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Oscar Foreign-Language Candidates in a Healthy Competition

On an Oscar nomination morning that brought more than its usual share of controversial omissions, foreign-language film was — for a change — left out of the fracas. Few could argue with this year’s strong, healthily diverse field of critical and festival favorites; the Academy’s conscientious fine-tuning of this once-maligned category is paying off.

Critics and audiences alike could be satisfied if the perceived frontrunner, Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski’s delicate post-Holocaust fable “Ida,” takes the gold. Among the year’s best-reviewed releases in any language, with New York and Los Angeles critics’ awards among its many trophies, the film proved an unlikely arthouse smash, with a U.S. gross of $3.7 million. That’s no small feat for a quiet, black-and-white meditation on faith from boutique distributor Music Box, proving the extent of its emotional reach. Furthermore, it’s the only nominee to score in any other Oscar category, with a well-deserved cinematography nom.

For all that, “Ida” lost the Golden Globe to “Leviathan,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s muscular allegorical study of family tragedy and political corruption in contemporary Russia — a film many thought wouldn’t make it past the usually conservative Russian selection committee. Having stoked a reputation as a hot-button satire since its celebrated debut at Cannes (where it won for screenplay), “Leviathan” will win votes from members who like to reward serious statement pictures, but prefer them heftier than “Ida.”

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One more Cannes-premiered protest film, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” employs visual lyricism and rhetorical fury in its wrenching depiction of the 2012 jihadist occupation of northern Mali. Mauritania’s first-ever entry in the Oscar race, it may be the most stylistically challenging of the nominees — but with Isis still dominating news headlines, voters may be surprised by its resonance. In a fact largely unnoted in the #OscarsSoWhite storm, only three African-born filmmakers have been nominated in this category; of those, Sissako is the first black one.

Another country scoring its maiden nomination in the race is Estonia, represented by Zaza Urushadze’s modestly scaled drama “Tangerines.” This tale of an elderly carpenter caught between Chechen and Georgian factions in the 1992 Abkhazia conflict wasn’t on most awards-watchers’ radars until its scored a Golden Globe nod, but it’s not surprising that its gentle humanism and anti-war message struck a chord with more traditionalist voters. The film’s chances are hindered, however, by the lack of a U.S. distributor to drive its phase-two campaign.

Finally, if voters find themselves unable to decide among — or simply too dejected by — this solemn quartet, Argentina’s “Wild Tales” is shaping up as the fizzy spoiler in the race. Damian Szifron’s riotous collection of six darkly comic shorts, each one serving vengeance at a different temperature, has proved a crowdpleaser at one festival after another since its Cannes unveiling — and boasts two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar as a producer for added credibility. Though it’s less profound than its rivals, don’t be surprised if the fun factor wins out.

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