Indie Focus: A world of drama in Oscar foreign-language race

Imagine how much drama goes into the Oscars — the wrangling, the hand-wringing, the positioning and primping — and then think how that's essentially only for films from the limited radius of Hollywood and its related environs. So if it seems that the foreign-language category is an eternal hotbed for tempest-in-a-teapot controversies, perceived snubs and never-to-be-satisfied sniping, well, that's because it's got the whole rest of the world to contend with.

Though no significant rule changes were instigated this year in particular, the process by which films are nominated has seen a transformation in the last few years in an attempt to be more representative of contemporary international filmmaking and get away from the long-held perception that the category reflects only the specific tastes of an older, insular Hollywood crowd. Though it didn't win, the nomination last year for the Greek film "Dogtooth," a radical social allegory that mixed mordant humor with intimations of incest, seemed to demarcate a significant moment of change.

This year, it seems there may be something of a "'Dogtooth' effect" among the 63 films accepted by the academy, an unusual mix of genre films, comedies, dramas and the truly odd, as the countries have apparently become newly emboldened in their submissions. Greece has submitted the abstractly lyrical "Attenberg," Turkey the existential murder mystery "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," Norway the domestic sex comedy "Happy, Happy" and Brazil the violent police procedural sequel "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within."

Hungary put forward "The Turin Horse," a methodically languid black-and-white story about the world slowly winding down, which filmmaker Béla Tarr, a titan of international cinema, has announced as his last film.

It has been the avowed goal of Mark Johnson, longtime chairman of the academy's foreign-language committee, to broaden the types of film the process recognizes. A couple of years ago, Johnson spearheaded a radical shake-up to the voting process, allowing the general committee of about 250 members to place six films on a pre-nomination shortlist, with the executive committee of around 20 members placing an additional three. Those nine films are then watched by a 30-person "phase two committee" — which last year included Ryan Gosling, Julian Schnabel, Anne Hathaway and Michael Mann — who vote on the films that become the five nominees.

"In the past, we have heard from a number of countries that the movies submitted were not necessarily the ones the submitting body feels is their best film but they feel is the right kind of film for us," Johnson added. "And that obviously chafes a little. You say, 'No, no, send us what you think is your best movie.' And I think now we are not necessarily getting soft and safe movies."

Among the most unusual films this year is Germany's entry, the 3-D dance documentary "Pina," directed by Wim Wenders. The film, which has already made the shortlist in the documentary category, is an exuberant, engaging hybrid, which brings to the screen the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch with immersive 3-D technology developed for the film. It certainly doesn't fit any of the all-too-common dour stereotypes for foreign-language filmmaking, and even Wenders can't quite categorize it.

"The attitude of the film is strictly of a documentary," Wenders said. "But when we were filming 'Pina,' we were filming something that in itself was fictional; the choreography is, of course, a fiction. The process of the film is as a documentary, but it is a strange thing in a documentary to have fiction in front of the camera."

Anyone looking to handicap the race this year might start with the four films being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which also put out last year's winner, Denmark's "In a Better World." This year it has Iran's "A Separation," Poland's "In Darkness," Lebanon's "Where Do We Go Now?" and Israel's "Footnote," all well-positioned to advance through the process. Add China's big-budget prefab blockbuster "The Flowers of War," which stars Christian Bale in an English-speaking role, and one could easily be looking at five potential nominees. If, that is, they all make the shortlist, pass the phase two committee vote and dodge a charge from "Turin Horse," Mexico's "Miss Bala," Belgium's "Bullhead," Finland's "Le Havre" or many other possible contenders.

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