Having been on holiday in Greece for the past week, I’ve rather lost track of the submissions for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – and as you’d expect with the entry deadline a little over a week away, there’s been a lot of activity since I last updated you, including a submission from the most-nominated country in the category’s history, and the first to prompt critical outrage over the selection process.
The former, of course, is France, a near-perennial player with 36 nominations under its belt – though the country hasn’t managed a win since 1992’s “Indochine.” In recent year, their submissions have had an air of inevitability to them: for four years running, they’ve simply picked the biggest homegrown winner from the Cannes competition, a strategy that paid off with nominations for “The Class” and “A Prophet,” but came undone last year when “Of Gods and Men” didn’t even make the pre-nomination shortlist.
If French selectors weren’t already thinking about a switch in tack, this year’s Cannes crop kind of forced their hand. It wasn’t short of Gallic-flavored hits, but Aki Kaurismaki's “Le Havre” is a Finnish co-production that was rightly submitted by the director’s homeland, while Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” is in English. Short of submitting Maïwenn’s divisive Jury Prize winner “Polisse,” perhaps too procedural-based for many voters, they’d have to look elsewhere.
And so they have. This year’s French submission, Valerie Donzelli's “Declaration of War” did play the Croisette, but in the far lower-profile Critics’ Week strand, where it went mostly unheralded by international critics. That’s no reason to underestimate its chances, however. As the recent list of winners in the category proves, voters care little for major festival or critical plaudits; they like what moves them. And Donzelli’s film, an autobiographical drama about a young couple dealing with their infant son’s brain tumor, sounds very much like it could have the requisite emotional pull.
Sundance Selects picked up "Declaration of War" shortly after Cannes -- the first time since 2006 that category wizards Sony Pictures Classics haven't backed the French pony -- which could give some indication of its potential audience appeal. Reviews from English-speaking critics have been warm, while the French critical reception upon its release last month was closer to ecstatic; not that one ever takes one's eye off the French, but this could be one to watch all the same.
One submission with higher name-recognition factor comes from Russia, but that's not to say it's met with approval. In picking Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel," the second part of a sequel to his excellent 1994 political drama that itself scooped an Oscar in this category, the Russian selection panel has been deplored not only by critics, but by the panel's own chairman, Vladimir Menshov. Declaring the film -- the highest-budgeted in Russian cinema history, which tanked with critics and audiences alike earlier this year -- an "inappropriate" choice, Menshov has called on Mikhalkov to withdraw it from consideration.
I haven't seen the film, though I did see its predecessor "Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus" (are you still with me?) at its premiere in competition at Cannes last year, where it met with uniformly dismal reviews and similarly flunked with Russian audiences. "Lumbering, cacophonous and frequently hilarious," I wrote in my review then; I've been given little reason to hope that things improve in the next chapter.
It's an embarrassing state of affairs, and a hard slap in the face of filmmakers like Andrei Zyvagintsev, whose stunning moral study "Elena" was lauded by critics at Cannes, where it won an Un Certain Regard award (and remains a contender for my own year-end Top Ten). If you're wondering how such a roundly disliked film got the nod against the will of even the man charged with managing its selection, one need only look to Mikhalkov's strong political alliances, plus his presidency of the Russian Cinematographers' Union, to suspect the decision may not have been entirely an artistic one.
As it stands, it's only the latest in a long line of examples pointing up the flaws in the Academy's system of allowing countries to select their contenders, rather than applying their own filtering process. (Italy's "I Am Love" was a widely mourned casualty of the system last year.) I very much doubt Mikhalkov will step down, but even factoring in the veteran filmmaker's strong Oscar record (he has two nominations bracketing his 1994 win), I doubt we'll hear much more of "Citadel" in the coming season.
Another country to raise eyebrows, albeit to a lesser degree, with their submission is Belgium: while many assumed they'd pick the Dardenne brothers' Cannes Grand Prix winner "The Kid With a Bike," the country has plumped instead for "Bullhead," an offbeat thriller about illegal hormone growth in the cattle industry that found fans at the Berlinale and has been a hit at home. The Belgians have submitted the Dardennes' films on three previous occasions, but have missed the shortlist each time; they might have stood a better chance with the brothers' latest, and arguably most accessible, work, but one can hardly blame them for trying a different route.
Russia, meanwhile, isn't the only country trying its luck with a sequel: Brazil's submission is the highest-grossing film in the country's history, Jose Padilha's police actioner "Elite Squad 2." The selection is midly surprising since they didn't submit its 2007 predecessor, which won the Berlinale Golden Bear. Critical consensus, however, is that the new film represents a substantial improvement on the first, so perhaps they're hoping the Academy will take the bait; still, it's difficult to see them going for a sequel when they have no evident relationship with the first.
Rounding up some other titles recently added to the mix, we have Bosnia and Herzegovina's "Belvedere," Bulgaria's "Tilt," Canada's "Monsieur Lazar," Colombia's "The Colors of the Mountain," Hong Kong's "A Simple Life" (recent winner of the Best Actress award at Venice), Iceland's "Volcano," Ireland's "As If I Am Not There," Lithuania's "Back To Your Arms," Peru's "October," Philippines' attractively titled "The Woman in the Septic Tank," Slovakia's "Gypsy" and Vietnam's "Thang Long Aspiration."
Of those, I've seen only the Peruvian entry, which won a special mention in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year and -- well, to level with you, I can't remember a thing about it, though I think it was amiable enough. If you have a better memory, or just better information, on any of the films in the running, do share your thoughts in the comments.
The current list of submissions:
“The Forgiveness of Blood”
Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Elite Squad 2″
“The Colors of the Mountain”
“Declaration of War”
“A Simple Life”
“The Turin Horse”
“As If I Am Not There”
“Where Do We Go Now?”
“Back in Your Arms”
“Omar Killed Me”
“The Woman in the Septic Tank”
“José and Pilar”
“Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel”
“Montevideo, God Bless You!”
“The Front Line”
“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”
“The Rumble of the Stones”
“Thang Long Aspiration”