By Scott Roxborough
Who will win this year's foreign-language Oscar race?
That's almost impossible to answer. Partly, it's because other awards groups, like the Golden Globes, provide a poor litmus test given that they use a different voting process from the Oscars and therefore come up with very divergent results -- as, for instance, with "Letters From Iwo Jima," named best foreign-language picture by the Globes when it wasn't even eligible for the Oscars.
Another reason is that the Academy's voting procedure (where voters have to agree to see a quota of entries if they wish to select the nominees) means that a relatively older group chooses the candidates, voting on a pool that is limited to one film per country. The Academy has tried to avoid this group's preference for more mainstream, safer films by having its foreign-language steering committee choose up to three films that combine with the broader group's six choices to create a shortlist of nine, from which the five nominees will be selected -- but that still leaves a process considerably at odds with the major festivals and critics' groups.
Nowhere was this clearer than last year, when Japanese entry "Departures," largely ignored by critics and the festival circuit, beat critical favorites from France ("The Class") and Israel ("Waltz With Bashir").
"Everyone was surprised by the Japanese film winning," says Claudia Landsberger, managing director of Dutch promotion body Holland Film. "It maybe shows that things are shifting, making it even harder to predict."
This year, the race is complicated by the fact that several front-runners were eliminated when they were not selected by the countries where they were made.
Sebastian Silva's domestic servant drama "The Maid," for example, a Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance and a Golden Globes and Independent Spirit nominee, is nowhere to be found on the list of 65 eligible pictures. Instead, Chile has gone with Miguel Littin's "Dawson Isla 10," a political period piece set in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.
Oliver Assayas' "Summer Hours" has racked up several honors, including nods from critics' associations in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, but France bumped it in favor of Jacques Audiard's prison drama "A Prophet."
And Spain has again snubbed Pedro Almodovar, whose "Broken Embraces" is a front-runner for the Golden Globes but won't make the Oscar short list -- at least not in the foreign-language category. (It is eligible for the other categories, including best picture, because it was given a U.S. release in 2009.) Spain is pinning its hopes on "The Dancer and the Thief," a heist drama from Fernando Trueba, the Oscar-winning director of "Belle Epoque."
Other award-winning foreign features whose visa won't be stamped Oscar this year include John Woo's action epic "Red Cliff" (China); the bloody vampire romance "Thirst" from director Chan-wook Park (South Korea); Cary Fukunaga's immigrant drama "Sin Nombre" (Honduras) and Anne Fontaine's fashion biopic "Coco Before Chanel."
Both, of course, are Golden Globes nominees where, according to Bookies.com, "The White Ribbon" is the favorite to win with 2-to-1 odds compared with 6-to-1 for "A Prophet."
But Academy voters are a separate breed. And both pictures are a difficult sell there.
"The Academy has its own tastes, and they're not the same as other festival juries or critics," says Christian Dorsch, head of German Films, which brings together the jury every year to pick Germany's Oscar candidate. " 'Run Lola Run' was a unanimous choice by the (German) jury, but it didn't get nominated, even though it went on to be a boxoffice success in the U.S. It was the same with 'Goodbye Lenin!' which was a Golden Globe nominee but missed out on the Oscars."
To increase their chances, national juries often go with what has worked in the past. For Europe, that means World War II. No period has a better Oscar track record. This year's race has several WWII-set epics, from Norway's "Max Manus" to the Netherlands' entry "Winter in Wartime"; from the Slovakian "Broken Promise" to "Refractaire" (aka "Draft Dodgers") from tiny Luxembourg; and the Czech thriller "Protector."
"Protector" "is tailor-made for Hollywood sensibilities: War, Germans and Jews," is how Czech film academy president Petr Vachler puts it.
"The more epic films show what a country is capable of: the costumes, the sets, an so on," adds Landsberger. "Academy members aren't just interested in the quality of the script or the acting; they judge the entire production."
Many critics have turned up their noses at Italy's entry, Giuseppe Tornatore's "Baaria." But the Sicilian epic, with its grand, romantic view of Italian history, not to mention strong production values, is the kind of European cinema the Academy loves. Torantore also has the advantage of name recognition, thanks to his Oscar win for "Cinema Paradiso" in 1990.
Similar factors could help director Chen Kaige, whose "Forever Enthralled," a biographical drama set in the opulent world of Chinese opera, will evoke a sense of deja vu from fans of his Oscar-nominated "Farewell, My Concubine."
It's hard to say whether fame will be a factor in judging "Mother," Korea's entry. Director Joon-ho Bong is best known stateside for his hit monster movie "The Host." But that film is worlds away from the murder-mystery plot and domestic melodrama of "Mother." Working in "Mother's" favor is a breakout performance by lead Kim Hye-ja.
Reputation isn't the only factor at work. In the past, Academy voters have often overlooked higher-profile titles in favor of films that address important political issues or redress historic wrongs. Claudia Llosa's Berlin Golden Bear winner "The Milk of Sorrow" does both with its allegorical look at the damage wrought by political violence in Peru. Similarly, the plots of Austria's "For a Moment, Freedom" (Iranian political refugees fleeing to Europe), Japan's "Nobody to Watch Over Me" (media sensationalism in the Internet age) and Australia's "Samson and Delilah" (Aborigines fighting poverty and racism) have a ripped-from-the-headlines appeal that might make the difference.
Of course, no foreign-language forecast would be complete without a few dark horses. At first glance, "Police, Adjective" Romania's hope, is an unlikely Oscar candidate. Director Corneliu Porumbiou has made an anti-thriller where semantic discussion takes the place of shoot-outs and car chases. But this intelligent drama has a core of devoted and vocal fans -- not least Roger Ebert, who picked it as one of the best foreign films of 2009.
Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother" is another out-of-left-field candidate that could go the distance. The Canadian drama, tracing the love/hate relationship between a mother and her homosexual son, has been gathering critical momentum since it swept the Directors' Fortnight honors in Cannes last year.
But don't bet on either. Which would be hard, in any case: No matter what odds the bookies give on foreign-language wins elsewhere, they are by and large avoiding the Oscar race.