Oscar’s foreign race hasn’t found the fix

Posted by · 12:51 pm · February 25th, 2011

How do you solve a problem like Best Foreign Language Film? I’m not sure you can, but in the Academy’s case, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.

The voting process in this eternally dissatisfying ghetto category is now such a Frankenstein’s monster of stages, rules, committees, sub-committees, longlists, shortlists and more committees that it’s a wonder they manage to wind up picking a single film at the end of it all — and rather less of a wonder that said film usually carries the stale whiff of a compromise choice.

This year’s race, thoroughly mapped out by Kris in this week’s Oscar Guide, looks headed for a typically imperfect outcome — opinions on the five films that make up the category may vary, but few would argue that the overall slate represents the key stories of world cinema in 2010. The trouble set in early, with several of the year’s biggest crossover critical hits ruled out at the submissions stage.

At the outset, the Academy places its trust in the individual countries’ selection boards — which rather backfires when a credible contender like “I Am Love,” far more more beloved Stateside than in its home country, gets the shaft from the Italians, in favor of aggressively mediocre pap like “The First Beautiful Thing,” which didn’t even crack the Academy’s shortlist. (Others have brought up BAFTA champ “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in this regard, though few seem aware that the hit thriller’s window of eligibility was actually last year, when the Swedes took the artistic high road and submitted Ruben Östlund’s superb multi-narrative piece “Involuntary” instead. Watch the latter film before you take issue with the blockbuster’s exclusion.)

But even if some of the race’s most controversial omissions are out of the Academy’s hands, we’ve seen them shoot themselves in the foot enough times with their own voting for an intervention to be deemed necessary. And so, in the wake of the outrage that followed critics’ darling “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” missing the pre-nomination shortlist, the face-saving “executive committee” was born — a group of handpicked voters charged with protecting notable films cast aside by the more conservative general membership.

If the system is unavoidably inorganic, it at least enabled a highly credible slate of nominees last year, one that mixed major arthouse talking points with challenging fringe contenders, plus a slick populist genre piece that, disappointingly if inevitably, took the gold. But if the process has worked a little less smoothly this year, it may be because the executive committee has done its job too well. By slyly forcing Greece’s thornily brilliant black comedy “Dogtooth” (reviewed here) into the lineup, they have gifted this year’s Oscar class with one of its most exciting and essential nominees, but in doing so, they’ve rather shown up the very category they were attempting to save.

After finally catching up with all five nominees — the first time I’ve managed that feat before the ceremony in 20 years of Oscar-watching — I find myself both grateful for the redeeming presence of Yorgos Lanthimos’s critically championed outsider and concerned by its sore-thumb appearance in a lineup otherwise dominated by the drabbest and dourest of what world cinema has to offer.

If a mention for “Dogtooth” is intended as a peace offering to critics, as well as a flashlight for audiences who don’t habitually haunt the darker corners of the arthouse, consider the job done. (I was intrigued to see that it won our own readers’ poll for the category’s most deserving contender.) But when it’s also the only one of the five that doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of victory, the symbolic nomination is in danger of reading less defiant than patronizing — to film and voters alike.

In this regard, I share some of the qualms expressed (in fairly heated fashion) by Kris and Anne in last week’s Oscar Talk podcast, though where their stand was that “Dogtooth” doesn’t deserve the nomination — what I find subtly tangy and surreptitiously moving in the film, they decried as shock-mongering tactics — mine is that its fellow nominees don’t deserve it enough in comparison. Either way, the disconnect between this nominee and the others, both aesthetically and in terms of the path it took to the Kodak Theater, doesn’t make for the most harmonious race.

Even by the category’s wafty standards, this year’s lineup strikes me as a feeble one: of the four films seriously in the hunt, only the least likely victor, Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” (reviewed here) would please me as a winner. Even then, while a richly produced, densely plotted chunk of old-fashioned historical fiction, it’s a wisp of a creative achievement stood next to the Greek nominee — not to mention less engaging than the director’s last two features, one of them nominated in 2006’s far deeper foreign-language field.

The three frontrunners are ripe melodramas that range from rickety (Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful”) to rank (Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies”), with my predicted winner, Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” hovering somewhere in between. (Bier’s film hits US screens in April, with its UK premiere in March at the Birds Eye View Film Festival.) Nothing would dismay me more on Sunday night than seeing “Incendies” walk off with the statuette: an ostentatiously glum yet emotionally inconsequential slab of smug political exploitation lacking coherent characters to sustain its self-admiring narrative twists, it takes my wooden spoon prize for the worst film nominated in a major category this year.

That said, it’s a film to which others have experienced oppositely strong emotional reactions, fuelling potentially productive debate if it wins. Whether that makes it a more or less compelling contender than “In a Better World” — a slick, absorbing but terminally obvious daisy-chain of allegorical fables in which Violence Begets Violence in scenarios of escalating silliness — depends on whether you think the Academy’s more important duty is to honor filmmaking proficiency or to anticipate works that might eventually be woven into the larger cultural fabric.

On either front, then, I’d have to admit that “Biutiful” — a film I expressed sizeable reservations about at Cannes, and from which I drew even further back on a return visit — knocks both “Incendies” and “In a Better World” into a cocked hat. (Meanwhile, as pleased as I was that I correctly predicted the “surprise” shortlist snub for France’s dull, instructively earnest religious drama “Of Gods and Men,” I’d probably be saying the same thing about it had it received the nomination everyone else was counting on.)

As a feat of filmmaking, Iñárritu’s return to Spanish-language cinema is more sensuous and immaculately crafted than either of its bland chief competitors, and if I found its narrative shopping-list of afflictions effortfully miserable to the point of absurdity, well, this lineup finds it looking in a mirror in that regard. At the very least, it’s anchored by a big-ticket performance that almost everyone can agree upon as a virtue — and until the Academy stumbles upon a voting process that doesn’t require both a stroke of hometown luck and a nanny committee for the year’s most valuable foreign-language titles to gets their (hopeless) due, that’s not the worst reason for a film to win.

[Photo: Roadside Attractions]

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24 responses so far

  • 1 2-25-2011 at 1:16 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say until someone addresses this. How come they can’t change this category to Best Foreign Film? Foreign Language excludes brilliant films from English speaking foreign countries.

  • 2 2-25-2011 at 1:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m pretty sure I’ve addressed this before, but here goes again. How come, you ask? Because it’d obviously tilt the race unfairly in favour of non-US English-language works — especially prominent British productions. By your reasoning, “The King’s Speech” would be nominated for Best Foreign Film along with everything else, and would likely be a shoo-in to win that category too. “An Education” would probably have cruised to victory last year. What would be the point of that? Where would you draw the line?

    Subtitled fare has a hard enough time finding an audience as it is — why deny them this tiny bit of exposure?

  • 3 2-25-2011 at 1:22 pm

    qwiggles said...

    ” Nothing would dismay me more on Sunday night than seeing “Incendies” walk off with the statuette: an ostentatiously glum yet emotionally inconsequential slab of smug political exploitation lacking coherent characters to sustain its self-admiring narrative twists, it takes my wooden spoon prize for the worst film nominated in a major category this year.”

    Hear, hear.

  • 4 2-25-2011 at 1:27 pm

    MJS said...

    Simple solution: make the films open in America like any other movie in any other category and have the Academy at large vote on it. Make the Foreign films get buzz on the street like any other movie.

  • 5 2-25-2011 at 1:58 pm

    timr said...

    Great piece. Little to add, except that I think the nanny committee (or, let’s say, those members who got DOGTOOTH through) should pick all five contenders, ignore whatever idiocy the national voting bodies come up with, and thereby force the whole of AMPAS to watch THE TURIN HORSE next year. This is not very practical but it would be quite entertaining.

  • 6 2-25-2011 at 2:05 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Guy would it be too much to ask if they added a Foreign Film category along with Foreign Language?

  • 7 2-25-2011 at 2:11 pm

    mikey67 said...

    What MJS said. There’s little ability to participate in the conversation when one can’t see the films. And I can’t believe that the way it is working lately is helping to promote individual films or foreign language filmgoing in the US.

    Also, allow up to three submissions per country but cap nominations at two per country? France might get two in on a regular basis, but if they are producing the best films, they deserve it.

  • 8 2-25-2011 at 2:14 pm

    Plainview said...

    “Simple solution: make the films open in America like any other movie in any other category and have the Academy at large vote on it. Make the Foreign films get buzz on the street like any other movie”


  • 9 2-25-2011 at 2:20 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Guy would it be too much to ask if they added a Foreign Film category along with Foreign Language?

    You mean a separate category for non-American films in the English language? You don’t think that sounds absurd?

  • 10 2-25-2011 at 2:38 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Fine all Foreign Films in English not being pimped by Harvey Weinstein can find refuge elsewhere.

  • 11 2-25-2011 at 3:41 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Am I the only one who doesn’t really think “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was all that?

  • 12 2-25-2011 at 3:45 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Of course, if the Academy wasn’t so myopic they wouldn’t need a separate category for foreign language films….

  • 13 2-25-2011 at 4:05 pm

    daveylow said...

    If any category should have 10 nominees, it’s the Foreign Film category. Where talking about films from all over the world, and they only nominate five?

    Will a foreign film ever be nominated for best picture again?

  • 14 2-25-2011 at 6:18 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    I’d like to see nominees that aren’t art-house movies. I’m thinking primarily of Bollywood musical comedies. I know it will never happen but it would spice up the category. There’s a certain sameness to all international art house films. I like them; I see all of them that I can — but it would be nice to see more variety.

  • 15 2-25-2011 at 9:25 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Allow countries to submit their own entries for films like “The First Beautiful Thing” that America won’t otherwise get to see, but also allow the ol’ fashioned write-in votes so that those on the “jury” or whatever it’s called can vote for “I Am Love” if they honestly think it’s better than “The First Beautiful Thing”. or, subsequently, leave off both.

    Obviously, it’d need tinkering, but I don’t see why it couldn’t work. That way there’d be no handicapping on films that managed to get a release, but through internal politics, were ignored. Or, for countries like France that many feel are unfairly handicapped when they routinely have at least 2 films that people want to honour.

    I dunno. Guy’s right the category is iffy, but with the current state of distribution there’s so much more that could be worse.

  • 16 2-25-2011 at 11:00 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    Speaking English: “Am I the only one who doesn’t really think “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was all that?”

    No your not. I found to be pretty mediocre, but I usually hate any films with the least amount of “realist” smell to them, so I don’t think it was aimed at people with my tastes.

  • 17 2-26-2011 at 12:33 am

    MJS said...

    The snub that really should have sparked this was City of God in 2002. The real Academy ended up giving it four Oscars when it got a normal release the next year, but the old farts in the Foreign committee were reportedly walking out of the screening in disgust.

  • 18 2-26-2011 at 12:37 am

    John said...

    Has anyone lost any of their time reading the meaning of “foreign language film” at oscars.org? I guess that the answer is NO, because there the Academy explains very well that this category isn’t about the “best foreign film of the year” but about a “competition between countries”:


    These are the rules and this are the way the Academy wants to play this category, I believe it’s time to stop complaining about the elegibility of this category.

  • 19 2-26-2011 at 12:43 am

    Peter said...

    Since the awards are already slanted toward any film in English, I think the idea of including English language films in the Foreign category is unnecessary. Depending on the countries to choose their own nominees has been problematic as sometimes the best film isn’t chosen. Also, there is a geographic bias, with Asian films less frequently considered. I’m glad “Dogtooth” made the cut, but where was “Uncle Boonmee”?

  • 20 2-26-2011 at 2:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The snub that really should have sparked this was City of God in 2002.

    Well, City of God was one of the prominent snubs that contributed to the new system. The decision wasn’t made on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days alone.

  • 21 2-26-2011 at 10:26 am

    John said...

    If I remember well the decission was because 4 monts, 3 weeks and 2 days, The orphanage and Persepolis were snubbed in 2007 and those 3 films were the 3 frontunners that year. I don’t think City of god was a factor in the final decission.

  • 22 2-26-2011 at 11:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    John: Sorry, but these decisions are never made on the basis of a single Oscar year. Dissatisfaction with the category had been brewing for several years — the 2007 snubs were the straw that broke the camel’s back, sure, but it’s not as if the Academy wasn’t aware of problems before then.

  • 23 2-26-2011 at 10:52 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I finally caught up with “Biutiful” today, and I thought it was interesting but not very good. Bardem was fantastic, as was Maricel Alvarez.


    But you’re not wrong, Guy, about its having narrative problems (about “Incendies”, however… :P). I thought the supernatural elements were completely unnecessary, as was the gay subplot between the two Chinese criminals. Not to mention the grating score by Santaolalla.

    And this is something I’m surprised no one on this site has mentioned yet: the truly terrible (and amateurish) sound mixing. I was shocked by how often I heard microphone feedback whenever people hugged in this film.

    The film kept me engaged, but I have to say that I’m quite disappointed in Iñárritu’s latest. Not least since his last feature was my #1 film of 2006. I, too, hope that he and Arriaga can kiss and make up soon.

    Of the other two nominees that I’ve seen in this category, “Dogtooth” and “Incendies” would both be incredibly satisfying winners (well, to ME, anyway… I’m still in disbelief about how extreme the hatred for the latter is on this site.)