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When it comes to the foreign-language Oscar, it’s become almost a cliche that historical “prestige” dramas — often related to World War II or other recent European strife — are the stuff of shoo-ins. Think recent winners such as “The Lives of Others” (2006) and “The Counterfeiters” (2007) or earlier victors such as “The Tin Drum” (1979) and “Life Is Beautiful” (1998). Every year, going back some two decades, at least one nominee fits the description (i.e. “Outside the Law,” “The White Ribbon,” “Katyn,” “Days of Glory,” “Joyeux Noel,” “Downfall,” “Divided We Fall,” “East/West” … the list goes on). But just as the perception that foreign films with cute kids make for subtitled Oscar glory (“Cinema Paradiso,” “Kolya”), the reality of the category has become far less predictable.

In the past two years, for example, winners “A Separation” and “In a Better World” each offered evidence that contemporary issues could trump history lessons. Furthermore, a number of this year’s leading contenders — including Austria’s “Amour,” France’s “The Intouchables,” and Israel’s “Fill the Void” — are intimate stories set in the present.

Observers of the foreign-language category suggest that precedents have been upended somewhat by voting rules instituted five years ago. After a number of critically lauded films — most notably Romania’s Cannes-winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — were overlooked in 2007, it was decided an executive committee would pick three films to add to the shortlist to avoid any oversights. Then, two committees, one in Los Angeles, the other in New York, determine the top five, while the winner is still voted upon by all eligible Academy voters. (“Beyond the Hills,” from “4 Months” director Cristian Mungiu, is Romania’s Oscar entry this year.)

“The patterns are less formulaic than in the past, because of the change in the rules,” says L.A.-based publicist Fredell Pogodin, who works every year on foreign-language Oscar campaigns. “But if you’re telling me there is a pattern, I’d agree with you,” she admits, referring to last year’s inclusion of Agnieska Holland’s Holocaust survival story “In Darkness,” which, however well-executed, features content familiar to Oscar watchers.

Indeed, for all the foreign branch’s efforts to placate detractors and champion less conventional “Academy”-type movies, Pogodin says, “They’re not a critics body, and no one believes it’s a critics body.”

Hence, those old-fashioned favorites, whether costume dramas or sacrificial war tales, will continue to pop up. This year, for example, several front-runners are set safely in the past, including Australia’s Nazi drama “Lore,” the Chilean 1980s-set political thriller “No” and the Danish 19th century period piece “A Royal Affair.”

Ed Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films, which is releasing “Lore,” acknowledges that Cate Shortland’s WWII film has an “interesting subject for literate, historically minded moviegoers — and that certainly comprises a big chunk of the foreign Oscar committee.”

But foreign-lingo film Oscar watchers are quick to note that none of these surface characteristics ultimately matters as much to Acad voters as something deeper: an accessible and emotionally satisfying film. That’s why the movies to beat this year may be “The Intouchables,” a feel-good film likened to “Driving Miss Daisy” that resolves racial and class conflicts in less than two hours.

As Pogodin says, “Emotionally resonant works.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
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