The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, Belgium
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino, Italy
The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark
The Missing Picture, Rithy Pran, Cambodia
Omar, Hany Abu-Assad, Palestine
Because of the selection process, this used to be Oscar’s least reliable category. Each of 60 to 90 countries or territories would propose one film released in the previous year (actually, from Oct. 1 to Sep. 30); then a committee of Academy stalwarts with plenty of spare time would shave the list to five; and finally the choice would be left to those hardy members who went to screenings of all the films. This year the same first two steps applied, but now each member is sent DVDs so that the entire Academy can vote. The process is marginally saner.
Of the 29 film-critics groups that voted year-end awards in this category, 17 chose the same-sexy French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color; but that movie was not released in France in time to qualify. Still, what’s left is choice and, sometimes, politically explosive. Omar, from the director of the Oscar-nominated 2005 Palestinian drama Paradise Now, follows its title character as he chafes under the Israeli occupation in an oppressive, Orwellian world where “I will never confess” is translated as “I just confessed!” The filmmaker is sympathetic to the Palestinians but not blind to frustrations that erupt in violence. There’s also a love story, a chase and a slow-boil thriller tempo for this troubling, engaging parable.
(READ: Corliss on Paradise Now in the 2006 Oscar race)
The Missing Picture is Pran’s personal recollection of the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, in which a fifth of the civilian population — perhaps 2 million people — died from executions, disease or starvation. The director was 13 when Pol Pot’s genocidal gang assumed power, and he recalls the plague as a child might: using dioramas of clay figurines to augment the newsreel footage. This haunting memoir could have been nominated for Documentary Feature (just as the Doc nominee The Act of Killing might have been chosen for this category). In either listing, The Missing Picture is a worthy finalist.
(READ: TIME’s cover story on the Cambodian genocide by subscribing to TIME)
Two of the nominees deal with painful subjects involving the very young: child molestation and child death. Reviewing The Hunt from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned the Best Actor award for its star Mads Mikkelsen, Mary Corliss wrote: “When Lukas (Mikkelsen), in a new job as kindergarten teacher, rebuffs the doe-eyed admiration of five-year-old Klara (Annika Wederkoff), the girl tells a school supervisor that Lukas exposed himself to her. Soon the innocent man is the star of his own Kafkaesque nightmare: the townspeople think Lukas is a cockroach that must be stamped out.” Vinterberg, whose 1998 The Celebration dealt with child abuse in a wealthy family, portrays a village consumed by suspicion — for why would a child lie? — and a man condemned by it.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of The Hunt)
The child is six, and dying of cancer, in The Broken Circle Breakdown, a movie with something to annoy/outrage/enthrall nearly everyone. The movie hopscotches through the seven-year affair of a bluegrass musician (Johan Heldenbergh) and a tattoo artist (Elise Vandevelde) as they cope with passion, exasperation and tragedy to the tunes of Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Lyle Lovett. Plus, she’s a Catholic, fondling the family crucifix, and he’s an atheist, pausing in mid-concert to rail against Yahweh, “who demands child sacrifices and plays sadistic games to test people’s faith.” Based on a musical play cowritten by its male lead, BCB moves with such tumultuous confidence, and is so ruthlessly manipulative of its audience’s emotional soft spots, that it should have been an art-house hit when released last year in the States. (Instead, it earned only about $150,000.) Did Academy members break down in tears when they saw Broken Circle? Did they bother to watch it at all? Say this: for good or ill, this is the movie-est movie in the Foreign Film competition.
(READ: TIME’s coverage of last year’s foreign-language Oscar race)
For a salutary break from political misery and sad children, the Oscar voters should turn to The Great Beauty, which updates Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita into an aged journalist’s cynical-joyous love affair with Rome. This intoxicating inside view of the Eternal City has a low body count (except for one Japanese tourist in the first scene) and a rapturous visual and comedic style. I confess to an unshakable prejudice for the movie, having chosen it as last year’s second best film (after Gravity). And though The Hunt or The Broken Circle Breakdown may take this category, I suggest you vote for The Great Beauty. But first, see the movie; it’s playing right now in more than 50 theaters around the country and can be seen on VOD.
(READ: Mary and Richard Corliss’s review of The Great Beauty)