02.22.11

The Oscars' Foreign Language Flop

The category is such a mess that at a screening of one of this year's five nominees, there were boos. Stephen Farber on what went wrong—and five movies that should have been honored.

Everyone loves to squawk about the Oscars. But over the years, no category has provoked more angry diatribes than the Oscar race for best foreign language film. Critics have griped about many of the middlebrow selections, and at various times the Academy governors have taken halting steps to address the problems.

To put it bluntly, the reforms haven't worked. Case in point: The Greek film Dogtooth is one of this year's five nominees for best foreign film. When it was shown to the general Academy membership after the nominations were announced, there were boos after the screening, and one member screamed out, "This is bullshit." The picture, the darling of several critics with very small readerships, is a stylized parable drenched in explicit sex and violence, about a tyrannical father who keeps his teenage children locked in a compound where he can oversee their upbringing without any outside influences. It's a tantalizing, timely premise, but the film is simplistic and repetitive. It tells us that this kind of parental mind control is dangerous—not exactly a news flash—and then keeps reiterating the point without adding any complexities.

Gallery: Five Foreign Films Worthy of Nomination That Weren't

One recurring criticism of the nominations in past years is that the foreign language committee, which includes about 300 people who must see at least 15 or 20 of the foreign films submitted by their individual countries, consists largely of older, retired members with little appreciation for cutting-edge cinema. "We've been criticized for making soft choices," says Mark Johnson, the Academy Award-winning producer of Rain Man, who has chaired the foreign language committee for the last decade. So he introduced a system that put more of the selections in the hands of much smaller subcommittees consisting of more active Academy members. (All members of the Academy are eligible to vote in the final balloting.)

Two of this year's five nominees are unmistakably fine films. The Canadian movie, Incendies, tells a complex story that is set partly in the present day and partly three decades ago, during the civil war between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. It's the kind of moving but difficult film that will clearly benefit from attention by the Academy. The Danish film, In a Better World (which won a Golden Globe a few weeks ago), is the latest movie from director Susanne Bier, who was previously nominated for After the Wedding. Like Incendies, her film tackles moral and social issues, including violence in Africa and a different kind of violence closer to home, where bullying threatens the well-being of two young boys. To my mind the film is wrapped up too neatly, but is still a powerful piece of work.

Of the other films, Biutiful from Mexico is made by an Oscar-nominated director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and stars Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem. Yet the film is confusingly presented, with too many subplots that aren't coherently integrated. Although its relentless bleakness impresses voters who confuse glumness with profundity, its vision is more often monotonous than enlightening. Still, the pedigree of the filmmakers makes this movie's inclusion at least comprehensible.

The Algerian movie, Outside the Law, is a sequel of sorts to Days of Glory, a far superior film about Algeria's role in World War II that was nominated four years ago. Sometimes Oscar voters feel indulgent toward filmmakers they've honored before, but this saga about the struggle for Algerian independence is a superficial, indifferently directed history lesson.

Some might defend this year's choices by suggesting that perhaps these were the best available foreign films. Since I've seen 22 of the 66 eligible films, I would refute that argument. A dozen movies far superior to Dogtooth or Outside the Law were bewilderingly overlooked.

Over the years there have been many reasons why good foreign films were excluded. Many weren't submitted by their country's film selection board, which names just one film each year to compete in the Oscar derby. And the individual countries do not always choose wisely. Last year Sweden did not submit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the most successful foreign film to play in the U.S. in 2010. Other movies have been disqualified because they ran afoul of questionable Academy rules. The Israeli film The Band's Visit was ruled ineligible because more than 50 percent of the dialogue was in English, even though this was the only way in which the Egyptian and Israeli characters in the film could communicate with each other.

Looking back at foreign film Oscar nominations over the years, many of the titles are completely forgettable and sometimes downright terrible. Nevertheless, the films that ended up winning the Oscar were almost always excellent choices: several by Ingmar Bergman, several by Fellini, Truffaut's Day for Night, Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and, more recently, The Barbarian Invasions, The Sea Inside, The Lives of Others, and last year's winner, The Secret in Their Eyes.

But Mark Johnson made no secret of the fact that he wanted to see riskier, more experimental films among the list of nominees, and that is why he and Academy executive director Bruce Davis approved radical changes in the selection process.

In 2006 they instituted a new system whereby the foreign language committee as a whole would pick nine semi-finalists, and then a hand-picked subcommittee of 30 members would narrow the field to five nominees. That first year, the new system seemed promising. The nine movies named as semi-finalists by the entire 300-member committee were all solid choices: The Lives of Others (Germany), Days of Glory (Algeria), Avenue Montaigne (France), Water (Canada), Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico), After the Wedding (Denmark), Black Book (The Netherlands), Volver (Spain), and Vitus (Switzerland). Then the subcommittee of 30 eliminated the four more conventional and commercial movies—the melodramatic Black Book, the charming Avenue Montaigne, the provocative Volver (which was not one of Pedro Almodovar's very best), and the somewhat sentimental Vitus. The five remaining movies were all first-rate, and The Lives of Others deservedly won the Oscar.

The following year, however, many critics were incensed when the Romanian film about abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) was left off the shortlist of nine films. And that's when Johnson decided a further adjustment in the selection process was necessary. He empowered an executive committee of just 20 people to add three films to six chosen by the general membership. (Among the 20 members of the executive committee are Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, screenwriter Michael Tolkin, producers Gail Mutrux and Ron Yerxa, cinematographers Janusz Kaminski and Matthew Libatique, and costume designer Albert Wolsky.

Even if the results were less questionable, the chief problem with the current system is that it is elitist and anti-democratic. Too many of the selections are made by a tiny coterie rather than the larger group of passionately committed Academy members. One long-term member of the committee, a film editor, fumes, "Don't make us feel that our votes don't count. They're telling members of the committee that we're idiots. Who are these experts who justify the inclusion of Dogtooth? Just because a film wins Un Certain Regard at Cannes doesn't mean that it's a good film."

Johnson admits that he wanted to change the nominating process in part because he had been stung by negative comments from film critics, and he is pleased that the press response to recent nominees has generally been more subdued or positive. "Mark's desire is to create a list that will not create a firestorm of protest," says Beverly Walker, a publicity consultant who has been a member of the foreign language committee for 20 years. "The Academy should not be so thin-skinned."

After all, this is one of the only categories where the Academy tries to impose a higher critical standard on the voting membership. Many of the other categories contain dubious choices and scandalous omissions; that's what inevitably happens when a large number of people vote.

No one questions Johnson's passionate commitment to foreign films. But the Academy is not really helping the cause by nominating audience-unfriendly films like Dogtooth. Films that win a nomination often have a better chance of securing distribution, but not necessarily a better chance of luring an audience. Won't the audience for foreign films be more likely to grow if people have a chance to see and enjoy accessible films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Secret in Their Eyes, Departures, The Lives of Others, and several of this year's best foreign films that did not make it into the final five?

The committee has overlooked many fine films this year that would have benefited from a nomination: Israel's The Human Resources Manager, the Czech Republic's Kawasaki's Rose, and China's Aftershock, to name just a few. Granted, not all the good films in contention will ever make the final five. Veteran producer and studio executive Marcia Nasatir, a member of the foreign language executive committee, says pointedly, "You know, this isn't kindergarten where everybody gets a prize. You have to make tough choices."

Indeed there are always going to be controversial and downright wrong-headed choices. But I would rather see the inevitable mistakes made by a democratic rather than a cliquish system of voting. This year's disappointing nominees prove that the current system is badly broken.

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Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case; and Hollywood on the Couch.