Crowded house

A host of foreign films are vying for recognition.

While some naysayers might be crying foul over the dearth of knockout candidates for the Golden Globes' top dramatic prize, the very opposite is true when it comes to the foreign-language category, which is brimming with acclaimed features from veteran filmmakers from all across the world.

"This is the best year we've had since I've been in this business, and that's 25 years," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker says. "We're seeing some of the best foreign-language films there've been in a long time."

Some of the leading names in international cinema are vying for attention -- from Spain's Pedro Almodovar with his SPC release "Volver" to Zhang Yimou, who actually has two SPC films in contention: "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" and "Curse of the Golden Flower." Additionally, directors such as Paul Verhoeven and Guillermo del Toro, who not only work abroad but also have strong ties to Hollywood, are competing with SPC's World War II drama "Black Book" and Picturehouse's Spanish-language fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth," respectively.


And then there's Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language World War II drama "Letters From Iwo Jima," which will be eligible at the Globes in the foreign-language category but not at the Oscars.

Given the multinational makeup of its governing body, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., perhaps it seems obvious that the Globes would be less restrictive than the Academy Awards when it comes to honoring cinema from outside the U.S. The HFPA does not limit the number of submissions from any country -- any foreign-language film that was released in its native country between October 2005 and December 2006 can qualify -- nor does it have the same strict rules about its membership having to view every entry -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mandates that members of its foreign-language committee must see a specific number of the films in contention in order to be allowed to vote.

"The sheer volume of submissions sometimes makes it prohibitive," says Mike Goodridge, a member of the HFPA's foreign-language committee, adding that more than 60 entries had been submitted for consideration at press time. "Ask anybody who works in this category, and they'll say the hardest thing is getting people to the screenings. But our members are diligent; they are watching three or four films a day."

Indeed, that kind of dedication would be required if one even hoped to see the majority of the outstanding films in contention, many of which have something of a multinational feel. Italy's "The Golden Door," from writer-director Emanuele Crialese, traces the story of Sicilian immigrants who move to the U.S., while Algeria's "Days of Glory," directed by Rachid Bouchareb, follows African-born soldiers fighting for France in World War II. Similarly, a majority of Denmark's "After the Wedding," from director Susanne Bier, was shot in India in Hindi, while Canada's "Water," from filmmaker Deepa Mehta, is an Indian-language film shot in India and Sri Lanka.

That said, it is the 100% Spanish "Volver" that could be described as a favorite in the race. Almodovar's tale of a group of Spanish women coping with death and the complexities of daily life won two of the top prizes at May's Festival de Cannes -- a screenplay award and a nod for its ensemble of actresses, including Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. Response to the movie has been so strong that the only real question is whether it will spill out of the foreign-language category and earn nominations for its script, its cast or director or even become a best picture nominee in the drama race.

Similarly, buzz is growing louder over "Labyrinth," an exploration of a young girl's encounters with the supernatural set against the backdrop of 1940s Spain that also garnered acclaim at Cannes. The movie, reminiscent of Spanish helmer Victor Erice's 1973 production "The Spirit of the Beehive," has proved immensely popular in screenings, leading many to speculate that, it, too, could crossover and earn nominations in the other major categories.

Not to be outdone, Germany's "The Lives of Others," yet another SPC release, has been touted as one of the year's best achievements. The film tells the story of an East German surveillance agent who finds himself immersed in the lives of the people he targets and has drawn a tremendous critical response -- perhaps the best of all the 60-plus foreign-language entries.

"Obviously, 'Volver' is very strong, and so is 'The Lives of Others,'" former Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill says. "That already makes it a good year for foreign film. And if there are more than two really good films, that makes it a great year."

Of course, Zhang, China's preeminent filmmaker, himself has two movies in the running. "Flower" marks the director's reunion with Gong Li, who plays an empress wed to Chow Yun-Fat's emperor, and features Zhang's trademark action set pieces and stunning production design and cinematography. "Miles" is more subdued, telling the story of a Japanese man's journey to China, but it, too, has received strong critical notices.

In addition to Zhang, that other well-known helmer Verhoeven is in contention with "Black Book," the first picture he has shot in his native Holland in years and a return to the kind of individualistic filmmaking that he appeared to have abandoned. "Book" stars Carice van Houten as a Holocaust survivor who sets out to unmask the person who betrayed her family.

No matter which films are nominated, Goodridge, for one, says he is aware of the growing prestige of the category. "It is an incredibly rich selection this year, and it looks to be incredibly competitive," he says.