Scott Feinberg at the LA Times' awards blog The Envelope reports on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' foreign-language short list, a group of nine films that -- once again -- leaves out a couple of the most well-received imports of the year.
Last year it was Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" and France's "Persepolis" that got the shaft. As the 2009 awards takes shape, covering the 2008 calendar year, the list of six films nominated by several hundred Academy members who are interested enough to screen a minimum number of the 65 eligible films, augmented by three films chosen by a new 20-member executive committee -- aka, a "panel of experts" -- still doesn't make outsiders happy. Missing is Italy's "Gomorrah" (photo above), a fact-based expose of the Mafia in Naples that has been on a number of 10-best lists (including Wesley's), won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and was nominated for a Golden Globe. A lesser-known but much-loved foreign-language contender that is off the list is "Captain Abu Raed," a heart-tugging drama that's Jordan's first-ever submission to the Oscars.
Making the list are a few high-profile titles like Golden Globe-winner "Waltz with Bashir" (opening on Friday in Boston), Turkey's Cannes hit "Three Monkeys," and France's "The Class" (also on Wesley's list and opening here in February) as well as movies that are off my radar, like Mexico's "Tear This Heart Out" and Japan's "Departures." Of the nine, five will make it to the final step when nominations are announced Jan. 22.
Feinberg, who has made a point of seeing as many of the contenders as he can this year, isn't arguing that any of the nine are unworthy movies -- just that "Gomorrah" and "Captain Abu Raed" (a personal favorite of his) are worthier and that anyone who has been paying attention would agree. I feel his pain, but I think there's a conceptual disjunct here: That the Oscars are supposed to reflect critical reality as opposed to Hollywood reality.
More than the Golden Globes -- glitzier but selected by ostensibly working journalists -- the Academy Awards are a popularity contest that serve as a core sample of AMPAS members' opinions at the time the nominations and ballots are mailed in. This jibes with show-business reality in the acting and picture categories, but in areas that require context and expertise -- the documentary and foreign-language categories most notoriously -- the Oscars can't help looking naive. To participate in the foreign-language shortlisting process, an Academy member has to watch a lot of foreign language movies (most of them at home on screeners, I'm guessing), and for that, you need time on your hands. Consequently, the nominators tend to be older voters who (again, I'm guessing) aren't as open to violence, outre sexuality, or new ways of seeing things as a younger crowd might be. At the very least, this explains why so many Holocaust movies get nominated.
Where Feinberg errs, I think, is in his insistence that the Oscars have to conform to the opinions of the critical and festival communities, who in most cases are the only people who have seen these films at this point. He's wrong: Oscar voters can do what they damn well want and, if they want to look like know-nothings, they'll suffer for it in the long run. The Academy wasn't founded back in the 1920s as an arbiter of taste but as a PR move designed to keep Washington bluenoses, state censors, and labor agitators at a safe distance: the awards thing was just window dressing. To take it as a genuine imprimatur of quality is wishful thinking at best, naive at worst.
That said, everyone knows what the words "Oscar winner for best foreign language film" mean on a newspaper ad: an audience, and often the only audience a foreign film gets in this country. In that sense, "Gomorrah" and "Captain Abu Raed" have both lost a major foothold in the US marketplace, and that's a particular shame. But it's not just the Oscar nomination process that's broken. That's just the tip of the iceberg.