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More Oscar foreign language screw-ups

Posted by Ty Burr  January 14, 2009 10:09 AM

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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.

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8 comments so far...
  1. This is an unfortunate title for this article.

    "Foreign language screw-ups" leads readers to believe that mistakes have been made in translation. One would expect a humorous article laden with goofy examples of bad translation.

    Posted by heyduke January 14, 09 12:46 PM
  1. I think the foreign language winner has lost some of its ability to bring in an audience unless it happens to be a "crowd pleaser".

    The Oscars should not be so heavily weighed. Like you said, the Oscars are like Valentine's Day. They're a way to sell tickets.

    There are far too many awards. The only one that matters is the Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. I'm hopin Homer Simpson wins. He's got it over the Carbon Rod any day.

    Posted by Peter January 14, 09 12:51 PM
  1. It's ridiculous for anyone to complain about awards that are based soley on opinion. This article even admits the bias when describing one of the "left behinds" in listing Captain Abu Raed with the note : (a personal favorite of his).

    So, in essence, it is one man's opinion against the opinions of others. To claim that his selections are "worthier" than some others is preposterous arrogance.

    Awards presentations, such as the Oscars, are inherently predicated on opinion. This makes them fatally flawed from the outset. Unless there is a true measure of which film is "better" than another, there's always going to be someone who feels they've been slighted.

    Posted by Ed S. January 14, 09 01:20 PM
  1. What about "Elite Squad" from Brazil??

    Posted by Alex January 14, 09 02:19 PM
  1. What about "Let the Right One In" from Sweden?

    Ty responds: It wasn't submitted. Under AMPAS rules, each country gets to submit one film for consideration, and Sweden chose to offer up "Everlasting Moments" by the revered director Jan Troell ("The Emigrants"). Toiugh luck for "Let the Right One In." The full list of every country's submissions is here:

    Posted by Dave January 14, 09 03:32 PM
  1. Saw Gomorrah at the red carpet screening in Cannes and can attest to its worthiness, though I thought Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo should have been the Italian entree. But, I, too, feel your pain. In fact, as a distributor of foreign language films in the US for almost 20 years, pain is basically all I get to feel. Tough business. It's why we moved online:

    Posted by manorborn January 14, 09 06:04 PM
  1. just a few comments here.
    first... academy members belonging to the foreign film screening committee must screen the foreign films in a theater for their vote on that film to be screeners.

    while I agree that Gomorrah and Captain Abu Raed are excellent films and from my perspective deserving of a nomination it is just that my perspective. Just as any other opinions are that......personal opinions. The nominated film will always be controversial there will occasionally be "That Film You Loved" left out of the competition. It doesn't follow that there is some conspiracy within the Academy. The People on the committee are industry professionals who dedicate themselves and only vote on the films they have seen. the votes are averaged and the top vote getters are the nominees.
    The committee is made up of about 1/3 under forty years of age and about 2/3 forty and up. To suggest that because of age a professional in the industry cannot have an intelligent opinion is prejudice and foolish.

    I am 61 years old and I've been a member of this committee for over 15 years.
    It is a privilege I take seriously as do the other dedicated members who find time in their schedules to view and access all the submitted films like it or not we do a good job.

    Posted by tom January 15, 09 03:29 PM
  1. I saw Captain Abu Raed and am quite sorry it did not at least make the finalist list. It is a powerful film, perhaps a touch too overtly aimed at heart strings in places but a wonderful and humane work the world deserves to see.

    Posted by Scott January 19, 09 09:16 PM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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