Always one of the most interesting Oscar categories for followers of independent cinema, this year's Best Foreign Language Film looks a particularly tight field. Read on for a quick run-down on the quintet of contenders, and to see trailers for all five nominated films.
If the big shock in this category last year was that the George Foreman and Muhammed Ali nominees of Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon were duffed up on Oscar night itself by the Frank Bruno of an eventual victor, The Secret in Their Eyes (er, no offence), so too have there already been a few surprises this year.
The most notable shock is the absence of some of those critical hits which had been hotly-tipped to secure nominations - Of Gods and Men, Son of Babylon, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, to name three. But such snubs merely emphasise the cachet of those that were selected, and here they are...
Directed by a Canadian, Denis Villeneuve, this prize-winner from both the Venice and Toronto film festivals divides its action between two countries, a trait of setting it shares with two other of the nominees. Adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the movie follows a brother and sister who journey from Canada to the Middle East (the country visited is apparently a thinly-veiled Lebanon) following some shock revelations in the will of their late mother.
This one feels far older than the other nominees, having first made waves all the way back in May 2009 when it won Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. A seeming oddity amidst the social and historical dramas that have been nominated, the plot centres on a family in which the parents conspire to keep their kids from ever leaving the home. Director Giogos Lanthimos cropped up in a performing capacity in Venice hit Attenberg, and the helmer of that movie, Rachel Tsangari, was one of the producers on Dogtooth.
Representing Algeria, this is another flick set in multiple countries, with the first act taking place in north Africa, before the story switches to France. Another handsomely-mounted look at Algerian history from director Rachid Bouchareb, following 2007 Oscar nominee Days of Glory, his new film sparked controversy in France when far-right activists took umbrage at certain depicted events. While most certainly a politically-charged movie, it is also an obviously commercial one, with there being as much action spicing up the history as there was in Steven Spielberg's Munich (trailer comes via Apple).
Set in Barcelona and starring a Spaniard, Javier Bardem, this movie is actually flying the flag for Mexico at the 2011 Oscars. Direction does come from a Mexican, Alejandro Gonzalez Iňárritu, and his well-known English-language work (21 Grams, Babel), allied to the celebrity of his leading man (Bardem has also been nominated this year, in the Best Actor field), means that Biutiful will probably start as mild favourite to claim the golden trophy.
Bardem plays Uxal, a man who sorts out employment for illegal immigrants, and while our own Emma Rowley praised the 'brilliance' of his performance when she caught Biutiful at Cannes last year, she was left somewhat fatigued by the 'unrelenting bleakness' of the film as a whole. Here's the rather good-looking trailer...
Bardem is, of course, always a man in demand in Hollywood, and he would seem to have big choices to make at the minute about the roles he is going to tackle in the next couple of years. He might have already declined the opportunity to play Ares, God of War, in Clash of the Titans sequel, Wrath of the Titans (a gig that has now gone to Carlos actor Edgar Ramirez), but he still needs to decide between reported offers to topline in the galaxy of film and TV projects spinning off from Stephen King's The Dark Tower and, according to Deadline New York, the chance to play opposite Daniel Craig's 007 in the new Bond movie currently being developed for release in late 2012.
There is no confirmation as yet on the precise nature of that latter role, but most are leaping to the tempting conclusion that Bardem is being lined as the primary antagonist for the superfly super-spy. That would seem a natural fit for the actor given that he has no little experience of playing bad. His lugubrious rotter in No Country for Old Man was nearly as taciturn as such classic Bond henchmen as Oddjob and Jaws, while his crazed outlaw in Perdita Durango was every bit as obsessed with voodoo rites as Baron Samedi was.
In a Better World
A movie that was recently featured as part of my beginner's guide to Danish cinema, check out that article for a more in-depth look at both the film and its director, Susanne Bier. Suffice to say, it stars Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dryholm and Ulrich Thomsen, and spreads its narrative between Denmark and an unnamed African nation.
Which of this year's nominees have you seen or are looking forward to seeing? And which movie do you reckon will walk away with the Oscar on the night?