Screen editor Matt Mueller on the foreign-language film race.
It was fascinating speaking to Mark Johnson, chairman of AMPAS’s foreign-language film committee, for this week’s issue of Screen - which kicks off our awards-season coverage and is, appropriately enough, focused on this year’s foreign-language film race.
Having seen Johnson speak on a panel at the BFI London Film Festival, revealing how he had reformed the category in recent years in a way that has allowed more dynamic, challenging and edgy titles to make the final nomination shortlist of five, I immediately reached out to him to share those same thoughts in the pages of Screen.
It’s an interesting insight into the inner workings of a category that I know exasperates as many people as it pleases.
It used to frustrate me to a ridiculous degree, seeing the category littered with schmaltzy, sentimental fare that appealed to the group who back then dominated the voting for the foreign-language category - older, often retired Academy voters who tended to be the only members with enough time on their hands to get through all the films.
The annual list rarely felt reflective of the vibrant, vital and exhilarating international films that I used to watch at my local arthouse cinema.
Sure, I’m talking about classics by Kurosawa, Bergman, Rossellini, Godard and Polanski, which were a regular part of the programming - but without naming and shaming, some of the sappy titles that have walked off with the statuette in the Oscar foreign-language film category really did not feel like worthy winners.
And, as Johnson pointed out in our conversation, the fact these sorts of films were regularly winning had its own knock-on effect - because, naturally, it inspired more international film-makers to emulate the same formula in the hopes of winning themselves.
That’s why Johnson’s steering of the category has been its salvation. As he admits himself, he hasn’t done it on his own, and to the Academy’s own eternal credit he had their full backing to implement the changes.
But I honestly believe that had the foreign-language film category continued on the path it found itself on for much of the 1980s and ‘90s, it was headed down a one-way road towards obsolescence.
The wake-up call for Johnson was when, in 2007, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light both failed to make the nomination shortlist, leaving him bereft and wondering what the hell he was doing chairing the committee.
Since then, the following films have made the shortlist: Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Claudia Llosa’s The Milk Of Sorrow, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, Michael Roskam’s Bullhead, Haneke‘s Amour, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and, last year, Leviathan, Wild Tales, Timbuktu and the eventual winner, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.
These are all films that were greeted with jubilant acclaim and prizes throughout the year at the major international film festivals, long before Oscar voters got to tick boxes acknowledging their excellence.
In other words, the foreign-language film category finally feels relevant, and Mark Johnson is the man to applaud for that.
But - there’s always a but - exasperation still exists when it comes to this category. Even Johnson admits the whole notion of awarding an entire country an Oscar is an obsolete one. It’s a concept sprung from good intentions, a post-Second World War initiative designed to foster global understanding and harmony.
But in an industry increasingly geared towards international co-productions and creative teams composed of multiple nationalities, the one-film-one-country rule feels antiquated at best, and Johnson admits he and the Academy are considering further evolution that could change that equation (for instance, automatically entering the top prize winners at the major European festivals).
One small step at a time. For now let’s just be grateful that some really spectacular international titles are making it on to the Oscar shortlist, and get excited about what’s going to make this year’s final five.
In this week’s issue of Screen, we’re all about foreign-language films, from how they do at the US box office to a complete rundown of the 81-strong list of titles vying this year for those five spots, as well as our case study of the film that’s already tipped as the bookie’s favourite to win: Laszlo Nemes’ extraordinary Son Of Saul.
Matt Mueller is editor of Screen International