//OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Animated, Documentary & Foreign Language Film

OSCAR COUNTDOWN: Animated, Documentary & Foreign Language Film

I’m not quite privy as to what to call these races? The specialty awards? They all seem designed to recognize films of a particularly specialty, be it the animated approach, the documentary form, or just by dint of them being foreign. Usually we’re at a place in the season where we’re well adept to knowing who the winners are, and the fact that we aren’t now is to be encouraged. The less consensus the better, so long as something really good actually wins. It makes prediction less of an afterthought and more of a challenge, so let’s get to that face-off.

The Wind RisesBest Animated Feature

  • The Croods
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Ernest & Celestine
  • Frozen
  • The Wind Rises

In a year where we lamented the inescapable mediocrity of animated offerings, the best really did rise to the top. I’m not talking about Despicable Me 2 or The Croods, obviously, those two blockbuster studio titles that could easily be interchangeable with Epic or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. To give them fair consideration, though, Despicable Me 2 was an agreeable enough continuation of its prior film, be it significantly less fresh and still indulging in sub-level children’s humor. I even stuck up for The Croods upon its release, only to revisit it with less concessions to make for its lax character work and easy allegorical arc.

Ernest & CelestineBesides those two concessions to the studio system, this Animated Feature lineup is actually an incredibly strong one. Rarely do we get such a charming, beautiful and thought-provoking trifecta as Ernest & Celestine, Frozen and The Wind Rises provide. Closest I can imagine of a collective group is perhaps How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist and Toy Story 3 in 2010, and they did that with just three nominees and no concessions for Despicable Me. The message we should take from this? That studios should make more mediocre films so the truly great work has a more significant chance of getting nominated? Probably not.

It’s that studios need to reinvent the way they approach animated films, which is currently in more of a think-tank process than the more director-oriented work of live-action films. I think it stands out that the best films ever nominated in this category are the clear works of the singular directorial minds who created them. Hayao Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet, Henry Selick, Tim Burton; even in that studio process, directors like Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and most recently Jennifer Lee have risen above the surface as more authorial presences in their films. Such is the way with nearly all three of this year’s great nominees.

FrozenErnest & Celestine brings the playful new voice of Benjamin Renner to proceedings, but it’s most recognizable by the manic energies of A Town Called Panic directors Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. Frozen does display some of Surf’s Up director Chris Buck’s ditzy humor, but debut co-director Jennifer Lee’s voice comes across as inflecting the most honest and unexpected emotion of the film. Her influence, many are convinced, is the reason for the film’s success. And then there’s The Wind Rises, a self-evident swan song by Hayao Miyazaki that brings the themes he’s been dealing with across his entire work to elegant closure. By the example these and other films make, there should be a less of a brain-trust format (which has recently done Pixar no favors) and more of an individualized focus.

As for the Oscar, I think it’s been between Frozen and The Wind Rises all season, and there are proponents on both sides. One is a rapturous return for a studio and one is a mournful send-off, and though I’d like to think the Academy would honor the more elegant and challenging one, higher emotion often trumps deeper emotion. And that’s quite fine. Either one winning would be a delight, but the fact of the matter is more people have seen Frozen.

Predicted Winner: Frozen
Preferred Winner: Ernest & Celestine
Write-In Vote: N/A

20 Feet From StardomBest Documentary Feature

  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • The Act of Killing
  • Cutie and the Boxer
  • Dirty Wars
  • The Square

I’m having a hard time predicting multiple races this year, which is as exciting as it is frustrating. Admittedly for the Documentary Feature race, I’ve got my choices pretty well narrowed down by films that feel either like filler or too dangerous for Academy tastes. It’s also the race I’m perhaps least well acquainted with, given I’ve yet to see Cutie and the Boxer or Dirty Warswhich is pretty inexcusable given they’re both on Netflix (along with The Act of Killing and The Square). I still have a comprehensive enough view of what the race looks like as a whole, those films included.

The Act of KillingDirty Wars makes it in on the end of “films that could make a difference”, investigating conspiracies to cover up civilian deaths in other countries as part of the U.S.’s war on terror. Among those civilians was an American citizen, which brings across the idea that, left unchecked, the country’s anti-terrorist plans begin to take on the role of those they’re seeking to stamp out. It’s an interesting idea, but it hasn’t pierced viewers in the same way as something like The Act of Killing. I imagine there would’ve been a mighty uproar amongst critics if this had been omitted (not unlike that which greeted Stories We Tell‘s lockout), but few really believe that this could win. It’d be a powerful statement if it did, piercing to the heart of what documentary should do formally and culturally, but too many Academy members (or just general viewers) are reluctant to submit themselves to such a psychotically warped mindset that actually exists in this world.

A much lighter time, and one I could feasibly see being a surprise winner, is Cutie and the Boxer, something of a romance about two artists who find themselves filtered through each others’ art, sometimes in not-so-sympathetic ways. The film made Hilary’s Top 10 Films of 2013, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with it ever since. Assuming enough Academy members see it, it may be the ideal mix for them of sweet and sour.

The SquareMore sweet than sour, and quite possibly the frontrunner in this race, is 20 Feet from Stardom, which has been a major contender since its premiere at Sundance Film Festival last year. When I first saw it I questioned it on the basis of its form, which was admittedly not nearly as daring or involving as something like Leviathan or even We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. However, upon further thought I’m finding its lively entertainment and closeness with such entertaining and neglected individuals makes up for that a bit. After Searching for Sugar Man and Undefeated, I would like something to win that could make a stronger difference in the world, but this is an endearing enough portrait for me not to lose sleep over its potential win.

Which leaves what may be its major competition, The Square. Focusing on the Egyptian revolution in a more straightforward manner than The Act of Killing‘s directors might’ve done with the same subject, it satisfies that desire for something that could make significant social change, even if it’s formally not so surprising. It has the benefit of being distributed and advertised by Netflix, one of the most used content viewing sites on a daily basis, but again, it’s a matter of who will see it, and furthermore, who will be enthusiastic about it. For the time being, I’m favoring the one about backup singers, because it’s the more obvious and easy display of soulfulness.

Predicted Winner: 20 Feet from Stardom
Preferred Winner: The Act of Killing
Write-In Vote: Stories We Tell

The Broken Circle BreakdownBest Foreign Language Film

  • The Broken Circle Breakdown
  • The Great Beauty
  • The Hunt
  • The Missing Picture
  • Omar

In the past month I’ve been less-than-confident about how to predict this race. Often times it goes to the film that’s been reasonably dominating the season, but Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t eligible this year (though it may be eligible for next year’s race, which could make for an interesting season to say the least). So what rules do we go by to judge this? The most viewer-friendly? The most entertaining? The most emotionally cathartic? It’s been hard to tell, but after finally catching up to The Great Beauty, I may be favoring its chances.

The Great BeautyIt’s certainly the most classical of the group, with vibes of Federico Fellini being recognizable even to those who haven’t once seen a Fellini film. It’s also, while a bit long-winded at nearly 2.5 hours, the most easily entertaining, from its party scenes to its nude performance artists crashing their heads into boulders, inevitably to its charming (though if you ask me, pretty hollow) protagonist. It’s also, quite significantly, a film about old white men who lust after slim, scantily-clad young women, i.e. 90% of Academy members. They may find themselves relating most to it, and for that reason I’m giving it the edge.

However, I wouldn’t discount the possibility of that aforementioned emotional catharsis being the deciding factor. If so, I could see it going to either The Broken Circle Breakdown or The Hunt. The latter’s been building a rapport since Mads Mikkelsen surprised most by winning the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 2012, and not always a good rapport. Many have taken issue with the film as being problematic, demanding endless sympathy for its obviously innocent protagonist while we end up jaded against an even more essentially innocent young girl who didn’t know the mistake she made. I’d say the film doesn’t handle that difficult set-up with the rigorous attention it demands, but Academy members may find themselves slain either way by its simple portrayal of bad things unthinkably happening to good people.

The HuntTalking of which, quite a few bad things happen to good people in The Broken Circle Breakdown, but the film doesn’t actively blame anyone for it, nor does it automatically assume those good people are flawless. A romance between two musicians united by bluegrass music and torn apart by their daughter’s fatal disease, the film is relentless in how it emotionally breaks you down, but it’s also not without formal flourish. It implements the same jumbletron narrative that worked so well for Blue Valentine, but implements it in a way that makes the first half so intensely emotional and the locks us into the 2nd half with an inevitable foreboding of devastation. It’d please me to no end to see this win, and I’m only superficially hesitant to saying that it will.

The other two contenders, Omar and The Missing Picture, may well qualify as filler in a race that’s only seriously between their competition. That shouldn’t inquire doubt on either film’s strengths. Omar is an engaging and exciting thriller, if too sparse to meet the Academy’s desires for something weighty. The Missing Picture, from what I gather, is a uniquely personal account of a tragic family and cultural history, but perhaps too odd for the Academy’s tastes. Both are worth seeking out when they come around, but they’re at a disadvantage against the films we’ve all had plenty of time to see already.

Predicted Winner: The Great Beauty
Preferred Winner: The Broken Circle Breakdown
Write-In Vote: Child’s Pose

Other Oscar Predictions:
Best Original Score
Best Original Song
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects

What do you think will win these races? What should win?

Born in California, resident in New Hampshire, Lena is film studies graduate with a intense passion for queer cinema, stop-motion animation and all things Greta Gerwig. Full Bio.