Two of the most widely acclaimed non-English language films released in 2009 – Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet – are to be found in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' list of semi-finalists for the best foreign language film Academy Award. In other words, there was no Volver, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, or Gomorrah furor this year.
The White Ribbon, about mysterious and violent occurrences taking place in a small German village shortly before the outbreak of World War I, was last year's European Film Award winner in addition to also earning Haneke the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Audiard's prison drama A Prophet, starring Best Actor 2009 European Film Award winner Tahar Rahim (top photo), was given the Grand Prix at Cannes and is one of the favorites for the French Academy's 2010 Cesar Awards.
And there's more prestigious fare on the Academy's list: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani's Ajami (above), set in a violent neighborhood in Jaffa, won Israel's Ophir Award for best film and was greeted by superlative reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, while Claudia Llosa's Peruvian drama The Milk of Sorrow took the 2009 Golden Bear in Berlin and Juan Jose Campanella's Spanish-Argentinean psychological/political crime drama The Secret in Their Eyes won the Special Jury Prize at the Havana Film Festival and is up for the Spanish Academy's best picture award.
And finally, Warwick Thornton's Samson & Delilah, the tale of two young aborigines who leave their decrepit village in the middle of nowhere, was the big winner at the Australian Film Institute Awards.
According to the Academy's press release, “several hundred” Academy members screened the 65 foreign language submissions before selecting six films. Three more titles were added by the Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee.
I've been to Academy screenings of films submitted in the foreign-language category, and some of those are very poorly attended. Perhaps “several hundred” Academy members were eligible to vote for six semi-finalists, but that doesn't mean they saw all or half or even a third of the submitted films, as entries are split into three groups; within those groups, each voting member must watch only a certain percentage of films (even then, not necessarily until the final credits). Films screened later in the evening – it's usually two a night – have a much better chance of not getting seen.
Considering their choices in the past, I'm willing to bet that four of that group's choices were Ermek Tursunov's Kelin (Kazakhstan), the story of a young woman who finds trouble after moving in with her new husband's family; Stephan Komandarev's The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner (above, top photo, Bulgaria), in which a grandfather helps his amnesiac, German-raised grandson recover both his memory and his Bulgarianness; Martin Koolhoven's Winter in Wartime (above, lower photo, The Netherlands), about a thirteen-year-old who joins the Dutch Resistance at the end of World War II; and Juan Jose Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes. The White Ribbon was almost surely in there as well.
I'm also willing to be that Samson & Delilah and The Milk of Sorrow were Executive Committee additions. Which would leave A Prophet and Ajami as either/or propositions. At least they're all in there – for the time being.
The 2010 Oscar nominations will be announced Feb. 2.
Photos: Winter in Wartime (Isabella Films), Ajami (Inosan / Vertigo), A Prophet (Roger Arpajou / Sony Pictures Classics), The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner (Vertigo / Inforg / Pallas)
The nine semi-finalists in the Foreign Language Film category for the 2010 Academy Awards have been announced. They are:
Argentina, El Secreto de Sus Ojos / The Secret of Her Eyes, Juan Jose Campanella, director;
Australia, Samson & Delilah, Warwick Thornton, director;
Bulgaria, The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner, Stephan Komandarev, director;
France, A Prophet, Jacques Audiard, director;
Germany, The White Ribbon (above), Michael Haneke, director;
Israel, Ajami, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, directors;
Kazakhstan, Kelin, Ermek Tursunov, director;
The Netherlands, Winter in Wartime, Martin Koolhoven, director;
Peru, The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa, director.
Sixty-five films had originally qualified in the category. Notably absent from the list are Xavier Dolan's I Killed My Mother (Canada); Miguel Littin's Dawson, Island 10 (Chile); Chen Kaige's Forever Enthralled (China); Ciro Guerra's The Wind Journeys (Colombia); Oskar Jonasson's Reykjavik-Rotterdam (Iceland); and Asghar Farhadi's About Elly (Iran).
Also, Giuseppe Tornatore's Baaria (Italy); Joon-ho Bong's Mother (South Korea); Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective (Romania); Fernando Trueba's The Dancer and the Thief (Spain); Ruben Ostlund's Involuntary (Sweden); Leon Dai's No Puedo Vivir sin Ti (Taiwan); and Havana Marking's Afghan Star (United Kingdom).
U.S. critics' foreign-language favorites such as Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces, Cary Joji Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, and Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours couldn't be in the list of semi-finalists because they weren't even submitted in the first place thanks to the Academy's byzantine rules for its foreign-language film category.
Once again, the nominations are being determined in two phases.
First, “several hundred” (as per the Academy's press release) Los Angeles-based members, screened the 65 eligible films between mid-October and Jan. 16. The group's top six choices, plus three additional selections voted by the Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee, constitute the shortlist.
The five final nominees will be selected by “specially invited committees,” consisting of about 20 or so people, in New York and Los Angeles. They will spend Friday, January 29, through Sunday, January 31, viewing three films each day and then casting their ballots.
I feel sorry for the third film screened on each day. In fact, I feel sorry for all films being screened on Sunday, period.
The 2010 Academy Award nominations will be announced on Tuesday, February 2, 2010, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Photo: Michael Kranz in The White Ribbon (Films du Losange / Sony Pictures Classics)