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Foreign intrigue

The worries with the foreign-language Oscar race.

Looking at the 71 foreign-language Oscar submissions, you can see the strength of local productions around the globe. For instance, kudos to Kenya for its first Oscar submission with drama Nairobi Half Life, recent winner of the audience award in the Breakthrough section at AFI Fest.

Yet I also had a feeling of trepidation, as awards season doesn’t always do justice to foreign-language films. I’m still smarting from Departures beating Waltz With Bashir and The Class at the Oscars in 2009 and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days not even making it to the shortlist the year before. The Academy Awards doesn’t have a brilliant track record with foreign-language films, though 2012’s winner A Separation is a proud exception.

I don’t envy the new heads of the foreign-language committee, Ron Yerxa and Bruce Davis. It’s a complicated process from submissions at country level (complete with local political infighting) to shortlist to nominations. There have been some reforms in recent years to help with quality control — for instance, loosening the rules about countries submitting films in a local language. That’s the one that had Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) disqualified in 2005 but now sees Cate Shortland’s German-language Lore as a strong submission for Australia.

If more reforms are coming, the Oscars should take a leaf out of Bafta’s book and allow multiple films from each territory — this year, France could have submitted films including Intouchables (the pick), Rust And Bone (overlooked) and Amour (which was submitted by another country of production, Austria). We don’t need five submissions from every territory, but film powerhouses such as Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, Japan or Korea could be entitled to multiple entries in strong years.

The current rules call for Oscar volunteer committee members to each see about 24 films on the big screen over three months. That’s a lot of free time needed, which means historically a lot of retirees have volunteered for duty, skewing choices older. That’s another area that could be updated.

This year’s three groups of the volunteer committee will select six films for the shortlist, with the executive committee then adding three more films to the nine-strong shortlist (due to be revealed January 2). The latter has come under fire for undermining the choices of the wider committee, but it seems also to be an insurance policy against embarrassing omissions.

It’s a bumper crop this year, with a large group I think would all be worthy of the shortlist, including No, Amour, Intouchables, Kon-Tiki, A Royal Affair, Fill The Void, The Deep, Lore, Our Children, War Witch, Barbara, Caesar Must Die, Beyond The Hills, Sister, Kauwboy, After Lucia and Blancanieves.

Even if the foreign-language category has its own issues, it’s encouraging that foreign-language nominees are becoming more commonplace in other categories, not just at the Oscars but also the Baftas.

In the past, films such as Costa-Gavras’ Z and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers have competed for the best picture Oscar, likewise Il Postino and Life Is Beautiful (both pushed by Harvey Weinstein). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a four-Oscar winner for Sony Pictures Classics in 2001.

Marion Cotillard won the best actress Oscar in 2008 for La Vie En Rose and has a strong shot at a nomination this year for Rust And Bone. The Artist, of course, swept last year (though it was mostly dialogue-free). The Weinstein Company will tout Intouchables, a huge global hit, in multiple categories. Amour deserves multiple mentions, too.

That’s all good for international film. Hollywood is now fully paying attention to the fact international markets are often bigger than domestic returns; it’s also good to see Hollywood’s starriest night recognising that foreign productions are just as deserving of awards as US fare.

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