Firsts and disqualifications as a record 76 countries enter foreign Oscar race

Posted by · 11:45 am · October 7th, 2013

Well, no sooner had I updated the category than the Academy announced the final, official slate of submissions for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — and a bumper slate it is. Last year’s race featured 71 films, then a record number; this year, that record has been broken by a significant margin, with 76 territories vying for the award. 

Among them are a couple of nations entering the race for the first time, including Saudi Arabia (a favorite for a nomination, and possibly the win, with the feminist heartwarmer “Wadjda”), Moldova and Montenegro.

Speaking of Chad, the African country may be a minor filmmaking nation, but it’s the most high-profile of the last-minute entries: their selection, Mahamet Saleh-Haroun’s “Grigris,” played in Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A story of a physically disabled dancer who gets caught up in illegal petrol trafficking — with an unexpected feminist slant — it hasn’t been as well-received by critics as Haroun’s previous film, the father-son drama “A Screaming Man,” which won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2010. (You can read my own thoughts on the film in my Variety review from Cannes, in which I called it “elegant [and] geographically vivid,” but marred by “wan characterization.”) 

I remember being somewhat surprised that Chad didn’t enter that film (or, indeed, any other) in the race that year, having entered another of Haroun’s films in the past — it could feasibly have found some fans in the branch, so I’m glad they’re back in the mix. “Grigris” is probably a longer shot for Academy recognition, though it’s not inconceivable that its combination of sentiment and exoticism could appeal to a sect of voters, perhaps even within the executive committee. In any event, it’s always encouraging to see another African country in the Oscar hunt; the only others this year are South Africa, Egypt and Morocco.

Other late entries rounding out the list on our contenders page include “Agon,” from Albania; “Steppe Man,” from Azerbaijan; “Sang Kiai,” from Indonesia; and “All God’s Children,” from Moldova. Of those, only the Albanian entry has received much international exposure: a story of two Albanian immigrant brothers in Greece, it premiered at the Chicago Film Festival last year.

Every year, a couple of countries appear on the final Academy list with different films to the ones they originally entered, usually to comply with category rules that rendered their initial selections ineligible.

Two countries fall into that category this year: most prominently, the Czech Republic, which initially had one of the field’s higher-profile entries with Agnieszka Holland’s political drama “Burning Bush.” The four-hour film was disqualified because it initially aired as a miniseries on HBO Europe, thus preventing the Polish-born Holland from possibly becoming the first filmmaker to score nods in this category for three different countries. (She was nominated two years ago for Poland’s entry, “In Darkness,” and for West Germany’s “Angry Harvest” in 1985.) I had initially thought she might have fallen foul of the Academy rule that requires submitting countries to certify that their selection was creatively controlled by a citizen or resident, but it seems that wasn’t the problem.

Instead, a true Czech veteran will represent the country: Jiri Menzel, whose 1967 classic “Closely Watched Trains” won the Oscar 46 years ago. (He was nominated again in 1986 for “My Sweet Little Village.”) His latest, “The Don Juans,” is a broad comedy about the antics of a small-town opera troupe; it premiered last month at the Montreal Film Festival, where “slight but appealing” seemed to be the critical consensus. That’s been enough for voters in this category plenty of times before, and given Menzel’s record and reputation, this replacement contender shouldn’t be counted out.

Also switching horses is Lebanon, which is now competing with multi-stranded melodrama “Blind Intersections” instead of the more festival-traveled “Ghadi”; I’m not sure what the reason for the change is in this case. 

None of these developments, in my mind, do much to alter the apparent frontrunners in this category, which include such big-name festival hits as Denmark’s “The Hunt,” from director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen, and Iran’s French-produced “The Past,” which should benefit from the presence of two names familiar from the 2011 Oscar race: Asghar Farhadi and Berenice Bejo. The latter is part of a typically strong slate from Sony Pictures Classics, which has won the category for four years running: they have an equally strong contender in the aforementioned “Wadjda.” 

Savvy campaigners Roadside Attractions have a good shot at a nomination with Chile’s feel-good audience hit “Gloria”; it’s one of several strong contenders from this year’s Berlin Film Festival, including Romanian Golden Bear winner “Child’s Pose,” and child-led Australian festival hit “The Rocket.” Also hailing from Berlin (and representing Hong Kong) is perhaps the glossiest auteur title in the race, Wong Kar-wai’s martial-arts epic “The Grandmaster” — though I have my doubts about its chances.

We’ve plenty of time to contemplate all this, however. Official Academy screenings of all the submissions begin shortly, while pre-nomination shortlist of nine films (the six top vote-getters from the general branch, plus three selected by the smaller executive committee) will be announced in January.

Which films are you rooting for in the race, and which are you betting on? Check out the full list here, and tell us in the comments!

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