Bruce Davis, former executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and producer Ron Yerxa are the new co-chairs of the Oscar foreign-language committee. The Academy confirmed that Davis and Yerxa are replacing producer Mark Johnson, who headed the committee for a dozen years. The new co-chairs will likely face continuing calls for tweaks to the selection process and eligibility requirements, which have evolved to include more well-reviewed and well-known movies. Yerxa’s producing credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks.
When I met with Fox Searchlight presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley at the Cannes Film Festival, it seemed clear that they were not going to take part in one of the most aggressive acquisitions market that Cannes has seen in years. But not only did they walk away with the Palme d’Or prestige badge that will help Terrence Malick’s visionary The Tree of Life find its way when Searchlight releases it in theaters beginning Friday, they also greenlit the first film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since Little Miss Sunshine. The new film, He Loves Me, is a reunion. Besides being back in the Searchlight fold, they’ve set as star Paul Dano, whose career was launched by Sunshine. Dano will be paired alongside his girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, who wrote the script. The film also reunites Dayton and Faris with Sunshine producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. Jeff Bridges is being courted to play another role. After Little Miss Sunshine won two Oscars and was a Best Picture nominee, Dayton and Faris were courted like crazy by studios and became attached to a number of projects that didn’t pan. It has been five years since the release of that film, but they start production in July.
The 22nd annual Palm Springs International Film Festival is the reigning festival showcase for top foreign films, a sort of Cannes in the desert that takes pride in presenting as many of the official Academy Award Foreign Language entries as possible. This year, Fest director Darryl MacDonald and programmer Helen du Toit managed to corral 40 of the 65 contenders and lured many of their filmmakers to Palm Springs for Q&As and lots of hobnobbing. Producer Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who’s on the Executive Committee that selects three of the 9 semi-finalists, told me he came to the desert just to catch up with many of these films. The Fest is like one-stop shopping.
Friday night, I moderated a packed-to-the-rafters turnaway post screening Q&A at the Art Museum with Javier Bardem, the Spanish star of Mexico’s entry Biutiful. (He had the audience roaring with his impressions of Woody Allen who directed him in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). At the Riviera hotel, I met up with Feo Aladag, writer/director of Germany’s powerful Oscar hopeful When We Leave followed by a long chat with the large Italian contingent there who had just screened their entry LaPrima Cosa Bella (aka First Beautiful Thing).
Star Micaela Ramazzotti and director Paola Virzi were excited about the standing ovation their movie received at the Palm Springs High School auditorium. The engaging film also reportedly played very well for the Academy Foreign Language selection committee on December 6th, according to members who told me it drew one of the biggest crowds of the year at those exclusive screenings. Earlier in the year I reported about controversy over its selection instead of the Tilda Swinton starrer, I Am Love among other candidates. But it looks like this could be Italy’s first pic to make the final five since Roberto Begnini’s Life Is Beautiful 12 years ago. Virzi told me he was sorry there was badmouthing about his film which was a big hit in Italy.
Saturday afternoon I caught the intense Romanian entry, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle and later the Q&A with its director Florin Serban. Before the Saturday night main event, the Gala, I met the Barreto clan supporting their entry, Lula, The Son Of Brazil, another movie that generated controversy earlier this season (as reported here) over its Oscar selection by the Brazilian committee. Producer Paula Baretto says it’s her third time in the running.
At the reception before Saturday night’s Gala, Aaron Eckhart told me he had just been asked by Mark Johnson, the Academy’s Foreign Language chair, to serve on the 30-person committee that whittles down the 9 semi-finalists to the final 5 nominees. But it’s a three-day commitment during the weekend of January 20th and he couldn’t find the time. Eckhart was able to present the