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What's Romanian for 'huh?'

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' is ignored by an aged foreign-language committee.

January 23, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

IT may not be fashionable to admit it, but I'm an Oscar junkie. I'd get up for the 5:30 a.m. announcements every year even if I didn't have to. I don't always agree with what I hear, but because of the history and prestige of the organization, I respect its choices. That was true this year as well, with one glaring exception.

That would be the foreign-language category, which experienced a "Hoop Dreams" moment when it passed over what has been universally considered the best foreign film of the year, the Romanian "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," directed by Cristian Mungiu.

Something identical happened more than a dozen years ago when the documentary committee declined to nominate "Hoop Dreams," considered by most to be the cream of the class and still thought of as one of the best American documentaries ever made. To its everlasting credit, the academy, which cares deeply about the validity of its awards and hates to be publicly embarrassed, made changes to the nominating structure. The documentary choices improved almost immediately, and this year's excellent selection takes account of all the films -- including "Sicko," "No End in Sight" and "Taxi to the Dark Side" -- that any objective observer would feel had to be on there.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is much more than a personal favorite. Both the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. had it as their top choice, and the L.A. organization also picked it for best supporting actor and as runner-up for lead actress. It won the European Film Award, that continent's version of the best picture Oscar, and it took the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Not bad for a film that wasn't even good enough to make the foreign-language category's shortlist of nine films, let alone the final five.

Of course, everyone knows that tastes differ, and the films that were nominated, including Israel's excellent "Beaufort" and the Austrian "The Counterfeiters," are honorable films. But a system that not only leaves off that shortlist "4 Months" but also France's Cannes prize-winning animated "Persepolis" and Spain's psychological thriller "The Orphanage" is in sore need of repair.

The difficulty, frankly, is the membership of the committee, which any academy member can volunteer to join. Because seeing enough films to qualify to vote is a major time commitment, those who volunteer tend to be those who can spare the time. The academy doesn't release specific figures, but the anecdotal evidence is unanimous that the foreign-language committee skews older than the institution as a whole.

As someone who is aging all too rapidly himself, I have some insight into what can happen during that inevitable process, and several of those tendencies were visible in the selection of the nine-film shortlist, including favoring directors whom academy members were familiar with and have nominated before.

Of the shortlisted nine, four were by world-class directors -- Canada's Denys Arcand, Italy's Giuseppe Tornatore, Poland's Andrzej Wajda and Russia's Nikita Mikhalkov -- whose films were not up to the standards of their best work. An Oscar nomination shouldn't be a sinecure reserved for venerable veterans; it should go to the best possible films.

Another tendency of the current committee is to like softer films, such as Brazil's "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" (on the shortlist) and to be resistant to new and difficult films, such as the grueling "4 Months," which details the difficulties encountered by young women seeking abortions in Communist Romania. In fact, the academy as a whole often goes the softer route when it picks the ultimate winner, and that is its prerogative. But keeping these hard-to-take films off the shortlist is another matter entirely.

If the past is any prologue, committee members will rise to the defense of their selections and insist that the five films nominated are the best five they saw. But if the foreign-language Oscar is going to be saved from becoming a laughingstock, if it's going to represent anything besides the oddball musings of a finite group of voters, measures need to be taken to ensure that its choices are at least within hailing distance of what the rest of the informed film world thinks.

Awards are supposed to bring credit to the organization that gives them, not cause embarrassment, but that's exactly what the foreign-language category is doing right now.


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