Denmark’s ‘The Hunt, Italy’s ‘The Great Beauty’ join foreign Oscar race

Denmark may have teased out the process somewhat by releasing a shortlist of potential submissions, but there was never much doubt over what film they’d ultimately choose to represent them in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And so it was confirmed today: Thomas Vinterberg’s moral melodrama “The Hunt,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is the Danish hopeful. And one with good reason to be hopeful, at that; I’m hardly alone in thinking we could be looking at our winner here.

Do I slightly wish the Danes had thrown us a curveball and submitted Joshua Oppenheimer’s striking documentary “The Act of Killing” instead? Sure, but then I’ve already said that I personally find “The Hunt” a superficial and disingenuous piece of work. But there’s no denying Denmark has acted in their own best interests by selecting Vinterberg’s film, which has any number of factors in its favor: Cannes award credibility, a keen critical following, an internationally recognized star in Mads Mikkelsen and an effectively button-pushing narrative that I expect will work its spell on general branch voters. (If your memory needs jogging, Mikkelsen plays an honorable schoolteacher falsely accused of sexual abuse by one of his pupils.)There are never any sure things in this category, but it’d be a major surprise if “The Hunt” doesn’t wind up with a nomination.

Denmark has fared well in this category recently. Three years ago, Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World” — a film I’d argue is very much of a piece with “The Hunt” — won the country its third Oscar, and its first since “Babette’s Feast” and “Pelle the Conqueror” scored back-to-back wins in the 1980s. Two years ago, breezy romantic comedy “SuperClásico” made the nine-film shortlist, and was reportedly popular with the general voters. And last year, the intelligent costume drama “A Royal Affair” unsurprisingly notched up a nomination.

“A Royal Affair,” of course, also starred Mikkelsen, who also featured in Denmark’s 2006 nominee “After the Wedding.” The actor has become something of a global ambassador for the Danish industry, and his publicity will be key to “The Hunt”‘s campaign. It helps that his strong performance, which won Best Actor at Cannes last year, is admired even by most of the film’s detractors admire. A while back, I wondered whether he could crack the Best Actor race, much as Javier Bardem did for Mexican entry “Biutiful” — the field is probably too crowded, with Magnolia campaigning too little, for that possibility to pan out, but his performance will nonetheless be an abetting factor in the foreign-language race, 

This is Vinterberg’s second time representing Denmark in the Oscar race, and a chance for the Academy to make amends after rather controversially failing to nominate his 1998 breakthrough “The Celebration,” after it dominated the critics’ awards and scored a Golden Globe nod. An Oscar now would certainly be a well-timed profile-booster for Vinterberg, with his Fox Searchlight-backed, Carey Mulligan-starring take on “Far From the Madding Crowd” due for release next year

For “The Hunt,” the Oscar campaign will be the last stage in an awards run that has been spread over two years. in 2012, it received five top European Film Award nominations, winning Best Screenplay. It did well in the UK, too, landing a BAFTA nod and winning Best Foreign Film at the British Independent Film Awards, while Mikkelsen scored a Best Actor nod from the London Film Critics’ Circle.

Crossing from Cannes 2012 to Cannes 2013, Italy surprised nobody by selecting Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” as their submission this year. The film — a visually extravagant, Fellini-referencing ode to modern-day Rome in all its corrupt splendor — found an ardent critical following at Cannes. (Again, I wasn’t quite on board.) Steven Spielberg’s jury was evidently less bowled over, as it left the festival empty-handed.

My gut feeling is that the branch’s reaction will be closer to that of Team Spielberg: it’s an impressive, swaggering piece of filmmaking, but narratively oblique and emotionally remote. The executive committee might stand up for it, though they might in turn be turned off by its razzle-dazzle. I wonder if Italy might have given themselves a better chance with a lower-profile Cannes title, Valeria Golino’s touching euthanasia drama “Honey.”

Somewhat surprisingly, considering the lofty position Sorrentino holds in contemporary Italian cinema, this is the first time he’s represented his country in the Oscar race. Italy still holds the record for most wins in this category, but their Midas touch has worn off in recent years: it’s eight years since their last nomination (for Cristina Comencini’s “Don’t Tell”), and 15 since their last win (for Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”). None of their last five submissions has made the pre-nomination shortlist, despite such high-profile picks as “Gomorrah” and last year’s Golden Bear winner “Caesar Must Die.”

Also joining the race in the last two days: Spain’s “15 Years and One Day,” which won top honors at the Malaga Spanish Film Festival and stars the excellent Maribel Verdu (who also starred in last year’s submission, “Blancanieves”);  Slovenia’s “Class Enemy,” a recent Venice entry; Lebanon’s “Ghadi”; and Peru’s “The Cleaner.” As ever, the insight of our international readers is welcome.

Check out the updated Contenders page here.