What Will Make Oscar’s Foreign-Language Shortlist?

After surveying the field, it’s time to predict Wednesday’s shortlist announcement. Sorry, “Uncle Boonmee”

Last Updated: January 19, 2011 @ 7:58 AM

There's been a lot of talk about the Oscars' Foreign-Language category in these parts lately. But I'm not quite finished.

To recap: I surveyed the process with producer and Academy governor Mark Johnson: who's taken some drastic, unprecedented and occasionally controversial steps to alter the way in which the nominations are made. (And if you go by the nominations themselves, which is the way Johnson would like to be judged, the changes have worked.) 

In a Better WorldThen I spent three days reviewing the 38 (out of 65) contenders that I've managed to see over the past few months, and looking at how they might play with the committees that help formulate the foreign-language shortlist: the general committees of AMPAS volunteers that contribute their six favorites to the list, and Johnson's executive committee that adds three additional films.

(The reviews: Algeria to Croatia. Denmark to Kyrgyzstan. Mexico to Venezuela.)

At this point, all the general committee screenings are done, the votes have been tallied, and the committee's six choices have been duly noted by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The Academy doesn't talk about the timeline from here, but I believe that the executive committee will probably meet on Tuesday.

Whenever that meeting takes place, the committee members will learn the identity of the six semi-finalists, and then spend hours arguing about which three films they should add. The resulting shortlist of nine is due to be announced on Wednesday.

So after talking to Johnson, watching about 65 hours of foreign films and gathering what info I could from committee members and Oscar foreign-language observers, I suppose it's time to take a stab at predicting what'll end up on that shortlist.

For starters, I didn't see 27 of the films, and the odds are good that some of them will figure in the race. I've heard that Japan's "Confessions," for instance, is a strong, dark film that probably won't appeal to voters but could be saved by the executive committee, which is believed to be responsible for the most challenging shortlisted films over the past two years.

I understand that the Czech entry, "Kawasaki's Rose," played very well to the general committee, and could make it in that way.

And I wish I'd had the chance to see several others, including Estonia's "The Temptation of St. Tony" (which sounds intriguing, if way too weird for Oscar voters), Greenland's "Nuummioq," Hungary's "Bibliotheque Pascal" (the poster is wild), India's "Peepli Live" and Puerto Rico's "Miente," among others.

Of the films I did see, I can tell you that if I had a vote, my top three would be Mexico's "Biutiful," Canada's "Incendies" and Denmark's "In a Better World" (photo above), followed by Chile's "The Life of Fish." And then I might go with something off-the-wall, like Greece's "Dogtooth" or the Finnish documentary "Steam of Life."

I expect the shortlist to agree with me on the first three of those films, at least. If the general committee doesn't vote in Mexico, which might be a stretch for those voters because it's so dark, I don’t think there's any way the executive committee will fail to add it. Canada and Denmark, both upcoming Sony Classics releases, are so undeniably strong that I think they're near locks as well.

Life, Above AllOf films that may be the general committee voters' favorites, Italy ("The First Beautiful Thing") is the one I keep hearing that they loved; from every report, it'll be one of the six. Israel ("The Human Resources Manager") also played well to an audience, as did Sweden ("Simple Simon") and China ("Aftershock"), though I thought that last film was technically impressive but otherwise cringeworthy. South Africa ("Life, Above All," left) is potent emotionally and could easily make the cut.

I've also heard that some general committee members responded favorably to Brazil, Russia and Argentina, though I'd say those films (particularly the first two) may be longshots. 

Possible saves from the executive committee could include Chile, low-key but exquisite; France, deliberate but unsettling; and even Greece, though that confounding film might be a stretch. (I get the sense that there is no chance at all for the other oddball critics' favorite, Thailand's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.")

So here's my guess: Canada, China, Denmark, Israel, Italy and Sweden from the general voters; Mexico, France and Chile from the executive committee. (When the shortlist is announced, they won’t tell you who picked what.)

But watch out for Algeria, Belgium, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Turkey.

Possible wild cards: Finland, Iceland and Peru.

Of course, even people inside the process say this is a particularly hard year to predict, so these musings could be way off.

In the Oscar Foreign-Language process, after all, surprises and controversies are always lurking in the wings.