Gems and Longshots in Oscar’s Foreign-Language Race

Our second batch of foreign reviews runs from the sublime (Hungary) to the ridiculous (Greece)

Academy voters who've volunteered to view and rate the 63 submissions in the Best Foreign-Language Film category are nearing the halfway point in their three-month job, on a short holiday break before screenings start up again at the end of the month.

I'm also trying to see as many of the entries as possible, and my first installment of mini-reviews covered the first eight entries I saw, which included the marvelous "Pina," the critical favorites "Le Havre" and "A Separation," the can't-miss prospect "In Darkness," and the brutal "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within."  

Also read: Reviewing Oscar's Foreign-Language Contenders: Sure Things & Longshots

BullheadThis time I've added 10 more, including Greece's followup to the controversial nominee "Dogtooth," China's WWII epic starring Christian Bale, Belgium's AFI Fest award winner, and a Hungarian entry that is one of the most stunning films I've seen this year, though it'll probably need a boost from the hand-picked executive committee that will add three films to the general committee's six favorites to make up a nine-movie shortlist.

Also reviewed: entries from Austria, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.

I have also begun adding my takes on these films to TheWrap's master list of the eligible films.

Also read: Oscar's Foreign-Language Submissions: The Master List (Updated with Reviews)

BreathingAustria: "Breathing"
Director: Karl Markovics
The directorial debut from actor Markovics, "Breathing" follows a sullen and uncommunicative juvenile-facility inmate who takes a day-release job collecting, moving and preparing corpses as part of a morgue crew. With his main character's claustrophobia and chest-tightening panic as recurring motifs, Markovics counts on his slow-paced storytelling to subtly draw in viewers – which, for the most part, it does.

"Breathing" is a wonderfully quiet, composed and meticulous look at crippling isolation, tentative connection and the various shades in between. It got under my skin, though I wonder if foreign-language voters (who'll see it as the first half of a double bill with a war film from Kazakhstan) will go for its subtlety over its more aggressive and showier competition.  

Belgium: "Bullhead" (photo at top)
Director: Michael Roskam
It's not film noir, it's farm noir. Roskam's film starts out as a black comedy and turns into a dark drama about a gallery of characters – crooks, cops and the occasional innocent bystander – intersecting with what its director calls "the Belgian hormone mafia." (Apparently, there really is such a thing.)

The film is visceral, tough, intermittently funny and occasionally affecting, with a style that seems to be as pumped full of steroids and hormones as its characters, both human and bovine. About a third of the way in, though, an incident with a young boy takes place that is so horrific that it tips the scales and makes a fairly dense plot involving the cattle hormone traffickers, an informant and a police investigation seem thoroughly secondary. At that point the film turns into one character's tragic arc – which works, given a strong central performance from Matthias Schoenaerts, but which also makes much of the film seem beside-the-point.

Roskam is stirring up interest in Hollywood with a strong and, um, meaty approach inspired by Michael Mann, but "Bullhead" isn’t always an easy sit. I have to wonder if Belgian wouldn't have had better odds choosing "The Kid With a Bike" by the Dardenne brothers, a friendlier film from directors whose unassailable reputation would carry more weight with the executive committee.

Monsieur LazharCanada: "Monsieur Lazhar"
Director: Philippe Falardeau
The story of an Algerian immigrant teacher who takes over a traumatized fifth-grade class after the suicide of their former teacher, "Monsieur Lazhar" is in some ways vaguely reminiscent of the 2008 French entry (and Oscar nominee) "The Class," but with better-behaved kids, a less-accomplished teacher and significantly less grit in the shooting style,

The winner of awards at 11 different film festivals, Falardeau's film is subtle, understated and free of the usual classroom-drama clichés; Lazhar (played by the French comic Fellag) is no Mr. Chips or John Keating ("Dead Poet's Society") inspiring and saving his kids, but a good man uneasily making his way through a difficult situation with equal parts heart and bluff. After the screening I saw (not an official AMPAS screening, but one nonetheless filled with Oscar voters), the buzz was strong.  

Flowers of WarChina: "The Flowers of War"
Director: Zhang Yimou
The Chinese entry has the biggest stateside movie star in any of the foreign films in Christian Bale, who plays a reluctant American hero in the 1937 "rape of Nanking" by the invading Japanese army. Bale is responsible for much of the film's English dialogue, which reportedly makes up about 40 percent of its running time and comes close to disqualifying it in this category.

The brutal Japanese attack on and occupation of Nanking, in which hundreds of thousands were killed and vast numbers of Chinese women systematically raped by the occupying soldiers, is certainly a subject for a tough but great film: In fact, such a film was made two years ago with Chuan Lu's devastating and monumental "City of Life and Death," which was not submitted to the Academy. "The Flowers of War" tells a smaller, more personal story, centering on a group of schoolgirls that Bale's character reluctantly protects, and a group of prostitutes who become unexpected allies.

The film is heartbreaking and unsettling, if openly manipulative; it's not entirely Yimou's fault that it doesn't pack the overwhelming punch of "City of Life and Death." But for those who've seen that earlier film, it's irresistible to wish that China would have submitted that  telling of the story.

SuperclasicoDenmark: "Superclasico"
Director: Ole Christian Madsen
What hath "Simple Simon" wrought? That quirky Swedish comedy made the shortlist last year, and now at least two Scandinavian countries have followed suit with lighter entries of their own. (See Norway's "Happy, Happy" later in this piece.)

"Superclasico" is a comedy of misadventure that starts when a Danish man and his teenage son travel to Argentina to see the wife who has left him for a younger soccer star. In a way, the film's most amusing and vibrant characters are the peripheral ones: a cranky old man in a bar, the self-centered soccer star, a stern but randy maid …

The film is twisted, dark and silly, with a sweet ending that could make it stand out amidst the generally downbeat competition in this category. "Simple Simon" notwithstanding, "Superclasico" is not necessarily the type of film you'd expect to see advance, but by all reports it played well at its Academy screening and has some high-placed supporters. 

AttenbergGreece: "Attenberg"
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Greece's submission last year, "Dogtooth," was certainly the strangest and unlikeliest Oscar nominee in many years. And now the country that submitted one of the most daring and unconventional entries ever has done something you'd expect from a conservative Hollywood studio: They've followed up a fluke success with more of the same.   

"Attenberg" was directed by the producer of "Dogtooth" and produced by the director of "Dogtooth" (who also appears in this film), and it maintains the same tone of deadpan comic absurdity as its characters engage in elaborate coded rituals that can be taken only as symbol, not as actual human behavior.  The film follows a young woman completely inexperienced in love, her friend who tries to educate her, and her dying father. All of them are studied as dispassionately as the wildlife in the nature documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, the mispronunciation of whose name gives this film its title.

Fascinating and annoying in just about equal measure, the film won an audience prize at the AFI Fest, but that was a far different audience than Oscar voters, a good number of whom were angry that "Dogtooth" won a nomination courtesy of a couple of executive committees. (The main body of voters unequivocally hated it.) I hear the reaction to "Attenberg" wasn't much better when it screened last weekend, and I think the chance that the executive committee will save a defiantly weird Greek film for the second year in a row is almost nonexistent.

The Turin HorseHungary: "The Turin Horse"
Director: Bela Tarr
The influential Hungarian director says this will be the last film in his 34-year career, and he's gone out on a high note that is both beautiful and challenging. The film lasts for two-and-a-half hours, and not much happens: A rural man and his daughter go through the rituals of daily life for about a week, battered by a brutal windstorm and running low on supplies. Life gets more difficult; Tarr's camera sits there (or circles the action) and documents it all.

The result is a stark and stunning black-and-white examination of fragility, mortality and what Tarr calls "the heaviness of human existence," marked by extraordinarily long takes and a glacial pace that ends up mesmerizing rather than confounding. Gorgeously shot, lovingly detailed and assembled with a master's touch, "The Turin Horse" requires its audience to completely surrender to Tarr's rhythms, which for many viewers could prove difficult. (There may not be a scene where we watch paint dry, but there is one where we watch clothes dry.)

The film will almost certainly require a save from the executive committee to land on the shortlist, but it'd be a real injustice if it doesn't. 

Sonny BoyThe Netherlands: "Sonny Boy"
Director: Maria Peters
"Sonny Boy" is an affecting drama about the forbidden relationship between a Dutch woman in the early 20th Century and a black immigrant from Suriname, 17 years her junior. "Sonny Boy" is also a harrowing chronicle of Nazi occupation and concentration camps in World War II. In fact, it is both of those movies, one after the other, a fact that makes viewing this 130-minute film a schizophrenic and ultimately wearying experience.

Perhaps European viewers who are familiar with the Annejet van der Zijl book on which the film is based will be prepared for the tonal shift and the long descent into horror and atrocity that begins more than an hour into the film. But those of us who are not up on the book, or the true story on which it was based – a group that includes me and, I would guess, most of the Academy – the film's split personality and overly schematic storytelling may make it hard to stick with, and hard to embrace.  

Happy, HappyNorway: "Happy, Happy"
Director: Anne Sewitzky
Another quirky Scandinavian comedy (see "Superclasico," above), "Happy, Happy" is a tale of attraction, tension and of course sex between a pair of couples, intercut with creepily wholesome-looking a capella singers performing gospel songs.

Sewitzky's film is pleasant, sporadically amusing and occasionally troubling, but never as biting or as sharp as it wants to be. The film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at January's Sundance Film Festival, maybe because it fits that quirky-indie-comedy mold that Sundance sometimes seems to foster. But without the clear underlying serious message that made "Simple Simon" palatable to the Oscar voters, "Happy, Happy" feels awfully lightweight to make the cut.   

Summer GamesSwitzerland: "Summer Games"
Director: Rolando Colla
Partly a coming-of-age story and party a look at how the sins of the parents fall on the children, "Summer Games" takes what could be an idyllic setting – a beachside summer retreat – and turns it into a hotbed of familial tension and adolescent menace. The film follows four children who become friends during a summer vacation, though the friendship is cemented through casual brutality (clearly learned from parents) and unsettling role-playing.

Slow-paced and undeniably creepy at times, the film is also an intriguing character study when it doesn’t get overly melodramatic. It contains a lovely moment near the end when a 12-year-old boy, who's spent the summer proud of his stoic, unfeeling facade, surrenders to actual emotion. The question, though, is whether voters will find the film's first hour-plus to be so off-putting that they won't be touched when that moment arrives.