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A record 76 foreign-language Oscar submissions point to heated race

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A record 76 movies will vie for the 2014 foreign-language Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Monday, and the race looks to be wide open. Yet even as the narrowing-down to five final nominees has barely begun, the seemingly annual controversy over the process is already in full swing.

Unlike last season, when Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's French-language "Amour" rolled up prize after prize en route to the Academy Awards and eventually took home the statuette for best foreign-language film, there's no foregone front-runner this time around.

"The good news for everybody this year is that there is no 'Amour' this year," said Jeff Lipsky of Adopt Films, which is releasing two of the movies in contention: Israel's "Bethlehem" and Palestine's "Omar."

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For the first time, final voting in the category will be open to all members of the academy without restrictions. Previously any academy member wishing to vote in the category had to see all five nominees in a theater; this year, screeners of the five nominees will be sent to all members, who will be allowed to vote as in most other categories.

As in the past, potential contenders are initially chosen not by the academy but by committees in each country; only one submission from each nation is allowed and the process in each country can be rife with internal politics. This year, at least two prominent films from the festival circuit, India's "The Lunchbox" and Japan's "Like Father, Like Son," were not chosen by the committees of their respective countries.

The director of "The Lunchbox," Ritesh Batra, set off some controversy when he publicly complained about being passed over in favor of the lesser-known "The Good Road" and was subsequently forced to apologize.

Other high-profile titles are not in the race because they did not meet certain academy rules. For instance, the French film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" — which won the Cannes Film Festival's top prize this year (just as "Amour" did last year) — missed the academy's cutoff for eligibility because it did not open in French theaters before the end of September.

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The film will be eligible next year. Yet even if "Blue" had been released in time, whether it would have been chosen by the French delegation, which ultimately submitted "Renoir," is another matter. Such vagaries can be frustrating for U.S. distributors who handle foreign titles and hope their inclusion in the Oscar race can lure in audiences.

"This happens every year. This is how ridiculous the system is and how flawed it is," said Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, who is releasing both "Blue" and "Like Father, Like Son."

"There is something wrong with it," added Sehring, "and it's almost an embarrassment to the academy that the Golden Globes this year, I guarantee you that their lineup of what qualifies for best foreign-language film is going to be much more representative than the academy."

Even with a few notable omissions, there will still be plenty of movies to watch out for. Sony Pictures Classics has released the winner the last four years running and this year has two competitive titles. One is "Wadjda," which is the first movie submitted by Saudi Arabia (which has no commercial theaters) and whose campaign could benefit from its powerful back story of how female director Haifaa Mansour came to make the film. It also has the Iranian submission "The Past," a French-set, mostly French-language story made by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose previous film, "A Separation," won the foreign-language Oscar in 2012.

"I think the process of selection for the foreign-language film category, it has gotten better and better," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "But still something happens at every stage, whether it's the country selection or the shortlist or the final five where you go, 'How did that happen?'"

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Besides Saudi Arabia, Moldova submitted for the first time, and Montenegro, formerly part of Yugoslavia, entered for the first time as an independent country.

The submitted films will next be screened by members of the academy's foreign language committee, broken into a number of smaller groups. The top vote-getters, along with a few films added by an executive committee, will then be announced as a shortlist of nine films in early January. That shortlist will be whittled down in a second phase of screenings by a smaller group of members to the final list of five nominees.

Canada looks to continue its recent streak of nominations with "Gabrielle," while other top contenders include Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Brazil's "Neighboring Sounds," Chile's "Gloria," Denmark's "The Hunt," Hong Kong's "The Grandmaster," Italy's "The Great Beauty," Mexico's "Heli," Romania's "Child's Pose," Singapore's "Ilo Ilo," and Spain's "15 Years Plus A Day."

Three non-English films were submitted by English-speaking countries, with the United Kingdom's "Metro Manila" in Filipino and Tagalog, Australia's "The Rocket" in Lao and New Zealand's "White Lies" in Maori.

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Mark Johnson, head of the academy's foreign language committee, which includes around 300 members, cautioned against those who might complain about a given country picking one film over another before all the films in question have been seen stateside. Each nation's committee, he said, has its reasons for its choices — in some cases, it's simply that the committees believe a given film is genuinely better, in others, they might believe their selection will play better to academy viewers than another, perhaps more popular, title.

"I just want to be sure we don't rush to judgment and say, 'how could they do this?' Because we don't know," Johnson said. "Once we recognize the committee [in a given country], it would be very hard for us to interfere in their process. If they think one film is better than another and we disagree, it's their call, it's not ours."

Individual committees are allowed to set their own standards. Release requirements and even the size of the panel itself differ from country to country. Some believe more standardization would be better.

"The film business is a global business. Not just our movies, but internationally it's a global business," said Sehring. "It would be nice if the rules were more uniform as opposed to being left up to a committee in each country with their own standards. In my mind there is a much simpler way to go about it."

"The rules of the category, all the rules, they're clearly insane," said Lipsky.

This season the pre-submission period became so fraught with tension that Cameron Bailey — artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, an important stop for many foreign-language films — laid out a multi-point plan on how to revamp the category, suggesting to scrap the one-film, one-country rule, perhaps include additional films from major festivals or institute a U.S. release requirement.

The most frequently criticized aspect of the process is that each country is only allowed to submit one film for consideration, regardless of how many films that nation produces or releases in the U.S. in a given year.

"It's a valid observation and I'd love to find a way to address it," said Johnson. "It's not the first time we've thought about it. I think we've made some improvements in the past 15 years, but it's a far from perfect system and we want to find ways to improve it."

Johnson added that from this year to next, he wants "to do some pretty radical thinking regarding the whole process," while also stating that there may be only so many changes that can be made. "There is a problem that comes down quite frankly to workload," he said. "We can't physically see many more movies than we now have submitted."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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