As the special committee prepares to select the Foreign-Language shortlist, our Oscar expert offers his final guide to the field of 63
The long three-month process that leads to the Oscar nominees in the Best Foreign-Language Film category is finally nearing an end.
General committee members have viewed and scored all 63 of the entries, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has reviewed the ballots and come up with a list of the voters' six favorite films.
On Tuesday evening, they will reveal that list to an executive committee made up of 20 Academy members, who will discuss, debate and in the end add three more films to the list. Then, on Wednesday morning, the Academy will announce the resulting shortlist of nine films.
Here's what I'm guessing make up the shortlist, based on watching 43 of the 63 entries and talking to voters on both the general and executive committees:
>> Canada's "Monsieur Lazhar"
>> Finland's "Le Havre"
>> France's "Declaration of War"
>> Germany's "Pina"
>> Iran's "A Separation"
>> Israel's "Footnote"
>> Lebanon's "Where Do We Go Now?" (pictured above)
>> Poland's "In Darkness"
>> And the dark horse but a film that I hear played very well to the general committee, Denmark's "Superclasico"
More divisive, but possible, are Belgium's "Bullhead," whose director and star are getting a lot of heat; Brazil's violent "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" and Mexico's brutal "Miss Bala," action films of the type that don't usually get nominated; and China's "The Flowers of War," with Christian Bale.
Two of the most critically acclaimed but most challenging films in the running — Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse" and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" — almost certainly would need to be saved by the executive committee, on which they have some support. But both are most likely longshots nonetheless.
And I don't quite know what to make of the entry from Taiwan, "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," a two-part, four-and-a-half-hour action epic about a 1930s rebellion against the occupying Japanese forces.
It's enormously long and violent, but it's also a thrilling piece of epic filmmaking that just might turn a few heads on the committees. (More on that film in the reviews that follow.)
The nine shortlisted films then will be viewed by two more committees on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to choose the final five nominees.
(If I had a vote, I'd opt for "A Separation," "Le Havre," "Pina," "In Darkness" and "A Simple Life," with "Declaration of War," "Tatsumi," UK's "Patagonia," Lithuania's "Back to Your Arms," Iceland's "Volcano," Sweden's "Beyond" and Austria's "Breathing" in the running for my personal shortlist.)
The executive committee that goes to work on Tuesday is reportedly very similar in composition to last year's committee, which was chaired by producer Mark Johnson. Producer Ron Yerxa is the co-chair, while 2011 members included director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, writer Michael Tolkin, cinematographers Matthew Libatique and Janusz Kaminski and casting director Margery Simkin.
Over the last four months I've managed to see 43 of the 63 entries. I've reviewed them in a series of stories, and added brief reviews to TheWrap's master list of entries.
First installment: Brazil, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Poland.
Second installment: Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland,
Third installment: Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, France, Portugal, South Korea, Sweden.
Fourth installment: Hong Kong, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, U.K., Venezuela.
Here's my final batch of reviews, which include a Golden Globe nominee, a horror movie that has already been remade in English and the field's longest entry, a Taiwanese action epic.
Director: Ian Padron
The subject is intriguing: inequality in the self-proclaimed socialist paradise of Castro's Cuba, as seen through the unlikely friendship between a preteen boy from the slums and another whose father is a well-known jazz pianist. But while there's no doubt fodder for a rich film in that material, the execution places it more on the level of an after-school special, where the emphasis on teachable lessons is more important than the amateurish production values.
Padron needed a grant from Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival to finish his movie, and the completed work won one of the festival's top awards. The film is overflowing with good intentions, its own backstory is an inspiring one and the result was a hit in its home country – but for an audience accustomed to more nuanced storytelling, "Habanastation" comes across as both clunky and cheesy.
Ireland: "As If I Am Not There"
Director: Juanita Wilson
She was nominated for an Oscar for her affecting short film "The Door," which took place in Russia in the aftermath of Chernobyl – and now Irish director Juanita Wilson has turned to the '90s war in Bosnia for an even more grim and harrowing story. The film focuses on a schoolteacher whose village is taken over by Serbian rebels, who place its women in camps where they are subject to regular gang rapes. (Angelina Jolie's Golden Globe nominee "In the Land of Blood and Honey" tackles a similar situation.)
The brutality of the film's first rape scene and its degrading aftermath overshadow the rest of the film, which grapples with serious questions (when does survival become complicity?) but undercuts them with a melodramatic score and a coda that feels too cursory given what has preceded it.
Lebanon: "Where Do We Go Now?"
Director: Nadine Labaki
Actress, director and co-writer Labaki won a Golden Globe nomination and the Toronto Film Festival audience prize for this audacious look at Christian/Muslim conflict, which uses humor and even a handful of musical numbers to explore the tensions that threaten to erupt into violence in a small, isolated community. The town's men are constantly ready to fight, so the women do everything they can to distract the men from fighting: including hiding weapons, bringing in a busload of exotic dancers and keeping the men stoned on hashish.
The film swings from palpable grief to humor and music, and at times it feels as if it's trivializing the situation with comic improbabilities. But in a way, that's Labaki's point: Christian/Muslim tensions are so deep that they can only really be overcome in improbable fiction.
South Africa: "Beauty"
Director: Olivier Hermanus
Hermanus' unsettling drama is a seamless and stylish piece of filmmaking, and an evocative, sad and disturbing portrait of a deluded and self-loathing middle-aged man. The film tells an intimate story but shoots it from a distance, with scenes repeatedly taking place as if shot by surveillance cameras that can't see or hear the whole story.
The central character, vividly played by Deon Lotz, ardently denies his sexuality even as he becomes obsessed with a friend's son – and with a couple of graphic scenes that would clearly give the film an NC-17 rating if it were released in the United States, it is so tough and unflinching that even ardent Academy supporters admit it has virtually no chance of advancing.
Taiwan: "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale"
Director: Wei Te-Sheng
This was the last entry I watched, mostly because I couldn't bring myself to put in a four-and-a-half hour screener. Late last week, though, a committee member told me that voters, who were themselves dreading a Saturday morning marathon screening, were startled to discover that the film was strong and exciting. He was right: This telling of the story of the Wushe Incident, in which native Taiwanese rebelled against repressive Japanese rule, is a powerful and visceral experience, an old-school action epic that remains consistently involving through 276 minutes of battles and beheadings.
The film – which, in fact, is two separate films that can be shown together in the manner of "Che" or "Carlos" – is produced by John Woo, who obviously knows how to stage involving large-scale action sequences. It's also a brutal action film with a heart, and with a compelling lead performance by Lin Ching-Tai as the tribal chieftain who can no longer submit to the abuses of colonial rule, and leads an uprising he knows is likely suicidal.
Uruguay: "The Silent House"
Director: Gustavo Hernandez
A blending of "The Blair Witch Project" with every haunted house movie you’ve ever seen, "The Silent House" is the unlikeliest of Oscar entries, a flat-out horror movie with a defiant low-tech aesthetic. Reputedly shot in a single, uninterrupted 88-minute take (though it clearly has moments where cuts could have occurred), it follows a young woman who accompanies her father to a deserted house where they've been hired to perform repairs; creepy things start to happen, which we discover as we strain to make things out in the small amount of light cast by the lantern that the woman carries through the dark house.
The scope of the film is so limited that the experience of watching it becomes oppressive and claustrophobic; it's the knowledge of what usually happens in these kind of movies that keeps the viewer on edge through the long stretches in which not much goes on. A U.S. remake starring Elizabeth Olsen has already been made – and while I can scarcely imagine a movie less apt to appeal to Academy voters, it definitely gave me the creeps.