Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Foreign Language Film – Cannes hits face a ‘Breakdown’

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

The eternally problematic Best Foreign Language Film category is one that's well known for springing surprises (usually not very pleasant or popular ones) on Oscar night. For the last couple of years, however, it has followed the script, with universally expected and approved wins for “A Separation” and “Amour.” Were they simply too good to lose, or are we seeing the effects of the new voting system, which no longer requires members to see all the nominees before voting? With this year's contest far more competitive — pitting four acclaimed Cannes premieres against a lower-profile tearjerker — we may or may not be able to tell.

The nominees are…

“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Belgium)
If voting in this category still required members to attend screenings of all the nominees, I'd be inclined to put my money on this finely crafted, expertly acted melodrama about two bluegrass musicians facing the death of their terminally ill young daughter. It sounds like sappy disease-of-the-week fare, but Felix van Groeningen's film is a surprising, sonically rich affair that lands the biggest emotional gut-punch of the nominees. Time and again, the Academy has voted with its collective heart in this category, often at the expense of higher-profile contenders, and if fusty voters aren't too put off by the inked-up hipster protagonists, this is arguably the nominee that's otherwise most up their alley. But the film doesn't have a large campaign engine behind it, and sounds like an obvious downer — will voters have picked up their screeners and watched it? I fear it's apathy that'll keep seven-time nominee Belgium from its first win in this category.

“The Missing Picture” (Cambodia)
In many respects, this was the most unexpected nominee in the lineup: critics have been enthusiastic, but Rithy Panh's highly personal first-hand reflection on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge otherwise didn't have a lot of buzz behind it, and only one documentary has previously been nominated in this race. That, of course, was “Waltz With Bashir,” with which “The Missing Picture” shares a first-person perspective and a creative formal conceit, with clay puppetry used to re-enact Panh's horrific childhood experiences. (It makes a neat companion piece to Documentary Feature nominee “The Act of Killing.”) It seems obvious to me that this made the nine-film shortlist with some assistance from the branch's executive committee; I'm not as besotted with it as some of my colleagues, but it brings welcome cultural and stylistic breadth to the category. Interestingly enough, it won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, for which the jury was headed by Thomas Vinterberg, director of…

“The Hunt” (Denmark)
No film in the race has been hanging around for longer than Vinterberg's diagrammatic ethics drama, which premiered in Competition at Cannes back in 2012, where it won Best Actor for Mads Mikkelsen's finely-tuned performance as a kindly schoolteacher unjustly accused of sexual abuse by one of his young pupils. Essentially, then, it's been on the awards trail for two years, picking up BAFTA and European Film Award nods a year ago, and scoring Globe, Spirit and Critics' Choice nods this time round. That lengthy exposure could work to its advantage in this race, as could Mikkelsen's crossover star power, as could the Academy's general predilection for earnest, accessible issue dramas, particularly ones in which children play a key role. This is the most critically divisive film of the lot: for either you buy its contrivances and are moved by its moral hypothesis, or you find it a disingenuously jerry-rigged, button-pushing contraption. I'm in the latter camp; I suspect more Academy members are in the former.

“The Great Beauty” (Italy)
Here's where I have to throw my hands up and admit that I've called it wrong for Paolo Sorrentino's ostentatious Fellini homage from the get-go: I thought it was the wrong film for Italy to submit (strong euthanasia drama “Honey” seemed more in the Oscar wheelhouse to me), and I didn't think such a formalist style exercise would win enough to Academy hearts to make the nomination list, much less be declared the frontrunner after winning at the Globe, BAFTA and European Film Awards (besting its Cannes conqueror, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” each time). Before the rule change, such precursor results were irrelevant to the Oscar race; now, with a contender's profile in the race more of a factor, could many voters check it off simply because it's the one they're most aware of? Possibly — and while I felt no emotional connection to this glossy valentine to Roman decay and decadence, perhaps the spiritual malaise of Toni Servillo's weary upper-class protagonist will register more with older voters. Italy holds the record for most wins (13) in this category, but hasn't triumphed since “Life is Beautiful” 15 years ago; Sorrentino could well end that dry spell.

“Omar” (Palestine)
Hany Abu-Assad is the only director in this category who has been to the dance before: his powerful suicide-bomber drama “Paradise Now” scored Palestine's first ever nod in this category eight years ago, and probably finished in the runner-up position. “Omar” is another tense drama on a current hot-button issue in Middle Eastern politics, but while reviews have been strong since its debut in Un Certain Regard at Cannes (where it finished with the Special Jury Prize, just behind fellow nominee “The Missing Picture”), this gripping study of a young Palestinian (potential star-in-the-making Adam Bakri) working as an informant for the Israeli military hasn't generated quite the same volume of chatter. The nomination, however, is already something of a story, given that Israel submitted a markedly similar (and similarly accomplished) narrative in “Bethlehem” and didn't make the shortlist.

Will win: “The Hunt”
Could win: “The Great Beauty” or “The Broken Circle Breakdown”
Should win: “The Broken Circle Breakdown”
Should have been here: “Child's Pose”

While the field this year is a perfectly credible one, with a healthy quota of critical festival favorites, this remains an essentially unfixable category in terms of its arcane construction and compilation procedures — controversy once more dogged the race when release-date requirements restricted France from submitting “Blue is the Warmest Color” (though they have the option of doing so later this year), while others mourned Japan's failure to enter popular weepie “Like Father, Like Son.” For my part, the title I miss most was indeed eligible: with voters passing over the flinty, brilliant Berlinale champ “Child's Pose,” the Romanian New Wave is still awaiting its Oscar moment.

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How do you think this race will pan out, and is there a contender you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.