Oscars: Surprises and Snubs in the Best Foreign-Language Film Shortlist (Analysis)

Le Passe The Past Film Still - H 2013

Le Passe The Past Film Still - H 2013

It's that time of the year again...

On Friday afternoon, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its best foreign-language film Oscar shortlist of nine films from which the five best foreign-language Oscar nominees will soon be chosen. And while some indisputably terrific films made the cut, there were also a number of glaring omissions -- among them Asghar Farhadi's The Past (Iran), Yuval Adler's Bethlehem (Israel), Sebastián Lelio's Gloria (Chile) and Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) -- as has been the case far too often in recent years.

As someone who has screened the vast majority of the nine finalists -- Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), Danis Tanovi?'s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt (Denmark), Georg Maas' Two Lives (Germany), Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (Hong Kong), Janos Szasz's The Notebook (Hungary), Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (Italy) and Hany Abu-Assad's Omar (Palestine) -- and a considerable number of the other submissions, I feel qualified and compelled to chime in on this.

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First, some background:

The Academy's best foreign-language film Oscar short-list is determined in two phases. During the first, all of the eligible submissions -- which this year numbered 76 and included three documentaries, two animated films and 16 films directed by women -- are divided into four groups, as are the members of a foreign-language committee which consists of several hundred Los Angeles-based Academy members, all volunteers from a wide cross-section of the Academy's branches whose names are never released. Each group of members is then assigned to a different group of films. In order to retain the right to weigh in on the short-list at the end of the process, members must attend screenings of 80% of the films in their assigned group. This year, screenings of all of the submissions took place between mid-Oct. and Dec. 16. Those who maintained their eligibility then got to vote, and their six highest-scoring films were passed along to an executive committee.

Last night, the second phase kicked in: a twentysomething-person executive committee -- the members of which are invited to serve by the foreign-language committee chairman and/or the Board of Governors, and whose identities are not kept secret (they appear in the annual Oscars program) but are not widely advertised (to discourage lobbying) -- meet to determine three films that deserve to join the committee's six selections on the short-list.

Mark Johnson, the Rain Man and Breaking Bad producer and current chair of the Academy's foreign-language committee who has held that position for 12 of the last 13 years, championed the creation of the executive committee in 2008. He told me after today's announcement, "The general committee members are incredibly dedicated, but because they are asked to give up so much of their time to watch so many movies a lot of them end up being older and retired, which slants the results toward an older and more conservative approach. We wanted to find a way to also involve a bunch of significant Academy members who are still actively working." (THR has confirmed that this year's executive committee, in addition to Johnson, included last year's foreign-language committee chair Ron Yerxa, who is also a member of the producers branch, as well as cinematographer John Bailey, director Michael Mann and casting director Margery Simkin, among others.)

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Johnson emphasized, "The executive committee's mandate is to find films that did not make the six but are worth going to battle for. It's not in any way to 'correct' the committee's choices -- that would be presumptuous -- but rather to ask ourselves, 'Are there different or off-kilter films that should also be included? Films which are artistically challenging and unorthodox and should not be overlooked?'" (The Academy never confirms which three of the final nine were "saved" by the executive committee.)

All who volunteer to serve on these committees deserve to be commended and thanked for their service. It is a giant task and not every country's entry is particularly enjoyable to watch.

But, that being said, it is hard for me to fathom that, even with the executive committee in place, we wound up with a shortlist that does not include The Past, the widely acclaimed film by Farhadi (who won the best foreign-language film Oscar two years ago for A Separation) for which Berenice Bejo was awarded the best actress prize at Cannes, to say nothing of Bethlehem, Gloria and Wadjda -- all of which were also hits on the festival circuit -- not to mention a number of other eminently worthy titles including Sean Ellis's Metro Manila (United Kingdom), Feng Xiaogang's Back to 1942 (China) and Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket (Australia).

Additionally, because of a submission process that has been criticized almost as much as the selection process -- "That's the one we've got to address," Johnson said of the former -- three countries which produced films in 2013 that clearly deserved to make the shortlist as much as any that ultimately did wound up submitting other films instead, none of which made the list of nine.

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France entered with Gilles Bourdos's Renoir instead of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, because the latter's French distributor elected not to release it in France prior to the Oct. 1 deadline. (Blue is eligible in other Oscar categories this year and will be eligible for submission in the foreign-language category next year, although a more buzzed-about film is far more likely to be submitted.) India went with Gyan Correa's The Good Read instead of Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox despite the latter playing and winning widespread acclaim on the fest circuit, unlike the former; and Japan went with Yûya Ishii's The Great Passage instead of Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son, which which was awarded a Jury Prize at Cannes but was snubbed back at home.

The Academy's shortlist left several of the industry's greatest champions of foreign-language films confused and dismayed.

"We are very disappointed," said Sony Pictures Classics' co-chief Michael Barker, whose operation distributed The Past -- which many, including me, thought was the safest bet to make the short-list, and which was released today to rave reviews -- and Wadjda, the first Saudi film ever submitted for Oscar consideration. "But," Barker granted, "this category has always had surprises over the years, some of which worked to our advantage and others which did not." He added, "In fairness, I haven't seen all of these movies."

Jonathan Sehring, the president of Sundance Selects and IFC Films -- which distributed the aforementioned Blue Is the Warmest Color and Like Father, Like Son, which were not eligible for the shortlist, as well as Two Lives, which was picked for it -- expressed mixed feelings. "I can't say I've seen all of these movies," he said, "but I think the [Golden] Globes has a very strong [foreign film] lineup" -- The Great Beauty and The Hunt, plus Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Past and The Wind Rises -- "and probably one that is more representative of what is the best in international cinema than the Academy's. Still, we are very happy that Two Lives is on the shortlist -- they get some things right!"

Johnson, for his part, acknowledged that no shortlist will please everyone, including himself, but he emphasized that, as someone who watched 60 of this year's 76 submissions -- "which says really terrible things about my social life," he laughed -- and who sat in on the "really smart and passionate" executive committee discussion on Thursday night, he feels that the shortlist released today is one which he and his colleagues can stand behind. (Without divulging his own views about The Past, the omission that caused the most chatter via social media, he acknowledged that the film had its champions but "didn't make the nine, so clearly it didn't have the support that a lot of people thought that it would have.")

At this point, the Academy turns over the process of determining the best foreign-language film Oscar nominees to specially invited committees in New York and Los Angeles, which will screen the nine shortlisted films over one long weekend -- watching three films on Jan. 10, Jan. 11 and Jan. 12 -- and then vote to determine the final five. (The general public will have a chance to see all nine at the upcoming 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival.) The category's nominees will be announced, with all of the other Oscar nominations, on Jan. 16, at which point, for the first time ever, all Academy members will be sent DVD screeners of the five best foreign-language film Oscar nominees, and invited to help pick the winner.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg