“How did a Jia Zhang-ke documentary get into this lineup?” my fellow Oscar blogger Ed Gonzalez marveled after watching the shockingly formal Butter Lamp, which, compared to the strain of self-involved beardo hipster entries that have won this category in recent years, practically carries itself like a miniature, fictionalized version of a Sensory Ethnography Lab film. Composed entirely of frontal shots presumably representing what the aperture of a big-shot city photographer's camera sees as he sets up portraits for rural Tibetans, Butter Lamp blurs the line between documentary, narrative feature, and avant-garde object as brazenly as peak Kiarostami—or, closer to home, the downright abstract 2015 best documentary short nominee The Reaper. And, though its final frames make a statement on industrialization pointed enough for even the Imitation Game-voting base to process, it's probably still going to lose harder than any nominee in the specialized, “Weinsteins needn't apply” races since Dogtooth.
The rest of the business-as-usual category manages to avoid spinning out into its usual twin pitfalls of snark and self-satisfied solemnity. Among the slate, only Parvaneh—a listless, if not wholly condescending, tale of a young Afghan émigré who travels to Zurich to send her family cash, but gets predictably distracted by lipstick—qualifies as unabashed roughage. That is, unless you read a lot more into the socio-political dynamics of the two car-bound characters in the Israeli entry Aya, in which an indolent emotional dominatrix picks up a music expert at the airport under false pretenses and, while taking him to a competition in Jerusalem, proceeds to wrap him around her little finger. And read more into it many well might, since at the surface level, neither the story nor the characters feel remotely developed enough to carry the implausible scenario. (At 40 minutes, it's the longest film in the lineup and still feels the most incomplete.)
In place of snark is the sanguine good humor of Boogaloo and Graham, which begins with a nod to the Troubles in Ireland, but ultimately emerges as an undeniably cute kitchen-sink comedy about two smart-mouthed boys and their pet chickens. Take it from someone who should've been immune to practically every reaction shot of the boys' mother rolling her eyes at their cheeky insubordination: This is the real-deal crowd-pleaser in this lineup. But it remains a dark horse for one daunting and probably insurmountable factor: Sally Hawkins, in close-up, tearfully but professionally trying to talk Jim Broadbent out of offing himself as she struggles through a trying day working a suicide-prevention hotline. Star power doesn't necessarily trump all else in this category, but when it comes with as much 151-proof force as Hawkins gives The Phone Call, it's like a butter lamp cutting through pure darkness.
Will Win: The Phone Call
Could Win: Boogaloo and Graham
Should Win: Butter Lamp