With recent Venice award-winner “Fill the Void” — submitted, as usual, after it won the top prize in the country’s own Ophir Awards — they have a strong chance of going five-from-six, though it represents a slight change of tack. Where those four recent nominees — war stories “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir,” urban drama “Ajami” and academia-set comedy “Footnote” — were all expressly male-driven narratives, “Fill the Void” is a far more feminine enterprise.
The debut feature from New York-born writer-director Rama Burshtein, this woman-dominated ensemble piece tackles the subject of arranged marriage within the Orthodox Jewish community — though it comes out more in favor of the institution than you might expect. That surprisingly conservative sensibility (Burshtein herself is a happy beneficiary of arranged marriage) made the film a point of mild controversy at Venice, where a smattering of boos interrupted the deserved applause for its witty, perceptive scripting, striking shallow-focus aesthetic and excellent performances — most notably that of 18 year-old Hadas Yaron, a worthy winner of the festival’s Best Actress prize. (More on its merits in my review.)
It’s certainly a conversation piece, though as a comedy of manners with a clear debt to Jane Austen, it’s an engaging, non-abrasive one that plays to multiple age groups. That balance between issues and entertainment can be a golden one with this voting branch — I firmly expect to see it in the January shortlist.
Other notable new entries that I haven’t seen include Mexico’s “After Lucia,” a well-reviewed drama on the topical theme of school bullying that was the surprise winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year — I’ll have more thoughts on that when I see it at the London fest next month. Brazil’s submission, father-son drama “The Clown,” has yet to appear on the international festival circuit, though it’s a popular choice at home — I’ve been receiving tips and tweets about it from Brazilian readers for several weeks now. Also scarcely on the radar outside its home country is Russia’s entry “White Tiger”; it’s WWII adventure, but I can’t tell you much more than that.
Another two new entries are ones that I’ve seen, but don’t expect to make much headway in the competition. I briefly reviewed Slovakia’s entry, “Made in Ash,” at Karlovy Vary: it’s a well-meaning but monotonously glum social treatise documenting the limited economic opportunities available to the country’s youth. Branch members will likely snooze through the parts they can’t stomach. Still, it’s a better choice than Hong Kong’s dismal “Life Without Principle” — a dreary financial-crisis parable from the usually-more-fun Johnnie To — which I saw at Venice last year and had completely forgotten about until now. In my review, I described it as evoking “Paul Haggis, with a little less of the Canadian”s famed subtlety and wry sense of humor.” Even if any voters spot the resemblance, I don’t think it’ll help.
As usual, you can keep up with the growing list of submissions at the category’s Contenders page.