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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Anti-war film "Waltz with Bashir" may win Israel's first Academy Award on Sunday, bucking Oscar history in a foreign language film category that in the past has shunned animation and documentaries.
Some Oscar watchers say the non-fiction film's novel combination of animated scenes and documentary style helps, rather than hurts, its chances for the world's top film honors given out in Hollywood.
Director Ari Folman recorded conversations with real Israelis who fought in their country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and animated the violent, tragic events described in those audio tapes.
"In a way it's kind of surprising it's the front-runner for winner because of the subject matter -- it's so incredibly grim," said Johanna Blakely, a film expert at the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center.
"But I think the main reason that it has catapulted up the ranks is because of its style, because of its use of animation for a documentary," Blakely said. "For some reason, this hybrid combination has actually worked in its favor."
The film won a Golden Globe and was named 2008's best movie by the National Society of Film Critics in the United States.
"It's no sure thing, but 'Waltz with Bashir' would be the most likely winner," said Pete Hammond, lead movie critic with Hollywood.com. "It's considered the front-runner basically because it's won all these precursor awards."
If "Waltz with Bashir" does take the Oscar, it will become the first Israeli movie, the first documentary and the first animated work to win best foreign language film.
"Waltz with Bashir" has enjoyed limited distribution at U.S. theaters, as has French contender "The Class," which is considered the second most-likely nominee to win. A starkly naturalistic film, "The Class" follows a teacher's efforts to educate immigrant teens.
Japan's poetic "Departures," which is about an unemployed cellist who takes a job preparing and beautifying corpses, could pull off an upset win, experts said.
The other nominees are Germany's "The Baader Meinhof Complex," a film about a 1970s leftist radicals, and the Austrian crime and consequences thriller "Revanche."
A lot is at stake for the countries and filmmakers with a movie nominated for best foreign language film. An Oscar win can open up a film to wider distribution in the United States, and attract investors for future projects.
"The Oscar is the most important award in the world in the film business," said Uli Edel, director of the "Baader Meinhof Complex."
Austria's Holocaust drama "The Counterfeiters" won best foreign language film last year, earning a U.S. release two days before the Oscars and making $5.5 million at U.S. and Canada box offices.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Doina Chiacu