Off the Carpet: Oscar’s foreign film race takes flight with just a little controversy

Next Tuesday, Sept. 30 is the cut-off date for contenders in the Best Foreign Language Film category to be released in their home countries. Slowly but surely all corners of the globe have been declaring their participants, and as these things go, it's been a relatively drama-free build so far. OK, there have been a couple of eyebrow raisers.

Bulgaria's submission, for instance, caused quite a stir some weeks back when Ivan Nichev's “Bulgarian Rhapsody” got the call. The director being a member of the Bulgarian National Film Council that made the choice, as well as the fact that the film has barely been seen (ergo globally vetted) outside of Bulgaria, caused many in the region to speak up. An online petition was even launched to protest the picture's submission and outdated representation of the Bulgaria's film culture. Favorites for the selection in the lead-ip included Maya Vitkova's Sundance and Karlovy Vary festival player “Viktoria” and Milko Lazarov's “Alienation,” which has played European fests from Venice to Sarajevo.

Then there was a bit of a dust-up over Ukraine's submission. Most expected sign-language Cannes prize winner “The Tribe” to be the one, but the country instead opted for Oles Sanin's lesser-known “The Guide.” That has left “Tribe” director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky calling foul, claiming that three of the selection committee members worked on “The Guide” so, voila, hijinks.

We're still awaiting a few key countries' selections. But you could probably wager a bet here and there.

The biggest question mark is what Russia plans to do. Given the indictment of regional politics that Cannes screenplay winner “Leviathan” is, everyone is pretty much expecting the country to go in any other direction. Could they opt for another Sony Classics title, “Red Army,” which will already be a formidable presence in the Best Documentary Feature category? If so, it would join films like Abner Benaim's “Invasión” (a first-ever submission from Panama) and Portugal's “What Now? Remind Me” as rare non-fiction submissions in the race. But while it's a Russian co-production, it probably has too much English to fly, so look for something like local fantasy blockbuster “Viy” to get the call.

France, meanwhile, has all the reason in the world to select last year's Palme d'Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color.” You might recall the film never made the cut-off for release in its home country last year, nor did it receive any Oscar nominations otherwise, so it would be free to play this time around. With little else from France really causing much of a stir, it would be a little surprising if they went for something else. (UPDATE: Not long after this column was published, France announced its submission, and surprise, it turned out to be Bertrand Bonello's Sony Classics pick-up “Saint Laurent.” Le scandal!)

And then there's China, still desperately seeking that first statuette. Like Russia, local politics continue to be a hurdle in this particular process for many. Zhang Yimou – whose “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Hero” are the only two films from the country to ever land nominations – will probably get the call (for the ninth time) for “Coming Home.” But Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud's “Wolf Totem” is also in the conversation.

So far it seems like Poland's “Ida” is a dominant contender for recognition. Though I would watch out for something like Finland's “Concrete Night,” while Venezuela's “The Liberator” could be traditional enough in its presentation to win over those participating in the foreign film voting this year. And Sweden's precise and darkly comedic “Force Majeure” is sure to rally support.

Canada, as expected, chose Xavier Dolan's Cannes Jury Prize winner “Mommy,” a film that has been a mainstay on the festival circuit and could be formidable. They even held a big press conference to announce the pick, where the country's own enfant terrible made it rather clear that he covets the Academy's attention. Perhaps it could have been more of a force, though, had Roadside elected to release it domestically and qualify it for other categories. That's what Sundance Selects will be doing with the Dardennes' “Two Days, One Night,” submitted by Belgium after the country passed on the filmmaker siblings' last two efforts.

I would speak up passionately, however, for Hungary's “White God,” somehow a flawless blend of Bourne, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Birds” – but with real dogs. It's amazing. Here's hoping the executive committee comes to its rescue if need be.

Other entries of note so far include Karlovy Vary prize winner “Corn Island” from Georgia, Cannes and Jerusalem fest winner “Timbuktu” from Mauritania and, of course, this year's Palme d'Or victor: “Winter Sleep” from Turkey.

And in addition to all of this, some real news: according to 13-time AMPAS Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee head Mark Johnson, the Board of Governors has approved a significant change in this particular Oscar race. For the first time ever, the Academy will engrave the name of the director on the Oscar statuette given to the winning film rather than merely the film's country of origin. I think we can all agree that that's been a long time coming.

There will be more submissions announced throughout the week. Whatever happens, though, it's clear that world cinema is alive and well. As ever, here's hoping the Academy's representation of it is, well, representative.

Check out the full list of submissions so far at our Best Foreign Language Film page. The rest of the Contenders section, meanwhile, has been nipped and tucked throughout.