In June this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) announced it would be making yet another tweak to its foreign-language film category.
In 2007 the process underwent a major revamp, seeing a shortlist of nine films drawn up by the foreign-language committee at large and then the final list of five nominees being decided by a second-phase group of 30 members. But in the first year of the new system, Cristian Mungiu's masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days did not even make the final nine, to the consternation of the world's media.
The 2008 tweak sees the phase-one committee determining only six of the nine films and the remaining three titles being decided by those members of the 20-strong foreign executive committee who have qualified to vote in the category. Those 20 will make their selections after the other six finalists have been chosen, ensuring there can be no major omissions along the lines of 4 Months.
This is certainly a competitive year to start the new - and hopefully final - voting system. In addition to the festival giants Screen profiles here, such as The Class, Gomorrah and Waltz With Bashir, there is a wide variety of excellent submissions which will make a shortlist of nine from the list of 67 a difficult task for the committee members.
Austria for example has submitted Gotz Spielmann's superb Revanche, a subtle story of guilt and revenge; Argentina is hoping voters will respond to Pablo Trapero's Cannes Competition title Lion's Den about a women's prison; Bosnia and Herzegovina has submitted Aida Begic's lovely, lyrical Snow about women surviving together when their men fail to return from war; Bruno Barreto is back in the running with his powerful new film from Brazil, Last Stop 174, which imagines the stories that led up to a bus hijacking in Rio; Iran is offering Majid Majidi's poetic The Song Of Sparrows; Jordan is making its first submission with Amin Matalqa's Captain Abu Raed; Norway is banking on Bent Hamer with O'Horten, his witty and touching story of a retiring railwayman; and Poland has submitted Andrzej Jakimowski's touchingly whimsical brother-sister story Tricks.
Of course, no foreign-language film list would be complete without a mention of the great movies excluded from contention because they have not been submitted.
Alas, no Oscar chances this year for Tokyo Sonata, A Christmas Tale, Moscow Belgium, Il Divo, Cherry Blossoms - Hanami, I've Loved You So Long, Linha De Passe, Lorna's Silence, Delta, Birdwatchers, The Desert Within... As always, the list is a long one.
Full list of submissions for the foreign-language Academy Award
Afghanistan Opium War Siddiq Barmak
Albania The Sorrow Of Mrs Schneider Piro Milkani and Eno Milkani
Algeria Masquerades Lyes Salem
Argentina Lion's Den Pablo Trapero
Austria Revanche Gotz Spielmann
Azerbaijan Fortress Shamil Nacafzada
Bangladesh Aha! Enamul Karim Nirjhar
Belgium Eldorado Bouli Lanners
Bosnia And Herzegovina Snow Aida Begic
Brazil Last Stop 174 Bruno Barreto
Bulgaria Zift Javor Gardev
Canada The Necessities Of Life Benoit Pilon
Chile Tony Manero Pablo Larrain
China Dream Weavers Jun Gu
Colombia Dog Eat Dog Carlos Moreno
Croatia No One's Son Arsen Anton Ostojic
Czech Republic The Karamazovs Petr Zelenka
Denmark Worlds Apart Niels Arden Oplev
Egypt The Island Sherif Arafa
Estonia I Was Here Rene Vilbre
Finland The Home Of Dark Butterflies Dome Karukoski
France The Class Laurent Cantet
Georgia Mediator Dito Tsintsadze
Germany The Baader Meinhof Complex Uli Edel
Greece Correction Thanos Anastopoulos
Hong Kong Painted Skin Gordon Chan
Hungary Iska's Journey Csaba Bollok
Iceland White Night Wedding Baltasar Kormakur
India Every Child Is Special Aamir Khan
Iran The Song Of Sparrows Majid Majidi
Israel Waltz With Bashir Ari Folman
Italy Gomorrah Matteo Garrone
Japan Departures Yojiro Takita
Jordan Captain Abu Raed Amin Matalqa
Kazakhstan Tulpan Sergei Dvortsevoy
Korea Crossing Kim Tae-kyun
Kyrgyzstan Heavens Blue Marie Jaoul de Poncheville
Latvia Defenders Of Riga Aigars Grauba
Lebanon Under The Bombs Philippe Aractingi
Lithuania Loss Maris Martinsons
Luxembourg Nuits D'Arabie Paul Kieffer
Macedonia I'm From Titov Veles Teona Strugar Mitevska
Mexico Tear This Heart Out Roberto Sneider
Morocco Goodbye Mothers Mohamed Ismail
Netherlands Dunya & Desie Dana Nechushtan
Norway O'Horten Bent Hamer
Palestine Salt Of This Sea Annemarie Jacir
Philippines Ploning Dante Nico Garcia
Poland Tricks Andrzej Jakimowski
Portugal Our Beloved Month Of August Miguel Gomes
Romania The Rest Is Silence Nae Caranfil
Russia Mermaid Anna Melikyan
Serbia The Tour Goran Markovic
Singapore My Magic Eric Khoo
Slovakia Blind Loves Juraj Lehotsky
Slovenia Rooster's Breakfast Marko Nabersnik
South Africa Jerusalema Ralph Ziman
Spain The Blind Sunflowers Jose Luis Cuerda
Sweden Everlasting Moments Jan Troell
Switzerland The Friend Micha Lewinsky
Taiwan Cape No 7 Te-Sheng Wei
Thailand Love Of Siam Chookiat Sakveerakul
Turkey 3 Monkeys Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Ukraine Illusion Of Fear Aleksandr Kiriyenko
United Kingdom Hope Eternal Karl Francis
Uruguay Kill Them All Esteban Schroeder
Venezuela The Colour Of Fame Alejandro Bellame Palacios
THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (Germany)
'It was a great experience for me to go back to my home turf and make a movie about a time I witnessed,' says Uli Edel, the Los Angeles-based German director whose epic portrait of the Baader Meinhof terrorist gang of the 1970s, The Baader Meinhof Complex, is the German Oscar submission this year.
'I was 20 or 21 in 1968 when it happened and my two sons are now roughly the same age. They grew up in LA without knowing anything about Baader Meinhof. I wanted to tell them the story of the whole movement in a way that my kids, who are not very political, would understand. I wanted to give them an idea of what it meant for us to resist, because in Germany it meant something special because of the past of the Third Reich. We accused our parents and asked them why they didn't resist. As students, we didn't want to give them any chance for a new fascism.'
The film features Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader, the charismatic leader of the group, and Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof, the intellectual and political commentator who stunned Germany by joining the armed struggle. 'When she did it, I remember it very well. How far is she going to go, we all wondered. What is she going to do' Of course, they went too far and we had to distance ourselves from what they were doing.'
The film had a mixed response in Germany when it opened on September 25, perhaps inevitably bearing in mind the inflammatory subject matter, but it has grossed more than $21m through Constantin.
'The first response was very positive, but a week later a lot of voices came up who started criticising the film,' says Edel. 'But it's a movie and you can't go into too much detail. You can only tell so much in two-and-a-half hours.'
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Israel)
The buzz began on Ari Folman's animated documentary Waltz With Bashir when the Cannes Competition was unveiled back in May. It did not disappoint, wowing the Croisette and snagging a US deal with Sony Classics.
Folman and Bashir then went on a punishing festival tour which included Karlovy Vary, Toronto, London (and the UK Jewish Film Festival) and Sarajevo. Bashir has opened in Israel and France, was released in the UK on November 21 and is set for the US on December 26.
The film is a vivid, highly personal recollection of Folman's service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) during the 1982 war with Lebanon. The central, traumatic event in the film is Folman's gradual recovery of his memories of the massacre of Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut by militant Christian Phalangists, which the IDF did nothing to prevent.
Folman says his decision to animate the documentary was a purely artistic one, intended to blur the boundary between reality and dreams. Illustrator and artistic director David Polonsky drew 80% of the film's illustrations.
'The characters were born animated,' Folman explains. 'Who decides what is more true' If I shot you on a DV camera, your image would still be pixelated. Is it any less 'real' to have this very talented guy drawing you for five months' A picture is a picture.
'I researched and wrote the screenplay and shot everything in a sound studio. I made it first as a video film and then (with animation director Yoni Goodman) turned it into a story board. I was obsessed with ensuring the main characters and the story were realistic but I gave the animators much more freedom in the dream sequences.'
Folman first pitched Bashir in 2005 at Toronto's Hot Docs festival where France's Les Films d'Ici and Germany's Razor Film both came on board to co-produce with the Bridget Folman Film Gang. Backing for the $2m project came from Arte France, the Israel Film Fund and Germany's Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, among others. The Match Factory is handling international sales.
As well as being Israel's entry to the foreign-language Oscar, Bashir is also a favourite to win a best animated feature nomination. However, it is ineligible for the documentary Oscar category as it did not complete a qualifying run in the US.
Folman says he plans to use his animated inventions on his next project, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress.
'As a director, it was like working with actors and cameramen but instead it was illustrators, designers and animators. But it was much more fun. I love it, it's much more innovative.'
THE CLASS (France)
The first French film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes since Maurice Pialat's Under The Sun Of Satan in 1987, Laurent Cantet's The Class (Entre Les Murs) follows a year in a high school in a tough Paris neighbourhood.
Inspired by an autobiographical book by Francois Begaudeau, the film features real students and teachers with Begaudeau, who co-wrote the script with Cantet and Robin Campillo, appearing in the film as himself.
Between November 2006 and April 2007, Cantet and Begaudeau organised a series of weekly workshops in a Paris school where students were invited to improvise. 'The 24 who were the most faithful and interested in the project' ended up in the film, says Cantet. For all of them, The Class was their first professional acting job. The subject matter was close to Cantet's heart: his father was a teacher and his own children are the same age as those in the film.
Sold by Memento Films International, The Class played at a number of festivals after Cannes, including San Sebastian, Munich, New York, Montreal and AFI Fest and has picked up nominations for best film and best director at the European Film Awards. It has grossed $11.5m to date through Haut Et Court in France. Sony Classics opens it in the US on December 25.
'I am surprised to realise in the US how many people know my films, so to see the American reactions interests me a lot,' says Cantet, whose credits include Human Resources and Time Out. 'I'm especially reassured because we were told the film was too French to touch an international audience, and now I feel like that fear wasn't necessary.'
Every child is special (India)
Legendary Indian movie star Aamir Khan took a risk by attaching himself to the drama, Every Child Is Special (Taare Zameen Par), about a dyslexic boy who is misunderstood and rejected by family, teachers and fellow pupils until an inspirational art teacher, himself dyslexic, takes on the boy.
'Audiences were willing to give it a shot when it came out on December 21 last year, even though it's not a mainstream film,' says Khan on a trip to Los Angeles. 'The reason all of us made the film was to sensitise people to dyslexia, which is not a well-known condition there. I would say we are 40 years behind the US on this issue. I think that in one stroke, the film sensitised parents to the problem of learning disabilities.'
The film marked the actor-producer's directorial debut - although that was not what he intended. He stepped in for writer and initial director Amole Gupte one week into the shoot after seeing the rushes. 'I didn't like them at all, so it was a sticky situation and a traumatic time for both of us because he wasn't doing his first film right. I told him I would have to leave the project if he wanted to carry on directing. He stepped down because he wanted the film to get the kind of platform I could bring it.'
Khan and Gupte had planned to bring in a new director but realised they would lose child actor Darsheel Safary if they put the project on hold during the search.
'I decided to direct because I didn't want to lose him. So I went into it unprepared to direct it. I was just very honest with the material and shot it in a very simple way. The camera doesn't move much. It was a huge learning experience and really satisfying. And I'm glad it touched such a chord.'
EVERLASTING MOMENTS (Sweden)
An engrossing portrait of life in Sweden in the early part of the 20th century, Everlasting Moments tells the story of a mother who sees the world through new eyes when she discovers photography. With strong performances from Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt, the Sweden-Denmark co-production premiered at Toronto this year.
Directed by Swedish veteran Jan Troell, Everlasting Moments is based on a book by Troell's wife that explored her own family history. The film's theme of photography has particular resonance for Troell, who started as a photographer and worked as a cameraman for Bo Widerberg before making his full directorial debut in 1966 on Here's Your Life. 'I was 14 when I started (photography),' says the director, whose 1972 film The Emigrants received several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. 'It made me look at the world in a different way.'
Everlasting Moments has been praised for its visual beauty; Troell says he uses available light as much as possible and likes to improvise with his camera. 'I'm rather impulsive with the camera,' he explains. 'I do what I feel, and that's also why I need to be my own operator so I can improvise the movements of the camera during the shooting.'
The film shot for 11 weeks on location in Sweden, one week in a studio in Sweden, and one week in a studio in Germany. Troell says he prefers location work. 'The first place the family lives was a location in the same house where we shot the exteriors. It was one room and a kitchen for the whole team. I like it because you can shoot out of the windows and find reality outside.'
A harrowing take on life in Naples' organised-crime-controlled suburbs, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah was one of the most talked-about films at Cannes this year and picked up the festival's Grand Prix.
Selected unanimously as Italy's submission for the foreign-language Oscar, the film is based on a book by Roberto Saviano, about the Camorra crime organisation, which has been translated into more than 40 languages (the author subsequently received death threats and lives under police protection).
'It's not so much a thesis on the Camorra as a view of how it works from the inside,' says Garrone, who shot the film in Camorra territory with many actual residents.
With an edgy visual style, Gomorrah follows the reality of the Camorra through characters including a 13-year-old boy, who sees a criminal initiation as his ticket to respect and maturity.
Rome-born Garrone had no formal training in film-making but says his early career as a painter influenced his visual style. 'At the age of 26, I put down my paintbrush and self-produced my first film (Terra Di Mezzo). It was very independent,' he says.
Produced by Domenico Procacci of Fandango, Gomorrah took $14.3m in Italy and has picked up five European Film Award nominations. IFC is releasing the film in the US.