Snubs leave Academy tongue-tied

Omissions revive foreign-language debate

When it comes to Oscar’s foreign-language race, there’s one language everyone speaks: controversy.

Amid all the kudos uncertainty this year, many Oscar-watchers were practically champing at the bit for a hot debate to sink their teeth into. They got their wish last week, with the release of the foreign-language shortlist — those nine films that will be whittled down to the final five nominees.

Despite efforts by committee chairman Mark Johnson to hone the selection process, many see this year’s shortlist as notable more for what’s not on it as what is.

The list was certainly respectable, with films by Denys Arcand, Giuseppe Tornatore, Andrzej Wajda and Nikita Mikhalkov, among others.

But left off were Romanian helmer Cristian Mungiu‘s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”; the animated “Persepolis” and Spanish helmer Juan Antonio Bayona‘s “The Orphanage.”

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The Acad’s choices seem to have left Euro film critics flummoxed.

“It’s a joke,” says Nick James, editor of Brit cineaste mag Sight & Sound. “The Academy really needs to get its act together.”

But idiosyncratic voting isn’t limited to one side of the Atlantic ocean. Of the five pics up for foreign-language honors at the British Academy Film Awards, not a single one is eligible for this year’s Oscars.

That discrepancy is largely due to the differences in guidelines between the two orgs.

BAFTA contenders “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “The Kite Runner” and “La Vie En Rose” were ineligible for the foreign-language Oscar category, which admits films submitted by their originating country only.

BAFTA’s sole criterion: that a pic not be in English.

Acad foreign-language committee topper Johnson tells Variety that the panel members who pick the final five are good: “It’s an incredibly impressive list (of people),” he says.

But he’s the first to admit his attempts to streamline the voting are a work in progress. He told L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas, “I thought we had made big strides last year, but apparently not big enough.” Asked about further retooling, he says: “That’s what has to be done, because in my mind, it can’t continue like this. I don’t believe these choices reflect the Academy at large.”

But the transatlantic confusion raises a bigger issue than the Acad’s voting procedures. As filmmaking involves more global cooperation, it’s becoming harder to cite any film as coming from a particular country. Aside from the U.S. involvement in “Diving Bell,” “Kite Runner” and others, Ang Lee‘s “Lust, Caution” was nixed for the Acad consideration on the grounds it wasn’t Taiwanese enough.

Maybe last year’s “Babel” was more prophetic than anyone realized.

Shalini Dore contributed to this report.