Little Reason to Gripe About Academy's Foreign Language Shortlist (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst dissects this year's shortlisted films, as well as the challenges faced by the Academy's foreign-language committee that chose them.
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On Friday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' foreign-language committee released a shortlist of nine films from which the five nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar ultimately will be chosen. And after years of courting controversy -- most notably by disqualifying the critically acclaimed award winners Private (2004), Cache (2005), The Band's Visit (2007) and Lust, Caution (2007), and by not even shortlisting the landmark Cannes Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) -- I am pleased to report that, for the first time in many years, there is really very little reason to gripe about their selections or "snubs."

The committee -- which is composed of members of a standing executive committee, as well as Los Angeles-based volunteers from across the branches of the Academy -- got all the big ones: Austria's Amour, winner of Palme d'Or; Canada's War Witch, winner of best actress prizes at Berlin and Tribeca and best narrative feature at Tribeca; Chile's No, winner of Cannes' Art Cinema Award; Denmark's A Royal Affair, winner of Berlin's best actor and best screenplay prizes; France's The Intouchables, which has produced record box-office grosses for a French film in France and around the world; Iceland's The Deep, a popular film on the festival circuit and a blockbuster back home; Norway's Kon-Tiki, a popular film on the festival circuit that also was nominated for a Golden Globe; Romania's Beyond the Hills, winner of Cannes' best actress and best screenplay prizes; and Switzerland's Sister, winner of a Silver Bear Award at Berlin.

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Sure, some other films were just as worthy as some of these -- among them, Israel's Fill the Void, the first feature ever directed by an Orthodox Jewish woman and the winner of Venice's best actress prize; South Korea's Pieta, which was awarded Venice's Golden Lion over The Master; Germany's Barbara, a popular film on the festival circuit; Australia's Lore, a German-language film about the Holocaust that won Locarno's audience award and Stockholm's Bronze Horse; Belgium's Our Children, winner of Cannes' Un Certain Regard best actress award; and Italy's Caesar Must Die, winner of Berlin's Golden Bear. But one cannot include everything, and I think that the foreign-language committee -- which I have not been shy about criticizing in years past -- was extremely judicious in its choices.

Sure, one could argue that the process through which films are submitted for consideration by the committee still is flawed. After all, it does seem weird that Austria was able to claim Amour, a French-financed and French-language film that is set in France and stars three French actors, merely because its principal creative talent (its writer-director-producer), in this case all one person, Michael Haneke -- whose previous film was submitted by Germany -- has German-Austrian dual citizenship. But I suppose that it wouldn't be better to categorize films by language, as the committee used to do, or else the Australian film Lore would, theoretically, belong to Germany.

And sure, it might be a little silly to allow a film wasteland like, say, Angola, to submit just as many films for consideration by the committee as a film metropolis like, say, France. It seems to me that if France makes two of the year's best foreign-language films, as it did this year with The Intouchables and Rust and Bone, then the Oscar category should reflect that. But because that is not allowed, each country must form a selection committee to determine which of their films will be submitted to the Academy for consideration by the committee, a process that industry insiders say gives disproportionate power to a small number of individuals and has led, not infrequently, to bizarre choices at best and perhaps even corruption. (Similar charges arose when France submitted The Chorus over A Very Long Engagement in 2004 and Persepolis over La vie en rose in 2007, as well as when Mexico submitted El Crimen del Padre Amaro over Y Tu Mama Tambien and Spain submitted Mondays in the Sun over Talk to Her in 2002.)

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Fairly or not, some have suggested that France's selection committee only submitted The Intouchables over Rust and Bone because the former is being distributed in the U.S. by Harvey Weinstein, who gave a big boost to the French film industry a year ago when he championed the French film The Artist all the way to the best picture Oscar. Whispers such as these might be unfair to the committee, the film and Weinstein but always will exist under a system that forces a select few representatives country to choose one film over others. But, of course, no Academy committee could be expected to sort through every foreign-language film made in a given year, so one could certainly argue that the current system, in keeping with America's democratic principles, at least gives every country a shot.

The Academy's foreign-language committee came under new management this year when Mark Johnson, who had served as its chairman for the past 12 years and oversaw many improvements in the selection process, stepped down. His duties were assumed by two people: producer Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who had been Johnson's vice chairman, and former Academy executive director Bruce Davis, who had worked closely with Johnson and Yerxa.

The current rules call for the full committee, which is composed of several hundred people, to select six films for a shortlist; then for the executive committee to add three more films to the shortlist, addressing any glaring oversights; and then for two specially invited committees, one on each coast, to view the nine shortlisted films and vote to determine the five best, which then will be announced as the Academy's five nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar. This awards season, that final step will take place from Jan. 4-6.