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Foreign Oscar Race Gives Voters Bold Options

As the Academy's taste in world cinema broadens, national committees get braver with their submissions.

Not long ago, it was far easier to predict which foreign-language films wouldn’t feature in the Oscar race than it is today. Year after year, titles that had racked up festival awards and critical plaudits could handily be discounted even after they’d passed the hurdle of being submitted by their country: if they were too thematically abrasive or too formally avant-garde, they weren’t getting a look-in.

The Academy had a particular comfort zone in the best foreign language film category, one that was largely unaccommodating to iconoclastic auteur works: so it is that Dogme 95 milestone “The Celebration” and Romanian New Wave flag-bearer “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” failed even to crack the shortlist in their respective years. Even those that got nominated often fell to less consequential entertainments: “Black and White in Color” over “Seven Beauties,” or “Mediterraneo” over “Raise the Red Lantern.”

Yet things change. As imperfect and exclusive as the voting process in this category still is, it’s been a few years since the opening of the envelope prompted the collective eye-roll that was once customary: “A Separation,” “Amour,” “The Great Beauty” and “Ida” are all substantial works from significant filmmakers that had inspired ardent critical discussion well before the Academy weighed in. The nominees they’ve beaten, moreover, have been largely credible and often unusual. Take Rithy Panh’s deeply personal, puppet-aided Khmer Rouge documentary “The Missing Picture,” for example, or this year’s anti-jihadist cri de coeur “Timbuktu,” which made Abderrahmane Sissako the first African-born black filmmaker to score a nod.

This improved state of affairs isn’t merely attributable to something in the water, but to the Academy’s conscious, concerted tweaking of the system to temper its own most middlebrow instincts. In 2008, following a particularly aggrieved media furor over the omission of the aforementioned “4 Months,” the Academy instated the now-crucial Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee — a select panel of 20 voters, chaired by Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, appointed to add overlooked titles to the pre-nomination shortlist determined by the larger vote.

Which films they choose remains a secret, though it’s often not hard to tell: in the 2010 race, the surprise nomination for “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ daring, stomach-churning black comedy of warped family values, was as clear a sign as any that a new authority was guiding a once-fusty category. It lost to Susanne Bier’s schematic tear-jerker “In a Better World,” asserting the old school’s enduring dominance, but revolutions don’t happen overnight.

The committee’s discerning influence is limited. They’re only responsible for three of the nine films on the January shortlist, any or all of which can theoretically be eliminated at the nomination stage. But even three extra slots rep a sizable window of opportunity for films that once didn’t have a prayer. And it seems that many national selection committees are taking heed, bypassing soft options for riskier fare.

At this time of writing, 53 films have been officially entered in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race. Many more will be added to the list before the Oct. 1 submission deadline. (Last year, 83 films competed, so expect another figure in that region.) Yet the incomplete list already boasts a rich, adventurous cross-section of singular world-cinema voices, jostling for the attention of the Executive Committee if the larger branch votes more conservatively. One way or another, several critics’ pets will be frozen out, but who looks primed for rescue?

Swedish veteran Roy Andersson has reason to be (atypically) optimistic. His darkly funny, sneakily devastating sketch comedy “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year (over eventual Oscar success “Birdman” no less), and has been hailed by critics as a worthy closer to his lauded Living trilogy. Both its predecessors, 2000’s “Songs From the Second Floor” and 2007’s “You, the Living,” were submitted by Sweden in their respective years — though in the pre-committee era, their sprawling mosaic format and absurdist style had little chance of impressing the Academy. The committee may bear their cumulative achievement in mind.

Another unorthodox trilogy entry — albeit one less long in the works — comes from Portugal: “The Desolate One,” the second volume of Miguel Gomes’ wild-and-woolly “Arabian Nights” trilogy, all three parts of which premiered to rapturous acclaim at Cannes in May. The Portuguese selectors’ pick surprised pundits for several reasons. Given that they passed over Gomes’ beloved, time-shifting romance “Tabu” in 2012, there was no reason to presume they’d touch “Arabian Nights” at all. Structurally inspired by the eponymous folk-tale collection, but weaving together allegorical fantasy and contemporary economic politics, the six-hour opus may well define the diametric opposite of “Academy-friendly.” If any chapter were to be chosen, most would have guessed Portugal would tease the Academy with the project’s introduction, not plunge them into its center. How much sense the decontextualized “Desolate One” will make even to committee voters remains to be seen, but it’s the most ambitious candidate in the race so far.

Another challenging challenger hoping to parlay Croisette raves into Oscar attention in Taiwan’s “The Assassin.” Cinephile darling Hou Hsiao-hsien earned Best Director at Cannes for his visually ravishing martial arts epic, but it’s a far cry from the wu xia that earned the sovereign state an Oscar 15 years ago for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Here, the action takes a back seat to a cryptic, slow-burning psychological love story that has left auds scratching their heads and clutching their hearts in equal measure. Taiwan has previously submitted Hou’s “A City of Sadness” and “Flowers of Shanghai” to no avail; like the Swedes, they’ll be counting on the committee’s refinement for a change of heart.

Other countries, meanwhile, are attempting a bit of shock therapy. Austria, which took the tasteful road to glory with “Amour” in 2012, is trying its luck this year with the deliciously lurid, Ulrich Seidl-produced art-horror pic “Goodnight Mommy.” Even the committee has, thus far, proven resistant to violent chillers, so it’s hard not to see this torture-fueled tale of twin boys and the woman who may or may not be their mother as anything but a rank outsider. Still, points for trying. The same goes for Turkey. Denied the chance to submit festival crowd-pleaser “Mustang” due to eligibility date requirements — it could yet be France’s submission — they’ve gone with “Sivas,” a grueling, Venice-honored study of illegal dog-fighting on the Anatolian steppes. An impressive debut for helmer Kaan Mujdeci, it’s nonetheless an awfully tough sit; the Academy was too faint-hearted for the canine antics of Hungary’s “White God” last year, so don’t count on this one.

Hard-biting mutts also feature heavily in another of the race’s most intense entries, Chile’s “The Club” — though this is just the kind of dark horse (or dog) the executive committee might favor. After all, director Pablo Larrain scored a nod for his last film, the rousing political campaign drama “No.” But his latest, which took the runner-up prize to Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” in Berlin, is a far more disturbing affair, a bitter, knives-out allegory for the abuses of the Catholic Church that might just strike voters as the rougher international companion piece to Thomas McCarthy’s potential Best Picture frontrunner “Spotlight.”

Even Hungary’s Cannes sensation “Son of Saul,” widely deemed the prohibitive favorite in the category due to its emotional punch and perennially Academy-favored Holocaust focus, is a despairing, debate-prompting, stylistically overwhelming experience — not an easy Oscar sell by any means. It’s not wholly inconceivable that Laszlo Nemes’ film could require an executive committee save. With a selection thus far short on comfort viewing, however, even the most timid branch voters might take braver steps than usual this year.

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