With the deadline for submitting films in the Foreign Language Oscar race looming, the competition is taking shape. Some 44 films have been entered by Deadline’s count. Last year, 65 films were entered, so expect 20 or so more to be announced. After the October 3rd cutoff, the Academy’s Foreign Language Executive Committee, led by Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man) will vet the list and approve the final rundown before the 3-month screening process begins to pick 9 finalists and the eventual 5 nominees. Already, Johnson has indicated to me there is controversy. Albania has entered The Forgiveness of Blood, the hit at Telluride and Toronto directed by LA-born and -bred Joshua Marston. Apparently, other Albanian filmmakers are balking at the nationality of the movie’s helmer. It will be up to the committee to determine whether the film has enough Albanian elements to qualify despite being in the unique situation of having an American director (and co-writer). The very internationally inclined Marston had the official 2004 Colombian entry, Maria Full of Grace, before it was disqualified for not being Colombian enough. It did eventually win a Best Actress nod for Catalina Sandino Moreno.
The Russians are also squabbling over their official entry, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun 2: Citadel, the sequel to his 1995 Oscar-winning foreign language film. Even though the full Russian Oscar selection committee voted for it, Mikhalkov has been “burnt” by committee head Vladimir Menshov, who is against putting the critical and box office flop forward to the American Academy. (Despite a $45 million budget, it grossed only $1.5 million). He is awaiting Mikhalkov’s formal response to his request that he pull the film. He has until October 1, according to the Russian rule book.
China’s choice of three-time nominee Zhang Yimou’s (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Hero) period epic The Flowers of War (formerly known during production as Heroes of Nanking), starring Oscar winner Christian Bale, is China’s most expensive film ever. It’s reportedly 40% English-language and 60% Mandarin, which lets it squeak by under Academy rules. Twenty minutes of footage from the film, which opens its regular run December 16 in China, was shown to buyers and press in Toronto and was well-received. Executive producer and former Universal Pictures honcho David Linde told me in Toronto that if the film gets a domestic distribution deal in time, it is entirely possible to open in the U.S. to qualify for all categories — presumably including a Best Actor bid for Bale. (Linde was non-committal on that, so we will have to wait and see.) If it gets nominated and the film is held from American release until next year, that would make it ineligible for other categories in 2012.
Among the countries still waiting to be heard from are frequent nominees Italy, Spain and Turkey. I fully expect those countries to select films that were all in the official competition in Cannes this year: Italy’s Habemus Papam from Nanni Moretti; Turkey’s Cannes Grand Prize winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan; and Spain’s The Skin I Live In, the first “horror” effort from two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar. The latter has had a spotty track record with the Spanish Academy that makes the selections, but the rift is said to have eased. If they are in their right mind, they will certainly select Skin, which I think is one of Almodovar’s best and most entertaining films.
I am a bit surprised to see Belgium select Bullhead over Cannes prizewinner The Kid With a Bike from the highly respected Dardenne Brothers and also over Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight grand prize winner, the brilliant coming-of-age story Les Geants.
France usually picks something out of the main competition in Cannes, especially because festival director Thierry Fremaux is also on France’s official Oscar selection committee. But this year the country chose the well-received film that opened the smaller Critics Week competition, Declaration of War, an emotional story of young parents trying to deal with their child’s cancer diagnosis. Perhaps after seeing the Academy ignore last year’s home-grown Cannes Grand Prize winner Of Gods and Men they decided to go in a different direction. They ignored potential candidate Polisse, which won the Jury Prize in this year’s main competition at the fest. They also passed over another French-bred competition entry, the enormously popular The Artist (which added to its laurels by winning the Audience Award today at the San Sebastian Film Festival). The black-and-white silent film set and shot in Hollywood is probably not perceived as French enough, despite the Gallic credentials of director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin (Best Actor in Cannes). A Weinstein Company source told me they aren’t upset as they are aiming for a Best Picture slot and don’t necessarily want the film perceived as a foreign language picture.
Highlights among other official selections so far:
Germany selected Wim Wenders’ 3D modern dance film, Pina, giving it the distinction of being the rare entry that Academy committee members will have to don 3D glasses to view. Depending to whom you spoke on the gondolas in Telluride, the movie was either “brilliant” or “excruciating”. All seemed to agree that the use of 3D was perfection in this case. Hungary’s choice of the controversial Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse is bound to inspire walkouts at its official Academy screening. It reportedly has only 30 takes in the entire 146-minute running time and drew lots of negative talk in Telluride this year.
Israel hopes it finally brings home a trophy with Cannes winner (Best Screenplay) Footnote, which was picked up by Sony Classics. But that company might have an even better chance for extending its 2-year winning streak in the category with the rapturously received (in Telluride and Toronto) Iranian entry, director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, . Despite showing the raw side of its justice system, Iran had the balls to submit it. I would put it as the front-runner in this contest, the one to beat, particularly after comments I heard from Academy members who caught the same screening I did in Telluride.
Yet another Sony Classics title is contending, Agnieszka Holland’s grim but riveting Holocaust drama, In Darkness, which Poland anointed as one of the first titles selected for the Oscar competition.
Lebanon’s Where Do We Go Now? and Mexico’s Miss Bala are 2 other buzzed-about titles selected by their homelands to compete, with the former winning the Toronto Film Festival audience award that has previously gone to titles like The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.
For my money, 2 films I think could play extremely well with the mainstream foreign-language committee are Norway’s engaging marital comedy/drama, Happy Happy (now there’s a title committee members drowning in the darkness of some of these entries might run to see), and Finland’s irresistible Cannes competition entry Le Havre, essentially a French film from Finland’s great Aki Kaurismaki. No movie gave me greater pleasure in Cannes this year, and it is one to watch in this race. It opens stateside on October 21.
More to come as the contest unfolds. The Academy will not release the official list until all entries are in and vetted. Here is what has been entered so far:
Albania’s The Forgiveness of Blood; Austria’s Breathing; Belgium’s Bullhead; Bosnia’s Belvedere; Brazil’s Elite Squad 2; Bulgaria’s Tilt; Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar; Chile’s Violeta; China’s The Flowers of War; Colombia’s The Colors of the Mountain; Czech Republic’s Alois Nebel; Denmark’s Superclasico; Finland’s Le Havre; France’s Declaration of War; Germany’s Pina; Greece’s Attenberg; Hong Kong’s A Simple Life; Hungary’s The Turin Horse; Iceland’s Volcano; India’s Adaminte Makan Abu; Iran’s A Separation; Ireland’s As If I Am Not There; Israel’s Footnote; Japan’s Postcard; Lebanon’s Where Do We Go Now?; Lithuania’s Back in Your Arms; Mexico’s Miss Bala; Morocco’s Omar Killed Me; The Netherlands’ Sonny Boy; Norway’s Happy Happy; Peru’s October; The Philippines’ The Woman in the Septic Tank; Poland’s In Darkness; Portugal’s Jose and Pilar; Romania’s Morgen; Russia’s Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel; Serbia’s Montevideo, God Bless You; Slovakia’s Gypsy; South Africa’s Beauty; South Korea’s The Front Line; Sweden’s Beyond; Taiwan’s Warriors of the Rainbow; Venezuela’s The Rumble of the Stones; Vietnam’s Thang Long Aspiration.