Foreign-Language Films Party Like It's 1992

by robbiefreeling
January 16, 2008 5:48 AM
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Nikita Mikhalkov? Denys Arcand? Giuseppe Tornatore??! Excuse us for thinking we just woke up on the eve of the presidency of that other Clinton, but we're feeling, uh, nostalgic, upon today's announced narrowing of the eligible films for Oscar's Best Foreign-Language Film -- or, as it's more commonly known, Best Movie Picked From a Random Group of Movies from Some Countries Seen By a Handful of People in a Room Somewhere. The wonderfully alarmist Scott Foundas has certainly said it better than we ever could, but we will say that though the preference evidenced today by that mysteriously appointed foreign film committee for the palatable middlebrow wasn't surprising, it was as disheartening as ever.

As usual, the film has to be appointed by its country to be eligible (one imagines Kim Jong-Il sitting down with his cabinet, stroking his chin to decide whether to sumbit A Schoolgirl's Diary or Lazy Cat Dinga for nomination), and among the arbitrary rules, only one film per country, and it can't be an international coproduction (tsk tsk, Kieslowski!). It continued today, when the Academy announced the final nine, which did admittedly contain a couple films of interest, including the widely unseen latest from Andrzej Wajda and the Israeli film Beaufort (strong filmmaking there, but piffle compared to some of the great artistry on display elsewhere), but mostly was a stirring reminder of the ridiculous votes made in the past decade, in favor of Holocaust inspirationals, Italian twee, and coming-of-age pablum. We shouldn't have hoped for much more, but complete slaps in the face to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Persepolis, Silent Light, Secret Sunshine, all of them extraordinary in one way or another, amounts to a full-scale idiocy. And it must be reiterated, these films didn't even make it to the final round, while self-parodic titles such as The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (not to be confused with When Father Was Away on Business, Kusturica's nominee from 1988) squeaked in for another level of what I'm sure will be distinguished discernment.

I mean, seriously, listen to this from the official press release:

The Phase I committee, consisting of several hundred Los Angeles-based members, screened the 63 eligible films and their ballots determined the above shortlist.

A Phase II committee, made up of ten randomly selected members from the Phase I group, joined by specially invited ten-member contingents in New York and Los Angeles, will view the shortlisted films and select the five nominees for the category.

Phase II screenings will take place from Friday, January 18, through Sunday,January 20, in both Hollywood and New York City.

Have your eyes crossed yet? What does it matter? Nothing really, they're Oscars, right? Well, for little-seen foreign films, it means a hell of a lot of recognition that most subtitled movies don't get outside of cinephile circles, and more of a chance at an audience. And a film like Cristian Mungiu's masterwork needs that recognition, especially in a marketplace flooded with so many films that success borders on the miraculous.


  • Bob Violence | January 21, 2008 2:36 AMReply

    International coproductions are allowed -- probably 90% of the submissions (including everything on this year's shortlist) would be disqualified otherwise. "Red" was disqualified because it was nominated by France but Kieslowski was Polish; Poland couldn't nominate it because French isn't widely spoken there. The Academy altered the language rules after "Caché" was disqualified a couple years back so it no longer matters what language a film is in, as long as it's not English (“Mongol” is Kazakhstan's nominee even though it's almost entirely in Mongolian). There's also been issues with coproductions where countries fight amongst themselves for the right to submit it and nobody ends up doing it.

  • robbiefreeling | January 17, 2008 4:48 AMReply

    Wow, I don't envy that gig, Brother. I thought Beaufort was a pretty good movie, but not particularly memorable...and I'd like to see one of the Academy voters get their tongues tied into a pretzel trying to explain how it's better than 4 Months, Silent Light, Secret Sunshine, etc. (Gee, I can't believe Taxidermia didn't get nommed...JK.) I can't even begin to imagine rationalizing the relative quality of the Mad Libs kids' movie, let alone sitting through the damn thing.

    Nathaniel, I'm in agreement about release patterns. When I hear things are getting one-week releases, it always seems like wishful thinking, er, I mean, INSANE DELUSION! How could a one-week qualifying run for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days possibly be enough to get such a difficult film on the radar? If they wanted noms, it should have been released after the NYFF, you're correct. However, I think this is a case of a small distributor trying some desperate, last-minute tactics...I think it's quite possible that, despite the Palme d'or, little IFC didn't quite know what it had on its hands, and its Oscar hopes were just tacked on at the last minute when they saw the year-end response they were getting ("Wait, you mean this thing actually PLAYS to audiences? We thought it was a difficult Romanian abortion movie?!"...understandable).

    That said, it's a stupid tactic, in some ways, and it also didn't work for The Band's Visit (one week qualifying run? What are they smoking at Sony?) or, say, The Libertine...

    But hopefully some sort out outcry will light a fire under their crinkly, puckered asses and they'll try to reform the situation. The process is idiotic, misinformed, arbitrary, and geriatric. Giving each country one entry is a nice gesture towards a democratic, all inclusive system, but it doesn't make any sense...with such limited avenues, and with such obvious quality films (and popular ones to boot) being left out for such rules, the title of the category itself, Best Foreign Language Film, doesn't even mean anything.

  • brotherfromanother | January 17, 2008 3:59 AMReply

    My sojourn in Palm Springs involved screening all but six of the foreign-language Oscar submissions (the missing titles included Silent Light). I can say that the Tornatore and the Mikhaklov are both less genteel than you'd expect (especially The Unknown, which is essentially Giuseppe-goes-Giallo) but beyond that it's an awful list: wait until you see Mongol (fun for the whole horde!). Arcand's entry is probably his worst movie and certainly his most uninspired; The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is a childhood-remembrance drama Mad Lib, Beaufort is tense and atmospheric and zzzz and The Trap sure was made in Serbia -- and that's about it.

  • Josh | January 17, 2008 3:51 AMReply

    For many of us who like to follow the oscar race and naively expect a fare handling of nominations and awards, what can we do to force the academy to change their stupid system and rules? I want to see 4 months 3 weeks 2 days, secret sunshine and most of all the wonderfully poetic silent light, get nominated. I am so mad and disappointed!

  • Nathaniel R | January 17, 2008 1:27 AMReply

    call me naive but i think the missing story nobody is reporting on is how pathetic it is that distributors aren't really experimenting with other ways of promoting their films than the notoriously unreliable Oscar nomination.

    You cannot depend on these!

    I was furious when I heard that 4 Months had been pulled from its intended fall release because I knew this might happen. As someone who catalogues this category every year I've seen it time and time again, films leaving their planned release dates and plopping their hopes on the late January sometime in February release. All to coincide with imaginary Oscar nominations. Some of them are even shelved when they don't get nominated. it's maddening.

    I think the Mungui picture was strong enough to make more of a mark had it actually opened in November. Screw the actual Oscar nomination. Stamp that bitch on the DVD box and it'll help just as much as it might in theaters. Oscars influence on box office outside of the best picture category is all theoretical anyway.

  • Chad Channing | January 16, 2008 9:21 AMReply

    Silent Light is the best film I saw last year, let alone the best Foreign Film, an epithet, to me, at least, which belongs to another time and place, one where cars were built like tanks and women smiled for no good reason. There are only films. Silent Light and 3 Days and Secret Sunshine and Flanders should not be consigned to any ghetto, but they are, I suppose, because most of the American film community secretly feels totally inferior to what the rest of the world is doing.

  • robbiefreeling | January 16, 2008 5:37 AMReply

    Elaborate if you could, saw 49 of them? 49?!

  • brotherfromanother | January 16, 2008 4:10 AMReply

    I saw all of these films (well, 49 of them) as a juror in palm springs over the last ten days. And let me say that this list is about as bad as it could be.