The AMPAS Foreign Film Short List

Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for "No Man's Land," 2001.
Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for "No Man's Land," 2001.

From mid-October to mid-December a committee of several hundred members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences views feature film entries for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. Most of the entries are fictional features, but animation and documentaries are also eligible, and  in 2013 there were submissions in all three categories. The number of countries submitting varies from year to year but is on an upward arc. Last year 76 countries entered; one film was deemed ineligible.  Two countries, Saudi Arabia and Moldava entered for the first time.

The general screening committee breaks down into three groups: red, blue, and white. Members register for one of the groups,  seeing at least 16 of their group’s entries to be eligible to vote. They also receive credit on a 2 for 3 basis for films seen outside their chosen group. Members are encouraged to see as many films as possible. Some see over 50; many view more than 30. Double bill screenings are held on most weeknights and Saturday mornings.

The six highest rated films from the general committee screenings are announced at a meeting of the Executive Committee, which then proposes, deliberates and chooses three additional titles that make up the announced “short list” of nine titles. This additional step was inaugurated to give an opportunity for significant but perhaps overlooked films; it has proved to be popular. A third, separate committee changing yearly, sees the nine short list films over three consecutive days. Their selection becomes the five films announced the morning of the Academy nominations. This year, for the first time, Academy screeners of the five nominated films will be mailed to the full AMPAS membership, who are eligible to vote in the category. Previously, a member had to view all five nominees in theatrical screenings. It may be revelatory to see how this more open rule change affects the voting.

These annual screenings are eagerly awaited by many AMPAS members who especially love foreign films, motion pictures that are windows into the evolving dynamics of international filmmaking but also an opportunity to see the standout films from many of the year’s film festivals abroad. For many of us, the screenings are also glimpses into the social and cultural mores of countries we may not so easily visit, even yielding geo-political lessons of an unstable world.

There are plenty of surprises in the roster of submissions since the Academy does not select the films; they are chosen by a committee from each country, the process of which may not always be so transparent to AMPAS. This year, France chose to send the film Renoir about the last, arthritic years of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir rather than the highly touted Cannes Festival winner Blue Is the Warmest Color. It highlights a visit home by his WWI wounded son, Jean, who has yet to find his calling as one of the world’s great filmmakers. Mexico’s submission in both last year’s Despues Lucia and this year’s Heli (about the brutal drug cartels and army corruption) was a bold and controversial choice.

Some of the shortlisted films receive American distribution; many never do. In this essay we'll look at this year’s nine short list films. By the time you read this posting, four will have been eliminated: the entries from Bosnia, Germany, Hong Kong and Hungary.

Many consider the Italian entry The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino to be the frontrunner. Italy, one of the greatest of cinema countries, almost always fields a strong entry. The Great Beauty is a bravura exploration of the high life decadence of contemporary Rome seen through the eyes of an aging playboy. It gives more than a nod of the head to Fellini-esque conceits, especially of La Dolce Vita, while masterfully exploiting all the resources of contemporary technology. After a sometimes-frenetic pace, the film ends with a long, meditative shot of the passing riverscape, made from a boat gliding down the Tiber. The Castel Sant'Angelo is terminus. That haunting shot, fragmented in the trailer, becomes counterpoint to the dizzying pace of the film.

At the other end of the social/cultural spectrum is the entry from Bosnia/Herzegovina, directed by Danis Tanovic, a name familiar to AMPAS members from his Oscar winner of 2002, No Man’s Land, a film that was set against the 1993 Bosnian War, using major technical resources and budgeted at 14 million French francs. His current film, Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, was made for a mere 50,000 Euros, and photographed in documentary style in nine days with a Canon 5D. It recreates the real life story of a Roma family forced to deal with the lack of social and medical safety nets for the Gypsy people.

In a true life but fairy tale twist, the husband (non-actor Nazif Mujic) wins the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival. A moving Al Jazeera story relates his triumphant return to his village, holding aloft the festival’s Silver Bear—and now facing an uncertain future.

This year’s Danish entry The Hunt tells the story of a schoolteacher in a small town who is accused of sexual abuse of the daughter of his best friend. Like Nazif at Berlin, veteran Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen won a film festival award as Best Actor, this one at  Cannes. Mikkelsen's stunning performance is bound to focus  attention on this film, now that all AMPAS members will be able to vote in the category--- and most of the Academy's members are actors. The Hunt is photographed in a controlled but fluid style that pays homage to the director Thomas Vinterberg’s roots as one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement with his landmark film Celebration, a film photographed with a Sony PAL camera by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The Hunt was shot with an Arri Alexa.

The film from Belgium, The Broken Circle Breakdown, follows the fates of a musical couple and their band—unlikely exponents of American Bluegrass music—sung in dialect English in a style more than slightly evocative of the Carter Family. The tattooed Mother Maybelle character is played by Veerie Baetens who won the European Film Award as best actress.

In a category oft dominated by European films, two are from Asia. The Grandmaster is the Hong Kong entry, directed by Wong Kar-Wai; it fairly bleeds the Baroque tropes of action and violence for which he is known. Based on a true story of “the man who trained Bruce Lee,” this epic exercise in cinematic style should excite Quentin Tarentino.

There can be no greater contrast between the style and message of Wong Kar-Wai and that of Cambodian documentary director Rithy Panh who at age 11 was incarcerated in a Khmer Rouge rehabilitation camp. He escaped to Thailand at 15 and made his way to study at the French National Film School in Paris. He has made films on the Cambodian holocaust before, but his Academy shortlisted film this year is The Missing Picture, a meditation on that tragic period in Cambodia. It uses both documentary footage and deliberately crudely modeled clay figurines to dramatize the horror. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2013 Cannes Festival.

The legacy of the WWII Holocaust continues to dominate films of many European filmmakers. This year, films from Germany and Hungary explore new paths off this oft-traveled road. From Germany comes Two Lives, a story set in Norway that painfully reveals the legacy of Nazi Germany, a trauma that still infects personal lives.

The Hungarian film, The Notebook, thrusts the viewer into the horrors experienced by twin boys during WWII. Its cruelty is reminiscent of that dark masterpiece of Elan Klimov, Come and See. The stunning cinematography is by Christian Berger, who was nominated for an Oscar for the Michael Haneke 2010 black and white drama The White Ribbon.

From Palestine comes Omar, the story of a man who in the opening scene is climbing atop the Israeli built separation barrier—The Wall. Omar is caught between sides of a conflict that labels him either terrorist or liberation fighter. Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2006 film Paradise Now was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, directed it. Many consider Omar to be an even greater work.

Indicative of the rich variety of international cinema that continues to be set before us, there are always several films that for whatever reasons do not make the shortlist—films that, nevertheless, have strong advocates.

Three films from this year that affected me deeply are the Moroccan film Horses of God from director Nabil Ayouch. It is a speculative drama that explores the roots of multiple, simultaneous bombings in Casablanca in 2003. The film tracks a group of soccer playing boys from the Sidi Moumen slums—from their dirt pitch to their conversion to Islamist fundamentalism and finally as suicide bombers of a nightclub, restaurant and Jewish center in downtown Casablanca. The shock of the film lies partly in its depiction of the sympathetic, human side of these “terrorists.” It is a film that is bound to shake up a Westerner’s perspective.

A lighter film titled Of Horses and Men, from Iceland, juxtaposes the harsh beauty of the landscape with a tight-knit rural community whose lives are linked to and dependent on their stalwart horses. It is a bracing and amusing chronicle of the many ways that horses and humans are co-dependent.

A very dark movie that polarized the committee, and that caused an exodus during an explicit scene of torture, is the Mexican entry Heli. It documents the brutality and institutional corruption in the drug wars of Mexico’s central highlands. The film is unrelenting in its harshness, even from the first scene of a body hanging down from a roadway overpass; this is later revealed to be a flashback. Heli is also a story of lost innocence. The film has continued to haunt me. Though not chosen by the general or executive committees, director Amat Escalante was chosen best director at the 2013 Cannes Festival. Steven Spielberg gave him the award.

What I find totally engrossing in the AMPAS foreign film nomination process is the sheer number of stunning films submitted every year. Admittedly, these should be considered the 24 K gold of each country, and there is likely to be much dross in the leach—but the maturity and emotional depth of many films beggars the offerings of the American industry for year end Oscar bait, or even including the ambitious, indie films of Sundance. It is proof that even as Hollywood movies descend ever more into CGI fantasies, the cinema of many countries reflects crucial human issues and stories. But that may be changing.

The uncompromising director Béla Tarr announced that The Turin Horse, Hungary’s AMPAS entry two years ago, would be his final film. He announced

"I think I've said everything in my films that I have to say. Do you want me to repeat myself or churn out copies of my style? The Turin Horse puts a definitive close to my oeuvre. I can make no more Béla Tarr films.

State funding had dried up and there was little interest in his work beyond film festivals and art house cinemas. The Turin Horse was shown in Los Angeles at the intimate CineFamily on Fairfax

Béla Tarr’s valedictory film did not make the foreign film shortlist. Its inherent challenges (two and a half hours running time with only 30 shots) reflect the difficulty of any attempt to judge the best of anything. (A glance at the list of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature hardly reflects the greatest fiction writers of the past century.) After winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival, Tarr ran afoul of Hungarian politicians when he gave a German interview on his country’s “culture wars.” Some shared my advocacy of the film—but then there was the woman who tapped my shoulder as we turned in our booklets after an evening screening the following year. “I know you,” she insisted, “You’re the guy that liked ‘that horse movie.’” I readily confessed.

As we gallop along the ramparts of “chaos cinema,” the last of the “slow cinema” masters has pulled up lame. Time will judge whether The Turin Horse was simply a death rattle of the century of cinema or its glorious swan song. It’s not difficult to figure where I stand on this apocalyptic testament or what hope for world cinema lies beyond Béla Tarr.

Bela Tarr, master of "slow cinema."
Bela Tarr, master of "slow cinema."


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