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The Foreign Language Sweet Spot

Robert here, making no claims to predicting this year's Foreign Language Film category, or making any judgments based on quality. In the life of the mid-west movie lover, we're still waiting for all of these films to show up in our area. But I wanted to make on observation on what is supposed to be one of the more solidly predictable categories this year.


Einstein supposedly said "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." So you say you find yourself pretty certain that A Separation has its Oscar locked up based on critical praise and a slew of other awards this season. Tell that logic to The White Ribbon, Waltz With Bashir, Pan's Labyrinth, Paradise Now and Amelie; all foreign language front-runners that had it all come Oscar night, except an Oscar. Whether A Separation meets this same fate is not for me to say.

But consider not what the critics think, nor that Nathaniel is hardly the sole voice to name it the best... in any language. Don't even consider the huge stack of awards its won this season. Instead wonder if it hits the foreign language "sweet spot" that seems to have developed in the past few years. We all know that in the Foreign Language category, voters must watch every entry. This may work against popular films like Amelie and Pan's Labyrinth that are whimsical or fantastical, making them look too slight to voters in the shadow of lesser known but more complex, socially conscious fare. But not too complex, please. The Academy is still The Academy and films with the structural or moral ambiguity of Paradise Now, The White Ribbon and Waltz With Bashir are less commonly embraced than movies with clear messages.

A few frontrunners in the past decade have managed to go the distance, and good as some of them have been, they've all met the requirements of the sweet spot: serious but not ambiguous, complex but not too challenging. Come Sunday we'll know into which crowd A Separation falls. Until then, if I were a betting man, I could think of a dozen other categories I'd rather push my chips into.

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Reader Comments (28)

I was one of the few who thought A Separation was extremely overrated and should have been called Tedious Bad Parenting instead. Bullhead, however, is a brilliant film and deserves the win. An unlikely winner, but I'm rooting for it.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I'm predicting A Separation, because I'm not gutsy enough not to, but I have a strong feeling about In Darkness-Polish, a holocaust drama, and strong reviews are also in its court. Plus, I would imagine there are some members of AMPAS that wouldn't vote for an Iranian film if it were Godfather-caliber.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I'm counting on "In Darkness" to get this: WWII drama about people overcoming tragedy and wrestling rats? Sounds like AMPAS voters won't be able to say no to it. "Bullhead" would get my vote too, although "A Separation" is absolutely remarkable.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Most of the decisions made by these retirees in FFL have been god-awful, but I'll never fault them for picking "The Lives of Others" over "Pan's Labyrinth." That's one of the best decisions this category has ever made. It might look weird with "PL" getting all those nods and wins, but a film like "TLOO" shouldn't have gone completely unnoticed, and I'm glad it was recognized how it was.

I'm still predicting "A Separation" (if I'm lucky this film might grace my podunk area around late spring, boooooo), but there's a lot of grumblings about "In Darkness," and it's a HOLOCAUST film after all. This phenomenon could easily happen again next week.

Nice post, Robert.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLandon

Much like Nathaniel's pick as "A Separation" as his best pic of the year, I considered "Pan's Labyrinth" the best film of 2006, if not of the aughts in general. That it wasn't nominated for Best Picture that year - in a year with nominations for crappy "Babel" and crappier "The Queen" - was shocking enough. When it lost to "The Lives of Others," which was a great film in its own right, I was shocked.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

The Lives of Others was better than Pan's Labyrinth anyway.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Johnson

Don't go breaking my heart, Robert. Also,

a) I don't remember a lot of how the Foreign race went down in the past decade but the Globes have always been known to pick the popular ones for the past year or two. Like when they picked White Ribbon over everyone else.

b) I find White Ribbon morally questionable anyway.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I still think that A Separation's going to get the win. There are a lot of traditional FL voters, but there are three big films for which their combined vote might be split-- immigrant story Monsieur Lazhar, Holocaust-centered In Darkness, and Talmudic comedy Footnote. That, combined with the fact that A Separation isn't nearly as Academy-inaccessible as previous frontrunners, makes me think it will win the Oscar.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Does anyone know how the Academy enforces the rule that voters see all the nominees? How do the voters prove they've seen them all?

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

The thing about 2001 and 2006 was that the winners didn't come out of nowhere. While Amelie and Pan's Labyrinth were getting all the publicity, No Man's Land and The Lives of Others were always hanging around in the background building up buzz. No Man's Land won the Golden Globes back when they mostly agreed with the Academy in the Foreign Language category, while Lives of Others had its terrific success in international film festivals. Even The Departures and The Secret in their Eyes had considerable success before their surprise win. In Darkness just seemed to come out of nowhere.

Although the two biggest upsets in their category in recent years came five years apart, and it's been five years since the Lives of Others upset, so we're due for another crazy upset. XD

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Mark: The Lives of Others was more complicated and subtle, certainly, but I thought it was occasionally a very dull watch, ESPECIALLY in the second act. The last shot is, admittedly, powerful and of all the film's to beat Pan's Labyrinth, The Lives of Others was probably the best alternate choice.
Paolo: The White Ribbon. The idea of the film (The rise of Nazism can be traced back to BEFORE WWI) was interesting but the end approach was much too staid for the concept.
(Speaking of Foreign Language film: Worst snub of the past ten ceremonies: Goodbye Lenin! Worst winning decision of the past ten ceremonies: Tsotsi.)

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

DJDeeJay: Best foreign-language fim candidates have not all been shown commercially in the US. The Academy organizes screenings which all members can attend. As far as I know, voters who have seen the five films have to include the stubs with their ballots. If anybody knows otherwise, please let us know. I don't know how reliable the source where I read this is.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

ajnrules-I'd argue that Departures had just as much precursor buzz as In Darkness, if not less.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Marcos - Thanks. Wouldn't it be amazing if voters had to do that for ALL categories, especially the acting ones? I wonder how the results would change.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

For me the Oscar rarely do good justice when it comes to Foreign Language (or arguably at a whole). The worst winning decision for me was The Departures in 2008. Just awful!
But they did recognized the popular choices a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life is Beautiful, All about My Mother. SO I hope they'll pick A Separation this time.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Im really happy with Waltz With Bashir losing. Sooooo overrated and political in the really bad sense of the word.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPablo (Col)

While I'd happily tear down the foreign branch's choices, I'll go A Prophet over The White Ribbon any day (both far better than the winner). It's certainly true that whenever they stumble into the correct choice though, it's by accident. Frankly, they should also get rid of the rule that each country submits one film, and part of me just wishes the committee would pick the nominees, full stop. Actually, A Separation losing this year may finally bring the needed outcry to make the Academy address this oddball category.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I'm routing for A Separation, but I can't be sure cause I haven't seen any other films. Just that to imagine a film better than it is quite a hard thing to do. And it seems, as of now, that a lot of people agree. I just bought a local monthly movie magazine in my country and in the review section, it scored 4/4 stars from all 8 critics that had watched it which, from what i remember in the past 4-5 years of reading, never happened before. They have quite different tastes and opinions as I know.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChamp

@Pablo: In fact I just re-watched Waltz with Bashir week ago and it held up really well. The film combines many other genres together but still has the emotional impact. And those songs are fresh, too. I think it's still to tough for the Oscar.
Speaking of that, I'm really glad that Dogtooth got recognized last year, one of very few good decision the Oscar had made in recent years.
From this year's nomination, I just watched A Separation and Bullhead, which are all good. A Separation is way better though. I like to check out Monsieur Lazhar too, which I had heard many good things about it.
@eurocheese: yeah, I also think The White Ribbon and A Prophet are on the same level, although I enjoyed The White Ribbon more, A Prophet is still a damn great picture.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Not that it's an infallible statistic or anything, but none of the past six winners of Best Foreign Language Film were nominated in any other category, and they managed to win even in cases when they were up against movies that were nominated in other categories (to be specific Pan's Labyrinth, The White Ribbon, and ). In fact, only 2 out of the past 10 Foreign Language winners, and 5 out of the past 20, have been nominated in another category. So the Original Screenplay nomination for A Separation certainly does not give it any sort of advantage.

However, I do still think it will win, just because there doesn't seem to be a truly viable alternative. In 2006, The Lives of Others was the clear alternative, even though Pan's Labyrinth was the frontrunner. Ditto to No Man's Land in 2001. The win for The Secret in Their Eyes was the only one that could truly be called a big upset, and that's because it was assumed to be The White Ribbon vs. A Prophet. But with no solid alternative to A Separation this year, I'm not quite convinced of the arguments that it won't win. Certainly, bigger upsets have occurred, but I'm sticking with this movie as my final prediction. If I'm wrong, I'll be wrong. Until then, a prediction for anything else seems to be based on pure whim.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

*That should read: Pan's Labyrinth, The White Ribbon, and Biutiful.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

Well, I thought about Departures, but as it turned out Departures had some success at international film festivals. It won the feature prizes at Montreal and Palm Springs...and it swept the Japanese Academy Awards...which occurred...two days before the Oscars...after the balloting closed...

...yeah Departures came out of left field. But it had buzz from the Academy voters.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Monsieur Lazhar may be the Departures of this year.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

A Separation has the same vibe about it that brought The Secret in Their Eyes an Oscar: both a close-nit thriller and a political statement, populist yet with deeper meaning, an insight into the lives of its characters and into society as a whole. It will win. Though as a Belgian I am rooting for Bullhead, which I still see as the best chance for an upset, despite the flaws of the movie.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

I'm still very happy with the win of "The Lives of Others", which was hardly a "Departures" like title to win.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I feel really frustrated with this category, as I've hardly seen any of the nominated films. ("In Darkness" just opened last Friday; "A Separation" only opens here tomorrow; "Footnote" only opens next month; I have no idea when "Bullhead" will open, if it does.)

However, I think that, if any film other than "A Separation" wins, it will be "Monsieur Lazhar." It fits very will with what Robert said above, namely "...serious but not ambiguous, complex but not too challenging." Its heartwarming, yet bittersweet, qualities would seem to put it in the voters' "sweet spot."

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Dieter: Thank you for your comment about The Secret in Their Eyes. Other readers here have been going on about Secret's "upset" win. They compare A Prophet with The White Ribbon, without bringing Secret into their analysis of the values of each one of the "three" films. Nathaniel himself predicted this Oscar. As we all know, the fact is that only members who have seen all 5 movies can vote. Who knows how many people actually vote in this category. Maybe 600? And most probably their average age is high... hence they are more traditional. That's how come there are unexpected winners.
As Dieter mentioned, The Secret in Their Eyes is "a close-nit thriller and a political statement, populist yet with deeper meaning, an insight into the lives of its characters and into society as a whole".

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

If you want the popular "good" choices to win here, then open up the voting to the full membership. The fact that this category has tighter safeguards on it then damn best picture is ridiculous. Otherwise, expect the retirees voting here to go for the pablum. And I knew that "El Secreto de Sus Ojos" was winning over "A Prophet" and "The White Ribbon" right away. Those other films were wayyy too harsh to win, even though they were lightyears better. The only reason "Dogtooth" got in last year was b/c of the oversight committee. I would have picked "The Lives of Others" over "Pan's Labryinth" easily too. I'm rooting hard for "A Separation" this weekend, but I'm also anticipating disappointment. I have a feeling that's going to be the prevailing mood of the entire night for me. But I'll be drunk at least!

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTalbert
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