By Paul Popiel

The Best Foreign Film category is about as popular among the average viewers as the Best Sound Editing category. Or the Best Documentary Short Subject. No one really cares about a movie in a foreign tongue, on some obscure subject, that will never play in one’s local metroplex, and even if it did, one would never see it anyway.

Nevertheless, the category can get quite controversial among critics, commentators and serious filmgoers. After all, who can forget the criminal snubbing of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a visceral film superior to anything else that was nominated in 2008? What about last year’s vomit-inducing win by the Japanese sugary, simplistic melodrama Departures , over the excellent The Class , and the superbly innovative Waltz with Bashir (in my opinion the best film of that year)?

People were ready to kill over films seen by less than 1% of the US population. Go figure.

Of course, since the Academy Awards are televised, they are in part ruled by ratings. Hence, for instance, this sad attempt to bolster the audience by increasing the amount of Best Picture nominations, in a year in which very few films stood out to begin with (The Blind Side?). The regard for ratings also helps explain why the Academy often plays it safe, particularly in the Best Picture (Crash?) and Foreign Film Categories (Departures?). It does not want to alienate viewers by awarding less-seen, more challenging films.

So what’s in store this year? The 2010 Foreign Film nominee roster is perhaps Oscar’s darkest category. Each of the films is challenging in its own right, and none offers an audience-friendly view of the world.

Ajami, an Israeli-German co-production, explores a Tel Aviv neighborhood ridden with religiously-motivated conflict and violence. While it ends all-too-neatly, the film exhibits very bold, unsentimental filmmaking.

The Secret In Their Eyes, from Argentina, tells an engaging story of a man who revisits a crime committed more than 30 years prior; a crime which has political implications, but even darker personal ones. Well-directed, including an incredible tracking-shot that begins with a helicopter shot of a soccer stadium and ends with a police chase in the stadium’s underbelly, the film is an interesting entry and one which received the least attention of this year’s nominees.

Except for, perhaps, Milk of Sorrow, from Peru. Winner of the prestigious Golden Berlin Bear at last year’s Berlinale, the film comments on crimes committed by Peru’s former fascist regime against women through the eyes and suffering of one such woman.

The most apolitical of the nominees, Jacques Audiard’s masterfully-directed A Prophet follows a young criminal’s rise to power in the French prison system. While the story is expertly told and brilliantly acted, it doesn’t break any new ground. It is well-crafted entry into the gangster genre, but falls short of greatness. Nevertheless, it is emerging as one of the favorites for the Oscar win.

The favorite, of course, is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which already scooped up the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and the Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe, among several other prizes.

I tend to agree with the buzz. The White Ribbon is the strongest candidate and the likely winner this year. Haneke, emerging as a world-class filmmaker gives us his most disciplined and, oddly enough, his warmest film. Here, he creates a terrifying portrait of a pre-WWI German village with meticulous care, from its farming families to the baron who employs over half the town. Under his lens, the town and its hypocrisies, neuroses, and outbursts of violence become a richly-layered metaphor for the collapse of essentially a feudal order that led to some of the crazed fanaticism that characterized Nazism during WWII. The film serves as excellent commentary on the dangers of maintaining moral purity at all cost, regardless of methods and their unintended consequences. Haneke seems to suggest that preoccupation with moral rectitude can be a recipe for totalitarianism.

I vote for The White Ribbon because it is engaging, thought-provoking, beautifully shot, confidently told and contemporary and universal in its subject. Also, of the five nominees it is the most widely seen and, to put it bluntly, it’s the best film.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!