Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico
Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece
In a Better World, Susanna Bier, Denmark
Incendies, Denis Villeneuve, Canada (WINNER)
Outside the Law, Rachid Bouchareb, Algeria
As with Best Documentary Feature, the surprise here wasn't which films were nominated but which ones weren't. France's widely praised Of Gods and Men and South Africa's emotionally powerful Life, Above All were thought to be cinches as finalists. Instead, the special nominating committee chose five films of lesser merit, three of which have yet to be released in U.S. theaters. The exceptions are the Greek Dogtooth, which earned a grand total of $105,234 in its North American release, and Biutiful, for which its star, Javier Bardem, also received a Best Actor nomination. That would make the film a front runner if name recognition mattered. It doesn't, since the winner is chosen by an academy viewership that numbers in the low hundreds. They see all the films and often pick an unknown.
You may immediately eliminate Outside the Law, the good-looking but meandering Algerian drama, as well as the wild card, or joker, Dogtooth. Shoehorned into the competition by Academy pooh-bah Mark Johnson, this Greek entry is a minimalist comedy about a couple who raise their college-age children completely cloistered at home; weirdness ensues. Kind of Michael Hanekelite (think Funny Games but, well, funny) or an instant makeover of Never Let Me Go (except that the three teens know they're confined, just not how to escape), the movie impressed many critics but perplexed or annoyed its few viewers. This is surely the most assured and accomplished of the five films here, but it stands little chance of winning.
The other two nominees in this year's so-so crop also address the duties of parents and children. In a Better World concentrates on a Danish boy who goads his bullied friend into criminal activity (it's the feature-length version of the Live-Action Short nominee The Confession) and on the boys' fathers, who must decide if pacifism can ever trump violence. This well-acted film has plenty of fans and won this year's Golden Globe; but having raised a host of ethical dilemmas, Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen find too many comforting ways to resolve them tidily. We're with critic Aaron Cutler, of the House Next Door blog, who calls In a Better World "the sort of movie that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This isn't a compliment."
Nervously bucking majority opinion, we'll pick Incendies, a French-Canadian drama in which a recently deceased woman, raised in Lebanon before moving to Montreal, leaves her adult twin children two letters to deliver: one to the father they thought was dead, the other to a brother they didn't know existed. Crosscutting between the twins' trip to Lebanon in the present and their mother's life in that country's civil war in the 1970s, the film boasts an epic sweep, an emotional intensity and a few plot surprises. In other words, unlike its competition for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Incendies is a real movie one that might please a few dozen Academy members. And in this category, that's all it takes.