You can now see two of the best movies not nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: the charming and poignant "The Band's Visit" from Israel and the powerful, haunting "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days" from Romania. The Israeli movie, directed by Eran Kolirin, was disqualified from the competition because too much dialogue is in English—that being the common language between the Egyptian military band invited to perform in Israel and their hosts in the desert town where the band is stranded. A beautifully observed comedy about cultural misunderstandings and shared humanity, "The Band's Visit" has some of the wry, deadpan wit of the Czech comedies that made the reputation of Milos Forman and Ivan Passer.
You can argue with the rules that excluded this delightful movie, but rules are rules. The snub to "4 Months," however, is further confirmation that the Academy's system for selecting foreign films is a longstanding joke. Cristian Mungiu's film, set in the waning days of Ceaucescu, depicts the labyrinthine efforts of a college student (Anamaria Marinca) to arrange an illegal abortion for her roommate (Laura Vasiliu) —a harrowing 24-hour journey that reveals the soul-deadening weight of life in a totalitarian regime. "4 Months" won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and the European Film Award; it was voted best foreign film by both the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Not only was it not nominated for an Oscar, it failed to make the shortlist of nine films announced several weeks ago.
This wasn't the only embarrassing omission. The French submission, the groundbreaking animated movie "Persepolis," also failed to make the nine, as did the award-winning South Korean entry, "Secret Sunshine"; the superb Spanish chiller "The Orphanage"; Johnny To's smashing Hong Kong gangster movie "Exiled"; Germany's riveting "The Edge of Heaven," and Carlos Reygadas's demanding, visionary "Silent Light" from Mexico. One that did make the shortlist—but mercifully not the final five—was Giuseppe Tornatore's flashy "The Unknown Woman," bogus from first frame to last.
Last year, in an attempt to reform the misbegotten system, a smaller, more informed committee was installed to choose the five Oscar nominees out of the nine. But this can work only if the volunteer committee doesn't eliminate the best movies to start with. Made up of roughly 400 Academy members (more than half of whom failed to see enough movies to qualify them to vote), the group tends to be top-heavy with retirees—who else has the time? But as one committee member suggested, the real problem isn't seniority—these folks had the same bad taste at 30. Clearly embarrassed by this year's gaffes, Mark Johnson, chairman of the committee, has vowed further reforms. History suggests it's going to be an uphill battle.