'Barbarian' leads competitive bunch with 2 noms

A correction was made to this article on Feb. 19, 2004.

Oscar better like subtitles.

With a record 56 countries submitting films in the foreign-language feature category, the committee members who had to watch them faced a daunting plethora of screenings.

“It’s a brutal schedule,” says Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences historian and mastermind of the schedule Patrick Stockstill. “But it couldn’t be any other way with the difficulties we were faced with.”

While longtime Oscar watchers know that the committee as a whole has historically tilted toward more conventional and audience-pleasing fare, several countries opted to submit films outside of those parameters. Some would argue that this is a Quixotic gambit, but it reflects that world cinema is in a period of dynamic ferment.

Leading the pack was Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions.” The French-speaking Canada entry, about a dying man making peace with his choices and relationships, is among the contenders that emerged from the hectic consideration process.

Arcand also was nominated for original screenplay, and it was the only film to be nommed for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for foreign film.

The Netherlands’ Ben Sombogaart’s “Twin Sisters,” about sisters separated in early childhood who intersect during WWII and then separate again until they meet one last time, has been compared by distrib Miramax co-head Harvey Weinstein to last year’s foreign-language winner, Germany’s “Nowhere in Africa.”

Remember when . . . 1998
This is the year that all foreign-language films wish they could emulate.

Roberto Benigni’s runaway smash “Life Is Beautiful” not only won this category, but was nommed for picture and director, it won actor for Benigni and the score Oscar. Few who saw Benigni’s joyous acceptance speech will ever forget it.

The Italian pic also gleaned noms for editing and original screenplay.

It overwhelmed the rest of the category, which included Spain’s “The Grandfather”; “Tango,” from Argentina; “Central Station,” from Brazil; and “Children of Heaven,” from Iran.

From Japan is “The Twilight Samurai,” a 19th-century warrior tale that owned Japan’s top awards, winning 12 of the 14 categories it was nominated in, while earning $15.2 million at the Japanese B.O. It is the first live-action Japanese film nominated for an Oscar in 22 years.

A foreign-language nom is also a boon to Sony Pictures Classics, which just picked up Czech film “Zelary” at Sundance. Pic is inspired by the true story of a woman involved in the resistance during WWII, and managed to achieve break-even in Czech ticket sales of 400,000.

Indeed, win or no win, inclusion in the foreign-language category this year should prove to be a transcendental marketing tool for the Swedish hit “Evil.” This dark look at hazing at a 1950s private school, based on a true story of Swedish journalist Jan Guillou, is proving to be a tough U.S. sell for Danish co-producer and distrib Nordisk Film.

Oscar pedigree

This category has grown in profile in recent years with wins from powerhouse commercial successes “Life Is Beautiful” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“The Barbarian Invasions” director Denys Arcand is well-known to the Acad, which may look to reward him this time out. The French-Canadian director has two previously nommed pics, “Jesus of Montreal” and “The Decline of the American Empire,” to which “Barbarian Invasions” serves as sequel.

With Arcand also nominated for original screenplay, this could be the year for him to get his due and he’s more likely to win this category than the writing one.

A more realistic, low-key approach to the life of Japan’s famous feudal warriors is what sets “The Twilight Samurai” apart. The film was a major commercial success in Japan that it has yet to repeat in the U.S. The film’s contemplative look at the lives of real samurai could win it enough respect to challenge “Barbarian Invasions.”

Swedish entry “Evil” combines a classical approach to its story of a violent teen sent off to a boarding school with handheld, Dogma-style photography. The result, combined with a first-rate perf from lead actor Andreas Wilson, makes a strong case for rewarding “Evil.”

Holocaust films play well with the Acad and the family drama and controversial view that the Germans were victims of Nazism, too, gives “Twin Sisters” the potential to win.

World War II also is important to Czech entry “Zelary.” The subtle textures that underline the larger story have given it plenty of buzz and its epic approach could be just the thing to win over enough Acad votes.

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