Oscars: Foreign-Language Committee Again Invites Controversy (Analysis)

Elle - Still 4 - Isabelle Huppert - H 2016
Guy Ferrandis/SBS Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Here we go again.

Eight years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, following a number of egregious snubs by its foreign-language screening committee, changed the way in which it whittles down dozens of film submissions from around the world to determine the nominees for its foreign-language film Oscar. A volunteer committee, which tended to be comprised of older members (since few members still active in their careers have the time to screen the number of movies that are submitted each year), had made conservative selections at the expense of edgy films that had received widespread acclaim from others, resulting in significant criticism. So the organization implemented a process that was supposed to provide a fail-safe option: The screening committee would choose six films for the shortlist, and an executive committee would then add three others, ostensibly to make up for any egregious oversights.

And yet Thursday afternoon, the Academy released a 2016 shortlist that had some glaring omissions. First and foremost, it does not include the French submission Elle, a dark dramedy directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Isabelle Huppert that won the best foreign-language film Critics' Choice Award, was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the year's top five foreign-language films and has been nominated for the best foreign-language film Golden Globe Award, among other prizes. (It will offer little consolation that Xavier Dolan's French-language Canadian film It's Only the End of the World, which critics panned following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, did make the cut.)

The shortlist also excludes several other films that have engendered widespread affection. Among them: the Finnish entry The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Juho Kuosmanen's charming boxing drama, which won Cannes' Un Certain Regard Award and the Zurich Film Festival's Golden Eye for best international film; the Chilean entry Neruda, Pablo Larrain's portrait of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which was a Critics' Choice nominee, made the NBR's top five and has been nominated for the Golden Globe; and the Spanish entry Julieta, Pedro Almodovar's mother-daughter melodrama, which also was nominated for the Critics' Choice Award and made the NBR's top five.

True, I have not seen as many 2016 foreign-language Oscar submissions as the members of the Academy committee. But while they deserve to be commended for making some bold choices — such as the Swiss stop-motion film My Life as a Zucchini, which could become the first film ever to earn both best animated feature and best foreign-language film Oscar noms — I think they, or at the least the executive committee, still have some explaining to do. The executive committee is not serving its function if this many widely popular and respected films still aren't making the shortlist.

And I think I know why: The executive committee is very concerned about putting forward a shortlist that represents a wide cross-section of the world, rather than one dominated by Europe. But, in my opinion, affirmative action of this sort has no business factoring in to the Oscar voting process. Filmmakers' careers and nations' film industries can be made or crushed by the decisions of this committee. And while it's wonderful that this year's shortlist includes at least one film from not only Europe (Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland), but also North America (Canada), Australia (Australia), Asia (Iran) and Russia (which is partially in Asia), sometimes Europe, which makes considerably more films than other continents, actually deserves to dominate the list.

Fortunately, some of today's snubbed films could find Academy recognition elsewhere, which would be the most fitting rebuke of the committee. Perhaps Elle's Huppert will earn a best actress nomination (she already won the Gotham Award, was nominated for the Critics' Choice Award and is up for a Golden Globe Award); or Almodovar's Julieta screenplay will receive a best adapted screenplay nom; or Olli Maki's lush black-and-white lensing (which was nominated for Cannes' Golden Camera and won the Golden Camera 300 prize from the Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers' Film Festival) will receive a best cinematography nom next season, when it has its U.S. release and becomes awards-eligible.

Stranger things have happened: Brazil's 2002 entry City of God, you may recall, controversially was not nominated by the foreign-language committee — but was nominated the following year for best director, best adapted screenplay, best cinematography and best film editing.