It’s now an Oscar-season tradition as time-honored and near-annual as nomination buzz for Meryl Streep: the critical outcry that greets the pre-Christmas announcement of the nine-film shortlist for best foreign language film. Almost every year, at least one hotly fancied favorite for the award is left off the list, overriding the ecstatic reviews, festival hype and precursor honors that — in the eyes of Oscar pundits, at least — appeared to guarantee it a place.
Since the pre-nomination shortlist was instated in 2006, shock omissions have included “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Gomorrah,” “Of Gods and Men,” “Le Havre,” “Gloria” and “Two Days, One Night.” last year, France’s much-touted “Elle” failed to make the grade, despite later earning a best actress nod for Isabelle Huppert.
The French have hit an unlucky streak, it seems. Once again, the media conversation surrounding last week’s shortlist announcement centered on the absence of the Gallic submission, as Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” was left out. The controversy was understandable; Campillo’s sprawling, emotionally wrenching AIDS-activist drama has been tagged as a potential Oscar frontrunner since its premiere in May at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix. Despite disappointing box office in the U.S., critics rallied around it, with the New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta groups all giving it their foreign-language prize.
More conservative voters in the general branch might not warm to the film’s length, talkiness and frankly queer sensibility, it was reasoned — and when the film got frozen out of the Golden Globes last week, we were given a hint that it wasn’t a universal favorite outside the critical enclave. Still, surely the Academy’s smaller executive committee — headed by branch chief Mark Johnson, and tasked since 2008 with adding three discerningly picked titles to the branch’s top six vote-getters — would see fit to save “BPM?”
They did not. Two other strong LGBT-themed dramas, Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” and South Africa’s “The Wound,” beat “BPM” to the list, as did three of its fellow Cannes prizewinners: Germany’s “In the Fade,” Russia’s “Loveless” and Sweden’s Palme d’Or champ “The Square.” Mostly endorsed by critics, all were expected inclusions, as were Lebanon’s “The Insult,” Israel’s “Foxtrot” and Hungary’s “Of Body and Soul.” The only real surprise among the inclusions was a pleasant one: first-time competitor Senegal got the nod for the vibrant slice of social realism “Félicité” (pictured).
As is inevitable, however, when only nine titles get picked from a longlist of 92, there was far more talk about what was left out than what was kept in, and the general verdict from onlookers was that the Academy had erred badly by passing on Campillo’s film. “Reform is desperately needed here,” tweeted journalist and Oscar expert Mark Harris. “And the fact that it’s a gay movie… this is a stain.” “This is stupid and absurd,” agreed Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson, and much of Twitter took the same tone — some even overlooking the inclusion of “A Fantastic Woman” and “The Wound” to speculate as to homophobia on the part of the voters and committee.
I, too, wish “BPM” were among the last nine standing, though unlike many of my colleagues, I think the Academy deserves more plaudits than brickbats for this list. No individual is ever going to fully agree with the Academy’s selection. Even more than Campillo’s wonderful film, I wish the Academy had found room for Argentina’s daring, feverish “Zama,” recently named 2017’s fourth-best film in Sight & Sound’s annual poll. (Other vocal factions mourned the absence of Spain’s “Summer 1993” and Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian entry “First They Killed My Father.”)
Lost in the hubbub over the “BPM” exclusion, however, was much talk about the strength and variety of the inclusions, which add up to one of the most diverse, well-rounded shortlists we’ve yet seen in the category: broad in its social, cultural and stylistic scope, more geographically exploratory and less Eurocentric than usual, and ranging from accessible crowdpleasers to heavyweight critics’ pets to under-championed gems deserving of a boost.
“A Fantastic Woman” is a sharp, angular study of transgender prejudice. “The Wound” intersectionally meshes black and gay identity politics to thought-provoking effect. “Foxtrot” and “The Insult” both dramatize fraught political crises in their respective, neighboring territories. “Loveless” goes for gutsily direct metaphor in its familial allegory for contemporary Russian dysfunction. “The Square” brings a dark comic viewpoint to outrage culture, while “In the Fade,” the most critically contentious of the selections, has still won admirers for its tough, topical terrorist narrative and fierce Diane Kruger performance. And if “Of Body and Soul” doesn’t push the hot buttons these films do, it doesn’t mean to: Ildiko Enyedi’s beguiling singular dream romance, the one female-directed film on the shortlist, is pleasingly off on its own beam.
But it’s the selection of “Félicité” — widely assumed to be an executive committee pick, though their selections are never made public — that is most exciting and heartening, and not just because of its regional freshness. (This marks the first time that two films from sub-Saharan Africa, rarely a presence, have made the cut.) Alain Gomis’ sensually rich study of a club singer and single mother scraping by on the streets of Kinshasa was lauded at the Berlinale, where it won the Grand Prix, but has largely flown under the radar since. Loosely structured and shot through with music and poetry, often in lieu of dialogue, it would be a formally bracing nominee in a category that tends to favor more conventional, westernized storytelling.
If, indeed, Johnson’s committee took a stand for “Félicité,” they should be commended for their adventurousness, not simply criticized for failing to choose the expected. The committee may have been founded in the wake of controversy over the 2007 omission of Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” but that’s not to say its sole remit is to act as a safety net for high-profile festival sensations. Rather, it’s there to promote worthy films that, be it culturally or cinematically, fall outside the comfort zones of voters in the larger branch.
“BPM” would certainly have been a worthy save by those criteria, but the same goes for Gomis’ film. (Not to mention the other two the committee chose, which are harder to speculatively identity than usual in such a generally credible list — but don’t be surprised if a big-name title as seemingly surefire as “Loveless” or “The Square” needed their help. The wiles of voters in this category are unpredictable.) The committee-amended shortlist system isn’t a tidy or ideal one, but few would deny that the median standard of nominees in the years since it was instated has improved, leading to richer, rangier nominee fields. Whether by their direct imposition or influence, recent nominations for robust, unconventional art films like “Dogtooth,” “The Missing Picture,” “Embrace of the Serpent” and “Timbuktu” have given a once-vanilla category a welcome shot of credibility. Something’s working.
In any event, even those who believe the category should reflect critical and film festival buzz would be hard pressed to say voters have neglected their duties when the list includes a Palme d’Or winner (“The Square”), Berlin’s Golden Bear (“On Body and Soul”) and Grand Prix (“Félicité”) winners, as well as the Venice jury’s Grand Prix pick (“Foxtrot”). Many critics liked “BPM” a little more than these; the Academy’s foreign-language committee, collectively, liked it a little less. Such has ever been the nature of the Oscars, but even the most bitterly disappointed “BPM” fans should find a couple of new standouts to root for from this year’s tasty shortlist.