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 in the coming days), at this point we've already become aware of submissions from sixty-one different countries, including essentially all of the more eagerly anticipated ones. So it seems safe to start the annual game of judging the foreign language contenders.
It's pretty much an assured equation, year after year: Oscars + Foreign Language Film Category = Outrage.
Last year, it was over Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" getting left off the nine film short list (this coming after - for the first time - an executive committee of 20 members were able to compensate for any omissions in the first round of voting by adding three additional films to the shortlist), followed by frustration resulting from Yôjirô Takita's "Departures" winning the Oscar over what most viewed as two greatly superior nominees - Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" and Laurent Cantet's "The Class." The year before, there were three major oversights on the nominee ballot - Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" - that brought similar outcries. And if you keep looking back, there's similar examples almost each and every year. Sometimes, the fault lies with Academy voters (as it did with all aforementioned examples), and sometimes, as it has this year, the national submission committees and their various methods of choosing films (though don't count out the Academy for making it 2 for 2 come a few months down the line, and don't forget it's also the Academy's fault for only allowing one submission).
It seems like only a few of this year's major foreign films will be in the running this year for the Oscars. Some of the examples: China eliminated Lu Chuan's Toronto Film Festival critical darling "City of Life of Death" in favor of Chen Kaige's "Forever Enthralled"; Israel submitted Shani & Scandar Copti's "Ajami" over Samuel Moaz's Venice Golden Lion winner "Lebanon"; Chile chose "Dawson Island, 10" over Sebastián Silva's Sundance winner "The Maid"; Spain didn't even put Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" on their three-film short list (which wasn't the first time... back in 2002 the country didn't submit "Talk To Her" in perhaps the grandest example of a submitting committee faux-pas), instead going with Fernando Trueba’s “The Dancer and the Thief”; And most puzzling off all, Italy opted for Giuseppe Tornatore's critically scorned Venice Film Festival opener "Baaria" over Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere," the country's most exported film of the year and one which has been winning raves on the festival circuit since its debut in Cannes.
Or maybe it's not so puzzling. Perhaps foreign committees are facing a growing cynicism in the Academy's voting tendencies after these past two years of snubbing more challenging and important works in favor of films like "Departures." France took a gamble in 2007 when they submitted "Persepolis" - an animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel - over more obvious choice for Oscar, Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf bio-pic "La Vie en rose." "Persepolis" was snubbed, "Vie" ended up winning best actress for Marion Cotillard. Maybe Anica, the Italian motion picture association that chose "Baaria" over "Vincere," genuinely believed they'd have a better shot at a nod with something less demanding. Especially after "Gomorrah"s snub last year.
Or perhaps we're giving these committees too much credit. Politics (including personal relationships between filmmakers and selection committees) have often played a role in selections, and this is third time "Baaria" director Tornatore has been selected since he won back in 1990 for "Cinema Paradiso." It could have simply been bad luck that "Vincere" had to be up for submission in a year when Anica BFF Tornatore was in the running again.
So what does that leave us with? Besides a list made up of essentially half films few among us have seen, there are a few great submissions that won serious praise on the fest circuit (all of them Cannes debuts). Canada is submitting 20-year old Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother," which topped the Director's Fortnight section in Cannes, Korea is submitting Boon Jong-ho's "Mother," while Romania will try and make up for its "4 Months"' snub with Corneliu Porumboiu's Un Certain Regard runner-up "Police, Adjective." And in a selection made official this morning, Greece will enter Yorgos Lanthimos's Un Certain Regard topper "Dogtooth." Though all these films could very well find themselves victims of the Academy's stolid tastes.
Though a much more likely scenario is also one that's very familiar. Like last year, we could easily have two intensely acclaimed Cannes titles - one of which won the Palme d'Or and both of which were acquired by Sony Pictures Classics - looking like the frontrunners: Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet," from France, and Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," from Germany.
However, if history has taught us anything, "frontrunner" is a term that should be banished from discussion of this category. As we well know, last year Sony Classics' Cannes duo "Bashir" and "The Class" lost out to "Departures," which seemingly came out of nowhere.
The nominations for the 82nd Academy Awards are announced February 2, 2010.
Get the latest on this year's award season at indieWIRE's new awards page.