This year’s 65 Best Foreign Language Film nominees have been screening since October. But which will be the Final 9 due to be announced tomorrow? Choosing 6 films will be the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ large volunteer committees, plus another uber-Academy committee presided over by Foreign Language committee head Mark Johnson will select 3 more movies tonight. Then the 9 films will be judged by specially selected groups in LA and NY who will whittle the list down to the 5 official contenders. The Academy reverted to this 3-step nomination process to ensure that internationally well regarded, but perhaps edgier, films weren’t omitted. 3 more movies selected byThis category is hard to handicap and springs surprises. But here’s background on what are considered some frontrunners:

Aftershock – China
A mother is faced with an agonising decision to make in Aftershock: two children are found trapped underneath rubble after an earthquake and it’s determined that if one child is removed, the rubble will fall and crush the other to death – so the mother must decide, which child should she save? Aftershock, directed by Feng Xiaogang – called China’s Steven Spielberg – has become the country’s highest-grossing local film of all time. Xu Fan, who is Feng’s wife, gives a strong performance as the mother faced with an impossible choice. Feng also draws out moving performances from the rest of his cast, especially from Li Chen playing the grown-up daughter. Critics praised that the special effects are never allowed to swamp the story. New US company China Lion Film Distribution released Aftershock on 31 AMC screens on October 29th across the U.S. and Canada. Given North America’s large Asian population, and that it has grossed more than $100 million in China, it’s surprising that some cinemagoers have reported just 3 people at screenings. Milt Barlow, CEO of China Lion, blames Internet piracy and illegal DVDs for why Chinese audiences in the U.S. stayed away.

Feng wanted to make Aftershock after he read the novel about the 1978 earthquake, which left 246,000 people dead. Then Sichuan was devastated by an earthquake in 2008, killing another 87,000 people, and he decided to put the project on hold. Making a film about an earthquake seemed disrespectful after such a recent tragedy. It was only after relief efforts became the focus for Chinese unity that Feng changed his mind. He persuaded Hong Kong-based Media Asia Group to put up the $19.1 million he needed to make his film. What he wanted, Feng told Media Asia Group CEO John Chong, was to make a movie about the triumph of humanity. The Chinese director is downbeat about Aftershock’s chances at the Oscars because it’s meant to appeal to Chinese audiences only. Censorship makes it hard for Chinese directors to make films that travel, he says, because U.S. audiences are not interested in anything with subtitles.

Biutiful – Mexico
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has called his film “an act of resistance” against everything that is wrong with today’s movie industry. It took 4 months for Biutiful to get picked up for U.S. distribution despite Javier Bardem winning Best Actor at Cannes. Distributors shied away because of the film’s unrelentingly bleak subject matter: Bardem plays a deeply-devoted father dying of a terminal disease while trafficking in human misery – drugs, illegal workers, and anything else he can make a quick buck from so he doesn’t leave his two children in debt. American producer Mickey Liddell agreed to fund P&A because he couldn’t get the movie – and its ultimately hopeful ending — out of his head. Roadside Attractions is releasing the film on January 28th. So far Biutiful has grossed $10M around the world.

Inarritu admits he was lucky to get this $30M-$40M cost and nearly 3-hour long film made. Shooting began two months before the global financial crisis hit in October 2008. “I would be dreaming about doing a film like this today,” he said. Even its associate producer, Guillermo Del Toro, has called it the last foreign-language film on this scale. Fellow directors Werner Herzog and Robert Benton, moved by Inarritu’s difficulty in attracting attention for his picture, have both interviewed him at DGA screenings in LA and NY. Del Toro hosted an event launching its Oscar campaign in November. Inarritu is a 3-time Oscar nominee whose films include Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director in 2006. But this could be the first time he is recognized for his writing talents.

Confessions – Japan
This film from Kamikaze Girls director Tetsuya Nakashima had its North American debut at the New York Asian Film Festival. Nased on Kanae Minato’s bestselling novel Kokuhaku which has sold over 700,000 copies in Japan to date, Confessions stars Takako Matsu as a junior high school teacher who plots an elaborate revenge on two of her 13-year-old students after they murder her young daughter. Nakashima says that he was partly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight while making the film, which has heavily stylized visuals and a strong soundtrack, including a track contributed by Radiohead. Confessions was released in Japan in June, and spent four weeks at No. 1, pulling in more than 3.5 billion yen ($44.4M) and actually increasing its per screen average during its first month. It has been nominated for 11 Japanese Academy Awards. UK distributor Third Window Films has acquired Confessions for British release. There’s no U.S. distributor yet – although that will change if Confessions is set for a Ringu/The Ring-style reboot on top of any Oscar nomination. 

La Prima Cosa Bella (First Beautiful Thing) - Italy
This bittersweet comedy played very well for the Academy Foreign Language Selection committee on December 6th, drawing one of the biggest crowds of the year at those screenings. It looks likes this could be Italy’s first pic to make the final 5 since Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful 12 years ago. The film won 3 Donatello awards, the Italian equivalent of the Oscars, for screenplay, actress, and actor. Set both in 1971 and in the present day, the pic focuses on a young man returning home to say good-bye to his mother, a former beauty queen who is now dying of cancer played by Donatello-winner Micaela Ramazzotti.

Produced by Indiana Films, whose partners include Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino, First Beautiful Thing grossed $8.9 million during its Italian run, making it the 6th most popular Italian film of the year. Rome-based Intramovies has so far sold the film to Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. Palisades Tartan has taken the film for the U.S., although there’s no release date yet. Critics have praised director and co-writer Paolo Virzi for the way he has reinvented old-style Italian comedy. Commenting on Italy choosing his movie for Best Foreign Language film, Virzi said: “Italian cinema has great resources and talents, but little regard for itself, so it has become its own worst enemy.”

The Human Resources Manager - Israel
Eran Riklis, director of The Human Resources Manager, tells me that it’s “the story of a man who, in order to rediscover his life, has to go on a road trip with death”. Riklis noted: “I read Abraham Jehoshua’s book and it felt like the story was one I could tell. It’s about something that’s very local and yet at the same time totally universal, whether it’s the plight of foreign workers or the manager’s loneliness.” The Human Resources Manager may have won 5 Ophir Awards (the Israeli film awards) including Best Feature, but the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward newspaper has carped that this Oscar submission is more in recognition of Riklis’ previous films – The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree – than this one. Apart from Israel, The Human Resources Manager has opened in France and Italy. Film Movement is planning on opening the film at Lincoln Plaza and the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC on March 4th. It will then have a national roll-out prior to its summer cable VOD release. The film has also been picked up for Australia, Benelux, Latin America and Spain.

In A Better World – Denmark
Sudan’s government accused Danish director Susanne Bier of making an anti-Islamic film even while she was still shooting. It’s a charge Bier denies. “The movie doesn’t address religion in any shape or form,” she tells me. In a Better World, she says, is set in an unspecified part of Africa and was actually shot in Kenya. Bier wants to steer clear of any religious controversy – only last month 5 men were arrested for planning a machine-gun attack on the Danish newspaper which printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Already the winner of a Golden Globe, In a Better World follows a doctor who commutes between his home in an idyllic Denmark town and his work at an African refugee camp and then an oldest son is involved in a dangerous act of revenge. The idea sprang from a conversation Bier had with her screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen about how living in Scandinavia gave you a false sense of security about what the world is really like. Meanwhile, Jensen had already written a few scenes featuring police interrogating children. Bier says her film “asks whether our own ‘advanced’ culture is the model for a better world, or whether the same disarray found in lawlessness is lurking beneath the surface of our own civilization. Are we immune to chaos, or obliviously teetering on the verge of disorder?”

Given its modest DKK30 million ($5.4 million) budget, In a Better World wasn’t overly difficult to finance through the usual Danish soft money sources. “At that budget level, it’s relatively easy to make the film you want,” she says. TrustNordisk, its sales agent, has sold In a Better World to more than 50 territories, including North America. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in April. The film’s grossed $7.2 million so far, TrustNordisk tells me, having been released in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway and Sweden. In a Better World will be Bier’s second stab at winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Bier’s After the Wedding was the Danish entry in 2007. She also directed the U.S.-produced Things We Lost In the Fire (2007), starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro.

Incendies – Canada
Quebec director Denis Villeneuve said he knew he had to make a film out of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies the night he saw it performed in Montreal. “It was the first time I forgot I was in a theatre,” he said of the play. Villeneuve told Canadian broadcaster CBC that he was astonished by its power. But Mouawad was doubtful Incendies could be turned into a movie when Villeneuve, whose last film Polytechnique won 9 Genie awards (Canada’s Oscar equivalent), first broached it. Incendies follows Canadian twins who explore their family’s past after their mother dies. The Toronto Film Critics Association voted it Best Canadian Film. “One cannot help but be moved by the depth of the subject matter and the cinematic excellence of Incendies,” Carolle Brabant, executive director of state funder Telefilm said after it was picked as Canada’s Oscar entry. Incendies has just been released in France and Belgium. So far it’s grossed $2.7 million in French Canada alone. Sony Pictures Classics will release Incendies on April 1 in New York and Los Angeles. 

Life, Above All – South Africa
Toronto-based author Allan Stratton contacted Oliver Stoltz after seeing his documentary Lost Children playing at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2005. Stratton happened to be writing a book about child soldiers, too. They kept in touch. Stratton sent Stoltz a copy of his 2005 award-winning novel Chanda’s Secrets, about a young girl in an AIDS-ravaged community in South Africa. Stoltz decided he wanted to turn Chanda’s Secrets into a movie. Director Oliver Schmitz said: “The project came together quickly – only 2 years passed from initial idea to the first day of shooting.” Stoltz filmed in the local South African language called Sepedi. Budget constraints partly decided they’d shoot on location rather than in a studio. Filming began in November 2009 at the height of the South African summer which meant scorching interior shots of 120 degree heat. Although filming took place over three months, there was a hiatus of several weeks so that actors could put on weight to shoot the scenes where they weren’t suffering from AIDS. Life Above All opened in South Africa for a qualifying run and will open there nationally in March. Sony Pictures Classics will release Life, Above All in the U.S. this spring.

Of Gods And Men – France
Xavier Beauvois’ drama about the true story of the 1996 kidnap and murder of 7 French monks in Algeria could not be more political. The monks were caught in a vice between the Algerian government and extremist terrorists. And the identity of the murderers and the exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain a mystery to this day. Even though Of Gods and Men is a thoughtful and spiritual film lifted by its glorious religious music, Beauvois had to overcome the resistance of the monk’s families, many of whom did not want the film to be made. The pic won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to sell 1 million tickets in its first 15 days in France. Interviewed at the New York Film Festival, Beauvois said the film’s enormous local success was a reaction against the “bling” of the country under President Sarkozy. “It’s this desire to return to things that are more simple… I hope that my film will encourage people to talk to each other and perhaps have an atmosphere that is less fearful,” he said. Nik Powell, vice-chairman of the European Film Academy, sums up Of Gods and Men for me as “quiet, measured, and masterful. You’ve got this incredibly delicate film underpinned by this amazing choral music”. Wild Bunch has sold the film widely, including to Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S. where it will release Of Gods and Men on February 25 in New York and Los Angeles. To date, Of Gods and Men has grossed $21.2 million worldwide. France has been nominated 36 times in the foreign-language category, winning 9 times. Last year, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet from France was overlooked in favour of Argentina’s The Secret In Their Eyes.

Hors La Loi (Outside The Law) – Algeria
Black-uniformed French riot police stood outside the Palais des Festivals in Cannes last May ready for trouble when Hors La Loi (Outside the Law) screened In Competition. Demonstrators protested against what they saw as a one-sided account of the 1950s fight for Algerian independence. Directed by French-born filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, who was nominated for an Oscar for his previous film Days of Glory in 2007, Outside the Law picks up the story of the three brothers who become engulfed in the armed struggle. Bouchareb got the idea for the film when he was researching Days of Glory, interviewing Algerians who fought in World War II. The director spent another 9 months interviewing Algerian freedom fighters. He says that all the controversy actually worked against the film, which became sidelined because of all the French talk radio anger. “It never crossed my mind that 50 years later people would want to ban Outside The Law. It proved the Algerian war is still a taboo for many French people,” he said. Outside the Law was expensive to make, costing Studio Canal and its partners $30 million to produce. So far the film has grossed just $1.1 million outside the U.S. Cohen Media Group opened Outside The Law in New York on November 3 at the Paris Theater before platforming it to 7 more theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Portland.

Simple Simon – Sweden
Swedish entry Simple Simon stars Bill Skarsgård as Simon, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who hates change and hides in his homemade space capsule. Things he dislikes include “feelings, other people, and romantic comedies with Hugh Grant”. Kicked out by his parents, he moves in with his brother and his girlfriend. First-time director Andreas Öhman decided to become a filmmaker after watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Originally set up as a half-hour TV film for Swedish public broadcaster SVT, Simple Simon was made into a theatrical film when Öhman and his collaborators Jonathan Sjöberg and Bonnie Skoog Feeney decided 30 minutes was not long enough to tell the story. Öhman has described Asperger’s as a “fascinating and wonderful world”: Whether Academy voters are as amused by mild autism remains to be seen. Swedish films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar 15 times, most recently in 2004 with Kay Pollak’s As in Heaven.

When We Leave – Germany
Feo Aladag’s debut feature has been the actress-turned-director’s 7-year labor of love. The idea for the film sprang from two shorts Aladag made for anti-torture charity Amnesty International highlighting violence against women. When We Leave follows a Turkish woman trying to make a new life in Berlin after escaping from an abusive husband in Istanbul. Aladag tells me she spent 2 years researching Turkish immigrant women’s stories before writing her screenplay. She then decided to produce it as well direct. “Then I used up a lot of shoe-leather trying to get the film financed.” One problem was that she did not have a body of work to show prospective financiers. But “if you have this commitment inside yourself, then people can see how determined you are from the outside.” The €1.8 million ($2.4 million) budget was sewn together through 6 financiers and 3 German broadcasters. She then spent another 1½ years casting the film. “You have your demons at night. Is this too much for your shoulders? One of the things I was afraid of is that getting this film made would be much harder for me being a woman.”

The film premiered at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and has gone on to win Best Film at the Tribeca festival in New York and the European Parliament’s LUX prize. Olive Films will release When We Leave in theatres in LA and NY on January 28th. “My goal had always been to make a universal film which can reach people and touch them across ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers,” she said. The German film industry hopes that Aladag could go on to repeat the triumph of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for The Lives Of Others in 2007.

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