S&S slams awards “xenophobia”

Posted by · 2:04 pm · February 6th, 2010

Niels Arestrup in A ProphetBeing a fairly highbrow cineastes’ mag, Sight & Sound tends to keep a safe distance from awards season — which is probably just as well, if Nick James’s grim-faced editorial on the subject is anything to go by.

Like many British journalists, James’s analysis of the Oscar race is a little wobbly: he states that “Avatar” is a certainty to win Best Picture based on its Golden Globe success, but makes no mention of the Guild awards. More vexing, however, is his airy dismissal of this year’s cinematic crop: claiming that 2009 was “the weakest year for American cinema since the 1980s,” and that “in terms of quality US films last year, “The Hurt Locker,” “Up in the Air,” “Precious,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up” are literally all there is.” (He then goes on to pick holes of most of those films anyway.)

And I thought I was negative about this year’s race. Sure, I have problems with at least half this year’s Best Picture nominees, but neither am I claiming that the category contains all the standout American films of 2009.

Once he gets that rant out of his system, however, James has some good points to make about the overwhelmingly American-dominated nature of this year’s awards race — something I discussed in a Long Shot column a few weeks ago. And the prime target of his ire is not the Academy, but BAFTA, a group whose many weaknesses I also addressed recently.

He’s particularly annoyed that two foreign-language films, “A Prophet” and “Let the Right One In,” couldn’t crack any of the main nomination categories, despite a number of BAFTA longlist mentions (though, worrying, Best Film wasn’t among them). And the problem, he says, lies in the existence of the foreign-language category itself:

Bafta’s membership has plumped for an incredibly lazy Best Film list of the most promoted good US films plus the addition of BBC Films’ “An Education” … none of those American films can stand next to “A Prophet.”

Good old anglophone xenophobia and ignorance may be reason enough for the particular blandness of this year’s Bafta lists — I’m not going to shy away from saying that. But another part of the problem is these ghetto categories … if you have a ‘foreign language’ category, people put their favourite foreign film down to win that and then assume it can’t possibly win Best Film too, and so plump for an American or — if feeling particularly bold or patriotic — a British title. What this year demonstrates is that they do it even when the US cupboard is pretty bare.

I know that dissolving the ‘foreign’ category would not result in a victory for next year’s equivalent of “A Prophet,” but over time confidence in voting away from the anglophone bloc would build until just such a coup could occur.

That last point is one I find particularly salient in light of the rather sad fact that not only did the Academy’s expansion of the Best Picture race result in a monolingual slate of nominees — subtitled stretches in “Inglourious Basterds” and “District 9” notwithstanding — but no foreign-language title even emerged as a dark-horse possibility.

That there was more talk of “The White Ribbon” surprising in Best Director than in the roomier top race is troubling — it may well have garnered more Best Picture buzz if it hadn’t been eligible in the foreign-language ghetto, where it was ultimately nominated. (It was the impossibility of rewarding the film in the foreign-languge category, after all, that likely factored into that against-the-odds Original Screenplay win for “Talk to Her” seven years ago.)

James’s proposed solution is a drastic one, but could it potentially encourage discerning voters not to take these films for granted?

→ 22 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

22 responses so far

  • 1 2-06-2010 at 2:10 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I don’t think the Foreign Category makes for exclusions in other categories. They’ve nominated such films a couple of times before anyway, though not very recently. Xenophobia it ain’t either. I believe it’s simply the lack of a real awards campaign. Kris, you probably know more about that than I do. Is no campaigning issue here?

  • 2 2-06-2010 at 2:15 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Definitely an issue. Sony should have released earlier.

    That Haneke was blanked entirely by BAFTA outside the foreign race is somewhat surprising, but that the film opened here in the prime territory of November.

  • 3 2-06-2010 at 2:20 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s also worth noting that half of the foreign-language Best Picture nominees in Oscar history weren’t eligible in the foreign category. (That includes “La Grande Illusion,” which was nominated before the category existed.)

    That may or may not mean anything. I say it does.

  • 4 2-06-2010 at 2:44 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    “…not only did the Academy’s expansion of the Best Picture race result in a wholly monolingual slate of nominees”

    I haven’t timed it with a stop-watch or anything, but I’d wager that there is more screen time devoted to scenes in French and German than English in “Inglourious Basterds”. Still, as the film is American, your point still stands.

    Also, if I was truly a little shit, I would suggest that “Avatar” is arguably a bilingual film… ;)

  • 5 2-06-2010 at 2:52 pm

    Maxim said...

    This year’s nominations, as flawed as they are, are much better than last year’s (i.e. the worst year in this generation’s history).

    We still have to wait on winners, though.

  • 6 2-06-2010 at 3:18 pm

    Brian said...

    Sight and Sound love pretension more than they love movies.

  • 7 2-06-2010 at 4:12 pm

    Morgan said...

    ““…not only did the Academy’s expansion of the Best Picture race result in a wholly monolingual slate of nominees””

    District 9… monolingual? That’s funny.

  • 8 2-06-2010 at 4:13 pm

    Fitz said...

    What Brian said.

    While A Prophet and Let the Right One in are good films, if S&S had beaten to the punch in reviewing these films as solid they would hate it as well.

  • 9 2-06-2010 at 4:18 pm

    Chris said...

    “This year’s nominations, as flawed as they are, are much better than last year’s (i.e. the worst year in this generation’s history).”

    Wow, so now this generation has got a history already? Nice.

    I think the main problem foreign language titles face is lazy “product placement”. I went to see “A Prophet” last week in Glasgow, after I had seen it in Luxembourg in August already, and on both occasions the cinema was crammed. No matter what people say, viewers still love quality above anything else.
    But, how are BAFTA members to vote for “A Prophet” if the film isn’t released until a couple of weeks after the nominations announcement? I will never understand what the eligibility criteria for the BAFTA awards are, since many of the nominated films are not released in the UK when the awards are announced. This may make sense with critics who get to see films in advance, but it certainly doesn’t with the people who work in the film business. I think we shouldn’t always blame the voting bodies, but instead criticise the film companies that deliberately hold back brilliant works of art.

  • 10 2-06-2010 at 4:23 pm

    Scott said...

    “No matter what people say, viewers still love quality above anything else.”

    Debatable. The number one movie at the American box office in 2009 was also the worst movie of the year.

  • 11 2-06-2010 at 4:26 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Okay, nitpickers — the phrasing has been amended. My point still stands ;)

  • 12 2-06-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Chris said...

    I’m not a fan of “Avatar”, but calling it the “worst movie of the year” is silly. And just because a film attracts a large audience doesn’t mean people actually love it. It’s a matter of marketing, and if film companies actually spent some money on getting people to know about the existence of “A Prophet”, then surely they would go to see that rather than yet another mindless action flick.

  • 13 2-06-2010 at 4:55 pm

    Manuel L. said...

    “none of those American films can stand next to “A Prophet.”

    Oh come on, his own publication ranked The Hurt Locker #2 of 2009. So maybe it’s not sitting “next” to A Prophet, but at least it’s right behind it.

  • 14 2-06-2010 at 5:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Manuel: Well, he’s speaking for himself, not the collected critics behind the S&S poll. He makes it clear in the editorial that he’s not wild about “The Hurt Locker.”

  • 15 2-07-2010 at 11:25 am

    BurmaShave said...

    I didn’t realize WHITE RIBBON was nominated for Cinematography, I was hoping maybe it’s eligibility year was 2010 and it could pull off a CITy OF GOD or BATTLE OF ALGIERS and double dip. Sad. They really did bungle the release.

  • 16 2-07-2010 at 11:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    BurmaShave: It was a 2009 US release, so it’s a moot point, but the cinematography nod would be irrelevant — if a film is nominated in the foreign-language category, it can’t be nominated in other races the following year.

    If it’s NOT nominated in the foreign race, however, it can be nominated elsewhere in the year of its US release — which is what happened with “City of God.”

    Rules have changed from the days when a “Battle of Algiers” could be nominated in different categories in different years.

    So in effect, even though “A Prophet” is a 2010 release, it won’t be eligible for any awards in next year’s race. Pity.

  • 17 2-07-2010 at 1:54 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Scott — unfair calling “Avatar” the worst film of the year in a year that gave us “Couples Retreat” – seriously man…”Avatar” is not the soaring work of art many are claiming it is, but it was wildly entertaining with breathtaking visuals — not a cameron fan…at all…but let’s get it into perspective shall we?

  • 18 2-07-2010 at 7:26 pm

    Me. said...

    My big issue was the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 nominees. I mean… THE BLIND SIDE? Best Picture? And no Bright Star or White Ribbon? Who votes for this thing?

  • 19 2-07-2010 at 9:27 pm

    Good, Bad, Ugly year said...

    I think it was a good, bad, ugly year for film. The good: THE HURT LOCKER, A SERIOUS MAN, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, FANTASTIC MR. FOX, THE COVE, ANVIL!

    the bad: AVATAR

    the ugly: THE BLIND SIDE

    I do agree that all of the awards groups need to think more about foreign films and not just give blanket awards to high concept movies that made a lot of money (but which are mediocre). However, aside from that, there is a reason why American films tend to dominate and that is because it is an artform that was largely created and had its genesis in the United States, spawning the biggest film industry in the world. Other countries followed, yes. So it’s really just a numbers and quality thing from a nation that has had filmmaking as its most popular art form for over a 100 years. Yes, they should include more foreign films, but always expect a lot from the good ole U.S.A.

  • 20 2-07-2010 at 11:05 pm

    Glenn said...

    “no foreign-language title even emerged as a dark-horse possibility.”

    But, in all fairness to the Academy, 2009 wasn’t a particularly strong year for foreign films in the market. There may have been plenty of good ones but they either went un-released or came from studios without enough money to properly release them and give them proper awards campaigns. There were no “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Amelie” type breakout hits and as people keep telling us box office is key. They highest grossing foreign language film in the US in 2009 was “Coco Avant Chanel”, which wasn’t a best picture contender at all.

    The market is dying for foreign language films and none of the foreign language titles that “broke out” (in a buzz sorta way) were ever gonna be Best Picture contenders when they a) get barely there qualifying runs or b) don’t get released at all.

    And it’s fair to say that movies from foreign directors such as Almodovar (“Broken Embraces”) and Woo (“Red Cliff”), who would theoretically have a leg up in that regard, were not their best.

    In regards to BAFTA, I believe the eligibility cut off date is the date of the ceremony, which is why movies like “Monster” and “The Blind Side” weren’t nominated in their given years, because they opened after the ceremony. I could be wrong on that though.

  • 21 2-07-2010 at 11:22 pm

    Glenn said...

    Looking at the 22 foreign language films that have grossed over $10mil at the US box office there have been 3 corresponding best picture nominations (“Crouching Tiger”, “Life is Beautiful” and “Il Postino”). I think it’s a fair estimate to say that 9 others would have been in with a fighting chance (giving or taking their campaigns since if they had 10 years in years past who knows how the campaigns would have been run since they would’ve had a better chance at getting nominated and might’ve been campaigned better) such as “Amelie”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “La Cage aux Folles”, “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Volver”, “La Vie en Rose”, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “Cinema Paradiso” and “Das Boot”. The rest of the titles are genre fare like “Kung Fu Hustle” or movies that were ineligible (“The Lives of Others”, “Hero”).

    And i think titles such as “Talk to Her”, “City of God” and “Fanny and Alexander” would’ve all been threats, too, if they had ten nominees. The fact of the matter is the highest grossing foreign language movie of the year was COCO AVANT CHANEL! (sorry i keep calling it by the name it was released in Australia with) A movie that, let’s face it, is not that good. After that it’s “Broken Embraces” and that’s it. Only two 2009 releases make the top 100. TWO.

    So, yeah, I think BAFTA have a bigger case to defend than the Academy. They were never going to nominate something such as “The White Ribbon” for Best Picture when it got a tiny tiny barely noticeable release in the depths of December (it’s hasn’t even made $800,000 yet after over a month of release).

    I know it’s nobody’s fault, but it’s certainly not the Academy’s. They can’t be expected to watch something like “The Maid” in all honesty unless people out there start making noise for it and the fact of the matter is that nobody WAS making noise for it. Maybe if people knew “Seraphine” was going to make that Best Actress splash then it might’ve gotten a better release and made more money and maybe gotten a look in, but Music Box Films will never have the money to launch a campaign and the film only made $860,000 (good for Music Box, especially when it was released in February, but nowhere near enough to launch a campaign on).

    You only get a proper campaign for a tiny movie if you’re Helen Mirren or if you have people like Fox Searchlight behind you, something that fewer and fewer foreign language movies get the privilege of having these days.

  • 22 2-08-2010 at 3:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “In regards to BAFTA, I believe the eligibility cut off date is the date of the ceremony, which is why movies like “Monster” and “The Blind Side” weren’t nominated in their given years, because they opened after the ceremony. I could be wrong on that though.”

    No, that’s right.