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Gold Standard: Three categories -- foreign, documentary, animated -- to wrap your head around before the Oscars

A castaway is washed up on a desert isle in the Oscar-nominated "The Red Turtle."

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GLENN WHIPP | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 17, 2017

When I tell people that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members often fill out their Oscar ballots without seeing all the nominated work -- sometimes without seeing any of the nominated work -- they’re shocked. Shocked!

At which point I usually ask how much time they invest before casting a vote in a statewide election that has a mind-blowing number of ballot measures. (California sported 17 last November.) Did you wade through each and every one of the initiatives to understand the issues and ramifications? Did you know the records of the judges you voted for? Or did you just get a general gist of the lay of the land from your Facebook feed and vote accordingly?

To be clear: I’m not condoning voter ignorance or apathy. But it isn’t anything new. Many academy members diligently watch every movie, every performance, every short film. Some do their best but follow the quarter-hour rule -- if a movie doesn’t hold their attention after 15 minutes, it’s ejected, with a new screener taking its place.

And some simply ask their friends -- or vote for their friends.

The races I’m examining in this column -- foreign-language feature, animated feature and documentary feature -- are, outside of the short films, the three categories most often decided in the dark. And this year, that has some interesting implications.

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE

“Land of Mine”

“A Man Called Ove”

“The Salesman”

“Tanna”

“Toni Erdmann”

Analysis: After the nominations were announced, everyone - and I mean everyone - had “Toni Erdmann” winning this Oscar. Maren Ade’s brilliant, funny and profoundly moving look at a loving father’s eccentric attempt to shake his grown daughter out of a workaholic stupor had won dozens of honors, including awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. All that acclaim gave it the highest profile of the five nominated movies. How could it lose?

Then President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee arrivals and banning entry to the U.S. from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim countries went down, meaning that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi would have to apply for an exception to attend the Oscars this year as a nominee for his latest film, “The Salesman.” Farhadi, who won this Oscar for his 2011 drama, “A Separation,” has since said he will not attend the Academy Awards ceremony.

Suddenly a vote for Farhadi’s “The Salesman” becomes a way of showing solidarity with all immigrants. And in this highly politicized awards season, you can bet that scores of academy members will act along those lines, even if they are late getting around to “The Salesman” - a strong, suspenseful movie that presents an intense moral debate at its core.

It’s also worth wondering how many voters have even seen the 162-minute “Toni Erdmann” or bailed on it sometime during its patience-trying first hour. Ade’s movie contains some of the film year’s most memorable scenes, but they come toward the end, and with the film’s languid pacing, home viewers might not stick around to see them.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

“Fire at Sea”

“I Am Not Your Negro”

“Life, Animated”

“O.J.: Made in America”

“13th”

Analysis: If “Toni Erdmann’s” two-hour, 42-minute running time served as a viewing barrier for some, what then of the nearly eight-hour-long “O.J.: Made in America”? And what about all the purists who were supposed to be indignant that Ezra Edelman’s movie was predominantly viewed as a five-part miniseries on ABC and ESPN?

The brilliance of the ambitious, essential “O.J.” rendered all these supposed hurdles and objections irrelevant. I’m sure it will lose a few votes because of its format. And it will lose more because the other nominated documentaries are all worthy works of art.

In fact, you could make a pretty good case for this group being the strongest set of films ever nominated in this category - and it still leaves out great docs like “Tower,” “Cameraperson” and “Weiner.” There has never been a better time to be a nonfiction filmmaker.

ANIMATED FEATURE

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

“Moana”

“My Life as a Zucchini”

“The Red Turtle”

“Zootopia”

Analysis: “Zootopia” has been the front-runner all along. Its Producers Guild win doesn’t guarantee the Oscar, but the film’s cautionary look at the dangers of discrimination and demonizing the other does make it a movie that many voters will see as prescient. Let’s just say, when you have Cat Stevens name-checking your movie’s hero, rabbit Judy Hopps, from the stage before launching into “Peace Train,” it’s a good sign.

“Moana” has its fans too. It nearly rivals “Zootopia” in terms of viewership among academy members. And Laika’s “Kubo” did score a well-earned Oscar nomination for its innovative visual effects. But the message of “Zootopia” - “No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you” - is pretty irresistible at this particular point in time.

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© 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Judy Hopps, a bunny police officer, is voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin in "Zootopia."
DISNEY/AP

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