There’s only one thing for certain when it comes to Oscar’s foreign-language race: Someone is going to be disappointed. Whether it’s distributors whose films are rejected because of various Academy rules, or producers whose films are not submitted by their countries of origin, or critics who feel the best films are overlooked, the foreign-language film category is one of Oscar’s most contentious and most unpredictable.
Before AMPAS even announced the official list of 63 competitors Oct. 17, two of this year’s strongest would-be contenders, “The Band’s Visit” (from Israel) and “Lust, Caution” (Taiwan) were disqualified, sending their U.S. distributors, respectively, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features, scrambling to retool their Oscar campaigns to aim at the general categories.
“It is difficult with these rules,” admits Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, a longtime participant in the category, who still has “Persepolis” (France) and “The Counterfeiters” (Austria) in the race. “I think they should take a look at this. But I don’t know how you amend it,” he adds. “Should it say a film be predominately in a foreign language, except if the story dictates English?”
In the case of “The Band’s Visit,” which features Egyptians and Israelis speaking in a broken English that remains, in fact, subtitled, Barker likens the movie to past multilingual contenders such as “No Man’s Land” and “Four Days in September.” “I don’t know how you could label this anything but an Israeli film,” he says.
AMPAS’ foreign-language committee topper Mark Johnson acknowledges the issue. “Is it an Israeli film? Of course it is,” he says. “Is it thematically important to us? Yes. But it clearly did not satisfy the one rule, which I think is an important rule.” If they started to allow films that were in English, he says, “then the category would become irrelevant.”
But over the last few years, the branch has bent rules, re-evaluated stipulations and made changes to the voting process that Johnson argues has yielded a stronger crop of films. After Michael Haneke’s French-language Austrian submission “Cache” and Italy’s Arabic-language “Private” were rejected in 2005, for example, the committee repealed its statute that a film had to be in the official language of the submitting country.
Last year, Johnson also made a deliberate effort to recruit younger, more active Academy voters into the foreign-language category by adding a two-tiered voting process. After the regular committee divides the 63 films into four groups and whittles down the pictures to a nine-film shortlist, a 30-person committee — made up of “major actors and directors,” Johnson says, who don’t have the time to take part in the larger group — votes to come up with the final five.
But the elaborate voting procedures and secretive second-tier committee can be exasperating for some distributors. “It’s a frustrating category because it’s like some kind of cabal,” says Picturehouse’s Bob Berney, who is pushing a pair of strong contenders: “The Orphanage” (Spain) and “Mongol” (Kazakhstan). “It’s an unknown and mysterious process that involves timing and luck.”
Like many distributors, Berney also struggles with the fact that one of the most successful foreign-language films of the year, Picturehouse’s French-language “La Vie en rose,” was not even submitted by France to the category. “It’s a disappointment, but not a surprise,” says Berney, recalling the year “Y tu mama tambien” was passed over for another Mexican film. That leaves Picturehouse tubthumping “Rose” star Marion Cotillard for actress kudos as well as the film for tech categories such as costumes and makeup.
Longtime foreign-language pic consultant Fredell Pogodin, who is repping contenders “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (Romania), “Caramel” (Lebanon), “The Edge of Heaven” (Germany) and “A Man’s Fear of God” (Turkey), says this year it’s especially difficult to predict the nominees. “Last year, it was clear who the front-runners were,” she says. “This year, I don’t think it’s so clear.”
Which is the way Johnson likes it. “We ruin a lot of office pools,” he says. “That’s what’s so fantastic about it.”