The Academy Awards' notoriously unpredictable Foreign-Language Film category incites controversy almost every year, mainly due to its byzantine nomination process: Every country selects an official submission, the Academy nominating committee makes a shortlist after supposedly watching each one, and five are then nominated.
Over the next week at AFI Fest, 12 of the submitted films will be screened as part of the International and Breakthrough side panels. They are, in alphabetical order by country: A Royal Affair (Denmark), After Lucia (Mexico), Amour (Austria), Barbara (Germany), Beyond the Hills (Romania), Blood of My Blood (Portugal), Caesar Must Die (Italy), Kon-Tiki (Norway), Nairobi Half Life (Kenya), Our Children (Belgium), Pieta (South Korea) and War Witch (Canada).
Of the 10 I have seen, Pieta is the easiest to eliminate from contention, despite its having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival two months ago. The busy screening committee likely won't make it past the gruesome first half-hour, which is a shame considering how rapidly it improves after that point. You probably can go ahead and rule out Barbara, Caesar Must Die and Our Children, too — all three are good, but none announces itself in ways the Academy tends to reward. Blood of My Blood, about a family living in a rough district of Lisbon, is something of an outlier as well, though it does have an outside shot. (I've yet to see Kon-Tiki or After Lucia and thus can't comment on their prospects.)
A Royal Affair's chances are brought into relief by the film it beat out as its country's submission, Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt. Both starring Mads Mikkelsen, the former won Best Screenplay at Berlin, the latter Best Actor at Cannes. But where The Hunt is a contemporary drama about a man falsely accused of pedophilia, A Royal Affair is a period piece about romantic and political scandal amid the Danish royalty — and Oscar voters love them some costume drama. It'll get nominated.
War Witch and Nairobi Half Life provide an interesting contrast as well. Both set in Africa, neither has a great chance, albeit for opposite reasons: The former forcefully resists unearned catharsis or easy resolution, while the latter is fairly Hollywood-inflected in style and content but doesn't emulate these conventions as well as it's trying to. Consider War Witch a wild card, though: It's excellent, driven by a fierce, award-winning performance from 15-year-old Rachel Mwanza.
Amour, meanwhile, is not only a lock for getting nominated but the likely frontrunner for the actual award. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is receiving considerable buzz for Best Actor, Actress, Director and potentially even Picture. It isn't quite as good as this buzz might suggest, but it has the appearance of an Oscar movie, as it's one of the high points in the career of a well-known director and is about two married octogenarians played by legendary performers (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). That counts for a lot.
Beyond the Hills is another strong contender. Director Cristian Mungiu's last film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes five years ago and did extremely well on best-of lists and at other awards ceremonies (including a Golden Globe nomination) but ultimately got snubbed at the Oscars. The Academy loves to make up for its oversights by nominating lesser follow-ups, and that might well happen this time.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes