It is very rare when a foreign language film intrudes on the major Academy Award categories. But that is just what's happened this year with "Amour," the Austrian-made, French-language movie that not only tops the contenders for best foreign language film, but is also up for best picture, best director, best screenplay and best actress.
Only three foreign language films have ever cracked the best picture race, the last being Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" 13 years ago. Before that, "Life Is Beautiful" from Roberto Benigni did in 1998, and director Costa Gavras' political thriller "Z" did the trick in 1969. None won the top prize, but all took home the best foreign language Oscar.
A scene from the Norwegian film "Kon-Tiki." (REUTERS/Darius Khondji/ Films du Losange/Sony Pictures Classics)
"Amour," which opens wide in America this weekend, is expected to do the same Feb. 24, when the Oscars are handed out -- in part because of rules governing the foreign language competition. Each country is allowed to enter only one film. France chose "The Intouchables," wildly popular in that country and surprisingly so on the art house circuit in this country, instead of the drama "Rust and Bone" with Marion Cotillard, which is considered the superior film and might have put some pressure on "Amour." ("Intouchables" wasn't even nominated.)
But there could be a surprise winner -- again, in part, because of the rules. Foreign language is the only category in which Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members must prove they have seen theatrical screenings of all five nominees to vote. That has led to some very unexpected winners.
The other nominees: "A Royal Affair": The Danish film is the only nominee beside "Amour" to open widely in this country. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (the original "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), it's a bit of a royal soap opera with enough seduction and scheming to fill several episodes of "Dallas" or "Revenge." But the tautly directed period piece about a young British princess who marries the king of Denmark, only to discover she's hot for his majesty's doctor, proves to be a rather potent take on the politics and social mores of the time. "No": Politics is also at the heart of this Chilean drama, which revisits a piece of that country's history: the unexpected ouster of dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1988. That year, a national referendum was held to decide if Pinochet would get another eight years in office. He was expected to win easily, but the "no" campaign launched a brilliant advertising campaign (a kind of coup de théâtre) that brought down the dictator. Directed by Pablo Larraín ("Post Mortem") and starring Gael Garcia Bernal ("Y Tu Mamá También"), the movie is expected to open in the Bay Area next month.
"Kon-Tiki": The Norwegian film is another true tale. This time, it's explorer-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 voyage across the Pacific Ocean. (For the record, Heyderdahl's documentary about the trip won an Oscar in 1950.) Reviews of the film, which has yet to open in this country, applaud the glossy look of the movie, but not its storytelling and character development. "War Witch": A foreign language entry from Canada? Well, yes, because it's from Quebec and is in French. In fact, this is the third year in a row that there has been a Canadian nominee in the category ("Monsieur Lazhar" last year). Titled "Rebelle" in Canada, it's the compelling story of 12-year-old African girl who is kidnapped from her village by rebels and turned into a child soldier. Director Kim Nguyen is considered a real up-and-coming director, although none of his previous films has had a theatrical release in this country.
A scene from the Danish film "A Royal Affair" is shown in this publicity photo released to Reuters. (REUTERS/Magnolia Films/)
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.