Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Oscar Update: The Foreign Language Film Race

The deadline for submitting films for consideration for the Foreign Language Film Oscar has passed, giving us 63 films that will be competing for the 5 spots this year. This number may change when the Academy releases the official list – some countries may have submitted without informing the press, and others may be disqualified for various reason, but mainly, these are the films that are going to compete.

For those unfamiliar with the process of submitting films for consideration, essentially what happens is that every country in the world, with the exception of America, submits one film in a language other than English for consideration. Then the Foreign Language Committee narrows the list down to 9 titles (6 voted on by the committee at large, 3 selected by the executive branch to avoid embarrassing omissions, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days a couple years ago), and on nomination morning, the five finalists are announced. It is a complicated process, and one that I have long argued needs an overhaul.

I’ll explain. I do not understand why the process needs to begin with the foreign countries submitting one title each for eligibility. This is the only category where it works like this. None of the films actually have to have opened in America, but rather they must have opened in their home country. The result is that many times, people in North America have not had a chance to see the nominees before the ceremony. This year for example finally saw the release of both 12 and Katyn – which were both nominated in 2007! At this date, I am still waiting for an opportunity to see both Revanche and The Baader Meinhoff Complex, two films nominated in 2008. Although both got release dates in 2009, they did not go wide enough to hit Toronto.

The foreign language category is always going to be a fringe category. Most people in North America, unfortunately, do not watch foreign movies very often. So the fact that they have not seen the films in question probably doesn’t matter much to most viewers – they use the opportunity to go the bathroom or flip channels most likely. But to serious film fans, it is frustrating, because even to us, the category is meaningless. If we have not had an opportunity to see all five films, how can we really tell what deserves to be nominated and what doesn’t? How can we realistically have any stake in the outcome of the race? Had the outcome last year have been different if the middling reviews that greeted the winner Departures from Japan came out before it was elected? I don't know, but perhaps it could have.

Instead, what I suggest is that the rules for foreign language film be the same as every other category. Any film, made in a country other than America that is in a language other than English that plays in a theater in LA for a week before the end of the year is eligible. So if France made 2 films that deserved to be nominated, than damn it, they get two nominations. Sorry, Estonia, better luck next time! This would also eliminate the political gamesmanship being played in the films home countries. Pedro Almodovar, an Academy favorite, has often argued with Spain’s board over their decisions In China, all the films have to be vetted by the government. When the brilliant Ju Dou was nominated in 1990, China fired the selection committee because they did not agree with the politics of Zhang Yimou’s film. Does that mean it shouldn’t be nominated? Of course not!

But, the Academy is not likely to listen to me any time soon. They never do. They seem to like the system they have in place, even if it often means that the best foreign language films in any given year are overlooked. Even when the selection committee in a given country picks the right film, it is no guarantee that the older Academy, with an even older foreign language committee, will pick the right films. Films like City of God, Gomorrah, Persepolis, Secret Sunshine, L’Enfant and the aforementioned 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days have all been selected by their countries in the past few years – and all have been overlooked by the Academy. I’m sure one could make a longer list if they so chose. So instead of me continuing to bitch and moan, let’s look at some of the films that will be competing this year.

Inarguably, the biggest title competing this year is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which Germany selected. Not only is Haneke an established auteur, with a fan base in North America, but the film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier this year, which certainly means you have to consider it the frontrunner at the moment. This could almost certainly change however. While last year’s The Class, which won the Palme, got into the race (and lost. For shame!), previous winners like L’Enfant and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days did not, even though they were chosen by their home countries. That The White Ribbon is long, methodically paced and some might say “cold” will certainly not help with the Academy either. But hey, at least it’s not as shockingly violent as his last few films. I expect The White Ribbon will at least be on the shortlist – the executive branch would be embarrassed otherwise, but I worry that this masterpiece will be overlooked by the Academy for an actual nomination.

The other really high profile film this year also debuted at Cannes, where it became an audience favorite, and won the Grand Jury Prize (essentially second, behind The White Ribbon). The film is Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, and like The White Ribbon, this is one of the few films that has actually secured a release date in 2009, meaning it will be eligible for other prizes as well, and the buzz is that perhaps a Best Picture slot, in the new field 10 wide, is not out of the question. Right now, these two are the frontrunners, but that could certainly change.

The next three films I will highlight are also Cannes films. Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant thriller Mother from Korea may not be a preferred genre for the Academy, but it’s terrific story of a mother’s disturbing love for her mentally challenged son, and terrific lead performance, could vault it up the list. Romania has experienced something of a cinematic renaissance in recent years, and one of its leaders is Corneliu Porumboiu, whose Police, Adjective, is a different kind of police procedural. Finally from Canada, there is the Award winning I Killed My Mother by 20 year old director Xavier Dolan, which has been talked about wherever it played. While I am most assuredly wrong, these are the five I am putting my money on.

These are far from the only festival hits with buzz though. Australia’s Samson and Delilah, a love story between two Aboriginals has been a hit throughout the entire festival circuit, so it could score the country its first ever nomination. Greece’s Dogtooth has been one of the most talked about films of the year, but I think it is probably just too weird for the Academy to embrace. Denmark’s Terribly Happy already has an American remake in the works, so it’s a good bet that it will be up the Academy’s ally. Sweden’s Involuntary has won quite a few prizes at film festivals around the world this year. Iran’s About Elly, from director Asghar Farhadi, won the best director in Berlin, and several other prizes as well, so it could be Iran’s best shot in a while. Israel’s Ajami, which got a special mention in the Camera D’Or competition in Cannes, could get nominated – not only does it have some buzz, but it also beat out the more heavily touted Lebanon for Israel’s spot.

One thing you should never do though, is overlook the titles from directors who have been nominated in the past. Juan Jose Campanella was nominated a few years ago for Son of the Bride, so perhaps his The Secret in Their Eyes from Argentina can get him nominated again. Mexico’s Carlos Carrera was nominated for The Crime of Father Amaro, and his latest film Backyard is up again this year – and has an added bonus of a little American star power care of Jimmy Smits. Fernando Treuba, from Spain, won the award for Belle Epoque back in 1993, so his The Dancer and the Thief has to be considered a contender – not only because he won, but also because they picked it over an Almodovar movie. Chen Kaige, from China, was nominated for the beloved Farewell, My Concubine (submitted by Hong Kong) years ago, and his latest, Forever Enthralled, looks to be an equally sumptuous epic, and stars eye candy Zhang Ziyi as well. Finally, Italy’s Giuseppe Tornatore is a favorite in this category, winning for Cinema Paradiso, and being nominated for The Starmaker, so his Baaria has to be considered in the game. Despite weak reviews, this cost a lot to make, so Italy will push it hard. Sad to see a film as wonderful as Marco Bellacchio’s Vincere overlooked, but what are you going to do?

Finally, there are several other films that I would like to point out, if for no other reason than I feel they may make it, because their subject matter seems in line with what the Academy likes to see. Finland’s Letters to Father Jakob, from director Klaus Haro, about an ex-convict working for a blind minister, is the type of inspirational thing the Academy has gone for in the past. Although Luxeumbourg has never been nominated for the prize before, their film Refactaire, from director Nicolas Stell, is a WWII film, and they really do love those. Slovakia’s Broken Promise, from director Jiri Chlumsky, is also a WWII themed film. Norway’s Max Manus, from directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, is yet another WWII film. Finally, The Netherlands has a much better track record with the Academy, and their submission of Silent Army from director Jean van de Velde, about child soldiers in Africa sounds much like Blood Diamond – a film the Academy gave several nominations to a few years ago.

Those are the 21 films that at the moment I really see having a chance at getting a nomination. Of course, I am almost positive that something else will slip onto the shortlist, and may even get a nomination. Guessing the foreign language film hopefuls at this early stage is a fool’s errand. You really do have to wait until the shortlist is announced to truly gage what is going to happen.

What I find truly depressing is that out of the 63 films in the running, only 7 have US distribution (all seven are listed above as possibilities). Not even festival hits like Samson and Delilah or I Killed My Mother have found deals yet. Even movies with stars like Zhang Ziyi and Jimmy Smits have yet to land deals. Whatever films get nominated, will surely be picked up and released eventually. I just hope they don’t wait two years.

Note: For a rundown of all the films that have been submitted, you cannot do better than Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film Experience. He does the best job of them all when it comes to this category. Visit his site here:

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