Controversy, Record Entries, French Frontrunners As Oscar’s 2012 Foreign Language Race Kicks Off Tonight

The Foreign Language Film race for the 85th Annual Academy Awards kicks into high gear tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre with a double feature. Denmark’s  period costume drama, A Royal Affair will be followed by the Dominican Republic entry Jaque Mate, the first two of a record 71 entries (up from 63 in 2011) for this year’s competition. Is it good or bad to be first? Last year two films, Footnote and A Separation screened over the first weekend and both got nominated, with the latter actually winning.

Three committees divided into sections of Red, White and Blue (appropriate for an election year doncha think?) will each view a third of the entries with the White group seeing 23 and the other two each viewing 24 films. Other opening round entries are Norway’s Kon-Tiki and Slovak Republic’s Made In Ash showing Saturday morning and China’s Caught In The Web and Slovenia’s A Trip screening Monday night. In previous years there was a fourth Green committee but because of a time crunch the films are now being spread among just the three groups viewing more films. Committee members (which can number into the hundreds) must see a set minimum of their group’s titles in order to have votes count. Their six highest scoring movies move on to the semi-finals together with three others chosen by the small Foreign Language Executive Committee (usually “saves” of higher profile or more controversial entries the larger, generally more conservative volunteer committee failed to advance). Those nine films will be seen the weekend before the final five Foreign Language choices are announced with the other Academy Award nominations  on January 10th.

This year the schedule is tighter with Oscar noms coming two weeks earlier than usual. In order to complete the daunting Foreign Language screening process the initial screening program of all 71 films which in the past has spread out into mid-January (with a Christmas break) will now be completed on December 17, the same day Oscar nomination ballots are mailed for other categories.

The record total could have been even higher had several fairly high profile films from such Middle Eastern countries as Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia been entered but there is no participation from any of those countries this year in addition to Iran which publicly stated it was withholding the acclaimed A Cube Of Sugar as a protest over the anti-Islam video that made waves in the region recently. Iran actually won its first Oscar last year with A Separation so its absence is just more indication that politics has crept into the Academy’s foreign language process more than ever before. Egypt and Lebanon also competed last year.

It was for instance a tricky situation for Lebanese director  Ziad Doueiri whose powerful drama, The Attack was shown at Telluride and Toronto to acclaim  last month. The film about a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose wife turns out to be a suicide bomber ultimately apparently proved too much of a hot potato for Lebanon to enter even though the filmmaker, after sensitive negotiations, had assured me in Toronto that the Lebanese officials in charge of the process had greenlit the entry. That obviously changed since that conversation and Lebanon is sitting out the Oscar contest this year. Cohen Media has the film for U.S distribution.

Sony Pictures Classics picked up Saudi Arabia’s Wadjda for release next year but this terrific film, the first ever from the country directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, did not meet some of the Academy’s stringent requirements for exhibition in the home country (there aren’t movie theatres there but it can be seen on DVD).  Egypt’s After The Battle was actually a Cannes Film Festival competition entry in May but its controversial political content dealing with the recent revolution probably ran into roadblocks on the way to the Oscars. It’s not a great film but in a less toxic environment still might have gotten out of Egypt and over to Wilshire Boulevard. I have said many times this aspect of the entry process for the Foreign Language Oscar (leaving the decision  up to individual countries which frequently have political agendas and use the Oscars to promote them) is often compromised, and ripe for a complete overhaul if the Academy is really serious about honoring what are really the best and most significant efforts in international cinema.

Among those films that are in the competition there seems to be a widespread feeling among pundits that this is France’s race to lose. The country entered its mega-hit, The Intouchables which is the most successful international import from France ever, earning a remarkable $365 million worldwide and counting. That dwarfs any other film in the race, box office wise at least. As Deadline scooped earlier this week it is also the first DVD screener sent to all Academy members this year as domestic distributor The Weinstein Company plans to campaign it across the board including Best Picture further strengthening its profile. It’s a real crowd pleaser and should, if past tastes are any indication, be right up the committee’s alley. Oddly it has one of the worst slots in the lineup following Malaysia’s  Bunohan as the second half of a double bill on Halloween, Wednesday October 31. Of course it has been playing non-stop in U.S. theaters since May so it probably won’t have a problem being seen.

On top of that French triumph there is the Austrian entry, Amour which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and stars French icons Jean Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert. It is French in every way except its director Michael Haneke is from Austria. The nationality of the helmer takes precedence most often in determining which country enters films, even if not in the director’s native language. So does it come down to a Gallic battle between Intouchables  and Amour as current odds indicate, or are there other gems awaiting the committee? You bet.

Tonight’s opener A Royal Affairwhich played Telluride and Toronto, is a first rate and very classy period piece starring Mads Mikkelsen that should have great Academy appeal given their penchant in the past for costume dramas. Perennial contenders Italy and Spain both have strong entries this year too. Italy’s Caesar Must Die from the great Taviani brothers is about a performance of Julius Caesar in a high-security Roman prison and also may benefit from being one of the shortest entries at only 76 minutes. When you are dealing with seeing 71 films brevity can count. And if short running times help, watch out for Lithuania this year. Its entry, Ramin is one of the shortest in memory clocking in at only  58 minutes. Spain’s  Blancanieves is another black and white homage to silent films and could benefit from leftover goodwill and feelings about last year’s big Best Picture winner, The Artist. The Cohen Media Group just announced today it will release the film domestically.

Among others, China’s Kaige Chen makes his entry, Caught In The Web a must-see. There’s the crafty political drama, No about a corrupt election in Chile starring Gael Garcia Bernal that has been a hit on the festival circuit since winning Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. It’s a contender for sure and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics. Switzerland’s Sister has drawn praise from many observers along with the Philippines entry, Bwakaw, recently singled out by Time Magazine as one of the key must-sees at the currently running New York Film Festival. Canada’s WarWitch, Norway’s Kon Tiki, Romania’s Cannes winner Beyond The Hills (the longest film in the competition at 152 minutes and showing as a single feature on December 8th), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Children Of Sarajevo, Australia’s Lore, Afghanistan’s The Patience Stone, Germany’s very fine Barbara (which I caught in Telluride), South Korea’s Pieta, Sweden’s The Hypnotist, India’s Barfi!, Iceland’s The Deep and Israel’s Fill The Void (another SPC pickup) are other hightly touted titles. But there is much more for film lovers to choose from beyond those and despite the French edge at the starting gun this could turn into a real race with one of the most promising lineups in years.

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