Do we even need to talk about Dogtooth's chances? We know it's here by the grace of that secret cabal that saves critical favorites from the oblivion into which the category's larger voting body hurls them, thus allowing AMPAS to save a little face when nominations are announced. We also know that most voters probably sliced off little pieces of their skin while watching the film. Yes, I'm with Eric on this: Dogtooth will probably come in fifth place like no other nominee in history has ever come in fifth place. And speaking of slicing off skin: Isn't that the only thing that doesn't happen to Javier Bardem's Job-like character in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful? If not the worst film nominated for an Oscar this year, Biutiful is certainly the most depressing. It's also the most recognizable film here, but it takes more than being popular to win an award in a category where AMPAS members are required to see all the nominees before casting their votes.
Is there a precedent for such a resolutely bleak film as Biutiful to be considered a frontrunner? Unlike González Iñárritu's previous film, Babel, Biutiful doesn't seem sufficiently middlebrow—something that could also be said about Rachid Bouchareb's elegantly constructed Outside the Law. I was ready, then, to call this race for one of the stupidest films nominated for an Oscar this year, Susanne Bier's In a Better World, which was dubbed by our own Aaron Cutler as "the sort of movie that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar" when he caught it in Abu Dhabi last year. It's a well-acted but condescendingly written colonialist hissy fit about the ethics of violence that takes place, in part, in the Africa of Ridley Scott, Fernando Meirelles, and Edward Zwick's fallacious imaginations. Its tackiness is unbelievable, not unlike recent winners in this category, but then I saw Incendies.
I'm still not sure what to make of Incendies's climax, an allegorical time bomb so heavy, so wild, it makes the whole of Dogtooth seem straighter than Howards End. Absurd, maybe, but this is undeniably the most gorgeously crafted film in the category (one particular scene—the assassination of a bus full of Muslims by a group of militant rightwing Christians—is still shaking me). It helps that the film tells the most compelling and heart-wrenching story in the category: of twins—one girl, one boy—returning to Lebanon to put the pieces together of their recently deceased mother's unspeakably torturous life. Denis Villeneuve, whose previous Maelstrom I admired for its style, is no middlebrow visionary, but this story of characters reaching for each other across beautifully connected parallel timelines, understanding themselves and each other a little more with every terrible secret that's revealed, may be described as a soap opera, and voters in this category love a good sudser.
Some might say that Incendies's political subject matter will hurt the film's chances. But unlike Paradise Now, which bugged people for how it dared to humanize the demon, the terrorists of Incendies mostly terrorize themselves. The film bases politics in the personal, not in the geopolitical, and that's a distinction that helped another sudsy family melodrama from Canada, Denys Arcand's insufferably self-congratulatory The Barbarian Invasions, persevere in 2003 over a group of nominees that so happened to included a self-serious Nordic film (Evil) about institutionalized violence and boys behaving badly.
Will Win: Incendies
Could Win: In a Better World
Should Win: Incendies