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Mark Johnson Returns as Oscar Foreign Language Chair as Race Gets Underway (Exclusive)

Architect of the three-stage nomination process returns to chairmanship after a year off; "Two Lives," "Child's Pose," "Boy Eating the Bird's Food" among first submissions


Producer Mark Johnson is returning to chair the committee that oversees the Oscars' controversial foreign-language process.

The group has come under fire for both for its baffling omissions over the years and for the lengths to which it now goes to avoid those omissions.

Johnson, one of the architects of the three-stage process that was instituted in the wake of the voters' failure to put the acclaimed films "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "The Edge of Heaven" and "Silent Light" on the shortlist in 2007, had to step down last year after losing his seat on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Board of Governors.

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AMPASBut after Johnson's re-election to the board this summer, new Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs asked him to once again head the committee he has chaired for 12 of the last 13 years, a person with knowledge of the appointment confirmed to TheWrap.

During the year Johnson was not eligible to chair the committee, producer Ron Yerxa and former AMPAS executive director Bruce Davis served as co-chairs.

Johnson will be overseeing a competition that will for the first time be opened to all members of the Academy, without the previous requirement that voters must see all five nominees in a theatrical setting. Instead, the 6,000-plus AMPAS voters will receive screeners of the nominees, and will be on the same honor system that is now used in every other category.

(Would a surprise but richly-deserving winner like "The Lives of Others" have been able to triumph over the far better-known "Pan's Labyrinth" had the new system been in place back in 2006? It's not hard to find category-watchers both inside and outside the Academy who shake their heads and say no.) 

Also read: Academy Changes Rules, Will Let Everyone Vote in Foreign-Language Category

AMPAS rules require each country to submit a single film in the category, with a record 71 countries opting to participate last year.

This year's entries have begun with a trickle, as a handful of countries have submitted their choices so far.

The most notable country to announce is Germany, which has five nominations and one win in the last decade. This week, a nine-member jury in Munich selected "Two Lives," a drama about a German woman living in Norway and hiding her past with the East German secret service.

Other countries that have submitted include Greece, Hungary, Romania and first-time entrant Nepal.

As for the films they'll be competing with, it's difficult to predict what countries will choose, with box-office returns, relationships, inside politics and guessing what the Academy might like all playing a part.

Iran, for instance, would seem well-advised to select "The Past," a Cannes entry from director Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian citizen whose last film, "A Separation," won the country its first and only Oscar in the category. But the director is a permanent resident of France who has spoken out against censorship in Iran, and "The Past" is a French-language film set in France.

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In fact, it could probably qualify as France's entry, if that country chose – but it'd be going up against a number of high-profile films from French-born directors, including Francois Ozon's "Young and Beautiful," Catherine Breillat's "Abuse of Weakness," Sylvain Chomet's "Attila Marcel," Regis Roinsard's "Populaire" and Claire Denis' "Bastards."

One of the countries that has already submitted a film, Nepal, is doing so for the first time – and if Saudi Arabia wanted to follow suit with its first-ever entry, it has an ideal candidate in Haifaa Al Mansour's "Wadjda."

The charming and award-winning coming-of-age story about a 10-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia, the film stands a good chance of being nominated if it were to be submitted. But "Wadjda" would be a controversial choice for its subject matter (a young girl who flouts Islamic restrictions on what girls can do) and because it is the work of a female director who had to direct the outdoor scenes from inside a van, so as not to be seen working in a mixed-sex environment and supervising men.

"The Past" and "Wadjda" are both being released by Sony Pictures Classics, the clear leader in releasing nominees and winners in recent years. The company has released the last four winners in the category, "Amour," "A Separation," "In a Better World" and "The Secret in Their Eyes," and at least two of the five nominees every year since 2008.

Sony Classics also has "The Lunchbox," an Indian film that is getting a lot of calls in the Indian press to be that country's submission.

The Weinstein Co., which surprisingly did not make the shortlist last year with the massive hit "The Intouchables," has "Populaire," Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster," which opened this year's Berlin International Film Festival, as well as another crowd-pleasing French comedy, "Haute Cuisine."

"The Grandmaster" could be a particularly strong contender – while it's a martial-arts movie, a genre seldom celebrated in the category unless you count "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it already received the AMPAS seal of approval with a July 22 screening and Matthew Weiner-hosted tribute to Wong Kar Wai at the Academy.

Countries to watch include Israel, which has been nominated four times in the last decade without winning; its choice will be whichever one of nine nominees wins its Ophir Award. "Bethlehem" leads all films with nine nominations.

Tied with Germany for the most nominations in the past decade is Canada, which has yet to announce its choice, but which has a bevy of contenders to showcase at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Perhaps the most acclaimed foreign-language film of the year, Abdellatif Kechiche's sexually explicit coming-of-age drama "Blue Is the Warmest Color," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, will not be eligible this year. Its Oct. 9 French release falls after the Sept. 30 cutoff date by which films must be released in their home countries in order to be eligible in the category.

France could still submit it next year, though it might seem like old news by then.

Here are the films that have officially entered the race to date. TheWrap will continue to update the list as more films are announced.

"Two Lives"
Director: Georg Maas
Based on a true story about the reverberations from the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, "Two Lives" stars Juliane Kohler as a German woman living in Norway, who after the fall of the Berlin Wall is threatened by the false identity under which she's been living. Norwegian cinema icon Liv Ullman also appears in the film.
Subtitled trailer

Boy Eating the Bird's FoodGREECE
"Boy Eating the Bird's Food"
Director: Ektoras Lygizos
Greece scored a shocking nomination with its aggressively weird "Dogtooth" in 2010, and since then has submitted other purposefully surreal films to the Oscars without success. "Boy Eating the Bird's Food" is reportedly less weird, but also a stark and challenging work of social realism that uses three days in the life of a starving young man to stand in for the ravaged state of contemporary Greece.
Subtitled trailer

"The Notebook"
Director: Janosz Szasz
A coming-of-age story set in World War II, Szasz's film was a prize-winner at this summer's Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Based on the 1986 bestseller by Agota Kristof, it follows two teenage brothers sent to live with their grandmother during the war.
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"Soongava: Dance of the Orchids"
Director: Subama Thapa
For its first-ever entry, Nepal chose another first: the first lesbian-themed film ever produced in the country. A romance between a dance teacher and one of her students, the film stirred up additional controversy because director Subama Thapa is a naturalized French citizen. "I am trying to break through the stereotypes that exist in Nepali filmmaking today," said Thapa in a director's statement.
Subtitled trailer

Child's PoseROMANIA
"Child's Pose"
Director: Calin Peter Netzer
This family drama was a big hit in Romania, which despite a recent wave of critically-acclaimed films that includes "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Police, Adjective" and "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," has yet to land a nomination. It took the top award at Berlin Film Festival, as well as the FIPRESCI critics' award. Star Luminita Gheorghiu was also in two previous Romanian submissions, both from director Christian Mungiu, "4 Months … " and "Behind the Hills."
Subtitled trailer