By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 8, 2013 at 12:40PM
It's pretty much an assured equation: Oscars + Foreign Language Film Category = Outrage. Sometimes, the fault lies with Academy voters (as it did when "Departures" won the Oscar in 2008 over what most viewed as two greatly superior nominees - "Waltz With Bashir" and "The Class;" or when "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Persepolis" and "Volver" were all left off the ballot in 2007). Sometimes, the national submission committees are at fault (like when Spain chose "Mondays in the Sun" over "Talk To Her" back in 2002, only to see the former get nada and the latter win the Oscar for best original screenplay -- a category Spain had no control over). And sometimes it's just those pesky Academy rules (some very interesting thoughts on said rules here care of Cameron Bailey, though clearly for this year there's no changing anything).
Last year, it was the country's submission gods that
resulted in the snub that caused the most controversy. France -- the
country that holds the most nominations ever and second most wins in this category (after Italy) -- went with box office hit "The Intouchables" instead of critical hit "Rust and Bone," only to see it miss the shortlist altogether. The country is a topic of conversation this year again, though this time it's not really their fault so much as it is those pesky Academy rules. And with the full list of submissions officially announced, let's look at that controversy and 9 other things -- controversial or simply notable -- about this year's submissions:
1. There's a lot of them: Last year, a then-record 71 countries submitted to the foreign language category. This year 5 more did, topping that record and offering the very nice suggestion that movies are being made in more countries around the world than ever before.
2. Saudi Arabia, Moldova and Montenegro are submitting for the first time. Among those countries making a play at Oscar for the very first time are Montenegro, with Draško Đurović's "Bad Destiny" (starring Michael Madsen, of all people), Moldova, with Adrian Popovici's "All God's Children", and Saudi Arabia, with Haifaa al-Mansour's "Wadjda" -- a feminist film directed by a woman, no less (in an extremely problematic country when it comes to women's rights -- it's the only country in the world where women still aren't legally allowed to drive). It is also already a box office hit on the specialty front Stateside thanks to a release care of Sony Pictures Classics, and something of a frontrunner for a nomination.
3. Pakistan is submitting for the first time in 50 years! Co-directed by a woman (Meenu Gaur alongside Farjad Nabi), Pakistan's "Zinda Bhaag" represents the first time since 1963 (and only the third time ever) that the country of 183 million people has submitted. The story of three young men trying to escape the reality of their everyday lives and succeeding in ways they did not expect, it marks the longest period between submissions for any country in this category.
4. Japan and India's submissions spark the most outrage. As far as controversies go, the biggest likely come via Japan and India, who were largely expected to submit Hirokazu Kore-eda’s "Like Father, Like Son" and Ritesh Batra’s "The Lunchbox," respectively. Both huge critical hits out of Cannes (where they got picked up for US release by Sundance Selects and Sony Classics), they both seemed to have decent shots at making the Academy's cut. But the countries decided to go another route, with Japan submitting Yuya Ishii’s "The Great Passage" and India putting forward Gyan Correa’s "The Good Road" -- and our guess is neither will get nominated as a result.
5. "Blue" is not the warmest color for France -- but it's not their fault. As noted, France did not submit another hugely acclaimed (and Palme d'Or winning) film out Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s "Blue is the Warmest Color." Instead they went with Gilles Bourdos's biopic "Renoir." But that wasn't because they chose it over "Blue." Academy rules maintain that films much be released in their home country before September 30th, and "Blue" just missed it (it comes out this week). French distributor Wild Bunch was the deciding vote here, and they had some scathing words for the Academy in the process. The Oscar “no longer means anything for a film that was crowned in Cannes,” company co-founder Vincent Maraval said last month. He also said that the rules are “unique, specific and make no sense. At the same time, no one cares about this category. We’re aiming for [Blue] in all categories, the only ones that count.”
6. You can already see a lot of these films in Stateside theaters. "Blue" is coming out in the US in just a few weeks (October 25th), Oscar qualified or not, while "Renoir" already had its run this past Spring (making a potent $2.3 million at the box office). And they're just two of a ton of submitted films that have already or are just about to be released. Denmark’s “The Hunt,” China's "Back to 1942," Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” and Saudi Arabia’s aforementioned “Wadjda" are all in US theaters right now (or already out of them). Last year, none of the 5 nominees -- "Amour," "No," "A Royal Affair," "Kon-Tiki" and "War Witch" -- were released before November, with 3 of them waiting until the new year to capitalize on their nomination.
7. Iran submits after all, and goes with "The Past." Waiting until Christmas to hit US theaters, recent winner in this category Asghar Farhadi's "The Past" is a surprise (and major) contender here, if only because few expected its country to submit it (or potentially submit at all). Iran -- which boycotted the Academy last year, a year after winning this Oscar for Farhadi's "A Separation" -- seemed unlikely to submit a film largely set in Paris. They did anyway, angering a lot of folks in the country. “Unlike 'A Separation,' there is nothing Iranian in this film apart from a character who could have come from any other country," Iran's Fars news agency said. "It would have been preferable to select a purely Iranian film like Dar-Band, which would have presented a more realistic image of Iran.” Whether this hurts the film's chances remains to be seen, but with its Cannes award for best actress (recent Oscar nominee Berenice Bejo), its definitely one of the most high profile possibilities here.
8. China brings star power to race with "Back to 1942." Speaking of high-profile, China has given this category and uncharacteristic mix of American stars by submitting Feng Xiaogang's "Back to 1942." The film -- which was released in the US back in 2012 -- features Oscar-winning actors Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins alongside an otherwise mostly Chinese cast. Will the tactic pay off? It didn't 3 years ago when China submitted Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" (another war epic), which starred another Oscar winner -- Christian Bale -- in the leading role. The film didn't make the cut.
9. It's "Bush" out, "Don" in for Czech Republic. Agnieszka Holland was the choice for the Czech Republic for "Burning Bush," which could have made her the first filmmaker to score nods in this category for three different countries (she got noms for Poland and West Germany in the past). But not so. The four-hour film was disqualified because it had already aired as a miniseries on HBO Europe. In her place came Jiri Menzel (who won an Oscar for "Closely Watched Trains" 46 years ago, and was nominated again in 1986 for "My Sweet Little Village.") His comedic "The Don Juans" will represent the Czechs.
10. The women. While Agnieszka Holland isn't one of them, female-helmed films were still impressively present in the submission list. Beyond aforementioned examples in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, there's Argentina (Lucía Puenzo's "Wakolda), Canada (Louise Archambault's "Gabrielle"), Finland (Ulrika Bengts's "Disciple"), Georgia (Nana Ekvtimishvili, co-directing "In Bloom" with Simon Groß), Lebabon ( Lara Saba's "Blind Intersections"), New Zealand (Dana Rotberg's "White Lies"), Phillippines (Hannah Espia's "Transit"), Portugal (Valeria Sarmiento's "Lines of Wellington"), Slovakia (Mira Fornay's "My Dog Killer"), Sweden (Gabriela Pichler's "Eat Sleep Die"), and Ukraine (Olena Fetisova, co-directing "Paradjanov" with Serge Avedikian). Not exactly a fair ratio, but sadly progressive when it comes to women working behind the camera. And if you think that if America was submitting their best picture winners to some fictional foreign language showdown in another country, only once in 86 years would it have been directed by a woman.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Writer and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
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