A closer look at Oscar's foreign-language shortlist
I've been saying for some time now that the Academy's cull of the foreign-language field from 71 to nine contenders would be a heartbreaker, and so it was.
Among the standout films eliminated from the competition after yesterday's announcement are: Australia's vivid, perspective-bending WWII tale "Lore," Belgium's wrenching domestic drama "Our Children," Hungary's brutal Berlin Silver Bear winner "Just the Wind," Mexico's disquieting conversation piece (and Cannes Un Certain Regard champ) "After Lucia" and Germany's acclaimed, elegant Stasi-era character study "Barbara." We salute them, and many others: here's hoping they find the international audiences (and, in some cases, distributors) they deserve in spite of this setback.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the films that did make the cut are, by and large, a deserving lot, representing a healthy balance between populist and more provocative voting instincts. Some will carp about the inevitable selection of the middlebrow crossover smash "The Intouchables" over more artistically accomplished fare -- but there are many more who legitimately love it. Others will complain that, with seven of the nine selections hailing from Europe, the shortlist isn't as representative of world cinema as it might have been -- but would we really want the Academy to vote in a more tokenistic fashion?
In any event, how many will argue against the immaculate construction of universal critics' favorite "Amour," the technical daring and political wit of "No," or the visual panache and scrappy emotional kick of "Sister?" Some of 2012's best films -- foreign-language or otherwise -- are still in the hunt for this too-often compromised award. For that, the Academy deserves some credit, even if they'd have had to work hard to make too many egregious mistakes in a banner year when most countries, for once, chose their submissions wisely.
Boiling down a planet's worth of international cinema to a mere nine (and, in a few weeks, five) films is always going to be a problematic, borderline-absurd process, but that's the nature of the awards-season beast: perhaps, with the Best Picture category now permitted up to 10 nominees, its multilingual counterpart deserves the same courtesy.
The Academy didn't spring many surprises with the shortlist. Seven of the selections -- "Amour," "The Intouchables," "A Royal Affair," "No," "War Witch," "Sister" and "Kon-Tiki" -- were already featured in the top nine on our Contenders chart for the category. The remaining two were hardly off the radar, either. Icelandic maritime survival thriller "The Deep" is the only title on the shortlist I haven't yet seen, but was reported to have played extremely well at its Academy screening. Romania's "Beyond the Hills," obviously, has been a high-profile arthouse property since its Cannes debut.
Most have received ample exposure on the festival circuit and, in some cases, on general release. In addition to "Beyond the Hills," "Amour" and "No" are Cannes babies, having triumphed in the Competition and Directors' Fortnight sections respectively; "A Royal Affair," "Sister" and "War Witch," meanwhile, all debuted (and won prizes) in competition at Berlin. "The Intouchables" and "Kon-Tiki," both being distributed Stateside by The Weinstein Company, don't have quite the same festival cred, but hardly need it: the former is already the year's highest-grossing foreign-language film, while the latter, a robust seafaring epic that is the most expensive production in Norewgian industry, also boasts crowdpleasing potential.
What six titles were chosen by the general branch voters, and what three were "saved" by the executive committee? Since the voting procedure was changed in 2008, that's the guessing game played by most Oscar pundits following the announcement of the shortlist, and it's a particularly tough one this year. Only one film strikes me as an obvious executive-committee pick: "Beyond the Hills."
Cristian Mungiu's gruelling, somber parable on matters of spiritual and moral corruption, arguably represents a challenge to the branch's more conservative members -- who, after all, controversially shut out Mungiu's last film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," in 2007. Given that the "4 Months" omission is widely viewed as the final straw that led to the Academy's revision of the voting system, one might view the inclusion of "Hills" -- which hasn't been quite as unanimously acclaimed as its predecessor -- as an apology of sorts on the executive committee's part. Either way, it's nice to see the Romanian New Wave, one of world cinema's most celebrated recent movements, finally acknowledged to some extent by the Academy.