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Oscar Foreign-Language, Documentary Films: Do You Vote With Your Heart or Head?

They say in the foreign-language category, Academy members vote with their hearts; in the doc category, they vote with their heads. But is that always true?


I heard the theory from a consultant who often works with films in the running for Oscars in the Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Documentary Feature categories, and it made perfect sense: In the foreign-language category, Academy members vote with their hearts; in the doc category, they vote with their heads. 

The examples, it seems, are numerous. In recent years in the foreign race, Denmark’s touching "In a Better World" beat the tougher, darker "Biutiful"; the finely wrought melodrama of "The Secret in Their Eyes" triumphed over the more critically acclaimed but more cerebral pleasures of "A Prophet" and "The White Ribbon"; Japan’s quiet tear-jerker "Departures" beat France’s thornier "The Class."  

On the doc side, meanwhile, the theory isn’t as universally applicable; this, after all, is the category in which "March of the Penguins" beat "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." But more typical was 2010, in which the talking-heads, financial-crisis explication Inside Job won in a field that included the far more emotional "Waste Land" and the playful "Exit Through the Gift Shop."

Also read: Oscar Analysis: Yes, 'Lincoln' Is on Top, But Watch Out for 'Silver Linings Playbook' and 'Life of Pi'

But then, how to account for last year? In the foreign-language race, two emotional dramas, "Monsieur Lazhar" and "In Darkness" (which dealt with a once sure-fire Oscar subject, the Holocaust), lost to Iran’s critical favorite "A Separation," surely a head-over-heart choice. And in docs, the rousing high-school-football movie "Undefeated" beat a lineup that included thoughtful issue-oriented films like "Hell and Back Again" and "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory."

Last year, it seemed, the equation was turned upside down: Doc voters went with their hearts, and foreign-language voters with their heads. And this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see something similar. 

Of course, the phase-two foreign-language committee nearly avoided offering voters a classic head-heart choice by leaving the shortlisted and crowd-pleasing "The Intouchables" off the list of nominees, all but clearing the way for Michael Haneke’s unsparing "Amour" to take the Oscar. (One thing I kept hearing after the nominations were announced: Voters on that select committee were mad at France for selecting "The Intouchables" over "Rust and Bone," and didn’t want to reward the French committee for making a cynical choice by picking the movie they thought conservative Oscar voters would like over a better but tougher film.)   

Voters still could go for the rousing "Kon-Tiki," the sumptuous but smart "A Royal Affair" or the heartbreaking "War Witch" — but it’s safe to say that "Amour " looks all but, shall we say, intouchable. It’s a head movie with a lot of heart, and it’s hard to imagine anything else winning.

In the documentary race, there’s a clear heart choice: "Searching for Sugar Man," the story of the rediscovery and unlikely resurrection of the ‘70s singer Rodriguez, who spent decades as a manual laborer in Detroit but a star in South Africa. And in a year in which none of a number of hard-hitting issue docs — including nominees "The Invisible War" and "The Gatekeepers" — became the one to beat, the friendlier "Sugar Man" was often the last film standing.

But maybe calling "Sugar Man" the heart choice shortchanges the emotion in "The Invisible War," which lays out such devastating case studies of sexual assault in the military that it led to a change in Pentagon policy before it was even released. Or the wrenching "How to Survive a Plague, with its depiction of tragedy and triumph in the fight against AIDS. Or the way "5 Broken Cameras" turns the political deeply personal.

In the end, though, my guess is that "Sugar Man" will remain the emotional pick, and the startlingly candid portrayal of the Israeli intelligence service "The Gatekeepers" the intellectual one. And if I had to guess, I’d say that once again the heart will prevail among doc voters.

But it’s all mixed up, and I’m not so sure about the theory anymore.

Instead, I’ll offer another theory: My heart and my head say that more often than not, the lineup of films in the Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Documentary Feature categories can stand head-to-head with the Best Picture lineup and not give an inch.

And with all the extra time provided by the early nominations and the extended post-nom period, Oscar voters have no excuses for not seeing the contenders and voting in these categories… whether they opt to vote with their hearts, their heads or any combination thereof.