Come Sunday, Michael Haneke's Amour will probably win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Up for four other prizes—including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay—the Austrian end-of-life drama will likely follow in the footsteps of the three previous Best Foreign Film/Best Picture double nominees (Life is Beautiful, Z, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), easily taking the Foreign Film Oscar and leaving the big one for domestic product. The four nominees it's up against (War Witch, Kon-Tiki, A Royal Affair, and No) are all fine, acclaimed films, but they know which way this thing is gonna go, and that is pretty much all there is to say about Best Foreign Film.
Only it's not. What is more interesting than the four films challenging Amour are two of the films that are absent. Leos Carax's Holy Motors was one of the most pleasurable films—foreign or local—of 2012, and critics were enraptured with it: It was deemed the year's best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Austin Film Critics Association, and the Online Film Critics Society. It also won the Golden Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Another Palme d'Or contender was Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard's daring, audacious, bare-knuckle love story. It won the London Film Festival and is up for Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. But neither Holy Motors nor Rust and Bone are up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, because the Oscars are dumb.
Okay, it's more complicated than that. Here's how it works: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will only consider one film per country for the category. So that country's motion-picture powers-that-be must comb through their entire output and select the single movie that best represents their culture—or, more likely, the movie they think is most likely to appeal to the folks on the Oscar nominating committee. A volunteer committee screens each of the single films those countries have put forward—71 this year, a record—and whittles it down to six titles, while three more are added by an "executive committee" that supervises the process. Those titles make up the "shortlist." They're then screened by screening committees in Los Angeles and New York, who then vote to knock it down to the final five.
This year, Iceland's The Deep, Romania's Beyond the Hills, Switzerland's Sister, and France's The Intouchables were the shortlist titles that didn't make the final cut. That must have really hurt for France, since the feel-good, commercially successful, and presumably Academy-friendly Intouchables was the film France's selection committee submitted instead of the trickier Rust and Bone and the weirder Holy Motors. They played it safe, and ended up with bupkus.
The most damning evidence of the Academy's Foreign Film dysfunction: Even the Golden Globes, famous for dysfunction and questionable ethics, are doing it better.
That said, should it have mattered? The addition of the "executive committee" and the intermediate step of the shortlist are relatively recent modifications to the nomination process, instituted after several acclaimed pictures didn't make the cut. But like the frequently decried, frequently retooled, yet still unsatisfactory Best Documentary nomination process, the selection rules for Best Foreign Film are still broken and will continue to be as long as the deeply silly "one movie per country" rule is in place.
Here's the most damning evidence of the Academy's Foreign Film dysfunction: Even the Golden Globes, famous for dysfunction and questionable ethics, are doing it better than they are. Amour won their prize for Best Foreign Film, of course, but they managed to nominate both Rust and Bone and The Intouchables. (They didn't have any love for Holy Motors, sadly.) That's right, they nominated two films from the same country. Can you imagine such a thing? Their rules are clear: "There is no limit to the number of films that can be submitted from a specific country." All they have to do is screen it. As the Golden Globes are the purview of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, perhaps they have a leg up on the good international films. But with that organization, it's not safe to assume much of anything.
The reasons for the Academy's rule are easy to guess at: They're trying to keep the workload of nominating committee members manageable, and on one hand, screening 71 movies is a lot of work. On the other, we're not talking about breaking rocks here. If the Academy can make the number of Best Picture nominees a negotiable item based on the quality of eligible films, surely some additional consideration could be devised for foreign films as well. Or perhaps that small executive committee could throw in additional titles, even if they breached the sacred single-movie limit. Whatever the solution, it's a problem worth trying to solve.
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