Tuesday, January 15, 2008 — a date that shall live in Academy Awards infamy. Earlier today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled the nine films that have been shortlisted for this year's Foreign Language Oscar, of which five will comprise the final list of nominees to be announced (along with all Oscar nominations in all categories) one week from today. And here's the rub: The year's most acclaimed foreign-language film, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn't among them. This isn't, mind you, one of those periodic cases of a film being disqualified on the basis of the Academy's notoriously serpentine rules and regulations, as happened earlier this year with the Israeli film The Band's Visit and two years ago with Michael Haneke's Caché. No, 4 Months has been in this race from the beginning as Romania's official entry, competing against submissions from some 62 other countries, and its failure to advance to this penultimate round of the nominating process is as embarrassing a blunder as any in the Academy's history: You can put it right up there with the Best Picture win by Crash (2004).
To put things into perspective, 4 Months isn't the only significant foreign film shut out by the Academy this year. Of the 63 eligible titles, also failing to make the shortlist were Marjane Satrapi's animated Persepolis (from France), as well as the film with which it shared the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' transfixingly beautiful Mennonite marital drama Silent Light; Hong Kong director Johnnie To's masterful neo-noir Exiled; another Cannes prize-winner, South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong's Secret Sunshine, which also placed first by a wide margin in the “best undistributed film” category of the recent Village Voice/L.A. Weekly film critics poll; and the effortlessly charming two-hander Belle Toujours, by the 99-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.
Each of those omissions, however, is markedly less surprising than that of 4 Months. Persepolis, for example, is considered a shoo-in for a nomination in the Academy's Animated Feature category, and it could be that voters on the Foreign Language committee felt that the film would be sufficiently recognized that way. Genre films like Exiled are almost never acknowledged by the Academy in any non-technical categories. And hardcore art-house directors like Lee, Reygadas and Oliveira are perennial Oscar bridesmaids: Just consider that in the 51 years since the Academy created the competitive Foreign Language category, Theo Angelopoulos, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Luc Godard, Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami and Wong-Kar Wai have failed to amass a single nomination between them, despite having had one or more of their films submitted by their respective countries. (Even Academy favorite Ingmar Bergman, who thrice won the foreign-language Oscar, failed to earn so much as a nomination for arguably his most famous film, The Seventh Seal, in 1957.)
But 4 Months is something different: It's the sort of movie the Academy has often acknowledged in the past, which is to say a film of high artistic merit that it also easily accessible for the general moviegoing audience. (For other, Oscar-winning examples, see Costa-Gavras' Z, Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bertrand Blier's Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, and Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother.) That's one of the reasons why 4 Months has been a sell-out attraction at film festivals around the world, from highbrow affairs like Cannes (where it won the coveted Palme d'Or of the main competition) to less industry-centric regional events like Telluride and L.A.'s own AFI Fest.
Even my own mother — an elementary school administrator and about as plain-folks a moviegoer as one could hope to find — gushed about the film after seeing it at last year's New York Film Festival, and it's not hard to understand why: Mungiu's film isn't an intellectual exercise but rather a visceral one, holding the audience rapt with its breathlessly intense story of two college roommates attempting to negotiate an illegal abortion in Communist-era Romania. Unfolding in something close to real-time, in long hand-held camera set-ups as confidently executed as anything in the Bourne franchise, the movie gets its hooks into you early and deep, and for the next two hours dares you to break its gaze. And beat for beat, Mungiu's brilliant direction is matched by the performances of his two stars, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, and by the terrifying Vlad Ivanov as the backroom abortionist Mr. Bebe.
Since Cannes, the accolades for 4 Months have been piling up faster than one can count — not just from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, but from the famously obscurantist National Society of Film Critics and the unapologetically populist Broadcast Film Critics Association too, plus Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations for foreign-language film, and the European Film and European Director of the year awards at the recent European Film Awards in Berlin. Given all of that, an Oscar nomination might have seemed inevitable, but for several months now there have been rumors (many of them voiced by Hollywood Elsewhere columnist Jeffrey Wells) that Oscar voters had not responded especially strongly to the film at official Academy screenings. Which raises the question: Which Oscar voters exactly are we talking about here?
As explained in the Academy's official press release:
“Foreign Language Film nominations for 2007 are being determined in two phases. The Phase I committee, consisting of several hundred Los Angeles-based members, screened the 63 eligible films and their ballots determined the above shortlist. A Phase II committee, made up of ten randomly selected members from the Phase I group, joined by specially invited ten-member contingents in New York and Los Angeles, will view the shortlisted films and select the five nominees for the category.”
This is the second year now that the Academy has employed this two-phase nominating process for the Foreign Language category — an attempt, Academy president Sid Ganis said in a 2006 press release, “to see if we can permit busy working members to participate in the [nominating] process without them having to commit to several months’ worth of screenings.” In the meantime, those “several months' worth” of Phase I screenings continue to be attended largely by Academy members who have a lot of spare time on their hands, namely retirees. And of those several hundred who serve on the committee, many still fail to see the minimum number of films required in order to nominate — this despite a 1987 Academy rule change that split the nominating committee into three groups, thereby reducing by one-third the number of eligible films any one committee member was required to see. (In a 1989 New York Times interview, Academy spokesman Bruce Davis explained that only 50% of the previous year's 450-member Foreign Language committee had met the minimum nominating requirements.)
"I've had better days," producer and Foreign Language nominating committee chairman Mark Johnson said when reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon, adding that, while he had nothing to say against any of the nine shortlisted titles, he was "stunned" by the omission of "a couple of films" from the roster.
Johnson went on to compare the day's events to the 2003 Foreign Language Oscar nominations, which failed to include the acclaimed Brazilian film City of God, which in turn went on to be nominated in four non-foreign categories (including Director and Adapted Screenplay) at the 2004 Oscars. Alas, such a happy ending will likely elude 4 Months, owing to another arcane Academy rule: While City of God hadn't yet opened commercially in the U.S. at the time of its Foreign Language Oscar veto and could therefore qualify the following year in all other categories, 4 Months played a one-week qualifying engagement in a single Los Angeles theater at the end of 2007, thereby making it eligible for all Oscar categories this year, when relatively few Academy members (outside of those on the Foreign Language committee) are likely to have seen it.
"I thought we had made big strides last year, but apparently not big enough," said Johnson with regard to the two-phase nominating process. Asked if further retooling (including the possible involvement of more active Academy members earlier in the nominating process) may lie in the future, Johnson was unambiguous. "That's what has to be done, because in my mind it can't continue like this," he said. "I don't believe these choices reflect the Academy at large."
That brings us to the nine films that did make this year's Foreign Language shortlist. Of them, I have seen only two — Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky's wonderful The Counterfeiters, which has long been considered a likely nominee, and Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore's histrionic and unintentionally hysterical melodrama The Unknown, in which an Eastern European prostitute on the run from her brutal ex-pimp reinvents herself as a cleaning woman in the home of the Italian family she believes has adopted her love child. Check back soon for the Lifetime network remake. Of the remaining seven titles, two (Israel's Beaufort and Kazakhstan's Mongol) come bearing good-to-excellent festival buzz, while two others hail from previous Oscar winners: Canadian director Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness (which closed last year's Cannes Film Festival to scathing reviews) and Nikita Mikhalkov's 12, a Russian remake of Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men.
The final voting for the Foreign Language Oscar (Phase III, if you will) is open to any Academy members who can prove they have attended screenings of all five nominated films — a process that has itself resulted in more than a few upset victories over the years, including the insipid Italian travelogue Mediterraneo over Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern in 1991, and the frothy Spanish comedy Belle Epoque over Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine in 1993. But hey, there's no accounting for taste, right? And at least if a film makes it into the final nominee pool and then loses, it can be said to have been fairly judged by the Academy en masse. But how many Academy members ultimately put the kibosh on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days? One subset of one committee comprised of — oh, I don't know — the sound guy from Airport '77, the costume designer from Oliver!, and Ernest Borgnine?. If this is the Academy's idea of reform, may I be the first to propose abolition?