The 76 competitors for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film were narrowed down to nine back in December, but the key decisions in the category are being made this weekend in Los Angeles and New York.
That’s where two committees will meet on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, screening three of the shortlisted films each day and then choosing the five nominees that will be revealed with the rest of the Oscar nominations on Jan. 16.
Here’s what’s on the viewing agenda:
“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Belgium. Felix Van Groeningen’s film juggles more things that he should be able to pull off: a love story, a family tragedy, bluegrass music and a debate about science vs. religion. It gets messy at times and it goes on too long, but the film is a bold, nervy and ultimately thrilling balancing act.
“An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” Bosnia and Herzegovina. As far from entries like “The Grandmaster” and “The Great Beauty” as can be imagined, Danis Tanovic’s grimy drama uses non-professional actors to tell the true story of a poor family denied medical treatment. Stark, grim and unsparing.
“The Grandmaster,” Hong Kong. Wong Kar Wai’s martial-arts epic has been the subject of some controversy, because Academy voters are seeing a truncated version prepared for American audiences, not the original cut shown in Asia. But the director is a master of action sequences, and his decades-spanning tale of a Wing Chun master Ip Man is so striking and so gorgeously shot that it landed a nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers.
“The Great Beauty,” Italy. Even before a little person shows up in the lavish party sequence that opens Paolo Sorrentino’s film, you know the word Fellini-esque will be appropriate. An update of “La Dolce Vita” in which the life of a wealthy journalist and man-about-town is used to suggest the glamorous emptiness of Rome’s high society, the film dazzled many critics but left some of us a little cold.
“The Hunt,” Denmark. A prizewinner at Cannes in 2012 for lead actor Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Vinterberg’s look at a small-town teacher accused of sexual molestation is a critical favorite and, with “The Great Beauty” and “The Grandmaster,” one of the highest-profile entries in the category. Mikkelsen delivers a wrenching performance that can touch even those who find the town’s abrupt changes of attitude toward the character hard to swallow.
“The Missing Picture,” Cambodia. The most unusual of the shortlisted films, Rithy Panh’s documentary uses a mixture of clay figurines and archival footage to tell the story of how his family (and many others) suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The distance created by the use of figurines as Panh tells a personal story makes it odd, unsettling and chilling.
“The Notebook,” Hungary. One of the surprise entries on the shortlist is this World War II-era Hungarian drama, vividly shot by “The White Ribbon” cinematographer Christian Berger. The story of twin boys who go to live with their cruel grandmother during the final years of the war, and who survive by steeling themselves not to feel anything, Janos Szasz’s film is deeply creepy, and hard to shake.
“Omar,” Palestine. One of two entries that dealt with the relationship between an Israeli secret service agent and his Palestinian informant (the other being Israel’s excellent “Bethlehem”), Hany Abu-Assad’s drama is a strong, straightforward film that paints a devastating picture of an untenable occupation.
“Two Lives,” Germany. Inspired by a true story about a former East German spy whose past resurfaced decades after the Cold War ended, Georg Maas’ film is an intriguing character study in which there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. It’s biggest shortcoming, which isn’t really the film’s fault, is that it pales next to Germany’s Oscar-winning Cold War drama “The Lives of Others” and last year’s gripping “Barbara,” which failed to even make the shortlist.
Six of those films were chosen by the general committee voters, volunteers from all branches of the Academy who watched and scored all 76 entries over a two-month period. Three were added by a 20-person executive committee that looked at the general committee’s choices and supplemented them, typically with tougher or more adventurous films.
If I had to guess (which I don’t), or if I wanted to guess (which I do), I’d say that the general committee chose “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “The Grandmaster,” “The Hunt,” “Omar” and “Two Lives,” and the executive committee added “The Notebook” and “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker.”
That leaves two films that could go either way: “The Great Beauty,” which is loved by many but disliked by enough that it might have needed a save, and “The Missing Picture,” which I hear played well to the general committee but is wholly unconventional.
The phase-two committees, which are tasked with narrowing the nine-film shortlist to the five nominees, includes randomly-chosen members from the general committee – but overall, it tends to be closer in makeup to the executive committee. Because of that, I’ve been told that the films that are put on the shortlist by the exec committee tend to be well-represented among the nominees most years.
If I were voting, I’d nominate “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “The Missing Picture,” “The Notebook,” “Omar” and either “The Hunt” or “The Great Beauty,” both of which I admired but also had problems with.
But I suspect the round-two committee voters aren’t going to go along with my picks. Keeping in mind that saves do well in phase two, I’m guessing that the nominees will be “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “The Great Beauty,” “The Hunt,” “Omar” and either “The Missing Picture” or “The Notebook” — though it wouldn’t surprise me if they both found their way into the final five, dislodging one of the favorites.