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Oscar Goes Its Own Way With Foreign Shortlist — But Is That So Bad?

Variety logo Variety 12/16/2016 Guy Lodge
© Provided by Variety

Well, the peace couldn’t last. Critical furor over the best foreign language film Oscar used to be an annual tradition — beginning with the announcement of the pre-nomination shortlist, when notably acclaimed titles were routinely eliminated, and continuing to the opening of the final envelope, when modestly reviewed disposables beat world cinema heavyweights on the regular. How could “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” miss the shortlist? How could “Departures” beat “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Class?” Such were the recurring outrages that plagued a perennially flawed category, adding insult to the ongoing injury that is the Academy’s secondary treatment of foreign-language cinema.

In recent years, however, the noise has died down a bit. Thanks to some judicious tweaking of the voting system by the foreign-language branch — notably the addition of a smaller executive committee to “save” worthy titles at the shortlist stage — the category has enjoyed a golden run of cinephile approval, consistently recognizing some of most celebrated and challenging films among the submissions. Wins for the formidable likes of “Amour,” “A Separation,” “Ida,” and “Son of Saul” gave most critics little to complain about; ditto unexpected nominations for such sophisticated, seemingly Academy-unfriendly titles as “Dogtooth,” “The Missing Picture” and “Embrace of the Serpent.” The system wasn’t perfect (nothing about the Oscars is), but it was moving in the right direction.

Yesterday, however, the announcement of this year’s nine-film foreign-language shortlist brought back a lot of the old kvetching. Yes, the nominal frontrunner for the award — bittersweet German father-daughter comedy “Toni Erdmann,” named 2016’s best film in multiple critics’ polls — made the cut, as did long-presumed contenders like Denmark’s powerful post-WWII soldier drama “Land of Mine,” former winner Asghar Farhadi’s Cannes-awarded Iranian mystery “The Salesman” and crowd-pleasing Swedish heart-warmer “A Man Called Ove.”

But critics and pundits alike expressed their disapproval at the list’s omission of certain high-profile, lavishly praised entries, in particular France’s submission “Elle.” Paul Verhoeven’s incendiary, subversively comic twist on the rape-revenge thriller has been racking up wins for its leading lady Isabelle Huppert on the critics’ award circuit, and nabbed the foreign film prize at last week’s (dubiously named) Critics’ Choice Awards. But either its divisive gender politics or its pulpy genre trappings — or, most likely, a combination of the two — proved neither to the branch voters’ nor the executive committee’s taste, and it was left out in the cold.

It’s in fine company on the outside. Also bemoaned for their absence were two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar, whose wistful Alice Munro adaptation “Julieta” has been his most acclaimed film since “Volver”; Chilean workaholic Pablo Larrain’s poetic anti-biopic “Neruda,” which was hoping to be the “Jackie” director’s second horse in the Oscar derby; “Fire at Sea,” Italian docmaker Gianfranco Rosi’s gut-wrenching, Meryl Streep-endorsed study of the European refugee crisis; delicate Finnish boxing drama “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki,” winner of the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes; Iranian-British helmer Babak Anvari’s nerve-jangling Sundance sensation “Under the Shadow,” and so the list goes on.

Needless to say, when you can only pick nine films from 85 submissions, some outstanding work is going to miss out. And it’s a safe bet that some of the most furious protests came from journalists who hadn’t seen all the films that did make the cut — a number of which don’t deserve to be dismissed for the forgivable crime of not being “Elle.” Australia’s “Tanna,” for example, may be an unexpected inclusion on the shortlist, but that doesn’t make it an unworthy one: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s dazzlingly shot romance between two young South Pacific tribespeople is an immersive window on an unfamiliar culture, and it lends a welcome additional shot of diversity to a mostly Euro-centric shortlist. (At this point I must echo sentiments tweeted by Oscar blogger Nathaniel Rogers earlier today: “Oscar doesn’t need a new foreign system,” he wrote, “but does desperately need Asian and Latin American-friendly committee members.”)

The selection of Swiss stop-motion feature “My Life as a Zucchini,” an alternately funny, tender and tough-minded study of childhood trauma and alienation, is a fresh and delightful one in a category that rarely honors animation or children’s cinema. And anyone who had already seen “Paradise,” veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s stately, spiritual, elegantly mounted Holocaust drama, shouldn’t have been taken off-guard by its inclusion; its own substantial merits aside, the Academy’s longstanding affinity for such material is well-known.

It is, as with any category at the Oscars, usually easier to dispute prominent omissions than the films that made it in their place. But by including Canadian enfant terribleXavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World,” the voters gifted critics with an obvious target for their ire. A shrill, claustrophobically stylized dysfunctional family drama with a starry cast including Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, the film earned mostly savage reviews at this year’s Cannes festival, making it easily Dolan’s least well-received film to date. Critics’ hostility intensified when it surprisingly took the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, while favorites like “Toni Erdmann” left the Croisette empty-handed.

Yet that upset victory should have tipped us off about the Oscar potential of Dolan’s film: the Cannes jury, like the Academy, is composed principally of filmmakers and thesps, who may well be more receptive to the film’s flashy technique and capital-A Acting than the festival press contingent. It bears repeating every year that the Academy is not composed of critics; Dolan’s selection further proves the point.

Are Oscar-watchers getting a little too worked up about this year’s shortlist, then? Well, yes and no. The list is certainly a little duller for “Elle’s” absence, and by omitting this buzzy, acclaimed, debate-inspiring hot potato, voters are sitting out a progressive critical and popular discussion in contemporary international cinema. (But hey, what’s new?) Still, Oscar expectations for Verhoeven’s deliciously slippery, nasty thriller may always have been inflated, beyond Huppert’s still-robust lead actress campaign. (Those panicking about what this miss means for her chances would do well to remember that Marion Cotillard scored a nomination after Belgium’s “Two Days, One Night” fell at the same hurdle in 2014.) “Elle’s” contentious stance on rape may also have been a deterring factor, but just as voters largely ignored David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” in the top races two years back, some genre fare is simply not the Academy’s tempo, and no amount of rule-adjusting can change that.

Yet voters — and the more discerning executive committee — shouldn’t feel obliged to vote for films they don’t love based on critical consensus alone. This year’s shortlist may not be the one we projected, but it remains a varied and characterful one, with the potential to bring some strong but lesser-hyped films to audiences’ attention. (And hey, if the universally lauded “Toni Erdmann” goes on to take the gold, as still seems likely, this kerfuffle will be mostly forgotten and forgiven by critics.)

Critics’ and voters’ tastes may have aligned more in this category in recent years, but occasional divergence shouldn’t automatically be treated as disobedience. Vive la différence, as this year’s most prominently overlooked nation might say.

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