The Word: Foreign language Oscar race wide open

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A record 76 movies will vie for the 2014 foreign language Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week, and the race looks to be wide open. Yet even as the narrowing-down to five final nominees has barely begun, the seemingly annual controversy over the process is already in full swing.

Unlike last season, when Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's French-language "Amour" rolled up prize after prize en route to the Academy Awards and eventually took home the statuette for best foreign language film, there's no foregone front-runner this time around.

"The good news for everybody this year is that there is no 'Amour' this year," said Jeff Lipsky of Adopt Films, which is releasing two of the movies in contention: Israel's "Bethlehem" and Palestine's "Omar."

For the first time, final voting in the category will be open to all members of the academy without restrictions. Previously any academy member wishing to vote in the category had to see all five nominees in a theater; this year, screeners of the five nominees will be sent to all members, who will be allowed to vote as in most other categories.

As in the past, potential contenders are initially chosen not by the academy but by committees in each country; only one submission from each nation is allowed, and the process in each country can be rife with internal politics. This year, at least two prominent films from the festival circuit, India's "The Lunchbox" and Japan's "Like Father, Like Son," were not chosen by the committees of their respective countries.

The director of "The Lunchbox," Ritesh Batra, set off some controversy when he publicly complained about being passed over in favor of the lesser-known "The Good Road" and was subsequently forced to apologize.

Other high-profile titles are not in the race because they did not meet certain academy rules. For instance, the French film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" -- which won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize this year (just as "Amour" did last year) -- missed the academy's cutoff for eligibility because it did not open in French theaters before the end of September.

The film will be eligible next year. Yet even if "Blue" had been released in time, whether it would have been chosen by the French delegation, which ultimately submitted "Renoir," is another matter. Such vagaries can be frustrating for U.S. distributors who handle foreign titles and hope their inclusion in the Oscar race can lure in audiences.

"This happens every year. This is how ridiculous the system is and how flawed it is," said Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, who is releasing both "Blue" and "Like Father, Like Son."

"There is something wrong with it," added Mr. Sehring, "and it's almost an embarrassment to the academy that the Golden Globes this year, I guarantee you that their lineup of what qualifies for best foreign language film is going to be much more representative than the academy."

Even with a few notable omissions, there will still be plenty of movies to watch out for. Sony Pictures Classics has released the winner the past four years running and this year has two competitive titles. One is "Wadjda," which is the first movie submitted by Saudi Arabia (which has no commercial theaters) and whose campaign could benefit from its powerful back story of how female director Haifaa Mansour came to make the film. It also has the Iranian submission "The Past," a French-set, mostly French-language story made by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose previous film, "A Separation," won the foreign language Oscar in 2012.

"I think the process of selection for the foreign language film category, it has gotten better and better," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "But still something happens at every stage, whether it's the country selection or the shortlist or the final five where you go, 'How did that happen?'"

Besides Saudi Arabia, Moldova submitted for the first time, and Montenegro, formerly part of Yugoslavia, entered for the first time as an independent country.

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First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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