A Guide to the Foreign Oscar Race
A film-by-film breakdown of the 71 films that qualified, from Afghanistan ("The Patience Zone") to Vietnam ("The Scent of Burning Grass").
This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The foreign-language Oscars are notoriously hard to predict. Last year, everyone thought famous Wim Wenders' Pina would beat Belgian nobody Michael R. Roskam's Bullhead -- but Bullhead got nominated and Pina didn't. This year, THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg has tagged Austria's Amour, France's The Intouchables, Denmark's A Royal Affair, Israel's Fill the Void and Switzerland's Sister as the most likely nominees. But the judging will be harder (and more time-consuming) than ever with a record 71 submissions. The Academy will release the shortlist Jan. 2 and the five nominees Jan. 10.
NOTE: [B] = winner at Berlin International Film Festival; [C] = winner at Cannes Film Festival; [V] = winner at Venice Film Festival; [O] = winner at other major film lestival.
THE PATIENCE STONE Hoping to rebottle the lightning of Asghar Farhadi's 2011 Iranian Oscar winner A Separation -- despite Iran's boycott of the 2012 Oscars -- Sony Pictures Classics presents Atiq Rahimi's drama adapted from his Prix Goncourt-winning novella about a Muslim wife (Golshifteh Farahani, star of Farhadi's About Elly) who speaks her mind because her husband's in a coma. Talky, but so was A Separation.
PHARMAKON: Last year, Joshua Marston's excellent submission The Forgiveness of Blood was Oscar-disqualified as insufficiently Albanian. Joni Shanaj's tale of a sad pharmacist involved with a new happiness pill might or might not be as winning, but it's entirely Albanian.
ZABANA!: Algeria celebrates its 50th anniversary with a film about the militant Ahmed Zabana, whose 1956 guillotining sparked the Battle of Algiers and independence.
CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD: Director Benjamin Avila's activist mother and brother were kidnapped by the Argentine junta, and like the film's hero, Avila lived in secret to survive. Co-producer Luis Puenzo earned Latin America's first foreign-language Oscar nom for The Official Story (1985).
IF ONLY EVERYONE: This film about the 1980s-90s Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict won a Golden Apricot award at Armenia's big festival.
LORE: This Australian film made in Germany might be 2012's dark horse. Newcomer Saskia Rosendahl is getting buzz for her turn as the teen daughter of imprisoned Nazis fleeing with her kid siblings through perilous postwar Germany, and forced to work with a Jewish boy she can't hate. Sounds like Oscar candy. [O]
AMOUR: Film legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play a couple coping with her impending death in an exquisitely painful awards magnet that won director Michael Haneke the Palme d'Or and swept the European Film Awards. [C]
BUTA: A boy is befriended by his beloved grandma's long-lost love in the winner for best children's feature at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
PLEASURE BOY KOMOLA: A rich man enrages his wife when he gets obsessed with a sexy boy singer in famous Bengali writer Humayun Ahmed's last film before his July death from colon cancer.
OUR CHILDREN: "An arresting portrait of one woman's slide toward the unspeakable," said THR's Jordan Mintzer of Emilie Dequenne's Cannes Un Certain Regard best actress-winning performance as a murderous mother mixed up with two men. Based on a true story, which Oscar often likes. [C]
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
CHILDREN OF SARAJEVO: Two orphans struggle to survive the 1990s Balkan slaughter in a drama interlaced with real people's video footage of the war. THR's Megan Lehmann hailed the "compelling central performance of dark-eyed Marija Pikic."
THE CLOWN: A clown tries to find himself among the fire-eating, weightlifting denizens of his dad's traveling circus. A hit that swept the Brazilian Academy Awards equivalent with 12 wins.
SNEAKERS: When a Russian film won the Silver George Award at the Moscow Film Festival instead of this film about six city kids summering on the Black Sea, juror Geraldine Chaplin wore sneakers to the ceremony in protest. But it did win two other awards.
LOST LOVES: The first Cambodian film about the Khmer Rouge period that claimed 1.7 million lives is also Cambodia's first Oscar entry in 18 years.
WAR WITCH: Newcomer Rachel Mwanza won best actress at the Berlin and Tribeca fests as an African tween girl forced to kill her parents and go to war. "A breakthrough work," wrote THR's Deborah Young about Kim Nguyen's Tribeca best narrative feature winner. [B, O]
NO: Latin America's top Oscar contender stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the '80s adman who helped topple dictator Pinochet. "Engrossing," wrote THR's David Rooney. Director Pablo Larrain won the Directors' Fortnight Art Cinema Award at Cannes. [C]
CAUGHT IN THE WEB: Noted for historical epics like Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige portrays sleek modern China in what Young called "a fast-paced, masterful take on Internet character assassination."
THE SNITCH CARTEL: Director Carlos Moreno, who got a Sundance Grand Jury Award nom for 2008's Dog Eat Dog, goes for gold with the life story of drug lord Andres "Florecita" Lopez.
VEGETARIAN CANNIBAL: An ambitious, corrupt gynecologist-abortionist for hookers managed by the mob doesn't eat animal flesh. But get in his way, and you're dead meat. Could test the Academy's new openness to sex and violence.
IN THE SHADOWS: To get a '50s film noir look for his film about a jewel heist and shady officials, director David Ondricek hired legendary Polish cinematographer Adam "The Prince of Darkness" Sikora.
A ROYAL AFFAIR: The Oscar hopeful from Scandinavia is a sumptuous 18th century costume drama with Mads Mikkelsen as the Danish Voltaire who becomes adviser to the dim, dissolute king and lover to the queen (stunning Alicia Vikander). It won the AFI Festival audience award and Silver Bears for best actor and screenplay at Berlin. [B]
CHECK MATE: This film is based on a nationally televised 1993 story about a TV host who gets a call from his own wife and son's kidnapper, forcing him to play out the drama on air in front of a riveted nation.
MUSHROOMING:A member of Parliament gets plagued by a succession of eccentrics while hunting mushrooms in this very quirky comedy.
PURGE: Adapted from a best-selling novel, Antii Jokinen's beautiful film concerns an ugly subject: a kidnapped sex worker who bonds with an old woman whose past in Soviet-occupied Finland is uglier still.
THE INTOUCHABLES: This story of the unlikely friendship between a rich white paraplegic and his ex-con caregiver has become the most successful French film of all time, grossing more than $405 million worldwide. It features a star-making role by Omar Sy (as the caregiver) who became the first black man to win a best actor Cesar, France's eqivalent of the Oscar. [O]
KEEP SMILING: Six poor women enter a $25,000 beauty contest that goes awry in Rusudan Chkonia's comedy.
BARBARA: Though set in 1980s East Germany, politics and the communist state are a mere backdrop to a story of personal alienation as a female doctor -- in punishment for trying to move to the West -- is forced to live and work in rural East Germany. From acclaimed German art house favorite Christian Petzold, it's a shining example of the Berlin School, a cinema movement that favors long, slow takes, minimalist acting and careful, almost perfect, scene composition. [B]
UNFAIR WORLD: Two hard-up Greeks turn to crime and find out they're not criminal masterminds in an Aki Kaurismaki-style comedy that won two prizes at the San Sebastian film fest. [O]
INUK: A troubled teen hunts for seals and a new life in Greenland's far north. A winner of 20 small film festival awards including best feature, director and editing at the Savannah fest.
LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE: A darkly comic financial thriller that's a relatively modest hit in Hong Kong compared to director Johnnie To's usual box-office stats. It has dozens of nominations across the Asian festivals and a few minor wins, but the surprise inclusion of To's new film Drug War in the Rome Film Festival competition could keep him in the public eye as voting gets underway.
JUST THE WIND: Benedek Fliegauf's film, based on the 2008 murders in Hungary's Roma community, won a Silver Bear in Berlin as well as the top prize at the Paris Cinema Festival and recognition from Amnesty International. [B]
THE DEEP: Joining Life of Pi and Kon-Tiki, here's another open-sea drama, this one from Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband) based on a real incident that involved a capsized fisherman surviving freezing waters. Unlike Pi, Kormakur says there was no CG used in the harrowing ocean scenes, which Mintzer called "gritty and realistic."
BARFI!: Ranbir Kapoor's love-triangle comedy from Disney's Indian subsidiary UTV is full of homage scenes taken from Chaplin, Keaton and Singin' in the Rain. Fun! It has passed the 1 billion rupee mark ($20 million) at the box office, qualifying it as a blockbuster.
THE DANCER: During the 1965 Indonesian massacres, a mystically gifted dancer has a star-crossed love affair with a young soldier.
FILL THE VOID: Director Rama Burshtein swept the Israeli Oscar equivalents and star Hadas Yaron won best actress at Venice as an 18-year-old Hasidic girl struggling to decide whether to accept an arranged marriage. "A charming and accomplished first film," wrote Young. But Hollywood libertines may bristle at its religious orthodoxy. [V]
CAESAR MUST DIE: Real inmates of a high-security prison, who have never acted, perform Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for the Taviani brothers' film. The Tavianis won at Cannes for Night of the Shooting Stars in 1982, but this is their first try as Italy's Oscar boys. [B]
OUR HOMELAND: An autobiographical story of a Korean-Japanese man who returns to Japan after 25 years.
MYN BALA: WARRIORS OF THE STEPPE: The country spent $7 million on this historical epic, about Kazakhs fending off 18th century Mongols, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of modern Kazakhstan (and maybe help undo the damage by Borat).
NAIROBI HALF LIFE: A gritty look at gang life in Nairobi, the first-ever Kenyan Oscar entry won a best actor award at the Durban film fest for its lead, Joseph Wairimu.
THE EMPTY HOME: The modern-day story of a young Kyrgyz woman who goes to Moscow to seek a better life won the top prize at the Shaken's Stars film festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
GULF STREAM UNDER THE ICEBERG: Stitched together across centuries from three novels by Anatole France that are based on the demonic Jewish mythological character Lillith. It took the top prizes at Latvia's big fest.
RAMIN: Georgian wrestler Ramin Lomsadze once won seven matches in 55 seconds. Lithuania hopes this 58-minute doc wins an Oscar.
THE THIRD HALF: When Nazis threaten a beloved Jewish soccer coach in 1941, Macedonians step into action. Inspired by true events.
BUNOHAN: This offbeat, meditative look at life in a village whose name translates to "murder" is set against a backdrop of crime and kickboxing. As THR's John DeFore pointed out, the "artful Malaysian offering is only superficially about martial arts and gangsters."
AFTER LUCIA: Mexico, which has scored eight foreign Oscar noms, hopes to win with Michel Franco's school-bullying film, winner of the top prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard. But Rooney wrote that its Lars von Trier-ish violence is "an endurance test in abject cruelty." [C, O]
DEATH FOR SALE: This heist film was cited with an award at the Berlin film fest for its "original reflection of the genre film noir."
KAUWBOY: This gentle children's drama about a young boy who escapes his difficult home life by raising an abandoned bird won best first feature and youth film awards at Berlin.
KON-TIKI: Thor Heyerdahl won an Oscar for his 1950 doc about his raft trip across the Pacific. Now Norway's costliest film ever ($16 million) goes for a foreign Oscar. The Weinstein Co. picked it up Nov. 7.
WHEN I SAW YOU: This drama about a young boy who flees a refugee camp is Annemarie Jacir's second film to be named Palestine's Oscar submission. Her first was 2008's Salt of This Sea.
THE BAD INTENTIONS: In the growing shadow of Shining Path terrorists, a girl is convinced she'll die the day her brother is born.
BWAKAW: The Philippines has never nabbed an Oscar nom, but who knows? People at the New York Film Festival (including the selection committee) were high on this tale of a curmudgeonly old gay guy (veteran tough guy Eddie Garcia), a stray dog and unrequited love.
80 MILLION: Ten days before the Communist authorities freeze accounts and declare martial law in 1981, Solidarity workers withdraw 80 million zlotys, outwitting evil despot Sobczyk. Based on a true story.
BLOOD OF MY BLOOD: Joao Canijo's verite study of a struggling Lisbon family in the slums topped the Portuguese box office and won awards from Miami to San Sebastian. [O]
BEYOND THE HILLS: The shocking snub in 2007 of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days sparked reform of the Oscars. This year, his intense convent-set drama was the only film in the main competition at Cannes to win more than one award, with honors for his screenplay and a shared best actress for co-stars Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. [C]
WHITE TIGER: Mosfilm director Karen Shakhnazarov grossed $3.3 million on his $11 million World War II art film/war movie about the quest to blow up a German tank.
WHEN DAY BREAKS: A Christian discovers he's actually the offspring of Jews murdered in "soul sucker" trucks in 1937. "Earnest but rather plodding," wrote Mintzer.
ALREADY FAMOUS: Singaporean actress Michelle Chong wrote, directed and acts in this story about a Malaysian country girl who dreams of becoming a TV star in Singapore.
MADE IN ASH: Iveta Grofova's debut feature is a bleak, uncompromising look at sex trafficking in Eastern Europe. Wrote THR's Stephen Dalton, "Grofova's arresting debut feature makes impressive use of its tight budget and limited resources."
A TRIP: Two twentysomething men and a woman take a road trip that turns out to be an inward journey. Winner of best actor, actress, ensemble and Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival.
LITTLE ONE: Darrell Roodt's 2004 film Yesterday was shortlisted for the Oscar, and his new drama about a very young rape victim left for dead but rescued by a woman near Johannesburg might fiddle with Academy heartstrings.
PIETA: Kim Ki-duk's violent dystopia is South Korea's first film to win a best picture award at a major festival. Two disadvantages: its graphic amputation scenes and controversy over the fact that Pieta was the Michael Mann-led Venice jury's second choice when rules prohibited giving awards to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. [V]
BLANCANIEVES: A flamenco-heavy retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White set in Seville serves as this year's homage to silent cinema. Pablo Berger's black-and-white film won a special jury prize at San Sebastian -- where heroine Macarena Garcia also got the Silver Seashell for best actress. "Shoved into the bullfighting arena," wrote Rooney, "the tale liberally mixes humor and melodrama." [O]
THE HYPNOTIST: My Life as a Dog director Lasse Hallstrom hadn't made a film in 25 years, but he's been Oscar nominated three times. This Nordic noir is based on Lars Kepler's best-selling thriller.
SISTER: A solid sophomore effort from Ursula Meier (Home) with terrific lead performances from newcomer Kacey Mottet Klein and French "It" girl Lea Seydoux (Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol). It received a special Silver Bear in Berlin. [B]
TOUCH OF THE LIGHT: A polished, schmaltzy true story of a blind pianist that may play better in Asia than with the Academy.
HEADSHOT: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Buddhist noir swept the Thai national awards and was a Tokyo Grand Prix nom, though it might be too gruesome for the Academy.
WHERE THE FIRE BURNS: The final entry in director Ismail Gunes' "trilogy of violence," Fire examines the effects of an honor killing on a tightknit family.
THE FIRECROSSER: Director Mykhailo Illienko tells the unlikely true story of a Soviet war hero who becomes the leader of a Native American tribe in North America.
THE DELAY: Rodrigo Pla's drama follows a middle-aged Montevideo woman who struggles to take care of her three children and 80-year-old father.
ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS: After 20 submissions and zero noms, Venezuela bets on Hernan Jabes' film about two families' intertwined fates.
THE SCENT OF BURNING GRASS: Nineteen years after The Scent of Green Papaya's nomination, Vietnam submits this 1972 war drama, a winner of four top national awards.