Foreign Oscar Shortlist: Great Choices — and Horrible Headscratchers, as Usual (Analysis)

Following screenings from Jan. 9-11, the list of nine will be whittled down to just five by 10 members in New York, 20 in LA and, in a first, 10 in London, as well
A scene from Poland's 'Ida'

On Friday morning, the Academy released its foreign-language committee's shortlist of nine filmsselected from a record 83 submissions this year — from which the five nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar will soon be chosen.

For the most part, the list is pretty unobjectionable. It includes several big critical darlings, led by Poland's black-and-white post-Holocaust drama Ida, Russia's stark and unusual Leviathan, Sweden's haunting character study Force Majeure and Argentina's hilarious sextet of shorts Wild Tales. It has a few true-life stories that could prove engrossing and appealing to a wide cross-section of people: the Netherlands' The Accused and Venezuela's The Liberator. And it includes works from several countries that have not frequently, if ever, been recognized, effectively putting them on the map: Mauritania's Timbuktu (the nation's first film ever submitted), Estonia's Tangerines (the nation's first film ever shortlisted) and Georgia's Corn Island (the nation has only once had a film make it this far, 18 years ago).

Watch See the Trailer for Mauritania's First-Ever Oscar Submission, 'Timbuktu' (Exclusive)

However, as is probably inevitable, there were a few glaring omissions that are pretty hard to stomach. Where is Cannes Palme d'Or winner Winter Sleep, from Turkey, and Jury Prize winner Mommy, from Canada's 25-year-old prodigy Xavier Dolan? Where is Israel's socially significant Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a Golden Globe Award nominee, and Hungary's edgy White God? And, most upsetting to me, where is Belgium's Two Days, One Night, the latest in a long line of masterpieces by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a Critics' Choice Award nominee — and the fourth that the Academy could have nominated but failed to. I totally get that there is not room for everything, but several of these would have been on the top-half of a list of nine for me and many other cineastes I know.

The several hundred folks from across the Academy's branches who volunteer to serve on the Academy's foreign-language committee — and 20-some who also serve on its executive committee — face a daunting and thankless challenge every year, and especially in an extremely strong year for foreign films like 2014. They — and especially their leader, Mark Johnson, and the likes of longtime committee member Michael Goldman — deserve to be thanked for their service and efforts, and probably don't deserve to be second-guessed by others who have not seen as many of the eligible films as they have (though I certainly make my best effort to see as many as I can).

So I suppose I'll just say that the films that they picked are all excellent and exciting and ones that are certainly worthy of being Oscar nominees if they make it through the next step in the process. (From Jan. 9 through Jan. 11, specially invited committees of Academy members — 10 in New York, 20 in Los Angeles and, for the first time, 10 in London, too — will view three of the shortlisted films each day and then whittle the list down to five.) But it is now more incumbent on journalists than ever before to talk up the great international gems that won't have a shot at a trip to the Oscars, including those mentioned above, because otherwise they can quickly fade into oblivion, and that would be a terrible injustice.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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