One can of course lament the inexplicable omissions: where, for example, is Bela Tarr's masterly The Turin Horse, to fly the flag for Hungary? Or Nuri Bilge Ceylan's superb Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, representing Turkey? Or Gerardo Naranjo's stunning Mexican drug cartel drama Miss Bala, the kind of widescreen, propulsive thriller any Hollywood A-lister would be proud to call their own?
Ultimately, though, the fact remains: the Foreign Language Oscar is a token award – mere lip-service, on the Academy's part, to the notion of a global cinema culture. To win, is viewed more as a national victory than a personal one. Unsurprising, then, that the best films from many countries (France and Germany in particular) are typically passed over, in favour of more middlebrow, voter-friendly fare. And even then, many of the voting members of the Academy never bother to view them.
As such, this year's line-up looks no better or worse than most, with one clear favourite, two worthy contenders, and two out-of-left-field surprises. Let's take a look at the five contenders:
In many ways the film to beat, the latest feature from Iranian director Farhadi has already racked up a staggering list of honours: the Golden Bear from last February's Berlin Film Festival (where it world-premiered, and also walked off with Best Actor and Best Actress honours), the Asia-Pacific Screen Award for Best Film, jury and audience prizes at a string of international film festivals (among them, Sydney, Melbourne, Durban and Vancouver), and Foreign-Language Film honours among film critics' associations from Chicago to New York. Most recently, and to nobody's great surprise, it claimed a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Certainly, its virtues are difficult to deny: it's beautifully written – along with fellow-nominee Footnote, arguably the best screenplay of the year – and faultlessly acted by its ensemble cast.
But an Oscar win might also be seen as timely, in light of the US's ongoing diplomatic difficulties with the Iranian government – a handy way of expressing solidarity with the country's artists, following the six-year prison sentences handed down to Farhadi's fellow directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof (an event from which this film has undeniably benefited). In fact, despite being one of the success stories of international cinema for much of the past two decades, Iranian cinema has been acknowledged by the Academy only once before, when Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven was nominated in 1998. (It lost, predictably, to Life is Beautiful.) Given its success to date, you'd be foolish to bet against it.
(Joseh Cedar, Israel)
Divided into chapters, and based upon an unashamedly rarefied conceit – the mis-awarding of an academic honour, the victim of muddled identities between a veteran Jerusalem-based Talmudic professor and his son – Footnote is easily one of the most 'novelistic' films of recent years, a wry, occasionally bitter study of academic and paternal rivalries.
For unsympathetic viewers, it can play a little like a highbrow Amelie – and, like that film, there are lots of cutaways, here, flitting restlessly between past and present to illustrate its various points and further complicate its narrative. Both its editing and visuals are little short of masterful, and Cedar makes some bold directorial decisions – not least, his use of a strident orchestral score, in the style of mid-period Shostakovitch, to lend this small, study of individual ethics the grandly tragic air to which it aspires. And rightly so: beneath its crowded surface lurks a gravely serious parable about temptation and sacrifice, and the reciprocal bonds linking fathers and sons.
Ultimately, though, this film might be a victim of its own ambitions. For all its surface pleasures, it's a celebration of books and scholarship, being judged in a town that values neither. For this reason, it's likely to walk away empty-handed, come Oscar night.
(Michaël R. Roskam, Belgium)
In many ways the most surprising of the five nominated films, this Flemish entry is an uncompromising, occasionally brutal study of corruption in the European cattle industry, as a young farmer, Jackie, is approached by a shady vet to strike a deal with a local meat baron – an arrangement that involves packing the meat with illegal growth hormones.
But that's only the start: from there, the action moves swiftly (perhaps too swiftly) from a noir-ish policier to a study of individual obsession, as Jackie, a muscular sort of chap to begin with, starts taking injecting himself with larger and larger doses of the hormones, in the process changing himself into a monster.
For a debut feature, it's a hugely ambitious effort, though the writer-director never quite manages to reconcile these two storylines to best effect; this, coupled with its unrelievedly grim tone, and a 128-minute running time, makes for somewhat relentless viewing. But it does evoke a strong sense of place – it's set in Limburg, the easternmost province of Dutch-speaking Belgium – and features a stand-out lead performance from young Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. It won't earn Roskam an Oscar, but it does mark him as a talent to watch.
(Philippe Falardeau, Canada)
Based on a play, this Quebecois drama appears to tick all the Oscar-worthy boxes: a humanist (check), quietly sentimental (check) study of cross-cultural sympathies (very good), between a bunch of schoolchildren (also good) and their substitute teacher, a softly-spoken recent arrival from Algeria, who offers his services after the kids' previous maîtresse unaccountably hanged herself in their classroom.
The result – which premiered at the Locarno and Toronto Film Festivals (where it won Best Canadian Feature) – is by all accounts a respectable, well-made, admirably non-partisan effort: reviewers have praised its elegant production values (in particular, the editing of Stéphane Lafleur, himself a director of considerable talent) and also the choices made by director Falardeau in his screenplay adaptation, which neatly expands upon the original drama; onstage, the action was confined entirely to a single classroom.
In award terms, however, this has to be considered a rank outsider: frankly, if fellow-Canadian Denis Villeneuve's remarkable Incendies couldn't win last year, this one has no hope whatsoever. Then again, who expected Yojiro Takita's Departures, by far the weakest film of the 2008 nominees, to walk away with Oscar? A victory for Monsieur Lazhar would be unjust, but by no means unprecedented.
(Agnieszka Holland, Poland)
If there's a chance – a tiny chance – of anything upsetting A Separation's stately carriage toward Oscar glory, it might belong to this understated East European entry. For one very simple reason: the provenance of its maker. Polish veteran Holland has a distinguished career in her homeland: a compatriot of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wadja and Krzysztof Zanussi, she's directed such well-received dramas as Europa, Europa (itself Oscar-nominated, in 1990, for Best Screenplay) and A Lonely Woman (1981); she also acted in Ryszard Bugajski's 1982 drama Interrogation, a key work of pre-Solidarity Polish Cinema.
But she's also worked extensively in the US and UK, helming a number of polished, rather middlebrow productions: The Secret Garden in 1993, Washington Square two years later, and Copying Beethoven (2006). And perhaps even more significantly, she's recently delivered some acclaimed work for US television, directing two episodes of HBO's The Wire (whose creator, David Simon, was so impressed with her that he hired her to oversee the pilot of his latest series Treme), as well as a first-season episode of the AMC series The Killing. For Academy voters, therefore, she's a known quantity – a lone friendly face in a field of strangers. For simple name-recognition alone, therefore, the Oscar might yet be hers.