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by Peter Knegt
September 26, 2011 4:11 AM
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For Your Consideration: Oscar's Foreign-Language Race Arrives, Controversy Follows

Christian Bale stars in Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War"

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). And sometimes, the national submission committees are at fault.

Last year, it was the latter that resulted in the snub that caused the most controversy. Italy -- the country that holds the record for the most wins in this category (though they've managed only one nomination in the past decade) -- had a shortlist of 10, including Luca Guadagnino’s “I Am Love," the Tilda Swinton-starrer that found massive critical and financial success Stateside. Instead, they went with Paolo Virzi’s "The First Beautiful Thing," which few had heard of outside of Italy, and those that were unimpressed. Suffice to say, "Beautiful Thing" didn't end up getting nominated.

While the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has not yet released a final list of submissions for their Foreign Language Film category (they are expected to do so in the next week or so), already submissions from 45 different countries have been made public; another 15-20 are still to come.

Before we get into a few controversies from this year's growing list, there's quite a few positive things to note as well. First of all, there's some really exceptional, challenging work in contention that collectively represents an impressive year in world cinema. Wim Wenders's "Pina" (Germany), Aki Kaurismaki's "Le Havre" (Finland), Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse" (Hungary), Joseph Cedar's "Footnote" (Israel), Valérie Donzelli's "Declaration of War" (France), Anne Sewitsky's "Happy, Happy" (Norway), Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" (Mexico), Joshua Marston's "The Forgiveness of Blood" (Albania), Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" (Iran) and recent Toronto Film Festival People's Choice Award winner "Where Do We Go Now?," directed by Nadine Labaki are just some of the many examples.

Whether or not they end up making it on the Academy's short list is a whole other story, especially considering quite a few of them are not exactly mainstream. But, hey, if "Dogtooth" could make it last year, anything's possible.

Secondly, the list so far is also notable in the impressive amount of female-helmed films. Coming off a year when a woman won the award (Susanne Bier's "In a Better World"), aforementioned examples from France, Norway and Lebanon join the likes of Hong Kong (Ann Hui's "A Simple Life"), Poland (Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness"), Greece (Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg”), The Netherlands (Maria Peters's "Sonny Boy"), Ireland (Juanita Wilson’s “As If I Am Not There”) and Sweden (Pernilla August’s “Beyond”). That's nine films so far. Not exactly a fair ratio, but sadly progressive when it comes to women working behind the camera. It's particularly progressive when one zeroes in on Europe, where roughly half the submissions were indeed female-directed.

As for the controversies, though, there's plenty to choose from. Chinese director Zhang Yimou (three times nominated in this category) has been chosen as his country's submission with "The Flowers of War." The film stars Oscar winner and current Batman Christian Bale as American John Haufman, a man who is trapped in China during the war between China and Japan around the massacre of Nanking.

The film cost a whopping $90 million and it's 40% in English, which may or may not get by the Academy's prickly executive committee. It also hasn't been released yet. According to Academy rules, submitted motion pictures must be first released theatrically in their respective countries between October 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011. That gives "Flowers" a week to get itself into Chinese theaters (its official run begins December 16). If the film were to qualify, it also gives "Flowers" until December 31 to get into American theaters if it wants to be eligible in other categories. Except, as of yet, the film has no U.S. distribution.

Another questionable move came care of Russia, which chose Nikita Mikhalkov’s "Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel," which is a sequel to a film that won this award back in 1995. However, unlike its predecessor, this film has not been well received. It currently holds a D+ average on criticWIRE, one of the worst averages in the entire system. It also hasn't been embraced by the Russian public, having only managed to gross $1.5 million despite a massive $45 million budget.

While the Russian Oscar selection committee indeed voted for its submission, committee head Vladimir Menshov is adamantly against the decision, asking for reconsideration. While that's unlikely to occur at this point, one clear suggestion if it does is Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Elena," which was quite well-received in Cannes this year.

Also well received in Cannes was Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "The Kid With The Bike." The duo have picked three times before to represent Belgium in the Oscar race -- with "Rosetta" (2000), "The Son" (2004) and "The Child" (2006) -- but have never actually been nominated. And they won't this year, either: Belgium (questionably) submitted Michael R. Roskam's crime thriller "Bullhead" instead.

France also opted to submit a surprise, giving the nod to Valérie Donzelli's "Declaration of War" over the intensely buzzed-over "The Artist," which appears to be headed for nominations in many major categories. But considering the latter film is set in Hollywood and has almost no dialogue (and the dialogue it does have is in English), it's probably a very wise move on France's part. The film would have likely not even qualified, and "Declaration of War" has very strong reviews and U.S. distribution from Sundance Selects to help back it up.

Finally, there's the curious case of "The Forgiveness of Blood." In 2004, American-born and -bred Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace" was disqualified as the Colombian entry in the foreign race because it did not have enough Colombian creative input (though it would end up impressively nabbing a best actress nomination). Seven years later, Marston is again being submitted with his follow up, this time as Albania's entry. It will be up to the same committee that disqualified him the first time around to decide whether the film is "Albanian enough" to make the cut. But considering the film is set in rural Albania with a cast primarily made up of non-professional actors speaking in their native language, one would think it could qualify.

There could still be a few controversies to come. Spain has the opportunity to submit Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" (which has made the announced short list) after snubbing the iconic director on multiple occasions in the past (including "Talk To Her," "Bad Education" and "Broken Embraces"). Considering the country has only been nominated once in the past decade, perhaps selecting a high-profile filmmaker like Almodovar would be in their best interest. Although if the Academy couldn't nominate his universally acclaimed "Volver" back in 2006, one wonders if "Skin" stands a chance once the Academy starts making the decisions.

Check out indieWIRE's latest chart of Oscar predictions here, including a quick take on the foreign language race.

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE's Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

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5 Comments

  • aquarius1271 | September 29, 2011 8:56 AMReply

    I still can not find the mention of Turkey in the article or if it is mentioned then my brain is playing tricks on me. On a different note, if those countries that have decided on their submission are getting a mention only then why is Spain in there? Sorry but I sense some bias here.

  • aquarius1271 | September 27, 2011 7:22 AMReply

    Why is Turkey not being highlighted in this article? Nuri Bilge Ceylan won a prestigious Grand Slam Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival over even Almodova's mentioned entry. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently on release in Turkey and has a big shot at making the final five. The fact that he has previously narrowly missed nomination with Three Monkeys will also work in his favor this time in my opinion.

  • Peter Knegt | September 27, 2011 1:42 AMReply

    @Ivan: Corrected. Damn that imdb page, indeed.

    @AF: I have actually seen "The First Beautiful Thing" and agree it was safe and accessible. But it also wasn't very good. I have no doubt "I Am Love" stood a better chance.

    @aquarious1271: Turkey is mentioned... as a country that hasn't selected yet.

  • AF | September 26, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    I assume you haven't seen "The First Beautiful Thing" because if you had, you would know that it was the safest and most accessible film Italy could submit. I do believe they made the right choice sending it -- though my favourite movie out of those selected was "20 Cigarettes".

  • Ivan | September 26, 2011 6:03 AMReply

    Znahg Yimou was nominated three times, everybody forgets "Hero" in 2002. Damn that imdb site!