France and Japan Make Oscar Foreign-Language Picks

Dance documentary, Lebanese musical comedy included in latest batch of foreign submissions

The ranks of the Oscars' 2011 Best Foreign-Language Film Contenders have swollen to nearly two dozen films, with recent entries coming from the country with the most all-time nominations, France, as well as from such respected directors as Aki Kaurismaki, Wim Wenders and Kaneto Shindo.

PinaA particularly intriguing and potentially risky choice was made by Germany, which opted for Wenders' documentary "Pina" (left), a 3D look at the work of legendary dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch.

Documentaries are occasionally submitted in the category (including "Steam of Life" last year), but are almost never nominated.

The new submissions include several films that have done well on the festival circuit, including Kaurismaki's "Le Havre" from Finland, Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" from Iran and Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now?" from Lebanon.

(Iran has sent mixed signals about whether "A Separation" is in fact its selection, but Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who is distributing the film in the United States, told TheWrap in Toronto that the film has been submitted.)

Each country is allowed to submit a single film. The deadline for submissions is October 1; to be eligible, films must be released in their home countries between October 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011. 

This is the third of TheWrap's roundups of the Foreign-Language submissions. The first included Greece, Morocco, Poland, Romania and Venezuela; the second consisted of Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia and South Korea.

Also read: First Countries Enter Oscar Foreign-Language Race
Also read: Hungary, Norway Join Foreign-Language Oscar Race

The recent additions:

BullheadBelgium: "Bullhead" ("Rundskop")
Director: Michael R. Roskam
A 2011 selection of the Berlin International Film Festival, this crime drama follows a cattle farmer who becomes involved with an underworld trafficker in growth hormone. Assassination, intrigue and revenge ensue. Matthias Schoenaerts has won raves for his lead performance.

While the film has been well-received, it certainly doesn't have the international cachet of another potential Belgian entry, the Dardenne brothers' "The Kid With a Bike."

Le HavreFinland: "Le Havre"
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Finland has only been nominated in this category once before – and that was for another Kaurismaki film, "The Man Without a Past." His new film, which has been playing to raves on the festival circuit, deals with an elderly shoe shiner who becomes friends with a teenage illegal immigrant.

While comedies are often overlooked in this category, the film's high profile and Kaurismaki's stature as an international auteur made this selection entirely predictable.

Declaration of WarFrance: "Declaration of War" (La guerre est declaree")
Director: Valerie Donzelli
Italy has the most wins, but France has received more Oscar nominations, 36, than any other country. For this year's submission the country has turned to Valerie Donzelli, who has far more experience as an actress than director. She both directed "Declaration of War" and starred in it as half of a young couple who are fighting to save their young son, who's been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

What gives the film extra resonance is that Donzelli and her leading man Jeremie Elkaim are essentially telling their own story: partners off the screen, they are parents of a boy whose battle against a tumor inspired the film. Reviewers have praised the film for steering clear of melodrama and employing a light touch.

PinaGermany: "Pina"
Director: Wim Wenders
Over a 40-plus-year career that includes such classics as "Wings of Desire" and "Paris, Texas," as well as the Oscar doc nominee "Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders has become one of Germany's best-known filmmakers. His documentary about the late dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, a longtime friend of his, mixes 3D footage of Bausch's dancers with talking-head testimonials to the dance icon.

Documentaries are a tough sell to the volunteer committees that judge the Oscar Foreign-Language category, but "Pina" is one of the top-rated films in indieWIRE's Toronto Film Festival critics' poll, with an average grade of A-.

A SeparationIran: "A Separation"
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Sony Classics acquired U.S. rights to this drama, which deals with a middle-class man who's forced to find help in caring for his Alzheimer's-afflicted father after his wife leaves him. The result, wrote Robert Beames, is "a story of incredible moral complexity."

The film won the top award, the Golden Bear, at February's Berlin International Film Festival, as well as separate honors for its male and female ensemble casts.

PostcardJapan: "Postcard" ("Ichimai no Hagaki")
Director: Kaneto Shindo
Over the years this category has been littered with nominees and winners set in and around World War II, but mostly from the European side. "Postcard" deals with the war from the Japanese point of view, through the eyes of a young wife whose husband is killed in the fighting, and the comrade who was one of only six survivors in a unit of 100 men.

For Kaneto Shindo, the writer and director of the film, the story is personal: he fought in the war, and was indeed one of only six survivors in his unit. The director will turn 100 less than two months after next year's Oscar ceremony, and has said this film is his last. Nicolas Vroman called it "a stunning anti-war film devoid of sentimentality."

Where Do We Go Now?Lebanon: "Where Do We Go Now?"
Director: Nadine Labaki
In a category where the vast majority of nominees are serious dramas, submitting a comedy-and-music-spiked look at Middle East tension might be a dangerous strategy. But "Where Do We Go Now?" is just that, from a director and actress whose previous film was the well-received "Caramel."

Set in a remote Lebanese village, the film centers on a group of women who use a variety of ruses schemes (including hiring Ukranian strippers) to distract their men from the religious tensions that threaten to disrupt the village's cordial relationships between its Christians and Muslims. "Entrancing, brilliant and heartbreaking," wrote Stuart Henderson.

The Woman in the Septic TankThe Philippines: "The Woman in the Septic Tank"
Director: Marlon Rivera
The one-sheet may look like a psychedelic 1960s rock poster, but the film itself is a comedy about filmmaking. Like last year's Icelandic submission "Mamma Gogo," the central character is a filmmaker (or in this case, three filmmakers) desperate to make an Oscar-winning movie. Full of wicked caricatures and fantasy sequences, the film satirizes and showcases, in the words of Oggs Cruz, "what's depressingly wrong in the current state of Philippine filmmaking in the most hilarious of ways."

Oscar voters, though, did not respond to last year's movie about making an Oscar movie, and this one sounds as if it may be a longshot as well.

Jose and PilarPortugal: "Jose and Pilar"
Director: Miguel Goncalves Mendes
Portugal is the second recent country to submit a documentary: in this case, a film about novelist Jose Saramago and his wife, and the pressures and demands that come with his success. One of Saramago's best-known works is "Blindness," which was made into a movie by director Fernando Meirelles and actor Gael Garcia Bernal, both of whom also appear in this film.

"Jose and Pilar," said Jonathan Holland in Variety, "is a witty, multilayered and often moving portrait of an odd couple in love," with "laughter, tears, conflict and much wisdom."

BeyondSweden: "Beyond"
Director: Pernilla August
The third film in this recent batch of submissions to be directed by a woman better known as an actress, "Beyond" is the feature from Pernilla August, who appeared in films ranging from Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" to two of the "Star Wars" prequels.

Noomi Rapace, the star of the original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" films, plays a young woman growing up in a household of abuse and alcoholism in the 1970s. The film relies heavily on flashbacks to those ugly times – and though August reportedly uses restraint in what she shows and what she only implies, early reviews suggest that this is a very difficult film to sit through. 

Seediq BaleTaiwan: "Seediq Bale"
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
Also called "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," the lavish and action-packed historical drama was a big hit in its home country. It deals with the aboriginal Taiwanese Seediq people, who were subject to cultural restrictions and forced labor during the Japanese rule in Taiwan in the early 1900s; the film focuses on their attempts to fight back in the 1930 Wushe Incident.

Co-produced by John Woo, the film won mixed reviews at the recent Venice Film Festival: "Stunning to look at, authentic to a fault and a little tedious to follow for over two and a half hours," wrote Deborah Young.