A closer look at Oscar's foreign-language shortlist
It's harder to pinpoint the other executive-committee saves, though it's safe to say "The Intouchables"isn't one of them. As unbelievable as it may seem to some reader, Kris even hears whispers that "Amour" -- installed by many pundits as the putative frontrunner since Cannes -- might have needed the committee's help. I wouldn't be all that surprised if that were the case: for all its cross-category buzz, the film is a typically severe auteur piece from Michael Haneke, and while some older voters may be moved by its unblinking study of the perils of aging, many might find it too tough a sit.
I maintain that the upbeat, broadly accessible buddy narrative of "The Intouchables" makes it the one to beat, however banal its aesthetics and iffy its social politics. It has just enough intended pathos and worthy thematic aspirations to be taken seriously by the comedy-shy Academy, plus a galvanizing star turn from Omar Sy. If I'm right, it'll be perennial nominee France's first winner in exactly 20 years; perhaps its a sign that their last, the sudsy Catherine Deneuve melodrama "Indochine," was similarly unremarkable.
Those two -- both of which could feasibly have been France's entry this year -- seem the most secure candidates for the final five, which could boast as many as four French-language nominees. The other two are impressive child-driven stories that, while hardly sentimental Academy bait, should tug at voters' heartstrings.
Switzerland's entry, "Sister," is actually favorite film on the shortlist: since Berlin, I've been raving about Ursula Meier's smart, surprising, sneakily moving study of a semi-feral youth surviving on the moneyed slopes of a tourist-infested ski resort, and recently made a long-shot Oscar plea for teenager Kacey Mottet Klein's quick-witted lead performance (though Lea Seydoux also turns in career-best work as his barely adult guardian). It's a sharp, nippy little film with an unexpected wallop of an emotional payoff; I'm hoping the gloss lent by Gillian Anderson in supporting role (not the mention the great Agnes Godard's luminous cinematography) is enough to lure more cautious voters.
Perhaps a likelier bet is Canada's "War Witch," which had grown men in tears at its first screening in Berlin, where it won the Best Actress award for remarkable 14 year-old newcomer Rachel Mwanza. Playing a pregnant child soldier abducted by rebel forces in an unnamed African nation, she's the backbone of a strong-blooded film, infused with magical realism, that is nonetheless just redemptive enough to appeal to the broader votership; for me, it doesn't quite land the bodyblow of the superior, similarly-themed "Johnny Mad Dog," but it'd be an exciting nominee.
I expect one of these films to make the cut, alongside fellow Berlin favorite "A Royal Affair." Long earmarked as likely bait in this category -- it's a literate, lavishly appointed historical biopic, after all -- its chances are helped by the recognizable star presence of Mads Mikkelsen, as well as up-and-coming "Anna Karenina" standout Alicia Vikander. (It was their co-star Mikkel Folsgaard, meanwhile, who won Best Actor at Berlin.) Steve Pond, however, hears word that the film wasn't as well-received at its screening as you might expect -- perhaps because it's a younger, brisker, sexier film than outward appearances suggest.
Add in Gael Garcia Bernal in "No," which I discussed in some detail at Cannes, and this could be the category's starriest lineup in some time. Some have speculated that director Pablo Larrain's witty, thematically crucial decision to shoot the film in funky, 1980s-style video stock, could be a turn-off for voters, but I think the film is too absorbing (and ultimately rousing) a political thriller for that to be a significant obstacle.
It's one of several options now open to the Academy that combine comparatively mainstream entertainment smarts with sinuous, singular artistry -- a compromise of sorts between the arty austerity of "Amour" and "Beyond the Hills" and the loud crowd appeal of "The Intouchables." I'd rather voters didn't opt for the latter, but either way, this strong shortlist has all but safeguarded the Academy against making a choice that will please nobody.