A look at the contenders for best foreign film

“Biutiful”
Why it’ll win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s drama about a man with little time to live who works in the shady Barcelona human trafficking trade has been gathering momentum since Javier Bardem won best actor in Cannes. Since that victory, it’s gathered unusual star-power thrust for a foreign film nom from Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, and is the only nom with a bona fide movie star — never a bad thing. Inarritu has been to the Oscars before with “Babel,” nominated in 2007 for pic and direction, and such a track record usually helps, as with last year’s winner, “The Secret in Their Eyes.”
Maybe not: The film is extremely grim and depressing in its depiction of the seamier side of existence in a city most associate with sun, fun and culture. The sheer relentless nature of the storytelling, featuring a man dying of cancer, may be a real turn-off to some voters.

“Dogtooth”
Why it’ll win: Yorgos Lanthimos’ second film surprised and stunned Cannes audiences in 2009 when it won Un Certain Regard prize, and proceeded to a triumphant international festival run. Lanthimos’ absurdist staging of a family dominated by a father who’s laid down bizarre codes of behavior for his children has proven unforgettable, and the fact that there’s no other film out there quite like it is a stark fact in its favor. The acting branch, the Acad’s largest, may be particularly impressed.
Maybe not: Way too absurd, may be the response of most Acad voters. The physical extremity, sexual perversion and visceral domestic violence that gives the film its audacity is also likely to upset and offend many voters with more mainstream tastes. In a category that typically goes for safe, middlebrow titles, this is a radical outlier.

“In a Better World”
Why it’ll win: Director Susanne Bier’s globe-hopping family drama can now be considered the category front-runner after its Golden Globe win, where it topped such touted titles as “Biutiful.” The balance of emotional storylines involving two sets of parents and their young teen boys with a certain grandeur of staging, combined with Bier’s typically strong handling of a gifted cast, may be just the right mix of elements for a winner. Bier, having worked in Hollywood (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), has valued allies in the Academy.
Maybe not: Compared to some of Bier’s previous dramatic knockouts (“After the Wedding,” “Open Hearts,” “Brothers”), her latest drama could strike some viewers as relatively soft and not nearly as memorable. A plot that jumps between continents will be too similar in some viewers’ minds to a geographically sprawling narrative in another nominee, “Incendies.” Unlike some other films in the field, this one hasn’t been out there very long to generate strong word-of-mouth.

“Incendies”
Why it’ll win: With its politically important platform during the Lebanese civil war struggles and a primal storyline involving siblings’ quest for what turns out to be a lost relative, writer-director Denis Villeneuve’s drama would appear to have all of the ambitious qualities that the Academy traditionally accords to foreign-lingo winners. Members of several branches will be impressed by the film’s sense of scale and production quality, factors that could greatly boost its chances.
Maybe not: More than a few voters may be confused as to why Canada’s foreign submission is set largely in Lebanon, but what may tilt sentiments against the film is its controversial and upsetting subject matter — among other details, a massacre of Muslims by Christians.

“Outside the Law”
Why it’ll win: With just the brand of tradition-of-quality moviemaking that Acad members historically warm to, Rachid Bouchareb’s epic of the decades-long struggle for Algerian independence through the eyes of three brothers manages a savvy balance of heart and head. A well-liked figure in Hollywood circles, Bouchareb uniquely combines Algerian roots with French connections and clout, all of which could earn him much good feeling come voting time.
Maybe not: The film may be just too old-fashioned for some voters, particularly younger ones looking for something with an edgier streak. More politically sensitive members will have their own battle endorsing a film whose heroes stand, in the view of conservative Europeans of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as terrorists, while others will see them as freedom fighters. Such controversy tends not to bode well for any nominee.

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