For Hollywood, the Oscar race is just getting started. But for nations around the world, the competition kicked off last Monday -- the deadline to submit paperwork for the Best Foreign Language Award category. In just two weeks, the complete official list of eligible films will be announced, and the initial whittling down of the titles will have already begun by the Academy's Foreign Language Film screening committee.
While technicalities could disqualify a few of the submissions over the next couple weeks, the big contenders in the category are full-proof: Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" (from Spain), Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (Mexico), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" (Germany), Deepa Mehta's "Water" (Canada) and Daniele Thompson's "Avenue Montaigne" (France).
Other heavy-hitters that could muscle their way past the first cut include Chinese-director Zhang Yimou's latest martial arts romance "The Curse of the Golden Flower," Emanuele Crialese's much-loved Italian entry "Golden Door," Paul Verhoeven's Dutch-language WWII romp "Black Book," Susanne Bier's Danish drama "After the Wedding," and Lee Sang-il's Japanese crowd-pleaser "Hula Girls."
The irony of the best foreign language Oscar is that nearly all of the films are completely unknown to American audiences. Only one, "Water," has been released in the U.S. so far, from Fox Searchlight Pictures. And with box office grosses of $3.2 million, "Water" is also the only foreign language film of 2006 so far to make any significant commercial impact (aside from a few Bollywood films and Focus Features' Jet Li actioner "Fearless.")
"Water" is also notable because it is the first time to take advantage of Oscar's new voting procedures: Entries in the foreign languages category are no longer required to be in the official language of the country submitting the film. For example, last year's rejected Italian entry, the Palestinian-language "Private," would now be eligible. (But Michael Haneke's Austrian submission last year, "Cache," would probably still be disqualified, as it violates the rule that at least two out of the three positions of writer, director and producer must come from the country of origin; Haneke may be Austrian, but the film was obviously French.)
As Indian film lovers have noted, the new rule could be a boon to Hindi-language pictures, with its extensive diaspora and active film industry. A film like the Hindi-language "The Warrior," submitted by the UK in 2003, but then rejected because Hindi is not Britain's dominant language, would now qualify. This is the first year that the Oscars will have two Hindi films, "Water" and India's official submission "Rang De Basanti."
The revamped regulations could also benefit other far-flung cultures: While it's never happened before, we could see Arabic-language French productions, Turkish-language German films or Russian-language Scandinavian movies all participating in future years.
Also new for the 79th Academy Awards is a two-phased voting system for foreign submissions. After the standard voting committee cuts down the roughly 50 submissions to nine finalists, a Phase II committee, made up of ten randomly selected members of the original committee, ten L.A.-based members not on the original committee, and ten New York-area members, "will view the shortlisted films in a three-day bicoastal marathon and select the nominees from that field," according to an Academy press release.
Will the new Manhattan members, voting for the first time, have an effect on this year's top five? "It's so new I don't know what's going to happen," says one Academy member. Since most members of the Foreign Language committee can't be in the business of foreign language films, as that would be a conflict of interest, the chances are that the East Coast members of the branch are similar to those in Los Angeles: predominately old and less involved in the world cinema currents of the day.
Then again, the time investment on the part of the "phase two" group of Academy voters – only about 18 hours of celluloid over three days versus the roughly 35 hours over multiple weeks it is for the first group – could yield a crop of Academy members who are not retired, but still young, active and involved members of the film community.
While one might hope that Gotham voters reflect the tastes of The New York Film Critics Circle, who have given the best foreign film award in previous years to "2046," "Bad Education," and "City of God," it is unlikely. Academy members are not critics.
That reality leaves several countries' chances decidedly slim. While films such as Jasmila Zbanic's Bosnian entry "Grbavica," Claudia Llosa's Peruvian film "Madeinusa," and Jesper Ganslandt's Swedish submission "Falkenberg Farewell" have received their fair share of critical approbation and festival acclaim, they are either too serious or offbeat to satisfy the Academy's often middlebrow taste.
And what was Thailand thinking? The military coup that has since taken over that country seems to have spilled over into its choice for Oscar. After already submitting the paperwork for Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's "Invisible Waves," a festival-circuit traveler with U.S. distribution, the country's nominating committee switched the film out at the last minute for Kittikorn Liasirikun's "Ahimsa: Stop to Run," which by all accounts is a far wackier, less artier entry from the filmmaker who brought you "Saving Private Tootsie" and "Goal Club."
Sometimes, then, terrific foreign-language films must suffer because of countries' own internal politics. While this year's tentative list doesn't have any egregious snubs -- Almodovar is in -- The Weinstein Company is licking its wounds after its high-profile Argentine acquisition "Chronicle of an Escape" was beat out by the humble family drama "Family Law," from director Daniel Berman. Likewise, Hans-Christian Schmid's German film "Requiem" didn't stand a chance against "The Lives of Others," Romania's more traditional "How I Spent the End of the World" scooped the critically acclaimed fest favorite "12:08 East of Bucharest," and everyone's favorite Korean monster movie, Bong Joon-ho's "The Host" will never get a chance to delight Oscar voters, who will instead watch box office blockbuster "The King and the Clown."
Perhaps, most tragically, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Turkish masterpiece "Climates" -- an exquisite examination of a relationship's disintegration that won Cannes' FIPRESCI prize -- was overlooked in favor of "Ice Cream, I Scream," a local favorite that focuses on an ice cream vendor who battles against bigger competitors in an Aegean village. Oh, well, it is the Oscars, after all.