It's time for my annual rant against the rules behind the Best Foreign Language film Oscar category. As it stands, each country may submit a single film to the foreign film committee, and each film must come from a single country. No international productions, like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, are allowed. (Although recently, the rules were changed so that multiple languages within a film are allowed. Ugh.) Also, if one country has produced two standout films, as Taiwan did in 2000 (with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yi Yi), one of them is disqualified.
This makes it easy on the committee, as they really only have to consider a predetermined pile of films, and needn't bother doing any reading or research or going out to the movies to see anything that falls outside their little boundaries. But two things end up happening. Firstly, each movie submitted tends to be something that can properly "represent" its country, with very little room for negative or outrageous portrayals or anything personal from a unique filmmaker. Thus, something bland like The Chorus represented France in 2004 rather than the much more interesting films Kings and Queen or The Intruder.
The other thing that happens is, because these less interesting movies are considered, the committee tends to nominate movies that no one else in the U.S.A. has seen or heard of. Most of these movies find distributors only after they've been nominated, because the nomination itself is its lone selling point.
It was not always so bad. Years ago, many of the greatest filmmakers in the world took home Oscars in this category, including Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati, Ingmar Bergman, Jiri Menzel, Luis Bunuel and Francois Truffaut. Nominees included Rene Clair, Louis Malle, Paul Verhoeven, Eric Rohmer, Gillo Pontecorvo, Roman Polanski and Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Now consider this. Here is a list of 22 of the greatest, primarily foreign language, filmmakers in the world today. I compiled this list from most of the "best of the decade" lists that recently appeared: Jia Zhang-ke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Claire Denis, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Arnaud Desplechin, Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Lucrecia Martel, Hong Sang-soo, Manoel de Oliveira, Alexander Sokurov, Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos, Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, Jafar Panahi and Olivier Assayas. What do these 22 filmmakers have in common? Not one film by any of them has ever been nominated for an Oscar.
That, to me, says that the Oscar category is broken and needs fixing. By my count, the last truly great, truly personal work of art by a great international filmmaker that won this award was Bergman's Fanny and Alexander back in 1983. Of course, there are a few exceptions that pop up. Anyone who loves movies loves Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, which won in 1989, but I'm not sure I'd call it a masterpiece. Pedro Almodovar won for his very good All About My Mother (1999). Andrzej Wajda has been nominated several times, but not for his masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Guillermo Del Toro, Aki Kaurismaki, Zhang Yimou and Patrice Leconte have all received nominations, too, which is nothing to sneeze at. And Michael Haneke is a front-runner for this year's award.
But these are drops in the ocean. Four of the past ten winners have been flat-out bad movies not even worth seeing, much less awarding. Haneke's excellent The White Ribbon notwithstanding, the nominees this year have ignored some of the best and most highly acclaimed foreign language films of 2009, including Summer Hours, The Headless Woman, 35 Shots of Rum, Police, Adjective, The Beaches of Agnes, Lorna's Silence, 24 City, and even Sokurov's The Sun, which is four years old, but received its first official U.S. theatrical release in 2009.
Here's the solution. The Academy should disband the foreign language committee and vote on foreign language films the same way they vote on American films. They should consider all the films that opened and played in theaters in the United States during the calendar year. Most likely this will result in some popular, middlebrow, moneymaking nominees, such as 2008's Under the Same Moon, but with a little luck, some of the world's greatest filmmakers can finally earn their due. Until then, calling it the "Best Foreign Language Film" is frankly a falsehood.